The 39 comedies—screwball, black, musical, and otherwise—in Film Forum’s “Madcap Manhattan” series span the Jimmy Walker through the Ed Koch administrations. Several titles have been in heavy rotation on Film Forum’s calendar for years—but can you really complain about another showing of My Man Godfrey? Second-guessing the lineup is inevitable: If you’re choosing one Scorsese, why King of Comedy and not After Hours? Why the downer It’s Always Fair Weather, the follow-up to On the Town, instead of the effervescent original? But that’s just caviling: This retrospective is balm, a much-needed alternative to the bloated Oscar bait and other white elephants of December.
Excellent double features pair a repertory evergreen with a lesser-known treasure. Both veteran Barbara Stanwyck fans and new initiates into the cult will flock to see Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire (1941), in which our Stanny, as sparkly nightclub canary Sugarpuss O’Shea, hips square linguist Gary Cooper to the drum boogie and the joys of slang (“I’ll get you on the Ameche”). But the real revelation is Leigh Jason’s rarely screened The Mad Miss Manton (1938), the first pairing of Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, already displaying the electric chemistry they would perfect three years later in The Lady Eve. Stanny, who often played proles in the ’30s, finds herself in a new tax bracket as sleuthing Park Avenue heiress Melsa Manton, leading her Junior League gal pals on a chase to find a murderer, and suing Fonda’s newspaper reporter for libel. But when she assaults him, it’s love at first slap.
Shopgirls are the heroines of “Madcap Manhattan,” indefatigable clock-punchers who teach rapacious capitalists valuable lessons about child-rearing and union-organizing. Toiling behind the Donald Duck counter at Merlin’s department store during the Christmas rush, Ginger Rogers’s single Polly Parrish inherits a foundling in Garson Kanin’s Bachelor Mother (1939). Gadabout Merlin scion David (David Niven) takes an interest in mother and child’s welfare, while Pop Merlin (Charles Coburn) is convinced the little bundle is really his grandson. In the meantime, working mom Polly shows that David’s baby-care books are hooey.
Coburn plays another titan of industry in Sam Wood’s The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), working undercover at his own department store on 38th Street to find out which disgruntled employees burned him in effigy at a recent demonstration. He is assigned to the children’s-shoe department, under the kind tutelage of Jean Arthur’s Mary Jones, who shows the tycoon how plebes relax at Coney Island—and teaches him that “moral issues are pretty important” in the treatment of workers.
Moral issues go down the toilet during Mayor Lindsay’s reign, as two films from 1971 illustrate, with varying degrees of paranoia and nihilism, the craziness of living in Zoo York. Alan Arkin’s Little Murders, written by Jules Feiffer and based on his play, finds professed “apathist” photographer Alfred (Elliott Gould) beaten up and then rescued by determined optimist Patsy (Marcia Rodd), who will later die in Alfred’s arms after sniper fire hits her. Alfred barricades himself in the West End Avenue digs of Patsy’s family, where he’ll join her dad and brother in the glee of picking off pedestrians. In Milos Forman’s first American film, Taking Off, Lynn and Larry Tyne (Lynn Carlin and Buck Henry) go in search of their runaway teenage daughter, Jeannie (Linnea Heacock). In their quest, the couple leaves the comfort of their Forest Hills home, discovering the East Village, pot, the Society for Parents of Fugitive Children—and Ike and Tina Turner.
Sandra Bernhard’s rabid, pampered stalker Masha memorably coos, “I wish I was Tina Turner” to a tied-up Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy (1983), Scorsese’s mordant look at celebrity and celebrity worship, in which the Clash have cameos as “street scum.” Masha is neither shopgirl nor showgirl, but her zeal and moxie, no matter how disordered, makes her unmistakably one of Manhattan’s own.