Tuesday, November 18, 2008

it happened one night, by frank capra

This week, Film Club decided to continue our whirlwind tour through Early American Comedy, turning to the first of the "screwball" comedies, 1934's It Happened One Night.

Part of the enduring appeal of the screwball comedies derives from the fact that they essentially lay the groundwork for what will eventually become the contemporary romantic comedy. Anyone who has seen more than a couple romantic comedies will recognize the basic tropes on display here: a man and a woman who initially seem to dislike one another are thrown together by chance circumstances, have a series of escapades, and come to realize that through the course of their misadventures they have fallen in love with one another.

Devising a romance that works this way—one in which your two main characters intially don't like one another very much is a time-honored narrative device: it allows for the introduction of conflict every time your characters are on screen together. However, even as this device solves one problem—keeping the happy conclusion from feeling forgone too early—it does so only at the cost of creating another problem. Specifically, the more you emphasize the characters' opposition to one another, the more territory they need to traverse before the love that the genre demands can emerge. (A secondary double-bind: if your characters are likeable at the outset of the film, going through the process of learning or growing or whatever else they might need to do runs the risk of watering down or eliminating what we liked about them in the first place. On the other hand, if they aren't likeable at the outset of the film... well, the problems there are obvious.)

There are a number of fine romantic comedies out there that manage to satisfyingly resolve these problems, setting up situations in which all the elements are in balance. In the Platonic ideal of this type of romantic comedy, two likeable (yet flawed) people come together and clash, but then each of them grows a little, straightens out their flaws while preserving key elements of their individual selves, and learns something key about the other person, whereupon both of them can then meet in the middle, in a conclusion that's essentially egalitarian in spirit. It Happened One Night, however, is not that film.

The power dynamic in this film can probably best be indicated by a pair of screenshots. First this one:

These are our principal characters, Peter Warne (Clark Gable) and Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), meeting up by chance one night the back of a bus. You can see that Ellie's a little reluctant to get too close. By morning, however, it's a different story:

The movie's telegraphing to us the idea that they might be able to get along after all (at least when one of them is unconscious). It's notable, however, the way the gender dynamic is set up here: that the only character who really has to change her tune is Ellie. There is no meeting in the middle: she's the one who has to "come around" to liking Peter, not vice versa.

Now, the plot of the film is arranged around her attempt to travel clandestinely (she's trying to avoid her powerful father's interference in her marriage to a celebrity aviator). Peter's a down-on-his-luck newspaperman, and the film suggests that he's sticking with her so that he can land a big scoop. So one could concievably argue that he has to overcome his own aversion to her. You could, for instance, point to the way he spends a good deal of the film's run-time insulting and correcting her, including on the finer points of donut-dunking:

However, he's also the one who repeatedly orchestrates the situation so that they can remain together, and his aversion never quite seems as pronounced as hers. He actually seems quite content to remain in her company—provided he can constantly belittle and control her. Over and over again, the movie is about bringing her down a peg. (She's high class to Warne's working-stiff, so this might have something to do with pandering to a nasty side of Depression-era class fantasy.) Regardless, by about a third of the way through the film, my Film Club companion Skunkcabbage was making comments about Foucault ("constant surveillance and correction") and I was starting to read their relationship as an early cinematic example of a BDSM relationship... this is less When Harry Met Sally and more, er, Secretary. I was so involved in this read that I wasn't actually surprised when Gable starts literally spanking her:

So, uh, yeah, unless she's got a submissive streak, it's not quite clear what Ellie is getting out of all this. At times there's a palpable disconnect between what she seems to want and what she's actually getting in Peter: at one point in the film, she lets her guard down and reveals that she's always felt trapped and stifled by her domineering father. One begins to wonder, at this juncture, whether the film is even aware that what Ellie appears to be doing is swapping out one domineering man for another. (The scene seems intended to be heartwarming, but it actually just struck me as tragic.)

The film's not without its strengths: it has a handful of charming moments, and the storyline is by far the strongest of the last four films we've watched (its three-act structure could be described as "classical"). But the dated gender attitudes really hobble the film. The tide, in some ways, is about to turn: the later, more engaging screwball comedies are not without their feminist qualities, and we're also on the cusp of the noir cycle, whose fatales represent some of the most strong-headed and autonomous female characters from this era. (Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that the films from the noir cycle are all that progressive: certainly many of them also manifest a great interest in controlling the feminine. This'll be the lens we'll use to kick off our look at next week's pick, The Maltese Falcon (1941).)

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