"WHAT DO THEY KNOW IN PITTSBURGH?"
AMERICAN COMIC FILM IN THE GREAT DEPRESSION
Joanna E. Rapf
Even in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression, Americans flocked to their local theatres in unprecedented numbers. Andrew Bergman reports that in the early thirties, in spite of the economic paralysis spreading over the country, "movie attendance still averaged an astonishing sixty to seventy five million persons each week."1 According to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., 61 percent of the population went to the movies each week in 1937, while in 1963 attendance had dropped to 23 percent, largely, of course, because of television. He writes:
Film had for a moment a vital connection with American emotions—more, I think, than it ever had before; more certainly than it has had since. The movies were near the operative center of the nation’s consciousness. They played an indispensable role in sustaining and stimulating the national imagination.2
Schlesinger goes on to suggest that it was comedy more than any other film form that expressed the changing social mood of the country, from the optimism of the twenties, to the defeat and frustration of the early thirties, to the renewal of hope at the end of the decade. The characteristic figures of the twenties were the little guys—Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon—pushed around by the big guys; and their comedy had to do with preserving dignity in a hostile world. The Depression, says Schlesinger, "saw a critical shift from the comedy of pathos to the comedy of aggression," and as illustration he cites the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and what he calls "the satiric woman," a group that includes Mae West.3
Theoretically, what Schlesinger has outlined is a shift from classical festive comedy to farce. The situation is even more complicated than Schlesinger suggests; for during the thirties yet another shift took place. Schlesinger failed to perceive that the element of farce becomes less and less dominant in the second half of the decade after the birth of what is know as "screwball comedy" with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night in 1934. These comedies, which will be discussed in more detail later on, have their roots in festive comedy and one of its offshoots, comedy of manners, with an affirmative and unifying vision. They grew in popularity as the country itself was pulling itself together following Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933. Coincidental with this shift from the aggressive anti-sentimentalism of the Marx Brothers to the warm
laughter of screwball comedy was the effect of two other significant events of 1933 and 1934: the repeal of Prohibition, which lifted one form of restraint, and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, which added another. Why this shift should have taken place has much to do with the way "the films of a nation reflect its mentality," as Kracauer has argued, but it also has to do with the curious way that the forms of comedy themselves reflect that mentality.4
Basically, these forms can be distinguished as "moral" and "amoral."5 The moral assumes that meaning precedes existence while the amoral sees things the other way around. If existence precedes meaning, then all logic is absurd. If social facades are stripped away, the frightening revelation that there is absolutely nothing underneath may well occur. The moral view, on the other hand, assumes an essentially meaningful universe, even if that meaning is not entirely apparent to man. Clearly, in times of economic and social collapse, the amoral view might well explain the seeming chaos of existence. In times of recovery, however, the moral view would reassume its reassuring place. Screwball comedy encompasses this moral view; farce, which is closely tied to what is called "black comedy," assumes an amoral view. To elaborate these ideas it is useful to go back to the critical theory of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his contemporary, William Hazlitt, who discuss the relationship between wit and humor and the place of each in society.
In 1820, Shelley wrote in his Defence of Poetry that "in periods of the decay of social life . . . the calculating principle pervades all forms of dramatic exhibition." Had film existed in his day, he would no doubt have included it among those "forms."
Comedy loses its ideal universality: wit succeeds to humour; we laugh from self-complacency and triumph instead of pleasure; malignity, sarcasm and contempt, succeed to sympathetic merriment; we hardly laugh, but we smile.6
Shelley’s complaint is that in periods of decay, wit and sarcasm are the dominant forms of comedy, replacing the ideal universality of humor. Despite the evident bias against wit and sarcasm, Shelley’s thesis offers an interesting explanation of what happened to American comic film during the Great Depression. To follow it, three issues must be clarified. First, what does he mean by "the decay of social life"? Second, what is the distinction he makes between wit and humor? Third, what is the relationship between wit and farce (although Shelley does not deal with the latter term)?
