One of the joys of watching Pre-Code films is the array of gay pansies on offer: Tyler Brooke, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and many others. I’ve been watching a lot of Preston Sturges films recently and have been struck by how often characters coded as effeminate or homosexual figure in his work. In the first clip, which was adapted from one of Sturges’ Broadways plays, Child of Manhattan (1933), we see Tyler Brooke insisting that he is Dulcey Inc. and not *Madame* Dulcey! The character is funny and endearing but like so many homosexual characters then as now is linked to surfaces, appearances, fashion, the ‘feminine sphere’. In the second clip, Easy Living (1937), this time from a from a screenplay by Sturges, we see Franklin Pangborn, an actor to appear in so many subsequent Sturges films, also selling women’s couture, this time to the Bull of Broadway. Lastly we see Brian Donlevy in The Great McGinty, Sturges’ first film as director, making fun of William Demarest for not ordering a manly enough drink. It’s interesting to note how there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the representation of the Brooke and Pangborn pansies even though one is pre-Code and one post. It is also interesting to note how in all of these films the poof is used to shore up the masculinity of the hero. Moreover, in the films adapted from or merely written by Sturges, the gay character is endearing (in the case of of Easy Living, perhaps aided by the personal understanding of director Mitchell Liesen). In the McGinty clip, Donlevy’s camping it up feels nasty and one is left uneasy: it feels mean, brutish and exactly like the type of bullying that is still so fresh a memory for many of us. This observation leaves me with some questions: what was Sturges preoccupation with homosexual men and can his work be considered homophobic? I don’t yet know.
Laughter is a sophisticated comedy that is also a serious work dramatising the conflict between the pursuit of money and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a vehicle for Nancy Carroll, one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, now somewhat forgotten.
It’s a film that offers many pleasures: the gruff and scatty teddy-bearishness of Frank Morgan; gorgeous Art Deco settings; magnificent Cartier jewels; the kewpie-doll loveliness of Nancy Carrol herself, most beautifully dressed in late ’20s/early ’30s chic; a young and handsome Fredric March ably conveying the weightier aspects of the drama; a soundtrack by the great Vernon Duke that features jazz and classical music, placing both on an equal footing; and even a brief appearance by that film buff’s delight, Eric Blore, here bubbly and lovely, wearing an angel costume and exuding all kinds of gayness. If it weren’t for an undertow of sadness that seeps right through all levels of the film, Laughter could almost be a screwball. Certainly it’s of historical interest as at least an early precursor to the genre.
The received wisdom regarding early talkies is that sound recording was then so cumbersome and primitive that it restricted camera movement and diminished cinema, rendering films static and stagey. This is patently untrue of Laughter.
The first shot (see below) is a long take that begins with a fade-in on a man inside a phone booth filmed from the outside so that he’s framed by the window, saying bitterly, ‘so I can call back tomorrow, eh?’, then the camera tracks to the right following his movements but from outside a corner-shop – he’s inside, the camera is outside, the shop window is the barrier that allows us to see in. The camera then goes past a lamppost to create a sense of perspective on the New York street, keeps the character in the centre of the frame as passersby walk around him and tracks in almost imperceptibly as the character goes into the door of a building door.
In the meantime, St. James Infirmary one of the great jazz songs of the period starts playing extra-diegetically and the camera tilts up to a window as the shot dissolves into the next one and we see the same man entering his apartment and unwrapping a gun. It’s a great shot and a great opening to the film: dramatic, visually arresting, dynamic in movement, exciting to hear. The first shot was enough to make me sit up, pay attention and ask ‘who directed this?’
