by Gordon C. Waite

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Buster Keaton and the Comedic Roots of Surrealist Cinema

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The strange manor of Buster Keaton in "One Week"

In the short documentary “A Slice of Buñuel,” which accompanies the DVD release of Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel’s son Juan-Luis gives a fascinating account of how Salvadore Dali and Buñuel collaborated on the screenplay.  “It had to be without any logic,” says Juan-Luis.  Using illustrations, he describes how ideas were accepted or rejected on the basis of their relative disconnection to logic.  For example, a man dragging an electric train with ropes—“bad idea”—a man dragging a piano and two dead donkeys with ropes—“great idea!”  Symbolic interpretations, according to Juan-Luis, “are completely false because the idea was not to have any symbolic interpretation possible.  It was like a dream—totally irrational.”

What, then, are we to make of the countless symbolic interpretations of Un Chien Andalou?  What are we to think, for example, of statements such as “the diagonal lines defined by the crossing of the whetstone and the mullion of the window mark an angle, and angularity, hence an angst that comes with the birth of visibility itself” (Conley 208).  It is tempting to dismiss such interpretations as examples of academic overreach that miss the forest for the trees.  Does every bit of minutia really need to “mean” something?  Does every incidental geometrical shape—does every angle, by virtue of the fact that they have pointy edges, represent danger, and therefore angst (and what on Earth has this to do with “the birth of visibility”)?  Maybe they do.  There is plenty of evidence in Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to suggest that angles deliberately convey angst.  But even so, would Dalí and Buñuel have plotted out their film in such a manner?  These men were dreamers and poets, not psychoanalysts.

Perhaps there is some truth in both positions: one, that Chien was intended to be completely illogical, a stream of consciousness that resists all interpretation; and on the other hand, that it is full of primal and unconscious meaning, which is ideally suited for Freudian analysis.  Indeed, André Breton’s “First Surrealist Manifesto” gives full credit to Freud: “On the evidence of his discoveries a current of opinion is at last developing which will enable the explorer of the human mind to extend his investigations, since he will be empowered to deal with more than merely summary realities” (Breton). Buñuel himself wrote: “In the film are amalgamated the aesthetics of surrealism with Freudian discoveries” (Buñuel 250).  But can we rely even on Buñuel for clarity when he also claims that the film, “at heart, is nothing other than a desperate, impassioned call for murder” (162)?  Would Freud have guessed at that?

One thing is for certain: Un Chien Andalou is a masterpiece of comic timing, “probably the most well-paced film in the history of cinema,” a distinction it could share with many silent comedies of the 1920’s  (Richardson 28).  Buñuel adored the comedies of Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon especially, writing, “The equivalent of surrealism can be found only in those films, far more surrealist than those of Man Ray” (Buñuel 124).  Viewing Chien with this in mind, while putting aside Freud and the obsession with interpretation for the time being, can give one a whole new perspective on surrealism and its kinship with comedy.  Sometimes, the absurd otherworldliness of the surreal image just makes us want to laugh.

Buster Keaton’s One Week (1920) is full of such images, some which are so unrealistic that they could pass for surrealistic, i.e., above and beyond reality; others which are so artfully constructed, it seems clear that Keaton must have been well-versed in Modernist art.  A young couple that has just gotten married arrive at their new property.  A flatbed truck arrives and dumps a wooden box at their feet.  Inside the box is a build-it-yourself house kit.  The couple’s efforts to build this house are both endearing and hilarious, involving all manner of slapstick gags and risky stunts.  Things really go awry, however, when the husband’s rival, the wife’s jilted suitor, changes the labels on the house kit.  The next day, the husband is standing in front of a house that could have been designed by Pablo Picasso at the height of Cubism: The roof is too small, like a tiny hat on a giant head; the windows veer off at odd angles; the front porch is all askew; and the house opens and closes where there are no doors and windows.  Moreover, the house resembles the face of an anguished soul (again, angst in angularity), the pickets on the front porch like teeth frozen in a grimace.  The house sits in the middle of the vacant lot, an image strikingly out of place against the gently sloping roof and telephone wires in the background.

In the next scene, a man is carrying a piano over his shoulder, a surrealist image if ever there was one.  He delivers the piano by dropping this presumably heavy object on top of the husband, who has just exited the house via the window, then lifts the piano up long enough for the husband to sign the invoice.  The piano then become the centerpiece of a series of elaborate gags in which the husband and wife attempt to use ropes and pulleys to drag the piano into an opening in the side of the house, the massive weight of the piano pitted against the scrappy determination of the young couple with their flimsy devices, an exercise in futility that nevertheless comes to fruition through sheer will.

