Adrian Martin will be lecturing on Classical Hollywood Comedy during this year’s Summer Film School. For further information and tickets see elsewhere on this website.
Introduction: The Promiscuity of Comedy
As a glance into any DVD shop will inform you, comedy resists division into types, categories, sub-genres. Drama, on the other hand, easily breaks down into a myriad of groups: thriller, horror, action, family drama, war movie, art film, … But comedy? It is all just thrown together, into one great and unruly family of films. Sometimes a DVD shop will attempt a specific label, like Romantic Comedy, but even this quickly becomes nonsensical and unworkable: how many comedies, finally, exist without some love intrigue, major or minor? It is as if the idea of comedy and the idea of love – its trials and tribulations, joys and disappointments – go together from the very start, and stay together eternally.
Comedy is such a large and amorphous genre because it is defined by the affect it hopes to elicit in us. It is not defined by a historical place or period (like the Western), not by specific plot structures (like the detective or crime film), not by the presence of a specific form (singing and dancing in the Musical), not by a familiar iconography (film noir), not by certain kinds of supernatural character-types (fantasy). Comedies are defined by only one thing: they hope, and do everything in their power, to make us laugh. In this sense, their closest generic cousin is not drama, but horror, which only wants to make us scream. But screen comedy is even looser and more fluid, as a set of conventions, than horror cinema.
Comedy is a promiscuous and voracious genre. American cinema has often tried to forge templates, particular molds or types of comedy – satirical comedy, trash comedy, physical comedy, middlebrow comedy, transgressive comedy – but the destiny of comedy is to recycle, combine, devour, and absorb bits of all other genres. Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing (1984), for instance, begins as a teen movie, in the milieu of family home and school. It sails along nicely, self-satisfied, like this for about 20 minutes. Then suddenly, its two main characters (played by John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga) separately get in the back seat of the same car – and now it’s a road movie. And the road movie association brings new kind of gags, but also tension (trapped in such a small space, antagonists cannot escape one another and must interact …), and even menace: what is that redneck car or truck coming over the bump in the highway?
Comedy likes to slip in and out of generic costumes in this way. We can call Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face (2007), for example, a stoner comedy (the drug-fuelled adventures of a young, female drop-out), but that tag actually ignores or obscures many delightful things in it: its picaresque journey narrative, its mock-Godardian scenes of political theory (Anna Faris lectures the factory workers on their exploitation), its Resnais-like montage-flashes forward and backward in time, its accumulating action-chase plot, its Dreyer-like absorption in the human face dumbstruck by oversaturated light (Faris as Dreyer’s Joan of Arc or Gertrud, high on hash cakes)… Not to mention the film’s most revolutionary and explosive aspect, namely its connection to a beleaguered tradition of female burlesque (Lucille Ball, the films of Elaine May, Molly Shannon in the Saturday Night Live spin-off Superstar ) in which – as Luc Moullet once wisely said – the actor-hero, to succeed, must stoop to conquer, must consider no action too degrading, humiliating or disgusting to perform…
However, American screen comedy does have a history – a huge, diverse, often uncharted history. And the history of any filmic form brings with it not rigid templates, but tendencies, possibilities, emphases … which can then be combined and recombined in new ways. Some possibilities fall away: it can be truthfully (and perhaps sadly) said that, whatever talent America has in comedy (and it has a lot), it does not, at present, have supreme physical performers and artists of the type who began in the silent era, like Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon or Buster Keaton. The connection of comedy with vaudeville, the circus, travelling troupes and even the music hall tradition has largely disappeared: now the players come from stand-up venues, theatre restaurants, the large and international comedy festival circuit, and, above all, television (think of the best exponent of this new lineage: Louis C.K.). The comedy has become more verbal and cerebral, less physical – or, when it does become physical (as in the celebrated toilet scene of Bridesmaids ), it stages the loss of bodily control, not its acrobatic or athletic mastery.