The answer is Harry D’Abbadie d’Arrast. I’d come across the name before and remembered it for its effrontery but I knew nothing of the man or the artist. A little research reveals that he was a French aristocrat born in Argentina – thus the name — who served in WWI, was introduced to the movies by George Fitzmaurice (director of Lilac Time and Son of the Sheik), went to work for Chaplin, first as a researcher (Women of Paris) then as assistant director (Gold Rush), before directing his own highly acclaimed films, of which Laughter is the best remembered. James Harvey calls his early comedie like Dry Martini and A Gentleman of Paris ‘Lubitsch-like’ (p. 78). D’Abbadie d’Arrast married Silent Film Star Eleanor Bordman, stopped directing films in Hollywood in 1933 (Topaze, with John Barrymore and Myrna Loy, is the last Hollywood film credited to him) and died in Monte Carlo where he’d been working as a croupier. There’s an interesting biography to be written about him and I hope someday someone does.
Like with Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle, Laughter is structured around five central characters: ex Ziegfield chorus girl Peggy gave up pennyless musician Paul Lockridge (Fredric March) for rich industrialist C. Mortimer Gibson (Frank Morgan) but is finding the marriage so unsatisfying she’s having an affair with a sculptor, Ralph Le Sainte (Glenn Anders), who’s so crazy for Peggy he first threatens suicide over her and later tries to emulate her by also marrying for money with Mortimer Gibson’s daughter, Marjorie (Diane Ellis). Five characters, six potential couples, one dilemma: to choose laughter and love or to go for the cash and all that goes with it?
I was surprised to see how much Pauline Kael loved Laughter, calling it ‘an ode to impracticality.’ She didn’t usually have much patience for the type of movie that starts with a poor artist in a garrett speaking poetically to a statue of his beloved about the depth of his love for her and the hopelessness of life whilst feeding us all the background we need to follow the story that unfolds, even if it is as beautifully shot as it is here. Glen Anders is almost as expressive as the piece of marble he’s speaking to and luckily for us the picture doesn’t stay on him for very long.
From the beginning we know Peggy and the poor sap of a Saint are having an affair. Clearly the Cartier jewelery her husband is giving her is not enough to keep her happy. C. Mortimer Gibson can’t give Peggy what she wants; and Peggy can’t give Ralph La Sainte what he wants either — everyone’s unhappy. It’s at that moment that Paul Lockridge arrives from Paris to turn everything upside down; he’s the catalyst for change and he’s given an entrance worthy of the conflict he’ll cause.
Paul is Peggy’s ex, a musician, and only recently returned from Paris. The pace at which March makes his first appearance, walking briskly through the New York penthouse, is a pace then much admired by Europeans who found its energy unusual and energizing. Noel Coward returned to England from New York in the early 20s insisting that his plays be spoken faster and that the actors move more briskly, at a New York pace, at the pace of the jazz era if not of jazz itself. Speed, energy, New York as a metonym for America, modernity, democracy, potentiality: there’s something in March’s walk, the sunny transparency of his face and the intensity with which he speaks in his first entrance in that early scene that evokes all of that.
When Peggy’s butler insists on a calling card, Paul writes his name on the Butler’s starched shirtfront. When the butler presents this greeting to Peggy, she writes that she’s out on the same same shirtfront, letting Paul know that she’s in but doesn’t want to see him. Whilst she goes for her assignation with Le Sap, I mean Le Sainte, Fredric March shows he’s a democrat and oblivious to her wealth by going into the kitchen, speaking on familiar terms with Pearl, Peggy’s maid, who he clearly knows from before, grabbing a chicken leg and going to play classical music duets with the butler whilst having a beer, which is where Peggy’s husband finds him.
Paul’s breezyness is visualised for us by the nonchalant yet well-aimed throw of his hat onto a deco sculpture of frolicking nymphs, an image that recurs often in the Laughter. Much is made too of C. Mortimer Gibson trying to remove the hat from such placements, of his awareness of appearances, surfaces, place and position and his sensitivity to the restrictions imposed by correct adherence to convention.
The film rather exhibits a rich person’s idealization of the pleasures of third class travel and all that it connotes. Laughter is a film for the ‘common man’ but is not against the rich. And perhaps the latter has something to do with the film’s conceptualisation of average people as ‘poor’ artists who can afford to live in Paris working at their love, art and drinking without having to be stuck washing dishes at the Ritz like Orwell’s down and outers.
