The Turn of the Screw (I)

Hypothesis: the most appropriate narrative format to describe the history of American culture is that of the screwball comedy. The archetypal screwball comedy, a Hollywood creation, flourished for only a short time—the early 30s until the early 40s, roughly—although aspects of it still persist. But it originated out of a time and circumstance marked by, I think, a relatively rich confluence of the sorts of ideas that American culture is consistently obsessed with: the importance of money, the permeability (and fragility) of status.

The screwball comedy has been described by film critic Andrew Sarris as “sex comedy without the sex,” and while I think the format has other, deeper consistent features, Sarris’s epithet does effectively describe the surface of typical representatives of the genre: a romantic comedy that (for the most part) substitutes a certain manic absurdity for sensual eroticism. Here’s some examples, all standards of the style:

  • It Happened One Night (dir. Frank Capra, 1934)
  • Twentieth Century (dir. Howard Hawks, 1934)
  • My Man Godfrey (dir. Gregory La Cava, 1936)
  • Nothing Sacred (dir. William Wellman, 1937)
  • The Awful Truth (dir. Leo McCarey, 1937)
  • Bringing Up Baby (dir. Howard Hawks, 1938)
  • His Girl Friday (dir. Howard Hawks, 1940)
  • The Philadelphia Story (dir. George Cukor, 1940)
  • The Lady Eve (dir. Preston Sturges, 1941)

If this gives some idea of screwball comedy’s rather wide umbrella—it’s a long way from the backstage farce of Twentieth Century to the breezy con of Nothing Sacred to the upper class/lower class anthropology of The Philadelphia Story—there are still common elements that apply equally well to the outlines of American cultural history.

Money is the root of all plot. Though money itself may not figure prominently in many of the stories, almost every screwball comedy is set in motion, directly or indirectly, by money. It’s often overt: Cary Grant meets Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby while in the process of trying to secure a million-dollar donation for the museum he works at; worldly Barbara Stanwyck is after timid ophiologist Henry Fonda’s inheritance in The Lady Eve. In other movies, the financial impetus is in the form of a paycheck: It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, and Nothing Sacred, for example, all hinge on reporters trying to land a big story, but getting romantically entangled in the process. Sometimes, it’s the search for a free lunch: the counterpart of Fredric March’s cheerfully cynical reporter in Nothing Sacred is Carole Lombard as a small-town girl feigning a terminal illness to win a free trip to New York.

Likewise, even though not all of American culture is aimed at market or box-office success, the cash nexus (I love that phrase) is at the core of American cultural history; even if a cultural development seems far away from checkbook concerns, it’s a good bet that at least some point of that development’s lineage hinges, crucially, on economics.

What God has put asunder, let men (and women) join again. More than one critic, most importantly the Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell, has pointed out how many screwball comedies hinge on the idea of re-marriage, a separated or divorced couple realizing that they belong together after all. The Awful Truth, featuring a battling Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in the throes of divorce, is the most obvious example; The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday also hew to the pattern. Perhaps the psychological attraction to this sort of plot is related to the alienation that’s often analyzed to result from the emergence of a consumer-oriented society, in which attempts to construct individual identity are based on what one acquires, instead of what one produces.

American culture is marked by one desired re-marriage after another, usually of genres or styles situated about a perceived highbrow-lowbrow/elitist-populist axis. The elusive “Great American” novel, symphony, opera, what have you, is usually imagined as a work that reconciles a populist sensibility with the intricacy, scale, and allegedly more lofty intent of high art. It might be possible to argue that the propositions of a past confluence of high and low are rendered more plausible by the persistence of the screwball re-marriage trope.

Class conflict goes both ways. Related to the last point is the way screwball comedy seems to be, in part, dedicated to bringing the upper class down a peg. I say seems because, while some examples are explicitly dedicated to diminishing the upper class (the seminal It Happened One Night is perhaps the most populist of the bunch, with reporter Clark Gable de-sheltering by degrees Claudette Colbert’s sheltered heiress), others portray a more complex dance between rich, middle-class, and poor. Jimmy Stewart’s self-consciously down-to-earth writer in The Philadelphia Story thinks he has rich Katherine Hepburn pegged from the beginning, but by the end, he’s not so sure; Hepburn’s high-toned brittleness is something of a façade, her ex-husband Cary Grant shows the sort of cunning that other screwball comedies might have assigned to an average Joe, while her up-by-his-bootstraps fiancé, played by John Howard, proves a rather dull fellow indeed.