It’s easy to see why films like One Week appealed to a surrealist like Buñuel, who described the films of Keaton, Chaplin and others, as “The finest poems that cinema has produced” (123).  But it wasn’t just the fluidity of motion or the ingenuity of the gags that appealed to surrealists.  “What united all of these comedians was their taste for anarchy and insubordination, and it was this as much as their humour that attracted the surrealists” (Richardson 62).  One Week ends in total anarchy, as a mighty storm blows the house around and around in circles, jettisoning all the housewarming guests and leaving the house looking less like a Cubist creation, and more like one of Dalí’s paintings, oozing off the screen.  To add insult to injury, the house is ultimately demolished when it is run over by a train—to the delight, no doubt, of surrealists everywhere.

David Bowie exposes his otherworldly roots

Objects, like the Cubist house in One Week, do not belong in this world.  But what of Keaton himself?  At times, Keaton seems like a sort of extra-terrestrial, someone with big hypnotic eyes and a strangely uncertain manner (think David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth), who seems completely ignorant of how to function properly in this world.  In One Week he accidentally leaves his coat underneath the carpet he has just laid, so rather than do the “normal” thing and pull up the carpet, he merely cuts through the carpet to retrieve his coat, then covers the hole with another carpet.  Keaton’s whole approach to solving problems is absurd, yet it all seems to work in this topsy-turvy universe.  This aspect of Keaton’s work was of course very attractive to the surrealists (Knopf 113).

Keaton’s character in Sherlock Jr. can’t do anything the “right way.”  He was not cut out for this world.  He dreams of being a hotshot detective, but thinks he can achieve his goal by reading a dimestore instruction manual and wearing a fake mustache.  Distracted by his desire to be a detective, he’s not so good at his real job either—errand boy and projectionist in the local cinema—because he’s trying to do “two things at once.”  He’s an even worse lover.  Short of funds, he tries to pawn off a cheap box of candy to the Girl by altering the price tag, and the ring he has given her is so insubstantial that he is obliged to produce a magnifying glass for her to admire it.  On top of that, he’s so nervous that the simple act of holding the Girl’s hand seems to take the most excruciating effort.  However, the worst humiliation occurs when the Sheik, his rival, frames Sherlock Jr. for the theft of a watch that belonged to the Girl’s father, and accomplishes this by turning Sherlock Jr.’s most valued aspiration—to be a famous detective—against him.  Sherlock Jr. is henceforth banished from his lover’s home.  All he has now are his dreams.  Back on the job, he falls asleep at the projector and enters a dream state, wherein the ultra-rich characters onscreen morph into versions of his real life lover and rival.

It is at this point that Keaton’s film takes on a truly surrealist form.  Strictly speaking, Sherlock Jr. is not a “surrealist film,” at least not any more than are the trick films and féreies of  Méliès.  The first “Surrealist Manifesto” was written the same year that Sherlock Jr. was released, so it’s unlikely that Keaton was familiar with the concept as such, and impossible to know if he even shared the theoretical views of Breton or Freud.  He certainly didn’t share the goals of the surrealists.  Keaton’s goal, as a comedian with Vaudevillian roots, and as a disciple of Houdini, was to astound and delight people, which is a far cry from Buñuel’s “impassioned call for murder” or Breton’s aim to capture the “strange forces capable of augmenting or conquering those on the surface… and later to submit them, should the occasion arise, to the control of reason” (Breton).

Nevertheless, Keaton’s films, and those of other silent comedians, showed how reality could be deftly manipulated to express the vision of the filmmaker, and influenced the choices of film techniques used by surrealist filmmakers, whose visions required new, extraordinary techniques.  The sequence most often cited involves Sherlock Jr.’s dream, as he attempts to enter the film he is projecting, and at once he begins to realize that the ontology of film differs markedly from the ontology of his everyday reality, where space and time follow invariable rules and laws.  He jumps onto the screen to prevent the couple from embracing and is expelled by the Sheik, who sends him tumbling out into the orchestra pit.  On his second attempt he is more successful, but by now the film has cut to the next scene, and he finds himself in a completely different space, befuddled.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen in “reality.”  Up until the advent of film, it could only happen in dreams; thus Keaton makes explicit the ontological kinship between these realms of dreams and film.  He stresses the point further in a montage series in which Sherlock finds himself transported suddenly from one space to another, the motions of his body seemingly in “real” time, while the scene behind him changes from one far away place to another—dodging cars on a busy street, slipping on the precipice of a mountain cliff, surrounded by lions in the jungle, in the desert, a tropical beach, a snowy forest, and so on.  Soon, however, Sherlock Jr. masters this filmic dream word, becomes the great detective and solves the crime in the most spectacular manner, “the awkward ineptitude of the boy as he shadows his man in part 1 is countermanded by the extraordinary physical prowess of Keaton’s vaudeville-style performance” in the dream sequence (Bean 139).  For after all, the dream world is where this hapless fool has always been most at home.  Luckily for him, the Sheik’s treachery is exposed and he finally gets his Girl, all of this occurring as he sleeps, without his help.

