In Praise of Folly
Writing a book about movies requires you to watch so many movies of so many types you end up able to answer more questions than you set out to research. For instance, the movies I looked at to analyze specific works of a limited set of artists for this book and my previous one, Comedy Is a Man in Trouble, made me realize that I think comedy has been the most aesthetically satisfying genre in American movies.
From roughly 1910 to 1955 Hollywood produced a flood tide of comic entertainment that still floats people's boats, which is not something you can say of our dramatic movies from the same period to anything like the same extent. There are the comedy shorts and features of Chaplin, Normand, Arbuckle, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon, Laurel & Hardy, and a host of others; the kinesthetic comic romance adventures of Douglas Fairbanks; the charming silent romantic comedies with female leads, such as Manhandled (1924) starring Gloria Swanson, Love 'Em and Leave 'Em (1926) starring Evelyn Brent and Louise Brooks, Orchids and Ermine (1927) starring Colleen Moore, and The Patsy (1928) and Show People (1928) starring Marion Davies; Ernst Lubitsch's heavy-cream puff pastries (1924-1946); the specialty vehicles of W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, and the Ritz Brothers; a native streak of surrealism (outside the Marx Brothers' pictures) in The Cruise of the Jasper B (1926), Million Dollar Legs (1932), Hellzapoppin' (1941), and the best of the Hope-Crosby vehicles, Road to Utopia (1946); the Rogers and Astaire musical comedies; one all-but-flawless comic-vaudeville musical, The Wizard of Oz (1939), and a bumper-to-bumper succession of others that may have dated badly but all the same have one or two numbers that make your head spin with the talent and sheer vitality of the performers (often enough African-Americans cheated of bigger careers); the chattery, wised-up urban comedies of the pre-Code era and the screwball comedies from Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934) through Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday (1940); a good handful of George Cukor sparklers, from Sylvia Scarlett (1936) through It Should Happen to You (1954); all the romantic comedies that were so hospitable to the "fast-talking dames" Maria DiBattista celebrates in her thoroughly engaging book of that title, among whom Katharine Hepburn, the most independent and singular of comediennes, had the most extraordinary career, from the mid-'30s through Pat and Mike (1952); Preston Sturges's string of knockouts (1940-48); the MGM and Warner Brothers cartoons of the '40s and '50s; Joseph L. Mankiewicz's pop fly double A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950); John Huston's sportive escapades The African Queen (1951) and Beat the Devil (1954); plus some comic movies from normally straight directors, including William Wellman's Roxie Hart (1942), William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953), Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956), and Howard Hawks's romance melodramas of the late '30s and '40s that are so jaunty and facetious you can watch them as comedies. These movies, together with various single-shots, flukes, and unclassifiables, display the widest range of verbal and physical styles; a focus on intense comic personalities, both in front of and behind the cameras; an unfailingly down-to-earth attitude about getting by in the world; and all in a profusion that no country on the planet could match. 1
If the comedies weren't as memorable in the later '50s and '60s it wasn't because the dramas were so consistently great, but because the comedies were worse. The codes of family entertainment in place since the development of vaudeville in the 1880s 2 (the emblematic moment of which would be the sight of Shirley Temple kissing Queen Victoria's hand in The Little Princess (1939)), had lost their meaning for both artists and audiences but hadn't gone away. The result was insistently wholesome comedy bizarrely populated with satyrs and bottle-blonde floozies, or their converse, homosexuals and bottle-blonde virgins. Some Like It Hot (1959) salvages the situation by exaggerating the terms, but a Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedy is more typical. Still, until you've seen Kim Novak as a grad student in sociology posing (believably!) as a prostitute and parrying horny Tony Randall's nervous onslaught in Boys' Night Out (1962), a scene in which the satyr and homosexual and the floozy and virgin are combined in the two characters, you may not be truly acquainted with the see-through coyness bordering on depravity of these movies, which accost you like a man in a raincoat who leers and winks as he tries to sell you religious postcards. The dying code also encouraged the most original comedy star of the era, Jerry Lewis, to adhere to an archetype, the Chaplinesque sad clown, that was all wrong for his aggressive talent. Watching Lewis squeeze himself into that too-tight suit in movie after movie makes you want to sue somebody for reparations.
In the late '60s, '70s, and '80s the final eclipse of the family entertainment code, and a generation of artists who had grown up on the infinitely more sophisticated movies from Europe and Asia, enabled American movies to grow up. 3 Our best movies, comedies and dramas alike, became far more searching and daring than they had ever been, and more directly tied to life outside the theaters than they had been since the '30s, but without the sentimental compromises that were in place even before the 1934 Production Code. Not only was the quality of the best movies higher, but the genres themselves seemed more interesting. The work of Robert Altman, Paul Mazursky, and Jonathan Demme, in particular, made the comedy/drama distinction seemed inadequate to describe our experience (think: Nashville (1975), Enemies, A Love Story (1989), Melvin & Howard (1980)).
