Sometimes you think something, and then you find yourself liking that thought so much, you use it to excess – maybe it’s what the thought expresses, or the particularly nice rhetorical flourish you use to construct it. Or maybe you don’t do such things; maybe it’s just me. Either way, one such thought I fell in love with once was this – the movies, I thought, are like anaesthesia, the movies are like morphine. You walk in to watch them and everything else that’s ugly & awful melts away. I fell in love with the idea that that was the glorious, fundamental principle of the movies – this is what Hollywood was (and when I say “movies”, I mean specifically Hollywood as it came to be in the 30s & 40s & henceforth). Obviously this would-be truism has its limits: for one, the whole bit about movies being like some sort of escapist analgesic only works if the movie in question uplifts you, makes you laugh and not cry. For this reason alone I try and avoid ‘sad’ movies as best I can (sad in the sense of narrative; sad in the sense of theme) – not for me the Schindler’s Lists or Cuckoo’s Nests of the world. Gone are the days when I would put on The Notebook just in order to have a satisfying weep. Weeping is not satisfying anymore, in any sense. It also means you sometimes have to ignore movies with overt socio-political commentaries and explicit ideologies; the Eisensteins and Griffiths of the world, technical geniuses no doubt, but still – they don’t belong to the ‘escapist’ school of cinema. Screwball comedies might not seem to be at the technical forefront of their art – Capra and Hawks are no Eisenstein or Welles, but that doesn’t really matter to me. As Stanley Cavell importantly points out, in his seminal work on screwball comedies, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981) —
…what is good in a film may not depend on its overt showmanship. It would follow that the craft lies in its effects, not in its basis; that the workmanship is arbitrary, not authoritative.
And what are the effects of popular entertainment? Simply that, I guess; it entertains, it amuses, and that seems to me as noble and as grand a reason to love, admire, and respect certain things as any.
Say what you will about Hollywood & what it did to us, modern society, as people – about the whole ‘star’ system or ‘celebrity’ business, about its basis in appeal-to-the-masses-&-rake-in-the-profits capitalist ethos (by and large true then, and true now), about how when the ‘talkie’ came in, film often became little more than a hyper-technological form of drama (disregarding all of Eisenstein’s warnings), or about how the ideals of beauty & romance that the silver screen presented to us over years slowly became imbibed like poison, working on our psyches to our psychological and physical detriment (for we all want to be skinny, now, and we all want fall in love like they do in the movies). Despite all this, I love a certain sort of Hollywood – a certain vision of the world the movies presented to us, saccharine and strait-laced (thanks to Production Codes and whatnot); simplistic (yes) and uncomplicated except in a farcical sense. Most of the time it seems to me that the murders in film noir are as uncomplicated as the romances are in screwball comedies (exceptions in the former category for M by Fritz Lang and Sunset Boulevard, because those two films really do delve into the psyche more than I find films like Double Indemnity etc. did). And god knows but simplicity is nice sometimes – when all you need to worry about when falling in love is where the bone is buried, or how to pip other reporters to the scoop. Metaphysical questions reduced to questions of trust and faith in relationships, and above all, to having fun and adventure (c/f Holiday, It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire…almost every single one!). More often than not former lovers are abandoned because they’re not fun (like the Puritanical Miss Swallow and the greedy King Westley), or returned to because they are (like Walter Burns). Fun is important, both in the films’ effects and in their themes. Life together has to be fun, otherwise it is fundamentally lacking, these films seem to say; perhaps they suggest the same thing about films themselves: films have to be fun, too, otherwise perhaps the relationship between spectator & spectated lacks something too.