For Shelley, the reign of Charles II (1660–1685) was a period of decay. Political and moral corruption were accepted practice and resulted in social corruption; selfish interests dominated, with the pleasures of food, drink, and sex overshadowing those of art, religion, and community spirit. A similar period of decay, with its desperate, speakeasy mentality, existed in the brief period from the crash of 1929 until Roosevelt was inaugurated and Prohibition repealed in 1933.
The distinction between humor and wit is an old one and was eloquently articulated by Hazlitt in "On Wit and Humor" in 1819. Hazlitt writes that "man is the only animal that laughs and weeps," for he is the only one that is struck with the difference between the ideal and the real.7 Both laughter and tears are innately human responses; but the first, according to Hazlitt, appeals to our indolence, vanity, and weakness, whereas the second evokes our virtues. One demands a distance, while the other asks for sympathy and compassion. One is essentially concerned with trifles, the other with the most important human issues. Laughter, he argues, is a form of escape, tears a form of engagement.
Having made this basic distinction and come down strongly in favor of the weeping response towards the imperfections of human life, Hazlitt goes on to divide the laughing response into various categories, including the familiar ones of wit and humor. Wit, he argues, is basically intellectual and usually verbal. It comes from the head rather than the heart. He calls it "the eloquence of indifference," which is to say that wit is unfeeling (Hazlitt, p. 317). Humor, on the other hand, is more physical, "the ludicrous as it is in itself," a form of relaxation of tension; and it does not ask for the same distance from its subject as wit does. "It is the growth of nature and accident," whereas "wit is the product of art and fancy" (Hazlitt, p. 316). Wit, according to Hazlitt, adds littleness to littleness, but humor is an instinctive and profoundly human response to the unpredictable, the strange, or the stressful. The origin of the word, after all, is in physiology and the concept of the four humours, so that humor and sympathy are not mutually exclusive.
Although Shelley agrees with Hazlitt’s distinction between wit and humor, he does not share his preference for tragedy over comedy. Instead, he simply prefers humorous comedy to witty comedy, making at first what seems a startling and paradoxical statement, that "comedy should be as in King Lear, universal, ideal, and sublime."8 Now King Lear is not usually cited for its comedy, but it partakes of the comic as Shelley sees it. For comedy in this light does not necessarily imply laughter. As Susanne Langer reminds us, the word comedy originates in Comus and komos, with its roots in the idea of fertility, perpetual rebirth, eternal life. Hence the traditional comedy ends in marriage,
while tragedy concludes with death. In its broadest sense, comedy is an affirmation of life, not an escape from it. Comedy, she argues, is our way of coping with the seeming finality of death. It is our assertion of human vitality, of animal desires which assure the continuation of our species. Ultimately it is religious, if religion is seen as man’s profoundest statement of immortal life. Comedy, then, can be serious. Dante called his great poem La Commedia, and classical Sanskrit drama is considered heroic comedy,
a serious, religiously conceived drama, yet in the "comic" pattern, which is not a complete organized development reaching a foregone, inevitable conclusion, but is episodic, restoring a lost balance, and implying a new future.9
And it is in this sense that Shelley views humorous comedy, an affirmative exuberance that reflects a flourishing and healthy society.
