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one of those who have spent half their lives at revival houses—in his acknowledgments he pays special, now sadly outdated, tribute to New York’s Thalia and Regency—and those afflicted with the same pleasant vice will recognize the way all the separate storylines end up merging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 the customer literally to take Cary Grant home in a box.)
Harvey’s enthusiasm does have its down side, threatening at times to turn his book into a sequence of rhapsodic mash notes. In the case of a few favorite stars, his adoration expresses itself in metaphysical press-agentry: “[Irene] Dunne’s Lola is a kind of ultimate moment in the experience of freedom that all these comedies mean to invoke…. Dunne is to playfulness on the screen what Garbo is to weariness: the keeper of mysteries.” He does best when, rather than surrendering utterly to awe, he savors his pleasures by distinguishing precisely among them. The numinous aura that envelops the primary gods and goddesses gives way to the matter-of-fact bustle of character actors in constant collision and of scriptwriters working industrious variations on the two or three available plots.
Given his subject, Harvey’s wonderment is forgivable. A sampling of titles from two years indicates the fecundity of the period. In 1934 the high Thirties mode of comedy was ushered in by It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, The Gay Divorcee, and Twentieth Century, while an earlier style was epitomized by Lubitsch’s brilliant but financially disastrous remake of The Merry Widow. By 1937 the screwball cycle was at its peak: there were Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred, Jean Arthur in Easy Living, Astaire and Rogers in Shall We Dance, and Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and a full complement of wisecracking starlets in Stage Door, with the off-screen assistance of writers like Ben Hecht and Preston Sturges and directors like Leo McCarey and Gregory La Cava. Almost any scene from one of these films today seems impossibly dense and energetic, squandering enough invention to fuel a decade’s worth of sitcoms.
For a few years Hollywood mastered a kind of careless perfectionism. Scene by scene a movie like La Cava’s My Man Godfrey is a phenomenally complex interlacing of elements: art deco sets and compositions, comic timing deriving equally from vaudeville and Cowardesque high comedy, lighting and camera movements which by themselves create an impression of psychological depth, the adrenaline rush of dialogue constantly topping itself, and beyond all that the imponderable contributions of two such iconic presences as Carole Lombard and William Powell. Yet the movie’s real kick comes from the way it all appears to be tossed off on a moment’s notice—as indeed, from all accounts of La Cava’s approach to filmmaking, much of it was. “Directing in this style,” Harvey remarks, “was like being an action painter or a jazz musician; it was part of what people meant (whether they knew about it or not) by ‘screwball.’ ”
These were fairy tales for grown-ups, the best ever filmed, and for those who continue to watch them they can still serve the same function. The couples around whom they are structured—Astaire and Rogers, Powell and Loy, Grant and Dunne—actually create the impression of having a good time together, a feat which grew increasingly difficult for American movies. The silents had gloried in passionate melodrama, and the Forties would return to it with a literal vengeance. Screwball permitted a brief interval of relaxation. “The screwball couple,” Harvey writes, “are committed above everything to common-sense standards…. They immolate themselves like other great lovers—but for laughs. The skeptical and reductive comic vision—the wonderful wised-up voice of the movies themselves—becomes in them something overtly romantic…. The life that stirs in this comic world is a passional one.”
The marvel is that the genre was sustained for so long (in its pure form it lasted about five years) since it depended on an almost impossible balancing of contradictions. The rooms through which Grant and Astaire and Lombard move seem at once weightless and charged with tension. The white gowns and settees are the stuff of a bubble world, but the people are real enough: the fun they are clearly having testifies to that. (One need only watch Cary Grant in the long one-shot sequence in the last reel of His Girl Friday, just barely holding himself back from a fit of convulsive laughter.) We share the adventures of people who belong to a magical social niche which enjoys the advantages of each class and the disadvantages of none. They mix low-class slang with high-class interior decoration. They live like aristocrats yet remain free to make fun of the “real” aristocrats, those dour stuffed shirts and brainless matrons on whose rugs they spill martinis. They revel in a distinctly American air of naughtiness: they are definitely getting away with something, but to spell out what it is would spoil the party.