Hollywood sprang up alongside department stores (with big wide windows so people could look in and see the pretty things), consumerism on an unprecedented scale, cities on an unprecedented scale, relationships in a previously-inconceivable light (marriages didn’t need to wait for death in order to end, all of a sudden, it seems). And it embodies all of these things. The talkie was born shortly before the Great Depression, and one of the most enduring ideas about the screwball comedy has been that it was escapist panacea for an economically sick nation, an impoverished and financially distraught world – Stanley Cavell calls this idea “a piece of folk wisdom”, but I wouldn’t discount it just for that. People still speculate that some films – like Holiday (1938) – failed at the box office because they presented views Depression audiences couldn’t empathize with (Johnny Case wants to give up his job and go for a holiday, a radical idea by all accounts, rejecting both the financial security of a job and of an heiress wife! – but can you imagine? When jobs are so hard to come by? And could we repeat this incredulity here and now, in our own little Depression?). Caleb Crain points out, in a piece in The New Yorker, exactly why it “might seem nervy of Hollywood to give an audience slogging through the Great Depression a story about rich people wondering how, why, or even whether they should work…” (but then points out that these doubts were “widespread”, in those days. Makes me wonder about now; it doesn’t seem so different not.)
And then you have My Man Godfrey (1936), which was “a runaway hit“: the story of a rich heiress who through happenstance meets a homeless man in the city dump, hires him as her wealthy family’s butler, and falls in love with him. It appeals fundamentally to dreams of aspiration, and has basically a fairy-tale quality to it. (There are countless aspects of it which also bespeak an inherent conservatism, particularly the fact that although Godfrey is a ‘homeless man’ when we meet him alongside Irene, he’s actually not a homeless man but a Boston Brahmin and a Harvard man to boot, masquerading as one. The narrative resolves itself beautifully without ever having to confront the real bogey in the room: what of cross-class love affairs and marriages? But never mind that for now – the fairy-tale structure is sustained for long enough, and the ending conservative enough, to please everybody.) But why? Well, as James Stewart puts it so blithely (and astutely) in The Philadelphia Story, “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world… is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” God yes. To me, this statement is 30s/40s romance comedies in a nutshell; in large part, this is the movies in a nutshell. Make of “privileged classes” what you will (maybe in the 30s rich heiresses were all the rage; maybe these days it’s spies & action heroes, enjoying their ‘privileges’ – the license to kill? God knows.). I call this Breakfast At Tiffany’s syndrome; finding comfort in the mundaneness of capitalism, and in the idea of luxury (however obscene or unfulfilling you know it might actually be). Because isn’t there something nice about the fact that if one were to have breakfast at Tiffany’s, one wouldn’t be worrying (perhaps) about life and death and love ETC? I always wonder about Holly Golightly (who is inseparable in my mind from that other amazing Hepburn, of course!) and her crazy love of Tiffany’s. Maybe because the glitzy glamorous world of large, posh diamond stores is really a bit shallow – and shallowness can be another way of saying simple, uncomplicated. Like screwball comedies like to be, sometimes. Maybe my (our?) enjoyment of this luxury & leisure in film traverses the uneasy line between aspiration and condemnation (like Mike Connor’s), just like the line between representation & critique can often be vague.
Stanley Cavell has a deeply philosophical theory about this – he rejects, as I mentioned above, the idea that these films and the privilege they routinely depicted has anything to do with the socio-economic context in which these films were made. He says instead that these films scrutinize the meaning – or the achievement? – of human happiness, and that this activity (the pursuit, or examination, of human happiness) can only take place in contexts of luxury and satiated ‘basic’ needs:
…the achievement of human happiness requires not the perennial and fuller satisfaction of our needs as they stand, but the examination and transformation of them.
…[but] no one would say that it [the idea above] is applicable in all human contexts. It applies only in contexts where there is satisfaction enough, in which something like luxury and leisure, something beyond the bare necessities, is an issue. This is why our films on the whole take settings of unmistakable wealth; the people in them have the leisure to talk about human happiness, hence the time to deprive themselves of it unnecessarily.
