Love and romance in American comedy

Myrna Loy and William Powell; the pair made several films together including the Thin Man series and Love Crazy.

Myrna Loy and William Powell; the pair made several films together including the Thin Man series and Love Crazy.

Note: This blog is a virtual lecture that accompanies a film studies class, so there are references to specific readings and films the students have access to, but the casual reader might not. However, there are also general ideas about film studies and Hollywood history that don’t rely upon the texts and films.

British writer/comic Stephen Fry suggests that the difference between American and British humor comes down to self-confidence. He claims American comics’ routines hinge on a sense of optimism, while British comics celebrate their failures. Fry’s observation is interesting for the insight an outsider brings to our humor; also, he seems to be onto something.

When looking at American movies, the main character is often an underdog who has the pluck to get out of a sticky situation through wit, a little fast talk, and action. It is kind of ironic that one of the iconic comedians from Hollywood’s early days, Charlie Chaplin, was British; his Little Tramp character was the embodiment of the American myth of the everyman who can pull himself up by his bootstraps and make a name for himself. Another American comedic icon, Cary Grant, was also British; he came to the U.S. when he was 16, reinventing himself and helping Americans imagine an American man who could be urbane, witty, and sophisticated. While Grant played several types of roles throughout his career, he first hit big in screwball comedies—our genre this week.

Slapstick and anarchy

From the earliest silent movies through to today, slapstick has been a big part of American comedy.

The Marx Brothers had a special mix of wordplay and physical humor that reflected the wisecracking urban sensibilities of an evolving America where even the sons of Jewish immigrants could become world famous movie stars. The Marxes simultaneously lived the American dream and destroyed all attempts at creating any sort of institution. The brothers started out life in a poor section of New York’s upper East Side and worked the family vaudeville act into a film career that afforded them fame and wealth beyond their expectations. In their films, the Marxes poked fun at anyone or anything that attempted to impose order or assign value–higher education, socialites, government, etc., were trampled on with glee by the Marx Brothers.

The desire to destroy the institution—physical or more often, social—is a hallmark of American comedy. This brand of humor ties in with our idea of ourselves as iconoclasts and individualists. However, even with the destruction, there is usually a resolution where the institution is restored, but changed somehow and improved upon before the restoration is complete.

Movies such as Big Daddy (starring Adam Sandler) take on the institution of marriage and family. Sandler’s character, Sonny, is first presented as an overgrown kid who is selfish and destructive, belittling his friend Kevin for getting engaged. When a child (Julian, played by Dylan and Cole Sprouse) lands in his care, Sonny is forced to grow up, but he does it on his own terms—there are experiments with letting Julian dress himself and go by the name Frankenstein. He encourages the boy to urinate in public in attempt to keep him from constantly wetting his pants, but Sonny also uses a similar creative approach to get Julian to take a bath–dressing up as the father of the boy’s favorite superhero, Scuba Steve, and asking Julian to keep Scuba Steve company in the bathtub. A threat to the newly formed bond between Sonny and the boy by the court system forces Sonny to reevaluate not only his child-rearing strategy, but also his own views on marriage and family. By the film’s end, Sonny has become “normalized” into a marriage with a newborn of his own; his “improvement” to the system is introducing the ideas that each person involved in the child’s life has an impact and that men can raise well-adjusted children if given the opportunity.

Love and laughter

The battle between the sexes provides much fodder for American comedy. While the Romantic Comedy is often thought of as a genre that appeals more to female moviegoers, its foundations are in the Screwball Comedy, which had more general appeal. See the overview of the genre on Green Cine for more in-depth information about specific films, performers, and directors.

Screwball Comedies often pitted men and women against each other in conflicts that were substitutions for sexual expression. The term “screwball” was first used in the 1930s to describe the unpredictable pitches thrown by baseball players like Carl Hubbell. Movie critics adopted the term to describe the comedy films that came about in the early 1930s that revolved around unpredictable plots and zany antics between seemingly mismatched romantic partners.

Many films of the 1930s and 1940s have been labeled Screwball Comedies, including the film we are focusing on this week, Love Crazy. However, the label is often thrown at movies that simply have an element of madcap antics thrown into the mix.

For our purposes, a Screwball Comedy usually has the following elements:

  • A couple that is mismatched socially (one is usually from the upper class while the other is middle class), but a good match intellectually
  • Absurd situations or characters with secrets
  • Physical comedy that stands in for sex or physical affection
  • Rapid-fire dialogue that includes one-liners and innuendo from both parties
  • A series of misunderstandings that complicate the plot and prevent the couple from uniting until the end of the film
  • Neither party is idealized—the pair find each other irritating at the start of the film; interest often develops as the result of a challenge (there is no “love at first sight/stars-in-the-eyes” scene)
  • The resolution includes marriage or remarriage
  • Often, the middle class is idealized as virtuous in Screwball Comedies while the rich are viewed as being in need of reform (this is due in part to the original Screwball Comedies being produced during the Great Depression when audiences sought escapism and enjoyed seeing the rich get a comeuppance)

If you have done this week’s reading, you’ll note that Screwball Comedies reached their peak during the Production Code era. During this time in Hollywood’s history, the industry engaged in self-imposed censorship and graphic depictions of sex and violence (among other things) were banned. The 1931 film Scarface is considered the catalyst for the Production Code; read more details here.