Five years later, in another world on the other side of planet, Un Chien Andalou was enjoying a successful run in Paris, according to an American journalist named Morris Gilbert.  “’Le Chien Andalou’ has had a long run, perhaps only exceeded by ‘The Jazz Singer’,” he writes.  But Gilbert seems puzzled by the film’s popularity, writing, “It is probably simplest to discard all formulas and to describe ‘Un Chien Andalou’ simply as a horror film, which it truly is” (Gilbert).  Gilbert attempts to describe the film, declining to give any details about the famous eye slashing scene: “From that point the film unfolds its incoherent path, dealing with pathologic states and the presentation of varying degrees of putrification” (ibid.).

A pair of priests, dead donkeys and a piano: hilarity ensues in "Un Chien Andalou"

This is not an inaccurate description of Un Chien Andalou, but it’s not the whole story.  Tom Conley subtitled his deeper analysis of the film “A Rape of the Eye,” but strangely, also described it as “a comic, poignant, and compelling love story” (197).  As for its comic aspects, the film features several scenes that could be described as “sight gags,” and Buñuel, in describing some of his work in this period, put it succinctly:  “I devised gags.” (Bunuel 259).   Examples: a Man is riding his bicycle through the streets of Paris.  For no apparent reason he wearing some very feminine looking accoutrements, which Buñuel describes as “mantelets,” over his “dark gray suit” (163).  Another scene features the Man chasing the Young Girl around their apartment.  Frustrated in his attempts to capture her, he looks down and sees two ropes on the ground and begins to pull them laboriously over his shoulder.  Attached to the ropes are two large grand pianos, over which are lain the putrefying carcasses of two dead donkeys.  To top off this mad assemblage, two surprised looking clergymen (a favorite target of irreverent comedians) are also attached to the ropes.  This particular scene is probably rife with Freudian symbolism, but Buñuel and Dalí play it for laughs.  It wouldn’t be far-fetched to link these donkey-laden pianos to Keaton’s unwieldy piano in One Week.  In perhaps the funniest scene, the Man and Girl are seen in reverse shots facing each other defiantly across the room.  Suddenly the man slaps his hand to his mouth, causing the Girl to gasp.  He pulls his hand away to reveal that his mouth has disappeared.  In retaliation, the Girl frantically applies lipstick to her lips, with the apparent intention to make the Man’s mouth reappear.  But instead, hair forms on the man’s face—the same hair that seems to have disappeared from her armpits.  The Girl then sticks her tongue out repeatedly at the man and leaves the room, only to find herself standing on a sunny seashore, not unlike the situation Sherlock Jr. found himself in when he jumped onto the screen, though Buñuel uses reverse shots rather than the trickier graphic match to achieve this effect.  Other elements, such as the often dream-like gaze of the actors, could also be linked to Keaton, whose face stood out partly because of his otherworldly gaze.

It is impossible to say how much of Buster Keaton’s films influence Buñuel, a connoisseur of film in the 1920’s.  Many other directors and genres left their stamp on his films as well—Fritz Lang’s Dur müd Tod was the film that made him realize that “movies could be a vehicle of expression and not merely a pastime” (Buñuel 250).  In viewing Un Chien Andalou today, one is more apt to look forward in time to the surreal comedy of Monty Python, in which all the elements of Chien can be found—absurdity, sexuality, death, carnage, androgyny, disruptions of space and time, irreverence toward the church—than back to Keaton, Chaplin, Langdon, et al.  And this is largely because Buñuel himself was a visionary rather than a derivative filmmaker.  Buster Keaton’s great contribution to surrealism may have been to show how the real and the unreal could co-exist on film in a believable form.  For surrealists, there was no great distinction between the two.  Said André Breton, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states—outwardly so contradictory—which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality, so to speak” (Breton).  Rather than representing dreams as all flowing draperies in misty watercolored otherworldliness, both Keaton and Buñuel realized that dreams are part of the fabric of everyday life, not something outside of it.

Works Cited:

Bean,  Jennifer.  “Movies and Play.”  American Cinema of the 1920’s. Ed. Lucy Fischer.  New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2009.  120-142.