But let us not bemoan, with false nostalgia, the loss of particular tendencies and possibilities. The verbal comic tradition that passes through Jack Benny to Woody Allen and Billy Crystal gives us Albert Brooks – a figure who has no real equivalent in Hollywood’s supposed Golden Age from the 1920s to the ‘50s. Cameron Crowe today draws much from his mentor Billy Wilder, but also mines the vibrant, varied youth culture that Wilder effectively left behind at the very start of his career, after The Major and the Minor (1942). There is no one today can who depict a crazy, energetic community, fractious yet completely interconnected, the way Preston Sturges did in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) – yet this community finds an equivalent, and Sturges’ penchant for provocation and outrageousness finds its modern-day match, in David Wain’s films Role Models (2008) and Wanderlust (2012).
This essay sketches a history of American screen comedy that is ‘partial’ in two respects: it covers only a very small portion of the films produced between (roughly) 1930 and 1980; and it stresses a particular angle or point of view. My approach to the history of comedy is to take the emphasis away from the usual concentration on character psychology, and on the narratives that support this natural, commonsensical ‘human interest’. This is in no way to downplay the crucial contributions to screen comedy of either scriptwriters or actors. However, I believe that what we really need to excavate and understand in this history is the notion of film comedy as what I call a game space: above all, a play with character stereotypes, familiar plots, and cultural clichés. Comedy opens up a space and time for play with such elements – a process of play that is both highly formal in its working (drawing unprecedented attention to the language and conventions of the film medium itself), and critical, in the sense of opening up and expanding the gap between representation and reality, stereotype and person, cliché and truth. This is the thread that connects Ernst Lubitsch to Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges to Frank Tashlin, and Jerry Lewis to the teen movies of the 1980s.
Out of the many key figures who could be considered here, I leave aside such giants as Leo McCarey, Frank Capra, George Cukor, Mitchell Leisen, Gregory La Cava, Howard Hawks and Blake EdwardsFor an appreciation of Edwards (1922-2010) written in 1987, see my ‘Blake Edwards’ Sad Songs of Love’, Undercurrent, no. 7 (2011), http://fipresci.hegenauer.co.uk/undercurrent/issue_0711/martin_sadsongs.htm, to concentrate on the network formed by mainly three masters – Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges and Frank Tashlin – with sidelong glances at a few others.
Ernst Lubitsch: The Semantic Chessboard
Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) has left us one of the richest bodies of work in cinema history, as rich as Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford. He is the supreme filmmaker of invention. Inventiveness was his watchword, as he challenged each of his collaborators (especially his writers, such as Samson Raphaelson) to find a new way to narrate a plot move, signify a character’s function, or suggest something that could not be explicitly said or shown. Everything in Lubitsch’s cinema – certainly by the time he installed himself in Hollywood, after his early productions in Germany – was a matter of clever artifice, stylisation, innuendo, hieroglyphics. This is, in fact, exactly what we mean when we refer to ‘the Lubitsch touch’, as it became known popularly and in the film industry during the director’s lifetime: signalled, above all, by the camera staying fixed on a closed door (behind which, of course, we know exactly what is happening), with only a musical cue, or the commentary of another, excluded observer, to fill in the blank.
