Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

Moment#8: Easy Living (1937)

15 May 2017

easyliving

The writer-director Preston Sturges is best known for a string of edgy comedies during the war years that somehow managed to run rings around the Hays Code; Easy Living—not to be confused with the 1949 film of the same name—is one of the screenplays he wrote that persuaded Hollywood to give him the opportunity to direct as well.

It plays off the genre conventions well; women against men, rich against poor.

The film has one of the great “inciting incidents”–the event that kicks off the plot. The third richest banker on Wall Street, in a fit of rage at his wife’s extravagance, hurls a fur coat that she has just spent $58,000 on from the roof of their townhouse, and it lands, literally, on the head of Mary Smith, a clerk at a magazine business (played by Jean Arthur), who is going to work on an open-topped bus.

Comedy is often about a fish out of water, and Sturges is brilliant at this in his films, most notably in Sullivan’s Travels, in which rich and successful film director John Sullivan is granted his wish to discover what it’s like to be poor in 1940s America.

Easy Living, which was directed by Mitchell Leisen, is also a fish out of water story, but Mary Smith gets to discover what it’s like to be rich and influential.

The moment: Mary Smith has the $58,000 coat, and a hat to match, and is living in a suite at an expensive hotel, all for perfectly credible reasons as far as the story goes, but she’s also been fired from her job and is down to her last nickel. She’s at the Automat, where New Yorkers used to get budget food before MacDonalds was invented. And there she runs into the banker’s son, who is clearing tables, trying to prove to his father that he can get by without the family money.

This is quite a long sequence–the whole scene runs for about eight minutes–but I love how it starts low-key (and about the lives of the rich) and ends up in slapstick mayhem (and much more about the lives of the poor). The way the hungry Jean Arthur looks longingly at the plates of the other diners could have come straight out of silent movies. And the whole thing is full of wonderful detail: there’s a lot going on.

There’s pretty much a scene-by-scene breakdown of the film by Cameron at her blog, The Blonde at the Film. And the whole film is on youtube, with some interruptions for ads.

 

Reading Wodehouse

7 August 2016

  
I’ve stayed away from P.G.Wodehouse, perhaps because I lack sympathy with the aristocratic milieu that his characters inhabit, but my brother, who appreciates writing, insisted. And so I bought one; not one of the Wodehouse series, such as Jeeves or Blandings Castle, which come now with a heavy precognitive load, but the standalone novel Big Money, published in 1931.

Perhaps I was attracted by the title, or perhaps by the Ben Elton cover quote: “Light as a feather, but fabulous.

And Ben Elton and my brother were right. The thing was a pleasure from beginning to end. 

I’m not going to spoil it, but the plot revolves around a penniless heir, Lord Biskerton, and his schoolfriend Berry Conway, now fallen on hard times and reduced to working for a living, and the arrival in London of an American heiress, Ann Moon, the niece of Conway’s boss, despatched to London for the season to escape an unsuitable match. (As in, “The Season“.)

Here’s part of Chapter 2, describing Ann’s social whirl in London:

“She saw the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Madame Tussaud’s, Buck’s Club, the Cenotaph, Limehouse, Simpson’s in the Strand, a series of races between consumptive-looking greyhounds, another series of races between goggled men on motor-cycles, and the penguins in St James’s Park.

“She met soldiers who talked of horses, sailors who talked of cocktails, poets who talked of publishers, painters who talked of sur-realism, absolute form and the difficulty of deciding whether to be architectural or rhythmical.

“She met men who told her the only possible place in London to lunch, to dine, to dance, to buy an umbrella; women who told her the only possible place in London to go for a frock, a hat, a pair of shoes, a manicure and a permanent wave; young men with systems for winning money by backing second favourites; middle-aged men with systems that needed constant toning-up with gin and vermouth; old men who quavered compliments in her ear and wished their granddaughters were more like her.”     

Unexpected alleys

One of the tricks in narrative is how the author, story, and reader stand in relationship to each other. They can be ahead, or behind, or on terms, as fully informed as each other. In crime fiction, the reader always knows less, is always catching up, as Tony Hancock and Sid James discovered in their classice episode, “The Missing Page“. 

In Big Money the reader is often ahead (you can see where it is going) but just as you think you’re going to get there Wodehouse takes you down an unexpected alley on the way, sometimes poking fun at his characters in a knowing alliance with the reader. 