Nick Charles lives lavishly off his wife’s inherited wealth but prefers mixing, on equally exuberant terms, with crooks and cops; Cary Grant in The Awful Truth is at home with strippers and heiresses. Screwball permits a wonderful blurring of social boundaries. By contrast, Ernst Lubitsch’s thoroughly European The Merry Widow, whatever the flagrant unrealities of the Lehár plot, is rooted in a clear-eyed recognition of hierarchies and power ploys. The apparently more daring American style flirts with a vaguely defined aura of insurrection, an “us against them” game made possible by the fact that neither term is ever defined. Grant and Dunne in The Awful Truth are outside of, and superior to, everybody they encounter, from socialites to showgirls, and what finally brings them together is that mutual superiority. They are the ultimate insiders, the only ones who will ever really get the joke. They are also prototypical middle-class Americans in the process of inventing a liberated zone for themselves. The complicity they establish with the audience against the other characters in the movie foreshadows an eventual distinction between “hip” and “square.” Square people in this instance are those who sell insurance or live in Tulsa or are played by Ralph Bellamy.
Screwball was a seamless hybrid of several distinct traditions. Its sophisticated quotient derived from the likes of Private Lives and The Guardsman and Reunion in Vienna, Broadway favorites whose movie versions today resemble waxworks, their witticisms hanging in dead air waiting for the audience reaction that doesn’t come. Screwball kept the sets, the suits, and (sometimes) the classical farce structure, aerating them with the anarchic comic energy unleashed by the talkies. For a while after 1929, the movies didn’t feel the need for much structure at all; pictures like The Big Broadcast, International House, and Going Hollywood got by with a stepped-up parade of double-talk, dialect comedy, surreal sight gags, and novelty numbers. It was the genius of screwball to tap into that craziness, and revive the wan art of drawing-room comedy with vaudevillian energy; this was accomplished by replacing the comic specialists—the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Burns and Allen—with “normal” people like Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. Where the Marx Brothers inhabit an entirely grotesque world, screwball restricts the grotesque to the peripheries of its landscape. In this respect its closest predecessor was the sort of fast-talking tough comedy ushered in by The Front Page and extended in the early vehicles of Jean Harlow (Red Dust, Red-Headed Woman) and James Cagney (Taxi, Jimmy the Gent).
But those tough comedies—like the tough melodramas they paralleled—had a much harsher sense of where the lines were drawn. They are still less familiar than the comedies of the late Thirties, chiefly because they predate Hollywood’s great era of self-censorship and consequently were rarely revived or televised until recent years. It is not altogether coincidental that 1934—the year Harvey celebrates as the watershed of American comedy—was also the year the Hays Code took effect. The startling bawdiness and generally disorderly air of pre-code comedy disappeared almost overnight. The carefree goofiness of screwball masks the systematic suppression of certain possibilities. It is doubtful, for instance, that Lubitsch’s 1933 version of Design for Living, laundered though it is, could have been made at all a few years later. Thereafter, Grant and Dunne slipping into bed together just as their divorce becomes final is as naughty as it gets: a gag that manages to reaffirm the moral code by breaking it. Soon even that would be out of bounds. By 1943, as Harvey points out, Lubitsch was reduced to making Heavan Can Wait, “the story of a philanderer in which no philandering ever occurs…. The film gives less a feeling of double entendre than of massive denial.”
