Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage
Irene Dunne, in the process of getting divorced from Cary Grant, is being courted by Ralph Bellamy. Bellamy ingenuously, amiably, boasts of having won several cups for dancing, and Dunne has a moment of naked regret for her old marriage. “We never won any cups,” she says. To Bellamy, and to people like him, this will sound like a confession of relative failure, but it is really a glancing, retrospective tribute. She and Grant, when together, did not compete against anyone, they just danced, a world of affection and amusement was theirs, and was enough.
The movie is The Awful Truth, directed by Leo McCarey, and the trouble between Dunne and Grant began when she surprised him in an outright lie (he claimed to have been in Florida when he was up to something in New York; she discovered this because he brought her some California oranges), and he caught her in a lame-looking truth (she was stranded for the night with her singing teacher when their car broke down). When she points out the asymmetry of their cases, remarking that “nothing is less logical than the truth,” he calls her a philosopher. She is. At the end of the film, with divorce minutes away from becoming final, she says to him, “Things are the same as they always were, only you’re the same too, so things will never be the same again.” Grant understands how desperate this diagnosis is, and insists that he is not the same anymore but quite different. “And as long as I’m different,” he says, “maybe things can be the same again, only a bit different.”
Dunne doesn’t say “Vive la différence,” as Spencer Tracy does in Adam’s Rib, but she gladly accepts Grant’s contrition, and the film staves off the divorce and gets the couple back into one bed. A Swiss clock, which has exhibited a tiny man and a tiny woman hopping out of their respective doorways and back again on the quarter hour, abandons engineering in honor of this resolution, and as midnight strikes, the figure of the man skips gleefully back not into his own doorway but after the woman into hers.
In Pursuits of Happiness, Stanley Cavell, a philosopher like Irene Dunne, and the author of an earlier, brilliant, vexing movie book called The World Viewed, describes the intricate dialogue quoted above as “taking a leaf from Plato’s Parmenides,” which is flying a bit high. But flying high is Cavell’s signature, and he has just and lofty things to say about this movie, which he sees as the crowning achievement of a Hollywood genre he calls the comedy of remarriage. Or rather, he sometimes sees it in this way. “On certain screenings I have felt The Awful Truth (1937) to be the best, or the deepest, of the comedies of remarriage.” The film is brittle, and our liking it depends, as Cavell says, on our liking Irene Dunne. But its brittleness is part of its charm, just as Dunne’s slightly mannered fragility is part of hers. She has none of Katharine Hepburn’s dotty authority, for example, but she suggests secrecy and softness as Hepburn cannot. What Cavell fears may be his most dubious ground (he expects “little initial agreement” with his estimate of this film) gives him his most convincing case. If Hollywood thought intelligently about marriage at all, it was in The Awful Truth.
The comedy of remarriage, as Cavell sees it, depends on the threat and legitimacy of divorce.
Put a bit more metaphysically: only those can genuinely marry who are already married. It is as though you know you are married when you come to see that you cannot divorce, that is, when you find that your lives simply will not disentangle. If your love is lucky, this knowledge will be greeted with laughter.
Marriage thus becomes a model of freedom and equality and shared impulse, sanctioned neither by the law nor by progeny (children are conspicuously absent from all these films), but only by a “mutual willingness” to do the thing again. The humor involved in this version of the world is quite different, Cavell says, from the humor of a situation where divorce is not an option. The seriousness is different too, because these comedies speak to our sense that we do not know whether human beings can really change or not; whether things that look a little different are in fact different or the same; whether a return to a marriage is a new start in life or an old cage painted with wishes.
The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story, and Adam’s Rib are perfect examples of Cavell’s genre, which is not extensive but does contain, he argues, a few more films than the seven he devotes chapters to in this book. He has to do a little tinkering with the rules for It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby—the couple are not married but behave as if their relation had a history—and he ranges so far afield for the sake of The Lady Eve that he bewilders me entirely. However, this is the only one of these films I have not seen fairly recently, so the fault may well be mine. I think Cavell is wrong to include His Girl Friday in the genre. It has the required plot elements—Rosalind Russell is divorced from Cary Grant, and the film returns her to him—but it is really about being a newspaperman, even when you’re a woman, and about this not being a form of human life.