There are two scenes that are meant to evoke the price Peggy is paying for the penthouse and the Cartier bracelets. The famous one is the scene where Peggy and Paul break into someone’s house, frolic under bearskins and get arrested for breaking and entering.
Before that, however, there’s the marvelous scene after Peggy’s picked up her step-daughter Marjorie from the Ocean liner after returning from her Paris sojourn and we see the customs people confiscating all the liquor Marjorie’s tried to smuggle in. Marjorie and Peggy are both the same age, two jazz babies with cropped hair who like to smoke, drink and dance. One of them still can.
When they return to the penthouse, they find Paul at the piano and Marjorie asks him, ‘do you know “Raring to Go”’? He sure does. As the stuffy millionaire looks on bewildered, the three young ones let themselves go to the beat and the rhythm of the jazz, Paul playing, Peggy and Marjorie dancing with abandon, letting go of place and position in a moment that Pauline Kael has called ‘one of the loveliest, happiest moments in the movies of this period (see clip below).’ It’s a moment of joy, a moment of sensuality and of youth, the likes of which Peggy doesn’t get to experience much anymore.
These two moments of escape can be interestingly considered alongside the two speeches that put across the film’s meaning. In the first of those, after the bear-skin frolic, as they are taken home via police escort, sirens blaring, March says, ‘You can’t go on with this, with everything that it stands for, that noise, that, money that power….I want to tell you that you’re dying…You’re having a ghastly time, you’re whole life is false. Nothing you do is really you. God didn’t want you to live like this. You’re dying from want of nourishment, from want of laughter. You were born for laughter. Nothing in your life is as important as that. Laughter could take that whole life of yours — that house, those jewels — and blow them to pieces. You’re rich. You’re dirty rich. Nothing but laughter can make you clean.’
Fredric March is magnificent saying this. He doesn’t make a meal of it. In fact he underplays it. It’s a long soliloquy but filmed as a two-shot with Nancy Carroll as Peggy listening in so we’re permitted to see her reaction to what he’s saying. But March is the one who has to deliver, sustain and holds the quite long shot, and stay in character whilst giving meaning to the lines and putting across all the metaphors and symbolism whilst conveying the sense of a person speaking rather than an author dramatising the play’s central theme (and I use the word ‘play’ advisedly) in a speech rather weighted down by poetry, .
March is rather brilliant with it. As he’s had to be in the film as a whole because what he represents, and what he’s convincingly conveyed, is a combined alternative to both a man who can make $8,450,000 in one afternoon AND another artist at least as talented as he who, on top of that, is willing to top himself for love of Peggy. But this moment, this speech on how the lack of laughter is causing Peggy to die inside, is also the moment the film loses its audience. Can you imagine audiences in 1930, a year after the crash, pre-New Deal, no social security to speak of, Hoovervilles sprouting everywhere, apple-sellers appearing out of the wood-work, trains full of vagrants criss-crossing the country in search of work…and here are these rich people living in Art Deco penthouses above the clouds and wearing Cartier jewels moaning about how terrible their life is because they don’t have laughter?
Later, when Carroll is given a similar speech to say to her husband as reasons for leaving him, ‘laughter’ has been replaced with ‘love’. The film treats them as two sides of the same coin, different but inseparable. By then love has become a matter of life and death. St. Sculptor who speaks to statures and can’t quite bring himself to marry for money, has killed himself for love of Peggy, removing him from the picture, removing the threat to the Gibson name his marriage to Mortimer’s daughter would have represented, and removing the only other obstacle, aside from her husband, to Peggy’s getting together with Paul.
