Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Just 'cause you're a movie star doesn't necessarily mean you're funny

Among the ways I’ve been idling away the hours during this half-year-so-far lockdown is by watching old movies on TCM. I’ve caught a lot of films I had never seen. Some turn out to be forgotten gems, but a lot of them are the AfterMASH’s of their day. No wonder I’ve never seen them.

Case in point: THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS. Humphrey Bogart is so unbelievably terrible in this idiotic noir faux-Hitchcock movie you wonder how it didn’t kill his career. And I love Bogie.

The other thing I noticed is that since actors were under contract to studios they all made a ton of movies in all genres.

Including comedies.

From Gary Cooper to Norma Shearer, every Hollywood star tried their hand at making people laugh.

And most of them, I’m sorry to say, were not funny.

I watched PRIVATE LIVES, based on the sparkling play by Noel Coward. Film adaptations are rarely as good as the stage plays – especially when they have to “open them up” and make them more cinematic – but this one really suffered from the acting. Robert Montgomery – not funny. Norma Shearer – painfully not funny.

And I’m sure (were he still with us) Robert Montgomery would be the first to say comedy wasn’t his gift. Humphrey Bogart attempts comedy in WE’RE NO ANGELS. Not great but he’s Chaplin compared to his performance in THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS.

That’s why it’s such a pleasure to see a few of these Hollywood stars who really have a flair for comedy. Barbara Stanwyck for one. TCM had a Barbara Stanwyck film festival and in addition to her classics like DOUBLE INDEMNITY they featured some comedies. THE LADY EVE is one of my all-time favorite comedies. But BALL OF FIRE (written by Billy Wilder) is also a treat.

The movie stars that can do comedy make it seem effortless. The ones who can’t are working so hard to be funny, but it’s like being in a dark closet with your hand out groping for the light switch.

Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, Carole Lombard, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Kathryn Hepburn, Spencer Tracy – they all have the gift. And it is a gift.

Ever see the comedy, THE BEDTIME STORY, starring Marlon Brando? Not every actor has been given the gift.


Daniel said...

Interesting comment about Robert Montgomery not being funny. I've only seen him in one film, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" (Hitchcock's only screwball comedy) and I thought he was actually pretty funny it.

"Mr. and Mrs. Smith" often gets dismissed (even by Hitchcock himself), but it's actually pretty good and worth seeing. The middle of the film sags, but the beginning and ending are quite good (much of the credit goes to Carole Lombard).

Anonymous said...

Humphrey Bogart is definitely funny for about five minutes with Dorothy Malone in the bookstore in The Big Sleep.

Brian said...

Conversely, Preston Sturges cast Rudy Vallee in "The Palm Beach Story" saying, "This guy's funny and he doesn't even know it". I think neither he nor Joel McCrea run off with any Sturges picture they are in, but they certainly don't sink them, either.

Brando didn't learn from "Bedtime Story". He eventually made "A Countess From Hong Kong".

E. Yarber said...

Warners never minded miscasting Bogie. He even got a role as a vampire of sorts in THE RETURN OF DR.X.

Bob Einstein and Steve Martin got a chance to write comedy for Henry Fonda on an episode of the short-lived 1970 Pat Paulsen show, making him a psychotic surgeon. He was as game for whatever they threw at him as he'd been for Sergio Leone in his film before that.

Dixon Steele said...

Reminds me of when I saw a Broadway revival of Coward's DESIGN FOR LIVING in the mid-80s. Very enjoyable and in the 90s saw the film version.

Ben Hecht, who adapted the screenplay, tossed all of Coward's dialogue and rewrote it.

Oddly, still enjoyable.

Pat Reeder said...

I caught "Private Lives." I didn't think the stars were that bad, although if it seems too broad, it might be because they were so concerned about getting it exactly like the Noel Coward stage version that they filmed a theater performance by Coward and Gertrude Lawrence and copied their timing, performances and pauses for laughs almost verbatim. So you're seeing an attempted recreation of a stage play of the era more than a movie adaption.

BTW, if you have the Amazon Firestick (or, I assume, some other streaming device), TCM has an app that lets you stream dozens of constantly-changing movies on demand. They post films that aired recently and leave them up for anywhere from a week to a month. I'm about to cancel Netflix because I find that this and Amazon Prime have better movies and more than I have time to watch, and the TCM service is free if you have TCM on your cable system.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

BEDTIME STORY was remade - one of the few times that a remake was what the original should have been - as DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. Michael Caine, Steve Martin, Glenne Headley, and well-known British sitcom actor Anton Rodgers.


