By Michael Aushenker
The screwball: a romantic comedy rippled with fast-talking, gum-snapping couples futilely resisting each other while rattling off reams of dialogue and embroiled in love triangles, quadrangles and other assorted hi-jinks.
In today’s Hollywood, where CGI-driven flicks cater to tone-deaf audiences, this art-form of literate, intelligent comedies has become something of a faint memory.
Well, not if the American Cinematheque can help it!
This weekend, the nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the culture of motion pictures has some of the genre’s greatest classics on tap to add some zip and zing in the ramp-up to New Year’s Eve.
“His Girl Friday,” screening Saturday, is not only a classic screwball comedy (ranking #19 on American Film Institute’s 100 funniest movies of all time), it is the screwball comedy — the quintessential film in which the sexual tension crackles and pops between two speed-talking opposites.
Grant plays Morning Post editor Walter Burns, who learns that his ex-wife, retiring reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), is aiming to settle down in upstate New York with tepid insurance man Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Intent on sabotaging their marriage plans to win her back, Burns hires his former star reporter for one last assignment covering the execution of a convicted murderer, and they become entangled with corrupt authorities looking to exploit the high-profile case.
“Friday” reunites Grant with his “Bringing Up Baby” director, Howard Hawks, best known for “Rio Bravo” and the Humphrey Bogart classics “To Have or Have Not” and “The Big Sleep.” Ben Hecht, one of the greatest screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age (“Gone With the Wind,” “Gunga Din”), co-wrote the script.
Following “Friday” is Billy Wilder’s farcical “The Major and the Minor” (1942). Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland co-star in this tricky comedy about a broke woman (Rogers) who disguises herself as a 12-year-old girl to board a train on a child’s fare. Things get complicated after little “Su-Su” gets caught smoking by the conductor and seeks refuge in the lower berth compartment of Major Philip Kirby (Milland), who believes she is, in fact, a scared little girl. Mayhem ensues when Kirby’s fiancée (Rita Johnson) catches them together.
“Major” is particularly notable as the directorial debut of Wilder (“Sunset Boulevard,” “Double Indemnity”), who until then had worked in Hollywood for eight years as a screenwriter after fleeing Nazi Germany. Turns out it’s also the first movie Wilder made with Milland, who, three years later, would win the Academy Award for his portrayal of an alcoholic in Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend.”
For more Hawks and Wilder viewing, return to the Aero on Sunday, when the Cinematheque screens 1941’s “Ball of Fire,” directed by Hawks from a Wilder screenplay. Rounding out the double bill is a second film starring Gary Cooper: Ernst Lubitsch’s 1938 comedy “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.”
Catch “His Girl Friday” and “The Major and the Minor” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday or “Ball of Fire” and “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. $11 ($9 for seniors). americancinemathequecalendar.com