Lubitsch’s work produces an alienation or estrangement effect in two, subtle ways. Not, as this idea has come to mean in Brechtian dramaturgy, by ‘breaking the illusion’ of the fictional world – that would come into vogue later in American screen comedy, and through another tradition. No, first of all, Lubitsch brought with him what Edgardo Cozarinsky refers to as ‘the gaze of the outsider’, the observation of the European-Jewish immigrant, upon the scenes of American life and the conventions of its culture.See Edgardo Cozarinsky, Cinematógrafos (Buenos Aires: BAFICI, 2010). What this means, in action, is that the simplest transactions of everyday social life – greetings, manners, monetary exchanges, conversation – are rendered strange, a riddle to be decoded, Language, bodily movement, rituals of meeting, processes of shopping and selling … all these things are rich material, fertile soil for Lubitsch’s comedic imagination. Even when Lubitsch comes close to the typical, sentimental romantic comedy, as in The Shop Around the Corner (1940), his highly concrete, even materialist vision gradually turns the scenario into something else: the plot becomes like a diagram that reveals a structure, showing how “human beings are transformed into servants of commodities” and underlining “the relations of force in the world”.See Nicole Brenez, ‘Shops of Horror’, Rouge, no. 11 (2007), http://www.rouge.com.au/11/shops_horror.html
I do not mean to thereby claim that Lubitsch was a keen Marxist secretly lurking, like a spy, within the American system. Quite the opposite: like many émigrés (Douglas Sirk, Otto Preminger and Lang are among the striking examples), Lubitsch embraced the culture of his adopted homeland lovingly, and ‘indulged’ it accordingly. In fact, the sly quality of Lubitsch’s cinema, that lurking, off-screen smile or wink which may or may not be subversive or critical at every point of his films, comes precisely from this quality of indulgence – his eagerness to please his masters and employers, his drive to succeed as a good, American businessman in the entertainment industry. As the eternal outsider working hard to be accepted as an insider, Lubitsch overplays his hand, delivers too well on what he intuits is expected of him as a storyteller, humourist and entertainer. In doing so, he truly instigates a tradition: we see traces of the same, subtle game in the work of Louis C.K., when he makes a film about success in the black music scene (Pootie Tang, 2001); or when Cameron Crowe makes the phrase “show me the money!” the central theme of Jerry Maguire (1996).
Lubitsch is sometimes regarded as the inaugural figure of sophisticated comedy in American cinema. This is a term with which we need to be careful, whether we are speaking of Lubitsch, Wilder or Joseph Mankiewicz – for it is not the opposite of vulgarity, something which, in its transgressive, liberating and socially levelling force, plays a major role in virtually every branch of comedy included in this survey. Lubitsch must be thought of as sophisticated in an almost technical or generic sense: his films take a decisive step away from physical burlesque, from the tradition of the visual and frequently corporeal gag (to which we shall return), and invests all his creative energy, from the start of the ‘talking pictures’ period, into what we can call a scenography of speech: spoken words, back-and-forth conversations, choreographed in relation to accompanying gestures, eye contact, and so on – an extraordinary game of both revelation and dissimulation, simultaneously.
Now we arrive at the second major level of estrangement created by Lubitsch’s cinema – his intensely formalist tendency. By this, I mean to signal how every element in his films, from the micro to the macro levels of structure, is systematised: everything repeats, echoes, mirrors, inverts, or transforms something else, and no detail is ever left in surplus, unsystematised. Everything is taken up, energetically used and finally exhausted or discarded within the game space that is the film itself. For examples, think of how The Merry Widow (1934) breaks down words into syllables, the name ‘Dan-i-lo’ distributed across three different shots and three different speakers; or the objects (purses, wallets, keys) that get stolen and pass from person to person in Trouble in Paradise (1932); or the alternating comparison between two renditions of the same song (‘You’re the Cream in My Coffee’) in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931); or the always varied repetition, in altered contexts, of the line “It’ll get a terrific laugh” in To Be Or Not To Be (1944); or the bold triangular structure – two bodies always united, pictorially, against a third, but with the identities in ‘the couple’ always shifting – of Design for Living (1933). Indeed, it has often struck me, looking once more at Lubitsch’s mise en scène, that he must have had an uncanny ability – a gift to any filmmaker – to see what was in three-dimensional space in front of him on the set, and instantly mentally process it into a flat, two-dimensional space: images as pieces or tokens on an imaginary semantic chessboard, where characters stand less for themselves than for particular bundles of values and meanings.
