THE CLASSIC COMEDIES COLLECTION (1933-1942). Forget that age-old question about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. More importantly, how many classic movies can Warner Bros. fit into one boxed set? Arriving on the heels of their elaborate film noir and gangster collections is this compilation dedicated to the lighter side of cinema, with five of the titles making their long awaited DVD debuts (only The Philadelphia Story was previously available on disc, albeit in a copy inferior to this one).
A sparkling script and game efforts from an all-star cast easily overcome the creakiness of Dinner at Eight (1933), an art deco dreamscape based on the popular George S. Kaufman/Edna Ferber stage triumph. Handled by the same studio (MGM) behind the previous year's Best Picture Oscar winner Grand Hotel (with overlapping cast and crew members), this traces the steps of various members of high society as they prepare for an elaborate dinner party. John Barrymore and Lionel Barrymore provide the tragic dimensions as, respectively, a drunken has-been actor and a businessman in declining health, though it's the ladies - Marie Dressler as an outsized actress of yore, Billie Burke as the twittering dinner host and Jean Harlow as a petulant trophy wife - who carry the show.
The Libeled Lady (1936) in question is a society girl (Myrna Loy) who sues a newspaper for $5 million after the rag prints an erroneous tidbit of gossip accusing her of stealing another woman's husband. Desperate to save the paper (and his job), the editor (Spencer Tracy) concocts an elaborate scam that will require the services of his fiancee (Jean Harlow), who's tired of being left stranded at the altar, and an ex-newspaperman (William Powell) who doesn't like his former boss but who could use a paycheck. The usual madcap complications occur in this scintillating romantic comedy that earns its keep simply for the moment when Loy, expecting Powell to describe her eyes in gushing terms, is instead startled when he remarks that they look like "angry marbles."
Second only to the incomparable All About Eve as the best movie ever made about the theater, Stage Door (1937), like Dinner at Eight, was based on a Kaufman-Ferber play, though the changes were so substantial that Kaufman famously noted that the movie should have been called Screen Door. The setting is a New York boarding house for aspiring actresses, with Ginger Rogers (marvelous) as the resident cynic and Katharine Hepburn as the pampered rich girl determined to make it on her own. The comedy quotient reigns supreme, though Oscar-nominated Andrea Leeds (who could pass for Olivia de Havilland's sister even more than De Havilland's real sister, Joan Fontaine) provides the pathos as the fragile thespian making herself sick over her desire to land a choice role. The movie does a terrific job of conveying the burning drive that allows people to weather all sorts of obstacles in pursuit of their art, as well as illustrating the manner in which the best performances are often born out of personal experience. Be sure to check out a young Lucille Ball as one of the lodge's residents.
Bringing Up Baby (1938) was the only Howard Hawks film to crack the AFI's Top 100 list, and while fans of the director's countless other masterpieces (me, for starters) might be rankled at the exclusion of Rio Bravo and The Big Sleep (to name but two), there's no denying the enduring popularity of this immortal screwball comedy. One of those movies that seems to improve upon repeat viewings - it took me several watches over the years to completely warm up to Katharine Hepburn's characterization - this finds Cary Grant in top form as a fumbling paleontologist whose neatly structured life goes to seed once he inadvertently hooks up with an apparently off-her-rocker heiress. (Baby, incidentally, is the name of a leopard that turns out to be as gentle as a lamb.) A flop when first released, this has since influenced scores of filmmakers over the ensuing decades (Peter Bogdanovich's 1972 What's Up, Doc?, with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal, is an unofficial remake).
Having just been labeled "box office poison," Katharine Hepburn set about searching for the perfect project - and found it in The Philadelphia Story (1940). After wowing them on Broadway in the role of wealthy Tracy Lord, Hepburn brought the project to Hollywood and ended up with a gargantuan hit on her hands. Relying less on physical comedy and more on immaculately delivered zingers, the film, guided by director George Cukor's steady hand, finds Hepburn's frosty socialite set to marry bland businessman George Kittredge (John Howard) while ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and tabloid reporter Macauley Connor (James Stewart) hover around the edges. The fact that all three men have feelings for the bride-to-be is only one of the many complications that work their way into this witty, wordy classic. James Stewart earned the Best Actor Academy Award for his sharp portrayal of the jaded newspaperman (Donald Ogden Stewart's adapted screenplay also landed an Oscar), but really, this is a prime example of three major stars working beautifully in tandem.
Finally, To Be Or Not to Be (1942) just might be the flat-out funniest picture in this collection - and, good Lord, if that's not saying a mouthful. Director Ernst Lubitsch's masterpiece seemed almost doomed from the start: Leading lady Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash two months before the movie's premiere, and the controversy surrounding the premise (a comedy about the Nazi occupation of Poland?) doubtless helped sink it at the box office. But it's held up marvelously over the years, hurtling forward with its dizzying blend of laughs and intrigue. Jack Benny and Lombard star as the Turas, Poland's most celebrated stage performers and part of an acting troupe that eventually finds itself involved in a complex scheme to stop a Nazi spy (Stanley Ridges) from exposing the members of the Polish underground. Character actor Sig Ruman scores his best role as a bumbling German officer ("So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!") whose ineptitude foreshadowed the Nazis on Hogan's Heroes, while 33-year-old Lombard's final appearance ably showed her adeptness at both comedy and drama. The script is jam-packed with memorable quips, though I've always had a soft spot for Tom Dugan's ad-lib in a play in which his character portrays Der Fuhrer: "Heil Hitler!" "Heil myself."
Extras on most of these titles are sparse, mainly consisting of theatrical trailers and comedy shorts. The exceptions are the two-disc sets for Baby and Philadelphia: Baby includes audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, a Hawks trailer gallery, and documentaries on Hawks and Grant, while Philadelphia features audio commentary by film historian Jeannine Basinger, a Cukor trailer gallery, and documentaries on Cukor and Hepburn.
Dinner at Eight: ***1/2
Libeled Lady: ***1/2
Stage Door: ****
Bringing Up Baby: ****
The Philadelphia Story: ****
To Be Or Not to Be: ****
Libeled Lady: *1/2
Dinner at Eight, Stage Door, To Be or Not to Be: **
Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story: ***1/2
- Matt Brunson