Many screwball comedies posit class as a kind of costume. In The Lady Eve, Barbara Stanwyck’s impersonation of a British noblewoman is so transparent as to beggar belief, but she successfully calls the bluff of Henry Fonda and his rich brewer father, whose choice to believe her ruse is as much a reflection of their own class insecurity. The most dazzling aikido of status might be in My Man Godfrey: rich, flighty Carole Lombard brings home hobo William Powell as part of a scavenger hunt, and Powell stays on to become the family butler. But the rich family is secretly broke, while Powell, who is hiding his own upper-class background, draws on that experience to become the perfect servant, romantically pursued by both Lombard and maid Jean Dixon. As Stewart stammers at the climax of The Philadelphia Story, “You’ve got me all confused now.” No kidding. Scratch the surface of the supposed highbrow/lowbrow division of American culture, and the lines begin to blur just as much, and just as fast.

Evolution is chaotic but not random. This is the aspect that I think most ties cultural history to the screwball comedy. As crazy as screwball events may get—Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, in Bringing Up Baby, in the middle of the country, singing to a leopard on a farmhouse roof in an effort to retrieve a dinosaur bone—there is always a clear chain of causality, however unlikely.

The thing is, each link in that chain is, more often than not, forged out of short-term, local concerns that have an at best coincidental relationship to the plot’s overall goal. Culture is the same way: a wayward walk in which each change of direction is determined not by the usually stated end results of artistic activity—say, for instance, emotional resonance or technical mastery—but by chance meetings, vagaries of overhead, practicalities of production, &c. Even the artistic personality is subject to such chaos: at any given time, there are artists who have more of a talent for making a career than making art, or artists who, lacking the knack for public relations and networking, do their exquisite work in inevitable obscurity. Of course, there are those who are equally adept at their craft and their careers, but such and intersection, the discovery (or self-discovery) and cultivation of such a confluence of talents, is—if not quite random—at least the result of a sufficiently idiosyncratic chain of events as to make its exact repetition highly unlikely.

The German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in his book Zig-Zag: The Politics of Culture and Vice Versa, compared history, and cultural history in particular, to a mathematical concept called the Baker’s tranformation or the Baker’s map. It’s a topological representation of folding dough: you fold a square over, roll it out, fold it over again, and so on. Given a sufficient number of folds, if you trace the path of a specific point on the square, the result is mathematically indistinguishable from a random path. Enzensberger uses the idea to account for the seemingly similarly random appearance of cultural fads, particularly nostalgic ones—retro fashions, neo-this or -that, remakes and reissues; it’s like a raisin embedded in the dough that you lose track of, until it suddenly reappears at the top of the square. I’ve always liked Enzensberger’s analogy because it;s a reminder that a) culture is a never-ending process, and b) cultural history is a construct largely determined by where, when, and why one chooses a given point of culmination. (The fold that brings your chosen point—Romanticism, tonality, atonality, neo-tonality—to the historical surface also brings infinitely many other points to the surface at the same time, each with their own unlikely itinerary.)

Screwball comedies choose rather obvious culminations for their random walks—usually marriage—but the genre acknowledges an Enzensberger-esque view of history and existence more than most histories do. Screwball duets are almost invariably between partners with incomplete information: one knows what they want, but not necessarily how to get it, the other knows where they’re going, but not necessarily what they want. (In Bringing Up Baby, Katherine Hepburn explains the physics of the screwball universe: “I know I want to marry him. He doesn’t know it but I am.”) It’s the sheer implausibility of screwball plots that reveals their unlikely insight. What are the chances of reporter Rosalind Russell, as editor Cary Grant’s ex, dropping by the newsroom to say goodbye on the very day the biggest news story of either of their lives happens to break? About the same chances as any of the events in any of our lives—individual or collective—turning out the way they did. The difference between screwball comedy and life is where you run the credits.

To be continued.

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