Here are four very dissimilar scenes that have two things in common: they’re all examples of Hollywood’s idea of high-minded drama, and they all make me laugh out loud, no matter how often I see them.
A Woman’s Face
This first one is from “A Woman’s Face” (MGM, 1941). It’s hard to tell whether the screenwriter, Donald Ogden Stewart, was kidding around. He wrote a lot of the prestige pictures for Metro in the 30s and 40s, but many of the prestige pictures — “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” “Marie Antoinette,” “The Philadelphia Story,” for example — are damned idiotic. If Stewart was kidding around with this little exchange, Joan Crawford certainly wasn’t in on the gag, but I’ll bet Connie Veidt was laughing on the inside. This happens to be one of my favorite exchanges from any picture.
Here’s the famous “The calla lillies are in bloom again” scene from “Stage Door” (RKO, 1937). The screen version was radically altered from the original play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman. When Kaufman saw it, he told screenwriter (and former collaborator) Morrie Ryskind: “You should’ve changed the title to ‘Screen Door.’ ”
“Those are not the lines . . . ” “No, but it’s the mood!” Imagine what would happen if actors relied on moods rather than scripts! Mario Siletti, a teacher at Stella Adler’s Studio, used to warn student actors against playing moods: “Mood spelled backwards is doom!” Then he’d rap his knuckles on a table top and point an accusing finger: “Does this make sense to you?”
I have a great relish for full-speed-ahead wrongheadedness, so this following speech is one of my all-time favorites — I can’t even think about it without laughing. It’s Henry Hull as he tears a passion to tatters at the very beginning of “The Fountainhead” (Warner Bros., 1949). Ayn Rand insisted on writing the screenplay herself, so it was bound to be loaded with laughs. The whole picture is played at this fevered pitch — it’s a sustained temper tantrum that lasts one hundred and fourteen minutes. Ayn Rand’s rants remind me of a freight train highballing around a horseshoe curve: clattering, dangerously unbalanced and wholly unnecessary. Don’t try to watch “The Fountainhead” in one sitting — the joke wears thin very quickly. Taken in small doses, however, it’s chock-full of chuckles. You can start watching at just about any point, and you’re almost guaranteed to see some hilarious nonsense tout de suite. At the end of this scene, notice how much trouble Gary Cooper has pronouncing his own character’s name — he almost chokes on his back-palate r’s. Notice, too, how crooked Hull’s bow-tie is . . . that kills me. What a shame they didn’t rig it so that it could twirl at every uptick in agita.
Rand wrote only two other screenplays: “You Came Along,” a dopey romantic comedy starring “Love That Bob” Cummings, and “Love Letters,” a soapy melodrama involving murder, amnesia and an irrational dread of the mailman. Both pictures are idiotic, but her heart clearly wasn’t in the work — so they’re not nearly as funny or entertaining as “The Fountainhead.” I am full of ambivalence over this business of laughing scornfully at bad writing and wrongheaded acting, especially when it’s obvious that the people involved were wholly committed to their bad ideas. But that, of course, is what makes it so painfully funny: ever since (and, presumably, long before) the Rude Mechanicals performed “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/And his love Thisbe: Very tragical mirth” at the end of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the mismatch of high-mindedness and ineptitude has been making audiences laugh. In the case of Ayn Rand, I feel no remorse at roaring with derisive laughter at every word she ever wrote.
The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse
“The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” almost sank Metro in 1962. They had repaired their sagging fortunes three years earlier with a CinemaScope remake of their biggest epic of the silent era, “Ben-Hur,” and now they hoped to do the same thing with the old Rudolph Valentino vehicle. Nothing doing. Vincente Minnelli fought long and hard to get Alain Delon for the romantic lead, but the suits at Metro knew better: they wanted an American star, so they chose Glenn Ford, who turned out to be an Edsel. Ingrid Thulin was also cast in it, but preview audiences found her Swedish accent impenetrable, so Angela Lansbury dubbed her entire part at the last minute. Once you know it’s Lansbury, the voice is unmistakable. The picture is very long and tedious and portrays the Nazis as a very rum bunch indeed. But there is one scene in the first hour that makes the DVD worth owning. It is Lee Cobb‘s stupendously over-the-top death scene. Cobb plays an Argentine grandee, the paterfamilias to a family with two distinct branches, one French, the other German. They all gather for his birthday celebration and at the banquet, el señor Cobb discovers that one of his grandsons (Karl Böhm) is a high ranking official in the Nazi party. Cobb rises slowly from the head of the table, lumbers down below the salt, where the youthful Nazi sits, and demands in a croaking voice, “Say ‘Heil Hitler’ in this house. Say ‘Heil Hitler.’ ” The dutiful Nazi does as el abuelo viejo bids him do, whereupon Cobb slaps him as hard as decrepitude and Method acting will allow. This is what follows:
I feel no twinge of guilt about laughing at this one, either. Cobb was an incorrigible old ham and it makes me happy to see him tear down the curtains from their rings and stagger out of doors and fall face down into a mud puddle (it’s almost certainly a stunt double). I love the little aristocratic wave of his hand (like the Queen in her carriage) as he stumbles toward the patio doors, the damask curtains and thence to Eternity; I love the way he tries to out-bellow André Previn’s magnificent score; I love the hammy pauses he takes at the beginning while he revs up his engines. I hope you’ll take my advice and have a look at this picture. I have shown only a small portion of a much longer scene, and it is all hilarious — every important moment is punctuated by the most tremendous crack of sound effects thunder. There’s a lot of meat and fowl on the dinner table and a lot of hams seated round it. And there is that score, which it almost killed me to cut short (believe me, I didn’t want to). Once Cobb is dead and the story moves to Paris, the picture has little to recommend it, except for the score. It is beautifully photographed, but God is it ever dull . . . !