Green Films

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage by Stanley Cavell
    Harvard, 283 pp, £12.25, December 1981, ISBN 0 674 73905 1

Cary Grant sits down at a table with Ralph Bellamy and Irene Dunne in 1937 and says: ‘So you two are going to get married.’ It is The Awful Truth. Grant sits down at a table with Bellamy and Rosalind Russell in 1940 and says again: ‘So you two are going to get married.’ It is His Girl Friday. Asked what the Bellamy character in the film, the man who plans to marry his former wife, looks like, Grant replies: ‘Like that fellow in the movies. What’s his name? Ralph Bellamy.’ Jokes within jokes. Howard Hawks having a joke with Leo McCarey. Hawks perhaps treating McCarey’s The Awful Truth like the front page of a paper, something to be revised at speed in the light of new and startling developments. Hawks perhaps doing this to The Front Page itself, the play from which His Girl Friday comes. For His Girl Friday, the fastest of a set of wonderfully fast Hollywood films of the Thirties and Forties, not only moves by cut and splice at a pace that a play never can. It also, as the film it is, refers repeatedly to itself.

So, at least, does Cavell see it. He is not one of those critics, therefore, ‘who cannot imagine that the products of the Hollywood studio system could in principle rival the exports of revolutionary Russia.’ On the contrary. Americans, he says, overpraise but undervalue their achievements. And these particular achievements are not just some of the funniest or even more self-aware of films. They are also a genre, and are about something. They are about marriage. More exactly, Cavell suggests, they are about remarriage. But marriage ‘is the central social image of human change’. And remarriage shows why such change ‘is and is not metamorphosis’. So the films indirectly address one of the deepest questions. Three years ago, Cavell himself addressed the question, and directly, in The Claim of Reason. There, he used Wittgenstein to start what he called ‘a conversation’ on the to him mistaken but very human disposition in examining the human to try to escape it. In Wittgenstein, of course, this is a very serious matter and has nothing to do with sex. In these films, it is a very funny one and does. In Pursuits of Happiness, Cavell invites us to a conversation on this fact.

To begin with, there is the technical fact of talk itself. By 1934 and It happened one night, the first of the comedies in question, directors were wholly at home with it. There is also the social fact of a generation of female stars, all born between 1904 and 1911, all figuratively speaking the daughters of the first tough and public feminists and all thus ready, by their thirties, to throw themselves with puzzled gusto (improvising much of the way) into films which ask what a new woman, now the public fights are won, can be. Above all, there is the fact of divorce. Freely available, widely done, and no longer carrying any sanction or stigma, it asks what marriage is. It asks what marriage is for and what, now, can sanctify it.

Actually, to begin with, long before talking films, civil rights and ready divorce, there is Old and New Comedy. (Actually, to begin with, there is Plato, suggesting in the Symposium that philosophy has its source in sexual attraction. Cavell’s multi-track conversation defies any straight transcription.) In Old Comedy, the emphasis is on the young woman. It is she who holds the plot and whose ‘death and restoration’ are its point. In New Comedy, the emphasis is on the young man. It is he who holds the plot and wins the woman against an older man. These films are in one sense neither. That is clear. But they are in another sense both. They are, though, perhaps more Old than New, for the emphasis is once again on the woman. But now she, divorced, wants to get back to her man from a place to which she has fled. The Winter’s Tale, having disappeared to reappear in opera, reappears again in Hollywood in 1934. ‘It may be in their awareness of themselves,’ Cavell remarks at one point in his conversation, ‘their responsibility for themselves, that the films of remarriage most deeply declare, and earn, their allegiance to Shakespearian romance.’

McCarey? Capra? Cukor? Sturges? Even Hawks? Colbert? Russell? Dunne? Even Hepburn? They knew that this was what they were doing? We might ask. There might be records. Cavell does not consult them. His is not that kind of criticism. His is a ‘reading’of the films as we see and hear them now. And he sees and hears them now with a good part of Western drama and the larger part of Western philosophy in his ears. Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and more. Of course, he concedes, he is ‘not insensible’ to ‘an avenue of outrageousness in considering Hollywood films in the light, from time to time, of major works of thought’. But philosophy itself is outrageous, ‘inherently so’. ‘It seeks to disquiet the foundation of our lives and to offer us in recompense nothing better than itself.’ And nothing is more outrageous than the philosophy of the ordinary, of ordinary speech, that which in Emerson’s words shows ‘the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk’, in the ‘suburbs and extemities of nature’. Nothing, then, could be more natural than to connect such philosophy to film. Nothing, certainly, could be more natural to Cavell. If philosophical scepticism, as he argued in The Claim of Reason, is a wish to transgress the naturalness of speech, a human wish to escape the human, then the will to return to knowledge and the will to remarriage, he argues here, are transgressions back.