Not just the leisure to talk about human happiness, I’d like to add, but the leisure to be free and bold – this is especially true of the heroines of so many of these films. Admittedly, I can’t help but get the feeling that in many of these movies (many/most of which feature a wonderful Grant/Hepburn pairing), someone like Katharine Hepburn is just playing versions of herself (Dorothy Parker once reportedly said, “Katharine Hepburn delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.” Well, but what an A, and what a B!): autonomous, free-willed, free-spirited, extraordinarily brave and bold in a world that hasn’t quite caught up with women like this yet. The snippet of scene in Holiday where Katharine Hepburn paces a playroom (in a horror film it would have been the site of some tragedy, or some waifish ghost) as her sister’s engagement party goes in full, grand, strait/dinner-jacketed luxury downstairs is such a memorable one: she is literally like a caged animal, desperate to get out, but not to the downstairs – to the outside. Stanley Cavell, by the by, said this first and better – he says the entire genre of ‘comedy of remarriage’ – which I’m going to call screwball comedy in common non-academic parlance – requires “the creation of a new woman, or the new creation of a woman….a new creation of the human”. His view is that this period in the history of film is also intimately bound up with a particular phase in the consciousness and representation of women, and he’s right – these are brave women, bold women, fun-loving, restraint-beating, adventurous women; they’re not on screen to make googly eyes at Cary Grant, but to lead him in a merry chase through woodlands of Connecticut or exhort him to be mad and go on a madcap holiday.
The Philadelphia Story actually managed to incite a tear or two from me on my second (most recent) viewing – and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why, for a while, and it felt wrong (because after all – a screwball comedy isn’t meant to leave one wiping away l’eau!). Well, but why not? Happy ending and all – but the story begins in what one might almost call a matriarchal setting. Tracy Lord, lord of manor of Lord, governing over her mother and her younger sister Dinah. Tracy’s first marriage to C. K. Dexter Haven (Grant) has failed (as we are pithily and effectively shown in the movie’s opening scene, which involves a broken golf club and Katharine Hepburn/Tracy Lord socked in the face, more or less), and her mother’s marriage is failing, as Tracy’s father is off philandering with a dancer in New York. Tracy does not approve, and her mother has taken a stand against it (presumably at Tracy’s urging). “It’s the only stand a woman could take and keep her self-respect!” Tracy declares. “Yes, dear, I know – now I have my self-respect, and no husband,” is the somewhat unenthusiastic response from her mother. And the possibility of keeping one’s self-respect and staying married…? Well, that’s what the film seems to want to interrogate. But slowly, one by unwanted one, the first husbands of both women trickle back into the house, on the eve of Tracy’s remarriage to George Kittredge – much to Tracy’s disgust, and her mother’s secret/Dinah’s not-so-secret delight. Poor Tracy suffers innumerable lectures, first from Dexter (“I’m contemptuous of something inside of you you either can’t help, or make no attempt to; your so-called ‘strength’ – your prejudice against weakness – your blank intolerance!”), then from her father (who with a straight face blames the “bronze”, unforgiving Tracy for driving him adulterously into the arms of younger women, and then finishes off by dismissing Tracy as “a prig or a perennial spinster, however many marriages” – ouch). She even has to deal with it from George, in the guise of love, as he lovingly calls her a ‘goddess’ (not Tracy’s favourite word at that point) and promises to build her an ivory tower (not quite what she wants, right then).