By the 1990s, however, censorship that had been imposed externally before the counterculture was imposed internally in the form of political correctness. As a result, the bulk of dramatic movies pale next to the most adventurous comedies, which by contrast continue to benefit from the breakdown of censorship to stay freer, get wilder (though of course political correctness kills comedy as well as drama, Shallow Hal (2001) being the clearest recent example). In fact, the '90s was one of the stretches, like the teens through the early '50s, when the comedies were overall more satisfying than any other genre in American movies. There was one great literary adaptation of a naturalist play, Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), some superb dramatic romances, starting with Henry & June (1990), including The Sixth Sense (1999), one of the most piercingly spooky ever, and a number of which--Vincent & Theo (1990), Laws of Gravity (1992), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), The Whole Wide World (1996), Affliction (1998), and Boys Don't Cry (1999)--achieve tragic resonance. There were also terrific melodramas from The Russia House (1990) through The Insider (1999), and a few entertainments, The Grifters (1990) and Out of Sight (1998), so good you could feel with some justification that they didn't used to make them like they do now.
Comedy in the '90s saw more breakthroughs of top talent: Jim Carrey, the most electric comic personality in movies in half a century; Quentin Tarantino, the man who made audiences more conscious of the working of irony than any moviemaker before him; the Farrelly Brothers, winners of a breakout race to the bottom, so to speak, in low comedy; Kevin Spacey, who pushed back the likeability barrier for a hero in comedy; Judy Davis, reinvented as the finest American high comedienne since Katharine Hepburn but with a wider range; Michael Tolkin, the most searching literary ironist to work in movies; Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson, who bring their imaginative boys' exuberance to comic romance; Adam Sandler, the most at-ease actor among comedians; Sarah Jessica Parker, the forward-but-wistful siren; Mira Sorvino, a sly chameleon; Lisa Kudrow, a genius of comic dissatisfaction; Parker Posey, the acidic, flirtatious female put-on artist; Chris Tucker, the most bounding African-American comic movie persona since Richard Pryor; and Alexander Payne, a satirist without complacency. In addition, the playwrights John Guare and Neil Simon, wrote culminating works for the stage that achieved even fuller life onscreen, and Bill Murray, as responsible as anyone for the ironic detachment so prevalent in the '90s, worked through that hip remoteness to a genuine comic affirmation. I also like, but haven't included, Kevin Smith, with his insider's revelations about young men's sexuality, and Jackie Chan, an even greater athletic slapstick star than Douglas Fairbanks, who broke through to public awareness in America and started making movies here. (Too late in his career, unfortunately; his American output can't compare to his Hong Kong pictures.) It was a wonderful decade, both high and low--Six Degrees of Separation the crowning jewel, Carrey the reigning fool.
The Problem of Genre
Even this quick sketch of the relative merits of the genres leads to a problem of a larger sort: what people think of as the American movie genres--westerns, gangster movies, musicals, film noir, horror movies, etc. 4 --resemble the product category signs above supermarket aisles more than they do literary genres. Indeed, they are the product category signs at video stores. But they don't offer an intelligible account of why our movies have told stories in the way they have, or why any genre should be more successful than another. Which isn't to say that the "classic" American movie genres don't have identifiable characteristics that are interesting and even fun to outline, which is the solid premise of Kevin Williamson's Scream (1997). It's instructive to read Robert Warshow's influential articles on gangster movies and westerns, or Terrence Rafferty's overview of boxing pictures, to see what first-rate critics can do in this field. However, even at its most revelatory such work is more sociological than literary.
You can certainly go more seriously wrong, trying, as many have done, to establish how movie narrative is different from literary genres. Such attempts confuse the means of storytelling with the matter. Edward Buscombe, for instance, analyzes the western starting from this premise: "Since we are dealing with a visual medium we ought surely to look for our defining criteria in what we actually see on the screen." 5 He then lists as formal narrative elements the settings, the clothes, the tools of the trade, and such recurrent miscellaneous physical objects as trains, mines, general stores, and forts. 6 But this list has no more to do with narrative structure than a theater company's list of properties.
Conceptually, it fails to distinguish between movies and figurative painting, and to understand that with respect to such elements literature is equally a visual medium, not just works for the theater but poems and novels as well (think of Achilles's shield in the Iliad, or Charles Bovary's hat, or the way Dickens describes the flames taking Newgate prison, and later the glimpses Haredale and the vintner have of the mob attacking the latter's establishment, as a series of "shots" in Barnaby Rudge 7 ). Historically, it fails to take cognizance of the fact that American movies have been overwhelmingly narrative, adapting plays and books and even poems, using playwrights and novelists as screenwriters, developing "original" stories on the model of literary predecessors and former narrative movies. And it gets you nowhere, focusing on the superficial dressing of the story rather than on the structure, which is what determines genre. (The genre is the same in the continuity script and the finished movie, after all.) This is not to say that a movie will play the same no matter who directs or stars in it, any more than in the other performing arts. But though Callas's Norma is very different from Sutherland's, that difference doesn't change the narrative genre.
