History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

06 March 2009

I Lost it at the Movies: The Hollywood Remarriage Comedy

As so often happens, I find myself bouncing off what other hoydens have been saying.

This time I’m inspired by what Tracy’s thoughts, in a recent post, about social class and escapist glitter in the Depression-era movie, The Philadelphia Story.

And since others of us have referred to this one as a favorite, for its complex take on the very stuff of romance fiction — men and women; morality, autonomy, and desire — let me share some observations about certain movies of this period, from a remarkable book called Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, by the philosophy professor Stanley Cavell.

Comedy of Remarriage?

Before reading Cavell, I hadn’t even considered that such a category existed. But think of The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Adam’s Rib, The Awful Truth, The Lady Eve — all of them about married couples so fabulously, visibly, physically, and verbally right for each other that the screen glows with the black-and-white heat of it.

And in each case the couple is on the brink of divorce or already divorced with the wife on the brink of marrying someone absolutely wrong for her — until a wonderfully talky comic script brings the original couple back together.

For that physical heat: at the beginning of this YouTube clip from His Girl Friday, check out the edgy intimacy with which the divorced couple, Walter and Hildy (Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell), pace around each other in the chaotic space of Walter's office.

And also watch the final scene on the clip (about 6 minutes in), when Walter takes Hildy and Bruce, her sweet-decent-but-wrong-for-her fiance (Ralph Bellamy) out to lunch. Walter’s desperately ironic and angry, Hildy’s embarrassed but rather enjoying it, Bruce is simply struggling to keep up. Cavell gets as close to the heart of my romance-writer sensibility as any philosopher could, when he says that:

…the pair communicate […] in a lingo and tempo, and about events present and past [...]. They simply appreciate each other more than either of them appreciates anyone else, and they would rather be appreciated by one another, more than by anyone else.

They are, as I wrote about Mary and Kit, the couple in my own remarriage comedy, The Slightest Provocation, onto each other, wise to each other's smarts and wit and audacity, and wicked smart about the accompanying need and weaknesses and wounded pride. Every bit as much as the fast-talking lovers in another hoyden favorite, Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

Fast-talking... boy, do they ever talk fast in these remarriage comedy movies. Cavell points out that this spate of films had its beginnings less than a decade after the movies even got sound; one can almost hear the glee of trying to cram as many words as possible onto the sound-strip on the celluloid.

But the acrobatics of fast talking are also as much a part of the dance of desire and need as the ongoing war for screen space; note (beginning about 3 minutes and 36 seconds into the clip) the wonderful physical byplay between Hildy and Walter about who leads and who follows — and what leading and following might mean — as they walk down (yes) the aisle of the newsroom where Walter is editor.

Cavell’s writing is witty but also weighty (I had to blow off a lot of the sentences that hinge on Kant or Wittgenstein). And they make big claims for the importance of a set of lighter-than-air entertainments — this notion of marriage being not a solution but a problem to be revisited, revised, and gotten right only in struggle is, according to Cavell, the major female cultural achievement of the period between the Suffrage movement and the advent of 1960s second wave feminism.

Fans of Rosie the Riveter may beg to differ.

And yet, as a woman who got so much of my romantic sensibility from the movies (I fell in love with the Regency while breathlessly watching the 1955 Beau Brummell, with Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor), I know how powerful screen images of contested love can be, and I also know how deeply even a nine-year-old can feel the rough strife of love and wit and words and ego (even if the nine-year-old didn't know that no one wore powdered wigs during the Regency). While my husband, who's been onto me from the beginning, sealed the contract between us, we joke, on our first date, when he took me to see the swooningly romantic 1945 French historical drama, Les Enfants du Paradis.

And as a feminist writer in a popular genre that’s consistently, ignorantly, and unfairly maligned as anti-feminist, I can only applaud Cavell for the serious smarts he devotes to another sub-sub entertainment genre, a set of “parables,” as he puts it,

of a phase of the development of consciousness at which the struggle is for the reciprocity or equality of consciousness between a woman and a man, a study of the conditions under which this fight for recognition […] is a struggle for mutual freedom, especially of the views each holds of the other. [….] They harbor a vision which they know cannot fully be domesticated, inhabited, in the world we know. They are romances.

We won’t all be able to talk so fast, or move so nimbly.

But we can try. Write on, hoydens all.

And readers, writers and viewers among you, tell me what parts of yourself you’ve found at the movies.

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Blogger Unknown said...

I heard (or read) somewhere that His Girl Friday was the first film made where the characters talk over one another. Seems so normal now, but it was a big deal then.

I'm a sucker for second chance stories, just love 'em. Somehow I've always found them more satisfying than new love.

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I was home now so that I can re-read my copy of PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. I had the privilege of listening to Professor Cavell's lecture in promotion of this book a long time ago. I agree that his prose is more than a little dry but his theories are some of the most important in movie criticism in the past 20 yrs.