“If there’s something missing, that signifies trouble in paradise”! Is there any wonder that the radically-minded film critics at Cahiers du cinéma and elsewhere, at the end of 1960s, gleefully seized on Lubitsch’s films for their dazzling cynicism, their insistence on money as the basis of all interpersonal exchange (including the erotic), and their effortless foregrounding of every manipulative trick and corny convention reigning in ‘30s Hollywood?See the special Lubitsch dossier in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 198 (February 1968), reprinted and expanded in Bernard Eisenschitz & Jean Narboni (eds), Ernst Lubitsch (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma/Cinémathèque française, 1985). Yet Lubitsch was never simply inside or outside the codes of his time; while he brilliantly up-ends every appearance (as much through sound counterpoint as through framing and editing games), he also lets us enjoy the sly virtuosity, the infinite caginess, and finally even the mutual tenderness between his principal characters – so often themselves also outsiders to the social system, in one way or another (this tendency in his work culminating in the sublime, late masterpiece of Cluny Brown, 1946). Ultimately, as with all the very greatest filmmakers, Ernst Lubitsch’s cinema endures just as much for the innovation of its form as for the perfection and clarity of its content.
Preston Sturges: The Perils of Populism
If the reign of Lubitsch over ‘sophisticated’ screen comedy runs from the end of the silent era in the 1920s through to the mid 1940s, then – overlapping with his final years – the films directed by Preston Sturges (1898-1959) and Billy Wilder (1906-2002), after their respective apprenticeships in screenwriting, represent two crucial departures from the Maestro’s legacy. Wilder today remains, in general terms, the best-known and most beloved of comedy-directors from Hollywood’s Classical Era – and he is regarded especially highly as a model by other filmmakers, whether established or starting out, past or present. Why should this be so? First, he outlived most of his contemporaries, and his late works (such as The Front Page, 1974) managed to seem not too anachronistic within the new, young American cinema of the time. Second, where Lubitsch made only one foray into drama (The Man I Killed, 1932), Wilder ended up making almost an equal number of comedies and dramas, with the dramatic pieces (including Double Indemnity, 1944, Sunset Boulevard, 1950, and Fedora, 1978) regarded as canonical classics as much as Sabrina (1954), Some Like It Hot (1959) and Avanti! (1972). Third – and perhaps most profoundly – Wilder downplayed the formalistic side of the Lubitschian legacy (even though he had co-scripted Ninotchka, 1939), and re-invested his creative energies in the creation of eccentric but believable, ‘fully rounded’, psychologically coherent characters.
The case of Sturges is quite different. In 1978, Andrew Sarris bemoaned the fact that “I have all I can do to keep the memory of Preston Sturges alive among readers and students who seem to be forgetting more and more of the past with each passing year of media overload”.Andrew Sarris, ‘Film Criticism in the Seventies’, Film Comment (January-February 1978), p. 11. Happily, in the DVD age, Sturges’ reputation (like Lubitsch’s) is again on the rise, although it poses no serious challenge, as yet, to the disproportionate degree of celebrity enjoyed by Wilder in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a paradox embedded in this comparative status of Wilder and Sturges. Where Wilder inherited from Lubitsch the sometimes aristocratic tendency to privilege those characters who are fast-talking, smart, witty and urbane (also usually urban) over slow-witted and conservative-leaning ‘average folk’, Sturges, although himself an extremely erudite and cultivated person, had a strong and profound feeling for the type of populism – the ‘love of the common man and woman’ – associated, above all, with Frank Capra. But even this is paradoxical: Sturges venerated Everyman and Everywoman by turning them into eccentrics, people whose obsessiveness and neurotic tics take them out of the norm. And, by exploring this, he steadily questioned the stereotypes of American personality that usually accompany populist ideology, whether poetically portrayed by Capra, or vilely spewing from the mouth of right-wing Presidents like Bush, Reagan or Trump.
