Saturday, November 29, 2014

Screwball comedy in 1980s New York (Books - Missing Reels by Farran Smith Nehme)

Last weekend, thanks to my friend Sheila, I attended a screening of a The Awful Truth, a 1937 screwball comedy about a married couple who argue, plan to divorce, but just can't seem to leave each other alone because they can't stand seeing the other with anybody else. With Cary Grant,Irene Dunne, (and Asta, the dog from the Thin Man films), it was shown at The Museum of the Moving Image, a spot well worth visiting if you are in NYC.  This is the film that some critics say, made Cary Grant a superstar, and it's not hard to see why.  It is dead clever and full of good belly laughs.

It was introduced by film writer Farran Smith Nehme on the release of her novel Missing Reels (Overlook Press, 2014), thank you, Overlook, for my copy.  One could almost call the event reverse product placement.  Rather than the film including the book, the book mentions The Awful Truth (and sooooo many other vintage films) in its pages, and occasioned this screening.  But really, the film could not be better advertisement for Smith Nehme's entertaining novel which is part mystery, part romance, part love letter to vintage films, and a genuinely good time.  The time? 1980s. The place? New York City, but this is a NYC without cell phones, without Disney in Times Square, a NYC that had payphones and vintage movie houses.  I used to go to them all - The Regency, Carnegie Hall Cinema, St. Mark's Cinema, The Thalia - and see not just one classic film, but usually a double feature!  Aaah, those were the days.

The book's heroine, a 21-year-old Mississippian named Ceinwen, is obsessed with vintage film and clothing, She is choosing between velvet and taffetta dresses in the era in which most women her age were wearing black leather and leggings - think Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.  Ceinwen (pronounced KINE-wen) meets a British math post-doc, Matthew, and falls in, well one can't say love exactly, but let's say that, as in so many classic films, she falls into confusion with him. This might have something to do with a possessive Italian woman named Anna. At the same time, she meets an elderly neighbor, Miriam, whom, it turns out, may have had something to do with The Mysteries of Udolpho, a silent film which, except for a few feet, seems to have gone missing.  Miriam is not eager to talk about it and Ceinwen develops an obsession with tracking down the missing film.  She performs her research pre-internet and pre-personal computer.  For those of you for whom that is a vintage concept, this demanded using a phone book, placing calls, something that had to be done at home, in an office, or at a phone booth when you had a lot of change,  It involved writing letters and waiting for responses, going to libraries and searching in volumes like The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. It eventually involves Ceinwen and Matthew making up a fictitious research project to gain entrance to a film restoration institute. What Smith Nehme succeeds in doing is writing a just-vintage romance with recognizably modern characters, yet they speak clever dialogue, interact with classic types - the fusty academic, the crabby boss, the witty New York intelligentsia, the domineering cop - and get into extreme situations of their own making that evoke nothing so much as a classic screwball comedy.  Missing Reels is a charming, entertaining romp that should leave you with a list of classic films to watch, or watch again. 

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