12 Old-Hollywood Comedies for Trying Times

Consider these classic films for your next movie night.

Photo via Jeshoots.com/ Unsplash

Need some good Hollywood comedies to get you through the week? The decade of the 1930s gave us some of the most celebrated comedies on film. It was the time of the Great Depression, and audiences needed a good laugh.

Screwball was the signature comedic style of the decade. Screwball comedies were fast-paced and satirical, often poking fun at the excesses of high society amid the downer of breadlines and hopelessness. Generally, screwball comedies involved romance; typically, the sexes were battling.

Some 21st-century audiences might find it hard to watch films in black-and-white, with outdated cultural references and unfamiliar stars. But now is a good time to give them a shot. Here (in roughly chronological order) are 12 picks from the ‘30s for your at-home, on-demand enjoyment. Some are of the screwball variety; others are just plain silly.

1. She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Mae West created her iconic image as a bawdy, curvaceous sex bomb in vaudeville and on the New York stage. The persona transferred well to early talking pictures, as best seen in this dance-hall spoof, wherein West utters her classic line, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” to the handsome young Cary Grant. You can imagine what happens next. West was a genius at double entendre, a skill showcased to good effect in this musical-comedy. (Director: Lowell Sherman)

2. It Happened One Night (1934)

One of only three films to sweep the Big Five honors at the Academy Awards. (Do you know the others? See trivia answer at bottom of this article.*) Best actress–winner Claudette Colbert is the pampered socialite on the run. Best actor Clark Gable is the penniless newsman in pursuit of a scoop. Colbert’s classic line: “I’ll stop a car, and I won’t use my thumb.” (Director: Frank Capra)

3. It’s a Gift (1934)

Like Mae West, W.C. Fields got his start in vaudeville and successfully transferred his unique comic persona—sometimes scoundrel, sometimes loser—to the big screen. Here he’s a hapless grocery store owner who drags his nagging wife and annoying children to the promised land of California. Hilarious moments ensue. (Director: Norman Z. McLeod)

4. A Night at the Opera (1935)

Marx Brothers movies can be chaotic; this one is their most carefully plotted and thoroughly enjoyable. Highlight: The classic “stateroom” scene. (Director: Sam Wood)

5. My Man Godfrey (1936)

Carole Lombard was filmdom’s first great comedienne; this hilarious screwball comedy is her finest film. Lombard plays the spoiled-brat daughter in a wealthy family of spoiled brats. For a scavenger hunt, she brings home a skid-row tramp (magnificently played by the great William Powell), who is hired on as butler and whips the household into shape. Lombard and Powell earned Oscar nominations for their efforts. (Director: Gregory La Cava)

6. Libeled Lady (1936)

Jean Harlow is remembered as a sexual icon; forgotten is her impressive range as an actress. Here she shows her comic skills alongside three other great stars: William Powell, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. In this screwball comedy of errors, Tracy is a scheming newspaper editor who tries to lay a trap for socialite Loy—the libeled lady of the title. (Director: Jack Conway)

7. Modern Times (1936)

Some 10 years into the era of talking pictures, Charlie Chaplin brought back his iconic Little Tramp character for one last (largely) silent film, his critique on the pitfalls of technology. In a series of misadventures, the Little Tramp loses his job as a factory worker, gets arrested as a Communist agitator, stops a jailbreak, falls in love with a street urchin, gets arrested again, escapes, lands a new factory job, goes on strike—you get the picture. It’s total chaos, but utterly sublime. Classic scene: The Little Tramp gets caught in the giant gears of a malfunctioning machine. (Director: Charlie Chaplin)

8. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

A masterfully relaxed Gary Cooper plays Longfellow Deeds, a small-town hick who wants to give away the fortune he has inherited. Everyone thinks he’s nuts. Jean Arthur, another fine comic actress of the period, thinks he’s swell. The courtroom scene—in which Deeds is judged perfectly sane—is spot-on brilliant. (Director Frank Capra)

9. The Awful Truth (1937)

The wonderful Irene Dunne earned her third Oscar nomination for this screwball classic about a divorced couple trying their best to sabotage each other’s new romances. Cary Grant, Dunne’s frequent co-star, is perfect as her scheming ex. The awful truth is that they still love each other. (Director: Leo McCarey)

10. Nothing Sacred (1937)

Here’s the terrific Carole Lombard again, this time as Hazel Flagg, a Vermont woman who fools all of New York City into thinking she’s dying of radium poisoning. Fredric March plays the slick newsman who makes headlines with the hoax. Tragically, Lombard died five years later in a plane crash at the age of 33 while flying home from a war-bond rally. (Director: William A. Wellman)

11. Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Here’s Cary Grant again in another beloved Frank Capra film, often deemed the greatest of screwball comedies. Grant plays a goofy paleontologist who can’t avoid the attentions of an even goofier heiress, played to the hilt by the great Katharine Hepburn. With a great supporting cast, including the “baby” of the title, Hepburn’s pet leopard. (Director: Frank Capra)

12. Ninotchka (1939)

There never was a more serious actress than Greta Garbo. Here she shows off her comedic skills as an icy Russian bureaucrat whose tough veneer is melted away by love. Melvyn Douglas is great as the debonair object of Garbo’s affection. (Director: Ernst Lubitsch)


*Trivia answer: In addition to It Happened One Night, only two other films in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards have swept the big-five categories (best film, director, actress, actor and screenplay): One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
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