Funny Business

From Buck Privates to The Bank Dick, 10 vintage comedies show off a studio's Universal appeal.

Like its recent "Universal Noir" series, Oak Street Cinema's "Universal Laughter" has a title that's a double entendre: Seeming Universal in their appeal as well as their ownership, the 10 vintage comedies in this program range in nourishment from My Little Chickadee to the hearty Duck Soup. As it happens, the name "Universal Laughter" is also something of a joke in that no less than half of the 10 were produced at Paramount Pictures and are included here only because the rights to Paramount's pre-1949 catalog swung to Universal some years back. Hence a rarefied romance like The Palm Beach Story is even less universal than it sounds.

And that's fine: Great comedy always makes room for both the bon mot and the banana peel. Plus, the split personality of this retrospective further proves its peculiar auteur theory: that a company--as much as a director--can be the chief creative force behind a picture. What's paramount here is the idea that what's Universal isn't Paramount. In other words, Groucho Marx's Freedonia in Duck Soup and the Czechoslovakian scenes of Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (both Paramount) reflect a shared ideology, just as the stark look of Universal's backlot can't fully account for the striking similarity between the war-game scenes in Buck Privates and the image of Mae West playing Cowboys and Indians in Chickadee. What it all amounts to is the difference between the classy and the cut-rate, the sophisticated and the sophomoric, the political and the patriotic--in short, the difference in grade between the A movie and the B movie.

Let's take a roll call. The Marx Brothers (Duck Soup, Monkey Business) represent Paramount, whereas Abbott and Costello (Buck Privates) are from Universal. Directors Ernst Lubitsch (Bluebeard's) and Preston Sturges (Palm Beach Story) made films at Paramount, while Edward Cline (Chickadee, The Bank Dick) and Henry Koster (Harvey) punched the clock at Universal. Mae West cooing at Cary Grant to "Come up and see me sometime" (She Done Him Wrong) is Paramount, but Carole Lombard stumbling upon "forgotten man" William Powell in a high-society "scavenger hunt" (My Man Godfrey) is Universal. The "meet cute" scene between Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper while they shop for pajamas on the French Riviera (Bluebeard's) is Paramount; Jimmy Stewart feeding a 6-foot tall, invisible rabbit (Harvey) is Universal. The distinctions are profound. And yet it's no surprise that the issue is never mentioned in Universal's publicity for the series: The only auteur theory in Hollywood is that the studio with the most marbles wins, even if it takes 40 years.

If the authentic brand of "Universal Laughter" delivers the proletariat fantasy of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, The Bank Dick (screening Tuesday at 5:50 and 9:15 p.m.), which charts the class ascendance of a shabby drunk, is practically a comic allegory of the studio's methods. In this anarchic farce from 1940, W.C. Fields plays Egbert Souse, an alcoholic misanthrope who's offered the position of replacing some other alcoholic misanthrope as director of a movie. While on a bender at the Black Pussy Cafe, Souse accepts--but doesn't take the job too seriously. Instead, this faux aristocrat assumes the role of security-guard "bank dick," which gives him ample opportunity for irreverence while putting him in proximity to a higher class of living. Conversely, Fields himself was under contract to a studio that knew how to squeeze the last penny out of a dollar: In the same year as The Bank Dick, Universal opportunistically paired him with Mae West for My Little Chickadee (Wednesday at 9:40 p.m., Thursday at 6:30 and 9:40 p.m.), much as it would later throw Abbott and Costello together with Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman in a bid to forestall the waning popularity of each.

Universal's shrewd business sense has always involved catering to the outsider and cornering the youth market. Indeed, its teenage crooner Deanna Durbin picked up where Shirley Temple left off in the late '30s and is often credited with singlehandedly rescuing the studio from post-Depression syndrome. In the '40s, the company profited from the adult film noir and the so-called "sand 'n' sex" genre (e.g., Arabian Nights), but the big money came from its sympathy for the misfit, underdog, wolfman, and talking mule.

Between Francis, Bonzo, and Harvey in the '50s, Universal gave birth to the anthropomorphic animal movie and took it to market. The first of these, Harvey (Friday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m.), made in 1950, at least drew on the cartoon crowd's imagination in its tale of a drunk (James Stewart) and his invisible rabbit. But not for long. In his audiotaped intro to Harvey's video re-release (recorded in 1990), Stewart wistfully recalls seeing the matinee audience grow fidgety by the second act. "Where's the rabbit?" the kids were heard to ask. Small wonder that the following year Universal's Bedtime for Bonzo not only showed the chimp but practically peeled the banana and fed it to the viewer. (These days, in the era of digital FX, a kids' film like Harvey is inconceivable.)

On the other lot across town, Paramount's Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges peppered their pictures with alliterative allusions to Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew and the bathtub that belonged to Henry XIV (or was it a "wash basin"?). Lubitsch's alternately sublime and harrowing Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (Monday at 5:40 and 9:20 p.m.)--co-scripted in 1938 by the brilliant team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett--makes the battle of the sexes into a full-blown metaphor for the next world war. In Bluebeard, sex is a weapon and money is the bounty, as a flailing French aristocrat's daughter (Claudette Colbert) defends herself against the violent amorousness of the rich Yankee "Bluebeard" (Gary Cooper) by chewing like an "animal" on a handful of green onions--and marrying into his fortune.

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