Still, the genre does exist, and it behaves just as Cavell says it does. It tries to show what it is like to want to live with another person, and why this might be a good idea. It offers images of gaiety and courage, and may require, as Cavell says of the relation between Hepburn and Tracy in Adam’s Rib, the invention of gallantry. To have found and explored this highly visible but not properly charted domain is a major act of criticism, and Pursuits of Happiness is a book for anyone who is interested in film, or marriage, or philosophy, or any combination of them.
Because the book is important, then, I must be clear about the difficulties it presents, and it may help if I say something about Cavell’s recent The Claim of Reason. This is a powerful and beguiling work which manifestly reflects a man who is in love with thought; with the risks, and the sillinesses, and the joys of it. Cavell takes an interest in philosophical skepticism because it finally makes us marvel not at our ignorance but at the extent of what we seem to know; at the depth, as well as the unlikeliness of our agreements. He wants to show that an always plausible sense of “the utter contingency in the fact that things are as they are” is matched by the uncanny sureness with which we learn to talk and take our place in the world of others.
Cavell sees in ordinary language philosophy a reminder not that people say things, but that people say things. The “human animal” returns to language, and therefore to philosophy, which all too often, in Cavell’s view, broods on propositions that live human beings cannot have made. Here is one of his instances of a familiar, but inhuman, demand:
If someone were such that he constantly had intuitions about all the others he knew, he would go mad. Only God could bear to be God. An understanding of the first commandment.
Cavell speaks of living with the sound of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and I shall live happily for some time with the sound of The Claim of Reason. The writing is remarkable here, the philosopher as novelist gives density of detail to fleshless old questions; and in Pursuits of Happiness there are moments of sudden, eloquent ease. Irene Dunne remembers the laughs she and Cary Grant had before they started divorce proceedings, and Cavell reminds us of the laughs they still have, when they are not pretending they can live without each other.
This princess is evidently neither unwilling nor unable to laugh, indeed she generally seems on the brink of laughing. The truth is that only this man can bring her laughter on, even if he is sometimes reduced to poking her ribs with a pencil. This may not be worth half a father’s kingdom, but she finds it, since he asks, worth giving herself for.
But this is not Cavell’s usual tone in this book, and his solemnity about film will be an obstacle for many readers. I find I’m mainly puzzled by the contrast with the intimate, murmuring style he uses for philosophy—he speaks of the later parts of The Claim of Reason as a form of philosophical journal. What are we to think of the touch of a writer who can describe a beaming Cary Grant as “a hieratic image of the human, the human transfigured on film,” or who sees in movie stars versions of what Matthew Arnold thought of as a person’s best self? Isn’t this the gush of a film fan piped through abstraction and high culture?
Cavell links Leo McCarey with Nietzsche, that other apostle of awkward truths; lumbers Hollywood with the legacy of Ibsen; burdens Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, and George Cukor with memories of late Shakespeare. “This film knows its complicity in the tradition of romance,” he says of It Happened One Night. When Katharine Hepburn, in The Philadelphia Story, brightly says, “I think men are wonderful,” Cavell hears an “allusion” to The Tempest that amounts “almost to an echo” of Miranda’s saying, “How beauteous mankind is!” If this is an echo, then Irene Dunne’s saying of her marriage, “It was pretty swell while it lasted” is a reminiscence of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.
Cavell has a way of making announcements like “it is a leading thought of mine” and “I wish to teach us to say,” and he speaks of “my ambitions” as if he were Ralph Bellamy remembering his several cups. These failures of tact are so large as to make one wonder whether they can be failures only of tact.
