Posted by David Kalat on February 8, 2014
Let’s start with a rarely seen 1940 screwball comedy, Roy Del Ruth’s He Married His Wife. While I won’t pretend that this is anything but a minor but somewhat enjoyable trifle, there’s something rather weird about it that deserves discussion. A number of social scholars—admittedly some of them film historians, but quite a few of them not film people at all—have written about this movie in a specific context: how Hollywood treats romantic love.
The “he” of the title is horse racing mogul Joel McCrea. His preoccupation with—and incompetence at—the horse trade crowds out any other consideration. Ex-wife Nancy Kelly grew weary of perpetual also-ran status in her husband’s life, and divorced him. Ironically, divorce provides her with the opportunity to force her way higher on his list of priorities: as he is now committed to a punishing monthly alimony, he can’t help but think of her constantly. McCrea conspires with his lawyer Roland Young to end the alimony by getting Nancy married to someone, anyone—say, their mutual friend Lyle Talbot. The plan goes awry when she snubs poor Lyle for a flashy, oily gigolo Cesar Romero. McCrea starts to realize he cares about something much more than horses or alimony… (there’s no real surprise where any of this is heading—just check out the title of the movie if you have any questions).
What makes this interesting to social commentators is that the idea of making a romantic comedy about a divorced couple getting back together didn’t just happen the once, or even twice—it’s an idea you’ll find in: The Awful Truth, (1937), Philadelphia Story (1940), My Favorite Wife (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), That Uncertain Feeling (1942), and Palm Beach Story (1942). Add He Married His Wife to that list and you have four such comedies appearing in 1940 alone—eight within five years.
Stanley Cavell’s acclaimed and influential 1984 book Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (derived from a series of scholarly articles he published earlier) posits the suggestion that these films represent an effort by Hollywood to redefine marriage as something driven primarily by romantic love, rather than economic or religious reasons. These films depict couples who have forged deep bonds, that even when tested by separation do not sever.
There’s certainly something striking about finding so many of these things all at the same cultural moment—but that very fact gives me pause. They all appeared at once, which suggests that they are actually copying each other. Furthermore, the fact they are all screwball comedies deserves some consideration. Maybe there’s something about the nature of how screwball works that led to these, at this specific moment.
The first thing to remember is that screwball comedies are formula-driven film vehicles designed to sell a particular kind of entertainment. Just as silent slapstick would cook up whatever narrative structures allowed the likes of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd to then go about and do their acrobatic stunts, screwball plots are there to provide the backdrop for the likes of Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert to fight with each other in silly ways.
At its simplest, the screwball format involves a male and female lead who spend most of the movie bickering and fighting in comically ridiculous ways, only to get together at the end. The tricky balance to be struck is to make sure that the combat is actually good-natured enough to serve as flirtation, because if it veers too far into mean-spirited antagonism then a final-reel reconciliation becomes too difficult to accept. But if the combat is too good-natured and flirtatious, then how come the couple doesn’t just get together right away?
One way of getting a full 90 minutes of entertainment out of comic antagonism is to let it be as flirtatious as possible, and generate as much chemistry as possible between the leading players, but concoct some additional narrative complication that keeps the couple apart. The most venerable, the most commonly seen complication of this sort is to have one or both of the couple already engaged to someone else—and on top of that, to have that pre-existing commitment be between social peers, while the romantic attraction that the film is keeping in abeyance is one that crosses social classes.
The prototypical example is It Happened One Night: Claudette Colbert is a spoiled rich girl who’s engaged to a smarmy count. Their relationship, although icky and phony, is between upper crust socialites and European royalty. Colbert may be falling in love with the rogue-ish journalist Clark Gable, but he’s not in her league, and that right there provides enough of a barrier that their increasing attraction and intimacy can’t easily overcome. The entire infrastructure of society has an investment in keeping them apart.
There’s an added bonus to this narrative structure, too: watching their love overcome that class barrier is cathartic, it’s democratic, it’s utopian. Films that follow this pattern don’t see the lower-class lover of the runaway heiress as a Cinderella man—instead it’s the reverse. The poor man saves the rich girl (or poor girl saves the rich man).
Across the catalog of screwballs we see this pattern repeated, with earthy American values redeeming the airless rich: It Happened One Night, My Man Godfrey, A Girl A Guy and a Gob, Next Time I Marry, Design for Living, Fifth Avenue Girl, Bachelor Mother, Easy Living, Midnight, Slightly Dangerous, Ninotchka, Theodora Goes Wild, Holiday…
But it couldn’t last forever, and the demand for screwball comedy exceeded the audience’s patience with variations on the runaway heiress theme. Other recipes were needed—but they needed to be new recipes that delivered the same fundamental flavor: an excuse for an attractive couple to fight for 90 minutes before getting together romantically.
The so-called Comedy of Remarriage offered just such a viable twist: the divorced couple could be introduced with the given that they were romantically compatible, but that circumstances drove them apart. We already know they were once in love, and we know that something substantial broke them apart—so their banter can be excessively flirtatious without easily resolving whatever has already separated them. Plus, as an added bonus, it becomes possible to easily expand the cast—films like He Married His Wife, Palm Beach Story and Philadelphia Story don’t just have love triangles, they have love quadrangles. (I liken this to the habit of superhero films of upping the ante by adding villains).
The Comedy of Remarriage doesn’t need to invoke any class differential between the parties (some do, some don’t), because the divorce itself is doing the heavy lifting of keeping the lovers apart even as they grow together.
There’s something else, too—by their nature, these films begin with the main characters already established as sexually-active adults. They break apart, and experiment with other partners. For films made under the Puritanical restrictions of the Production Code, this was as close as you could get to making movies about adultery. The Comedies of Remarriage have a palpable sexuality to them rarely found in their other screwball peers.
But this brings us back to Stanley Cavell and the concept that these films represented a significant step in establishing the idea of “romance.” The structure of these films stack the deck against the main characters as a couple: something has already challenged the integrity of their marriage, and they have viable alternative partners. Isn’t adultery supposed to be the thing that dooms a union? How could anyone get back together after such a thing? But no matter how the deck is stacked, our screwball couples are drawn together because of something that defies objective, rational explanation.
In other words, love. Screwball comedies define love as the irrational, ineffable force that brings people together against all odds—and which resists even the most energetic threats. Previous generations had defined marriage in terms of social standing, economic necessity, and religious expectations. The screwball couples tossed all that out the window in favor of crazy, stupid love.
I wouldn’t say the Comedies of Remarriage were alone in inventing and promoting this new concept of romantic love—it clearly enervates the entirety of the screwball genre—but to the extent that the Comedies of Remarriage can be read as metaphors for adultery, they play with these concepts more powerfully than the generic screwball does. For all these wacky couples, disregarding social norms and looking for the spark of true love at all costs, it’s just a good thing they didn’t have any children to get caught up in the shenanigans. Except, of course, when they did… but we’ll save that story for next week.
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