It's always the right time for a good comedy revival series, but this season looks particularly right. The latest movies of Woody Allen and Neil Simon are up for the major Academy Awards. While "Annie Hall" and "The Goodbye Girl" appear to be longshots for the best-picture award, the favorite - "Star Wars" - is an adventure picture with plenty of comic verve.
"High Anxiety," a tepid spoof of Hitchcock thrillers by Mel Brooks, has just reached the marketplace; Gene Wilder's "The World's Greatest Lover" has come, fizzled and departed. "Citizens Band," the most original and penetrating American social comedy since "Smile," has established a commercial foothold at Washington's Inner Circle.
The major releases of the spring and summer include at least four promising comedies or comedy-dramas: Paul Mazursky's "An Unmarried Woman," Robert Altman's "A Wedding," Simon's "The Cheap Detective" and Burt Reynolds "The End," written by Jerry Belson, the author of Smile."
"Smokey and the Bandit" and "Semi-Tough" should place Reynolds at the top of the next poll of box-office favorites. Reynolds, who appears to be evolving into our most attractive and cagey romantic farceur, is currently starring in a comedy, "Hollywood Stuntman," that reunites much of the "Smokey" team, and is then to proceed to "Rough Cut," a Blake Edwards comedy about the movie business, and "Seems Like Old Times," a Neil Simon comedy that will co-star Marsha Mason. Now if someone could only coax Clint Eastwood into a romantic comedy. . . .
The American Film Institute Theater recently devoted several weeks to a splendid series of Ernst Lubitsch comedies. A Chaplin revival at the Avalon was still going strong when previous booking commitments cut it short.
Now the AFI Theater and the K-B MacArthur have begun comedy series that offer several irresistible revivals, especially the teeming, volatile social and romantic satires made by Preston Sturges at Paramount in the early '40s. The AFI series is brief, but the 11 titles will be shown in new 35mm prints, financed by a grant from Exxon. A Sturges double-bill of "Sullivan's Travels" and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" ran last night and is scheduled for tonight at 8:30. Defining "It"
The series includes a tantalizing silent double-bill: Clara Bow in perhaps her most famous vehicle, the 1927 "It," in which the ineffable author Elinor Glyn made a guest appearance to communicate her definition of "it" i.e., sexual magnetism; and W. C. Fields in "It's the Old Army Game," a 1926 farce about a small-town druggist that features the beautiful Louise Brooks in a supporting role as Field's clerk. A rare opportunity to sample the styles of two silent-screen actresses who embodied "it" in exhilarating, inimitable forms.
A number of friends swear that the 1948 Paramount farce, "Miss Tatlock's Millions," directed by Richard Haydn, is a neglected loony delight. John Lund plays a Hollywood stuntman persuaded to impersonate a deceased, nitwit heir to a fortune, joining a scheming family circle that includes Monty Woolley, Barry Fitzgerald and Wanda Hendrix. You never know, but since I tend to urge semi-obscure favorites like "Murder He Says" and "The Green Man" onto friends with the same enthusiasm, it's worth a shot. Who doesn't want to discover a neglected comedy classic, especially includes with a modern example like "Citizens Band" currently on display? "Millions" will share an 8:30 p.m. bill on Thursday, March 17, with "A Slight Case of Murder," one of several late '30s comedies that demonstrated Edward G. Robinson's skill at kidding his gangster persons. The K-B MacArthur has booked an even more famous example, John Ford's "The Whole Town's Talking," which co-starred Jean Arthur, from March 13-15 with "It Happened One Night."
The MacArthur series is extensive, totaling 34 double-bills and running through May 28. There are some oddities and clinkers on the program, but happily, they seem to share the same bills.
For every "Fire Sale" plus "The Mad Adventures of 'Rabbi' Jacob" there are several wonderful pairings along the lines of Sturges' "Hail the Conquering Hero" with Lubitsch's "Trouble in Paradise," scheduled for March 16-18.
The MacArthur has two programs devoted to the Marx Brothers ("Cocoanuts" with "Horse Feathers," and "Duck Soup" with "Monkey Business"), one to Woody Allen ("Bananas" with "Sleeper"), one to Allen and the Marxes ("Play It Again, Sam" with "Animal Crackers"), one to W.C. Fields ("The Bank Dick" plus "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break"), one to Carole Lombard ("My Man Godfrey" with "True Confession"), and even one to Abbott & Costello ("... in the Foreign Legion" plus "... Meet Frankenstein"). Younger moviegoers who wonder why Jill Clayburgh reminds older moviegoers of Jean Arthur, up to a point, may find out by attending "The Whole Town's Talking" or "Easy Living". Thoroughly Modern Sturges
Above all the MacArthur offers a richer sampling of Sturges than one usually finds in local repertory houses. "The Lady Eve" and "The Great McGinty" shared a bill last weekend. "The Palm Beach Story" and "Sullivan's Travels" are booked for March 29 and 30. The series also includes two characteristic scripts directed by the capable Mitchell Leisen before Sturges persuaded Paramount to let him direct his own stuff - "Easy Living" and "Remember the Night".