The only person who seems willing to give Tracy her appropriate due – or rather, a compliment of any sort – is the young reporter, Mike Connor (James Stewart). He’s a poet, really, and boy it shows – lines like, “You’re lit from within, Tracy. You’ve got fires banked down in you. Hearth fires and holocausts” – well, it would drive anybody into his arms. (And James Stewart is really, really, splendid – funny and charming and brilliant by turns – in this movie. It won him an Oscar. Rightfully so, although apparently he always believed it should have been given to Henry Fonda for Grapes of Wrath. Well, whatevs!). The straightforward ‘comedy of remarriage’ is somewhat complicated by Stewart’s character, because Tracy has not one, not two, but three suitors by the time her wedding day rolls around – and she’s uncertain. By the time the wedding ceremony comes around, she’s decimated. This is the story of a take-down, of how a spirited woman – who almost topples domestic patriarchy, but not quite – is subsumed back into the proper order of things. Tracy at the end of the movie is no longer the sharp, caustic woman of its opening – she’s humbler, a bit meeker, and less mean to Dexter and her father. I guess it’s all well and good, but it’s also a little bit sad: the narrative brings to our view a brilliant image, and then closes down on it conservatively. But, well – maybe not wholly so.
George: A man expects his wife to …
Tracy: (interrupting) …behave herself, naturally.
Dexter: (agreeing) To behave herself naturally.
I love this clever change of inflection from George to Tracy to Dexter. Even the removal of the comma doesn’t do the actual cinematic exchange justice. Cavell says this “is a piece of instruction at once moral and aesthetic – it speaks of a right way to live but at the same time tells how to act in front of the camera, and specifically how to deliver a line”. Gender roles are being scrutinized in film almost in a way Shakespeare’s plays do, toppling the natural into the performed and vice versa and generally messing everything up. And perhaps, on a narrative level, it gives the spectators some vision of a happy married life beyond the happy ending, too – wives behave naturally, and husbands can accept that. Who knows?
One last little side-note…the actress playing Tracy’s little sister, Virginia Weidler, is also splendid. This scene is one of the funniest, most ridiculous things I have ever seen – “What is this?”, and the looks on Ruth Hussey’s and James Stewart’s faces!
* * * * *
It’s extraordinary to me that Cary Grant kept cropping up, in almost every screwball or semi-screwball or post-screwball comedy I put on play; why him? And why – how – was he simply so perfect in all those roles? Especially in his roles with Hepburn; even the somewhat slightly insipid script of Holiday was enlivened for me by their amazing on-screen chemistry. Hepburn was crazily self-willed (both in real life, I’ve read, and definitely on screen quite often) and independent, and Grant always seems to match her perfectly, without ever losing himself or his own dignity; whether he was a bespectacled science nerd, or a blue-blooded Philadelphian alcoholic, or a naïve idealist. This is a movie you feel, watching Hepburn/Grant on screen, about a relationship between equals. Same goes for His Girl Friday (1940), where Rosalind Russell matches Grant both in wit and whatever dialogue-per-minute record each of them got in that movie (phewf…this film was a real doozy – but what an exhilarating one!). I didn’t quite get that feeling from Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), where Priscilla Lane simpers insipidly, and screams a bit, or even, truth be told, very much from The Awful Truth (1937). Pauline Kael’s seminal New Yorker piece on Cary Grant, ‘The Man from Dream City’ (1975), pinpoints this bizarre – and yet beautiful (because who can help loving Cary Grant?) – quality in him:
With [Clark] Gable, sex is inevitable: What is there but sex? Basically, he thinks women are good for only one thing. Grant is interested in the qualities of a particular woman–her sappy expression, her non sequiturs, the way her voice bobbles. She isn’t going to be pushed to the wall as soon as she’s alone with him. With Grant, the social, urban man, there are infinite possibilities for mutual entertainment. They might dance the night away or stroll or go to a carnival–and nothing sexual would happen unless she wanted it to. Grant doesn’t assert his male supremacy; in the climax of a picture he doesn’t triumph by his fists and brawn–or even by outwitting anybody. He isn’t a conqueror, like Gable. But he’s a winner.
