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Monday, June 22, 2009

Screwball Comedy

When I got Netflix, one of the things I enjoyed most was seeing which movies and tv shows the service recommended to me most highly, based on my ratings of those I had already seen. While it is a little unnerving to have a machine know so much about your tastes and perhaps extension your personality, the advantages of discovering new titles never heard-of beforehand is adequate consolation.

One of the movies most highly recommended was "One, Two, Three!" a 1961 comedy by Billy Wilder starring Jimmy Cagney. I'd never heard of it before, but was intrigued enough to put it far down on my queue. The other day, fate intervened and I came across it on TV. It was marvelous.

Cagney plays Coca-Cola's head man in West Berlin, in the days of partition but before the construction of the wall. He's put in a jam when his boss's daughter, left to his protection, runs off and marries an East German communist. Cagney schemes to get the groom arrested and the marriage expunged from the records, but the girl's pregnancy and the protestations of his own wife make him reconsider. Cagney is further put-upon when his red-hating boss announces that, having heard about the marriage (but not the groom's politics) from Cagney's wife, he is flying to Berlin himself to meet his son-in-law.

What follows is a farce that hits the highest highs of screwball comedy. In dizzying fashion Cagney sets about converting the groom into a capitalist in good standing, and a German aristocrat to boot. After a mad rush of tailors and elocution lessons, the film climaxes with a mad rush to the airport, involving the groom trying on a dozen hats, a painter hanging out the window putting the groom's new coat of arms on the side door, a tailor sewing his torn pants, and Cagney frenetically warning him about phrases to avoid with his father-in-law while tallying up all that he's owed for the suits, hats, and the family name he has gone to the trouble to procure.

It's a testament to the madcap nature of the film that it constantly employs the classic "man spinning plates on sticks" music and that those familiar strains never feel out of place.

Seeing the movie made me wish that screwball comedies were still in vogue. I was surprised by this movie's 1961 release, because despite the film's topical subject, it belongs to an earlier era. The heyday of screwball was in the late '30s and early '40s. Films like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby featured incredibly complicated plots and fired off jokes at a mile-a-minute pace. To watch them is to marvel at the ability of the people who wrote them to come up with so much material.

I wish there was still a place for a little screwball in the comedy world right now, there are obviously some very talented people in the comedy business now and I'd love to see what they could do with something like "One, Two, Three!" Unfortunately, knowing Hollywood, they'd rather remake a screwball, dumb down and slow down the jokes, and completely suck the charm right out of it. Oh well.

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