In periods of "the decay of social life," however, when wit replaces humor and mechanical intelligence triumphs over compassion, the amorality of farce emerges as the dominant form of comedy. Wit is the verbal element of farce. Both might be called "the eloquence of indifference," although farce can be and often is physical, lashing out not at the meaninglessness of existence but at the very pretension that there is meaning to be found. It is hostile, violent, destructive, a continual unmasking of social façades rather than the characteristic single unmasking of a character, usually the villain or fool, that so often occurs at the end of festive comedy. Eric Bentley puts the distinction this way:
In farce what lies beneath the surface is pure aggression, which gets no moral justification, and asks none. Aggression is common to farce and comedy, but, while in farce it is mere retaliation, in comedy it is might backed by the conviction of right. In comedy, the anger of farce is backed by conscience.10
The key here is the lack of "moral justification" in farce. While Bentley’s position is neutral, Shelley, whom Bentley otherwise basically follows, was clearly on the side of comedy as opposed to farce. The problem with Shelley’s position is that in objecting to the anti-emotional attitude of wit, he seems to be wishing that it be what it is not: humor. No doubt he would have loved Charlie Chaplin whose comedy is one of pathos, and he would have hated the Marx Brothers. Both Chaplin and the Marx Brothers are often aggressive, but with Chaplin that aggression is indeed "backed up by the conviction of right," whereas with the Marx Brothers it is basically aggression enjoying itself without reference to the moral issues which may be involved.
Significantly, the crash of 1929 witnessed both the Marx Brothers’ screen debut in Cocoanuts and the publication of André Breton’s Second Manifeste du Surrealisme. In their attack on all forms of social repression, all the customs and conventions civilized society piles on itself to give a semblance of logical order to what may intrinsically have no logic, no order at all, the Marx Brothers became the darlings of the surrealists and the spiritual forefathers of the theatre of the absurd. Antonin Artaud called Animal Crackers (1930) a "hymn to anarchy and whole-hearted revolt," and saw in it
the liberation through the medium of the screen of a particular magic which the ordinary relation of words and images does not customarily reveal, and if there is a definite characteristic, a distinct poetic state of mind that can be called surrealism, Animal Crackers shares in it to the full.11
The Marx Brothers and their "surrealist poetics" dominated the comic scene in the early years of the Depression, certainly until Duck Soup in 1933, when they left Paramount for MGM where their comedy seems to have lost much of its punch. As farceurs, they were irreverent and saw little of God’s image in man. Like W.C. Fields and Mae West who also came into prominence at this time, they took special delight in attacking the very idea of the progress which is at the heart of festive comedy and in destroying those "sacred cows"—courtship, marriage, and family—that assure the orderly continuance of the human race. In Duck Soup Groucho announces to the indomitable Margaret Dumont, "I could dance with you till cows come home. . . . On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows till you come home." Horsefeathers (1932), of course, contains that catch-all song, "Whatever It Is, I’m Against It," which seems neatly to summarize the Marx Brothers farcical attitude in general. Two rival colleges, Darwin and Huxley, effectively lampoon intellectual debate while double and triple entendres defy all coatings of respectability. As a Puritan American father, Groucho is irate when he sees his son (Zeppo) with a girl on his lap: "Young lady, would you get up so I can see the sun rise." In "polite" society, certain desires are taboos, but they do not inhibit Groucho who makes advances toward his son’s girl. But when he discovers his son hiding in the girl’s room watching him, the guilt we might expect him to feel is indignantly transferred to the son:
The shame of it, to see a son of mine trying to take a dame away from his father. . . . You leave immediately, and I’ll stay and settle with this woman. And as soon as we’ve settled, we’ll have you over for dinner.
This free verbal play overturns conventions, values, and indeed the very
meanings of language in a topsy-turvy world delighting in its own anarchy.
Both Groucho and Chico are equally skillful in attacking the idea that language can be a meaningful form of communication, and they exploit the fact that without an understanding of socially-established referents, words are often nonsensical. In Duck Soup, for example:
Groucho: Why should we have a standing army?
Chico: Because we then save money on chairs.
In this same film, Harpo makes the verbal play visual as he wields a pair of scissors to cut everything in sight—the ends of cigars, ties, coattails, frankfurters, quills, or sashes. Metaphorically, he too is "cutting everything down," and there is nothing to put in its place.
