In a Plague-Time Extended: Some Light Moments from Film and TV
Twenty-third in an ongoing series, Notes from a Plague-Time
Quick quiz: Are you sick and tired of the COVID-19 pandemic, now extending into Year Three? Are you done worrying which letter of the Greek alphabet — after alpha, delta, omicron — is heading for us next? Are you exhausted with anger at the “vaccine-resistant,” thanks in big part to whom we‘re forced into Year Three and deeper into the Greek alphabet? Are you underwhelmed by the “authorities” handling the pandemic, with the Biden White House and CDC unable even to coordinate on messaging?
If your answer is “All of the above,” you are in massive company.
Of course, our frustration is tempered by sadness at the inexorable death toll, around the world and in America, where it is approaching the 1 million mark — repeat: 1 million — highest in the industrialized world (not how America wants to be “exceptional”). And now comes sobering word from epidemiologists that: “This virus is not going away. It’s going to be with us for a long time.” So much for reaching endemicity, where getting COVID becomes as “normal” as getting flu — the target we prayed for. So stay buckled up, the bumpy ride continues.
In this household, even Mr. Steady State, my husband Larry, is feeling it: He’s been clenching his jaw so tight of late, furious not only at the above-cited conditions but the “gross ineptitude” in their handling, that he developed major muscle pain. I now remind him, “Unclench, Dear!”
Clearly, we all could use some laughter, “the best medicine.” Here are my favorites from film and TV, which I go to whenever, to personalize a Wordsworth line, “The world is too much with me.” So vivid are these gems that I can roll tape in the theatre of my mind, and still smile. Most of the films I cite are from Hollywood’s golden age, the 1930s and ’40s, with a nod to more recent fare. (Why I don’t find more fun in today’s more “sophisticated” and “adult” fare would take a book.) My husband got relief from one link in particular. Enjoy these clips, please, in which the human parade parades its endearing — and funny — humanity. (Apologies for the ads preceding some.)
See Jimmy Stewart pay a midnight call — drunk — to Cary Grant, in “The Philadelphia Story” (1940). Stewart, playing a reporter covering the Main Line wedding of Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), finds himself falling for the debutante, in which case he has a question for her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant). Stewart won the best actor Oscar for this performance.
See Katharine Hepburn, playing a know-it-all, get completely flummoxed at a baseball game, in “Woman of the Year” (1942). Tess Harding, foreign affairs columnist, intrigues Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy), sportswriter at the same newspaper, so he takes her out to his turf. They fall in love, marry. See Tess, no cook, try to make breakfast for her husband.
See Katharine Hepburn tear Cary Grant’s coat, in “Bringing Up Baby” (1938). Hepburn plays a ditz falling in love with a scholar (Grant). In mad pursuit, she causes one accident after another — she doesn’t mean to, but she does. See Grant’s character, shortly thereafter, try to keep his dignity, without success. (Grant began his career as an acrobat.)
See William Powell go fishing — or try to — in “Libeled Lady” (1938). Powell, wooing the lovely Myrna Loy character, passes himself off as an expert fisherman to impress her expert fisherman father (Walter Connolly). Powell doesn’t know diddly, but he learns — the hard way.
See Rosalind Russell ask for a divorce from her charming but negligent husband (Cary Grant), in “His Girl Friday” (1940). Russell, playing a former reporter on Grant’s newspaper, wants to marry Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). But we see instantly: These two are a match — if only they can get the work-life balance thing right, a thing very much with us now.
See Joel McCrea as a movie director pitch his studio bosses on hard-hitting content for “troublous times,” the Great Depression, in “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941). His bosses, plugging for comedy, ask what he knows of hardship. Sullivan knows diddly, so he goes on the road — and learns the value of a good laugh, as we are now.
See Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in the famous hitchhiking scene, in “It Happened One Night” (1934). Colbert, playing an heiress on the lam, meets a reporter (Gable) on a bus. Running out of money, they resort to hitchhiking and she lands them a ride, “using a system all my own.” This film swept the Oscars: for best actor, actress, film, and director (Frank Capra).
See Barbara Stanwyck, reforming card-sharp, deal cards to her card-sharp father, in “The Lady Eve” (1941). Falling for straight arrow Henry Fonda, Stanwyck attempts to get straight from the hustle she and father (Charles Coburn) ply on cruise-ships. See Fonda take pratfall after pratfall: After he, wised up, renounces her, she gets back at him, in a guise curiously like that earlier lady.
See Humphrey Bogart, as detective Philip Marlowe working a case, walk into a bookstore, in “The Big Sleep” (1946). And see Bogie walk into a bookstore across the street, to meet Dorothy Malone. The case in question is notoriously impossible to unpack; it’s just fun to see tough-guy Bogie be funny. This scene with Lauren Bacall shows why they became a pair, in film and life.
See Garbo laugh, in “Ninotchka” (1939). Greta Garbo plays a Russian Communist party official, in Paris to check on reports of comrades succumbing to Western decadence. In a charming scene, she meets a Frenchman, Leon (Melvin Douglas), who, falling for her, tries to get the stern Russian to laugh — and, finally, he does (photo at top).