Breton, André.  “First Surrealist Manifesto.”  Web. 9 Dec, 2009.

Buñuel, Luis, Salvador Dalí, Simone Mareuil, Pierre Batcheff, Albert Duverger, Jean-Louis Bunuel, and Stephen Barber. Un chien andalou. [Los Angeles]: Transflux Films, 2004.

Buñuel, Luis.  An Unspeakable Betrayal.  Berkely: University of California Press, 2000.

Conley, Tom.  “Un Chien Andalou.”  Film Analysis: a Norton Reader.  Ed. Jeffrey Geiger and R.L. Rutsky.  New York: Norton, 2005.  196-215.

Gilbert, Morris.  “Parisian Cinema Chatter: Surrealist Painter Employs Peculiar Technique in Screen Production.” New York Times (1857-Current file); Feb 9, 1930; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2006) pg. X6

Keaton, Buster, et al. Our Hospitality/Sherlock Jr. The art of Buster Keaton. New York, NY: Kino International Corp, 1999.

Keaton, Buster. The Art of Buster Keaton. New York, NY: Kino International Corp, 2001.

Knopf, Robert.  The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.

Richardson, Michael.  Surrealism and Cinema.  New York: Berg, 2006.


Written by Gordon C. Waite

April 7, 2011 at 3:54 pm

The Evolution of Dialogue in Early Sound Film

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Mae West and W.C. Fields

The use of sound recording in moving pictures did not seem a foregone conclusion in the Silent Era; if fact, it seemed a novelty—one that was resisted by the studios for purely economic reasons, spurned by artists such as Charlie Chaplin for aesthetic reasons, and feared by actors whose careers had been built upon being seen and not heard.  But resistance was futile.  Technological advancement, and audience demand for sound, made it clear that “talkies” were here to stay.  But sound in film did more than just bring human voices to talking heads; and it did more than recreate classic literature for the film audience.  Sound recording energized the careers of witty verbalizers like Mae West, W.C. Fields, and Groucho Marx; similarly, stars like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn became renowned and recognized as much for the sound and inflection of their voices as for their glamorous personas and stunning physiques; and it created a demand for screenwriters and directors with a knack for punchy dialogue, especially when stronger enforcement of the Code of Production presented challenges to filmmakers of how to make “sex comedy without the sex” (Maultby 225).

The early years of sound were a period of experimentation and innovation with dialogue. Early screenplays often relied on the talents of  writers from the worlds of literature and the stage, who tended to use lofty, polysyllabic, or verbose language.  For example, in describing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s early screenplay for Red Headed Woman (1932), producer Irving Thalberg complained: “Scott tried to turn the silly book into a tone poem” (Loos 113).  Many felt that there was a need to limit the number of words in Hollywood films (850 was floated by studio executives as a reasonable number), that pictorial action or characterization should take precedence over speech.  In the words of film critic Philip K. Scheuer, “talk is still the lazy man’s prop in the writing of motion pictures” (Scheuer).  Each genre began to develop its own lexicon, in order to distill language down to its most essential words.   During the making of Vampires of Prague (1935), for instance, a “lexicon of fear” was developed.  The writers wanted to create a “subconscious sense of fear” in their audience, by favoring words such as “dank,” “corpse,” “phantom,” “demon,” “ominous,” and so on (“Film’s Dialogue”).

For comedy writing, vaudeville was tapped early on by the film industry.  The Jazz Singer (1927), the first successful talking picture, featured the amusing stage banter of Al Jolson.  Many others would follow.  The most successful comedy team during this period was the Marx Brothers.  Ironically, the Marx Brothers did not seem cut out for film, at least not to Norman McCloud, director of Monkey Business (1931), who complained of the chaos that swirled around their madcap universe.  “The Marxes are fine boys, but they are not inclined to overwork,” he said, “and too, the brothers, or most of them, have no idea what they are going to do in the next scene.  They would rather figure out situations and ‘gags’ as they go along, which doesn’t make the job of director an easy one” (Scott).  True, gags were an important element of the Marx Brothers’ comedy.  Harpo, despite his extraordinary musical talent and an array of sound effects, still had both feet firmly planted in the Silent Era, and relied almost exclusively on visual gags for comic effect.   “However,” as Chico explains, “the spoken word is the most popular form of comedy today” (Marx, Chico).  Indeed, Chico, and especially Groucho, excelled in the art of the spoken word.  Groucho’s brain, said McCloud, “works at lightning speed and his casual conversation out of character is often as funny as his famous wise-cracking on the stage or screen” (Scott).  Often, Groucho’s witticisms would be inserted into the dialogue.  Would these lines have come from Groucho or from one of the writers credited for the script?:

Lucille: Come here, brown eyes.

