Saturday, September 14, 2013

Book Review: Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges

It's hard to believe that it's already mid-September and time for Raquel's 2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge at Out of the Past to come to a close.

When I started the challenge, I was very uncertain I'd actually have the time to make it through the six books on my Summer Reading List by September 15th. I love to read, but since I do a lot of reading for my business, pleasure reading sometimes is deferred in favor of other things. I'm very appreciative of Raquel's challenge, as it spurred me to make a real effort to get through several books in my "to be read" stack in a period of weeks, and that's definitely been an enriching experience.

The final book on my summer reading list was James Harvey's massive ROMANTIC COMEDY IN HOLLYWOOD: FROM LUBITSCH TO STURGES. It's a 1987 book which Da Capo Press republished in 1998.

ROMANTIC COMEDY IN HOLLYWOOD is a whopping 716 pages, including the index; that's over 250 pages more than the other Harvey book I read this summer, MOVIE LOVE IN THE FIFTIES.

It's a very dense, wordy volume covering a lot of territory, but the conversational style is such that it's easy to sit down and read huge chunks of the book at once.

This is probably a good place to also mention that, like MOVIE LOVE IN THE FIFTIES, the detailed analyses of this book are not for those avoiding key movie plot spoilers. Viewers for whom that might be an issue may want to jot down the titles mentioned in each chapter, watch the movies, and then read up on them chapter by chapter!

Author Harvey excels with his descriptions, causing the reader to want to take a fresh look at each film described and view it with new insights. For my part the book had me immediately delving into my Criterion set of Lubitsch musical comedies, enjoying THE LOVE PARADE (1929) and ONE HOUR WITH YOU (1932) for the first time in many years. Watching films in conjunction with reading this book provides a first class course in romantic comedy.

The book is divided into three sections, beginning with the Lubitsch era, including non-Lubitsch films of the early '30s; then a section focusing on the directors and stars of films from 1934-1939, including Lombard, Arthur, Dunne, Colbert, and more; and finally "The Sturges Era" of 1940 to 1948. George Stevens and Howard Hawks receive close attention in this last section, along with several chapters on Sturges. An appendix includes a transcript of an interview with Irene Dunne.

The chapter on Sturges' three movies with Joel McCrea is 34 pages in and of itself, which gives an idea of the level of detail in examining the films. Speaking of which, I loved a quote from McCrea, saying that after he began his collaboration with Sturges, "He never used Fonda again, and he's a better actor than I am. But Fonda wasn't in love with Sturges and I was."

In a book this dense it's hard to single out particular sections as favorites; I love all the actors and movies described, so I enjoyed each chapter of the book. (This is in contrast to the previous Harvey book I read, where I thoroughly enjoyed some chapters but moved on quickly from others.) I did especially appreciate the breadth of films covered, including Cagney and Harlow pre-Codes and Astaire-Rogers musicals, and even Bogart and Bacall in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944).

As far as any negatives about the book, the author did manage to annoy me at times. I don't mind when he has a differing opinion on a movie or actor, as comparing notes is always thought-provoking and fun for film fans -- though I confess I remain befuddled by the occasional random comment such as stating that Lombard and MacMurray "were almost no one's idea...of a good match-up." Seriously?

What does bother me on occasion is the disdain the author expresses for what might be called traditional values or patriotism; he has deep negative feelings on the film industry from the WWII era onward, complaining of movies being "more provincial, more smugly and narrowly 'American,'" and so on. It's a theme he spends quite a bit of time on in MOVIE LOVE IN THE FIFTIES. I think it's a short-sighted view and he's fitting data into his preconceived biases, but that's an argument for another time! I'll add here that the author throws in completely gratuitous, uninformed snark about things such as President Reagan's intelligence, demonstrating an unbecoming silliness and lack of self-restraint.

