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Year by Year: Best Comedic Performances: 1940s

Year by Year: Best Comedic Performances: 1940s

Who are your favorite comedic actors? Think throughout the history of film. Chaplin? Keaton? Hepburn? What about more recent performers? Will Adam Sandler, Jack Black and Tina Fey live on and be remembered with the greats? Only time will tell.

Comedy is a slippery thing. What one person finds comic, another will not even crack a smile. Only a few comic performances are considered ubiquitous, telegraphing through space and time to make people laugh, people whose parents weren’t even born when the performance was committed to celluloid. These are the greatest roles and they still mean something, no matter your preferences.

We here at Spectrum Culture have decided to revive our Year by Year feature with the best comedic performances ever in mind. We pored through every screwball comedy and crappy SNL-inspired flick to create a list of the comedic performances from 1930-2010. The only rule? We could pick only one selection per year. Some years were easy, others nearly impossible to find one worthy suitor. Most difficult of all were the ones were numerous actors could have been the victor. Seriously? Cary Grant vs. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby? How does one choose? But what we did learn is that year after year, there are some great actors and actresses that will live on forever. I hope you enjoy the first part of this feature – David Harris

1940: Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday

Typically, Cary Grant is credited in His Girl Friday with the lead funny role, playing Walter Burns, a rapscallion newspaper editor who wins back his ex-wife and ex-reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell). But Russell is secretly the show-stealer; her Hildy’s barbed wit usually outpaces her smart-aleck ex-husband’s chicanery. Russell plays one of the first strong female leads in Hollywood cinema who is allowed to be simultaneously erudite, career-driven, romantic and harboring desires to start a family. Hildy is given a much more interesting character arc as she reacts to the increasingly absurd level of shenanigans going on around her. At the beginning of the film, she preens her feathers like a peacock at her old stomping grounds, triumphing in her new peaceful lifestyle as a “human being” instead of a newspaperman. But as she falls victim to Grant’s devious scams, Hildy begins to lose her head — and seemingly her hat in one hilarious scene, in which she absent-mindedly gets dressed while screaming about the location of her hat, which she is already wearing. In His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks wanted to capitalize on Grant’s known improvisational abilities during shooting, and had no idea what Russell was capable of — namely, that she could hold her own in a boys’ club, whether it was the fictional setting of a newspaper office or the real-life world of cutthroat show business. – Tina Hassannia

1941: Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire

There’s not much doubt that Barbara Stanwyck gives the best comedic performance of 1941. The real question is: which of her big screen turns tops the others? No one would be chastised for championing either her work opposite Gary Cooper in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe or squaring off against Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (though she was reunited with Fonda in it, you’ll probably find few ready to select her effort in You Belong To Me, a film that hasn’t endured like the others). Fine as those are, they don’t stand up to her firebrand fervor as Sugarpuss O’Shea in Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire. Playing a street smart nightclub singer who hides out with some stuffy, addled college professors (they first encountered her while researching a slang dictionary), Stanwyck burns with a wicked cunning that takes command of each scene just as assuredly as Sugarpuss is wrapping the erudite oak tree played by Cooper around her snappy finger. It’s a measure of her sharp, saucy allure that Stanwyck can even make calling someone a jerk into a come-on. – Dan Seeger

1942: Joel McCrea in The Palm Beach Story

Joel McCrea is the only one in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story who knows that everything going on around him is patently ridiculous. McCrea and his perpetually-furrowed brow plays Tom Jeffers, husband to the wacky and surprisingly cynical Gerry (Claudette Colbert). Gerry decides to leave the penniless Tom for adventure and a chance to marry into money, some of which she will give to Tom so he can realize his dreams. Palm Beach is part comedy of errors, part spoof of all those unbelievable Hollywood plots that keep tragic lovers apart at any cost, and Jeffers, who describes his work — and inadvertently, himself — as “simple and practical,” is helpless in the face of the chaos around him. And make no mistake, Palm Beach is chock full o’ chaos, and a stalwart straight man, “stiff as a plank” as he may be, is an absolute necessity. McCrea is no unadorned straight man, though. What makes McCrea’s performance such a stand-out is a constant simmering anger that powers all his wry one-liners, delivered with a keen, razor-sharp edge. His body is perpetually taut, always leaning just a little forward and ready to spring. McCrea is the personification of the sexual tension and conflict in the film while at the same time acting as audience surrogate. It’s a clever and audacious cinematic device, successful thanks to McCrea’s underappreciated performance. – Stacia Kissick Jones

1943: Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier

Though Jean Arthur spent a good chunk of her early career languishing in roles that any adorable woman could have played, she eventually became a terrifically popular actress of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Despite the effortless presence she exuded on screen, Arthur was plagued with stage fright, and ended her career soon after one of her finest performances in The More the Merrier (1943). As Connie Milligan, single young D.C. career woman, Arthur holds her own against a strong cast and a script that threatens to turn her into little more than caricature. When Connie rents out half of her apartment to Mr. Dingle (Charles Coburn, who won an Academy Award for the role) and Sgt. Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), she struggles to maintain control of her well-ordered life. Her precise schedules and demanding nature never seem forced but rather completely believable, as Arthur whole-heartedly embraces the flawed and wonderful Connie, seeing humor in situations that most of us real life would not. The scene on the front stoop of Joe’s and Connie’s apartment is arguably the most well-known, though an earlier scene where Joe gives her a travel case is one of the most strikingly intimate scenes captured on film, and it’s entirely due to Arthur’s magnificent throaty voice and deft comedic timing. As terrific as the rest of the cast is, it’s Jean Arthur who turns this wartime comedy-romance into a delightfully sublime meditation on love and sexual attraction. – Stacia Kissick Jones