The pre-code movies, on the other hand, can still shock, as a recent retrospective at New York’s Film Forum confirmed. Not that the moral code is absent in them—it weighs heavily on every scene—but the film’s and the audience’s reactions to it are fascinatingly unpredictable. This was the era that ennobled the gangster and the whore, so that in an underrated comedy like W.S. Van Dyke’s 1933 Penthouse the lawyer hero could be a mouthpiece for the mob and the call-girl heroine (radiantly incarnated by Myrna Loy) could marry him and sail off happily into the fade-out. That sort of thing went out in 1934. As if in compensation the screwball heroine emerged: a lady who might be as dizzy and madcap as she liked, but whose essential respectability was never in question. The genre’s great stars, Colbert and Loy and Lombard and Dunne, excelled at conveying an impression of rule-breaking without visibly transgressing. The scene in The Awful Truth where Irene Dunne shocks Cary Grant’s society friends with her low-life impression would hardly have the same effect if her part were played by Jean Harlow. The mere presence of Harlow would suggest all that the movies lost in their gradual process of homogenization.
The screwball comedies were both part of that process and a protest against it. They nurtured a subversion at once exhilirating and ineffectual, a madness with no rough edges, a freedom with no consequences. Their heroes and heroines play like children; they dance on roller skates and shoot out Christmas ornaments and enjoy every minute of it, magically holding at bay anything that might let the 1930s come stealing through those white-on-white portals.
Such a genre could not survive the outbreak of war. In the wartime comedies, screwball’s free spirits were gradually replaced by characters anchored in domesticity. The Forties brought comedy down to earth, grounding it (like everything else) in the family, and in the process pretty much squeezing the life out of it. Harvey notes: “It was the heroines, and the inevitably aging stars who played them, who were really trapped—in movies that seemed to embody an animus against them, against the style and wit that made them possible.” The regimented laughs of these movies set the pace for the heavy-handed family comedies of the Fifties, the decade when Hollywood’s unified world-view finally fell gaudily apart.
The Forties did permit the flowering of two talents who had been around since the Twenties. Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) took his curious brand of ideological comedy into a new territory too emotionally draining to be called comic. Harvey gets rather worked up about Capra, whom he accuses of betraying everything represented by his earlier It Happened One Night, and whom he seems to equate with Ronald Reagan (the object of several ill-conceived diatribes in his final pages). It’s quite true that Capra goes too far, and in the process destroys the delicate balance of classic Thirties comedy. His two late masterpieces systematically ignore the division between screen and screening room; Capra lets in the sense of reality that screwball wisely excluded, thereby setting off a chain reaction in which one unresolvable situation leads into another. The spectator who thought he was getting a movie gets an emotional breakdown. The joyous conclusion of It’s a Wonderful Life owes much of its force to one’s relief that the relentless process is finally over.
That leaves us with the solitary figure of Preston Sturges, who was blessed for a few years with the chance to create a private universe with a minimum of interference. Sturges was able to incorporate a flair for physical comedy reminiscent of Rube Goldberg and Buster Keaton with a dense, stylized sense of social hierarchies and sexual antagonisms. He was at once the most sophisticated and the most cartoonish of creators. Harvey’s 150-page disquisition on Sturges, a book in itself, offers shot-by-shot replays of The Great McGinty, The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and the rest; but it can’t be said that Sturges’s movies gain much from extended analysis. The qualities that make them work are all on the screen, and efforts to explain them begin to sound like Dick Powell in Christmas in July, endlessly attempting to clarify his prize-winning coffee slogan. To Sturges was left the whole cycle’s swan song, the wonderful Unfaithfully Yours, a film which failed so completely that Sturges’s career never recovered. Here was a movie that combined the verbal and behavioral bubbliness of Thirties comedy with the psychic splintering of Forties film noir. Indeed, Sturges’s charade of reality and illusion, with Rex Harrison stage-managing his own obsessions in a series of films within the film, anticipated Hitchcock’s Vertigo a decade later. Yet this mirror-movie about the isolated ego somehow rose to a note of romantic affirmation: “A thousand poets dreamed a thousand years, and you were born…my love.” It was an appropriately wistful sentiment to end a film marking the end of a tradition.
July 21, 1988