How to Make a 1930s Screwball Comedy

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Billie Burke (left) asks Constance Bennett not to be so sensible. Image: Constance Bennett

Dear Reader, we’ve made our peace with the fact we’ll never be nominated for a screenwriting Oscar. We’re not too broken up about this, just like we’re OK with not being selected for the NASA Aeronautics Academy. We’ll get by.

But if we were to write a screenplay, we would model it after the 1938 screwball comedy Merrily We Live. This is one of those films about a wacky but endearing rich family who employ ex-cons and drifters as their servants. (Note: One has to pretend this scenario hasn’t been done before, à la My Man Godfrey.)

In our opinion, there are three major elements to this lesser-known film that make it a stellar example in screwball-icity. We had thought of plotting these elements on a graph, but were too lazy – a characteristic, incidentally, frowned upon at the Aeronautics Academy.

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Brian Aherne embraces his new job. Image: Matinee Moustache

#1 Script
At a glance, the plot seems to be standard 1930’s material: A rich family unknowingly hires a famous writer (Brian Aherne) as a chauffeur, because they believe him to be homeless person. Aherne’s character is having so much fun, he doesn’t wish to disabuse the family of this notion.

However, this film’s script is superior to many other comedies due to the sheer volume of jokes. The jokes are so numerous and delivered so quickly, they practically trip over each other.

For instance, the delightfully spinny family matriarch (Billie Burke) is trying to counsel her Very Smart Daughter (Constance Bennett):

Burke (to Bennett): “My mother always told me children are seen and not heard.”
Bennett: “But your mother was smarter than my mother.”
Burke: “Yes, I know she was, darling.”

Another delightful element is the running gags threaded throughout the film. One such gag is the family’s butler (the perfectly-cast Alan Mowbray), who is forever threatening to quit if the family doesn’t stop hiring ex-cons who steal family heirlooms. (This leads to another scene where the patriarch of the family dryly asks the newly-hired Aherne if he has stolen anything yet.)

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“Darling, puffy sleeves are an Investment.” Image:

#2 Wardrobe & Sets
The best thing about rich people in 1930s screwball comedies is their environment. We love it when art deco sets are nearly overwhelming in their size and shininess. Merrily We Live indulges us in the same way as a chocolate fondue party. Set designer W.L. Stevens has provided a scrumptious buffet filled with lush draperies and highly-collectible furniture; no wonder these people are continually stolen from!

A grand set requires a grand wardrobe. Bennett’s wardrobe (designed by the fab Irene) is chic, elegant, stylish. Burke’s wardrobe, on the other hand, almost competes with her décor – while her clothes are grand and expensive, they’re charmingly out of step with the decade.

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Daily affirmations. Image: Matinee Moustache

#3 Engaging Characters
Screwball comedies have outrageous people who outlandishly. In one scene, an annoying, self-absorbed boyfriend (Phillip Reed) drives Bennett home after a date. He leans in to kiss her and she socks him in the jaw.

This film has a wide assortment of charismatic characters, from the no-nonsense Bennett to Mowbray’s disapproving butler to Aherne’s writerly quirkiness.

Oh – and we can’t forget two minor but important players, the family’s two Great Danes named Get Off The Rug, and You Too.

Merrily We Live is an amusing film that is so good, you’ll want to watch it twice in a row. You’ll agree it’s every bit as clever as anything produced by NASA’s Aeronautics Academy.

Merrily We Live: starring Constance Bennett, Brian Aherne, Alan Mowbray. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod. Written by Eddie Moran and Jack Jevene. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1938, B&W, 95 mins.

The Great Villain Blogathon: Day 5 Recap

Originally posted on shadowsandsatin:

As they say on Schoolhouse Rock, darn . . . that’s the end. But don’t hate — celebrate! On the last day of the Great Villain Blogathon, 2015 style, click the pics below to read about today’s totally awesome crop of dastardly dames, charming creeps, and scary scalawags!

CJC Leach discusses Trevor Howard’s cad-like behavior in Brief Encounter:

Prowler Takes a Jump tells us about the irresistibly bad Stanley in In This Our Life:

Aurora’s Gin Joint scares us with insights about Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter:

Random Pictures goes to pieces over Victor Frankenstein in Flesh for Frankenstein:

Font and Frock delves into the deeds of Valerie Hobson and Stewart Granger in Blanche Fury:

Portraits by Jenni knows that Ma Jarrett isn’t as kindly as she looks in White Heat:

Tales of the Easily Distracted tells us why Nick Ferraro is not a guy to…

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The Great Villain Blogathon: Day 4 Recap



Booyah! Day 4 of the Great Villain Blogathon brings us villains in all shapes and sizes, from teenage girls to royal bad guys to animated scoundrels.