Screenwriters had to develop films that would have mass-generational appeal. Keep in mind that during the 1930s and early 1940s, going to the movies was often an all-day affair where the audience saw a newsreel, comedy shorts and cartoons, the feature presentation, and possibly, a second feature as well. The movies had to appeal to everyone and offend no one.

With the Screwball Comedies, the screenwriters found ways to push the envelope and write dialogue and situations that adults would understand as intimate in nature and younger viewers would simply find funny or entertaining.

Jane M. Greene, in “A Proper Dash of Spice: Screwball Comedy and the Production Code,”* makes the case that antagonistic relationships stood in for sex during this era. She also argues that Love Crazy is not a true Screwball Comedy.

While we do see signs of the Production Code at work in Love Crazy—the Irelands have separate beds in their bedroom, for example—and Greene points to examples of how the dialogue was edited to conform to the Production Code, many elements of a classic Screwball Comedy are missing: Steve and Susan are already married when the film opens and even during the separation scenes, they do not have a physically antagonistic relationship. Their dialogue may be a bit suggestive on the night of their anniversary, but otherwise, the pair rarely exchange one-liners that hint at the sexual tension between them. Finally, the Irelands are both solidly middle class, so no tension exists over perceived social status.

Some elements of Screwball that appear in the film: There are outside forces that work to keep the pair apart (Susan’s mother, Ward Willoughby the archer, and Steve’s former girlfriend Isobel); the misunderstandings about Ward Willoughby and Pinky Grayson, as well as Steve’s masquerade as his “sister”; and the scenes where Steve is institutionalized.

If you haven’t watched Love Crazy yet, or plan to revisit it, here are some things to look for:

  • The performances of William Powell and Myrna Loy: the duo was paired up in several films in the 1930s and 40s, including the Thin Man series. They play off of each other well and have a natural chemistry on screen that makes them believable as a married couple. While Powell isn’t as familiar to today’s audiences as other comedic actors of his generation (Cary Grant, for example), he had a natural grace and accessibility that made him an audience favorite. Likewise, Myrna Loy had good comedic timing and sass that made her more than just another pretty face.
  • The use of lighting and sound to underline the lighter comedic fare: unlike in heavy drama, the lighting in the film tends to be pretty even from scene to scene. Few dramatic close-ups are used; instead, there are many medium shots which allow the audience to focus on the entire scene unfolding rather than on the emotional impact for only one character at a time.
  • The reinforcing of middle class values: from the set design to the etiquette in place around meal times and standards of dress, the Irelands embody 1940s middle class values.
  • Gender roles and expectations: We have different visions of what it meant to be a man or woman in America at the time the film was made. How are the various characters presented? What does the film tell us about how men and women were expected to behave during this period?
  • Somewhat related—stereotypes: We see a nagging mother-in-law in several scenes. There is also a scene where the valet at the party is presented as a wide-eyed fool; the few blacks shown on screen in this era were often cast as domestic servants who also had an air of childishness about them. Listen to an NPR segment about black stereotypes in Hollywood here.

Questions to consider:

Why are relationships such a big source of comedic inspiration?

How has American film comedy evolved over the decades (or has it)?

What do you think of Stephen Fry’s assessment of the difference between British and American humor?

Until the Production Code was replaced with the ratings system in 1968, films were regularly edited or censored to conform to the standards of the code. Have you ever watched a film that you found offensive or thought should have been edited to some degree?

Film terminology for the week:

Classical cinema–mainstream narrative cinema, roughly from the mid-1910s to the 1960s. These movies are characterized by a strong story, star, and high production values. These movies usually have a clear conflict, complications that rise to a narrative climax, and a resolution that provides closure.

high key lighting–Bright, even illumination with few conspicuous shadows; this style of lighting is associated with comedies, musicals, and other “light entertainment” genres.

medium shot--A medium shot usually shows the performer from the knees or waist up; the shot is relatively close up and includes some details of the surrounding scenery.

A medium shot from Sherlock Holmes. Director Guy Ritchie places Robert Downey Jr. in front of the crowd where he is filmed from a slightly low angle.

A medium shot from Sherlock Holmes. Director Guy Ritchie places Robert Downey Jr. in front of the crowd where he is filmed from a slightly low angle.

mise en scène–how the various elements in a frame are arranged–this includes settings, decor, props, actors, costumes, makeup, lighting, performances, and character movements and positioning. Cinematic mise en scène is both the way the action is staged and how it is photographed. Also long, un-cut, unedited and uninterrupted sequences shot in real-time are often referred to as mise en scène.

Greene, Jane M. “A Proper Dash of Spice: Screwball Comedy and the Production Code,” Journal of Film and Video 63.3, Fall 2011.