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When Men Were Thin

Madcap Manhattan at the Film Forum (December 11th-January 5th)

With little question, the screwball comedies of the 1930s represent the zenith of madcap filmmaking in America. A full 14 of the 40 films shown in the Film Forum’s current “Madcap Manhattan” series date to the decade. These films created so many of the conventions of romantic comedy and so much of the mythology of New York that it’s surprising how lively and new they remain. While the silent film stars who toiled in the 1920s under the tight grip of impresario Mack Sennett developed a repertoire of pie-throwing and water-splashing gags that have yet to be improved upon, it wasn’t until 1937’s screwball masterpiece Easy Living showcased a free-for-all food riot at an automat that the true perversity of slapstick was revealed. Throwing food—delicious-looking, hot-looking food—around for the entertainment of underfed depression-era filmgoers is fiendish provocation. Yet, Jean Arthur, the perennial shopgirl, and the always dandy Ray Milliand make the automat orgy and subsequent run from the cops joyful to watch. It’s nighttime in Manhattan and though they realize (she thinks) that Milliand just threw away his job to feed her and is unlikely to get another in this economy, everything remains beautiful on screen and in their hearts.

Screwball comedy is a subgenre of farce that is particular to America in the 1930s. It takes its name from a popular slang insult of the period which was named, in turn, after the all-over-the-place baseball pitch introduced by Christy Mathewson. The pitch was so named because the pitcher’s movements imitated the motion by which you wielded a screwdriver—one of the most revolutionary tools of the early 20th century machine age (hard as that is to believe). In name, and in essence, screwball comedy encapsulated all of that machine age anxiety about the kooky, wobbly unpredictability in everything, from sports to work to love.

Screwball comedies of the Great Depression were neither the escapist fantasies they are generally thought of nor the invectives against capitalism that revisionist film critics strive to make them into. Most often, screwballs were smart, hard-nosed attempts to make something out of nothing. For example, in Swing Time, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ finest pairing, Astaire plays a gambler trying to turn his lucky quarter into a comfortable life. Rogers is a dance teacher who he gets fired. Check it, the film winks; the most glamorous on-screen couple ever (their reputations cemented years before) has nothing but their glamour. Rogers begs time and again for the chance to work and Astaire gambles away his clothes. Their glamour becomes nothing more than something for them to exploit to keep off the streets.

Cinematically and socially, Manhattan in the 1930s was like Las Vegas today, a shoddily built glittering light show sprouting up against all logic. The showgirls and strippers of contemporary Vegas are mirrored in the torch singers and peelers of the 30s Manhattan night scene, and they were (if the films on display at the Forum give any indication) everywhere. You’ll recognize them instantly: they’re the only women who don’t talk as though they were recovering from dental surgery. The allowances New York society and life made for peacocks such as these, and façade more generally, may be why Manhattan was used so often as the setting for vertiginously farcical comedies of death, mistaken identity, and class war. Because the entire town seemed a fabrication, it became the locus of reinvention and class ascension. In an early example of urban flight, the depression swept much of the “old money” out of Manhattan to the security of the Connecticut suburbs and the town was given over to gangsters and glitter. Or at least that’s what Damon Runyon, whose stories are the basis for many of the finest films of the 30s, would have us believe.

Runyon introduced the colorfully named gangster (Nathan Detroit, Dave the Dude) to American society in the jazz age, and populated an entire universe on Broadway with wild dreamers and heavy drinkers. His dizzying ability to make believable the most hard-boilded of fantasies allowed both Frank Capra and Shirley Temple to create films that have been scrubbed clean of the treacle associated with their careers.

In Lady For A Day, Capra tells the story of a 70-year-old alcoholic beggar woman named Apple Annie, and her long-lost daughter (another appearance by ray of sunshine Jean Arthur). Capra hesitated to direct, doubting the commercial appeal of a story pivoting around a drunken old woman. That it got made, and then nominated for heaps of Oscars, is as much the stuff of fairytale as the story that unfolds. Annie sent her daughter off to a convent at birth, and since has maintained to the daughter that she is a society matron. As the film opens, Annie’s daughter plans a visit and the kindly old woman fears she will be exposed for the street peddler she is. But a gangster gambler who is superstitiously attached to Annie’s apples and an entire hobo village conspire to make the lie real, if only for a day or two. Easier said than done, perhaps, but in the end no one is the wiser. Annie’s daughter marries a European count, inherits an actual fortune, and sails off to Europe never to be seen again. But she leaves still adoring the loving society mama who abandoned her at birth, and whom she now abandons in return. A happy ending, but far from a Capra-esque vision of honesty and loyalty.

