Saturday night I watched Wisconsin beat up on Nebraska and earn a third straight trip to the Rose Bowl, but during commercial breaks clicked over to Turner Classic Movies, which was showing Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. It had been a long time since I had seen it, and I was reminded of what a wonderful film it is. Not one of Sturges’ laugh-out-loud funniest (that would be either The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek or the first half of The Lady Eve), but still amazingly witty and, more importantly, humane. The movie is ultimately about the importance and power of laughter and, if you haven’t seen it, you should put it in your Netflix queue so that you can rectify that oversight as soon as possible.
Speaking of Netflix, the latest movie in my queue was The Shop Around the Corner, which I happened to watch last night. The director was Ernst Lubitsch, who was a friendly Hollywood and comic rival of Sturges’ in the 1940s. In fact, there is a running joke in Sullivan’s Travels, where the character obviously based on Sturges himself promises to get a struggling Hollywood actress (played brilliantly by Veronica Lake) an audition with Lubitsch. The Shop Around the Corner features one of Jimmy Stewart’s best performances (yes, I know what a claim that is) as well as charming turns by Margaret Sullivan, Frank Morgan (who also played the wizard in The Wizard of Oz), and a host of other, long-forgotten actors.
Not to be judgmental, but if you want to see how much the moral universe of Hollywood has changed, watch these two sophisticated 1940s comedies on back-to-back nights, then go out and watch any current release. It was bracing to see Sturges and Lubitsch on successive nights and realize their comedic successors are Judd Apatow and the Farrelly Bros -both of whom I often like. Still, the decline in intelligence and sophistication between either of these classics and “Dumb and Dumber” is obvious and more than a little depressing.