Thursday, July 26, 2007

Screwball this!

Right after seeing Shaw's The Millionairess, I read David Denby's New Yorker piece on romantic and screwball comedies. It has already elicited quite a few reactions, including this one underlining a queer reading of the older movies and a lengthy back-and-forth on Emdashes (heh…though it did lead me to Katha Pollitt's blog post about Knocked Up).

What particularly rankled me in Denby's piece is his assertion that "Romantic comedy is entertainment in the service of the biological imperative. The world must be peopled." (This last line fished in Much Ado About Nothing.)

Say what? Denby must have drank quite a potent cocktail of crazy because this line of inquiry is nuts. In case we didn't get it the first time around, he quickly confirms it: "Romantic comedy civilizes desire, transforms lust into play and ritual—the celebration of union in marriage."

If there's one reason to like classic "romcoms," it's because the reproductive instinct never seemed to enter the equation, and lust never felt as if it depended on marriage. Marriage was something the characters seemed to enter on a whim, and they'd leave it just as quickly; it was a formality. This is one of the (many) reasons these movies are so popular among gays: They didn't treat the heterosexual institution like some semi-saintly, carved in stone, now and forever status. The best comedies of the 30s and 40s turned sex into wordplay and vice versa, and this liberation from the boring missionary impulses of the hinterlands was shown not only as a source of great fun, but as the right, enviable thing to do.

The hinterlands, by the way, were depicted, via the Ralph Bellamy characters, as embodying all-American squareness and dullness. Those were the days when it was okay to mock hicks from, say, Arkansas or Oklahoma, no matter how rich and well-meaning they were. They may have been carrying both cash and wedding rings, but they still had no clue. Now, the country is where urbanites go to find their true selves. I don't see current comedies (the ones created by a supposedly elitist Hollywood) treating either NASCAR fans or the owners of suburban McMansions with this kind of derision, although they should—it's high time someone sent up this dumbfounding inanity.


zp said...

"If there's one reason to like classic 'romcoms,' it's because the reproductive instinct never seemed to enter the equation . . ."

I find this observation simple, startling and very important . . .

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Please elaborate!

zp said...

You're right. There are often no kids, not even the thought of kids, in the classic pictures.

On the one hand, this sort of pulls the rug from under Denby's argument and suggests that there isn't a long, unbroken history of pro-procreation that links Much Ado About Nothing and Knocked Up.

Your observation also suggests, to me, anyway, that in the 20th century history of gender and sexuality, there was a moment (attested to by the babyfree screwball) in which we were heavily invested in sex without procreation.

Um, this comment feels like a statement of what you already said more succinctly . . .

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I'm glad you're elaborating because I think this is a fascinating line of inquiry, and one I hadn't developed enough in my original post. Children are peripheral at best in comedies from the 30s and 40s—Asta the dog (in the Thin Man movies) played more of a role in the plots than any baby or kid! Nowadays, of course, children bring couples together: either as incoming babies (the two in Knocked Up would NEVER have stayed together if she hadn't become pregnant) or as wise-beyond-their-years kids somehow helping adults get their acts together (the new Catherine Zeta-Jones vehicle No Reservations, and plenty of others before).