In the madcap 1930s, being the wiser was never a good idea, and one of the hardest characteristics of the films to relax into is how comfortable everyone is living inside a big lie. Ginger Rogers in Bachelor Mother finds her life turned upside down when she picks up an abandoned baby off a cold New York step. Though the film finds its way to a happy ending, no one ever believes that Rogers in fact was not the domestically abused, out-of-wedlock mother she was initially assumed to be. Though it’s muted over time, the stigma of unwed motherhood never goes away. Rogers chooses to live with it rather than face losing her job. Screwball requires this sort of cold-heartedness. For Bachelor Mother to work, we need to not care, even a little, what happened to the real parents of the baby abandoned at a foundling hospital. In another Runyon-based masterpiece, Little Miss Marker, Shirley Temple’s character, Markie, is left by her father as collateral on an IOU. Unable to pay up, the gambler commits suicide, leaving the young girl in the permanent care of a bookie gangster, Sorrowful Jones. Rather than tell the girl the truth or try and parent her, Jones uses Markie to rig a horse race. In sentimental fashion, the gangsters begin to feel guilty for corrupting the “doll” as they call her, and so they host a full Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table feast to fulfill her abandoned childhood fantasies. It’s a charming scene, at least until the horse kicks young Temple in the temple and lands her in critical condition.

Dorothy Dell, the mother Shirley Temple wishes she had.
Dorothy Dell, the mother Shirley Temple wishes she had.

If the film were remade today (and it’s been remade a few times, always to pitiful effect) it would be a “dark comedy,” wherein the violence of daily life in depression-era New York provides humor in a Coen Brothers sort of way. And indeed it’s a dark film, but it succeeds because the humor plausibly exists side by side with a nightmarish landscape of death and corruption—actual Manhattan as opposed to movie Manhattan. Although Bangles Carson (played by Dorothy Dell—who in a great loss to Hollywood died shortly after filming completed), the voluptuous and nasty torch singer, proves as gold digging as you’d expect from her name, she genuinely enjoys dressing up as Lady Guinevere for the delight of a young girl. And because she’s kept by a notorious gangster, she can afford to buy young Markie a dress that isn’t tattered beyond repair. Corruption is inescapable, but a little money buys a lot of happiness.

None of these films shy away from just how tough life can be. The Thin Man is a murder caper where no one sheds a tear for the much-beloved murdered patriarch. It’s also often (and deservingly) placed on top ten lists of the best comedies ever. In Easy Living, for every stroke of luck the hard-working, much-deserving Jean Arthur encounters (beginning with stumbling upon a $58,000 fur coat), life gets harder. She loses her job, and her home. Women are always losing their jobs in these films, and they are always presented as having a clearly harder lot than men. While the men remain thin and dapper (Cary Grant, William Powell, Ray Milliand), the women become more substantial (Ginger Rogers, Dorothy Dell, Myrna Loy). With the exception of Katharine Hepburn and Carole Lombard—who resembles nothing so much as an exquisite fountain pen—the women on display in Madcap Manhattan are generally amply padded for a long, cold winter. And all these films feature a long, cold winter. It’s no surprise that so many stories are about unwed motherhood. These are some irresistible and unabashed beauties, with bodies that scream baby-making and security all at once.

I want to say which film is the “one” to watch, and I can’t. If you can only see two make them The Thin Man and Swing Time. There is no excuse to miss Astaire and Rogers dancing on a big screen. But you really should see Lady for a Day too, if just to marvel that Frank Capra could make a film that doesn’t make your skin creep with faux nostalgia. Fuck, you should see them all. It’s the holidays.


Sarahjane Blum

The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.


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