The Year Was 1938 – May 22nd

Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights
  • Laurence Olivier turned 31 today. He was hard at work on the stage in England. He had made a couple of films in Hollywood, beginning at RKO in 1931, and again in 1933 for ‘Queen Christina’ opposite Greta Garbo. On that film he was replaced after two weeks when he was judged unsuitable for the role. Now, Sam Goldwyn was about to tempt him away from the stage and England with the promise of $50,000 and the role of Heathcliff in his production of ‘Wuthering Heights.’ One of the big films of 1939.
  • MGM had the Marx Brothers and 20th Century Fox the Ritz Brothers. Harry Ritz, one third of the Ritz Brothers comedy act, also turned 31 today – just two days after the release of their film ‘Kentucky Moonshine’ from 20th Century Fox. He would be in front of the cameras soon in a Damon Runyon story ‘Straight, Place, and Show.’ The year 1939 would be up and down for them – on a high, comedy relief in the Don Ameche version of  ‘The Three Musketeers’ – and a low in ‘The Gorilla’ with Bela Lugosi. [Peter Lorre refused to play the Lugosi part; and the Ritz Brothers objected also but could not refuse to play without facing a law suit].
  • Also sharing a birthday with these two was Alla Navimova (see May 19th), who was born in Yalta (Crimea, then a part of the Russian Empire). She was just turning 59. The year 1938 found her back in LA after an illness cut short her return to the stage in NY. She took up residence in Villa 24 at The Garden of Allah. Ironically she had owned this former property once called Hayvenhurst. After she acquired it in 1919 with the profits from her successful silent film career, she named it after herself, calling it the Garden of Alla. When hard times came along she built 25 villas on its 2.5 acre plot and ran it as a hotel beginning in 1927. Over the years there were many famous celebrities that called it home – F Scott Fitzgerald, Greta Garbo, Ronald Reagan, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, to name a few.

They Call It Screwball

They Call it Screwball

No. I’m not writing about the baseball pitch that behaves in an opposite manner to the curve ball.

I am referring to the meaning of the word when it is applied to a slightly (or totally) off-kilter personality. When it comes to film, the word is usually shackled hand and foot to another word – “comedy.” In this genre, these aforementioned personalities are thrown together into situations that range from the absurd to the downright silly.

And they’re a lot of fun.

My wife and I received our indoctrination into the form in Seattle in 1974. A little storefront theater had sprouted out of “nowhere” down in the Pioneer district. The young couple (the Curtises) who gave it “birth,” christened it – The Rosebud Movie Palace. It was all of 88 seats, to which you gained access by running the maze of plywood walls thrown up to enclose the auditorium area. To my notion it was a throwback to the old Nickelodeon era.

[Research aside – The whole film industry in these United States owes its existence to similar tiny beginnings. In New York City of, say, 1904 – these establishments in the statutes of the city were known as “common shows.” This term described theaters of under 299 seats, and were not subject to the fire code of the larger legit theaters. And because the admission was five cents, they gained the moniker Nickelodeon.]

I first ran across the Rosebud theater when perusing movie ads in the newspaper. A film title caught my eye – “The Philadelphia Story.” It was a film we had heard about, but never seen. So we paid them a visit on my day off from the Fifth Avenue Theater (a bus man’s holiday). And we were delighted to watch the trials and tribulations of the three main characters played by Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart. Want to know anything more? I don’t do spoilers. Catch it for yourself.

We kept a weather eye out for other titles in the genre and soon tracked down the likes of:

It Happened One Night

Bringing Up Baby

You Can’t Take It with You – (my personal favorite)

His Girl Friday

Will you look at that  – Capra – Hawks – Capra – Hawks. I am aware that other directors toiled in the genre, but those two are easily the best. But I am thankful to Cukor, as the director of The Philadelphia Story, the “gateway drug,” as it were, to this rather mild addiction.

I come to the end of this post and hesitate to mention that we also saw films of other genres at the Rosebud. Like “Fury” the Fritz Lang thriller with Spencer Tracy; and “Queen Christina” the historical drama with the enigmatic and beautiful Greta Garbo.

But look I’ve gone and done it anyway. I didn’t hesitate at all.

Just call me “screwball.”