Actresses in modern Hollywood can wield a lot of box-office clout if they go the romantic-comedy route, but any power they accrue often comes at the expense of critical respect. Because recent rom-coms have generally ranged from terrible to offensive—and because film genres that appeal to women are often undervalued in the predominately male world of the movie buff—many of the most popular actresses of the past two decades have yet to get their due. Romantic-comedy stars were better served in the ’30s and ’40s, when the genre showcased women who were simultaneously worldly, witty, and wise. Back then, the likes of Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne, and Loretta Young weren’t just glamorous; they were often savvier than almost anyone else onscreen, and audiences loved them for it.
All four of those actresses are showcased in the twin DVD sets Icons Of Screwball Comedy: Volume One and Volume Two, with each receiving her own two-movie disc. The movies vary widely in quality—and a few are every bit as reactionary and anti-feminist as modern tripe like The Ugly Truth—but it’s fascinating to watch the stars define their types within the studio system. The Loretta Young double feature is the weakest. A Night To Remember is a dry comic mystery in which Young plays a wisecracking dame with very little part to play in the story’s outcome, while in The Doctor Takes A Wife, Young is the author of a woman-empowering self-help book called Spinsters Ain’t Spinach, and is in danger of losing her credibility when she falls for chauvinistic psychologist Ray Milland. In both films, Young is blandly feminine, showing little personality.
Irene Dunne, on the other hand, is far more memorable as the secret author of a scandalous novel in Theodora Goes Wild, and as a conservative small-town mayor who gets swept away by a libertine big-city sculptor in Together Again. Neither of Dunne’s movies are as good as their premises—both devolve into a string of misunderstandings and public humiliations, largely unrelated to the heroine’s unusual jobs—but few actresses of Dunne’s era were better at playing prim, longsuffering, regretful characters who blossom in the right light. And it’s hard to knock either movie’s snappy dialogue, such as Together Again’s warning “When women start wearing hats that look like hats, they’re on their way out.”
For a movie that combines great patter with an enjoyable story, the best film on any of these four discs is If You Could Only Cook, with Jean Arthur as a down-on-her-luck dame who fast-talks a free-spirited magnate into pretending to be her husband, so they can take a job as servants for a mob boss. Arthur made her living in Hollywood playing flirty, worldly wisenheimers, and in If You Could Only Cook, she establishes her character well, explaining how in the midst of the Depression, she only wants “enough to pay the butcher and the baker and keep love from flying out the window.” She isn’t as well utilized in Too Many Husbands, in which her marriage to the super-rich Melvyn Douglas is threatened when her presumed-dead ex-husband (the also-super-rich Fred MacMurray) unexpectedly returns. Douglas and MacMurray are terrific together, especially when they’re trying to determine what liberties (ahem) they can take with the woman they both married, but the movie is slow and stagey, with an irresolvable problem at its center. And Arthur is hard to root for, since she seems to have two perfectly good choices in front of her, and no strong opinions of her own. (That isn’t the Arthur whom audiences came to know and love in the ’30s.)
By far the worst movie in this set is She Wouldn’t Say Yes, starring Rosalind Russell as a sensible psychiatrist whose war of wits with a “follow your bliss”-touting cartoonist resolves far too predictably. (Hmmm… Will the movie side with the mannish woman who distrusts happiness, or the whimsical soul who brings joy to millions? Prepare to be un-shocked.) Yet Russell’s character in She Wouldn’t Say Yes is in keeping with the types she regularly played in screwball: down-to-earth, almost masculine ladies who stood toe-to-toe with the fellas as long as they could before inevitably tumbling backward. Luckily for Russell fans, she gets a chance to put that character to better use in the delightful My Sister Eileen, where she plays a skeptical aspiring writer who moves from Ohio to New York City to help her flighty younger sibling Janet Blair become an actress. In addition to being smart and funny about how to navigate big-city sharpies, My Sister Eileen presents Russell to good advantage, by contrasting her with the pretty but dim Blair. If there’s one major difference between the Hollywood of the ’30s and ’40s and the Hollywood of today, it’s that film fans were expected to identify with and cheer on characters like Russell, who were prized as much for their intelligence as their attractiveness, and who seemed to know more about the way the world really worked than any men they might marry.
Key features: A pair of vintage short subjects and a few old trailers, to help recreate the double-feature experience.
Grades: The Doctor Takes A Wife: C-; If You Could Only Cook: A-; My Sister Eileen: A-; A Night To Remember: C; She Wouldn’t Say Yes: D+; Theodora Goes Wild: B-; Together Again: B-; Too Many Husbands: B