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Screwball Comedy Movies, Rare Screening of Epoch-Making Box Office Disaster

Screwball Comedy Irene Dunne Cary Grant The Awful TruthScrewball comedy movies, rare screenings of epic box office disaster: Library of Congress' Packard Theater in April 2014 (image: Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in 'The Awful Truth')

In April 2014, the Library of Congress' Packard Campus Theater in Culpeper, Virginia, will celebrate Hollywood screwball comedy movies, from the Marx Brother's antics to Peter Bogdanovich's early '70s homage What's Up, Doc?, a box office blockbuster starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal. Additionally, the Packard Theater will present a couple of rarities, including an epoch-making box office disaster that led to the demise of a major studio.

Among Packard's April 2014 screwball comedies are the following:

  • Leo McCarey's Duck Soup (Saturday, April 5) – actually more zany, wacky, and totally insane than merely “screwball” – in which Groucho Marx stars as the recently (un)elected dictator of Freedonia, abetted by siblings Harpo Marx and Chico Marx, in addition to Groucho's perennial foil, Margaret Dumont (my favorite cast member in every Marx Brothers movie);
  • Best Director Academy Award winner Leo McCarey's hilarious 1937 comedy The Awful Truth (Thursday, April 24), in which Irene Dunne and Cary Grant play a married couple on the brink of divorce;
  • A double bill (Thursday, April 3) featuring two obscure titles: The Matrimonial Bed (1930), an early Michael Curtiz talkie featuring Florence Eldridge (better known for her stage work and for being Fredric March's wife), Frank Fay (better known for having been one of Barbara Stanwyck's husbands), James Gleason (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for Here Comes Mr. Jordan, 1941), and the excellent Lilyan Tashman (Edmund Lowe's wife for appearance's sake, who died of cancer at age 37); and William Nigh's Two Heads on a Pillow (1934), featuring Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon on the Batman TV series) and Miriam Jordan, and which, according to the Packard Theater website, is “often cited as a precursor” to Adam's Rib, the 1949 battle-of-the-sexes comedy directed by George Cukor, and starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Subversive comedy classic 'The Major and the Minor'

Not officially a screwball comedy, Billy Wilder's first movie as a Hollywood director, The Major and the Minor (Thursday, April 10) is a delightful – and quite subversive – romp that, as a sign of our pathologically p.c. times, will likely offend more people today than it did back in 1942. Ray Milland plays an army major who rescues and falls for “12-year-old” Ginger Rogers – actually an adult woman short of money but with plenty of pep – much to the chagrin of his fiancée, beautifully played by the now largely forgotten Rita Johnson. Billy Wilder's comic touch could be very heavy-handed indeed, but the masterful The Major and the Minor seems to have been strongly influenced by the much subtler Ernst Lubitsch, with whom Wilder had previously collaborated as a screenwriter (Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, Ninotchka). The Major and the Minor was co-written by Wilder and frequent partner Charles Brackett.

Packard Campus rare screenings: 'Heaven's Gate,' 'Ramona'

Film historian Bruce Lawton will introduce two rare big-screen presentations of writer-director Michael Cimino's epic Western Heaven's Gate, the box office cataclysm that sank United Artists. The screenings will include a 35mm film print of the 1981 theatrically released 149-minute “director's cut” (Thursday, April 17), and the original, 70mm print of the 219-minute New York premiere version (Friday, April 18) that ran for one week in November 1980. The latter is the only known existing copy of this particular version; it'll mark the first time that the Packard Campus Theater has showcased a film in the 70 mm format. Heaven's Gate stars Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, and Isabelle Huppert (a sensational actress who hasn't been lucky in her English-language forays, e.g., Curtis Hanson's The Bedroom Window, David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees).

Another rare 70mm print – of Michael Cimino's highly controversial 1978 Best Picture Oscar winner The Deer Hunter (Saturday, April 19) – will be screened the same week. Some lambasted the overlong The Deer Hunter, which stars Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken, for its portrayal of American soldiers as war victims and the Vietcong as sadistic monsters.

Another rarity hails from a different era: The Packard Theater will be screening a new print of the 1928 version of Ramona (Friday, April 11), based on Helen Hunt Jackson's earnest but quite melodramatic 1884 novel, and preserved by the Library of Congress in association with Prague's Národní Filmový Archiv. Andrew Simpson will provide live musical accompaniment to the Ramona screening, which will be preceded by Packard Campus staff member Valerie Cervante's presentation “detailing the restoration work involved.”

Dolores del Rio has the title role in Ramona, working under the guidance of her Svengali-of-sorts, Edwin Carewe (the two would have a nasty falling out before the decade was over). Warner Baxter, likely in brown make-up, plays del Rio's on-screen lover, an American Indian. Baxter would become a top star that same year following the release of the talkie Western In Old Arizona, which earned him a – thoroughly undeserved – Best Actor Academy Award. Surprisingly enough, he'd also become one of the highest-paid Hollywood actors of the 1930s.

'Babette's Feast'

And may I also recommend the recently deceased Gabriel Axel's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Babette's Feast (1987), a beautiful tale about the link between spiritual and sensual pleasure. Stéphane Audran is outstanding as the mysterious French cook who enriches the palates and the souls of a group of pious Danish villagers. Veterans Birgitte Federspiel (of Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Word / Ordet) and Bodil Kjer (of Johan Jacobsen's The Invisible Army) are both equally excellent as Audran's mistresses. Based on a story by Isak Dinesen a.k.a. Karen Blixen a.k.a. Meryl Streep (in Out of Africa).

State Theater screenings: 'Field of Dreams,' 'Singin' in the Rain'

Two notable Library of Congress presentations at Culpeper's State Theater are:

  • Phil Alden Robinson's corny (both literally and figuratively) Field of Dreams (Sunday, April 6), based on W.P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe, and starring Kevin Costner as a determined Iowa corn grower who “builds” (a baseball field) so “they will come” (“they” as in the ghosts of long-dead, disgraced baseball players, including Costner's Dad). Also in the cast: James Earl Jones as J.D. Salinger (renamed Terence Mann in the movie, so Universal would avoid a big fat lawsuit) and Burt Lancaster in an effective cameo – one of his last film roles. Field of Dreams was a 1989 Best Picture Oscar nominee, eventually losing out to Bruce Beresford's equally (but only figuratively) corny Driving Miss Daisy.
  • Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's 1952 musical Singin' in the Rain (Sunday, April 27), which is hardly my favorite musical – not even close – but which offers some good, nostalgic songs; Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor performing several cool numbers; Cyd Charisse's eye-catching legs and classy dance moves; and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Jean Hagen at her very best as a dim-witted, egotistical, temperamental, squeaky-voiced silent film star. Gene Kelly gets to sing the title song, which had been previously used in the all-star finale for The Hollywood Revue of 1929 way back when.

Screenings are free at the Packard Theater, located at 19053 Mt. Pony Rd. in Culpeper; there is a $6 admission charge for the Library of Congress screenings at the State Theatre, located at 305 S. Main St. in Culpeper. Note: Titles are subject to change without notice. For more information, call (540) 827-1079 ext. 79994, or visit www.loc.gov/avconservation/theater/.

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in the screwball comedy The Awful Truth photo: Columbia Pictures.

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  1. Great article as always! Keep up the good work!! :)