This destructive form of comedy is also exemplified in the early thirties by a man who has been called a "surrealist in everything," W. C. Fields, who came into his own as a comedian with the advent of sound film.12 Million Dollar Legs, released in 1932, is in many ways similar to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup of the following year. Both utilize imaginary countries—Freedonia (Marx Brothers) and Klopstockia (Fields)—which are run by corrupt and crooked cabinets. The economic difficulties of both countries certainly recall the American Depression, and Ray Durgnat has suggested that in Duck Soup Mrs. Tedsdale’s belief in a strong, morally upright government run by big business interests recalls "the solution offered in opposition to Roosevelt’s New Deal, by the American right-wing."13 The chaos and inane political maneuverings (Groucho sings of Freedonia, "If you think this country’s bad off now! Just wait till I get through with it"; and Fields holds office only as long as he can win at Indian arm wrestling) may well reflect the corruption of the American scene just before Roosevelt’s election, but the form that the comedy takes, its "malignity, sarcasm, and contempt," supports Shelley’s thesis about how we laugh "in periods of the decay of social life."
Fields’ technique, like that of the Marx Brothers, involves a deliberate rejection of sentiment. He indicts everything, and especially those hallmarks of festive comedy: courtship, marriage, and family. His hatred for children is legendary. In Tillie and Gus (1933), asked if he likes children, he utters his infamous line, "I do if they’re properly cooked," linking him with that earlier man of dark vision, Jonathan Swift. His battles with baby LeRoy continued in film after film. It’s a Gift (1934), which many critics regard as his best, parodies the very life in small town America that Frank Capra was later to exalt. In one sequence, Fields and his family set out for a quiet picnic. They make themselves at home on the grounds of a private estate which is soon
littered with bags and cans and squashed tomatoes. Their son wants more sandwiches. The mother says, "No!" but then suggests that he take one of his father’s. And indeed Fields does politely offer the boy half a sandwich, but only after he has folded the meat over so that there is a double layer in his half and only two slices of bread for his son. Then the family dog gets into the act, biting a pillow which ends up in shreds as the boy tries to pull it away from him. Feathers fly everywhere, including into Fields’ sandwich. "Those were my mother’s feathers!" his wife cries in despair. "Really," responds the cynical husband, "I didn’t know your mother had any feathers."
The linguistic confusion here is characteristic of the way Groucho puts down Margaret Dumont, deflating any kind of intensity of feeling or sentiment. The warmth of home and family are always coldly smothered, even the notion of the loyal family pet, the dog, who is often regarded as a surrogate child. In The Barber Shop (1933) we find this exchange as Fields is shaving a customer:
Customer: Say, what’s that dog doing in here?
Fields: Oh, it’s a very funny thing. The other day, a man was in here, and I was shaving him. The razor slipped and I cut his ear off. The dog got it. Ever since he’s been hanging around here waiting.
There is another gruesome dog joke in The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), a film which not only attacks family and the idealism of the American frontier, but also the pulp literature that exploited both these sacred institutions. Fields and his wife, in a remote northern cabin, are still bothered by creditors. At dinner one evening, his wife tells him a creditor is about to seize the dog team. "He won’t take my lead-dog," Fields mumbles through his food, " ’cause I ate him. He was mighty good with mustard."
Although Fields continued to work right through the Depression, with his last major film, Never Give a Sucker An Even Break, in 1941, his most prolific and creative period probably began with Million Dollar Legs in 1932, then continued with the four Sennett shorts, The Dentist, The Fatal Glass of Beer, The Pharmacist, and The Barber Shop in 1933, through Man on the Flying Trapeze in 1935.
