‘No Time for Comedy’ (1940)

[20 January 2014]

By Michael Barrett

Now available on demand from Warner Archive is No Time for Comedy, an allegedly gay, chic, brittle comedy of the Broadway world. It’s got everything going for it aside from being dull and predictable, although that’s worked before and since. We’re asked to believe that a hick from the sticks (Minnesota actually) named Gaylord Esterbrook (James Stewart, tall and bashful) has just sold his first Broadway play and it’s already being rehearsed while the producer and director and actors haven’t met him yet. If you can swallow that, you’re ready for the whole plot.

In the first act, his witty comedy is a hit with the public, and he’s a hit with leading lady Linda Paige (Rosalind Russell, tall and preening), so they get married. In another movie, that would have taken 90 minutes and been the end of it. Here, a montage sequence informs us that four years later, they’ve had four more hits together. Now we finally arrive at the hitch. A kind of intellectual vamp (Genevieve Tobin) sweeps in to flatter Gay that he’s got a meaningful play deep inside him, something for a serious world, something gloomy and pretentious. Now we understand where this is going: he must learn a lesson about trying something out of his comfort zone, especially something that doesn’t make people laugh.

The definitive movie on this theme was Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, still two years away. This property, scripted by the illustrious brothers Julius & Philip Epstein (Casablanca) from a play by the equally illustrious S.N. Behrman, would seem to have its origins in Behrman’s experiences as a successful writer of witty plays. As if often the case, the best lines go to supporting roles like Charles Ruggles and Allyn Joslyn, who stand around being droll in dinner jackets. Some life is breathed into it by Louise Beavers as an actress who’s also a maid, and who plays maids, and whose purpose is to be uppity without crossing completely into obnoxious stereotype. In other words, her character is as phony as everyone else, but at least she’s not uptight about it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/177865-no-time-for-comedy/