1944: Eddie Bracken in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

In the two Preston Sturges-directed films in which he stars, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Eddie Bracken plays characters who flagrantly let themselves be used and, in the process, become swept up by a current, a wave of unceasing human activity propelling them to a fate determined elsewhere. Bracken specializes in the lovable sap, a man in the perfect image of our masculine fears, and he achieved this decades before the archetype of the lovable wimp (e.g. Michael Cera) had even begun to coalesce. In the film, Bracken’s Norval Jones agrees to play pretend as the husband of the woman he is hopelessly in love with, Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), after she gets drunk, marries a soldier, and then loses contact with him entirely by the next morning. His submissive willingness is pathetic, on the one hand, but then sweet, funny and endearing by the time it’s all over. This is something only a comedy can really do, and although Bracken may be a dweeby presence, he is also utterly human, one of the many Sturges actors who bursts out of the screen with gawky, unorthodox energy. — Trevor Link

1945: Lucille Ball in Without Love

Lucille Ball become a huge comedy star on television – one of the first of the then nascent medium – but she spent nearly two full decades trying to crack filmdom before “I Love Lucy” debuted on CBS in the fall of 1951. There were a few ups and a lot of downs as she made her way across those Hollywood lots, but there’s no performance that better exhibits the engaging alternate career that might have been than her spirited supporting turn as Kitty Trimble in Without Love. This lesser know Tracy-Hepburn comedy casts the star pair as feuding scientists who enter into a marriage of convenience (that naturally grows into something more) but Ball steals the picture as Hepburn’s sharp-tongued, somewhat lusty pal. She has some of the same sardonic wit that made Eve Arden an always-welcome presence during the same era, but it’s merged with a snap of sex appeal. Ball made her fame with childish antics. This take-charge performance is closer to the person she was behind the camera, the one that had the smarts to make “Lucy” into an icon. – Dan Seeger

1946: Henry Travers in It’s a Wonderful Life

I’ve written about Frank Capra’s immortal film It’s a Wonderful Life before, but mostly to highlight the darkness beneath both Bedford Falls and its evil twin Pottersville. But pitch black as the film might get, there may not be a gentler, more sweetly comic portrayal in cinema than its guardian angel. As Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, Henry Travers is the opposite of what religious iconography has taught us is angelic. He’s no stern, wingéd warrior of the Lord; instead, he’s a daffy old man who seems befuddled by the world. But there’s canniness to Clarence, even when George Bailey (James Stewart) is at his most doubtful. As played by Travers, Clarence is a gormless innocent, someone who could never be angry with even the most domestic of abusers or allow himself to be fooled by him. It’s a sadly overlooked aspect of one of our most beloved of films, that of a spirit trying to do his wry best for us simple mortals. He’s trying to get his wings, after all. – Nathan Kamal

1947: Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux

Chaplin pushed America to enter World War II, but he delivered this, the blackest of comedies, at the conflict’s end to mercilessly puncture any feeling of moral victory. His Verdoux makes for an enduringly relevant monster, an image of capitalism’s rotted soul both condensed into human form and extrapolated to its most nightmarish extreme. The great master perverts his iconic (and highly profitable) image and effortless charisma, using his charm to lure unwitting widows to their deaths. The misogyny is palpable, and James Agee’s contemporary critique incisively noted that Verdoux even manages to corrupt the love of the one female he does respect when he refuses to process his true wife’s lament that they were happier poor than they are with her husband’s mysterious good fortune. In a lacerating attack on his own sentiment, Chaplin sets up Verdoux’s one act of sparing mercy as his undoing, and his climactic monologue turns the artist’s laddish, disarming smile into a jagged sneer. It is the coldest, most bitingly satirical performance of the 20th century, and Chaplin’s timing and body language was never more precise. No, not even in the silents. – Jake Cole

1948: Rex Harrison in Unfaithfully Yours

Speaking in clipped, haughty eloquence, Rex Harrison takes the unabashed cleverness of Preston Sturges dialogue and recasts it as black-comic villainy. Inadvertently hiring a private eye to tail his wife, Harrison’s Alfred finds himself driven to thoughts of murder when the detective gives vague evidence that she might have had an affair. Coming a year after Chaplin’s bleak turn as a literal ladykiller, Harrison’s bumbling, mostly fantasized dreams of spousal homicide do for screwball what Chaplin did for slapstick. The latter, for all its comic ineptitude, is a completed action, physically executed. The latter is verbal, talk of action rather than action itself. A look of mad ecstasy etches Harrison’ face as he concocts revenge fantasies that propel him to new compositional heights, while his clumsy attempt to go through with the crime mines as much tension as laughter as the audience realizes a person’s life is on the line. When Alfred receives Daphne’s forgiveness at the end for his “temperament,” the classic resolution of a screwball never looks more unsettling for what it cheerfully buries. – Jake Cole

1949: Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets

Alec Guinness may not have the lead role in Kind Hearts and Coronets (that goes to the equally, if not as expansively, good Dennis Price), but the magnitude of the Ealing star’s octopedal performance takes over the entire film. Sure, the fact that he hogs most of the movie’s meatiest roles may seem like a form of cheating, but taking on so many different parts without slipping into mannered broadness can be difficult – see the terrifying family scenes in Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor movies for proof. Instead, Guinness soft-pedals the differences between his eight members of the doomed Ascoyne clan, giving performances that thrive on their relative subtlety, with small gestures and odd quirks turning what might be ridiculous stock characters into sly satirical vehicles that push past the usual stereotypes. – Jesse Cataldo

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