Ernst Lubitsch: Jimmy Stewart vs. Margaret Sullivan
There are a lot of once famous studio directors who probably won't matter in a hundred years nearly as much as we still think they do. A famous director of the studio era like John Ford might have made a few undisputed masterpieces like The Searchers, or a movie like How Green Was My Valley that I seem to be the only person to think is an undisputable masterwork, but even many of the famous among his 150 movies, like Stagecoach or My Darling Clementine, don't seem to me to hold up nearly so well. The archetypal American Western, particularly, relies on notions of masculinity and patriotism that should be obvious have an enormous amount in common with authoritarianism. Even for its own time, it appealed to the worst instincts of America rather than the best. And when you compare the excitement of Ford's action sequences to the later action in directors influenced by John Ford like Spielberg and Scorsese, there's obviously no comparison.
Every genre in Hollywood ever coined has its problems, the very nature of a genre is that there is a specific audience whom you are feeding what they want without challenging them. Hollywood wasn't build to challenge people, it was built by giving the viewers what they want.
The average human being is more intelligent than an idiot, less intelligent than a smart person. One out of three are reasonably clever, one out of five or six are genuinely smart, so that means that there are roughly fifty or sixty million smart people in America. In the same way, one out of five or six Hollywood movies was of real quality, so it's amazing that in a place as seemingly dumb as Hollywood made so many great movies. How many of those movies will still attract attention once people stop caring about the movies completely the way they've stopped caring for written poetry or classical music. I'm sure that movies by directors of personalities to large to ever be contained by any genre will be watched by somebody for hundreds of years, but whatever the dramatic art form, genre fiction is usually the first to be thrown overboard, because without the popular zeitgeist surrounding it, it is impossible to convey what was so unique about them to later generations, who have their own genre entertainment that addresses the excitements of their own day much better, and will therefore be of more anthropological value than artistic. That's not to say that this is the fate of all popular genre fiction, but it is the fate of most of it.
But contrary to the Western, which celebrated manly virtues like honor and glory while pushing women and Native Americans to a status barely above props, the screwball comedy was the aesthetically progressive genre for its time - I dare say, it was progressive even by the standards of 2000. A screwball comedy is a very particular kind of romantic comedy in which a man and a woman who don't like each other are thrown into impossible situations together, and eventually fall in love. It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The Lady Eve, these were just some of the more famous ones - and for my money His Girl Friday still has to stand as the greatest romantic comedy ever made. But what's important to note about screwball comedies is that it's the only genre where the leading lady was guaranteed equal time to the leading man, half the best lines, and, at least by the standards of 1940, a three-dimensional character with a free will of her own.
The best of the screwball comedy directors, perhaps the best of all those classic Hollywood directors nobody talks about anymore, was Ernst Lubitsch, who in the span of five years made Ninotchka, Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not To Be, and Heaven Can Wait. Lubitsch was a Jew from Berlin who started in Max Reinhardt's German Theater, and became perhaps the most venerated director of his time. Practically everything that we think of as Classic Hollywood originates with Lubitsch, and what strikes us now is that the greatness of his movies consists of qualities so un-American. The Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington describes Lubitsch's style as:
"At once elegant and ribald, sophisticated and earthy, urbane and bemused, frivolous yet profound. They were directed by a man who was amused by sex rather than frightened of it – and who taught a whole culture to be amused by it as well."
When was America ever amused by sex? And in the 30's and 40's? It's almost unthinkable. But there, over and over again, it is in Ernst Lubitsch's movies.
Ninotchka clip (up to 1:49)
What's missing without the video images in this clip from Ninotchka is Greta Garbo's look of supreme indifference and Melvyn Douglas's look of absolute enchantment when she implies that his type of man will soon face a firing squad. What's amazing about the Screwball comedy, and why it is completely unique in American life is that, in a manner completely revolutionary for its time and progressive for any period in the 20th century, it views the battle of the sexes as a battle of equals. Two people who don't like each other going to the ends of the earth to one up each other until they realize that the other person is the only person in the entire world clever enough for them. By any terminology in our day, the man usually behaves predatorily, and the woman, well, the woman is always somehow comes to the conclusion that the man is the right man for her in the end. This is Hollywood after all, and around the ninety minute marker, the conclusion has to be tied in a neat little bow, no matter how artificial it seems. The man is always a schmuck, the woman is always has to be resigned to be ill-treated, they get together in the last ninety seconds of the movie, and if they know what's good for them, they break up ninety seconds after the movie's over.
His Girl Friday clip (up to 2:48)
The implication of sex in screwball comedy is everywhere, the whiff of it, of sex as something deliriously irrational, chaotic, that leads people only into a hot mess, but something to which they are addicted like a drug because without it, where would rich people find any kind of excitement in their lives?
