Monday, July 18, 2011

Screwball Comedies

The Friday Night Lights finale just about destroyed me. I had to reach for my first tissue before the opening credits and then spent the last twenty minutes or so sobbing uncontrollably. I guess I was primed, in spite of watching Phineas and Ferb in between, because part of Haven also made me weepy.

I guess after a week of Harry Potter and the TV weepiness, I had a fit of "now for something completely different" and I went on a screwball comedy binge. There was His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (which is more current, but it was based on a book written during the screwball comedy era, and it has all the hallmarks of the genre, so I'm including it). This was kind of work-related, as I've figured out that the book I'm about to rewrite has a dialogue problem. It's too direct -- the characters ask each other direct questions and get answers. The snappy dialogue in the screwball comedies is more oblique, with insinuations instead of direct questions. And watching all this worked because I figured out exactly how to fix one of the scenes that was bothering me.

I've just about memorized The Philadelphia Story and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is one of my favorites, but the other two were new to me. I must say that The Awful Truth is one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time. I'm going to have to watch it again just to catch all the jokes because a few of them were of the "did they really say that?" variety. It's a pretty simple story of a couple that divorces mostly out of suspicions and sheer stubbornness, only to eventually realize that the awful truth is that they still love each other and their suspicions were unfounded. Meanwhile, she tries to move on with an Oklahoma oilman and he tries to move on with an heiress, and both of them scheme to get in each other's way. Irene Dunne is so very funny, and she plays well against Cary Grant. The other movie of theirs that I love is My Favorite Wife. In this one, she has a truly priceless scene in which she pretends to be his sister meeting his fiancee's snooty family, supposedly to help him after his fiancee grew suspicious when she answered the phone at his place but really carrying out a massive sabotage effort.

After these films, I kind of feel sorry for Ralph Bellamy. He seemed to be typecast as Mr. Wrong (in fact, I've got a "how to write romantic comedy" book, and the author refers to the Mr./Miss Wrong character "the Bellamy"). He walked a fine line with these roles, so that he seemed perfectly reasonable and not a totally bad choice at first, but then gradually revealed his true colors when put under pressure. He was never really a bad guy, just only suitable for the heroine when she wasn't being her true self -- and totally, horribly wrong for her true self. I'll have to dig through his filmography to see if he ever got to be the hero and get the girl because he was rather attractive and quite funny.

Watching these movies, including the more recent one, highlights why there are so few good romantic comedies these days. I found myself thinking while watching all the Harry Potter films that the reason they've been so successful is that they took them seriously, which doesn't always happen with fantasy films, children's films or especially the deadly combination. There seems to be a temptation among filmmakers to be condescending to these audiences, to think that they'll take whatever you throw at them, so you don't have to work very hard to actually make them good. But the Harry Potter films are loaded with the top actors working today, and none of them acted like "oh, I'm just in a kids' movie." The same thing applies to romantic comedies. Filmmakers tend not to take them or their audience seriously, and the result is lame, half-hearted movies that are a string of cliches, gimmicks and contrivances. The movies I watched this weekend involved some of the top actors of their time playing complex characters, they had witty writing that didn't rely on gimmicks, and the characters faced real dilemmas that weren't just misunderstandings. Oh, and no gross-out jokes or overgrown fratboys being "tamed" by shrewish women.

Instead, we're getting a lot of gross-out jokes, fratboys being "tamed" by shrews, silly gimmicks, shallow conflicts, senseless bickering with no subtext and musical montages substituting for actual writing.

I recently read the book Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and tomorrow I'll discuss the transition from book to movie. And now today I'm going to dive into rewrites.

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