Pizzagod said...

Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

Robert Montgomery was terrific, but I'll be the first to admit, he was not a comedian. He was good in a lot of things, I liked him best (in a light roll) in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (and still prefer Claude Rains to James Mason) but he was just so damn talented-I don't know what your take on Lady in the Lake was, but I really liked it.

That being said....Bogart? The only "comedy" he seemed okay in (to me) was We're No Angels-and he didn't have a lot of funny stuff in that (thankfully).

As far as Warner Bros. Big 3, (Cagney, Bogart, Robinson) Cagney was the only one who do everything (again, my opinion). I realize that Billy Wilder is a genius, but I have a hard time seeing anybody else in One, Two, Three (and thought it was WAY better than Ninotchka, the inspiration). Robinson didn't get in his own way, but I could never see him as the star and carrying a comedy (Good Neighbor Sam for instance).

On the other hand.... this is something Hollywood has never learned. (Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, Rhinestone, Analyze This, Cop Out, Showtime, etc.)

I miss TCM. not part of my cable package.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

My quarantine has been well spent. Been watching every classic film I never got to see before.

Here's some of what I've seen these past few months:

KING KONG (both 1933 and 1976 versions)
M.A.S.H. (the film itself; 1970)
BEN HUR (1959)
PATTON (1970)

Buttermilk Sky said...

No one has mentioned William Powell, one of the best at comedy or drama. He started in silent movies and could still bring it in MISTER ROBERTS (1955).

Right about Norma Shearer. I think her career was based on being married to Irving Thalberg, MGM head of production. Have you seen a trainwreck called IDIOT'S DELIGHT? As if her blonde wig and "Russian" accent aren't bad enough, Clark Gable dances. With chorus girls.

Actors had to do a lot of unsuitable roles while the studio figured out what to do with them. I've seen Lana Turner tap-dancing and Jimmy Stewart singing, so Bogart as a vampire is not a stretch. Bette Davis in screwball comedy like THE BRIDE CAME C.O.D. is also pretty discouraging.

Mibbitmaker said...

Finding a way to make actors rise to funnier material than their comfort zones. That was the magic of the movie AIRPLANE! and much of what followed: taking actors known for serious drama (on TV as well as movies) and having them do their lines with all due seriousness, no matter how silly or absurd the material. That way of getting comedy out of them worked perfectly for the spoof genre. Hilarious results. And a new career for Leslie Neilson (though he already proved his comedy chops on the "Ringbanger" episode of MASH.

TodBrowning said...

Bogie in "We're No Angels" does okay, but remember he is in most scenes with Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray, giving terrific comic performances. "That droopy look -- very effective." "He looks like a glass of milk."

Michael said...

Pizzagod, I really think only Cagney could have pulled off "One, Two, Three," but I have to mention a couple of things. One is that it was essentially dialogue in double time and it made Cagney retire (that, not being all that happy with Wilder, and wanting to deck Horst Bucholz entered into it). Another is that Arlene Francis played his wife, and she's known to most of the world for What's My Line, but she was a TV pioneer and a big name in theatre. She deserves her due as well. And the Red Buttons scene ....

I'm reminded of the great story of Ed Wynn doing "Requiem for a Heavyweight" and being terrible in rehearsals until his son, who was also in it, rehearsed him and Ed imitated Keenan and delivered a--ahem--knockout performance. Wynn later said he knew the world was screwed up when he was getting paid to make people cry and Perry Como was being paid to make people laugh.

Apropos of those who could do both ... I think one of the great film performances ever was Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd. He was a great dramatic actor and villain. And Lonesome's sidekick was played by Rod Brasfield, who's in the Country Music Hall of Fame for his work as an Opry comic, often with Minnie Pearl. The comedians can do drama. The dramatic actors often can't do comedy.

Which reminds me, Ken, that you worked with one of the great underrated actors ever: Harry Morgan.

Jeff Boice said...

I do like ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT- in large part because of that scene that teams Bogart with Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, and William Demerest. That was a mind warping experience when I saw the film on TV in the late 70's. Almost as much fun as that scene in WITH SIX YOU GET EGGROLL where Jamie Farr and William Christopher are hippies.

Anthony Strand said...

Robert Montgomery is also very funny in Piccadilly Jim, a terrific screwball comedy from 1936.

YEKIMI said...

OK, now go the opposite route. Comedians or actors known mostly for comedies going the opposite route, thinking they could do dramatic, non-comic movies.