And when Elton says the book is as light as a feather, it’s probably from passages such as this:

“When the public reads in its morning paper that a merger has been formed between two financial enterprises, it is probably a little vague as to what exactly are the preliminaries that have to be gone through in order to bring this union about. A description of what took place on the present occasion, therefore, can scarcely fail to be of interest.

“J.B. Hoke began by asking Mr Frisby how his golf was coming along. Mr Frisby’s only reply being to bare his teeth like a trapped jackal. Mr Hoke went on to say that he himself, while noticeably improved off the tee, still found a difficulty in laying his short mashie approaches up to the pin. Whether it was too much right hand or too little left hand, Mr Hoke could not say, but he doubted if he put one shot in seven just wehere he meant to. …

“At this point Mr Frisby said something under his breath and broke his pencil in half.” 

Finally, the plot is as elegant a thing as I have seen, with scores of moving parts ticking away unobtrusively in the background. I was reminded of Preston Sturges or the best of the screwball comedies. Unpacking it would, I suspect, be something of a master class.

Of course, it’s of its time. Lunch at the Berkeley costs 25 shillings for two (£1.25 in modern money), with a little change; characters can jump into the two-seater and drive down to Dulwich or Esher from Mayfair at the drop of a hat; Biskerton has run up debts of hundreds of pounds at gentlemen’s outfitters and suppliers across town; a man can’t be seen out without a hat; and everyone who’s anyone knows everyone

And being a comedy, of course all of the characters–and maybe this is a spoiler–get the ending they deserve. Well, most of them do.

The banana skin and the manhole

14 December 2013

There’s a story about a conversation between the Hollywood screenwriter Charles MacArthur and Charlie Chaplin. 

“How, for example, could I make a fat lady, walking down Fifth Avenue, slip on a banana peel and still get a laugh? It’s been done a million times,” said MacArthur. “What’s the best way to get the laugh? Do I show first the banana peel, then the fat lady approaching, then she slips? Or do I show the fat lady first, then the banana peel, and then she slips?”

“Neither,” said Chaplin without a moment’s hesitation. “You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps over the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.”

There was an excellent piece of banana skin and manhole business in the last but one show in the current series of the BBC comedy Hebburn, which has just finished. (UK readers can find it on iPlayer for another couple of weeks). Without giving away any spoilers, the McGuffin of the story was an edition of the Telegraph magazine in which there was an extract from Jack’s secret diary of his wife Sarah’s pregnancy. Jack calculates that no-one in Hebburn – not an affluent town – reads the Telegraph, and reluctantly shreds his own copy. 

But – of course – a copy arrives in town, and gets left by mistake on the sofa in a recording studio where Jack’s sister happens to be (banana skin). But before she sees it, the sound engineer scoops it up and takes it out with the other rubbish. From then on the plot ticks inexorably towards the manhole moment and the discovery of the offending article by a friend of Sarah’s. You know it’s going to happen, but you don’t know how or when: it creates a point of comic tension.

I like Hebburn, not least because it’s blessed by the acting of Gina McKee and Vic Reeves. Although the second series is less dark than the first, it’s managed to develop the characters so they feel fuller (they could easily have descended into thin North-eastern cliches). You also know immediately that the scriptwriters, who come from the area, like their characters rather than regarding them as clotheshorses to hang jokes on (Little Britain, anyone?). I also like the fact that their lifestyles in the show correspond with how they might be in actual life; these are people who live in post-crisis Osborne-land, who don’t have much money, and the storylines and quite a lot of the humour reflect that. In contrast, when you watch Big Bang Theory you wonder how Penny, working as a waitress on minimum wage, manages to afford to pay for an apartment on her own when Sheldon and Leonard, both better paid, have to share. Or at least I do.  

The photo of the cast of Hebburn at the top of this post comes from its production company, Baby Cow Productions, and is used with thanks.  

The secret of Groundhog Day

9 February 2013

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It turns out that Groundhog Day is twenty years old this month (going by its US release) and The Guardian has an engaging article by Ryan Gilbey, who has just written one of those natty BFI guides to the film. I’m a fan (how can you not be) and I’ve written about Groundhog Day before, but Gilbey has an interesting take on why it has become a classic – and gone into the language.

