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‘31 Days of Oscar’: TCM’s Movie Comedies Raise Serious Questions

Some Like It Hot Tony Curtis Oscar nominee Jack LemmonSome Like It Hot with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag: Gangsters cross paths with crossdressers in Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic comedy nominated for six Academy Awards. The only winner was veteran Orry-Kelly in the Best Costume Design – Black-and-White category.
  • “31 Days of Oscar”: Turner Classic Movies’ Academy Award-themed series continues with a disparate array of 12 comedies, including two Best Picture winners (You Can’t Take It with You, Tom Jones) and four nominees (The Front Page, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Ninotchka, Born Yesterday).
  • Viewer beware: Besides making you laugh (or at the very least chuckle here and there), most of the listed comedies will likely induce you to ruminate over a number of complex philosophical and sociopolitical questions.

Turner Classic Movies’ ‘31 Days of Oscar’: 12 Academy Award-nominated comedies will (hopefully) make you laugh while prompting you to ask some tough questions

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Turner Classic Movies’ “31 Days of Oscar” series continues on Saturday, March 4, with 12 comedy titles (see further below) from the early 1930s to the early 1960s, all but one Hollywood productions – the one exception being Tony Richardson’s British-made Tom Jones.

Proving that you can find humor just about anywhere, settings range from a big-city newsroom (The Front Page), New York City courtrooms (Adam’s Rib, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), and a gangster-infested Miami hotel (Some Like It Hot) to Washington’s hallways of power (Born Yesterday), 18th-century Somerset (Tom Jones), and Nazi-occupied Warsaw (To Be or Not to Be).

Just as eclectic as the settings is the humor itself: Ninotchka is a sparkling romantic comedy imbued with some witty-yet-slight sociopolitical satire; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town provides a mix of feel-good, romantic escapism with some heavy-duty Great Depression social commentary; in broad strokes, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World ridicules the American Way of Greed; and Adam’s Rib pokes fun at the institution of marriage and at feminists who righteously side with women who attempt to kill their cheating husbands.

Thought-provoking mirth

Hopefully, these classic and near-classic comedies will make you laugh. But that won’t be all.

Be prepared to be challenged, to be forced to ponder, to come up with questions you may not have an easy answer to. For instance:

  • Is tabloidism a branch of journalism or are the two forms of reporting radically antithetical? Is what we see in The Front Page the former or the latter? If the former, how is that different from what reputable news outlets do when covering their latest click-baiting/eyeball-catching story?
  • Despite his apparent interest in attorney neighbor Katharine Hepburn, is David Wayne’s piano-playing Adam’s Rib songwriter actually a closeted gay type?
  • How narrow – or broad – should the definition of fascism be? In Born Yesterday, is Broderick Crawford’s corrupt, politician-buying junkyard tycoon a fascist? If so, how is he different from all the corrupt, politician-buying businesspeople out there?
  • Should you be laughing at the goings-on in To Be or Not to Be while being aware of the real-life atrocities the Nazis were committing in Poland at the time the movie was made? In case you do laugh, should you feel guilty afterwards?
  • Is James Stewart’s amiable middle-aged Harvey character adorably cute or weirdly creepy?
  • Would Greta Garbo’s Soviet envoy in Ninotchka have ditched her communist ideals had Melvyn Douglas been a denizen of a 21st-century Parisian banlieue?
  • How long before the (largely Florida-set) Some Like It Hot is banned in Florida?
  • Should you and your spouse/lover/partner try reenacting the Tom Jones dinner table sequence at home?

Below are brief notes on four of TCM’s “31 Days of Oscar” comedies: The Front Page, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Ninotchka, and Some Like It Hot.

The Front Page Oscar nominee Adolphe Menjou Pat O’BrienThe Front Page with Pat O’Brien and Adolphe Menjou: The Best Picture and Best Director Academy Award nominated-comedy – the first big-screen transfer of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s oft-adapted/-reformatted Broadway hit – failed to be shortlisted in the Best Adaptation category.

The Front Page (1931)

Neither as well remembered nor as widely admired as Howard Hawks’ revamped 1940 version, His Girl Friday*, Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page – featuring Adolphe Menjou as the conniving editor, Pat O”Brien as the ace reporter (one of the actor’s three favorite roles), and Mary Brian as the latter’s fiancée – was nominated for three Academy Awards (1930–31)†: Best Picture, Best Director (Lewis Milestone had won the previous year for the World War I drama All Quiet on the Western Front), and Best Actor (Adolphe Menjou).

Credited The Front Page adapter Bartlett Cormack and “additional dialogue” writer Charles Lederer, however, were bypassed in the Best Writing, Adaptation category. That was a particularly curious (galling?) omission, as The Front Page (much like His Girl Friday) is basically a filmed play; the dialogue and its rat-a-tat delivery are it.

But then again, perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members who selected the nominees in the Best Writing categories decided that The Front Page was just too much of a straight transfer of the Broadway hit. In other words, playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were the ones who deserved credit for the script.

* His Girl Friday stars Cary Grant as the editor and Rosalind Russell as the gender-reassigned reporter (so a little romance can flourish before the final fadeout). Having also undergone gender reassignment, Russell’s spouse-to-be is played by Ralph Bellamy.

† Up until 1934, the Oscars – before they were known as “Oscars” – basically covered movies released (usually in the Los Angeles area) from August 1 of one year to July 31 of the next.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Directed by eventual Academy Award winner Frank Capra, and written by future Fay Wray husband and frequent Capra collaborator Robert Riskin (from a story by Clarence Budington Kelland), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – a mix of romance, sentimentality, and populist social commentary – stars Best Actor nominee Gary Cooper as a bad tuba-playing, bad poetry-writing Vermont hick who moves to slick New York City after inhering $20 million.

