Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Wonderful Wonderful

I recently watched It's A Wonderful World on TCM.  I'd only seen it once, and that was years ago.

The film, a screwball comedy pairing Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert, isn't well-remembered.  In fact, bring it up and most people will thing it's a typo for It's A Wonderful Life.

It's interesting to see Stewart and Colbert together in 1939.  He was an up-and-comer at MGM while she was a more established star who usually worked at Paramount.  The movie is about Stewart, a detective, trying to prove his client didn't commit murder.  Stewart himself gets in trouble for harboring a fugitive and spends most of the picture hiding from the cops.  He comes across Colbert and soon they're on the run together.

Five years before, Colbert had starred in (and won an Oscar for) one of the greatest love-on-the-run comedies in It Happened One Night, which essentially started the screwball craze.  And in 1939, audiences had another chance to see her in a classic screwball, Midnight.

Meanwhile, Stewart, in 1939, also made Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Destry Rides Again, and would do even better in 1940 with The Shop Around The Corner and The Philadelphia Story (for which he won an Oscar).

It's A Wonderful World can't compare to those titles, but at least these two gifted farceurs are making a comedy.  Consider Carole Lombard, queen of screwball. In 1939, she appeared in Made For Each Other--with the very busy Jimmy Stewart--as well as in In Name Only with Cary Grant.  She was working with two of the greatest comic actors of the time, but both films are melodramas.

The script of It's A Wonderful World is by Ben Hecht, one of the busiest writers in town, and one of the best, though I wouldn't call this one of his major efforts.  It's got a murder plot which, for a screwball comedy, is fairly nasty, and doesn't mix that well with the overall tone.  It's interesting since the director, Woody Van Dyke, had shown he knew how to mix murder with comedy in the Thin Man series.

And the characterizations, even for screwball, aren't that believable.  Stewart's character is fairly bad-tempered, and he's pretty harsh with Colbert.  But all she needs to do is discover he's not such a bad guy--which she does off-screen--and suddenly she's falling for him. Meanwhile, he can't decide if he likes her or not. Compare this to the comedies I mention above to see how a relationship can form the core of a comedy, holding it together no matter how nutty the story gets.

For that matter, look at the scene in It's A Wonderful World where Colbert and Stewart are playacting to fool people about their identity.  Not bad, but compare it to Colbert and Gable doing the same thing in the far superior It Happened One Night.  Their work is far more natural and thus funnier, and helps establish their growing feelings for each other.

And for a farcical plot go, look at the complications screenwriters Brackett and Wilder created in Midnight, which has delightful escalation as Colbert gets in deeper and deeper with her impersonation (the title itself comes from the moment when Cinderella's masquerade is over). In It's A Wonderful World, things get frenetic, going from one plot point to the next (the film, in fact, has quite a bit of plot), but it doesn't necessarily whip the comedy into a frenzy by making things increasingly complex.

Still, the film moves well, there's funny stuff, and both leads are quite charming. On top of which, it's a feast of great characters actors, including Guy Kibbee, Nat Pendleton, Edgar Kennedy, Ernest Truex, Grady Sutton and a very young Hans Conried.

Back then audiences probably figured Hollywood would be putting out this sort of film indefinitely.  Little did they know the era of great romantic comedies was coming to a close.

So even if it's not top-tier, we can enjoy it as a decent example of something we rarely get any more.

PS  Most of the promotional photos for It's A Wonderful World have Colbert on the right.  I presume that's because she thought her left profile was her better side.  You can notice this as well in how she's shot in her movies.


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