Jay said...

Hey Ken, have you ever seen the Bogie film ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT? It's pretty much a dark comedy about fifth columnists trying to do acts of sabotage in New York City over the course of one night. It's a really entertaining war film with a strong supporting cast of comedic actors like Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason and William Demorest, so Bogie doesn't have to do any of the heavy comedy lifting. He's there just to give the movie star power and to basically "save the day" at the end. You should check it out when you get a chance.

Terry said...

Completely off topic here, but I have a possible Friday question for you: on the M*A*S*H forum over on reddit, there was some discussion going on as to the color of Hawkeye's robe (hey, we're all bored and spending a lot more time at home these days - give us a break!) In one episode when he is making out his will, he leaves it to Charles because "Purple is the color of royalty." That thing looked anything but purple to me on screen. It always seemed to be more of a dark maroon or at most burgundy. Was that because of lighting, the film used, or what? Thanks, Ken!

scottmc said...

I agree with you regarding Humphrey Bogart. He almost sinks the original SABRINA. (Wilder's first choice was Cary Grant.) Though, I will put in a good word for him with regard to ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT. It was made between The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. It is a Warner Brothers Anti-Nazi comedy. It features two of his Casablanca co-stars, Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt as well as Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason.

Pizzagod said...

Buttermilk Sky-William Powell?

Totally under rated, should have been mentioned immediately, and just a super talent!

Jim S said...

I think it's easier for comedians to be serious than it is for serious actors to be funny. Take Jackie Gleason. He was terrific in "The Hustler" going against Paul Newman and George C. Scott.

But some actors can do both. Alan Alda was great as Hawkeye, but prior MASH, he was known as a serious actor. I knew Ted Danson from "Body Heat" and to see in "Cheers" was a big surprise.

But Ted and Alan tend to be the exception. Everyone in "The West Wing" did well with the humor, but I wouldn't cast most of them in a straight out comedy. (Allison Janney has proven herself to be another Ted and Alan.)

This all reminds of the scene in "Hail Caesar" where the studio head tries to make a singing cowboy fit in with a Noel Coward type movie. He didn't work out because would it were so simple did not apply.

Liggie said...

Of today's stars, I'd love to see Jessica Chastain in a comedy. Her talk show appearances and social media videos are fun-loving, and she apparently wrote one of the "Saturday Night Live" sketches in her episode.

@Yekimi: I remember the "Ghostbusters"-era Bill Murray in a remake of the drama "The Razor's Edge". Haven't seen it, but I recall most reviewers deeming it a noble failure. His dramatic chops seem to have improved since then.

VincentS said...

Yes, I've seen BEDTIME STORY. Ugh. You can also throw in William Powell and Myrna Loy. And would you believe Katherine Hepburn was terrified to do her first comedy - BRINGING UP BABY because she didn't know if she would be any good at it?

JeffinOhio55 said...

OK, now go the opposite route. Comedians or actors known mostly for comedies going the opposite route, thinking they could do dramatic, non-comic movies.

Bill Murray in The Razor's Edge.

Anonymous said...

@Jim S
I don't know if its easier for comedians to be serious or that they just have a penchant for it.
A lot of good comedians have turned in great dramatic roles. Gleason in The Hustler
Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy
Robin Williams in a couple of movies
And one of the best, not mentioned very often, Richard Pryor in Blue Collar.

BluePedal said...

"OK, now go the opposite route. Comedians or actors known mostly for comedies going the opposite route, thinking they could do dramatic, non-comic movies."

Fargo? You're such a good show. Why Chris Rock? Why????

Mike Bloodworth said...

Can you really blame the actor for not being funny? For comedy to work everything has to click. A gifted performer can squeeze a few laughs out of an unfunny script, but on the whole it could still be a bad movie or TV show. And to your point, a brilliant script poorly executed will bomb.

Therefore, today's blog has inspired a FRIDAY QUESTION.
You've been a writer, a director and a performer (If you count "The Simpsons") How important is the director to a good comedy?

There must have been times when watching the taping of a show you asked yourself, "Why is he (or she) blocking the scene that way?" Or "Why is he/she having them read the lines like that?" Etc. A bad ...let me rephrase that. A director who is not well versed in comedy could turn a potential gem into a disappointment.

A present day actress who isn't particularly funny is Scarlett Johansson. At least she wasn't in Woody Allen's, "Scoop." Maybe she is funny, but only in certain situations. She is nice to look at, though.

