Tag Archives: screwball comedy

Spend the Night at Dyke’s!

I love this sign from the movie It Happened One Night (1934). In related news, I am 12 years old. In even more related news, I wrote about a great scene from the afore-mentioned screwball comedy for the “Mix Tape” series over at The Film Experience. Read and enjoy! As Nathaniel commented, It Happened One Night is a total “overachiever of a movie” that manages to invent cinematic shorthand and romantic comedy clichés while remaining totally entertaining, and blowing you away with Gable & Colbert’s combined star power. (Alas, it also has some sexist undertones.)

It Happened One Night contains about a half-dozen scenes that are, by themselves, wittier than most full movies. So in lieu of heaping more praise on this über-charming masterpiece of ’30s Hollywood, why don’t I just list a few of them?

  • Gable’s introduction, through a drunken phone call
  • Shapeley: “When a cold mama gets hot, boy, how she sizzles!”
  • Deceiving the private detectives: “Once a plumber’s daughter, always a plumber’s daughter!”
  • Hitchhiking: “The limb is mightier than the thumb.”
  • Alan Hale: “Young people in love are very seldom hungry!”
  • And yes, the fall of the walls of Jericho. It’s a nifty balancing act that the film is just as carnal and knowing as it is cutesy and sentimental.

There you have it: those individual lines can crack me up every time, and that’s why I love It Happened One Night.

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Link Dump: #16

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Even though it reinforces the stereotype that only evil people love cats, we’re celebrating with a picture of the two villains (and their adorable white kitty) from the musical remake of Hairspray (2007). Now, time for the last Link Dump of the year:

And finally, to usher out 2010, we have a bunch of totally ridiculous search terms like “a girl uses a laser gun to cut her pussy out.” Eww. On the classier side, there’s “stylish masterbating to classical music” and “multifarious pussy.” (Somebody has a thesaurus!) Uh-oh, “you found my rape dungeon”! That’s… not wholesome. And lastly, some Arabic for you! Translated loosely as “Bossi Sex Video,” “سكس بوسى فيديو.” I don’t know how to say this in Arabic, but happy new year! We’ll be back with more amazing, sexy blogging content in 2011.

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Screwball Sci-fi in The Fifth Element

Luc Besson’s sci-fi epic The Fifth Element (1997) is a mixed bag of a movie: it has a lot to offer, but it’s very strangely packaged, and there’s a lot of extraneous fluff. It bounces back and forth between the self-serious heroism and romance that constitute its weaker parts, and the free-floating punk/screwball sensibility that makes it unique. Reportedly, Besson began writing the screenplay while he was in high school, and it shows in the convoluted mythology and the derivative, somewhat generic structure and conflicts of the film’s futuristic universe.

However, the film also has some moments of odd beauty and very satisfying comedy, plus one-of-a-kind visual design by two French artists – Moebius and Jean-Claude Mézières – who had been featured in Métal Hurlant, the predecessor to America’s Heavy Metal. At its best, The Fifth Element possesses some of the same traits that made Heavy Metal so great: a rich, bawdy sense of humor; a national and cultural eclecticism; and a willingness to tweak age-old sci-fi tropes in new ways. Overall, it’s not really successful, but it hits some great peaks along the way.

The plot of The Fifth Element is anything but simple, concerned as it is with at least 4-5 different self-interested factions each seeking the same set of four elemental stones. According to a sketched-out secret history wherein aliens occasionally visit Egypt, a “Great Evil” threatens earth every 5,000 years, and only an ultimate weapon made up of all five elements can save it. (The title is dropped with a resounding thud at least six times during the prologue.) Long story short: taxi driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has to shepherd the fifth-element-in-physical form, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), to a resort planet to fetch the stones.

They’re aided by a bungling high priest (Ian Holm) and a hyperactive radio super-personality (Chris Tucker). They’re opposed by a band of extraterrestrial mercenaries as well as their erstwhile employer, a nutty plutocrat named Zorg, played with a strangely southern accent and the world’s weirdest haircut by the great Gary Oldman. Yeah, it really is “that kind of movie.” Brion James (Blade Runner‘s Leon) is there as the earth general who recruits Dallas; even La Haine director and Amélie star Mathieu Kassovitz shows up as a jittery would-be mugger.

This is not a subtle movie. When Willis and Jovovich are giving the most restrained performances, you know you’re in dangerous territory. The Fifth Element is basically a live-action cartoon in the Looney Tunes mold, with all the visual hyperbole and frenetic action that entails. When Holm’s priest is startled, he literally topples over backwards – as sure as if he’d been Elmer Fudd whacked with a mallet. Oldman and Tucker (the latter especially) are both completely unhinged, madly overacting in a curiously compelling way. If nothing else, Tucker’s mile-a-minute spiel and proto-Gaga costumes are unlikely to be matched by any other movie – and his performance is almost plausible as a 23rd century media personality.

Clearly, your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your tolerance for cartoon physics and outrageously quirky acting. Oldman and Tucker also tread the very thin line between “eccentric” and “grating,” and Tucker occasionally, if fearlessly, crosses over it. Similarly, the movie’s frames are very cluttered; in Besson’s quasi-dystopian future, there’s always something going on, be it in the costuming, set design, or special effects. Some of this busyness can be delightful, while other components are less endearing. All of it, to varying degrees, is ridiculous.