Once long ago, as a teenage cinephile, I found myself sitting in front of Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941). I had been told it was a masterpiece but, as is the case with every cinephile, I needed to be personally convinced of its greatness – so I waited for the epiphany to arrive. Early on in the film, a curious scene interrupted its clearly modern, knowing games with social and sexual roles. It was an intrusion of pure, unmediated corniness, or cornball as we say in English. Henry Fonda is in the process of declaring his love to Barbara Stanwyck, via an unctuous parable of children whose destiny it was to fall in love; meanwhile, in the mise en scène, waves wash behind the ship deck, and ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’ hums on the sound track. I thought to myself: how trite and conventional, what a letdown, what a failure of nerve on Sturges’ part! I felt the film had betrayed me. This was a comedic masterpiece?
I was in for a severe but salutary lesson – and this was what ended up being my Sturges epiphany. At the other end of The Lady Eve, this corny scene gets re-played – but with a few major differences. They’re the same words, mouthed by the same actors; except that now Stanwyck is pretending to be someone else, and her motive is pure revenge. Sturges, too, is out for revenge – on me, the presumptuous viewer who actually believed the director could stoop to that earlier moment of schmaltz without a damn good reason. For the first scene was a set-up, and the pay-off is this: second time around, the words are ludicrous, and the scene keeps falling apart due to an obligingly over-romantic horse which keeps nuzzling into the love duet. Yes, I felt ashamed – to have doubted Preston Sturges for a single second! And – a more general lesson – to not have realised that the film was exercising its capacity to play a game on and with its audience, as part of its general game with clichés and stereotypes.For more on the idea and theory of a ‘game with clichés’, see Claude Ollier, ‘Josef von Sternberg’, in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Volume 2 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980), pp. 949-960.
For Sturges, in the brief but glorious years covered from The Great McGinty and Christmas in July (both 1940) to Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) – similar to the period of high creativity enjoyed by John Hughes as writer-director-producer between Sixteen Candles (1984) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – there is a hitherto unprecedented emphasis, matched perhaps only in the drama of Citizen Kane (1940 – itself anticipated by Sturges’ script for The Power and the Glory, 1933), on ordinary life as it’s reflected and refracted in the mass media: photography, radio, newspapers, movies. The reflexive games in Sullivan’s Travels (1941) – a Hollywood film about the conventions and genres of Hollywood, and the ‘reality’ that is forever beyond their grasp – reach a dizzying peak in this regard. All of this feeds the central theme, the generating principle of Sturges’ work: in this cinema that is obsessed with showing how stories are spun and how images are constructed, the worst kind of person, the most narrow-minded and destructive in their actions, is the one who believes in the immediate, surface meaning of a mediated representation, who takes its appearance for the truth, and does not question further, or follow the fragile flash of true feeling and authentic personal identity that is always beyond the stereotyped image/story. The Lady Eve provides an almost textbook illustration of this scenario.
Sturges seizes a central principle of American comedy, especially what we think of today as romantic comedy, common to virtually every great director mentioned in this essay: the real, deep truth of a situation, an individual, a community or an intimate relationship is not to be found in a fixed, socially sanctioned stereotype, but in a perpetual performance – and performance, in the flux of everyday life, must depend on a keen gift for constantly renewed improvisation. Since performance is always playing with masks, fake identities, and smokescreens of contrived, theatrical appearances, the moral or ethical dividing line between characters is not how smart or witty they are (as in Wilder or the TV series Seinfeld), not what class or status they are (which is a constant element in Cukor), but precisely whether they can remain in the position of player rather than ‘played’, the (joyous, artful) manipulator rather than the socially manipulated. Thus, redemption for Sturges’ characters always occurs in a Dionysian mode: it is a matter of repressed, strait-laced characters finally losing their strict, Apollonian, hyper-rational sense of self in impulse, immorality, madness. We can see different traces and mutations of this in the ‘trash comedies’ of today, from Animal House (1979) to Superbad (2007), where the relentless pursuit of ‘gross out’ bad taste (alcohol, drugs, sex, music, partying) carries its own Dionyisan call to find yourself through losing yourself.
