There is no way to do justice to Hollywood as a subject. It's the dominant cultural force of the 20th century, perhaps even more dominant than the internet in our time. It showed billions of people how perceive one another, how to talk to one another, how to dress, how to behave, how to fuck. We're just too close to Hollywood to see it in full. We could do a dozen podcasts in a row and only skim the barest surface of it. Its effect on our lives impacts each of us in millions of ways of which we'll never be aware and it will take at least another fifty or a hundred years to get any small sense of its real impact on human history.
What we can do, or at least begin to, is to get a sense of individual movies and its place in human history. I want to concentrate on two movies today from very different periods of human life. One is a classic Hollywood movie from Ernst Lubitsch, the Hollywood director who would probably be my choice for the best director of the first generation of talkies, and by importing to America the values of bourgeois Europe he was forced as a Jew to leave behind, almost single-handedly defined the values of Hollywood that we still think of as its values in our day. The second is a movie by the director who did his damndest to extend the values of Old Hollywood the furthest into our time, for good and bad, and who has stubbornly, resolutely, carried the values of mid-century American romance, values that seem increasingly warped in our day, to the very bitter end of his career. Of course I'm talking about Woody Allen, that twisted, depraved, sad dinosaur who could never have hobbled on for twenty years past when he mattered at all to America if people did not have memories of what a giant he was in American discourse he seemed like forty years ago.
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 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 made Americans with more progressive values uneasy. And when you compare the Ford's production-code hobbled action sequences to the later action in directors influenced by John Ford like Spielberg and Scorsese, there's obviously no comparison in the excitement. And let's not even get started on Frank Capra.
The Western is the most obvious example of a genre in Hollywood ever coined, but Hollywood coined many genres, and every genre has its problems. Genre itself is limiting. Genre, by definition, gains its impact through cliches. The very nature of a genre is that there is a specific audience whom you are feeding a series of cliches without particularly challenging them with anything subversive, a series of cliches that with one small variant to create its individuality. Hollywood wasn't build to challenge people, it was built by giving the viewers what they want. This isn't to say that there aren't lots of examples of genre that are durable and lasting art which subverts its genre's cliches in all kinds of meaningful ways, but there are less of them than genre devotees imagine.
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. But the question becomes, how many of those movies will still attract attention once millions of 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 conservative and manly virtues like honor and glory while pushing women and minorities 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 clash enormously 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, Only Angels Have Wings, 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 the late 1930s. 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 completely 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, and audiences ate it up.
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, almost autistic, 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 in our day: every flavor of patronizing, all manor of stalking, some violence, a playing field that by any objective standard men objectively define, yet because the only weapons available to women at the time are subtle ones, men believe that women define the playing field because things never go according to the man's plan. Even in the most equal of circumstances, sex and love is too chaotic for anything to ever go according to plan.
What's astonishingly progressive about Screwball Comedy is that this was the place when, finally, hundreds of millions of men and women saw works of art in which women were something resembling equal partners in the journey of romantic adventure. No form of cultural entertainment ever did more to make men see that women were not just ivory ideals of their desire to control, but partners with needs of their own who, by liberating them from the prisons of male entitlement, could add immeasurably to the fulfillment of their jailers. It was a comic look at the battle of the sexes that did everything in its power to minimize the threat to women - making male jealousy and rage appear comic rather than lethal. But the reason it hit a nerve is because, just as there is incredible suffering and trauma in the irrationality of love, there is also comedy. Love is too large to be contained by any emotion, there is not a single couple in the world that does not sometimes feel hate each other. But what makes relationships worth pursuing within the crucible of love is when people do not give into their worst impulses in those moments of crisis, and therefore grow together into more meaningful lives. And that is, on the other hand, what is conservative about Screwball Comedy - there is no real growth in screwball comedy, just pure irrationality, the characters are clowns, nihilistic embodiments of human irrationality.
But within screwball comedy, there are also two basic types of male protagonist. One, we'll call Cary Grant, one we'll call Jimmy Stewart. The Philadelphia Story, the screwball comedy in which they both appear and somewhat compete for the affections of Katherine Hepburn, begins with Cary Grant mashing Katherine Hepburn's 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, both everything that was right with it and wrong with it. And that's why Alfred Hitchcock could use Jimmy Stewart's persona to such perceptive effect in Vertigo, which posits that beneath the George Bailey persona 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, almost feminine, flower of a man who earns our sympathy simply by being Jimmy Stewart, while his love interest, played by Margaret Sullivan, is clearly written as snooty, stuck up, and generally a piece of work. They work together and hate each other, but at night they unknowingly write passionate letters to one another, both of them idealizing a potential soulmate they think they've never met in real life.
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 and he says something that might be construed as hitting on her, this is nevertheless 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, the fault is not in her but Lubitsch's script. Jimmy Stewart circa 1940 would never talk to anyone like that. We're to understand that Jimmy Stewart is the nice guy, and Margaret Sullivan is 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, and she'll realize that Jimmy Stewart is in fact Jimmy Stewart and not a would-be Clark Gable, and all of that hatred explained in a way that doesn't really work by her admission at the end of the movie that she was mean to him because she was attracted to him, (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 to which 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 and creative 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 was 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 a comic battle of the sexes seems grotesquely outmoded today, so do many works of art which espouse them.
So now let's talk