LAUGHTER (Paramount, 1930)
Directed by Harry d'Arrast. Produced by Monta Bell. Screenplay by Harry d'Arrast, Douglas Z. Doty, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and Donald Ogden Stewart.
Nancy Carroll (Peggy Gibson). Fredric March (Paul Lockridge). Frank Morgan (C. Mortimer Gibson). Glenn Anders (Ralph LeSainte). Diane Ellis (Marjorie Gibson). Leonard Carey (Benham). Ollie Burgoyne (Pearl).
Critically applauded in 1930 and an Oscar nominee for its screenplay, Laughter may be a little more significant for its influence than for its own elegant and appreciable self. It has also had an odd history—forgotten for nearly 40 years, then recognized as a predecessor of screwball and romantic comedies and even, in some plot threads, a precursor to Mankiewicz's work on Citizen Kane. Then it fell into neglect once again, save by hordes of Nancy Carroll devotees (and you Cinefesters know who you are!). The conflict of “love vs. money” been a perennial one in film and is still a staple in the genre now known as rom-com, yet it has seldom been laid out with the warmth and class bestowed on it by writer-director D'Arrast and his collaborators. It must be said that Laughter is frequently more serious than any screwball comedy, for its characters are dealing less with situations than with genuine and pertinent emotional issues. Plus, between its changes of tone and occasional moments of Astoria-studio confinement, it is less breezy than would likely have been the case a few years later. In any case, D'Arrast was quite a stylist, even an auteur ahead of his time, and in effecting his mood swings he is greatly aided by co-scripters Mankiewicz and Stewart, and of course by the cast. Carroll is, no surprise, captivating: between this film, The Devil's Holiday, and Follow Thru, she was at the height of her career and her appeal in mid-1930. Nor is it any wonder that Fredric March cited Laughter as one of his own personal favorites, for he gives what may be the most charming and dashing performance of his long career. Frank Morgan shows how good he could be before he became the movies' most beloved bumbler, and Diane Ellis (who died while the film was in theaters) makes a charming ingenue. At its best, Laughter achieves a kind of poignant sparkle rare in a film of any age—let alone one that's well into in its 9th decade of existence.