This failure to integrate movie genres into the historical analysis of literary genres is the biggest gap in the writing about American movies. And Buscombe's is a relatively rigorous and readable attempt; fancier theorists are completely out of touch with both the producers and consumers, while journalistic writers just accept the product labels and so address the matter as if speaking entirely in advertising jingles. What follows, then, is a survey of the narrative genres in American movies and an attempt to answer why American moviemakers have been better at comedy than drama.
The longer narrative genres available to moviemakers include the oral or heroic epic (the Iliad, Beowulf, the Song of Roland) and a later, related, form, the literary epic (the Aeneid, Gerusalemme liberata , Paradise Lost). Other literary genres include the romance (both a poetic form, e.g., The Romance of the Rose, Orlando furioso, The Faerie Queene, and a prose form, e.g., The Pilgrim's Progress, the Waverley "novels" of Walter Scott) and the realistic novel. In addition, there are irony and satire, which we recognize by attitude as much as by narrative structure, and which can thus be readily blended with almost any narrative form (the prose anti-romance Don Quixote, the verse mock epic The Dunciad, the novel Madame Bovary). Finally, there are the theatrical genres of tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and naturalism. 8
It's good to keep in mind that all narrative genres imply both a formal structure and a looser sense of mode or mood that enables them to be used in every possible combination. Part of the richness of the tradition resides in this categorical impurity, and, aesthetically speaking, our movies, if they do nothing else, attract impurities. Finally, as descriptive comments what I've written is not always evaluative; a movie can present an example of a perfectly worked-out allegory without being a great movie.
- no country on the planet: American comedies might not have risen to the quality of the best foreign comedies--René Clair's
The Italian Straw Hat (1927) and
Le Million (1931); Jean Vigo's
Zero for Conduct (1933) and
L'Atalante (1934); Jean Renoir's
Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) and
The Crime of M. Lange (1936); Vittorio De Sica's
Miracle in Milan (1950); Ingmar Bergman's
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955); Louis Malle's
Zazie dans le métro (1960); Jacques Demy's
Lola (1961)--but these were one-of-a-kind movies by one-of-a-kind artists.
In the same popular spirit as American comedy, the English had a peak decade or so, with a surer sense of wit, in such classics as
On Approval (1944),
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949),
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951),
The Man in the White Suit (1951),
Hobson's Choice (1954),
The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954),
The Ladykillers (1955),
A Kid for Two Farthings (1955),
Expresso Bongo (1959), and
I'm All Right, Jack (1959), which had the additional benefit of appearing when American comedy, with the exception of Jerry Lewis and the Warner Brothers cartoons, was in a slump; the Italians came through with such delights as
I soliti ignoti (1958) and
Divorce--Italian Style (1961); and the French produced Max Linder before the heyday of American slapstick and Jacques Tati after, as well as the miraculous nonpareil confections of Sacha Guitry from the '30s through the '50s. (return to text)
- codes of family entertainment: Gilbert 113-4, 120-3, 204-5, 362-5; Stein 24; Snyder 133-4, 141. (return to text)
- In the '70s and '80s: This is a well-documented phenomenon: see, especially, Pauline Kael's collections of regular movie criticism,
Deeper Into Movies,
When the Lights Go Down originally published in The New Yorker from 1969 through 1979, or Peter Biskind's flawed but informative history of the period Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. (return to text)
- the American movie genres: The dropdown list of "genres" on the Turner Classic Movies website advanced search page offers a choice of Adventure, Biography, Comedy, Crime, Documentary, Drama, Epic, Horror, Musical, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, Silent, Sports, Suspense, War, Western. Can you imagine discussing books with something like this hodgepodge as your analytical framework? (return to text)
- Edward Buscombe: 14. (return to text)
- Buscombe then lists: 14-15. (return to text)
- Barnaby Rudge: 581 (ch. 64), 609 (ch. 67). Dickens's technique here recalls all movies of civil unrest from Intolerance to Gangs of New York. (return to text)
- I leave out myth, which, as the story of superhuman figures, can scarcely be said to exist in our movies except by being grafted onto other forms of romance. Apart from biblical movies, which transcribe rather than invent miraculous stories, and don't all have the form of myth, anyway, there is no such thing as a superhuman story in which moviegoers literally believe. (return to text)