Groucho: Oh no, you’re not going to get me off this bed.

Lucille: I didn’t know you were a lawyer.  You’re awfully shy for a lawyer.

Groucho: You bet I’m shy.  I’m a shyster lawyer.

Lucille: Well then, what do you think of an egg that would give me…

Groucho: I know, I know.  You’re a woman who’s been getting nothing but dirty breaks.  Well, we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you’ll have to stay in the garage all night (Monkey Business).

Puns and double entendres were a common feature of Groucho’s everyday patter, as anyone who has heard him on the radio or in interviews can attest. In reality, though, the Marx Brothers’ films were field-tested extensively before being brought to the screen, and many contributors were involved, much to the chagrin of McCloud, who complained of the brothers’ motley entourage of “gag writers.”  “We got rid of them,” huffed McCloud, “For really they were just in the way.  Few knew anything about writing funny things for the screen” (Scott).

Thus, a tension arose between how things were done in vaudeville versus what “worked” on the screen.  The Marx Brothers had their own proven system for creating stories, jokes, and gags, which involved a good deal of trial and error; whereas the film industry’s survival depended on creating finished products in an economical fashion.  Under Irving Thalberg at M.G.M., the team’s films became more structured, less chaotic than their films at Paramount.  A Night at the Opera (1935) successfully combined the comedy team’s gift for spontaneity with producer Irving Thalberg’s drive toward systemization.  But the follow-up, A Day at the Races (1937), may have suffered from Thalberg’s desire “to turn the pattern of his success into a self-conscious formula” (Adamson 9).  Thalberg, who died while Races was being made, was a fan of the Marx Brothers, but Louis B. Mayer “disliked Groucho, and let it be known that he was not a fan of the comedian’s iconoclastic style” (Marx, Groucho 72).  After all, the studio system, as exemplified by M.G.M, was an authoritarian regime in many ways.  Vaudeville, an art form which thrived on live performance, variety, and audacious anti-authoritarianism, provided some of the earliest and most successful voices to early sound film; but in return, sound cinema may have sounded the death knell for vaudeville, as systemization became more rigid, as the need for more economical dialogue grew more urgent, and as movie theaters began to replace vaudeville theaters around the country.

Nevertheless, the Marx Brothers, Groucho in particular, have remained icons through the 20th and early 21st centuries.  Like Charlie Chaplin, Groucho has one of the most recognizable faces in American cinema, with his painted on mustache, ever-present cigar, and googly eyes peering out through wire-framed glasses.  But Groucho, unlike Chaplin, had a voice that is just as recognizable as his face.  With sound, for the first time in history, a movie star could be recognized as a “whole,” which included not only motion and sound, but inflection of voice, timbre, verbal “ticks,” and speech patterns.  Groucho’s delivery was distinguishable from any other individual’s, and has been the stuff of impersonation for over 80 years.  It’s a voice that not only evokes visual images of Groucho, but also the type of character he played—indefatigably charming con men,  charlatans, womanizers, etc.  Similarly, it is notable that some of the cinema’s most beloved and enduring stars—Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, John Wayne, James Cagney, and Bette Davis, to name a few—possessed instantly recognizable and sometimes quirky voices.  This is an important factor to consider when thinking about the development of dialogue throughout film history.  Since, as Tino Balio notes, “the screenplay, sets, costumes, lighting, and makeup of a picture were designed to enhance a star’s screen persona,” it is logical to assume that it worked both ways: that a star’s native personality enhanced the diegesis of his or her films to some extent (144).  Consequently, screenwriters would need to consider not only what a fictional character might say in a given situation, but also as how the Hollywood star—a film’s “most treasured asset”—might naturally say it (143).

