American Culture

ArtSunday: The diversionary tactics of love and laughter…

From screwball comedy to – well, screwball comedy

Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (image courtest Wikimedia)

I’m in the midst of reading a detailed architectural history of my hometown, Eden, NC, a gift from my lovely and talented mate. While interesting (to me, anyway, since I’m from there), it is a tad on the dry side (though well done as such tomes go) and a slow read as a result. I’ll review that after Thanksgiving. To divert us in the meantime, I’ll do a little of what I’ve complained about academics doing (and which I did plenty of at earlier points in my career) and write a nice little popular culture analysis.

This past Friday (sad anniversary though it was) I watched TCM’s  Friday Night Spotlight. This regular feature of the “old movies channel” as some think of them (I think of them as a national resource for learning about film history) has focused on screwball comedies of the 1930′s-early 1940′s. This genre, for those unfamiliar with it, combines elements of madcap comedy with elements of romantic comedy. The conventions of the genre as practiced then involved poking gentle fun at the upper classes (i.e., the rich), intellectuals, and, of course, romance. Stellar examples include Frank Capra’s tour de force It Happened One Night, Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, and Garbo’s last great film, the Ernst Lubitsch classic  Ninotchka. Friday night TCM showed three of the genre’s finest examples: My Man GodfreyBringing Up Baby, and Ball of Fire.

Carole Lombard and William Powell in My Man Godfrey (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Screwball comedies enjoyed a strong vogue throughout the 1930′s. They served the important function of diverting Depression-era audiences from their troubles while at the same time allowing them to laugh at the foibles of their “betters,” whether those “betters” were spoiled rich people (as in My Man Godfrey and Bringing Up Baby) or sadly lacking in social skills intellectual types such as Grant’s Professor David Huxley (the name choice for Grant’s character is no accident) in Bringing Up Baby or Cooper’s Professor Bertram Potts in Ball of Fire. In all three films role reversal in the courtship ritual is a key element: Carole Lombard’s Irene Bullock, Katherine Hepburn’s Susan Vance, and Barbara Stanwyck’s Katherine O’Shea all meet the men of their dreams by chance – and all immediately begin their pursuit of “the one.” All the male protagonists (while William Powell pretends to be butler Godfrey Smith, he is actually a scion of a powerful Boston family, the Parks, with a Harvard education and a broken heart which has made him something of a sociologist/philosopher). Cooper’s Potts and Grant’s Huxley are, respectively, “real deal” academics: Potts is a socio-linguistics researcher and Huxley a paleontologist. Those latter two, as you’ve probably guessed, are sorely lacking in their experience and knowledge of romance.

Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Part of what makes the films highly entertaining is the “casting against type” meme they use so effectively. Powell, Cooper, and Grant were all handsome leading men of their time; casting them as an obsequious butler and as absent minded, mild mannered professors – far from their usual roles as detectives, soldiers, cowboys, or playboys – creates a mild cognitive dissonance for viewers that enhances audience interest – and sharpens audience attention. Add to that the brilliance of their co-stars – two of whom (Stanwyck and Hepburn) were brilliant “play any character” actresses, the third (Lombard) the finest screen comedienne of her era – and there’s the winning formula, that thing known as “high concept” in the parlance of contemporary Hollywood.

World War II ended the run of the screwball comedy. The dark sensibilities of returning GIs after that conflict were more attracted to film noir of the immediate post-war years – and, strangely enough, eventually to the splashy musicals of the 1950s. Most film historians, in fact, cite only one successful screwball comedy in the last 50 years: the Peter Bogdanovich homage What’s Up, Doc? with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal.

Cast The Big Bang Theory (image courtesy Wikimedia)

But that’s the movies. Television seems to have had success using the memes of screwball comedy periodically (especially in “dramedies” such as Moonlighting and Ed). The most recent success of the genre as TV entertainment is, of course, Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady’s brilliant The Big Bang Theory which takes the basic plot construct of Ball of Fire and runs with it. The adjustments Lorre and Prady provide – the nerdy professors of the show are portrayed by actors who are much closer to real nerdy professors in looks than to those glamour boys mentioned above, for example – and the updating of social/courtship mores to the present have allowed the show to resonate with contemporary audiences.

Big Bang’s success is based on the same principle, though, as those classic films: it diverts our attention from the sad and sorry economic and political mess that is our current era….

As the Frenchman said, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.