Free Spirits

Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges

by James Harvey
Knopf, 716 pp., $35.00

There is a secret history of Hollywood that must remain largely unwritten; the story not of the on-screen or off-screen careers of the movie stars, but of their phantasmal afterlives in the minds of their audiences. Manuel Puig’s novel Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, with its vision of Hollywood gestures and plot structures seeping into the life of a movie-mad Argentinian town, represents only one of the potentially infinite possibilities. Film books these days, with their emphasis on semiotic codes and quantitative analysis, tend to reduce moviegoing to a rather impersonal experience, as if we brought nothing to our encounters with the screen and emerged from the dark imprinted with precisely identical patterns. If it were all that predictable, cinema would be as airless a business as the common run of academic studies manages to make it seem.

All too often analysis reduces movies to ghostly formulas unraveling in a void. But if the movies were canned, their audiences were not. James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy, which takes as its subject the string of great American comedies turned out between Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (1929) and Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours (1948), is useful among other things as a reminder that Hollywood’s Golden Age was sustained by the unparalleled enthusiasm of its spectators. The public space created by the movies of that era grows increasingly difficult to imagine at a time when entertainments are growing ever more narrowly focused and isolated from one another. Harvey, a fervent partisan of Hollywood’s “permanent occasions of amazement and delight,” makes a single-handed attempt to re-create the mass elation that once buoyed up even the flimsiest of vehicles. Uncharacteristically for a contemporary film historian, Harvey finds elements of “sanity and resistance” at the heart of the products of the studio system.

Although Harvey teaches at Stony Brook, his prose is unusually free of academic jargons and methodologies. A fan’s book in the best sense, Romantic Comedy catches the tone of real-life movie talk, all the interminable conversations wedged in between commercials while watching The Thin Man on New Year’s Day or extended with voluptuous aimlessness on the sidewalk outside Theatre 80 St. Mark’s. Harvey is clearly one of those who have spent half their lives at revival houses—in his acknowledgments he pays special, now sadly outdated, tribute to New York’s Thalia and Regency—and those afflicted with the same pleasant vice will recognize the way all the separate storylines end up merging into a single messily unbounded meta-narrative. An objective chronicle of screen history inevitably evolves into a self-portrait of the author as an amalgam of the movies he has seen. For such a spectator, movie actors are not remote ideological counters but long-term companions, espoused or despised for the quirkiest of reasons. When Harvey writes of Myrna Loy, Joel McCrea, or Jean Arthur, it’s with that twentieth-century brand of intimacy that turns film stars into family. (The VCR completes the process by enabling …

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