John Wayne’s laconic drawl, Jimmy Stewart’s flustered stammer, Katherine Hepburn’s aristocratic chirp (and later her wobbly warble), and Cary Grant’s vaguely British lisp all became part of the diagetic landscape of the films they starred in, integral to the characters they played, and part of the image that had been constructed for them—John Wayne the unbent warrior, Jimmy Steward the sensitive idealist, Katherine Hepburn the strong-willed Yankee socialite, and Cary Grant the debonair but standoffish lady’s man, etc.  While some film actors, especially those who had made their careers in the theater, most notably British actors like Alec Guinness and Lawrence Olivier, excelled in the art of masquerade, the real game in Hollywood was product differentiation, or the ability of an actor to establish a distinctive place in the firmament of stars.  This is why an actor may seem to be “playing himself” in film after film.  Even the random head-nod of an actor could find it’s way into a script, as screenwriter Anita Loos recalls in her autobiography.  Having already decided to cast Jean Harlow as the scheming homewrecker in Red Headed Woman (1932), Irving Thalberg and Loos met with Harlow to get a feel for her personality.  Both were impressed with Harlow’s “gently sardonic attitude,” and were satisfied that Harlow’s sense of humor was sufficient to tackle the difficult character she was to play.  Then, “As Jean breezed out of the office,” says Loos, “she stopped at the door to give us a quick bright little nod; a gesture I wrote into the script and still look for every time I see that old movie” (118).  After the success of Red Headed Woman, Anita Loos went on to write another script “tailored especially for Miss Harlow” (Kingsley “Ambition”),  another clear indication that, for Thalberg, Loos, and many others, “plots grow out of character,” and character often grows out of the actors themselves  (Loos 113).

The one individual who stood out above all others in this regard was Mae West. Like Groucho Marx, Mae West was in many ways indistinguishable from her public persona.  Both had enjoyed success as iconoclasts in the east coast theater and vaudeville scene.  Both were masters of wit, specializing in the art of the sexual double entendre, and were always quick with the comeback to any interviewer’s question.  When asked if she approved of free love, West responded in typical form, “Not for myself—any more than I do of free lunch for myself” (Kingsley “Hobnobbing”).  But more so than Groucho, whose contribution to Marx Brothers screenplays was limited, West wrote her own screenplays and dialogue.  “I don’t like to write plays,” said West, “but I do so that I may have vehicles best suited to my personality.  There are certain roles I portray better than others.  Why not play them?” (Babcock).  Prior to her Hollywood career, West wrote several plays dealing with sexually taboo subjects—The Drag (1927), The Pleasure Man (1928), and most notoriously, Sex (1926), which, because of it’s allegedly indecent content, landed her in jail for eight days.  In her writing and acting, Mae West had made a career as a sort of crusader for sexual liberation, and often had to defend herself from pointed criticism of moral arbiters of the day.

In I’m No Angel (1933), a film written by Mae West and directed by Wesley Ruggles, she puts herself on trial, so to speak, in the courtroom scene near the end of the film.  Actually, it’s her estranged fiancé Jack Clayton (Cary Grant) who is being sued by Tira (West’s character) for “breach of promise,” having broken off their wedding engagement after receiving false information about Tira from the vindictive Slick Wiley (Ralf Harolde).  Jack’s defense strategy is to cast aspersions upon Tira’s “rather colorful past,” by proving that she has “been on friendly terms with several men,” many of whom have been called as witnesses.  In cross examination, Tira destroys each of these men one at a time, by pointing out the double standard to which she is being subjected.  The first man has had five wives, and was married when he met Tira.  The second man had proposed marriage to Tira, and had given her several expensive gifts before she broke off the relationship to become engaged to Jack, allegedly because he had more money.  In the words of the witness, Tira “played” him “for a good thing.”  But his complaints hold no water, since he was engaged to another woman at the same time he was buying gifts for Tira.  And when his fiancé went to ask Tira to break it off with him, she complied.  “So,” Tira asks him, “what are you cryin’ about?”  By this time, the all-man jury is in stitches, and the judge has become smitten with Tira, who has been eyeing him kittenishly.  An attempt to get Tira’s maid (Gertrude Howard) to incriminate her fails to pan out for the defense, because the maid can’t remember Tira mentioning any other man but Jack during their courtship.  In fact, says the maid, “You say that you could never love a man like you love him.”  Finally, Slick Wiley testifies on the witness stand, claiming that Tira went for Jack because she “was always lookin’ to hook some guy with a lot of dough.” But Slick, in cross examination, is browbeaten by Tira into admitting his own criminal past.  When the defense lawyer objects that Tira is harassing the witness, she responds, “Who’s harassing who?  I’m just asking for a square deal, that’s all.  I’m just asking good, honest, and intelligent people not to take the word of an ex-convict against a good, honest, and innocent woman!”