It’s worth mentioning that the film was written by Donald Ogden Stewart, an East Coast Main Liner, a liberal later to be blacklisted in the McCarthy era for his politics, a writer famous for the breezy elegance he brought to Philip Barry film adaptations such as Holiday, The Philadephia Story, andWithout Love but also famous in his own right as a writer of sophisticated comedy prized by collaborators such as Lubitsch (That Uncertain Feeling), Leo McCarey (Love Affair) and especially Cukor (Dinner at Eight, Keeper of the Flame plus all the Barry adaptations). It’s worth mentioning because some of themes seen here rhyme with those of Holiday especially but also those in Without Love and one even finds an echo of March’s ‘Laughter’ speech in the ‘Fires Banked Down’ speech that James Stewart speaks to Katharine Hepburn in The Philadephia Story. The writers involved may be one reason why Kael saw a connection to later screwballs.
There’s a wonderful coda at the end of Laughter: Paul and Peggy are snuggling in a sidewalk café in Paris and basking in the glow of being called ‘les amoreux’ . In fact they’re now married, blissfully planning on making love and music together, when Nancy’s eyes suddenly alight on a woman’s wrist. We see what she sees in a close-up: row upon row of glistening diamond bracelets. She can’t keep her eyes off of them until she notices Paul looking at her, ‘I didn’t say anything’ she says giggles before they laugh and kiss. But love and laughter aside, the audience senses that Paul better find a way of getting her a penthouse and some bracelets pronto. It’s no surprise that Herman Mankiewicz, co-writer of Citizen Kane and producer of this one, late in his life remembered Laughter as his favourite film. It’s a pretty dazzling one.
The film got good reviews but was not a popular success. According to James Harvey in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, ‘Six years later, during the heyday of screwball comedy, Herman Maniewicz recalled Laughter to an interviewer – ruefully. Reflecting on the success of such later films as It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey, Maniewicz told the press: “we” did it firs, Laughter was “the original of this madcap type of screen story (pp.78-79).”‘
Joel McCrea is John Lloyd Sullivan, the very successful director of Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1939 who has decided that he cannot continue making frivolous, light films in a world where Europe’s at war and where there’s so much unemployment and misery in America, not when he’s got the greatest educational tool ever invented by man at his disposal: movies!
He convinces his studio bosses to let him make ‘O Brother, Where Art Though?’, a film about the plight of the common people; realistic, pedagogical, depressing. ‘I want this picture to be a document! I want to hold a mirror up to life! I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!’ Nothing could terrify the movie moguls more, but Sullivan is so successful that they have no choice but to agree to let him make it, though he in turn concedes to put ‘a little sex in it’.
When the studio bosses point out that the reason he makes such light, optimistic and successful films is that he’s had a privileged life –what does he know about misery? — Sullivan decides to dress as a tramp, go on the road, and find out. At first everything conspires to bring him back to Hollywood, but then, just as he feels he’s done enough research and he’s out handing out dollar bills to those less fortunate than he who helped him on his quest, events conspire to send him to jail, put him in a prison chain-gang and teach him what real misery is really like. As he learns that, he also learns the value of the light, the frivolous – what joy, laughter and entertainment can bring to a world full of misery — i.e. he learns the value of his own work.
In many ways Sullivan’s Travels is a self-serving and self-affirming film, with Sturges and Hollywood patting themselves on the back for doing exactly what they’ve always done. But it’s also a marvelously entertaining film that shoots the audience with such a quick, smart, and witty spray of jokes that you might miss out if you’re not quick on the uptake. It’s great to see a film that assumes each individual member of the audience is the smartest and brightest person in any room.
Sullivan’s Travels successfully satirises Hollywood and the audience’s own trivial sentimentalising of the poor whilst offering quite a critique of: Hollywood’s pretensions; the issue of class in America; the inadequate system of poor relief, with prayer often being the price – non-negotiable – of a floor to sleep in and a bite to eat; and the brutality of prison chain-gangs. It might even have tried to critique race, certainly the NAACP commended it in 1942; though what the film does on this score now sits a bit uncomfortably.