The Vintage Cameo defends the much-maligned Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain.

El Collagero 3

Critica Retro presents a comprehensive ranking of Disney Villains.

Infra-Man_2Cinematic Catharsis introduces us to the 10 million year-old Princess Dragon in Infra-Man.


Make Mine Criterion probes at real-life murders in the British flick The Flesh and the Fiends.


Another Old Movie Blog discusses a suave Rumanian villain in Watch on the Rhine.


Imagine MDD analyzes what makes a good villain with AFI 50 Greatest Film Villains.


Cary Grant Won’t Eat You reviews the pre-Mean Girls The Heathers of Heathers.


Nitrate Glow analyzes Lawrence Olivier’s winter of discontent in Richard III.


Chasing Destino asks, Can villains Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn be BFFs?


Zen and Pi mourns Kill Bill‘s Lucy Liu as O-Ren Ishii.


Back to the Viewer waxes poetic about Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. 


The Wonderful World of Cinema looks at an early Steven Spielberg made-for-TV movie, Duel.


Mildred’s Fatburgers explores the art (underlying terror) of The Black Narcissus.


Barry Bradford cross-examines James Mason in the courtroom drama, The Verdict.

Shadows and Satin will be the evil masterminds host. Watch for her recap tomorrow evening.


The Great Villain Blogathon: Day 3 Recap

Originally posted on shadowsandsatin:

Day Three of the 2015 Great Villain Blogathon was a real humdinger! Click the pics below to read about today’s dastardly dudes and dudettes! tells about the dirty deeds of The Invisible Man:

Movies Silently has the low-down on Ford Sterling in A Muddy Romance:

 Mike’s Take On the Movies delves into Ernest Borgnine’s villainy in Emperor of the North:

Flights, Tights and Movie Nights tells all about the Top 10 Batman Movie Villains:

Flickin’ Out knows what makes Bruno Antony tick in Strangers on a Train:

Frisco Kid at the Movies reveals why Noah Cross is a bad, bad man in Chinatown:

Criterion Blues has the skinny on the villainy of The Blob:

The Last Drive-In looks at the misdeeds of Vincent Price in Dragonwyck and Robert Montgomery in Night Must Fall:

B Noir Detour has the 411 on Richard Widmark’s bad-boy roles…

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Fred MacMurray: Villain in Remission

Fred MacMurray (right) wishes he had some poisoned strawberries. Image: lasdkjf lakdsjf

Fred MacMurray (right) wishes he had some poisoned strawberries. Image:

*This post is one great big spoiler.

There’s a neat villain bait-and-switch in the 1954 drama The Caine Mutiny.

This film, based on the novel by Herman Wouk, is about a crew on an aging minesweeper during WWII. The script cleverly muddies the waters (ha ha) as it resets the parameters of villainy.

When the tired, caustic captain of the Caine is replaced by a new spit-and-polish leader (Humphrey Bogart), we expect a little friction from a crew unused to strict navy procedures. What we do not expect, though, is a mentally-unstable Bogart who won’t accept responsibility for his errors, and chastises crew members for minor infractions – whether real or imagined.

The movie would have us believe Bogart’s character is the villain, but Bogart the actor doesn’t entirely play it that way. He presents a man who is fearful, confused and easily panicked. He also has his pet obsessions which make crew members (and we the audience) feel apprehensive.

It is the ship’s Communications Officer (Fred MacMurray) who first becomes wary of Bogart’s mental capacities. He eventually convinces the Executive Officer (Van Johnson) that Bogart might be paranoid and unfit for his post. Johnson agonizes over his loyalty to navy regulations vs. the worrisome behaviour of his commanding officer.

It is during a wild storm at sea when Bogart makes bizarre decisions that put his ship and his crew in jeopardy. Johnson finally relieves Bogart of his command and, in doing so, ensures the crew and the ship survive.

Upon return to the U.S., however, Johnson faces a court martial for mutiny. It is during this trial that we realize the villain wasn’t Bogart after all. It was our chum, MacMurray, who kept us laughing with his witty one-liners.

