A couple of legendary scripters, Ben Hecht & Herman J. Mankiewicz, had the neat idea of putting the usual suspects & farcical doings of a ‘Screwball’ comedy inside a Hitchcockian innocent-man-on-the-run story, specifically THE 39 STEPS/’35. Right down to having the bickering leads spend an uncomfortable night handcuffed together.* But while their intentions are right on the money, the execution, as so often with second-tier screwballs, isn’t all it might be. Still, when they aren’t pushing too hard, James Stewart (as a private dick on the lam to prove his client’s innocence) & Claudette Colbert (a poetess hoping for adventure & a bit of notoriety to boost sales) are plenty charming. Watch them interact on a boat where Claudette is briefly turned into a living cameo portrait when seen thru a port hole or earlier when Jimmy grabs Claudette like a bag of potatoes off a rickety fence. In general, the silly detective story works better than the gags, and the funniest scene is all cops & dicks as comic flatfoots Nat Pendleton, Edgar Kennedy & Guy Kibbee get dressed down by a Captain. This guy has the chutzpah to pull a slow burn on Edgar Kennedy, the greatest slow-burn artist in film history! Now, that’s screwy.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The reason this more than respectable Screwball is rarely revived becomes all too apparent late in the film when Stewart hides out with a summer stock company and puts on Blackface (and a ‘darkie’ accent) as a disguise. Oy veh!
DOUBLE-BILL: *A true Hitchcock innocent-man-on-the-run wouldn’t be a detective already on the case, but someone who gets accidently pulled in. Yes? No? Maybe? Well, think of NOTORIOUS/’46, the great collaboration from Hitch & Hecht. There, neither Cary Grant nor Ingrid Bergman could be described as an uninvolved accidental bystander. Or, go in the other direction and check out Hitch’s one & only Screwball, and a pretty good one, MR. & MRS. SMITH/’41. A film made at the specific request of Carole Lombard, the Queen of Screwball, whose rep was made by . . . Ben Hecht in Howard Hawks’ TWENTIETH CENTURY/’34.