Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Best Battle-of-the-Sexes Comedies of the 1940s

The screwball comedy was slowly meeting its demise in the 40s, though it was still a strong genre at the beginning of the decade, but the battle of the sexes continued alive and well, provoking both comedies and dramas. It was a great decade for film: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger were hard at work in England, the neorealism movement was commencing in Italy, and Walt Disney was devising new animation techniques at breakneck speed. Hollywood was enjoying an influx of talent from Europe seeking refuge from World War II, from Erich Korngold and Fritz Lang, to Ernst Lubitsch and Peter Lorre. And Rosie the Riveter and Betty Grable were the contradictory female ideals. These are the best of the battle-of-the-sexes comedies from 1940s Hollywood.

10. The Pirate (1948)
Vincente Minnelli's musical extravaganza explores the fine lines between reality and fantasy and is a showcase for some of Gene Kelly's best and most avant-garde choreography, set to songs by Cole Porter. Set on a small semi-mythical Caribbean island, it narrates the romance between Judy Garland, infatuated with a legendary pirate she's never seen, and Gene Kelly, a less than scrupulous traveling player. When Judy finds out her paramour isn't a pirate at all, she lets him have it in a hysterical fight scene.

9. The Harvey Girls (1946)
Judy Garland joins the ranks of women heading to the Western frontier to work at Harvey's restaurants in this catchy musical and bit of Western kitsch. The Harvey girls begin a crusade to steer the menfolk out of the saloon and into the restaurant, but meet with staunch opposition from the local saloon singers and their devotees. The supporting cast includes Angela Lansbury, Marjorie Main, and Ray Bolger. This film has an unusually high number of tenacious female characters, all great fun to watch.

8. Heaven Can Wait (1943)
An elegant, sophisticated, and bubbly comedy, Heaven Can Wait is a prime example of the famed  Lubitsch touch. Don Ameche regales the devil with his life story and life-long fascination with women, convinced that he belongs in Hell. Gene Tierney, gorgeous as ever but with some very strange hairstyles, is his beloved and long-suffering wife. The supporting cast is a veritable dream team of character actors, including Eugene Pallette, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, and Spring Byington.

7. The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Joel McCrea stars as an architect who just can't seem to catch a break and Claudette Colbert plays his extravagant wife, who thinks she's hit on the perfect plan when she decides to divorce him and bag herself a millionaire in order to finance McCrea's latest architectural scheme. The marvelously witty script by Preston Sturges feels strikingly contemporary and Rudy Vallee is hysterically funny in a supporting role that has him singing every single verse of "Goodnight Sweetheart."

6. Pride and Prejudice (1940)
Greer Garson stars as Elizabeth Bennett opposite Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy, supported by a marvelous cast of character actors, in classic Hollywood's best rendition of any of Jane Austen's novels. Though the film makes a few significant departures from the most broadly comic of Austen's books, of all the many adaptations of the material, this one best captures Austen's scalding satire and the witty badinage between her romantic hero and heroine.

5. Woman of the Year (1942)
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play husband and wife reporters whose marriage hits the skids when Hepburn neither gives up her career or takes up housewifely duties. One of the rare Hollywood movies about marriage rather than the romance leading up to it, this film isn't terribly transgressive, but its ultimate message - that marriage will only work if both parties retain their essential selves - is as relevant today as it was in 1942.

4. His Girl Friday (1940)
This is, without a doubt, the best version of the hit stage-play, The Front Page. The dialogue is delivered at a machine gun pace by Cary Grant, as the suave and manipulative newspaper editor, and by Rosalind Russell, as his ex-wife and best reporter, supported by a deeply sincere Ralph Bellamy, as Russell's new fiance. There is no funnier movie.

2. Adam's Rib (1949)
One of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's best films, if not their absolute best, Adam's Rib is a snappy comedic romp through gender politics and bedroom manners. Husband and wife lawyers go head to head in a case that quickly evolves (or devolves) into a feminist dissection of the law. Judy Holliday and Tom Ewell are both splendiferous as the defendant and plaintiff of the case. Used to great effect is Cole Porter's "Farewell Amanda."

1. The Lady Eve (1941) 
Preston Sturges' hilarious comedy of the sexes (and the classes) stars Barbara Stanwyck as a sexy cardsharp and Henry Fonda as a gullible rich guy with a passion for herpetology, who meet on an ocean liner and commence a romance. When Stanwyck is exposed as a con artist, Fonda tries to reject her - but finds it much harder than one would think. The repartee is witty, Charles Coburn leads the supporting cast, and gender roles are reversed, the woman pursuing the man. This is one of the greatest Hollywood films.

1 comment:

  1. "The Lady Eve" is timeless, Stanwyck is at her luminous best, and Coburn is a comedic gem. I totally agree with this as top choice. "Woman of the Year" hasn't aged as well as "Adam's Rib" but both of them deserve to be on the list. In place of "His Girl Friday", which I just loathe, I might put "My Man Godfrey", or perhaps "Holiday", if you didn't care that the list would be starting to get too K. Hepburn-heavy.