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MacMurray has the “cleanest skirts” in the navy. Image:

Alas, MacMurray is someone we’ve been cheering for. His character is glib, amusing and savvy. He is the film’s comic relief, the person who voices our suspicions about Bogart. (MacMurray on Bogart: “This is the magnificent saga of a man whose lack of charm is exceeded only by his lack of intestinal fortitude.”)

MacMurray consistently disdainful of Bogart. He smirks when Bogart speaks and gives meaningful glances to other cast members. MacMurray sells us faulty merchandise when he does this; he convinces us Bogart is a crackpot who is unworthy of help or sympathy.

It is interesting, though, to compare the attributes MacMurray dislikes in Bogart with those of his own personality.

For example, he has nothing but derision when Bogart clumsily sidesteps responsibility, but MacMurray’s sidestep is sublime. He’s dumbfounded when Bogart perceives a theft of canned strawberries, but perceives he himself to be a master of psychiatry. He ridicules Bogart’s cowardice, but proves himself to be just as skittish.

Like Bogart, MacMurray operates under the assumption that he has everything under control. He knows what he’s doing, and we believe him.


After insisting Johnson stage a mutiny for the better part of the movie, MacMurray is suddenly vague during the court martial. Oh no, he never speculated about Bogart’s mental state. He had no idea what was really going on. After all, wasn’t he shocked – shocked! – to learn Johnson had taken control of the Caine?

MacMurray offers a perfect portrayal of a man who doesn’t think he’s a bad guy. He’s just someone who’s looking after Number One; others can tidy up the resulting mess.

The Caine Mutiny is a fascinating film with a lively script and a fabulous cast. In our opinion, it bends the traditional notions of villainy in a shrewd way.

The Caine Mutiny: starring Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer, Van Johnson. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Written by Stanley Roberts & Michael Blankfort. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1954, Colour, 127 mins.

This post is part of THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON, hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and yours truly. Click HERE for a list of all dastardly entries.


The Great Villain Blogathon: Day 1 Recap


What an exciting first day of the Great Villain Blogathon! Today’s posts look at villainy in men and women – as well as in mysterious flocks of birds.


A Person in the Dark looks at the “misunderstood” Mrs Iselin (Angela Lansbury) in The Manchurian Candidate.


Caftan Woman show us how Raymond Burr throws his weight around in Pitfall.


Moon in Gemini discusses the beautiful cinematography of The Conformist and its disturbing “protagonist” (Marcello Clerici).


Girls Do Film examines Fatal Attraction, and the über 1980s femme fatale, Glenn Close.


Movie Movie Blog Blog features the purely villainous Judge Claude Frollo in Disney’s underrated The Hunchback of Notre Dame.


Two Heads are Better Than One tells us why we can never trust birds again with The Birds.


CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch scrutinizes Peggy Cummins’ hold over John Dall in Gun Crazy.


Le Mot du Cinephiliaque analyzes the complexity of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining.


Shadows and Satin investigates the stages of Veda’s Villainy (Ann Blyth) in Mildred Pierce.


Now Voyaging profiles the smart and suave radio crime investigator Claude Rains in The Unsuspected.


The Stop Button examines the wealth of material available to villains in The Maltese Falcon.

Stay tuned! Kristina of Speakeasy will be hosting Day 2 of the Great Villain Blogathon tomorrow.


The Great Villain Blogathon Schedule


Mwahahaha! The Great Villain Blogathon is almost here!

Starting next Monday (April 13), we’ll be focusing on the Bad Guys in film and why we love (or love to hate) these scoundrels.

Below is the schedule of miscreants. Because some of these dastardly folks are so popular, there were some duplicate choices. In that case, we went with your second choice if your first selection was already taken. (In other words, “We are altering the deal. Pray we don’t alter it any further.”)

Just let us know if there are any oversights in the schedule below.