In a real sense, this is the real Mae West speaking through the character she created.  West’s stock and trade was her extraordinary sex appeal, and her active interest in a variety of men was widely talked about, so naturally, questions about her propriety were raised on a regular basis.  But West was game.  When asked, for example, if there had been a return to the “staid morals of generation ago,” West replied, “How do you know that their morals were so staid a generation ago?  If you think so, just remember those midnight hay rides—and the Police Gazette!”  But West may have had deeper motives for exposing the hypocrisy she saw all around her.  Always the critic of outmoded social mores, her views were hardened by the hard luck stories of the young women she met in jail, for whom she felt a keen sympathy—vagrants, junkies, and prostitutes ravaged by syphilis.  “If I hadn’t started writing plays,” she said, “I think I could have gone the other way and wasted my whole mentality and life on sex”—ironic, since Sex (the play, if not the act) was the very reason she had been locked up in the first place (Wortis 170).  On her early release, the warden declared, “Mae West is a fine woman—and a great character” (171).  Still, when considering the warden’s glowing assessment, it’s hard not to think of the judge in I’m No Angel, who melts as soon as Tira starts batting her eyes at him, the same man we see leaving Tira’s apartment soon after the trial.  Mae West flaunted her sexuality, but at the same time, she always kept it mysterious.  Was she doing the “right thing”?  Tira’s answer: “Show me a woman who can do any better.”  In 1930’s Hollywood, there weren’t any.

Films like I’m No Angel and Red Headed Woman played a key role in the development of dialogue in the 1930’s, as morality watchdogs became more alarmed at the bold sexuality depicted in these films.  Both films featured women who gladly accepted, without any moral qualms, attention and gifts from a succession of married men.  Tira, for her part, goes out of her way to demonstrate her underlying innocence in all of her affairs.  Red (Jean Harlow), on the other hand, goes so far as to shoot her husband with a pistol when she can’t get what she wants from him; yet in the end, she is not held responsible for her actions—in fact, in the final scene Red is shown playing the same game, seducing rich old men for their money.  There may be a “moral” to the story in Red Headed Woman, but for groups like the Legion of Decency, the lack of moral accountability was alarming.  Pressure from these kinds of groups forced filmmakers to sublimate the sexual content of their films in order to more fully comply with the 1930 Code of Production (Belton 137).

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell

The “screwball comedy” is one manifestation of this attempt at sublimation, and Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is one of the best and earliest examples of this genre.  In this film, the leading man doesn’t foolishly succumb to the irresistible charm of  tramps and vamps.  Rather, Peter Warne (Clark Gable), constructs a metaphorical barrier between himself and Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), a blanket he calls the “Wall of Jericho,” which separates their hotel beds as they flee across the country, away from Ellie’s paternalistic father.  Peter’s interest in Ellie is strictly economic.  As a newspaper reporter, he just wants Ellie’s “story.”  But the sexual tension grows nonetheless, for Peter and Ellie are both very attractive young adults who have been forced to live in close proximity to each other for several days and nights.  In order to displace the undeniable eroticism of the situation, a mutual hostility is created between the couple.  Antagonism between two sexually compatible adults accounts for much of the wonderfully comic dialogue in the typical screwball comedy.  In the end, the audience knows that the “Wall of Jericho” will eventually come down, when everything returns to its “proper” place, that is, when the couple finally legitimizes their attraction to each other in matrimony.

Screwball comedy, “one of the rare instances in which critics attach some aesthetically beneficial effect to censorship” gave birth to some of the most innovative dialogue in the early sound era, as directors and screenwriters began to develop their own distinctive styles.  Howard Hawk’s His Girl Friday (1940), a preeminent specimen of this genre, was adapted from a successful play entitled The Front Page, written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.  The authors, at Hawk’s bequest, changed the sex of one of the leading characters from male to female in the film version, thus creating an opportunity for sexual tension between Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) and her ex-boss (now ex-husband) Walter Burns (Cary Grant).  In some ways, moments of dialogue are just as racy as Mae West’s dialogue in I’m No Angel, but the banter between Hildy and Walter is so rapid-fire, and the action is so hectic, that only the most attentive viewer can follow it all.  As one critic wrote: “the lines are all cute if you can hear them, but you can’t hear many because everyone is making too much noise—the audience or the players themselves” (Nugent).  By contrast, in I’m No Angel, Tira says to a male suitor, “I like sophisticated men to take me out.”  When the man responds  “I’m not really sophisticated,” Tira quips “You’re not really out yet, either,” there’s really no question about what she means by “out,” because she takes a good long time to look him up and down.  His Girl Friday never lingers long enough for the innuendo to sink in.  Moreover, in typical screwball fashion, the antagonism between the couple gets more emphasis than their mutual attraction.   But consider these lines:

Walter: Well, well… how long is it?

Hildy: How long is what?

Walter: You know what.  How long is it since we’ve seen each other?

Hildy: Well, let’s see… I spent six weeks in Reno, then Bermuda… About four months I guess.  Seems like yesterday to me.

Walter: Maybe it was yesterday, Hildy.  Been seeing me in your dreams?

Hildy: Oh, no, Mama doesn’t dream about you anymore.  Walter, you wouldn’t know the old girl now.