Part of myself I found at the movies?
My moniker is named after Katharine Hepburn's black sheep heiress in the movie, HOLIDAY.

On the "comedy of remarriage" in romancelandia, a lot of Eloisa James's novels play with this theme. One of the many reasons why I am a fan.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I heard (or read) somewhere that His Girl Friday was the first film made where the characters talk over one another.

Hmmm, that's really interesting, Kalen. Though I wonder if the Marx Brothers ever did it...

And as for "second chance" stories (as yes, they're more typically called in our neck of the woods), I love 'em too.

And hi, Seton -- great to hear from you. How great that you took your name from Holiday (which I just added to my Netflix queue). And wow, I'd have loved to hear Cavell speak about this book -- which I'm beginning to think might also give a great boost to the fields of romance scholarship and genre theory.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Victoria Janssen said...

I love reading about a subgenre I'd never considered before.


12:31 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Pam! I grew up going to old movie revival houses with my parents, and I remember at quite a young age commenting on how many of the romantic comedies were about estranged or divorced couples who got back together. I've always loved love stories about a couple with a shared past history (I think I've only in one of my books, the first I wrote with my mom, do the hero and heroine meet for the first time in the time frame of the book itself). And I have a particular fondness for marriage in trouble stories. There's something particularly fascinating to me about working through the issues it takes to make a relationship work, with all the accumlated history, good and bad, in the mix. And with two people who know each other so well, the connection seems deeper, as you described so well in writing about Mary and Kit.

Even though I don't write romantic comedies, I think as a writer I absorbed a lot from the 30s and 40s romantic comedies I loved growing up. So Charles and Melanie probably owe something to Dexter and Tracy, since "The Philadelphia Story" has always been one of my favorite movies. I actually rewatched it just this weekend.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Both The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday (a gender-bending revisiting of the stage and screen classic The Front Page are among my favorite movies. Common denominator is Cary Grant, of course, who is so winning, and had scintillating chemistry with all of his female costars. Not only is the chemistry so wonderful, but the characters are so much fun to spend time with, and the dialogue so snappy and sparkling that you root for the ex-couple to reunite, no matter their flaws. I regularly watch both of those movies, since I own a copy; and relate to each of them in different, though very visceral ways.

One of the operating dynamics in His Girl Friday is the undeniable thrill of collaboration. When two people are colleagues, or working closely on a project for which they each have a passionate commitment(especially while the clock is ticking) and no one else in their world seems to "get" it the same way they do, nothing could be sexier.

That's one thing that brought Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson together, with their singleminded determination to preserve the throne of Naples for its sovereigns once civil war erupted, despite the fact that the assignment was out of their commission. Sir William Hamilton, as the British ambassador, realized that he had no business negotiating on behalf of a foreign power, which left Emma and Nelson together for long stretches as they strategized. You see this dynamic in action as their relationship blossoms in TOO GREAT A LADY.

The other films you mentioned, Pam, are dear to me as well ... as is another romantic comedy about a couple on the brink (and a remarriage -- and starring Cary Grant, as well as Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott) -- My Favorite Wife.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oooo, My Favorite Wife is a great film. I LOVE the scene at the club where she's trying to pass the shoe salesman off as "Adam", LOL!

And I always find it interesting that in real life Grant and Scott were best friends, frequently living together when between wives. Very old Hollywood boys club. Can you imagine the parties? *sigh* It would be like Clooney and Pitt doing the same thing now . . .

2:46 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Oh, Grant and Scott were way more than "best friends." They lived together for a while, and many film historians believe they were lovers. Grant was married several times (5, I think) over the course of his life ... but still...

2:57 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Hi, Victoria. Hope you enjoy The Slightest Provocation. As a slooooow writer, I'm delighted to know that there's someone still looking forward to a 2006 book of mine.

As for that Grant and Scott business. Wow. And much better than Clooney and Pitt -- though I have to say that among today's actors, Clooney's good with the funny, sexy won't-take-no-for-an-answer motormouth business (not Pitt, obviously -- though the all-around brilliant Robert Downey Jr. was also good at it, the one episode of Ally McBeal that I caught him on).

I very much agree with Amanda about the thrill of collaboration, and I'm sure that it did spark the Nelson-Hamilton love story just as you have it in Too Great a Lady.

And Tracy, I'm as sure that Charles and Melanie owe something to Dexter and Tracy as I am that Mary and Kit owe something to Charles and Melanie. And I'm pretty sure that when Kit takes a pratfall at the end of The Slightest Provocation, he owes quite a bit to the man who could take the sexiest, wittiest pratfalls in the business, Cary Grant.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

It's a great honor to I could have remotely done anything to inspire Kit and Mary, Pam!

