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Funny Ha-Ha: American Comedy, 1930–1959

January 16, 2014 - February 22, 2014

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“If you don’t have a sense of humor, it’s just not funny anymore.”
—Wavy Gravy

Part one of a three-part series, Funny Ha-Ha charts the triumphant chortles of American comedy from the tongue-twisting talkies onward. Perhaps it deflates slapstick’s bladder, but the gag, the prank, the pratfall get their due from jokesters like the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup) and W.C. Fields (The Bank Dick), kings of candied corn. As sound film ripened, so too did the sound of two lips letting loose with one-liners. We see the rise of the Depression-era screwball comedy with its rapid-fire ripostes, lead ladies that can let ‘em have it, and provocative pokes at the privileged class. It Happened One Night, My Man Godfrey, and The Palm Beach Story spend 99% of their time satirizing the 1%. Smart-as-a-whip and more stinging, His Girl Friday and Adam’s Rib put the prattle back in battle—of the sexes. The fifties saw the ascent of the bombshells with their shrapnel-shredding sarcasm—Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, and Jayne Mansfield became parodic sirens in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? As the decade came to a close, so too did the reserve of the postwar period. Some Like It Hot, with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag, thumbed its clothes at established etiquette. Now the punch line: at the movies, your solitary guffaw joins with others. When the jokes are working, the timing right, the butts beneficial, the collective catharsis that is comedy commands the room. Come on down—join the jocularity.

Steve Seid, Video Curator

Thursday, January 16, 2014
7:00 p.m. My Man Godfrey
Gregory La Cava (U.S., 1936). In Gregory La Cava's cynical screwball comedy of New York socialites in search of authenticity, "it is the speed, the wit, and the insolence that are so rich” (David Thomson). (95 mins)

Sunday, January 19, 2014
3:00 p.m. Duck Soup
Leo McCarey (U.S., 1933). The brotherhood of Marx was never zanier than in this absurd antiwar story about the possible war between Freedonia and Sylvania, replete with the Palaces of Power, bilious battlefields, and the brazen use of laughing gas. (80 mins)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014
7:00 p.m. It Happened One Night
Frank Capra (U.S., 1934). “Reporter Clark Gable chases spoiled heiress Claudette Colbert across most of the Eastern Seaboard, pausing long enough between wisecracks to set the definitive tone of thirties screwball comedy. . . . This is Capra at his best” (Chicago Reader). (105 mins)

Friday, January 24, 2014
7:00 p.m. The Bank Dick
Edward Cline (U.S., 1940). "Respectable people had best avoid this comedy; if they see it, they may catch a spitball in the eye. W. C. Fields snarls out his contempt for abstinence, truth, honest endeavor, and human offspring” (Pauline Kael). (74 mins)

Friday, January 24, 2014
8:40 p.m. His Girl Friday
Howard Hawks (U.S., 1940). Newsroom editor Cary Grant tries to win back his top reporter—and ex-wife—Rosalind Russell in “one of the fastest of all movies, from line to line and gag to gag. . . . A tour de force of choreographed action” (Manny Farber). (92 mins)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014
7:00 p.m. The Palm Beach Story
Preston Sturges (U.S., 1942). The charming Claudette Colbert abandons her failing hubby (Joel McCrea) to seek a fortune, preferably from a wealthy man, and even better from “the world’s richest” (Rudy Vallee). This blazing battle-of-the-sexes comedy is from Preston Sturges, “the most spectacular manipulator of sheer humor since Mark Twain” (Manny Farber). (90 mins)

Saturday, February 1, 2014
8:15 p.m. Adam’s Rib
George Cukor (U.S., 1949). Adam’s Rib isn’t just a battle of the sexes, it’s a full-blown military campaign. In their sixth film together, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play married attorneys, arguing on opposite sides of a trial. (101 mins)

Thursday, February 6, 2014
7:00 p.m. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
Frank Tashlin (U.S., 1957). Pop culture goes !POP! in Tashlin’s puncture-proof provocation of media-driven consumerism. The Stay-Put Lipstick account needs a new set of lips to lay on and TV ad exec Rockwell Hunter (Tony Randall) knows just the proper pucker, Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield). (95 mins)

Friday, February 14, 2014
7:00 p.m. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Howard Hawks (U.S., 1953). Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe are two gold diggers from Little Rock who prove that big shiny rocks are a girl’s best friend in Hawks’s brash, satiric take on the musical genre. Seriously saucy, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes augured the end of screwball and the opening of the cleavage comedy. (91 mins)

Saturday, February 22, 2014
6:00 p.m. Some Like It Hot
Billy Wilder (U.S., 1959). Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon star in Wilder’s outrageous cross-dressing comedy, selected by the American Film Institute as the funniest movie ever made. (120 mins)