1. The writer ruthlessly expunged all references to the 1990s.

[Scriptwriter Danny] Rubin urged [Director Harold] Ramis, with whom he shares a writing credit, to expunge any nods to the 1990s: “You’ve gotta take all this out,” he said, “because this movie is really going to go on for years and years.” Compare this with Judd Apatow’s films, which are peppered with gags about early-21st century celebrity culture. … our descendants in 2063 will have no trouble understanding Groundhog Day when they download it on to their frontal lobes.

2. The film refuses to explain how TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) got trapped in Groudhog Day:

There is no magical fairground machine (Big), no mantra (Shallow Hal), no curse (What Women Want). … Rubin was urged to write a Gypsy-curse scene explaining the loop, which Ramis wisely never shot. The mystery has only fortified the film’s magic.

3. Or any explanation of how long he is there:

It could be 10 years or a thousand, however long it takes him to memorise the personal histories of Punxsutawney’s townsfolk, and to become, among other things, a pianist, an ice-sculptor and a doctor (“It’s kind of an honorary title,” he shrugs).

4. The film has a classic redemptive story structure. I’ve written about redemption stories here before, and the article suggests that Groundhog Day borrows here from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

There’s more. It’s just plain clever in the way it disregards many of the Hollywood conventions. Terry Jones enthuses, for example, about the way it subverts structure.

“Normally when you’re writing a screenplay you try to avoid repetition. And that’s the whole thing here, it’s built on repetition. That’s so bold. The way they get through it is to short-circuit everything, so just when you think something is going to happen that you’ve seen before, the film gets to it before you and changes or abbreviates it in some way.

And the artist Gillian Wearing compares Groundhog Day to films such as L’Avventura and Last Year in Marienbad. She tells Gilbey:

All those films reinvent structure and create a new conceptual framework that makes you understand them. They share an almost surrealistic vision, and they pose philosophical questions.

In short, Groundhog Day succeeds because it is, says Gilbey, that rare creature: “an art film in mainstream clothing.”

The picture at the top of this post is from What The Movie, and is used with thanks.

Check? Check

27 February 2012

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This post is in praise of actors, about a moment in Measure for Measure which I saw at the RSC in Stratford at the weekend.

Pompey, the ‘bawd’ or brothel-keeper, is a classic Shakespearian comic, and about two-thirds of the way through, locked up in the city jail, he has a speech which looks like Jacobean babble on the page:

I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession: one would think it were Mistress Overdone’s own house, for here be many of her old customers. First, here’s young Master Rash; he’s in for a commodity of brown paper and old ginger, ninescore and seventeen pounds; of which he made five marks, ready money: marry, then ginger was not much in request, for the old women were all dead.

Then is there here one Master Caper, at the suit of Master Three-pile the mercer, for some four suits of peach-coloured satin, which now peaches him a beggar. Then have we here young Dizy, and young Master Deep-vow, and Master Copperspur, and Master Starve-lackey the rapier and dagger man, and young Drop-heir that killed lusty Pudding, and Master Forthlight the tilter, and brave Master Shooty the great traveller, and wild Half-can that stabbed Pots, and, I think, forty more; all great doers in our trade, and are now ‘for the Lord’s sake.’

On stage, in the Shakespearian-style Swan Theatre, it comes alive, as Pompey, played by Joseph Kloska, uses the audience as the characters, picking them out as he goes through the names and improvising, but just a little, as he goes.

My son happened to be wearing a check shirt, sitting in the front row, and Kloska adapted the line about Master Caper and his “suits of peach-coloured satin” to fit, riding the laughter to add, “You have to work with what you’ve got”. A few lines later he got more laughter by picking out a balding man a few seats along as “Drop-heir”, adding a line to say, “It’s all in the Folios, First Folio, Second Folio”.

It felt as close to the way in which the Shakespearian audience would have experienced a comic actor as is possible for a 21st audience to get.

One other note on the play: one of things you learn when you learn about screen writing is “to love your minor characters”. Shakespeare was there first. The murderer Barnardine is hardly on stage – he only has a couple of scenes – but he steals them both. And it’s all in the writing.

The picture at the top of the post is a production still from the RSC, and is used with thanks.

The power of comedy

3 March 2008

Sullivan’s travels still

I watched Preston Sturges’ 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels again at the weekend. Without rehashing the plot, Sullivan, celebrated (and rich) Hollywood comedy director, decides he wants to make a film about the suffering around him – in an age of migrants and depression – and needs to get some experience of it before he does so. Well, be careful what you wish for…

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