I’m prone to anachronism of taste, this is nothing like a secret. Despite being born midway through them, my affection for the 1980s (both in music and in film, even as I delve deeper into the recesses, corners, nooks, crannies, and antechambers of each) is well-known. That’s not too far off, though: I was at least alive for them. But there’s something about comedies from decades ago that appeals far more to me than modern comedies (which I’m perhaps notoriously not a fan of). This became most apparent to me with 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, in which I talked about–well, a lot of the same things as here, albeit with some variation.
Corrie (Jane Fonda) and Paul (Robert Redford) have just married, and are reveling in the novelty of that marriage, in a honeymoon spent entirely in a hotel room. Upon its reluctant end, they attempt to take root in their new abode, an apartment on the sixth floor of a New York building. The things that make a home most livable are slow to arrive–phone service, furniture, proper heating…–but Corrie’s mother, Ethel (Mildred Natwick), is not. They realize fairly quickly that the excitement of a brand new home doesn’t negate the, let’s say, interesting living conditions they’ve bought into: there’s a hole in the ceiling (straight through the skylight!), the aforementioned heating issues, and a strange series of neighbors that reveals itself over time, culminating, particularly, in Victor Velasco (Charles Boyer), the peculiar man who lives upstairs from the newlyweds in the building’s attic.
While I undoubtedly picked this up in part over solid film reviews, it was the name Neil Simon that drew me in. While I can’t profess to some overarching love of The Odd Couple, or The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, or The Goodbye Girl, or anything else, the chances of a screenwriter having a reputation aren’t terribly high, as most screenwriters will happily remind you. Simon’s reputation including a proficiency at wit and repartee is the kind that will make my ears perk up. Pairing him with regular stage and screen collaborator Gene Saks, and it seems like things should go quite well–and so they do.
While I spent a lot of time when reviewing The Philadelphia Story explaining my wariness of the “staginess” of stage-to-screen translations, I left out that my appreciation of the necessary art practiced by those who manage stage productions in some form leads to an appreciation, often, of how the blocking and action are moved to the screen. The film doesn’t entirely eschew the satisfaction of locales and scene changes–though they aren’t utterly outside the realms of a good stage designer–but it does take an awful lot of action into the new apartment for the Bratters. And, as part of the joke about the apartment itself, it is quite small. With the bedroom and bathroom the only actual separate rooms, much of this movie takes place in a single room (of kitchen, dining, and living room). The space is well-used, but that makes sense–a decent chunk of the cast is reviving their own Broadway roles, so there’s a comfort with things that gives the film space to play around with it.
And the two stars are of course key here–by stars I do not specifically mean Fonda and Redford, but rather “the script” and “the cast”. And, no offense intended to Robert or Jane, but Mildred steals the bejeezus out of this picture. Where Corrie is wildly free-spirited–referring to Redford’s “young upcoming attorney” Paul as a “stuffed shirt”–her mother is more like Paul, and unprepared for the wildness of, especially, Mr. Velasco. But the managed droll, dry wit of Ethel Banks is absolute perfection: it’s never mean-spirited, even when it’s masking unpleasant reactions. Her bewilderment and exhaustion–from the constant trips up six flights of stairs and the readiness with alcohol–are tipped just right into a woman who is not socialized to be comfortable with any of this, but whose manners demand better. The key of this, perhaps, is when Corrie decides to try to fix the lonely life her mother leads without any complaint–her barely disguised disinterest and discomfort with where Corrie decides to take this is vented out in short bursts of wit and a look of mild illness.
That’s the thing that always tips comedy over for me, though: the timing. Everyone in this is absolutely on fire with timing (editor William Lyon deserves credit for this in some scenes, but often its a single shot performance of back-and-forth), leaving barely any room for air without noticeably stepping on or crashing into each other. In a sense, this is that “staginess” I refer to, and it definitely has its place, and places it’s not welcome. But, oh, witty comedy? That is most definitely its place.