All this week, Turner Classic Movies is spotlighting Funny Ladies, female comedians that put the lie to the idea that women can’t be funny. The films range from true comedy classics to obscurities, but these are some of my favorites (all times Eastern):
Dinner at Eight (April 21, 2:30 AM) — A sprawling society comedy in which the suddenly poor upper-crust are forced to play nice with the unclassy nouveau riche. Jean Harlow’s a hoot, and it’s refreshing to see Billie Burke, best known as The Wizard of Oz‘s good witch, playing human, but Marie Dressler steals the show as a battleship of a former actress reminiscing with one of her lovers, now well-married. Both Barrymores, John and Lionel, are in it, as is Wallace Beery, Jean Hersholt (best known today as being the namesake of the honorary Oscar given for humanitarian and charitable work), and the forgotten Lee Tracy, a promising leading man who destroyed his career with a drunken romp in Mexico. But it’s Dressler who holds the thing together, with terrific lines. She serves as a cautionary example of someone who wanted to live for love but recognizes how much easier money makes life. She’s also a type you never see on film these days, a large, older woman with a distinctively unique face and an overwhelming force of personality.
The Women (April 21, 8:00 PM) — The all-female comedy about love, gossip, and status was recently remade, but stick with this original. It’s considered a breakthrough role for Rosalind Russell as the supposed best friend who gets her comeuppance and becomes a lapdog to whomever will let her hang around, but many other roles are as good. A particular favorite of mine is Paulette Goddard as a no-nonsense showgirl living in Reno just long enough to get a divorce and remarry. Joan Crawford is at her peak as a gold-digging perfume salesgirl who will break up a marriage if it means she gets to marry well, and Norma Shearer does a standout job as a nice lady who learns to get even. It’s eminently watchable (and re-watchable), even if I’m not sure still how much I agree with it.
My Little Chickadee (April 21, 10:30 PM) — I’ve never seen it, but reportedly, W.C. Fields was one of the few people who could stand up to the infamous Mae West on film.
Stage Door (April 22, 1:45 AM) — Another ensemble comedy, with Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, Ann Miller (only 14, although lying about it), and the delightfully tart Eve Arden as aspiring actresses living in a theatrical boarding house. Supposedly, much of the dialogue was ad-libbed; regardless, it’s a gripping comedy/drama about how catty and supportive women can be to each other. Read between the lines to realize how some of the women were supporting themselves while looking for their big break.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (April 22, 11:00 PM) — You’ve heard me talk about this pregnancy comedy before, likely. It’s a scream, even more astounding when you realize the story of a questionably married “war bride” trying crazily to make her babies legitimate was made under the morally restrictive Hays Code. Betty Hutton is Trudy Kockenlocker, the one in trouble, but the woman who steals the movie for me is Diana Lynn as her teenage sister who’s clearly much wiser about the ways of the world.
Born Yesterday (April 23, 8:00 PM) — It’s a shame Judy Holliday died young, because she’s a joy to watch, bringing new heights to the role of a dumb blonde. William Holden is the reporter hired to teach her class as her rich-but-stupid-and-crooked paramour tries to peddle influence in Washington. This role got her the Best Actress Oscar; as she said, it takes a lot of smarts to play that dumb.
Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed? (April 23, 10:00 PM) — Carol Burnett’s film debut in a movie I’ve never heard of, but since it also stars Elizabeth Montgomery, I’ll set the TiVo. The plot description has Dean Martin as a sexy TV star who’s really shy off-screen, but all his friends expect him to be more like his on-screen persona. I love it when TCM premieres little-known movies like this.
Seems Like Old Times (April 24, 10:00 PM) — When it comes to Goldie Hawn/Chevy Chase movies, I prefer Foul Play, but that may be because I watched this one hundreds of times when it ran on HBO when I was younger. I do admit that Charles Grodin, playing Goldie’s husband, is funnier here than Burgess Meredith was in FP, and I look forward to seeing the flock of dogs again. Chase is a fugitive who hides out with Hawn, his ex-wife, until he can clear his name. Things are complicated by Grodin and Hawn’s status as a law-and-order attorney.
All of Me (April 24, Midnight) — What a high note to end on! Lily Tomlin plays a dying recluse who possesses half of Steve Martin, resulting in genius physical comedy and a surprisingly touching love story, directed by Carl Reiner.
Marion Davies in The Patsy
I’m also looking forward to seeing Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies (April 21, 6:00 AM), a documentary about the woman best known for being William Randolph Hearst’s mistress. She was a talented comedian, but her sugar daddy kept pushing her into turgid costume dramas because those were more important and meaningful. Those choices weren’t the best for her, and they kept people from seeing her abilities. Charlize Theron narrates.