But in order to see love as a comedy, you have to look the other way at so many things that would be considered incredibly dark behavior by men toward women: violence, all manor of stalking, every flavor of patronizing, a playing field that men objectively define, yet believe that women define, not because women do, but because sex and love is too chaotic for anything to ever go according to plan. There is always comedy in the irrationality of love, but you have to believe that the consequences of love not going to plan are extremely light to see it as comedy rather than an unending series of emotional traumas. The reason Screwball Comedy still works is that there is not a single couple in the world that does not feel the impulses toward hating those they love, but it sees these dark behaviors of men as something inevitable.
Are they inevitable? Well, I do believe that the impulses toward them are certainly inevitable, but civilization always depends on every person within it not giving in to their worst impulses at the moments that matter.
But there are the screwball comedies with Cary Grant, and then there are the ones with Jimmy Stewart. The Philadelphia Story, the comedy in which they both compete for Katherine Hepburn, begins with Cary Grant mashing Katherine Hepburns face and throwing her to the floor - and this is played for laughs. But Jimmy Stewart would never do anything so brutal, he's a sweet man, perpetually misunderstood, almost delicate, and usually when referring to Jimmy Stewart, one uses the current term that's become derogatory, and call him the 'nice guy.' Jimmy Stewart is the picture of mid-century decency, and that's why Alfred Hitchcock could use his persona to such perceptive effect in Vertigo, which posits that beneath the George Bailey veneer is a man who believes he's owed control of the woman in his life.
But in The Shop Around the Corner, remade sixty years later as You've Got Mail, Jimmy Stewart is once again, the delicate feminine flower wrongly deposited into a man's body, while his love interest, played by Margaret Sullivan, is written as snooty, stuck up, and generally a piece of work.
Just listen to this scene. (up to 0:49)
Jimmy Stewart's character had just been fired, unjustly, from the shop where they both worked and developed a strong dislike for each other. He, furthermore, had just been told that Margaret Sullivan's character was in fact the woman he'd been corresponding with over the last six months, with whom he was deeply in love and she with him, though she didn't know it yet. But even if she doesn't much care for this man, this is quite something to say to a man who'd just undergone wrongful termination. On the other hand, perhaps she thinks he followed her to the restaurant, in which case her contempt is at least understandable. But even if her contempt is understandable in that view, Jimmy Stewart circa 1940 would never talk to anyone like that. We're to understand that he's the nice guy, and she's the bitch.
For the last forty minutes or so of the movie, Jimmy Stewart knows that she's his faithful correspondent, and she has no idea. It's left as a given that she will instantly change from slighting to smitten, with an awkward admission that she was mean to him because she was attracted to him, and she'll realize that Jimmy Stewart is in fact Jimmy Stewart and not a would-be Clark Gable (to 3:12). It's left to Jimmy Stewart to do the thinking for both of them, even though in real life, it was Margaret Sullivan's championing to producers that Jimmy Stewart owed his entire career.
I have no doubt that the vast majority of American women in 1940 thought the way Margaret Sullivan does in this movie - that men and women both thought marriage a kind of partnership of equals, even if there was no objective evidence to show it. Men were the masters of the world, while women were the masters of the home, and however intelligent some woman obviously were, the man in the relationship is the one expected to figure things out. But posterity is merciless, it shows how the preconceived notion of every era before it were wrong. This is why The Shop Around the Corner is merely a good movie and not a great one. Jimmy Stewart's character genuinely earns the pathos this movie demands he deserves, but forget any ethical concern, it simply finds Jimmy Stewart's plight much more interesting than Margaret Sullivan's, so there's no counterweight, and just as mid-20th century notions of the battle of the sexes seem outmoded, so do many works of art which espouse them.
It's always difficult in these radicalized times to not append any label upon yourself that doesn't have the refracting 'ist.' But as I do this podcast more, what I realize is that the point of it is precisely not to editorialize on politics, but simply to try and record cultural movements as they are, and as best one can, to try to understand why people come to the conclusions they do, and while not to view it through the now-ideologized term, empathy, at least view them with sympathy. One famous musician put it like this: be aristocrats in art, but democrats in life, and as best one can, don't judge people too harshly for coming to a different point of view than yours. It's not just that it's uncharitable, it's also boring. Inveighing against the excesses of ideological movements is not just incredibly tiresome for the listener, it's also tiresome for the talker. What I've come to realize as I've just barely matured is that it's much, much more intellectually satisfying to trace people's thoughts to their roots and do one's best to understand why people believe what they believe. Whether or not I agree or disagree is, in some sense at least, immaterial to the subject at hand, and the more I do this, I realize that the by keeping the editorial voice to a minimum about politics, the more extremely I can editorialize when it comes to works of art, which I think is i a hundred times more interesting than politics on its most exciting day. We live in an age when everything is interpreted through the distorting lens of ideology, so rather, as so many people today do, than making political movements the lens through which we judge art, let's make art the lens through which we judge politics and the world. We'll talk next week about how the Battle of the Sexes has changed in Modern Hollywood.