David Thomson has written that ‘Sullivan’s Travels falls flat when it tries to move from comedy to pathos.’I’m not sure I agree with him. Firstly, I don’t think the film sets out for pathos. It tries to reveal poverty and injustice, to make the audience aware of it, but not to induce pathos, or at least not until Sullivan himself is imprisoned and seems to have no way out. Until then, we see the misery from the outside; from Sullivan’s eyes, but the eyes of an outsider whose experiences are purely optional; and the jokes, the winks, the acknowledgment that even your brothers in the soup-kitchen can steal the very shoes from your feet unless you have eyes in the back of your head and can see whilst sleeping, all take priority over the arousal of emotion.
Pathos has no bigger enemy than laughter. But it’s Sturges choice not his lack. Personally, I rejoice in that choice. When McCrea, feverish and trembly from illness, reiterates his convictions as if a spirit of daffy do-gooding giddiness has taken hold of him in Church — ‘nothing is going to stop me. I’m going to find out how it feels to be in trouble. Without friends, without credit, without checkbook, without name. Alone’ — he’s irresistible; as close to reaching the endearingly irrational heights of the great screwball dames (Colbert, Hepburn, Lombard) as any male actor except for Cary Grant.
Andrew Sarris indirectly touches on this and attributes it not only to McCrea but also to Sturges. In fact he sees it as a characteristic of Sturges’ work: ‘It is as if his characters were capable of being lit from within by the cartoonist’s device of the instantly ignited light-bulb in the hero’s skull. Joel McCrea’s movie director in Sullivan’s Travels experiences and expresses such a flash of practical creativity at the stirring moment in the film when he proclaims himself to be his own murderer’. Although I don’t quite agree with Thomson that the film falls flat when it moves from comedy to pathos, the film’s various changes in tone and register, seem to catch the audience by surprise.
There are those who delight in the surprise. Steven J. Schneider in his appreciation of the film in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die has written that the script is a tour de force and ‘brings together a remarkable range of genres, including slapstick, action, melodrama, social documentary, romance, musical and prison movie.’ But there are also others who have found in these shifts, a loose and shambly shapelessness. Manny Farber called Sullivan’s Travels ‘immature in its philosophy, formless and without a single discernible characterization; but it had an astonishing display of film technique.’
We can agree on the philosophy and on the astonishing technique; but as to the rest, I’ve already mentioned McCrea and his performance as Sullivan and I find the film formally clever too, beginning at the end of an ‘entertainment’ with a fight scene on a train that’s still thrilling, and later, near the end, signaling clearly to the audience that the film is at a turning point and that it needs to unravel the tangle of plot its gotten itself into before the closing credits. The montage with which it does so is a marvel of narrative economy that can still thrill those who are interested in visual story-telling.
Veronica Lake is ‘The Girl’. She’s given no name. And this might have been part of why Farber accuses the film of ‘lacking characterization’. However, ‘The Girl’ is a function rather than a character and thus needs no name and no characterization, though Veronica Lake is a very memorable look and presence in it. Moreover, she matches up with McCrea beautifully, the disparity in their height alone creating an element of comedy that doesn’t intrude on the romance needed to put ‘a little sex in it’. It’s also joy to see all the Sturges stalwarts: William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore and other wonderful comic actors who would have been just as famous to audiences of the period as the stars.
There are scenes that still linger in the mind: the opening sequence, the sex-starved sister locking McCrea in his room, the first real experience of a Hooverville, the black parishioners singing ‘Let My People Go’, the pettiness of the bureaucrat in the train station, the injustice of the court, the brutality of the chief of the chaing-gang.
Sturges achieves what the film says on one level isn’t possible; a film that both documents and critique its time — brimming with social relevance — that teaches us a lesson on the social conditions of the Depression, the filmmaking practices of the Hollywood of the period and on how brilliant and bright American comedy once was – directed by one of its greatest practitioners — but with some feeling, thrills, chills, lots of laughs ‘and a little sex in it’.
*** Film buffs might be interested in knowing that, according to Pauline Kael, ‘Sturges himself can be glimpsed behind Veronica Lake on a set inside the movie studio’.