I heard that James Cagney and Billy Wilder didn't get along. Cagney didn't like Wilder's directing style. And Wilder thought Cagney was difficult to work with.

Addendum to Friday's blog. I loved Neil Simon's "The Out of Towners." The original, of course. It was written for the screen and was never a play. Personally, I think it's very funny. I'd love to get the DVD if I could find it.

Hey, E. Yarber! Where ya been?


blinky said...

I still maintain that Keifer Sutherland would have been the best replacement for Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men. He he would have been a scary foil for the timid Jon Cryer character. Ashton Kutcher was the easy go-for-the-cash pick.

Edward said...

"The ones who can’t are working so hard to be funny, but it’s like being in a dark closet with your hand out groping for the light switch."


Unintentional funny comment.

Troy McClure said...

Kristen Stewart in the recent Charlie's Angels reboot was staggeringly unfunny. It's very much the trying too hard to be funny school of bad performances.

I don't know what possessed writer/director Elizabeth Banks to cast Stewart as the comic relief. I also don't know what made Elizabeth Banks think she could write and direct, because she couldn't do either.

MellaBlue said...

My absolute favorite Christmas movie is Christmas in Connecticut. Barbara Stanwyck is just a pure delight as the career woman masquerading as a 1940s Martha Stewart. I've often thought that movie could make a great remake even though I also know nothing could ever compare.

Gary said...

Sometimes you just can't tell. ABC executives didn't want Jack Klugman for Oscar in The Odd Couple, because they thought Klugman couldn't do comedy. Wow!!

marka said...

I like the post very much, except it just makes me sad that Filmstruck went under as a streaming service. There's nowhere in the non-cable world that shows enough films from the 30s, 40s and 50s.

Anonymous said...

Quick Friday question: Ken, can you remember a specific line you wrote that you thought was amusing, but the actor's delivery made it much funnier than you ever imagined?

Anonymous said...

Comedy and Drama

Zero Mostel
Sam Levene
Jack Klugman (even did Gypsy on Broadway with Merman)
Bert Lahr (Waiting for Godot)

sanford said...

You have to remember that back in those days actors were under contract and could be loaned out to other studios. For a price of course. I read this really great biography about Barbara Stanwyck. It was only part one. I hope the author is working on part 2. She got suspended a number of times for turning down roles. Evidently she could afford to do that.

VP81955 said...

TCM has posthumously aided William Powell's reputation through films such as "Libeled Lady," "My Man Godfrey," "I Love You Again" and "Love Crazy," not to mention the Nick and Nora movies. He's every bit as brilliant at physical and romantic comedy as the more celebrated Cary Grant (for proof, see his fishing scene in "Libeled Lady"). And that voice, so urbane!

James Cagney made several good comedies in the '30s; my favorite is "Hard To Handle," which has numerous in-jokes about grapefruit (think Mae Clarke and "The Public Enemy"). As for "The Bride Came C.O.D.," Warners never quite got the feel for screwball -- Bette Davis as a debutante at 33? And no other studio but Warners could sign Carole Lombard when she was the hottest star in the industry after "Nothing Sacred" and "True Confession" then inflict her with such terrible material as "Fools For Scandal" (1938). No wonder Carole went to drama for the next 2 1/2 years (including a good turn as a nurse in the downbeat "Vigil In The Night" in 1940).

Lombard returned to comedy with "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," which indeed is better than its rep implies (it's sort of in the vein of "The Awful Truth," if not quite up to that level). And Carole was never more lovingly photographed. Had fate not intervened, she and Hitch probably would've worked on a few other projects...she'd have been a great Hitchcock blonde.

Peter said...

I haven't seen it for decades, but I seem to remember some good comedic interaction between Bogey and Hepburn in African Queen.

Kevin from VA said...


Since you've disabled comments for your 9/30 post (which I completely understand) I thought I'd leave a comment here on your post debate review which is "AMEN!"

Jonny M. said...

Seeing all the mentions of William Powell (one of my favorites) as dramatic and funny, I always imagined William Powell as the perfect actor to play Jay Gatsby. Actors often portray him as brooding, but I always read Gatsby as having a jovial facade that masked darkness. As someone that can do charm like no other, but also be poignant, I think Powell would have been amazing in this iconic American role and every time I read the book I imagine him.

And as a side note, Ken, when I saw the image of Barbara Stanwyck under your title of not funny actors, I thought you were lumping her into that group. If that was the case I was going to join the Trump supporters in avoiding your blog from now on. So glad we're on the same page about Barbara.

