Friday, August 06, 2010

1939 was the great year for movies...unless you like comedy

It's been said a lot: 1939 was Hollywood's best year, or simply the best year for movies, period.

But not if you like comedy.

Just look at a typical list of great 1939 films:

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Babes In Arms
Beau Geste
Dark Victory
Destry Rides Again
Drums Along the Mohawk
Gone With the Wind
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Gunga Din
Hunchback Of Notre Dame
The Little Princess
Love Affair
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Of Mice and Men
Only Angels Have Wings
The Roaring Twenties
Stanley and Livingstone
The Wizard of Oz
The Women
Wuthering Heights
Young Mr. Lincoln

See many comedies in there? Okay, Destry, Ninotchka, and The Women have been called comedies, but the first is primarily a western, and will never be confused with say, Blazing Saddles, and The Women is more of an acerbic drama with lots of good one-liners. Only Ninotchka is truly a comedy, though a romantic comedy.

So what happened to the real comedies in 1939?

The Marx Brothers began a three picture stint at MGM that allowed the studio to finally prove that could f-up the Marx Brothers' reputations. The best thing you can say about At the Circus is that it has Groucho singing "Lydia the Tattooed Lady." The second best thing you could say is that it's better than the two films that followed it.

Laurel and Hardy walked away from Hal Roach of a contract dispute and found themselves utterly alone in the world. They made The Flying Deuces, a good movie but not up to their best standards. Still, as with the Marxes, it was better than most anything that would follow it, including a couple of more pictures with Hal Roach.

W.C. Fields somehow resisted the decline his fellow comedians suffered, and was yet to make what some regard as his best film, the Bank Dick. In 1939, he made You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, which is funny but a bit awkward because it's also supposed to be a vehicle for Charlie McCarthy.

Age and censorship had been sending Mae West's fortunes in a slow spiral for years, and she produced no film in 1939. She'd bounce back next year in her collaboration with Fields, My Little Chickadee.

The Hal Roach Our Gang (AKA Little Rascals) series closed up shop and moved to MGM, where comedy goes to die.

The Three Stooges soldiered along, continuing to produce great two-reelers before tightening budgets and Curly's health problems took their toll. Their eight shorts for this year include Oily to Bed and Oily to Rise, which is hilarious, if not quite the equal of 1938's Violent is the Word for Curly or 1940's A-Plumbing We Will Go.


At 8/7/10, 6:17 PM, Anonymous Boston Bill said...

Apparently Mae West hated 'My Little Chickadee'. She clearly disliked Fields, which is a shame, because the precious few minutes they share are among the best in comedy history. But her big problem with the film was that it was a comedy - and she was not a comedian (in her mind), she was a, no THE, Femme Fatale!

At 8/7/10, 6:31 PM, Blogger Monster, Indeed! said...

Yeah, and Fields was an alcoholic whose addiction would eventually end his film career. His last few appearances are pretty sad.

It wasn't just the movie industry that stalled their careers. They all had their faults as well.

At 8/12/10, 11:30 AM, Anonymous Boston Bill said...

At the Circus Highlights:
• Lydia the Tattooed Lady (as mentioned)
• "Oh Susanna, oh won't you fly for me, for I need ten thousand dollar ‘cause the sheriff’s after me”
• The symphony floating across the Atlantic
• Harpo on the Ostrich
• “There must be some way to get that deed back without getting in trouble with the Hays Office!”
• The 'break-in' in the strong man's car, as Chico and Harpo make an incredible amount of noise.
• “I’d like another cup of coffee!”

• The setting
• Groucho upside down (except for the previously mentioned line)
• The Gorilla Suit
• Groucho repeatedly being shoved by Chico into the puddle.
• Kenny Baker and anything he sang!

At 8/13/10, 12:07 AM, Blogger Monster, Indeed! said...

One reason to be grateful for Kenny Baker's presence in "Circus:" He was almost cast in The Wizard of Oz a romantic lead (with a contract starlet, not Judy Garland's Dorothy.)


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