Although screwball comedies and musicals have been out of fashion for more than a half-century, they remain two of the most fondly remembered Hollywood genres. This week, attempts to revive both come a cropper.
Screwball comedy, which flowered from the mid-’30s through the early ’40s, was a distinctively verbal genre derived from Broadway plays of the Depression era, in which poor and wealthy characters find themselves romantically entangled. The formula: A conservative, hard-working man (college professor, scientist, butler) collides with an uninhibited woman (nearly always a spoiled heiress), and their ensuing relationship overleaps economic and class barriers. Perhaps more than any other style of sound filmmaking, the screwball tradition required directors with a meticulous sense of comedic timingHoward Hawks, Preston Sturges, Gregory La Cavaand acting teams with great style and palpable sexual chemistry: William Powell and Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey), Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby), Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire).
In Forces of Nature, her second feature, director Bronwen Hughes (Harriet the Spy) attempts to create an updated version of Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning It Happened One Night (1934). In that celebrated (but, to my taste, rather overrated) comedy, a runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) meets a hard-boiled newspaperman (Clark Gable) who is masquerading as a vagrant in order to file a story about her disappearance. On buses, in motels, and hitchhiking, the sparring pair gradually fall in love.
Marc Lawrence’s Forces of Nature screenplay adopts Capra’s movie as a template. Stodgy book jacket blurb writer Ben (Ben Affleck) boards a jet in New York to fly to Savannah to marry his fiancée, Bridget (Maura Tierney). A bird flies into one of the plane’s turbines, leading to a runway accident, during which Ben saves the life of his wacky seatmate, Sarah (Sandra Bullock). Thus thrown together, they set out to reach their mutual destination, sharing misadventures on trains and buses and in rented cars and second-hand junkers.
Unlike vintage screwball comedies, which soar along on sheer momentum, Forces of Nature feels labored, jerkily shifting gears from one contrived obstacle to another: an uncoupled railway car, a chance encounter with Ben’s best man, a stealthy pickpocket, a blazing Cash-o-Gram office containing the protagonists’ wired funds, a financially strapped Ben forced to strip in a gay bar. A duo of polished performers might have been able to conceal the screenplay’s clunky mechanics, but Affleck and Bullock lack the right stuff. Affleck’s notion of playing comedy yields a slightly less infantile version of Adam Sandler, and Bullock’s familiar life-of-the-party routine has worn out its welcome. Even more damaging is her peculiar appearance. With disheveled raven hair, prominent Adam’s apple, pasty makeup, and what appears to be slipshod cosmetic surgerymatching clefts in her nose and chinshe resembles (and in some shots is virtually indistinguishable from) Michael Jackson. This separated-at-birth likenessevident even in the television trailer for the movieis so disconcerting that one tends to focus on it at the expense of the frenetic storyline.
In an attempt to give the film a more contemporary flavor, Lawrence counterpoints the frivolity with ominous undertones. Ben’s grandfather suffers a heart attack in the opening bachelor-party sequence. Throughout his travels, Ben meets strangers who, upon learning that he’s about to be married, warn him that matrimony has ruined their lives. Ben and Sarah survive a series of violent natural upheavals, including a hailstorm and a hurricane, staged with elaborate special effects that seem to be left over from disaster movies.
The film’s climactic scenes unexpectedly darken from comedy to psychodrama. Sarah accuses Ben of being gutless and self-deluded. She, in turn, is exposed as terrified of commitment and guilt-ridden about a youthful transgression. The screenplay’s resolution reverses genre expectations, abandoning its protagonists to fates that, however hopeful, contradict the logic of their evolving relationship. In its brave but unsuccessful attempt to avoid a clichéd fadeout, Forces of Nature only confirms that some venerable formulas shouldn’t be tampered with.
In the ’40s and ’50s, Rodgers and Hammerstein shows defined middlebrow popular culture. These weren’t lowly musical comedies sprinkled with songs, gags, and chorus girls; they were musical dramas that addressed serious themes: racial prejudice, slavery, the subjugation of women, spousal abuse, and homicidal jealousy. No one could escape exposure to the original-cast recordings of Rodgers’ canorous music and Hammerstein’s inspirational, sometimes didactic lyrics.
The team withheld screen rights to their shows until the mid-’50s; perhaps they waited too long. Oklahoma! and Carousel turned out to be bloated, lumbering movies cursed with the colorless team of Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in leading roles. South Pacific was even worse, featuring cloyingly perky Mitzi Gaynor and wooden Rossano Brazzi, and leaden musical numbers shot through ghastly color filters. One sat through them out of a sense of duty, secretly longing for Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, or Gene Kelly in something lively and funny.
The King and I proved to be the best of the R&H screen transfers, starring Yul Brynner is his Oscar-winning signature role as the vain, polygamous King of Siam, and Deborah Kerr as the widowed English schoolteacher, imported to instruct his children, who ends up teaching him about decency and compassion. The wide-screen production sported tacky, elephantine sets and Fox’s florid Deluxe color photography, but the elegantly constructed screenplay, poignant and slyly erotic central love story, definitive performances, and haunting, Asian-inflected score added up to a deeply affecting experience.
Although live-action musicals have become too risky to produce and new talents have not emerged to replace the genre’s creators, the tradition lingers on in animated features. Since the success of Beauty and the Beast, studios have commissioned original-song scores for new productions. Perhaps it now makes sense to animate classic musicals for young audiences, but The King and I is hardly an ideal choice for recycling: Its subject matter is too mature and unsettling for kids to absorb. By streamlining and sentimentalizing the play’s libretto, director Richard Rich ends up with a movie unlikely to satisfy anybody.
Rich wisely resists the temptation to modernize the score by entrusting it to pop-rock singers and arrangers. Broadway performers Christiane Noll (Anna) and Martin Vidnovic (the King) expertly and faithfully interpret the songs in fresh, vibrant orchestral settings.
The film offers little else to commend. In the maladroit opening sequence, Anna and her son, en route to Siam by ship, are menaced by sea monsters conjured up (and viewed on an inexplicable 1862 precursor of satellite video!) by the King’s nefarious underling, who plots to dethrone him. (This character, an infelicitous invention, comes equipped with a blubbery, dimwitted comic-relief henchman obsessed with dental hygiene.) Fortunately, the film recovers its balance as the relationship between the spunky, high-principled teacher and the proud, decent-hearted monarch develops. However, its power is diminished by deletions intended to make the story kiddie-friendly, notably the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” sequence, an ingenious Asian ballet adaptation of the American anti-slavery classic, and the King’s climactic death scene. Entirely omitting the play’s third act, Rich concludes his version as the King triumphantly dances the polka with Anna.
The King and I’s recent successful Broadway revival proved that the material has withstood the test of time, and even the scrutiny of the PC police. But Rich’s unimaginatively designed, crudely executed bowdlerization reduces a full-bodied theatrical experience to, quite literally, a two-dimensional cartoon. CP