Troy McClure said...

There's a great meme on twitter of a photo of Samuel L Jackson as the next debate moderator with the line "I said two minutes, motherfucker!"

Buttermilk Sky said...

Just one more thing, as Columbo would say...

Bogart and Bacall have a very funny telephone scene in THE BIG SLEEP. Nothing to do with the plot, probably added to give them more screen time together.

Jim S, the Coen brothers are famous for mining old movies. The singing cowboy in Noel Coward sounds like a reference to DESIGN FOR LIVING, starring...Gary Cooper.

Mike Doran said...

Today, the thirtieth of September, Two Thousand Twenty (30 September 2020), marks my seventieth (70th) birthday.
I wasn't going to "celebrate" anyway (I never do, actually, but that's another story).
What I need to point out here is that disabling comments on the 9/30 post is a mistake on your part - cutting off your nose to spite Mr. Trump's face.
Ken, you must surely be aware that the vast majority of your visitors here are on your side with regard to That Man In The White House; offhand, I'd say that many of them have been waiting for a chance to vent to a friendly ear (blog), and last night's edition of Trumpzapoppin'! likely has most of them chomping at the bit.
Of course we're all gonna vote, the sooner the better - but we need to get it all out, and this place is as good as it gets for that.
A sincere request that you reconsider your decision, and allow us our little cyber soapbox.
As to The Others - you can always squash those, if you wish ...

Troy McClure said...

I wonder how many times a week Kayleigh Mcenany has to get on her knees in the Oval Office. :-D

Dion B said...

I've been binge watching TV shows and movies also since late March. My latest obsession are Westerns and here's a list of films I watched in September.

The big country (Gregory Peck)
Brimstone (Dutch-American joint released in 2016)
Day of the outlaw (directed by Andre De Toth)
Day of vengeance (Lee Van Cleef, spaghetti western)
Man of the west (Gary Cooper, directed by Anthony Mann)
McClintock (the Duke, nuff said)
Once upon a time in the west (directed by Sergio Leone)
The quick and the dead (directed by Sam Raimi)
Ride the high country (Randolph Scott, directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Tin star (Henry Fonda, directed by Anthony Mann)

In October I’ll be adding some horror by Hammer Films into my queue.

Troy McClure said...

We live in a dark time for democracy, so Borat has returned just in time to give us much needed laughs as he mocks Trump supporters and even gets to Mike Pence.

Great success! Very nice!


blogward said...

Ishtar - You can see Dustin Hoffman fighting the urge to slug Warren Beatty, who's killing it stone dead. It doesn't make for great comedy.

Bogie was quite funny in The African Queen, though.

mike schlesinger said...

I'll also chip in on ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT, which is a stone masterpiece and one of my desert-island titles. I presented it at the TCM Festival last year, and it went over so well they decided to repeat it the next day. Bogie was a consummate actor and certainly displayed his comedy chops when the material was with him.

And ditto Eddie Robinson. Anyone who thinks he can't be funny needs to see LITTLE GIANT, A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER, BROTHER ORCHID and LARCENY, INC. promptly.

On the other hand, Gary Cooper really couldn't handle it. A single viewing of LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON shows him totally adrift in a role that was intended for Cary Grant. In a film like BALL OF FIRE, he's simply acting as a straight man for the talented comics around him.

flurb said...

Mike Schlesinger, all respect, but I disagree with you about Gary Cooper. "Acting as a straight man" is difficult work that requires tremendous comedic skill, for one thing, but Cooper does far more than that in both BALL OF FIRE and MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN: they're character parts as well as romantic leads, and he nails them both. MEET JOHN DOE is for much of its length a comedy, and he's excellent in it. He was funny in lesser pictures like BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE and CASANOVA JONES, too. (I would add that he is hilarious in THE FOUNTAINHEAD, but I can't tell whether he intended to be.) He was too old for LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON and it seems like that bothered him - and I think that's to his credit, frankly. Anyway, like Edward G. Robinson, most of the great stars were great actors in any genre, and Cooper is just as underrated.

mike schlesinger said...

Oh, I have no qualms about Cooper generally. And I do believe he tried hard to do comedy, but that particular gene just wasn't in him. (A funnyman like Paul Lynde could get a huge laugh by just walking into a scene without saying a word.) I'm not knocking his performances in BALL and DEEDS, but there's a difference between amusing reaction and getting actual laughs. This is why Cary Grant will always be the greatest star: because he could go back and forth without so much as breaking a sweat.