Thoughts on Genre: The Secret of Comedy (circa 1935)

After sitting through the weak screwball comedy True Confession this weekend, a proto-I Love Lucy piece with Carole Lombard doing her best to enliven the story of a pathological liar who confesses to a murder she didn’t commit to help make her lawyer husband (an enervated Fred MacMurray) famous (along with a sad, decaying John Barrymore in a thankless part as a drunk), I decided to follow Miranda’s lead and make a list of my favorite comedies of the thirties and forties. I am not the expert that Ray Davis, who has written extensively on the subject, is, but since I realized I’d seen more films of this genre than any other since I was obsessed with the French nouvelle vague, I wondered if there was a connection. Leaving aside the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, who represent their own genre, here was my list, screwball and otherwise:

  1. The Palm Beach Story
  2. Twentieth Century
  3. Bombshell
  4. Nothing Sacred
  5. The Good Fairy
  6. Theodora Goes Wild
  7. Unfaithfully Yours
  8. Thirty Day Princess
  9. Sullivan’s Travels
  10. The Lady Eve

That wasn’t especially enlightening, so I made a list of the top ten acclaimed comedies of the period that I didn’t especially like.

  1. His Girl Friday
  2. Bringing Up Baby
  3. My Man Godfrey
  4. Adam’s Rib
  5. It Happened One Night
  6. The Awful Truth
  7. Dinner at Eight
  8. Easy Living
  9. Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
  10. Ball of Fire

This was more interesting. Several directors (Howard Hawks), actors (Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne), and screenwriters (Ben Hecht) appeared in both lists. Unlike the nouvelle vague, where rough rules like “Louis Malle has never made a good movie” and “Truffaut’s films tend to be more recidivist than most” provided heuristics for predicting my reaction to a film, the heterogeneity of any individual’s output in American comedy was stronger than I can recall it being anywhere else, even though the output was far more similar.

I don’t believe this is purely due to the ineffable nature of comedy. With the exception of “Ball of Fire,” which is pretty hard to take, all of the films on the second list are good pieces of work that have their moments. Rather, I think that there is ultimately a homogeneity of style and content that transcends the differences of these movies to place them all firmly within a genre, a genre larger than “screwball” but clearly isolatable to a time and place. What’s amazing is that there are so many that are estimable: I cannot think of any other film genre that has so many high-quality films with such similar content and formulae. (Some have suggested Bollywood musicals, but I wouldn’t know.)

to be continued…