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Cracking Wise is rollicking comedy in the spirit of Bringing Up Baby and My Favorite Wife.

Since the tragic accidental death of his mother when she put her head into an oven and forgot to turn off the gas, Leon Virkler has lived alone with his fears and phobias in a Northern California mansion aided only by his doting servant, Lupe. Allergic to the sun and most everything else, Leon lives in a filtered, screened, dust-free, forced-air artificial environment of his own creation. However, Leon soon learns that he must step out into the real world when his father dies and leaves him billions if he will only achieve a few minor tasks, like get a job and find someone to marry. Marine biologist Grace Iverson is coerced into performing these introductions and soon discovers she has more than a few things to learn herself.


Cracking Wise

I love screwball comedy. It is a genre Hollywood used to excel at, and doesn't anymore. The engine that powers screwball comedy is sexual anxiety, or more accurately, sexual denial anxiety, and very few people are anxious over not having sex anymore. Once, when there was such a thing as a good girl who saved herself for marriage, sexual anxiety was commonplace, at least theoretically. Today? Not so much.

Examples of great screwball comedy include Bringing Up Baby, in which virginal Katharine Hepburn and über-virginal Cary Grant chase a dinosaur bone, and two leopards, one of them named Baby, though the wilds of Connecticut in the late 1930s. Directed by Howard Hawks, Bringing Up Baby remains a joy to watch, even today; alas, the current generation won't watch anything that's in black and white, to their loss.

Another Howard Hawks screwball comedy wasn't a screwball comedy at all when it was first produced as a hit broadway play written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; The Front Page became His Girl Friday when one of the male leads was rewritten as a woman, altering the sexual dynamic of the story. In Friday Walter Burns (Cary Grant this time, and very much not virginal) and Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) are ex-husband and wife and the sexual tension is provided not so much by sexual denial as by sexual nostalgia, and continued desire. The two, newspaper editor and reporter respectively, must work on one last breaking story before Hildy traipses off to marry another man. Walter uses the juicy news story to juice up his romance with ex-wife Hildy.

In Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, Gary Cooper is a habitual marry-er — seven ex-wives thus far — and Claudette Colbert a one-man woman in this reversal of The Taming of the Shrew (the original screwball comedy, by the way). Directed by Ernst Lubitsch (he of 'the Lubitsch Touch'), Eighth Wife is really a series of ever-increasing incidents of emotional sadism visited upon Cooper by Colbert — denying him the wedding bed — until he finally relents, divorces her (with a goodly stipend) and then promptly goes mad. Colbert, now certain that he will never divorce and marry anyone else — love and madness go hand-in-hand, after all — comes to the sanitarium to save Cooper and finally, one presumes, give him what he really wants.

One of my favorites of this genre is The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Preston Sturges' wartime comedy about Trudy Knockenlocker, who goes out with soldiers because it's the patriotic thing to do, gets a lot tipsy, marries a man whose last name may be Ratskywatsky, or may not, and then wakes up the next morning with almost no memory of the whole affair... until her body reminds her with pregnancy. The wonderful Eddie Bracken plays Norvel Jones, the ultimate schmo who loves Trudy (and of course is the last man on her list of possible romance partners) and marries her to save her from scandal, only doesn't. They are rescued when Trudy gives birth to... well, go rent the movie and see for yourself.

One of Bracken's great bits from this movie is whenever he becomes excited, he sees nothing but spots before his eyes and exclaims, "The spots! THE SPOTS!" When I was Chief of Security of Warner Hollywood Studios and Eddie Bracken was on the lot shooting his last movie, I almost walked onto the stage to introduce myself by exclaiming, "The spots! THE SPOTS!"  I didn't, because I saw the headline from the next day's Daily Variety floating before my eyes: Studio Security Chief Bricks Bracken. I was afraid I might kill him. Still, I wish I had introduced myself. Pressing duties called me elsewhere.

In 2003 I set out to write a screwball comedy. The result is Cracking Wise. It was one of my final screenplays and saw little marketing effort from my then-agent. I present it here now for your appraisal. In writing Cracking Wise, I needed to find a virgin, no easy task in this day and age, and create a reason for him to be a virgin. I based Leon Virkler on an acquaintance who has not worked a day in his life and whose career was (and remains) heir of dead relatives. He was also a virgin well into his 30s. My acquaintance was and is quite charming and successful in life, though, so the resemblance ends there. Leon Virkler is a billionaire, kind of, and a recluse, enabled by a doting father and loving servant, and so has never had romance in his life. This is the story of the cracking of the egg and his tentative release from it.

I tried hard to achieve the 'cracking wise' patter of classic Hollywood films in Cracking Wise, but updated to today. I hope I achieved it. You be the judge.

— Richard Taylor, Cambria, California, July 2010


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