Now Voyaging Victor Grandison from The Unsuspected
Caftan Woman J.B. MacDonald / Pitfall
Sister Celluloid Lewt McCanles, Duel in the Sun
The Stop Button Kasper Gutman and friends in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Moon in Gemini Marcello Clerici, The Conformist
GirlsDoFilm Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction
Part Time Monster Frankenstein/Frankenstein’s creature
Movie Movie Blog Blog Judge Claude Frollo – Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame
Two Heads Are Better Than One The Birds from ‘The Birds”
CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch Annie Laurie-“Gun Crazy” (Peggy Cummins)
Bunnybun’s Classic Movie Blog Soledad Miranda in She Killed in Ecstasy
Le Mot du Cinephiliaque Jack Torrance/The Shining
A Person in the Dark Angela Lansbury, Manchurian Candidate
Shadows and Satin Veda Pierce


Speakeasy Dan Duryea – Winchester ’73
Queerly Different Artemisia (from “300: Rise of an Empire”)
The Right Writing Addie Ross
Mildred’s Fatburgers Sister Ruth in BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)
ZEN AND Π Johnny the Homicidal Maniac Catherine Tramell
wolffian classics movies digest The Third Man
Blockbuster Nostalgia Charles Muntz (from “Up”) Ed Concannon (The Verdict)
Silver Scenes Kirk Douglas in The List of Adrian Messenger
stars and letters Letter from Mark Damon to Vincent Price
Wide Screen World Villains of Superman II
Silver Screenings Fred MacMurray in “The Caine Mutiny”

APRIL 15 The Invisible Man in The Invisible Man
Movies Silently Ford Sterling in A MUDDY ROMANCE Ernest Borgnine in Emperor of the North
Let’s Go To The Movies 7 Female Villains
Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights Top 10 Batman movie villains
Flickin’ Out Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train
Frisco Kid at the Movies Noah Cross in CHINATOWN
Criterion Blues The Blob from The Blob (1958 &1988)
Random Pictures Victor Frankenstein/Flesh for Frankenstein
the last drive in Vincent Price-Dragonwyck & Robert Montgomery-Night Must Fall
Margaret Perry Shakespeare’s Richard III
Prowler Needs a Jump Stanley Timberlake from In This Our Life
B Noir Detour Richard Widmark Kiss/Death, Night/City & No Way Out
No Nonsense with Nuwan Sen Juhi Chawla as corrupt politician Sumitra Devi in Gulaab Gang (2014)
Sister Celluloid Lewt McCanles, Duel in the Sun


Critica Retro A ranking of the Disney villains!
The Vintage Cameo Lina Lamont
Cinematic Catharsis Princess Dragon Mom from Infra-Man (1975)
Make Mine Criterion! William Hare, William Burke, Dr. Robert Knox from The Flesh & the Fiends
Another Old Movie Blog George Coulouris in WATCH ON THE RHINE – 1943
ImagineMDD AFI’s 100 Greatest Villains List, analysis of the variety
Cary Grant Won’t Eat You The Heathers from Heathers
nitrateglow Richard III (Laurence Olivier’s 1955 version)
metaphlame Lucy (Jack Goes Boating)
Chasing Destino Harley Quinn
ZEN AND Π O-Ren Ishii
Desert Words Michael Corleone
The Wonderful World of Cinema The Truck (or The Truck Driver) in Duel
Back to the Viewer Joker (Heath Ledger) ‘The Dark Knight’
Vitaphone Dreamer Mrs. Danvers/Rebecca


Once Upon a Screen Harry Powell from The Night of the Hunter
Nitrate Diva Walter Huston as Flint in KONGO
Font and Frock Valerie Hobson and Stewart Granger in Blanche Fury
portraitsbyjenni Margaret Wycherly-Ma Jarrett in White Heat
Tales of the Easily Distracted Nick Ferraro (His Kind of Woman)
Ramblings of a Cinephile Idi Amin (Last King of Scotland)
Movie Classics Anton Walbrook and Charles Boyer in the two film versions of Gaslight
A Shroud of Thoughts Blofeld
The Filmatelist Voldemort
Random Pictures Doctor Gogol/Mad Love (1935)
Phyllis Loves Classic Movies Evil Twins: Bette Davis “A Stolen Life” & Olivia de Havilland “The Dark Mirror”
Dell on Movies Batman in The Dark Knight
MovieFanFare Walter Brennan in The Westerner and My Darling Clementine
The Stars are Ageless Earl Janoth in “The Big Clock” (1948)
Smitten Kitten Vintage Norman Bates, Psycho
In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood Bette Davis as Stanley Timberlake in “In This Our Life”
In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood Barbara Stanwyck as Martha Ivers in the “The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers”
Outspoken & Freckled Hans Landa- Inglourious Basterds
Silver Scenes Raymond Burr in “You’re Never Too Young”
CJC Leach Howard in Brief Encounter