And see Bette Davis deliver the immemorable line, “I’d kiss ya but I just washed my hair,” from “Cabin in the Cotton” (1932). The clip is just seconds long, but Davis’ flair for fun registers.
From films of more recent vintage:
See Dustin Hoffman, an out-of-work actor who finally gets a job, accost his disbelieving agent, in “Tootsie” (1982). Taunted by his agent (“Nobody wants to work with you, Michael!”), and desperate for a job, he passes himself off as a woman to land a lead role in a TV soap opera. Which news he cannot wait to reveal to his agent, who’s dining at the swank Russian Tea Room.
See Peter Falk and Alan Arkin in the hilarious “serpentine” scene from “The In-Laws” (1979). Brothers-in-law, Falk is a former spy while Arkin is a staid dentist (though with Arkin, staid doesn’t stay put for long). Here, in an unnamed Latin American country, the duo is caught up in Falk’s hare-brained caper (too serpentine to unpack), which is going wildly wrong. Comic gold ensues. (This is the clip that relieved my husband’s jaw pain: Laughing so hard, he unclenched.)
See Cher and Nicolas Cage in the hilarious “Snap out of it!” slapping scene from “Moonstruck” (1987). Cher’s character Loretta is the one needing to snap out of it, because, as she’ll see, she’s engaged to the wrong brother. In a finale involving her whole family, all is put right, reminding us that only in comedy is the world restored to its proper order. Still, we can hope for a better world post-COVID.
“Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”: Bureaucrats don’t often get a spotlight, much less a series. “Yes, Minister,” from BBC and aired on PBS, gives pride of place to the bureaucrat — and the grinding but fierce drama of planting one’s banner on a piece of policy, puny or grand. The minister in question, aptly named Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington), is head of the fictional Department of Administrative Affairs, in Whitehall. His Nemesis: the head of the British Civil Service — Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne), with emphasis on “permanent”: his raison d’etre is to block Hacker, always. Their rivalry remains intact when Hacker is elevated to 10 Downing. Caught in the middle: poor Bernard (Derek Fowlds), Hacker’s chief of staff, who gamely acts as translator between these two foreign bodies. The acting is superb, especially that of Hawthorne: Nobody does seething indignation better.
Power being of eternal interest, this series, airing from the early through late 1980s, remains remarkably fresh and relevant. For example, Britain’s eventual exit from the European Union (Brexit) is presaged 30 years earlier in this clip from the episode “Why Is the U.K. in the E.U.?” In this clip from “If the Right People Don’t Have Power,” we see the ancient battle over admission to the inner sanctum. In “Hacker vs. Humphrey,” we see the central rivalry, vividly. Short clips are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. A compilation of “best moments” is here. Given America’s bitter politics and polarization today, and its decimated federal bureaucracy, this series is tonic.
For another send-up of authority from abroad (Australia), the duo Clarke and Dawe, in which an investigative reporter puts it to the senator investigating a shipping accident, in “The Front Fell Off.”
“Murphy Brown”: I loved this series, running from the late ’80s to late ’90s, because it featured a feisty female professional who was both brilliant and funny, a rare combination for women characters. Murphy is the star investigative reporter for a “60 Minutes”-type show, “FYI”; also a recovering alcoholic, she must prove her competitive props. She does so, taking on socially-relevant issues; the comedy lies in how she goes over the top with her zeal. Candice Bergen is superb putting over that zealous humanity. Adding to the humanity are her colleagues: anchor Jim Dial, fellow investigative reporter Frank Fontana, and “lite” news reporter Corky Sherwood.
My favorite episode (which I could not find, sorry): when Murphy is fired and she plots her comeback with her usual over-the-topness. Also: when, after a bad day, Murph gets to sing (badly) with Aretha Franklin. Here is a short clip where Murphy meets her 25-year-old executive producer Miles Silverberg and a 42-minute clip of “best moments,” with Bergen recalling how she almost passed up the role, not reading the script until on a plane and calling, in-flight, to say “Yes!” While I liked other comedy series — “M.A.S.H.,” “Cheers,” “All in the Family” — I loved “Murphy Brown.”
(Friends who know I’m an ardent soccer fan urge me to catch the current hit series “Ted Lasso,” about an American coach of a minor-league English team; I will, I will.)
Finally: Nichols and May. Remarkably for a team that was together so briefly, from the late 1950s into the early ’60s, Mike Nichols and Elaine May had lasting impact on comedy. Coming out of the predecessor (Compass Players) to Chicago’s Second City improv group, Nichols and May improvised a new kind of smart comedy, freeing it from gags and schtick. Their comedy sublime, their trajectory meteoric, they ended by mutual agreement to do other things (Nichols as theatre and film director, May as film director and screenwriter). Readers will have their favorites: the one where the mother calls her rocket scientist son; the one where total mediocrity is rewarded; the one where Nichols begs a series of telephone operators to get his dime back.
But my favorite Nichols and May is “The $65 Funeral,” about a man inquiring into an ad for a really-really low-cost funeral. I start laughing at the opening — “Welcome to Long Dust.” I hope, given the COVID death toll that keeps on tolling, that this choice is not in bad taste. But, at the end of the day, it’s good to laugh at death, isn’t it?
Enjoy these clips— and unclench.
For other posts in my “Plague-Time” series, please see here.