Grant was the leading man of fun and adventure – and it makes sense, ultimate sense, that he rocked the screwball comedy genre from start to finish. What’s so grand about his work with Hepburn is their energy, their athleticism. Comic timing translated into romantic chemistry, right from the pace of the action and the snappily-delivered quips – the camera loves it, and so do I (Kael calls the Hpeburn/Grant pairing a “true mating” – “they had same high-energy level, the same physical absorption in acting”.) It’s also entirely true what Kael says about Gable: I watched It Happened One Night (1934), and Gable was almost callous. “I am alpha-male! Me, me!” screams with every movement and every dark gaze and every line delivered. And of course he made a perfect Rhett Butler, the alpha-male and egomaniac supreme, tamer (?) of Scarlett O’Hara’s unrestrained madness.
I found a delicious essay by Zadie Smith in the NYRB, which is basically a piece on Obama and voices. It’s a piece on changing voices (from one to another) and the sense of betrayal it carries with it; it’s also a piece about being multi-voiced (as Smith says Obama might just be…well; it was written in ’09), and a piece about having no voice, being from ‘Dream City’. (‘Voice’, in this essay, is the conflation of language and accent, identity and sound, all – all of it in that one word!). ‘Dream City’ is a direct reference to Pauline Kael’s (abovementioned) piece on Cary Grant. It’s a delicious essay to me because it’s both wonderfully wide-ranging – a romp from Obama to Cary Grant to Shakespeare to Keats, to Frank O’Hara to Macaulay to Halifax – and because it’s wonderfully pertinent and nostalgic at the same time. I love that Cary Grant becomes relevant to Obama, somehow, and that they are both relevant to how we can read Shakespeare, anotherhow.
And best of all, she puts her finger on Cary Grant’s peculiar self and that peculiar self as manifested in his peculiar voice. Cary Grant doesn’t really have an accent in most of his movies, but there’s the odd word that slips out here and there, where a ‘d’ is more enunciated than it ordinarily would be (“Riverdale”), or a word where one syllable doesn’t quite glide over the other, shorter one like it should (“Mr. Peabody”). It’s one of the quirks in Grant’s voice I love best – those odd little words, here and there. They slip out and make you pause: “Wait a second, what is that accent?”. It’s how they speak in Dream City, or so I suspect. (Katharine Hepburn doesn’t come from Dream City – she’s got the clipped tones of New England through and through. And it’s marvelous, just the way it is.)
What did Pauline Kael call Cary Grant? ”The Man from Dream City.” When Bristolian Archibald Leach became suave Cary Grant, the transformation happened in his voice, which he subjected to a strange, indefinable manipulation, resulting in that heavenly sui generis accent, neither west country nor posh, American nor English. It came from nowhere, he came from nowhere. Grant seemed the product of a collective dream, dreamed up by moviegoers in hard times, as it sometimes feels voters have dreamed up Obama in hard times. Both men have a strange reflective quality, typical of the self-created man—we see in them whatever we want to see. ”Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,” said Cary Grant. “Even I want to be Cary Grant.” It’s not hard to imagine Obama having that same thought, backstage at Grant Park, hearing his own name chanted by the hopeful multitude. Everyone wants to be Barack Obama. Even I want to be Barack Obama.
I quite like Cary Grant: I think everybody does. He’s almost like a blank thing on screen, the space onto which we project all our desires and thoughts and constructions. In all the movies I’ve seen with him, from 30s/40s screwball to the later Hitchcock films and Charade, I can never quite figure out who he is. There’s no one definite character or aura that leaps out at you; you know his place in the narrative, of course, but there’s something about his character that is always more elusive and uncertain than his role in the story seems to be. Nobody quite gets Walter Burns (His Girl Friday), and nobody quite gets C. K. Dexter Haven (Cavell points out that a lot of the questions directed at Grant’s character in this film are left unanswered, deflected, in fact, by Grant’s repeating them – “Do I?”, “Wasn’t I?”, “Am I…?”). This opacity of identity reaches its apogee in Charade (1963), where Grant is “Brian Cruikshank (alias Peter Joshua, alias Alexander “Alex” Dyle, alias Adam Canfield)“. I think it sums up Grant’s elusive “What is it about him??” screen charisma and identity quite perfectly.