Carole Lombard escorts hobo William Powell to the scavenger hunt early on in the 1936 classic "My Man Godfrey." It's justly considered one of the great screwball comedies of all time...except, perhaps, to some Hollywood screenwriters.
The Writers Guild of America recently polled its members to determine the 101 funniest screenplays in movie history, and "Godfrey," believe it or not, didn't make the list. In fact, none of Lombard or Powell's movies qualified.
Which means no "Twentieth Century," "Hands Across the Table," "Nothing Sacred" or "To Be Or Not To Be" for Lombard, and no "The Thin Man," "Libeled Lady" (with that brilliant fishing scene) or "Love Crazy" for Powell.
Now, much of this probably is the recent of memory having a recency bias. Anyone who recalls the glory days of Top 40 radio knows that when stations compiled their listeners' choices into an "all-time top 300" or something similar, a disproportionate number of songs were from within the past half-decade. (I recall a survey from WOLF in Syracuse in 1969 where only a handful of songs came from the pre-Beatle era -- and the oldest selection was 1961's "Runaway" by Del Shannon.)
Perhaps that's why when I asked veteran comedy writer Ken Levine (second from left, and no, I'm not pictured here), a former Top 40 jock, about the WGA survey, he largely dismissed the results. This was at an event honoring the 10th anniversary of Ken's wonderful blog http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/
-- and, ironically, it was held at the Billy Wilder library of the WGA building at 3rd and Fairfax, diagonally across from Farmers Market. (Someday when my screenwriting ship comes in, I hope to be a member.)
So what did
make the list (http://www.wga.org/content/default.aspx?id=5949
)? First of all, it was topped by...
..."Annie Hall," and la-dee-dah, you'll get no complaints from me on that one -- I'm an unabashed Woody Allen fan, and he occasionally still delivers the comedic goods ("Midnight in Paris"). Next in line were Wilder's "Some Like it Hot," followed by "Groundhog Day" and "Airplane!" -- all sensible choices.
So what pre-World War II screenplays cracked the list? Not many.
The Marx Brothers' masterpiece "Duck Soup" topped this subcategory at No. 17 (between "Bridesmaids" and "There's Something About Mary," whose humor is a far cry from Groucho, Chico, Harpo and even Zeppo), followed by the rapid-fire "His Girl Friday" at 21st and "Bringing Up Baby" at 24th. Here's where my ire comes to the fore.
Why does "Baby" invariably get the love "Godfrey" doesn't? Turner Classic Movies never uses "Godfrey" in its promos, whereas "Baby" is seen all the time. And "Godfrey" has a heart and soul its rival lacks. If Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn -- both far better remembered today than Lombard or Powell -- had made "Godfrey" and Bill and Carole had done "Baby," might things be reversed?
With that rant over -- forgive me -- back to the classic-era reps on the list:
32. "The Lady Eve" (1941)
35. "Sullivan's Travels" (1941)
37. "The Philadelphis Atory" (1940)
38. "A Night at the Opera" (1935)
47. "It Happened One Night" (1934)
57. "The General" (1926)
72. "The Palm Beach Story" (1942)
82. "Modern Times" (1936)
90. "City Lights" (1931)
94. "The Gold Rush" (1925)
95. "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (1944)
97. "Arsenic and Old Lace" (filmed 1941, released 1944)
So 15 films of the 101 are from 1944 or earlier, four of them from Preston Sturges. But note not a single Ernst Lubitsch film was mentioned (and yes, he didn't write his own films, but those who did certainly reflected his sensibilities). And it would have been a travesty if "You've Got Mail" had made the list, since the film that inspired it, "The Shop Around the Corner," didn't. (I'd have also liked to have seen at least one Harold Lloyd film on this list, more so "Girl Shy" than the better-known "Safety Last!")
I understand the biases of the writers, particularly the younger ones. But film history properly should be taken in a complete context. Many of the films that made the cut soon will be viewed as a cinematic flavor of the month, and chances are many of them won't crack this list the next time it's compiled.
In the meantime, I hope many of these voters will check out "Godfrey," "Libeled Lady," "Corner" and other gems from Lombard, Powell and Lubitsch, my all-time favorite actress, actor and director. They might get a better idea of what timeless comedy is all about.