Capra at times drowns the narrative in corn syrup, but Gary Cooper succeeds in skirting nearly all of the gooey pitfalls. Along the way, he is ably assisted by the luminous Jean Arthur, about to become Columbia Pictures’ top star.

Indeed, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – is at its most compelling when Arthur is around. Unfortunately for the movie, she’s gone during a large chunk of the second half, returning near the feel-good finale to give a much-needed emotional kick to the classic trial sequence.

Ninotchka Oscar nominee Greta Garbo Ernst LubitschNinotchka set with Greta Garbo and Ernst Lubitsch: The classic comedy was one of the 10 Best Picture nominees of 1939; Lubitsch, however, wasn’t included among the five shortlisted directors. Garbo would lose the Best Actress Oscar to Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind).

Ninotchka (1939)

“Garbo Laughs!”* heralded Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer ads for Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, which would be nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress (Greta Garbo), Best Original Story (Melchior Lengyel), and Best Screenplay (Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch).

It takes a while for Greta Garbo to express mirth, but chances are you’ll be laughing out loud long before she does. As the humorless title character – a Soviet envoy and ardent communist – Garbo delivers a masterful comedic performance.

Future two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas (Hud, 1963; Being There, 1979) is the man who shows her the wonders of capitalism. And it is wonderful – as long as it allows you to spend all your time dining, drinking, and dancing.

* Never mind the fact that Greta Garbo had laughed uproariously in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1933 historicalish drama Queen Christina.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Although clearly inspired by the works of Ernst Lubitsch*, Billy Wilder never achieved the light touch and sophistication of his predecessor.

Wilder did try – hard (e.g., The Major and the Minor; A Foreign Affair; Love in the Afternoon; One, Two, Three). The problem is that whereas The Lubitsch Touch is so graceful you can sense it without seeing it, The Wilder Touch has the unfortunate tendency of leaving jumbo-sized fingerprints.

Some Like It Hot suffers from that lack of subtlety, but it also showcases Wilder’s undeniable talent at its best, including his usually excellent handling of actors. Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Best Actor Oscar nominee Jack Lemmon are all in top form in this tale about gangsters, crossdressers, and the fluidity of the sexual orientation of rich older men.

Notably, Some Like It Hot was one of several key 1959 titles that helped to open up the Production Code-constrained horizons of American cinema. And to think that this 64-year-old comedy remains daringly subversive in the third decade of the 21st century.

* Besides Ninotchka, Billy Wilder also cowrote (with frequent partner Charles Brackett) Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938).

Immediately below is TCM’s March 4 schedule.

TCM’s “31 Days of Oscar” movie schedule

March 4, EST

6:00 AM The Front Page (1931)
Director: Lewis Milestone.
Cast: Adolph Menjou, Pat O’Brien, Mary Brian, Edward Everett Horton, Walter Catlett, George E. Stone, Mae Clarke.

8:00 AM Ninotchka (1939)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch.
Cast: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach.

10:00 AM Adam’s Rib (1949)
Director: George Cukor.
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, Jean Hagen, David Wayne, Hope Emerson, Polly Moran.

11:45 AM Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Director: Frank Capra.
Cast: Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, George Bancroft, Douglas Dumbrille, Lionel Stander, H.B. Warner, Raymond Walburn, Ruth Donnelly.

*1:45/2:00 PM Harvey (1950)
Director: Henry Koster.
Cast: James Stewart, Josephine Hull, Cecil Kellaway, Victoria Horne, Charles Drake, Peggy Dow, Wallace Ford, Jesse White, Nana Bryant.

*3:45/4:00 PM Born Yesterday (1950)
Director: George Cukor.
Cast: Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford, William Holden, Howard St. John.

5:45 PM Some Like It Hot (1959)
Director: Billy Wilder.
Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, George Raft, Pat O’Brien, Joe E. Brown, Nehemiah Persoff.

8:00 PM Tom Jones (1963)
Director: Tony Richardson.
Cast: Albert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffith, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, Joyce Redman, Angela Baddeley, Rachel Kempson, Jack MacGowran, Freda Jackson, David Tomlinson, Wilfried Lawson, David Warner, Lynn Redgrave.

10:15 PM It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Director: Stanley Kramer.
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Ethel Merman, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Dorothy Provine, Edie Adams, Wiliam Demarest, Paul Ford, Edward Everett Horton, ZaSu Pitts, Buster Keaton, Jack Benny, Peter Falk, Jerry Lewis, The Three Stooges.

1:15 AM You Can’t Take It with You (1938)
Director: Frank Capra.
Cast: Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold, Spring Byington, H.B. Warner, Mischa Auer, Ann Miller, Donald Meek, Mary Forbes, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson.

3:30 AM To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch.
Cast: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Sig Ruman.

5:15 AM Block-Heads (1938)
Director: John G. Blystone.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Patricia Ellis, Minna Gombell.

* Harvey and Born Yesterday are listed twice – 15 minutes apart – on the Turner Classic Movies website.

“‘31 Days of Oscar’: TCM’s Movie Comedies” notes

Movie schedule information via the TCM website.

See also: Oscars’ war movies on TCM & Oscars’ Westerns.

See also: Angie Dickinson and Warner Bros. centenary at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival.

Oscar nominee Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis Some Like It Hot movie image: United Artists.

Pat O’Brien and Oscar nominee Adolphe Menjou The Front Page movie image: United Artists.

Oscar nominee Greta Garbo and Ernst Lubitsch Ninotchka movie image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

“‘31 Days of Oscar’: TCM’s Movie Comedies Raise Serious Questions” last updated in August 2023.

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