Like Fields, Mae West was at her best in the films she did in the first half of the decade. Health was certainly a factor in the decline of Fields, but for both comedians, what softened their biting attacks on American manners and morals was the Production Code. Although it was adopted in 1930, it was not put into effect until the appointment of Joseph Breen in 1934. The Code, in essence, insisted on "the moral importance of entertainment," and it rejected entertainment that tended
"to degrade human beings."14 With this stress on the "moral obligations" of the motion picture, the Code in effect forbade the amoral, black, surreal comedy that was the basis of the farcical routines of the early Depression years. Farce, we must remember, "gets no moral justification." But beginning in 1934, it became imperative for motion pictures to present "stories that would affect lives for the better," to build "the right ideals," and to inculcate the "right principles" (Mast, p. 325). This put a considerable damper on Mae West (in fact, some people regard her as solely responsible for the Code’s enforcement) whose distinctively provocative style and wicked wisecracks made her name a household word by 1933 when She Done Him Wrong (based on her play Diamond Lil) and I’m No Angel were released.
Her screen debut occurred in 1932 in Night After Night. This is the film where, after entering a speakeasy run by George Raft, she responds to the hatcheck girl’s exclamation, "Goodness, what lovely diamonds," that "Goodness had nothin’ to do with it dearie," which she later used as the title of her autobiography. This kind of sexual innuendo was prohibited by the Production Code, although even after 1934 West got away with some surprisingly outrageous material.
The Code, however, set out some specific guidelines for comedy:
1. Adultery "is never a fit subject for comedy. Thru comedy of this sort, ridicule is thrown on the essential relationships of home and family and marriage, and illicit relationships are made to seem permissible, and either delightful or daring."
2. Seduction and rape "should never be treated as comedy."
3. "Impure love . . . must not be the subject of comedy or farce or treated as the material for laughter."
(Mast, pp. 326, 328)
In many ways, these guidelines prohibit much classical comedy since, according to anthropologists, comedy is rooted in the ritual celebration of sexual energy. Farce, after all, has as its basis the outrage to family piety, and adultery has been one of the basic subjects of comedy since Aristophanes, and even before him.
Although the Production Code, with its insistence on supporting the sanctity of marriage and the home, contributed to that shift in the midyears of the Depression from farce to a form of comedy of manners, it is hard to distinguish cause from effect. Many factors were at work; all contributed to a sense that instead of attacking the wrongs of society the emphasis should be on trying to make them right. Roosevelt and the New Deal asked the country to pull together, and it is almost as if screwball with its focus, as Stanley Cavell has so well illustrated, on remarriage, was literally a paradigm for the reunion of the nation.15
Historically, screwball comedy has its origins in comedy of manners. In his "Essay on Comedy" (1877), George Meredith tells us that great comedy requires "a society of cultivated men and women." Comedy "is the fountain of sound sense" and "lifts women to a station offering them free play for their wit." Comedy "is an exhibition of their battles with men, and those of men with them."6 Where women have no social freedom, Meredith argues, comedy is absent, but "where women are on the road to an equal footing with men . . . there pure comedy flourishes" (Meredith, p. 32). For Meredith, anti-social positions are opposed to the comic, and very much like Shelley, he says that "one excellent test of the civilization of a is "the flourishing of the comic idea and comedy; and the test of true is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter" (Meredith, p. 47).
Traditional comedies of manner—Moliere’s Tartuffe or Congreve’s Way of the World—are all about adultery. The screwball variation, as Andrew Sarris well describes it, is "the sex comedy without sex."17 It depends on the pairing of a strong male and female star—for instance, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, Carole Lombard and William Powell in My Man Godfrey (1938), Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938)—who are both the love interest and the comic center. The dominant narrative element of these films is courtship and marriage, although as Cavell points out, it is often remarriage, and it is often the heroine who brings about the resolution by disguising herself as a boy, as Katherine Hepburn does in Sylvia Scarlett (1935). Cavell calls screwball "the comedy of equality, evoking laughter at the idea that men and women are different and at the idea that they are not."18 The plots typically involve an upperclass woman who, after various trials and tribulations, finds love and happiness with a middleclass or lower-middleclass man. The thrust seems to be towards a classless and egalitarian society, or at least one where the upperclass comes off its high horse long enough to recognize the humanity of those not so well off and where men and women see each other as capable and strong. Andrew Bergman has called this
comedy "warm and healing" and its technique "a means of unifying what had been splintered and divided."19 For Arthur Knight, screwball comedies grew out of "the terrible realities" of the Depression, for they are set in their own time and often played out against a background of unemployment and hunger.20 "The Forgotten Man" theme, the ironic finale that Ruby Keeler sings at the end of Gold Diggers of 1933, is taken up in My Man Godfrey when Carole Lombard has to find a
"forgotten man" in her high society scavenger hunt. She finds William Powell living in comparative happiness in a dump. After being taken into her family as a butler, he saves the family from ruin, and in true Capra-like fashion, manages to use its wealth to help the poor while changing the narrow outlook of the family members from elitism to compassion. In Preston Sturge’s Easy Living (1937), when a $58,000 sable coat falls from the sky on Jean Arthur as she is riding to work on a bus, she rebukes the callousness of the millionaire who could throw it out his window without regard for the thousands of hungry and unemployed.
But Sarris suggests that this sociological approach is misleading and that the genre "is only fitfully concerned with the economic problems of the era."21 The most obvious base from which to examine screwball comedy, according to Wes D. Gehring, "is the structural change of American humor in the l930s."22 Gehring, however, sees this as a change from the capable crackerbarrel character popular in American humor roughly between 1830 and 1930, illustrated by Seba Smith’s Jack Downing and Will Rogers, to a figure of frustration, the comic antihero exemplified by the incompetent male of screwball comedy. With the American dream crushed by a collapsed economy, and with an increasing awareness of the possibility of a irrational universe where existence precedes meaning, it became easier, according to Gehring, to find comedy in the frustrated anti-hero than in the folksy wisdom of the natural man. And so he argues that the films Capra made after It Happened One Night—Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941)—are not screwballs, but fall into the tradition of American crackerbarrel humor and fill the void left after the death of Will Rogers in 1935. The films, with their capable heroes, focus on the political scene whereas screwball comedies, Gehring argues, are apolitical and concern frustrated heroes who are victims of modern life.
Although this characterization would seem to fit Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby, and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve (1941), it hardly describes Clark Gable as the hard-nosed doughnut-dunking reporter in It Happened One Night, or the skillful entrepreneur played by William Powell in My Man Godfrey, or the driving newspaper man (Cary Grant) in His Girl Friday. In these last three films, even though the heroes have experienced frustration in their urban environments and are often shown up by their female counterparts (the famous hitchhiking scene in It Happened One Night, for example), they are still fully capable of handling their own lives and helping to manage the lives of others. The transition in American
humor from the wise rural figure to the frustrated urban misfit that Gehring outlines does not really seem to occur. If Capra fills the gap left by Will Rogers, the crackerbarrel tradition continues, and although we do find the frustrated urban misfit in screwball comedy, he is not an entirely new figure since we also find him earlier in Chaplin and Lloyd, to name just two.
The most fruitful approach to screwball comedy may instead be Cavell’s. He suggests that it follows the basic pattern of festive comedy which Northrup Frye has described as arising from a "movement from one kind of society to another."23 Screwball comedy is progressive, opposed to the basically static structure of farce which grows out of the idea that progress is an illusion. As Frye describes it, the movement is
from a society controlled by habit, ritual bondage, arbitrary law and the older characters to a society controlled by youth and pragmatic freedom.24
Cavell identifies screwball comedy with Frye’s fourth phase, "the drama of the green world," linked to the tradition of seasonal rituals, where spring triumphs over winter and life and love over the wasteland. The basic structure in Bergsonian terms is a clash between the mechanical (society controlled by habit) and the living (youth), with the triumph of young over old. In It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey, the impulsive vitality of youth wins over the crusty habits of fathers, and the collapse of the rigid structure around Cary Grant’s dinosaur bones as he and Katherine Hepburn kiss at the end of Bringing Up Baby is a clear emblem of liberation from ritual bondage.
The popularity of Capra’s agrarian idealism, whose spirit dominated American film comedy after 1934, reflects this progressive optimism. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Cary Cooper asks Jean Arthur, "Why are people so mean to each other? Why can’t they just like each other?" while in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, James Stewart, the homespun, crackerbarrel Jefferson Smith, a modern day spin-off of "honest Abe," battles corruption on behalf of rural America. Here Capra presents us with an emotional, patriotic montage of American history from Adams, Jefferson, Hancock, Hamilton, and the Declaration of Independence, to George Washington and the honored war dead. The stars and stripes fly over a medley of American music, including "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "The Star-Spangled Banner," " When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," "Red River Valley," and "My Old Kentucky Home." At the Lincoln Memorial, a small boy reads The Gettysburg Address aloud while his grandfather and Jefferson Smith and an old black man listen.
There is nothing quite so soul-stirring in the screwball comedies of Hawks, Sturges, McCarey, LaCava, or Wellman. Although their films tend to be cynical rather than sentimental, with a harrassed and
educated urban hero instead of a down-to-earth crackerbarrel sage, they share with Capra’s films a vision of social equality and, most importantly, a sense of progress from division towards unity, from the rigidity of old forms to the freshness of vision offered by the triumph of the young and the new. It is true that the Marx Brothers, Fields, and West also lampoon all forms of socil rigidity, but their farce differs from screwball comedy in a crucial way: even though the young or the new may have the last word (or action), the old forms remain unchanged. At the conclusion of Duck Soup, Margaret Dumont is still singing her patriotic anthems while the Marx Brothers throw fruit at her. In Monkey Business (1931), although the romantic couple (Zeppo and Mary) are united at the end, it is to the tune of cowbells and animal noises. Harpo kisses a calf and Groucho is left, as he says, "Looking for a needle in a haystack." The livestock romance typically pokes fun at the tradition of festive comedy and Groucho’s last words are the classic description of a hopelessly frustrating situation. This ending does not look ahead to new times, but leaves us stuck in an unsatisfying present.
Once again, literally and figuratively, farce pokes fun at our "sacred cows," and asserts that there is no real progress under the sun or even beneath the lovelorn moon. It is both an expression of and an escape from frustration, and it was in tune with the wrenching "decay of social life" in the early years of the Depression. But with a renewal of the possibility of progress, farce was inevitably replaced by a sympathetic comedy that asserted that both remarriage and reunion were possible. Unlike other popular genres—the gangster cycle, the backstage musical, the western—whose form and content remained basically the same throughout the Great Depression, comedy changed, and this change serves as a valuable gauge to the psychology of the period. The constant, of course, as Schlesinger says, is the popularity of the comedy itself. During the dark years of unemployment and hunger, the American people did not run to see William Wellman’s Heroes of Sale (1933), in which Richard Barthelmess plays an ex-soldier in Depression America trying to make something of himself; or King Vidor’s classic, Our Daily Bread (1934), with its radical message of a communal return to the soil; or Michael Curtiz’s Black Fury (1935), about the struggles of striking coal miners; or Ray Enright’s Slim (1937), about electric linemen risking their lives to bring power and light to the nation.25 Instead, they preferred the farceurs, the comically frustrated lovers, or even the antics of Mickey Mouse who happened to make his screen debut just before
the Marx Brothers and the 1929 crash.
It is Mickey who teaches this lesson to film director John L. Sullivan (played by Joel McCrea) in Preston Sturge’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941) which is set during the Depression. Tired of making such artistic fluff as So Long Sarong and Ants in Your Pants of1939, Sullivan wants to do a serious film—Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?—as a "commentary on modern conditions." He is looking for "a moral lesson" and "social significance," but his producers are looking for money. When he defends the value of a message-laden, symbolic film about "Capital and Labor destroying each other," they respond that it gives them "the creeps."
"It was held over a fifth week at the Music Hall," protests Sullivan.
"Who goes to the Music Hall? Communists—It died in Pittsburgh."
"What do they know in Pittsburgh?"
"They know what they like."
It takes Sullivan the rest of the film to find out what this is. Disguised as a tramp, he sets out across the country to learn the miseries of life. But with the option of returning at any time to his butler and swimming pool, he never really experiences psychological hardship. It is not until the end of the film that he discovers that in depressed times people do not want to watch movies that hold a mirror up to life. In a satiric echo of Capra’s Mr. Deeds, Sturges has Sullivan attempt to give away money. But instead of becoming a hero, he is beaten and robbed by one of those whom he is trying to help. Through a mix-up and loss of memory, he ends up on a work farm in the south where he endures life on a chain gang without the option of returning to his old, comfortable life. Then one day, while watching a Mickey Mouse movie with other convicts, Sullivan starts to laugh. Spontaneously, he at last discovers that comedy, whether it be moral or amoral, is the outlet through which people can strike out at all forms of depression and oppression and enjoy their hostility without punishment. They do know what they like in Pittsburgh, which is why Sturges, at the end of the Great Depression, lovingly dedicated this film "To The Memory Of Those Who Made Us Laugh."
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA
1Andrew Bergman, We’re In the Money (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. xi.
2Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "when The Movies Really Counted," Show, 3 (April, 1963), 77.
4Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari To Hitler (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1966), p. 5.
5For a fuller discussion of these terms, see my "Moral and Amoral Visions: Chaplin, Keaton, And Comic Theory" in The Western Humanities Review, 37 (Winter, 1983), 335–345.
6 "A Defence Of Poetry," in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 491.
7William Hazlitt, "On Wit and Humour," in Criticism: The Major Texts, ed. Walter Jackson Bate (New York: Harcourt, 1952), p. 313. Hereafter, references from this work will be cited as "Hazlitt" and included within parentheses in the text.
8"A Defence of Poetry," p. 489.
9Susanne Langer, "The Great Dramatic Forms: The Comic Rhythm," in Feeling And Form: A Theory Of Art (New York: Scribner’s, 1953), p. 335.
10Eric Bentley, The Life Of The Drama (New York: Atheneum, 1967), p. 296. The italics are mine.
11Antonin Artaud, The Theatre And Its Double (New York: Grove Press, 1958), pp. 142–144.
l2Quoted in J.H. Matthews, Surrealism And Film (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1971), p. 98.
13Raymond Durgnat, The Crazy Mirror (New York: Delta, 1972), p. 157.
14"The Motion Picture Production Code Of 1930," in Gerald Mast’s The Movies In Our Midst (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 321. Hereafter, references from this book will be included within parentheses in the text itself.
15See Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981).
16George Meredith, "An Essay On Comedy," in Comedy, ed. Wylie Sypher (New York: Doubleday, 1956), pp. 3, 14–15. Hereafter cited as "Meredith" and included within parentheses in the text.
17Andrew Sarris, "The Sex Comedy Without Sex," American Film, 3 (March, 1978), 8–15.
l8Stanley Cavell, "Leopards in Connecticut," The Georgia Review, 30 (Summer, 1976), 250–251.
19Bergman, pp. 132–133.
20Arthur Knight, The Liveliest Art (New York: New American Library, 1979), p. 265.
21Sarris, p. 10.
22Wes D. Gehring, Screwball Comedy: Defining A Film Genre (Ball State Monograph Number Thirty One: Ball State Univ., Muncie, Indiana, 1983), p. 7.
23Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (New York: Atheneum, 1968), p. 163.
24Frye, p. 169.
25With the exception of Our Daily Bread, all of these films were produced at Warner Brothers, a fact that earned it the nickname of "the working class studio."