Frank Tashlin: A New Kind of Rose
Jean-Luc Godard wrote in 1957: “According to Georges Sadoul, Frank Tashlin is a second-rank director because he has never done a remake of You Can’t Take It With You [Capra 1938] or The Awful Truth [McCarey 1937]. According to me, my colleague errs in mistaking a closed door for an open one”.Jean-Luc Godard (translated and edited by Tom Milne), Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), pp. 57-58. Frank Tashlin (1913-1972) did indeed open a new path for screen comedy, and one heeded, over decades, continuing into our present time, by filmmakers in many countries and cultures: Maurizio Nichetti (Italy), Jacques Rivette and William Klein (France), Yahoo Serious (Australia) … and by zany contemporary American comedies including Smiley Face and Hexed (Alan Spencer, 1993), as well as the entire careers of Joe Dante and Robert Zemeckis.
Tashlin’s path into cinema, during the 1930s and ‘40s, was unique: through cartooning for books and newspapers, and then Warner Bros animation. His films, as Roger Tailleur suggested in 1958, create “a universe of pure representation”.Roger Tailleur, ‘Anything Goes’, in Claire Johnston and Paul Willemen (eds), Frank Tashlin (Edinburgh Film Festival, 1973), p. 26. Everything in them is artificial, already constructed, pre-given. Tashlin’s pleasure, a very modern one, is in the game of arranging and shifting these elements, placing and displacing them. In this sense, he is the extension of Sturges: his films include every kind of mass media, from printed press through to television and movies (a scene in Rock-a-Bye Baby  where Jerry Lewis hides within a TV frame and pretends to be the contents of its changing channels is memorable in this regard).
But, unlike in Lubitsch or Sturges – and as only very rarely in Wilder, for instance in the closing seconds of Some Like It Hot – Tashlin never held back on ideas for breaking the diegetic illusion of the fiction. In this respect, he was following a tradition – not only of actor-directors such as Harry Langdon who would punctuate their comic predicaments with looks or winks to the audience, but also of extreme, wayward films like Hellzapoppin’ (1941), and the milder assaults on screen realism routinely carried out by the 1940s Road to … films of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (the latter of whom Tashlin worked with at both the start and end of his directorial years). Following the narrative category proposed by literary theorist Gérard Genette, we can call this the metaleptic tradition in cinema.For a comprehensive discussion of the trope of metalepsis in cinema, see Thomas Morsch, ‘Permanent Metalepsis: Pushing the Boundaries of Narrative Space’, in Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg & Simon Rothöhler (eds), Screen Dynamics: Mapping the Borders of Cinema (Vienna: Austrian Filmmuseum/Synema, 2012), pp. 108-125. This tradition, where characters act from an awareness of the constructedness of the fiction they are in, has been reactivated, selectively, by Woody Allen in films such as Whatever Works (2009); but it completely structures a late Tashlin film like Caprice (1967).
Yet there is also, here, a reinvention of Lubitsch, after the more humanistic, 1940s turn (even if it is a sometimes harsh, unforgiving humanism) of Sturges and Wilder. For, similar to Lubitsch, one side of Tashlin is his play with the formal elements of cinema, such as visual distortion, image against sound, and breaks in the self-contained diegesis of the narrative. The other side of Tashlin’s games is a questioning of the very basis of narrative and representation, of stereotypes and the ideology they construct. They explode from within – by taking cartoon-like stylization and experimentation to their extreme point – the central obsessions of the Hollywood cinema: finding one’s identity and one’s place, reaching the happy endings of adulthood, sexual satisfaction, monogamy, and marriage. Such endings are indeed achieved by the films (just as Lubitsch did in The Merry Widow or Heaven Can Wait ), but they are rendered strange, contrived to be deliberately perfunctory or alienating (as in Sirk’s melodramas), and the narrative path that leads to them is tortuous, baroque, itself extremely artificial.For more on the concept of ‘cartoon narrative’ in live-action, photographed cinema, see Brian Henderson, ‘Cartoon and Narrative in the Films of Frank Tashlin and Preston Sturges’, in Andrew Horton (ed.), Comedy/Cinema/Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 153-173.
