The 2021 Berlin International Film Festival will showcase, in its Retrospective, the comedic oeuvre of US actresses Mae West, Rosalind Russell, and Carole Lombard, the festival announced in a press statement.
The spotlight will focus on some 30 films that bear the unmistakeable signature of each of the actresses in a classic Hollywood comedy.
As the Great Depression gripped the US in the early 1930s, film comedies became a way to defuse and escape the crisis, with the comedy genre continuing to flourish once the country belatedly entered World War II.
Cinema provided audiences with distraction and a brief relief from the grim news. It was the heyday of subgenres, such as screwball or romantic comedies, and in Mae West, Rosalind Russell, and Carole Lombard they found self-confident artists who defied cliché.
In those days, the male star was the hub around which a Hollywood film was written, financed and produced. The woman’s assigned role was clear – be an icon of beauty and seduction. To succeed as an actress in such a male-centric system, a woman needed a good portion of mettle and assertiveness, in addition to her talent.
As the leading comediennes of their era, the three actresses reach audiences even today in their own special ways.
Mae West played with the cliché of feminine wiles, using suggestive glances and double entendre to turn the established relationship of the sexes on its head. In her roles as a tough career woman, Rosalind Russell won audiences over with her quick-witted repartee, not to mention her incomparable bent for slapstick comedy. Carole Lombard, on the other hand, exerted a subtle elegance, whether playing a spoiled heiress or an ambitious actress trying to conquer stage and screen.
Rainer Rother, Artistic Director of the Deutsche Kinemathek and head of the Retrospective section, said, “Comedies take clichés and play with them, even crush them. They use real circumstances and disparities as their material, but also the relationship of the sexes.”
He added, “The classic Hollywood comedies of the 1930s and 1940s took on this subject matter under the restrictions of the ‘Production Code’, and thanks to the great actresses of the era, were able to question traditional role models. That’s why we decided to mount a retrospective of the comedy genre. We are thrilled to honour the acting accomplishments of West, Russell, and Lombard”.
“Being a successful actor in Hollywood’s Golden Age was a special achievement for women,” added Carlo Chatrian, Artistic Director of the Berlinale, “They had to work in a system run by men, with stories focused on men, alongside male actors who got the best lines and were centre stage.”
Chatrian added, “The idea of focussing our Retrospective on three very different women is to highlight the riches these ‘angels’ brought to Hollywood.”
He noted that West, Russell, and Lombard are much more than heavenly creatures, instead showing off their quickness and wittiness. They also had to fight for their place on set, whilst adding depth and irony to their characters.
“They made it possible to view women differently, and they still make us laugh and smile about ourselves and life,” he said.
Mae West began her film career at the age of 39. Already successful in theatre and variety shows, her screen debut was in Archie Mayo’s Night After Night (1932). She shortly rose to become the best-paid actress of the 1930s.
In contrast to the era’s ideal of beauty, her trademark became her stylisation of her own figure. Almost all of the 12 films she made will be screened in the Retrospective, including Wesley Ruggles’ I’m No Angel (1933) and Raoul Walsh’s Klondike Annie (1936), in which West played her perhaps most controversial role.
It was in the latter film that she took on the part of the disreputable Frisco Doll, who flees to Alaska and, along the way, assumes the identity of the pious missionary Sister Annie. West wrote most of the stories and scripts for her own films, and her aggressive use of her sex appeal often brought her into conflict with the Hollywood censors.
Rosalind Russell’s breakthrough as a comedienne came in George Cukor’s The Women (1939). In the long career that followed, she would play both dramatic and comedy roles. In comedies, Russell’s characters are often successful businesswomen who must choose between love and a career.
She holds her own in a male-dominated world as a quick-witted journalist in Michael Curtiz’s Four’s a Crowd (1938), or a worldly-wise judge in Design for Scandal by Norman Taurog (1941). With her impeccable timing and utter command of physical comedy, Russell was a mistress of slapstick.
Carole Lombard acted in silent films before advancing, like West, to become a star at Paramount Pictures in the 1930s. Before her premature death in a 1942 plane accident, she acted in over 40 films, most of which were comedies.
Her interpretations carried a sense of the feminine and ranged from the naive to the elegant woman of the world. She was brilliant as the carefree rich socialite in My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936), as a spirited actress in Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934), and in No Man of Her Own (Wesley Ruggles, 1932) as the small-town girl who yearns for the big, wide world and even bigger love.
Her acting style was a blend of lightness, charm, and wit, which she displayed in a multitude of variations.
All three actresses worked with renowned directors, such as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, as well as directing greats of the comedy genre such as Alexander Hall and Ernst Lubitsch.
Although the three actresses never appeared together in a film, the Deutsche Kinemathek and the Berlin International Film Festival are making it possible for audiences to see them together in the retrospective. The films will be shown in the best available quality, for the most part as 35mm prints.