The Funniest Movies of 1930 – 1940:
DUCK SOUP (1933) Perhaps the purest film farce ever made. Directed con brio by Leo McCarey, the film offers no love story or subplots, just Harpo, Chico and Groucho Marx at their manic peak. En route to a slam-bang finale they satirize war and the country’s leading politicians. (Groucho: “It’s too late to [prevent a war]. I just paid a month’s rent on the battlefield.”)
DINNER AT EIGHT (1933) The “talkies” grew up with this adaptation of a Broadway hit by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Under George Cukor’s canny direction John and Lionel Barrymore, sex goddess Jean Harlow, and comedians Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery enliven the sophisticated dialogue, revolving around the lives of financial predators, actors on the rocks, hatcheck girls on the way up and millionaires on the way down, all set against the background of a glittering Manhattan dinner party.
SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933) Mae West became something of a joke in later life, but as her films prove, she was one of the best comedy writers in 1930s Hollywood. Here, she plays a Gay Nineties saloon singer in trouble with the law–impersonated by Cary Grant in an early role. “When a woman goes wrong, the men go right after her.” “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” The great lines are here, and Mae wrote ‘em all. Lowell Sherman directed unobtrusively.
SONS OF THE DESERT (1933) Arguably Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s best film. The boys slip away from their spouses for some mild carousing; next thing they know, they’re shipwrecked off the Hawaiian coast. Grand farceurs, doing their thing.
THE THIN MAN (1934) William Powell and Myrna Loy play Dashiell Hammett’s married sleuths, Nick and Nora Charles. Notorious wisecrackers and party-goers (the film was shot during Prohibition), the Charleses solve mysteries between drinks: Nora: “What hit me?” Nick: “The last martini.” The pair had such on-screen chemistry they went on to play in 13 other movies, including five more Nick and Noras, but none equals this one. Directed with panache by W. S. Van Dyke, and augmented by Asta, a dog with almost as much appeal as his owners.
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) A cynical newspaperman (Clark Gable) and a pampered heiress (Claudette Colbert) collide on an overcrowded bus headed from Miami to New York. It’s hate at first sight as they share the last remaining seat. “Remember me?” Gable demands the next morning. “I’m the fellow you slept on last night.” Predictably they fall in love, but not before a series of tight situations and colorful arguments. Director Frank Capra’s screwball comedy remains fresh after six decades.
MY MAN GODFREY (1936) A spoiled-rotten heiress (Carole Lombard) hires a shabby-looking bum (William Powell) and learns about life. Many a subsequent comedy was influenced by Gregory La Cava’s rambunctious screwball farce.
THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937) Director Leo McCarey had a lot of help from Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. But this story of a divorced couple who try to ruin each other’s new romances owes its accelerated pace and high polish to him. Ralph Bellamy and Mary Forbes supply the straight lines.
PYGMALION (1938) The George Bernard Shaw play that inspired My Fair Lady, exquisitely directed by Anthony Asquith sans music. Witty, beguiling, convincing, with Wendy Hiller as Eliza Dolittle, and Leslie Howard as ‘enry ‘iggins.
HOLIDAY (1938) Cary Grant is engaged to the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Trouble is, she and her father expect him to become a faceless bureaucrat, and the young man is far too lively for that. Only one person in the family understands him–his fiancée’s younger sister, Katharine Hepburn. A wise and sparkling Philip Barry script, enlivened by two performers at their peak. Lew Ayres was notable as Hepburn’s hapless brother. Another George Cukor triumph, often overlooked.
NINOTCHKA (1939) In her penultimate film, Greta Garbo plays a frigid, rigid Soviet envoy. In Paris she encounters a Playboy of the Western World (Melvyn Douglas), and after a valiant struggle, succumbs to his masculine wiles. The coruscating script, co-written by Billy Wilder before he became a director, lampoons the Stalinist type just as Europe lurches toward World War II. Ernst Lubitsch’s unfailingly light touch emphasizes “those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm.”
NEXT: 1920 – 1930