Where are these encounters between Hollywood and the English Renaissance taking place? In Cavell’s mind. But if they take place only there, then his offering his book as a conversation, as he does, is a bit like saying he will talk to us as long as we are interested in his dreams. “How can my linking of Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo McCarey not be chance?” he asks. “How can it be chance?” There is no chance about it. He has been reading Nietzsche and looking at The Awful Truth, but how could that be enough to make a connection worth bothering with? Cavell insists repeatedly that we may need to learn how to take an interest in our experience, and I think this insistence is valuable. But surely the object of our focused interest cannot be just whatever floats into consciousness. That way cuteness lies, and the notion of interest is itself emptied out.
Cavell has a promising answer to some of these charges. He is trying to be outrageous, he says; his tactlessness is a tactic. Philosophy, he argues, is an outrageous activity, and films are here conscripted for a raid on certainty, a rescue of the diffuse and everyday. What happens, he asks in The Claim of Reason, when we are faced with “a shift in what we are asked to let interest us,” with “the tumbling of our ideas of the great and important”? Why shouldn’t he talk of Shakespeare and Hollywood, of Hollywood and Kant, in the same pious breath? Is it because we are sure that popular films cannot be worth our serious attention?
The problem here, I think, is that we may be less outraged by Cavell’s ambitious allusions than he wants us to be—than he himself is. I’m inclined to say that his piety is more of a snag than his wild-looking juxtapositions. Cavell is not really tumbling our ideas of the great and important; he is filling out a suburb or two, hauling Miranda/Hepburn and the hieratic Cary Grant into a conventional, even stuffy, pantheon. Of course popular films are worth studying. That’s why they don’t need this classy patronage. Cavell, I’m sure, means his references not as patronage but as marks of a continuity between literature and philosophy and film, and such a continuity is not necessarily a fantasy. What sort of a world would we live in if there was no way of getting from here to there? So what’s gone wrong?
Perhaps the best answer is Cavell’s own cri de coeur. Speaking of Adam’s Rib he resists Spencer Tracy’s playfulness as an invitation to masculine complicity, but then adds:
I sometimes feel Katharine Hepburn to lack a certain humor about herself, to count the till a little too often. But then I think of how often I have cast the world I want to live in as one in which my capacities for playfulness and for seriousness are not used against one another, so against me. I am the lady they always want to saw in half.
Another way of formulating this dilemma would be to ask whether a person looking at a hieratic image of the human is really seeing Cary Grant. Let’s not worry just now about what a skeptical philosopher might do with “really seeing.” Cary Grant here is an unmistakable face, grin, walk, and an accent slithering away from cockney into a twangy territory all its own. This is the Cary Grant we lose when we speak of him in the mode Cavell proposes. Do we have to lose him? Couldn’t we have the hieratic image and the visible bloke? Isn’t the one a fair enough description of the other? All I know is that in Cavell’s prose I lose him. The sentence thins him out to a philosophical phantom.
I haven’t given a proper sense of the difficulties Cavell faces, and in spite of my strictures, often overcomes. How are we to talk about these movies, and in particular about their terrible cleverness? Asked, in His Girl Friday, what the character played by Ralph Bellamy looks like, Cary Grant says, “Like that fellow in the movies. What’s his name? Ralph Bellamy.” In Bringing Up Baby, Katharine Hepburn puts on a gangster’s moll act in order to talk her way out of prison, and Cary Grant calls out to the sheriff, “Don’t believe her. She’s making it all up out of the movies.”
There is a lot we can do with such lines, although the best thing may still be to enjoy them and leave them alone. Cavell proceeds, on the basis of the second of these two gags, to identify Hepburn with Howard Hawks, the director of Bringing Up Baby, who is, in part, making that film up “out of the movies.” Cavell wants this to mean that our relation to Hawks is pictured in Grant’s relation to Hepburn. Cavell’s question here is how we feel about what someone else is doing with the movies. Are we to be dazed by the film as Grant is dazed by her? The only response I can manage to this is, Sure, why not? Such a discussion takes us so far from the feeling of the gag and of the film that it doesn’t matter what we say, and Cavell’s line of thought does have a recondite attraction of its own. But what sort of talk would bring us closer to the film? And how far into our feeling do we want to reach? Is it clear that even the most fluent of critics actually have a language for talking about film?
