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Monday, January 5, 2009

No Time for Comedy

part of the Great Movie Watching Challenge

From Warner Bros. in 1940, this picture starring Roz Russell and Jimmy Stewart and written by the Epstein Brothers of Casablanca fame, has the alternate title of "Guy with a Grin." I guess "No Time for Comedy" works better, though, since it's got more truth in advertising.

The picture starts off with a cast and a logline and a first act that seems to say, "Romantic Comedy," but pretty soon Comedy's left the highrise apartment and the romance is all one-sided on Russell's part as Jimmy goes off searching for his soul and his art and to have his ego stroked by a sycophantic New York socialite bee-yotch who wants to have an affair with him. No time for comedy, indeed. By the end of the thing, Jimmy's an asshole lush who wants to suffer and make "great art" and the delightfully superior Roz just stands by her ass of a man and makes him feel all "important" and "genius" and the whole story just ends in a big pile of mush. The tonal shifts in this thing were so big you could fit every pretentious artiste's sense of self-importance inside them.

The premise is that Stewart is a Minnesota small-town guy who has written a witty New York comedy of manners even though he's never even been to New York before. When he finally arrives in town to oversee rehearsals for the play, nobody can believe that he's the author and the producer wants to cancel the whole thing. But Roz falls for Stewart's "Jimmy Stewart Ways" almost immediately and she convinces everybody in the cast and crew to work on the play anyway because she believes it'll be a big hit. The play is a hit and Roz and Jimmy share a charming and romantic late night in Central Park where they decide to get married and that's about it for the comedy part. I should have known there would be trouble when the characters ended up getting married about 25 minutes into the picture. It's very hard to do a romantic comedy about marriage and so of course, comedy takes a back seat to marital troubles and "art." Was Preston Sturges thinking of this movie when he wrote Sullivan's Travels? A girl can only dream!

The second and third act are basically "Guy with a (bottle of) Gin" as Jimmy's character starts to drink in order to make it through the day as a "suffering" artist who has had a string of light comedy hits but wants to write something "serious" only he can't seem to make it work. The whole thing is like the anti-Bandwagon. Whereas The Bandwagon is a delightful send-up of pretentious Broadway windbags, full of fun and great songs and dance, No Time for Comedy takes itself far too seriously to be anything but a joke of a movie that thinks it has something serious to say. Note, The Bandwagon's theme was truer and better displayed than the mess that is No Time for Comedy. Point is awarded to the musical comedy. Heh.

Yeah, yeah, Stewart's character is convinced by the end that he should go back to comedy, but he decides to write a satire! So even in the end, the movie couldn't quite give up the notion that light comedy is sorta worthless for an artist and that egos still need to be stroked and awards still need to be won, so why not try satire, that always closes on Saturday nights! Blarg.

Russell is simply wonderful in the way she employs a devilish wink or a witty line and even though you can tell she's madly in love with Stewart through the whole picture (even when he's acting assy) she carries it all with an easy-going nature and never gets hysterical (meaning, she acts like a real human being and not an over-dramatic movie character who's being forced to act in an over-dramatic movie). Why she loves a prick like Stewart's character with such steadfastness is never fully explained though.

Stewart is so unlikeable in this movie I simply don't know how to explain it. His character here makes his character in After the Thin Man [beware, there's a spoiler coming] seem almost charming, and that guy was a murderer! [end spoiler]

In No Time for Comedy, Stewart is a cranky drunk who thinks he's a brilliant genius writer of "serious" plays, so he gives up his lucrative job as a light comedy writer to piddle away his time with a drippy woman (who is not his awesome wife, but somebody else's stupid wife) who flatters his every word. Meanwhile, Roz's character is his elegant, sparkling, sexy, and clever wife and she gets dumped on the whole time for having no "feelings," unlike her "feeling" husband, who "feels" so much he has to almost destroy his marriage in order to write a lame-o script about death or something equally predictable and banal. And then to top it all off, Roz apologizes to him in the end! It's like, the film assumes we'll love his jerky ways simply because he's Jimmy Stewart and Jimmy Stewart is just so darn likable why should it matter that we've written him as an insufferable egotistic jerkwad! Gah.

I'm really hating on this movie for some reason. Maybe with the cast and crew pedigree I just assumed it would be a little romantic comedy piece of froth, enjoyable but not particularly brilliant, just the kind of movie I like to lose myself in on a weekday afternoon folding laundry. Unfortunately, by the end I wanted Jimmy Stewart to kill himself or for Roz to leave him and become the toast of the Manhattan theater set again, charming everyone with her sophisticated wit and knowing smiles and down-to-earth elegance. I was disappointed, alas! Reader: they got back together and I had just wasted 105 minutes of my life.

Allyn Joslyn and Louise Beavers co-star and try to do what they can to salvage the "comedy," but it's to no avail. Even Roz -- who gives a delightful and poignant performance -- can't escape a script that's a turgid mess. Poor Jimmy Stewart, though, is the film's greatest victim, as he's made to act the part of a giant turd who gives up a good career and an even better wife so that he can stroke his ego and win awards for writing "serious" (read: pretentious) plays. Screenwriters, heal thyselves. A movie called "No Time for Comedy," starring Rosalind Russell and Jimmy Stewart and with a set-up about a rube who goes to New York to write plays and ends up being the toast of the town should have had plenty of time for comedy.

Oh well. It just goes to show: I don't like every old movie, you know.

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