Walter: Oh, yes I would.  I’d know you anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

The exchange is full of sexual innuendo.  The savvy listener can easily surmise what “it” is, what “dreams” consist of, and what it means to “know” Hildy “anytime, anyplace, anywhere.”  However, though this is one of the more relaxed moments in this frenetic film, the erotic nature of the dialogue doesn’t immediately reveal itself.  Rather, the two antagonists seem to be sneering rather than leering at each other, and the antipathy rarely lets up throughout the entire film.  As in It Happened One Night, their union as a couple is deferred until the very end, when it’s finally obvious that the two were made for each other.

Dialogue styles are as varied as the filmmakers and screenwriters who create them, and can take on the flavor of the genre for which they are written (e.g., the use of “terrifying words” in horror movies).  Additionally, the lines that are spoken are influenced by both external factors, such as societal pressures to limit overt representations of crime and sexuality—and internal, including the speaking styles, mannerisms, and other peculiarities of the individual actors.  As the star system became an important basis for the promotion of films, and as the star’s value as a marketable commodity increased, so did these personal characteristics become part of the star’s package.  While it’s probably true that Cary Grant never actually said his trademark line, “Juday, Juday, Juday” in any film, the fact that this myth has persisted so long is evidence that the manner in which he spoke is just as important as the actual roles he played.

Works Cited:

Adamson, Joseph.  “Seventeen Preliminary Scripts of ‘A Day at the Races’.”  Cinema Journal, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring 1969), pp. 2-9.  Jstor. Web.  9 Mar, 2010.

Babcock, Muriel.  “Mae West Calls Rough Drama Clean.”  Los Angeles Times, Dec. 22, 1929: B11.  ProQuest.  Web.  9 Mar, 2010.

Belton, John.  Movies and Mass Culture.  New Brunswick: Rutgers U.P., 1996.  Print.

“Film’s Dialogue to Have Most Terrifying Words.”  Los Angeles Times, Feb 26, 1935: 13.  ProQuest.  Web.  8 Mar, 2010.

His Girl Friday.  Dir. Howard Hawks.  Perf. Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy.  Columbia, 1940.  DVD.

I’m No Angel.  Dir. Wesley Ruggles.  Perf. Mae West, Cary Grant, Ralf Harolde, Gertrude Howard.  Paramount, 1932.  DVD.

It Happened One Night. Dir. Frank Capra.  Perf. Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly.  Columbia, 1934.  DVD.

The Jazz Singer.  Dir. Alan Crosland.  Perf. Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland.  Warner Brothers, 1927.  DVD.

Kingsley, Grace.  “Ambition of Director Told.”  Los Angeles Times, Jun 15, 1932: A9.  ProQuest.  Web.  9 Mar, 2010.

Kingsley, Grace.  “Hobnobbing in Hollywood with Grace Kingsley.”  Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1933: A7.  ProQuest.  9 Mar., 2010.

Loos, Anita.  Cast of Thousands.  New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1977.  Print.

Marx, Chico.  “Reading From Laugh to Riot.”  Los Angeles Times April 10, 1932: J3.  ProQuest.  Web.  9 Mar, 2010.

Marx, Groucho.  The Essential Groucho: writings by, for, and about Groucho Marx.  New York: Vintage Books, 2000.  Print.

Maultby, Richard.  “It Happened One Night: Comedy and the Restoration of Order.”  Film Analysis.  Eds. Jeffrey Geiger and R.L. Rutsky.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2005, pp, 216-37.  Print.

Monkey Business.  Dir. Norman Z. McCloud.  Perf. Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Thelma Todd.  Paramount, 1931.  DVD.

A Night at the Opera. Dir. Sam Wood.  Perf.  Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Margaret Dumont.  M.G.M., 1935.  DVD.

Nugent, Frank S.  “The Screen in Review.”  New York Times, Jan 12, 1940: 20.  ProQuest.  Web.  9 Mar, 2010.

Red Headed Woman. Dir. Jack Conway.  Perf. Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Lewis Stone.  M.G.M., 1932.  DVD.

Scheuer, Philip K.  “Hollywood’s Vocabulary Threatened With the Axe.”  Los Angeles Times, June 18, 1933: A1.  ProQuest.  Web.  8 Mar., 2010.

Scott, John.  “It’s Not So Funny to Direct Them.”  Los Angeles Times Sept 20, 1931: B11.  ProQuest.  Web.  9 Mar, 2010.

Wortis, Emily.  Becoming Mae West.  New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.  Print.



Written by Gordon C. Waite

June 3, 2010 at 9:18 pm