With all of these oddball characters floating around, The Fifth Element does have some truly funny scenes (e.g., “Multipass?”) that end up playing out like a Star Wars spoof crossed with Bringing Up Baby. (Holm, who played another [less benevolent] advisor in Alien, could pass for a neurotic Obi-Wan Kenobi.) By the time we’re watching a blue-skinned, tentacle-headed diva sing an aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, the movie has almost found profundity in its genre-splicing, special-effects-filled surface.

So the real shame is the ending: it goes on far too long, it loses the raw, funny edge, and it devolves into a meaningless last-minute lecture on the evils of war and the power of love; it even begins to take its nonsensical back story seriously. It’s really disappointing when a movie’s epic climax turns out to be surprisingly rote and anticlimactic. But you know what? The Fifth Element is still better than Total Recall and a lot of other planet-hopping movies of that ilk. It’s still got all of Besson’s loony characters running into each other, wearing impractically garish outfits while North Africa-influenced techno plays in the background.

In short: at least it’s still interesting. It may not be an especially smart or consistent movie, but I’ll take Besson’s brand of colorful, multinational, imaginative sci-fi over the tedious sameness of Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay anyday. And the weird, loaded cast doesn’t hurt, either. So, is The Fifth Element really a “good” movie? Not as such. But it’s still highly enjoyable and even a little bit stylistically subversive. What do you think? Have you seen the movie, or do you want to?

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Sturges, Sissies, and Comic Genius

Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940) is a firecracker of a movie – an early sign of the greatness to come, with oodles of romance, verbal comedy, social commentary, and humanistic charm packed into 67 minutes. Dick Powell plays a wide-eyed dreamer (and office worker) who enters one contest after another in hopes of winning big. But when some coworkers convince him that he has won big, the situation rapidly flies out of control. It’s a hilarious, lightning-paced movie, but the part that most captivated me was the opening 2-3 minutes.

In the opening scene, Powell and his sweetheart sit on the roof of their tenement, listening on the radio for the results of an all-important coffee slogan contest. (Powell is counting on his terrible, counterintuitive entry: “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.”) The rooftop is intercut with the interior of the radio station, which in turn is intercut with shots of blue-collar Americans of all races and occupations. Clearly, a lot of folks have their hopes pinned on this contest. And so, radio announcer Don Hartman gives his opening spiel…

This spiel is my favorite part of the film, and that’s because Hartman is played by character actor Franklin Pangborn. Pangborn (1889-1958) was ubiquitous in comedies throughout the 1930s and ’40s, generally playing effete, officious bureaucrats, butlers, clerks, and civil servants. In The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo describes how Pangborn was one of the prime embodiments of the “sissy” character in classical Hollywood films; this was basically a recurring gay stereotype – although never explicitly identified as such.

In Hollywood under the Production Code, the sissy type primarily existed to neutralize the threat of non-normative sexuality. If queerness could be reduced to a trait of harmless, much-ridiculed supporting characters, then hetero masculinity could triumph. (And as Russo demonstrates, sissies were constantly used as counterexamples against which to measure real men.) But of course, the full story is more complicated than just “Hollywood was universally homophobic, and therefore all gay men were portrayed as effeminate nonentities.” Pangborn’s performance in Christmas in July exemplifies some of this creeping ambiguity.

While discussing the sissy’s stereotypical qualities, Russo adds that Pangborn was “an inventive satirist with expert timing. [He] seized on his brief screen moments and made them shine… He could turn a one-line part into a tour-de-force.” This is really the crux of my point. Although the radio announcer in Christmas in July never expresses any queer desires, he still displays the decidedly unmasculine verbal flourishes and mannerisms of Pangborn’s usual characters – he’s still obviously a sissy. (On the topic of verbal flourishes: Russo cites A Star Is Born [1937], where Pangborn uses the word “divoon,” a red flag for effeminacy if there ever was one.)

But with his versatility, his comic timing, and his inimitable vocal flutter, Pangborn overcame (or undermined?) the implicitly homophobic limitations written into his characters, making them more than the giddy, cowardly ciphers that the screenplays would have them be. Of course, it helps that Sturges’ screenplay for Christmas in July is brimming with nearly poetic dialogue, and despite being onscreen for only a few minutes in the film, Pangborn is captivating. In his opening monologue, he delivers bon mots with unbeatable precision and delight:

As you may well imagine, ladies and gentlemen, all that sugar draws a lot of flies! And the jury here has been struggling for a week to try to pick the winners from a little snowdrift of 2,947,582 answers. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a lot of answers in any language, including the Scandinavian! Heh, heh, heh…

Coming out of Pangborn’s mouth, a seven-digit number oozes with class. Pangborn’s characters are never really witty or superior; they’re always at the behest of their situations and subordinated to the protagonist’s plight. In Vivacious Lady, for example, he’s nothing but a stumbling block in Jimmy Stewart’s frantic rush to rendezvous with Ginger Rogers. In Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (a metafictional oddity where Pangborn plays a fictionalized “Franklin Pangborn”), he’s just the flustered straight man for W.C. Fields’ nonchalant nuttiness.

But whenever Pangborn got a break from doing double takes and was given chance to rhapsodize – as he was under Sturges – he just flew with it. He had the voice of an irrepressible raconteur, nonthreatening but with a veneer of distinction. That voice, along with his highly emotive body language, have become icons embedded in Hollywood’s past. I’ll conclude with a great example of this: when I saw Guy Maddin doing a live audio commentary on The Saddest Music in the World, he paused to note that the effusive radio commentators played by Talia Pura and Claude Dorge were inspired by character actors like Hedda Hopper and, of course, Franklin Pangborn. He may be long dead, but his cultural memory lives on.

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