Monday, April 7, 2014

The 11 Best Period Comedies

Every year brings a small but steady crop of period dramas. But period comedies? The genre almost doesn't exist. There is no period comedy category on Netflix - and to put that into perspective, Netflix has a genre called "Cool Mustaches" and it is exactly what it says. But why take the past so seriously? And so, here is a list of great period comedies. All of these films are set between the beginning of the nineteenth century and the onset of World War I.

11. Life with Father (1947)
Based on Clarence Day, Jr.'s droll memoirs, originally published in the New Yorker, this film is about Mr. Clarence Day (William Powell), a New York City stockbroker who prides himself on his strict paternal authority and on being "the character of my home," his loving wife (Irene Dunne), and his gaggle of redheaded sons. The plot is driven forward by Mrs. Day's desperate attempts to get her husband baptized, though other domestic tempests in the teapot occupy the eccentric Mr. Day. A young Elizabeth Taylor has a small role as the eldest son's crush.

10. The Pickwick Papers (1952)
Dickens's first novel is his funniest and one of his most beloved. Starring a stellar cast of British actors, including James Hayter as Mr. Pickwick, Nigel Patrick as Mr. Jingle, and Harry Fowler as Sam Weller, this film covers many of the highlights of the novel, neatly trimming the 800 page tome to a manageable feature length. Mr. Pickwick and the members of the Pickwick society inevitably find themselves in scrapes of a pre-matrimonial or pseudo-criminal nature, but the faithful Sam Weller, always ready with a Cockney quip, is happily at hand to wangle a way out. This is the best adaptation of the material.

9. She Done Him Wrong (1933)
Mae West was one of the greatest film stars of all time and we will never see her like again. She Done Him Wrong is her best film and it is heavily based on the stage material for her sexy, smooth-talking, saloon singer character, Diamond Lil, known in this film as Lady Lou. Her costar is a very young Cary Grant as the innocent and good-intentioned Salvation Army officer and the object of West's marvelous double entendres, including her iconic "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?" Without a doubt, one of the sexiest pre-code films.

8. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Paul Newman and Robert Redford have unbelievable chemistry as the two outlaws of the title, leaders of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang, on the run from the law in this marvelous Western comedy. The combination of the Western setting with a decidedly '60s musical and aesthetic flavor is a potent one, the witty and irreverent screenplay by William Goldman is one of the most brilliant ever produced, and Conrad L. Hall's cinematography is stunning. Even the terribly dated and irritatingly catchy "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" can't hurt this picture.

7. The Merry Widow (1934)
This sumptuous adaptation of the Franz Lehar operetta was the last musical that Ernst Lubitsch directed and it is possibly his best. Jeannette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier star as the richest widow and most dashing bachelor of the tiny kingdom of Marshovia. When the widow flees to Paris for a good time, the emperor frantically sends the lady-killing bachelor to bring her (and her money) back home. Edward Everett Horton gives one of his funniest performances as the Marshovian ambassador and the great cast also includes Una Merkel, George Barbier, and Stanley Holloway.

6. Cranford (2007)
This delightful five-part miniseries was brilliantly adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell's charming novella by Heidi Thomas. Starring a group of the greatest living British actresses, including Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Imelda Staunton, the series follows the spinster ladies of Cranford, their domestic debacles, scandals, and pleasures, from the return of a former lover to a treasured lace heirloom surreptitiously gobbled up by an eccentric cat. Both the novella and the miniseries have a profound respect for these representatives of unmarried women, who may not have produced children or had great careers, but who nevertheless lived meaningful lives, though they were and in many respects still are forgotten and unappreciated.  

5. The Harvey Girls (1946)
Judy Garland stars as a mail-order bride who finds out upon arriving in Arizona that the man who signed the letters didn't write them. Incensed at the deception, she joins the Harvey girls, newly arrived young women who work as waitresses in Harvey's restaurants. They soon start a crusade to wrangle the menfolks out of the saloon and into the restaurant, though they have formidable opponents in the female "entertainers," particularly star of the show Angela Lansbury. This film has a fabulous cast of supporting actors, including Ray Bolger, Marjorie Main, and Cyd Charisse in her first speaking role.

4. Heaven Can Wait (1943)
Another brilliant film directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Heaven Can Wait is an infinitely rewatchable comedy of manners, frothy as a glass of champagne, with a witty screenplay by Samuel Richardson and a truly brilliant cast, from Don Ameche as the womanizer so certain of his wickedness that he applies to the Devil himself to be admitted to Hell, the gorgeous Gene Tierney as his long-suffering wife, Charles Coburn as the ever-youthful and satirical Grandpa, and Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main as perpetually feuding scions of a southern fortune. This film is as purely delightful as a film can be.

3. Pride and Prejudice (1940)
Based on Jane Austen's most broadly comic novel, this film is Hollywood's best Austen adaptation. Greer Garson is wonderful as Lizzie Bennet, effortlessly delivering witty zinger after witty zinger, including "There's no one so dignified as a mummy," and Laurence Olivier's supremacy as Mr. Darcy is threatened only by Colin Firth. Much of the humor of the film can be attributed to Herbert Stothart's ingeniously funny score and the performances from such great character actors as Mary Boland as Mrs. Bennet, Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Bennet, Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins, and Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

2. Our Hospitality (1923)
My very favorite of all Buster Keaton's magnificent films, Our Hospitality is a supreme example of Keaton's story-telling prowess, his astounding athleticism, his ability to build intense suspense and pathos while making his audience laugh, and his passionate obsession with trains. The film is set in the 1830s, mostly so that Keaton could play with an early incarnation of a steam locomotive, and it follows Northerner Willie McKay (Keaton) who goes South to claim his inheritance and lands himself in the midst of an old family feud. The General is another one of his brilliant period comedies.

1. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
Ingmar Bergman's comedic film was written as a cathartic antidote to a suicidal depression, though one could hardly know that just be watching this thoroughly delightful romp through the bedrooms of these Swedish bourgeois and their servants. On Midsummer Night, magic is wrought and these men and women, all paired with the wrong partners, are drawn inevitably to their fated lovers. Smiles of a Summer Night has been much imitated, but no other film has succeeded in capturing its ethereal, almost exotic allure. The cast includes Eva Dahlbeck, Gunnar Bjornstrand, and Ulla Jacobsson.

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