I like to go to plays. Not Broadway extravaganzas, but community and university theater productions. Unfortunately, my spouse doesn’t share this interest, which cuts back on my dramatical attendance, except when our daughter comes home for a visit. Fortunately, stage plays find their way onto the silver screen, and found their way to it even more in the 30s and 40s than today. Modern examples of the play-on-film would be Bug (2006) and Doubt: a Parable (2008), which I have reviewed. Unfortunately, we are not living in the age of Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, and Tennessee Williams, except insofar as revivals and remakes allow us to do so. With all due respect, John Patrick Shanley, Tony or no Tony, is no Kaufman or Hart, the two who wrote the play from which The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) derives, via the Epstein twins’ screenplay(the Epsteins of Casablanca fame).
TMWCTD is a comedy of great verbal energy, many fun cogs and wheels and conversational gizmos, jokes, gags, all done on the level of a New Yorker parlor drama. They don’t make them like this anymore – so dense, so many moving parts. As I watched Married Life (2007) the other night, I detected faint echoes from those lost days. Do I subscribe to the theory that civilization is headed downhill because of this and other portents? Nope, and besides, weighing and judging civilization and its components is far beyond my capacity to grok, at least in 1,000 words or less. (Do I believe the planet and the human race are headed downhill? Ulp!) But just because I don’t expect another TMWCTD to roll off the assembly line in 2010 doesn’t mean that I’ll have no chance to laugh at a movie. I watched Reno 911:Miami (2007) again the other night with my spouse, and because she liked it, perhaps I’ll get to watch all 5 seasons again. Yay! In my defense, I think that the Marx brothers would like it too. And She’s Out of Your League (2010)? Not in TMWCTD’s league, but still, life is still good on the couch.
Most of the topical content in TMWCTD has aged out, evaporated, leaving behind in the dialog a foundation of basic comic ideas: gone for most of us are an appreciation of Lucius Beebe’s penguins and octopus, Lana Turner’s sweater, Zazu Pitts, Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, and the larger-than-life Alexander Woolcott, who spent a weekend with Moss Hart, prompting Hart to wonder out loud, My God, what if he never left? and the play’s premise was born.
In TMWCTD, Jimmy Durante is funnier than I remember. Younger, too. Who fills the Durante niche in comedy today? There’s bound to be someone. Early Jim Carey? It’s got to be someone who mugs outrageously and with unflagging energy. Vintage Robin Williams? Durante, suddenly seeming more modern to me, makes me doubt the trope that some classic aspect of screwball stage comedy is gone and isn’t coming back; perhaps it’s all just cycles and cycles and only a matter of time before we’ve gone in retrospect from Touch of Mink to Mash to Airplane to Knocked Up and back to Coconuts again. An extra four billion folks have arrived on the planet since TMWCTD was written. Even if they simply act like monkeys with typewriters, lost or missing dialogic brilliance ought to crop up now and again, out of the chaotic randomosity of crowds. Or will we just keep getting more video games instead? Great Britain bans EA’s Medal of Honor because it allows you to play on the side of the Taliban. That’s comedy, isn’t it?
Glenda the good witch works in TMWCTD without her wand.
Anne Sheridan plays the whole movie overdressed, but shows up 30s style for one scene in a thin silk blouse, confronting the camera face-to-face, so to speak, and proving without a doubt that she’s a mammal.
I’ve noticed more than once that watching two movies at the same time, interleaved as it were, or one after the other, offers perspectives that might otherwise go unnoticed. For example, I saw Ameracord (1973) one Friday night in San Diego, followed by The Godfather (1972) on Saturday. Fellini’s artistry made The Godfather, seen so soon after, seem rather amateurish to me. Now that The Godfather has entered the pantheon of great films, any crudeness in its fabrication goes largely unnoticed. Every so often, when I stop to think about this, I feel privy to a cinematical secret, just because of that Friday and Saturday a long time ago. In the present instance, the two overlapping movies are TMWCTD and Repo Men (2010). Sure, there are chuckles in both, but in this example we learn that just talking at each other real fast can pack a punch greater than that felt by cutting the other guy open, reaching inside him, and hauling out his mechanical stomach while wise-cracking about it. Just sayin.
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