And is it possible for critics and scholars just to leave a funny line alone, and still be in business? This is a question about the business. “Is there an honorable objection to the serious, humanistic study of film?” Cavell asks in an appendix. This is a little sly, since it implicitly converts all potential opponents into dishonorable old codgers. People who object to the humanistic study of film worry about its technical aspects—their preferred analogy suggests something along the lines of mixing canvas-stretching with art history—and about the quality of the body of work film offers. So the real question, leaving aside the technical one as a willful rear-guard ruse, is whether schools and universities should teach the likes of Gone With the Wind and Murder on the Orient Express, either as books or as movies.
In principle one wants to say yes. There is no honorable objection to the serious study of anything. But we can’t study everything, and what shall we give up? Cavell poses this question wonderfully by asking whether film is “worth teaching badly.” Are there films, that is, as there are books, which are themselves an education, however lamentably they are taught? I think the answer is that there are, but not all that many, and there is not much agreement about which ones they are. So the future of film studies, if it is to make any sense, will rest on a whole array of courses, justified in quite different ways: some by their films (worth teaching badly), others by their teachers (able to pull smashing rabbits out of any old hat), and still others by their own design (which will make certain films relevant and interesting, regardless of their aesthetic merits or insufficiencies). Criticism meanwhile will continue to chase experience and grope for words.
In any event, it is clear that Cavell in no way exaggerates the complication of the films he considers, however we choose to account for it, and whatever language we light on to describe them. Bringing Up Baby, for example, has the title, as Cavell reminds us, of an arch-sounding education manual. It seems to promise a movie about a young married couple and the adventures of their inexperience with a little tot. This promise is not exactly broken, but it is not exactly fulfilled either. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn are not married, and the tot turns out to be a young leopard they are supposed to be looking after. The leopard, who belongs temporarily to Hepburn, is clearly contrasted with a vast reconstructed brontosaurus which Grant’s fiancée has said will be their child—their impending marriage is to be subordinated to paleontology, there are to be no “domestic entanglements” in the form of little human tots.
Hepburn and her leopard will save Grant from continuing this bony museum of a relationship, but not before the amiable leopard has almost magically conjured up a savage shadow, a killer leopard which has escaped from a zoo in Connecticut. Grant faces this leopard with a leopard-tamer’s chair, and then faints with fright, his heroic moment over. What’s more, Hepburn’s leopard is called Baby, and is very fond of the song “I can’t give you anything but love, baby,” which Hepburn and Grant frantically sing whenever the beast needs soothing. The song produces a new, adult meaning for the word baby—now a baby doesn’t have to be a child or an animal—and introduces (absent) money into the picture, echoing the million dollars which Grant wants for his museum and which Hepburn finally inherits and gives to him. The year of this movie is 1938.
I think the pace and zaniness of the film may be more important than any particular meanings to be extracted from this proliferation of material—its zaniness is its attraction and its meaning. But beyond that, it seems to me, we just have to follow Cavell’s instinct about how much is in the movie. The treasure is not even buried; it is there for the taking. Bringing Up Baby is, as Cavell says, about playing at childhood, reinventing childhood. Baby allows Grant and Hepburn to bring themselves up again. This is another reason why there is no room for real children here. The movie is about the madness required to enter into a good marriage and to escape from yawning safety. It is, persistently, about sexuality as a game and as a danger. I can’t unpack all this fully now, and if I did I should only be following Cavell’s hints, looking where he had shown me to look. I hope this will suggest that my admiration has survived my hesitations and complaints. I don’t want to saw the lady in half.