For purposes of comparison, contrast and enduring entertainment, "Easy Living" and the seven comedies Sturges made in his whirlwind period of 1940-1943 - "The Great McGinty", "Christmas in July" (missing from both the AFI and MacArthur series). "The Lady Eve," "Suvillan's Travels," "The Palm Beach Story," "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" and "Hail the Conquering Hero" - ought to be a permanent part of any respectable repetory rotation. They don't necessarily need to be paired. In fact, one could imagine very revealing contrasts emerging from combinations like "The Great McGinty" with "Duck Soup," "The Palm Beach Story" with "Shampoo" or "Hail the Conquering Hero" with Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful life" or "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" with " Citizen's Band."
Sturges' movies were popular enough when first released in the '70s can claim more sophistication than audiences of the '40s. If anything, repeated exposure to the best of Sturges creates a nagging dissatisfaction with most contemporary film humorists - in part because he generates more comic energy and in part because he seems so modern. Sturges' films remain delightful and inventive talking-comedy machines. At the same time Sturges seems to embody and express more basic American ambivalence than any film comedy artist since the advent of talking pictures. Bohemain and the Banker
Sturges' breeding gave him unique qualifications. His mother, Mary Desti, was a crony of Isadora Duncan and exposed her son to every artistic or Bohemain influence that enjoyed currency in the years before World War 1. The child also idolized and later strived to emulative his businessman foster father, a Chicago banker named Solomon Sturges.
As the filmmaker himself recalled, "They did everything they could to make me an artist, but I didn't want to be an artist. I wanted to be a good businessman like my father."
He evolved into a heady mixture of parental influence - a succesful butalso original popular artist. It seems fitting that he found his richest vein of self-expression in the medium where artistic and commercial motives interact with peculiar intensity. A Cockeyed Caravan
The simultaneously awesome and amusing turbulence generated in a Sturges comedy hasn't disappeared from American society and culture. His term for his own period - "a cockeyed caravan" - is still appropriate for the popular culture of the present. Maybe more so with the continuing rise of the media. A few have tried, but no current filmmaker has derived as much fun and revelation from the national lust for celebrity and success combined with the national anxiety about failure or inadequancy. Movies like "Nashville" and "Citizens Band" deal with similar tensions, and they're among the best movies of the decade, but they lack the comic dynamism that sustains Sturges while depicting American fads, aspiration and delusions.
"Suvillan's Travels" is a fascinating comic expression of Sturges' own attitudes about his artistic vocation. John L. Suvillan, the naive Hollywood director who wants to rise above popular fluff like "Ants in Their Pants of 1939," comes back sadder but wiser after submerging himself in poverty to research "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?" The whole point of the movie is that sheer escapism may be the medium's ultimate justification. Ironically, it's an argument for escapism with a spilt personality, half satirical and half deadly serious.
"Suvillan's Travels" is the key autobiographical comedy, but it may be best to start with a more detached work, especially "The Lady Eve," if you've never seen a Sturges movie. It will be revived at the AFI Theater on March 28 as part of a Henry Fonda series. "The Lady Eve" may be the most satisfying romantic farce ever made in Hollywood. Only "Trouble in Paradise" compares with it for sustained wit and elegance, and at this level one doesn't have to choose.
Women may derive a special satisfaction from the film, since the heroine, a smart and charming adventuress played by Barbara Stanwyck, is in absolute control of the romantic-comedy situation. Most of the humour derives from watching her manipulate the handsome stooge she has taken a fancy to, Fonda as the unwordly, awkward heir to a beer fortune. Playing in Pittsburgh
Sturges has a genius for absurd, argumentative and often nonstop dialogue. For example, in "The Palm Beach Story" Rudy Valee plays a millionmaire, John D. Hackensacker III , who records all his expenditures in a little notebook. "It's nonsense really," he explains. "I write things down but I never add them up." Sturges is famous for one inspired verbal rally that is probably repeated every day in the movie business. At the beginning of "Suvillan's Travels,' Suvillan defends message movies against two studio executives, Lebrand and Hadrian.
Suvillan: How can you talk about musicals at a time like this with the worldcommitting suicide, with corpses piling up in the streets, with grim death gargling at you from every corner, with people slaughtered like sheep . . .
Hadrian: Maybe they'd like to forget that.
Sullivan: Then why do they hold this one over for a fifth week at the Music Hall? For the ushers?
Hadrian: It diedin Pittsburgh.
Lebrand: Like a dog.
Sullivan: What do they know in Pittsburgh?
Lebrand: They know what they like.
Sullivan: If they know what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh.