Posted by David Kalat on April 27, 2013
Last week I posted here some embarrassing anecdotes about my experiences as a color timer in the early 1990s—and I’d intended to immediately follow it up with a sequel. The first post was about Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—a film I knew was a commercial and critical disappointment, and I thought it was funny trying to pretend I was the reason for its problems. And so the sequel would flip the story—a Hollywood film I came near, but which soared to great heights because I was kept safely far away from it.
Except when I sat down to start writing this, I was absolutely jaw-droppingly gob-smacked to discover that my whole premise was flawed. To my utter astonishment, I learned that the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy was not considered a success. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this.
The reviews at the time were harsh. Roger Ebert said there was “something dead at the heart of all this.” Richard Schickel said “the Coens have deliberately cut themselves off from their best subject,” and called the result “heavy, lifeless, and dry.” Kenneth Turan said “if this is a triumph, it is a zombie one. Too cold, too elegant, too perfect.”
The Austin Chronicle called it “a fairy tale without any lessons, a satire without any targets.” TV Guide called it “a very small joke write very large.” USA Today referred to its “frigid soul.” The Boston Globe said that “its externals are brilliant, but The Hudsucker Proxy is virtually nothing but externals.”
I suppose this is as good a place as any to mention my part in all this: those brilliant externals, specifically the camera swooping through the snowy cityscape at the start and climax of the film was a model shot prepared by my lab. I never touched it–my boss, the great Russ Suniewick, had figured out by now my limitations and knew to keep me segregated from anything important, so I just stood respectfully in the back of the room and watched quietly.
I wasn’t really all that sure what I was watching. I didn’t know the name of the film, but when The Hudsucker Proxy finally opened in 1994 I recognized the scenes immediately and jumped up and down in my chair like an oversugared toddler (“hey lookit! lookit!“)
And perhaps that rush of exhiliration obscured my reason, but I don’t think so. I remember really enjoying the film on its own merits–and I’ve always admired it on repeat viewings since. I thought the DVD was a bit lackluster so when I saw it was coming out on Blu-Ray, I intended to upgrade–and that’s when I started, for the very first time, to get a sense that my appreciation of The Hudsucker Proxy wasn’t shared by all: how come this Blu Ray is coming out on Warner Archive?
But the penny didn’t drop even then. It wasn’t until I started writing this essay about two weeks before you’re reading it that I looked the movie up on IMDB to fact check a few things, and finally realized this was not the beloved movie classic I had always assumed it to be.
I mean, on one level, I shouldn’t be so shocked. I am, as you well know, a terrible judge of what other people like. My favorite music I have to get by odd means because they’re generally too obscure to even be available on iTunes. If I fall in love with something at Trader Joe’s, that’s a sure sign it’s about to be discontinued (I really liked that flax seed pasta! I liked the damn flax seed croissants too! I happen to like flax seeds!).
But I know this pathology of mine—I’m familiar with its contours. I know I tend to champion unloved movies (Three’s a Crowd, Popeye, Star Trek The Motion Picture), but I generally know that going in. With Hudsucker Proxy, it’s not that I set out to be contrarian—I genuinely believed other people liked it too. I don’t remember any negative reaction when I saw it theatrically.
I’m playing catch-up here, but from what I’ve read in the last week I gather the objection is that Hudsucker Proxy was cold, off-putting, and robotically mannered. But, isn’t every Coen Brothers movie like that?
If you’re going to accuse it of a meticulously mannered genre homage that veers into parody, how come that doesn’t also apply to, y’know, every other Coen Brothers film? Or to pluck a specific example–what about The Big Lebowski and its ludicrous parody of The Big Sleep?
One possible explanation is that the lovable stoner schlub played by Jeff Bridges in Big Lebowski is easier to root for, and connect to emotionally, than the jerky manchild played by Tim Robbins in Hudsucker.
Another factor is that Big Lebowski riffs on film noir–arguably the most solidly beloved genre of old Hollywood, and if there’s one thing Americans can’t get enough of, it’s crime thrillers. As long as the Coens stayed in the crime thriller wheelhouse (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, etc) they were free to experiment with genre parody, overly stylized visuals, dream sequences, and anything else that caught their fancy without risking their audience.
Whereas the genre at the root of The Hudsucker Proxy is screwball comedy.
I hope by now my bona fides are established when it comes to screwball, but in case you’d like a refresher I encourage you to click on my name on the top of this post and scroll back through my history where you’ll find the many months I spent laying out my argument that the transition away from silent slapstick in the 1930s wasn’t due to the advent of talkies at all but was triggered by an audience evolution in favor of screwball comedies.
What made screwball more compelling than slapstick in the 1930s was a confluence of factors. One was the abundance of great comediennes: Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, and so on who brought so much life and energy to a genre previously dominated by men.
Another key factor was that screwball comedies were rooted in social conditions. The majority of screwballs either touch on or completely wallow in Depression era economics, class schisms, and politics. Hollywood thrived for so long on selling glamour, yet the sudden onset of mass poverty made a lot of Hollywood glamour suddenly touchy. Films like Midnight, My Man Godfrey, Holiday, and 5th Avenue Girl played both sides: they still filled the screen with the trappings of wealth and comfort but also commented darkly on those images. Here came these ditzy comediennes playing crazy runaway heiresses in love with scruffy drifters, and just as suddenly those images of glamour were rendered acceptable again. It was a winning formula.
Lastly, the changing relationship between men and women in society at large was reflected in the “war of the sexes” humor of 30s romantic comedies. Let’s step back and think about this: when the first screen comedies appeared at the start of the 20th century, with the likes of Jack Bunny as their stars, the culture they depict is wholly Victorian. Not only is the world shown in those early comedies pre-technological, with dirt roads and horses, but the whole social landscape is one we barely recognize. Then by the 1920s, the world of Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy looks radically different.
Between the very dawn of movies in the late 1800s and the release of Modern Times, women gained the right to vote, birth control information went from being legally obscene to being distributed by Planned Parenthood, and the US government started tracking working conditions for women. Of course audience tastes would change as well.
And screwball comedy had a way of feeling very modern. Sure, the fast-talking characters took advantage of the newfangled talkie medium and that was a popular novelty, but even aside from that you now had films making jokes about the vexing changes in gender roles and the loosening sexual attitudes.
And here’s the irony of all this: what I’ve just described is why screwball comedies went so big so fast. They tapped into the zeitgeist in a whole new way, and they shoved the likes of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd right off the stage.
I call that an irony because those very attributes that made screwballs huge in the 30s and 40s are precisely why they now seem so dated, and why silent slapstick manages to be as funny today as it was nearly a century ago. Films like The General, The Gold Rush, and Safety Last have very little to do with the zeitgesit of their era–they are just exceedingly well made works of cinema about acrobatic men getting hurt. And that’s just as funny today as it ever was.
But let’s take a look at one of the high points of the screwball era–Theodora Goes Wild. First let’s place it in context: it was made between the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera and Day at the Races; between Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West, between the first Three Stooges short made for Columbia and the last shorts Buster Keaton made at Educational. I don’t know about you, but these are comedies I’ve lived with my entire life. They may be old but they don’t feel dated to me.
But Theodora Goes Wild is fundamentally about a society that no longer exists. It’s about a world where the author of a sexy bestseller would be ashamed to admit it, where the mere thought of a child born out of wedlock could threaten an entire family, where the prospect of a divorce augers unescapable scandal. The humor of the film is about Theodora (Irene Dunne) and how by “going wild” she deliberately explodes all of these social scandals on purpose, like an advance scout clearing a minefield, to make the world a better place for those who follow her. It’s inspirational, and thrilling, and I love this movie. But it might as well be science fiction, because every single frame of it is predicated on the belief that the audience will be shocked by her behavior. And by today’s standards the only shocking things are the repressed Puritans she terrorizes.
Which is a problem. I mean, at least with science fiction, the filmmakers tends to worry about alienating their audience and spend some screentime info-dumping the relevant information (“in this world, funky smells are treated like money, and everybody worships the giant shadow from the old bell tower because that’s where the portal to the other universe is“), whereas Theodora just takes for granted that we will accept that she doesn’t want to take credit for writing the 1936 equivalent of Fifty Shades of Gray.
My wife bought me the DVD set as a Christmas gift a few years back, and I was so excited to have a nice copy of one of my favorite comedies I insisted we all watch it right away. And it bombed. The kids walked out in boredome halfway through. Julie stuck it out to the bitter end, but then complained about what a waste of time it was to squander so much time on a movie that wasn’t even funny.
Mind you, these are veteran old movie fans. My son loves Buster Keaton and invites friends over to watch them on Blu Ray. My daughter has attended Slapsticon 5 years running. As a family we’ve seen more silent comedies theatrically than my grandmother did, and she was there for their original first runs. So it’s not an impatience with old movies per se, but an impatience with the rhythms of screwball–they are pretty shrill things at times, and deeply dated, insistent as they are on exploring the contours of a society that has since been replaced, atom for atom.
But here’s the thing: if all the Coens did with Hudsucker was pay homage to a forgotten and unloved movie genre, that would be enough of a commercial challenge. But Hudsucker Proxy is more than that–it is a meticulously observed descendant of Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe.
This is almost perversely maddening. Meet John Doe is a peripheral thing–an anomaly. It grew out of screwball, in the same way that cancerous tumors might grow out of one’s neck. It is not by any measure a proper example of the genre–nor is it really anything else, either.
I mean, assuming the Coens really had an itch to remake Capra, they were kind of spoiled for choice: It Happened One Night practically invented screwball. But Meet John Doe has few fans. It is an unloved also-ran thing from the margins of a largely forgotten genre last heard of roughly 50 years before The Hudsucker Proxy started filming snow-swept model buildings.
Of course… that’s where we started, isn’t it? What else have the Coen Brothers been doing all this time but playing formalistic games with their favorite movies, retooling Hollywood’s past into things that function in the present? Is there seriously a way of drawing a meaningful line in the sand that separates the OCD-like tics of Big Lebowski from the ritualized nuttiness of Hudsucker Proxy? They feel so similar to me, so genuinely alike, and yet one has legions of fans who still host viewing parties years later (and which still warrants SNL jokes) and the other is Warner Archive’s first stab at a Blu-Ray. Go figure.
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