Monday, July 5, 2010

'Comedy' Needs More Time

"No Time for Comedy" is an odd romp featuring James Stewart and Rosalind Russell that I wish worked a little better and had a little more fun.

This 1940 film is based upon S.N. Behrman's popular 1939 Broadway play and is about Broadway itself. Russell is successful stage actress Linda Paige, who's toiling away in a new play that no one likes. When the unknown playwright Gaylord Esterbrook (Stewart) shows up in NYC, his first trip to any big city, his small-town demeanor puts off most people except for Paige. She's willing to continue in the play and convinces others to do the same, despite a questionable third act.

The play is a hit, Esterbrook and Paige marry, and the two form a successful union -- both professional and personal. However, after a number of successful collaborations, Esterbrook is wooed by a benefactress (Genevieve Tobin), who loves to take talented men under her wing and try to impress great art -- and love -- upon them. The men end up demanding that they be taken more seriously, and Esterbrook is no exception.

This was the only time Russell and Stewart worked together, and it's a shame on two levels -- they clearly have chemistry and this piece doesn't give them enough to do. Considering that this was released in the same year that Russell made "His Girl Friday" and Stewart made "The Philadelphia Story," "No Time for Comedy" is a featherweight and almost dull by comparison.

Which is a shame, because the elements are there. Perhaps this worked best on stage. After all, it was a hit with Laurence Olivier, who was on Broadway with this piece between making "Wuthering Heights" and "Rebecca." And you can easily dissect the film into three parts.

But somehow the discussion in the opening part of the film about Easterbrook's first play, in which everyone loves the first act but wonders about the next two, applies to this movie. The first act is genuinely funny. Stewart plays the fish out of water role so well, giving Esterbrook a child-like excitement about seeing a subway or being in a skyscraper. Stewart is charming all the way, and it's easy to see why Russell falls for him.

But in the second act the laughs fade away. Tobin is initially fun but her Mandy wears thin, and it becomes hard to see why Stewart is so enamored with her. If I were Russell, I'd kick him out and say "good riddance."

It's interesting to note that Tobin is the wife of the film's director, William Keighley. This is her last film appearance, and the two were married for nearly 50 years. And, it's surprising to see how one of the movie posters (pictured above) features Stewart and Tobin, with Russell nowhere in sight. I'm guessing the character of Mandy is supposed to be a scene-stealer, which is why she's more prominently featured.

Actually, the best supporting player is Louise Beavers as Clementine, a bit actress who then becomes Russell's maid. Beavers has the best lines and continues to be funny when the story hits its bumps.

The climax is no real surprise, and by the end I was wanting more. Not more of this film, but more of Stewart and Russell and another pairing of these two. "No Time for Comedy" is pleasant enough, but these fine stars had already proven that they could do better.


  1. I saw this not too long ago and absolutely agree with your assessment. I actually would not have been as kind as you were if I had written about it. Considering the talent involved, this was for me a huge dud. Keighley, who seemed to specialize in movies adapted from plays, directed some good ones, including "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and also the atypical gangster movie "G-Men" with Cagney playing a good guy for once. Both Russell and Stewart (he sure made a lot of movies that year, didn't he?) sounded right for their parts, yet they both seemed to be floundering with the material, which to me was highly contrived and wholly unamusing. Actually, I didn't detect much chemistry between the two, which surprised me--she seemed too assertive and humorless and he seemed too passive and preoccupied, and somehow rather than complementing each other, they seemed to me to grate against each other. Luckily, Keighley, Russell, and Stewart more than made up for this turkey pretty quickly.

  2. "The Man Who Came to Dinner" is so good, but the source material is better than "No Time for Comedy." I wonder if this was trying to evoke Noel Coward but misfired. I thought Russell and Stewart had chemistry in the first third, but then it goes south. Russell has little to do at this point, which is a shame.

  3. Filmboy, I forgot to congratulate you on your blog's new look. I tinkered with some of the new design templates but decided to stick with my old one for the time being. And your photo has at last revealed your true identity--Mr. Benjamin Dingle!

  4. Thank you! I can't believe how it turned out. I got lucky. As for Mr. Dingle, I'm planning on showing "The More The Merrier" in a class next spring. I just hope people at work don't start calling me Mr. Dingle ... :)