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Screwball comedy is not something most directors can pull off easily but when it works, it's sublime, exhilarating and hilarious. During the heyday of this genre, however, there were just as many failures as there were successes but the reaction to It's a Wonderful World (1939) was decidedly mixed. Though the film benefited from the star luster ofClaudette Colbert and James Stewart and some witty gags from the great BenHecht, most critics at the time found it a strained attempt to revive agenre they were tired of already. Over time, however, the film hasdeveloped a devoted cult following as much intrigued by the casting as thescrewball antics. And it still draws viewers intrigued by the title'ssimilarity to one of Stewart's greatest films, It's a Wonderful Life (1946),and the film's historical position in relation to some of the stars' andwriters' most notable work.
Hecht was one of the most in-demand writers in Hollywood when he sat downwith the equally witty Herman J. Mankiewicz to put together a screwballfarce for MGM. They came up with a story about a private eye on the runfrom the law who takes an eccentric lady poet hostage to help him prove hisclient innocent of murder. They also came up with a series of clever gagsand disguises -- most notably Stewart's posing as an actor named ErnestHemingway and his impersonation of a gangling scout leader in short pants,scouting shirt and inch-thick glasses. Hecht even threw in some privatejokes, naming one character Willie Heyward in reference to his agent,Leland Hayward, and another Herman Plotka, a combination of his co-writer'sname and Mildred Plotka, the real name of the actress character in hisclassic farce Twentieth Century. With the script finished, Hechtwent on to his next project, an uncredited gig doctoring the script for Gone With the Wind (1939).
It's a Wonderful World was Colbert's first film at MGM, but herdreams of getting the Metro glamour treatment were dashed when directorW.S. Van Dyke was assigned to the picture. Although he had helped createthe screwball genre as director of The Thin Man in 1934, he waspopular with studio head Louis B. Mayer mainly because he worked quickly,earning the nickname "One Take Woody." His female star was appalled at howquickly he threw the film together, being used to the more leisurely paceat her home studio, Paramount, where great care was always taken toshowcase her beauty. Nor was she very happy when the film's road-trip plotled to less than favorable comparisons to her earlier hit It HappenedOne Night (1934). As consolation, she could revel in the more positivereviews for the film that had preceded this one, the glittering romanticcomedy Midnight (1939). Her next film was also an improvement as sheteamed with director John Ford and co-star Henry Fonda for Drums Alongthe Mohawk (1939).
Leading man Stewart was under contract to MGM at the time, but the studionever seemed to know how to exploit his talents until other studios led theway for them. A 1937 loan-out to Columbia for Frank Capra's You Can'tTake It With You had proven his skill at folksy comedy, which explainshis casting in this screwball farce. But his fans at the time werehorrified to see him playing a cynical and chauvinistic private eye who atone point even slugs his leading lady.
Although It's a Wonderful World got some good reviews, particularlyfrom Hecht fan Otis Ferguson in The New Republic, it was mostlydismissed by critics for having too many cheap laughs. Writing for theNew York Times, Frank Nugent complained, "Ben Hecht must have sentout native beaters with tom-toms and slapsticks to drive stray gags frommiles around into the Metro corral for It's a Wonderful World....Thecomedy is almost too strenuous for relaxation." After only three years asan MGM producer, Frank Davis would return to writing after this picture,scoring some of his biggest successes with his scripts for A Tree Growsin Brooklyn (1945) and The Train (1964). Before that, however,he would issue his own rather prophetic assessment of the production: "Thestudio should have known that Jimmy Stewart would never do any of thoseunconvincing things. However, I predict that his next film, Mr. SmithGoes to Washington , will more than make up."
Producer: Frank Davis
Director: W.S. Van Dyke II
Screenplay: Ben Hecht
Based on a story by Hecht and Herman J. Mankiewicz
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Edward Ward
Principal Cast: Claudette Colbert (Edwina Corday), James Stewart (GuyJohnson), Guy Kibbee (Capt. Streeter), Nat Pendleton (Sgt. Kortz), EdgarKennedy (Lt. Miller), Ernest Truex (Willie Heyward), Sidney Blackmer (AlMallon), Andy Clyde (Gimpy), Cecil Cunningham (Mme. Chambers), Hans Conried(Stage Manager), Grady Sutton (Lupton Peabody).
BW-87m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller