Friday, February 27, 2009

Tonight's Movie: No Time For Comedy (1940)

NO TIME FOR COMEDY, which stars James Stewart and Rosalind Russell, suffers from a split personality which curiously mirrors the film's plot.

The first third of the movie, in which a small-town playwright (Stewart) arrives on Broadway and falls in love with his play's leading lady (Russell), is a fun romantic comedy. Stewart and Russell have a charming chemistry, and her delight in Stewart is particularly winning.

Just as the viewer has settled in for a pleasant time, the movie plot jumps forward four years and makes a 360-degree turn. The playwright has now had several hit comedies, but has a habit of wandering New York drinking in search of "inspiration" in between plays, and he is easily led further astray by a wealthy woman (Genevieve Tobin) who encourages him to write something "serious." Meanwhile, the actress wife suffers nobly, waiting for the playwright to come to his senses.

Just as Jimmy Stewart's character decides to become serious, so does the movie, which shifts from lighthearted romance to a drama with some brittle, witty dialogue smattered here and there. The good lines in the last hour are usually uttered by Charlie Ruggles, playing Tobin's long-suffering stockbroker husband. The last hour of the movie continues to be interesting, but it's not nearly as much fun as it was when it started out. When the film abruptly comes to a too-easy happy ending after 93 minutes, the viewer is left feeling a bit baffled.

Stewart plays one of his least likeable characters, and although I'm a big Stewart fan, I have to say it's probably just as well he disappears for long periods of time as his character wanders New York. Russell is beautiful and sympathetic as the almost impossibly calm and understanding wife.

The film is buoyed by the performances of Ruggles and Louise Beavers, who has a large role as Russell's outspoken maid and sometime acting colleague. Beavers' part struck me as a bit unique for a black actress in its era; although she was a maid, she was still on an equal footing with Russell as her co-actor and confidante who never hesitates to give Stewart a hard time. The scene where Russell and Beavers pass the pages of Stewart's "serious" script back and forth while critiquing it illustrates this aspect of their relationship and is one of the better moments in the last hour of the movie.

Allyn Joslyn, who always makes a movie better, is also along for the ride as Russell's exasperated director and friend. Tobin is appropriately daffy and, for that matter, she sounds just like Billie Burke, who often played similar roles. Tobin had married the movie's director, William Keighley, in 1938.

NO TIME FOR COMEDY was based on a 1939 play which starred Katharine Cornell and Laurence Olivier. Curiously, although Stewart and Russell were MGM stars throughout the '30s, they made this film for Warner Bros.

NO TIME FOR COMEDY has not had a video or DVD release. It can be seen on Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer available at the TCM website here. A side note: TCM listed the film on its schedule as NO TIME FOR COMEDY, but the title card for the print they aired used the film's alternate title, GUY WITH A GRIN.

2013 Update: NO TIME FOR COMEDY is now available on DVD in a remastered print from the Warner Archive.


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