But one has to have been out to know how to be in. So like the Shakespearian romances he sees behind them, these films, Cavell makes clear, move their characters into what Northrop Frye has called a ‘green world’, a place ‘in which perspective and renewal are to be achieved’. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream this is a place inhabited by fairies. In The Winter’s Tale it is Bohemia. In Bringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth, Adam’s Rib and The Lady Eve, it is Connecticut. In The Lady Eve, indeed, it is called ‘Conneckticut’ and, as Cavell observes, ‘it is all but explicitly cited as a mythical location, since nobody is quite sure how you get there, or anyway how a lady gets there.’ In It happened one night, no one does get there. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are on the road. But I do not see why this cannot be a green world too, a very American world (Cavell says it is not). In His Girl Friday, it is true, Grant and Russell are in what seems to be he very ungreen world indeed of the Press Room in the Criminal Courts Building, or at least, for most of the film, Russell is. But here again, Cavell insists, they are in a place in which all the normal rules are suspended, and in which the lady ‘discovers’ herself. In The Philadelphia Story, though, the last of the seven films in the genre, we are and remain in Philadelphia. But this is no Emersonian suburb either. For we are with gentlepersons, aristocrats even, ‘living in woods on the outskirts of a capital city’, with ‘beings inhabiting another realm, a medium of magic, call it money.’ We are with people ‘convening for a covenant in or near Philadelphia and debating the nature and relation of the classes from which they come’. Cukor is arguing with Veblen’s demeaning Theory of the Leisure Class. He is inviting us to an altogether more elevating conversation between C. K. Dexter Haven, Tracy Lord, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. (There is, as Cavell nicely describes it, a raging ‘thirst for talk’ in all these films.) We are hearing about the natural aristocracy that democracy needs. We are hearing about how to find what Matthew Arnold called one’s ‘best self’. The question is not just what, now, sanctifies marriage. It is also what, now, in Depression and War, sanctifies America.

Men and women as men and women, and as citizens too, are accordingly divorced from an unreflective past into a deeply green world, in and from which they have to fashion a new relation, a new covenant, a new and more dignified because more self-knowing intimacy which is bred from desire and secured, in remarriage and the United States, in a dignified and democratic parity. C. K. Dexter Haven and Tracy Lord seem to be likely to manage this, certainly come to see what they are trying to manage. ‘I’ll risk it,’ he says at the end to her: ‘will you?’ Like the other pairs in the other films, they have played childish games. Pauline Kael was right, and speaks for many critics, although Cavell mentions almost none, when she called them all ‘a race of bitter, cynical and childish people’. But only partly right, for they have had to go into childhood to come out to see, as Cavell says of Grant and Russell in His Girl Friday, that ‘they simply appreciate one another more than either of them appreciates anyone else, and they would rather be appreciated by one another than by anyone else.’

Such is this towering tale of the reappearance of The Winter’s Tale. The films are not as good as Shakespeare’s romances, of course, but, as Cavell says, nothing else is either. The Winter’s Tale reappears first as opera, and just as one might suggest (it is one of the very few things that Cavell manages not to suggest) that the moving music, say, of Cosi fan tutte runs against the cruel libretto, so one might suggest (Cavell does faintly hint) a kind of reverse, in which the pace and wit of these films run against the deeply ordinary but nevertheless deep point they make, and so help make it. We laugh because laughter is a reply to the practical fact and conceptual impossibility of being alone; a reply also to the practical fact of mutual desire and the conceptual puzzle of being one within two. Only conneckticut.

Yet as Grant accuses Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, so we might finally accuse Cavell. ‘She’s making it all up out of old motion pictures.’ But as Cavell says of himself, writer on Wittgenstein, teacher of film, holder at Harvard of the Walter M. Cabot (or should it be the C. K. Dexter Haven) Professorship of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, ‘I am the lady they always want to saw in half.’ And my reply to the attempt, he adds, would be Dexter’s own in The Philadelphia Story. ‘Ain’t it awful?’ It would be. The dazzling mirrors do make one drop the saw. For the fact is that despite its sustained extravagance, its few banalities, its intermittent contradictions, its occasional paragraph of pure impenetrability and its soaring vanity, this just must be, in its close readings and its stunning associations, one of the most compelling accounts of its kind. The fact is, it just is its kind.