Where Tashlin departs from Lubitsch is in the return to highly physical (and less verbal) gag comedy. Words are not absent, but – as we see in the work of his protégé Jerry Lewis – they are détourned into often nonsensical cries, mumbles, glossolalia, a kind of sonic and phonetic play sometimes worthy of the sound-poetry of the Lettrist artists (whose era corresponds approximately with the span of Tashlin’s career). What matters more to Tashlin is the construction of highly elaborate visual gags, often taking as their subject (like the contemporaneous works of Jacques Tati) the dysfunctional collision between human bodies and the machines and objects (cars, domestic cleaners, musical instruments) of modern industrial and consumer society. A taste for Surrealist metamorphosis creeps into this encounter between human and non-human, creating strange, giddy transferrals of identity: in films such as Artists and Models (1955), Rock-a-Bye Baby and The Disorderly Orderly (1964), a medical patient wrapped in bandages runs down a hill, slams into a tree, breaks part, and turns out to be a hollow shell; or, conversely, an empty suit of knight’s armour, when sent clanking down the stairs, suddenly acquires magical motor-control skills.
The cherished notions of narrative plausibility and logicality, consistent characterisation, and even the unified nature of a filmic world, are all merrily detonated in Tashlin’s cinema. The stereotypes that give a fleeting ‘body’ or vital animation to people or ideas or value systems literally blow in from anywhere: from machines, advertisements, billboards, laboratory experiments, cartoons, mass media crazes. The giant, painted depiction of a woman at the start of Artists and Models – inspiration, no doubt, for Fellini in The Temptations of Dr Antonio (his episode of Boccaccio ‘70, 1962) – has more apparent life than the insect-workers who toil within it. Like Lubitsch, Tashlin believes in the power of invention but, with his advanced, modernist melancholia, his dream is that perhaps, one day, this poetic beauty will be engineered, created precisely from the machines that currently alienate and separate us: hence, in his testament piece, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), the dream of creating “a new kind of rose” – a strange, Frankenstein-like creation, no doubt, built from a palimpsest of ill-matching bits and pieces, just as Tashlin’s films are.
Postscript: Animal Universe
In the late 1970s, via Animal House, the stoner-Latino films of Cheech and Chong, the Porky’s series (actually originated in Canada), and many other similar movies, American comedy took a swerve from the last remnants of sophistication – so weakly revived in Peter Bogdanovich’s musical At Long Last Love (1975) – and into what Raymond Durgnat has (non-judgementally) called animal comedy.See Raymond Durgnat, ‘Next Time You Say That – Smile: A New and Revised Dictionary of the Comedy of Manners’, Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 656 (September 1988), pp. 258-260. The genre known loosely as the teen movie sets animal comedy to work in films such as Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and Weird Science (John Hughes, 1986) – leading, much later, to the Farrelly brothers or Judd Apatow schools of deliberate, provocative bad taste.
Yet comedy never goes entirely one way, or fits into just one sub-generic groove. What I hope I have evoked here is a series of possibilities that always remain potential, alive. Lubitsch’s sense of formalism and systematisation reappears in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002); Sturges’ feeling for loose, performative communities revives itself in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993); the tenderness that Wilder felt for his main characters, no matter how flawed they are, returns in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Pineapple Express (2008) or Bridesmaids. And on it goes – as Godard advised us 55 years ago: when it’s a matter of comedy, try not to see the closed options, only the open doors.
© Adrian Martin May 2017