These quibbles, however, are with relatively short sections in a huge book. Since the author for the most part likes the time period and the movies he's writing about in ROMANTIC COMEDY IN HOLLYWOOD, covering the late '20s to the late '40s, the overall tone was much more positive than he conveyed in MOVIE LOVE IN THE FIFTIES, and the films are discussed with a great deal of care and affection.

ROMANTIC COMEDY IN HOLLYWOOD is very rewarding reading which also deepens enjoyment and appreciation of countless films. Recommended.


Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I read this book at the beginning of my classic movie watching, and took everything the author said as gospel truth. Then, as I began plowing through most, if not all, of the movies mentioned, I began to form my own opinions and I actually now disagree with the book! lol But I do credit it with kickstarting my enduring love for the screwball romantic comedy, so I browse through it occasionally to deepen my film-watching experience.

4:24 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

As I stated in an earlier comment, Harvey writes wonderfully while on topic, but some of his other comments are irrelevant to what's being discussed and threaten to turn off those who otherwise would agree with him.

Regarding the Lombard-MacMurray comment, I think that's sort of late 1980s' "conventional wisdom," so to speak. While Lombard always was highly regarded, Fred (still with us at that time) largely was viewed through the Disney-"My Three Sons" prism, distorting his early work in romantic comedy and even his turns in the likes of "Double Indemnity," "The Caine Mutiny" and "The Apartment." In the ensuing quarter-century, MacMurray's rep has been rehabilitated, and he's finally been recognized for his talent and versatility.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for sharing your feedback on the book, Evangeline! I think the book is valuable for the way it encourages the reader to think deeply on these films, even if one comes to disagree with his points of view. His low opinion of many '30s leading men is just one example, which also ties into Vince's MacMurray comment.

Vince, I think your current and earlier comments about the author going off topic are right on target. He's needlessly divisive at times and periodically seems to jump on a soapbox -- it's a shame his editor didn't work with him to winnow out those comments, which would have also kept the book a little more streamlined.

I think that's a very perceptive comment on the author reflecting the "conventional wisdom" of a couple decades ago regarding MacMurray. I've certainly come to a whole new appreciation of MacMurray in recent years myself. Thanks so much for sharing that thought.

As a related note, when I revisit older film books of the '70s and '80s I'm freshly reminded how different access to films was then, and that inability to see films, or authors relying on old memories, helped to shape opinions which weren't necessarily complete or accurate.

Best wishes,

6:42 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

P.S. Vince, thanks to your comment I realized I had originally omitted the book's publication date from my review, and I went back and edited that in!

Best wishes,

6:53 PM  
Blogger monty said...

ooohhh I just got Romantic Comedy in Hollywood..well actually got it for my birthday back in March..haven't read it yet but will break it out today. Great post Laura!

5:35 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Monty,

It's great to hear from you! I hope you'll enjoy the book, and I'd love to hear your take on it after you read it.

Best wishes,

9:25 PM  
Blogger SimpleGifts said...

Hi, Laura - I'd seen many of the movies Harvey discusses but they weren't fresh enough in my mind to appreciate his detailed analysis as I read through the book. In retrospect, I think I would have preferred it as a reference book to turn to as I viewed each movie. I, too, didn't always agree with his opinions but they certainly provide food for thought for the classic film devotee. Harvey is to be commended for his dedication to preserving and promoting the great romantic comedies of this era. - Jane

12:15 AM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

I commend you for tackling such a behemoth of a book for this 6 book challenge!

RE: Opinions - I had a similar issue with Basinger's Star Machine book. She threw in some opinions that I just didn't agree with and I thought were not really necessary.

This does sound like an interesting book though! Great review Laura.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jane, I appreciated your feedback! This is definitely a book I'll go back to as I watch individual titles. I'm hoping to finish my set of Lubitsch musicals soon and will definitely go back to those pages.

It definitely would have been easier to finish if I'd picked a book that was a lighter read, Raquel, LOL. But this one turned out to be worth it! :)

Best wishes,

11:10 PM  

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