I so agree about "the thrill of collaboration." That's why I love characters with shared projects, whether it's solving a crime, uncovering a plot, putting on a play, or passing reform legislation.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Think how many costars fall in love during the run of a play or the filming of a movie. We could list the couples for days (and that's just household names we know about; I'm sure it happens just as often in community theatre). The bloom often fades from the rose once the project is in the can or the final curtain is rung down ... and it's not just the actors playing lovers who fall in love. Many an actress has fallen for her director, the cameraman, DP, etc...

Think about it; in many ways, they're making a baby (the project) together; and sometimes, if they're involved with other people outside it, it becomes even sexier to make that baby with your colleague.

7:27 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Fascinating stuff, Amanda. Have you ever considered writing a romance about Georgian actors... directors... etc? (Of course with cameos of Sheridan, and... well, you'd know better than I)

8:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ciji Ware wrote a wonderful book about Georgian theater, whose title escapes me right now, but the heroine is a playwright.

6:04 AM  
Blogger Joanna Waugh said...

I think a good example of fast-talking modern comedy is/was Gilmore Girls. It seems to me the shows geared toward the twenty-something audience all possess fast, witty dialogue.

7:24 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks for the opportunity to create a segue Pam -- I did write a novel about some of the greats of the Georgian theatre -- ALL FOR LOVE: The Scandalous Life and Times of Royal Mistress Mary Robinson (NAL Trade, Feb. 2008). Mary Robinson was London's most celebrated actress in the mid 1770s, when she was still in her teens, becoming the toast of Drury Lane, and famously catching the eye of the Prince of Wales when he attended the theatre one night with his parents to see a command performance of Florizel and Perdita, an 18th century adaptation of The Winter's Tale. Mary Robinson's mentor and acting coach was none other than David Garrick. All these scenes are dramatized in my novel. There's lots of behind the scenes stuff, including the acting coaching scenes, and Mary's failed audition for Mr. Hull, which was before she met Garrick.

The coolest part of it is that everything I depict actually happened. All I did was apply the novelist's imagination to factually documented events. I LOVED imagining what a coaching session between Garrick and Mary would have been like.

There is also some behind-the-scenes at Drury Lane in my Emma Hamilton novel, Too Great a Lady: The Notorious, Glorious Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton. For a brief period, Emma was employed at the home of the Linleys, who co-managed Drury Lane with Sheridan. Sheridan succeeded Garrick there (and he figures prominently as a character in All For Love as well.

Emma was employed in the Linleys' home as a nurserymaid, but Mrs. Linley also used her as a runner at the theatre. And I'm quite convinced that Emma received a great hands-on education there from all the performances she was able to see. I do posit that she (being a good mimic) got the idea of how to develop the confidence to behave above her station by watching actors play kings and queens.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Glad for the opportunity to cue you, Amanda. Garrick... oh, yes. That's All for Love: The Scandalous Life and Times of Royal Mistress Mary Robinson, everybody (NAL Trade, Feb. 2008)

And thanks for the Ciji Ware tip, Elizabeth.

Joanna, I never saw the Gilmore Girls, though I understand it was good. And of course there were also Buffy, Angel, and Firefly (I had a crush on Wash for Firefly -- actually on Wash and Zoe together -- nice when that happens. Too bad Joss Whedon seems to have lost his wit (or his wits) with the recent Dollhouse (or has it improved after the baleful first episode?)

11:05 AM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I'm becoming a serious old movie buff--I squeed with delight when I saw this post and Tracy's--and if you like My Favorite Wife I suggest you hunt down Too Many Husbands. It was released the same year (1940), but the roles are switched: a woman discovers that her husband is alive after she's married his business partner and best friend. The ending is a total riot and quite naughty for the times.

My adoration for the screwball comedy is a major factor in my decision to write American-set historicals, or at least use American characters rather than Brits. Even though my books are set in the latter decade of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th, witty dialogue feels more comfortable when the characters are American because I "understand" the language and its rhythm.

The screwball romantic comedy hits all of my buttons: metropolitan background, great dialogue, sparkling chemistry, blustering characters, and good-natured bickering. I like a good "hero and heroine at odds" plot, but not when it's mean-spirited and spiteful. Screwballs are about, among other things, the push and pull that happens in a relationship, whether the characters are divorced or meeting for the first time. Plus, the heroines are always level-headed, intelligent and polished, and the heroes love them that way. A great contrast to post-WWII when too intelligent heroines were often femme fatales in film noir.

9:52 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

If you haven't read it already, Evangeline, I think you'd really appreciate Cavell's PURSUITS OF HAPPINESS. The title's no accident; he's very much in a self-conscious American culture groove: for every Kant or Wittgenstein citation there's one from Emerson or Thoreau. A pity Netflix doesn't have TOO MANY HUSBANDS. I'll check the local indie rental places.

11:54 AM  

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