Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Screwball Scrambled

Breakneck witty banter, battling lovers, poor heroes stumbling into the lap of luxury, and general madcap shenanigans are the telltale signs of the Screwball Comedy. In its golden age, spanning the Depression and post-war years, this zany genre gave the world cinematic gems like It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, and a plethora of other eccentric romantic comedies. As popular culture evolved and America’s tastes changed, the Screwball Comedy’s heyday came to an end, but though the “screwball formula” that had codified in the ‘30s and ‘40s dissolved, the signature elements of the genre can still be seen in a long line of kooky comedies descended from classical screwball. Some Like It Hot (1959) is a prime example of this, incorporating many typical screwball ingredients, while maintaining certain fundamental differences that set it apart from what could be considered “pure” Screwball Comedy.

The tone and style of Some Like it Hot are very much in line with many Screwball Comedies. The subject matter is ridiculous (two male musicians forced to dress as women to escape some angry gangsters), and the dialogue writing has the snappy repartee. Jerry (Jack Lemmon) is very much a goofball in the tradition of wacky “screwball” characters for which the genre is named. The world of Some Like It Hot, like those of classical screwball comedies, is a pushed reality, in which the absurd runs rampant.

Sugar: the antithesis of the Screwball heroine
Another essential aspect of Screwball Comedy is the subversion of gender roles and courtship rituals. Some Like It Hot does this also, but in a different way. In many classic screwballs, the female characters are self-reliant, sharp, and just as quirky as their male counterparts. Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), the love interest of Joe (Tony Curtis), is the complete opposite of this; she’s naive, speaks in a perpetually breathy simper (demonstrating her overly sexualized role in the story), and repeatedly describes herself as “not very bright.” The way Some Like It Hot does thwart gender expectations is through the two men’s experiences in drag, particularly Gerry’s. Though at first he needs to be reminded that Sugar and the other women are off limits, he soon gets caught up in his female persona “Daphne,” and when Osgood Fielding III, a wealthy older playboy proposes to “her,” Jerry is quite content with the idea of marrying him (for his money, anyway.) Still more surprising is Osgood’s reaction when it’s finally revealed that Daphne is a man: “Nobody’s perfect.” This subversion of gender roles—a staple of Screwball Comedy—is the primary source of comedy in Some Like It Hot.
"Nobody's perfect."
The themes and dramatic focus of screwball comedies shifted over the course of the golden age, and this is one aspect that definitely sets Some Like It Hot apart from early screwballs like It Happened One Night. In the early days (during the Depression), Screwball had a strong thematic element of socioeconomic issues, where class disparities were obstacles between the romantic leads. While Some Like It Hot has elements of class and monetary motivation (Joe and Jerry need work, Joe tricks Sugar into thinking he’s a millionaire, etc.), thematically, money is irrelevant.
Joe poses as a millionaire.

In the middle years of the reign of the Screwball, writers and directors discovered that it wasn’t the happily-ever-after romantic resolution that kept audience’s interested, but the romantic tension and antagonism between the leads, and so the focus shifted from economic barriers to battles of the sexes, in which the leads would banter and bicker throughout the film then abruptly reconcile at the very end, in hasty and often illogical final scenes. Though Some Like It Hot doesn’t feature this kind of romantic/antagonistic dynamic, the ending scene does follow the Screwball tradition of abrupt resolution. The main conflict of Some Like It Hot comes from the outlandish circumstances, tying it more to later screwballs when the “situation comedy” was on the rise. This similarity can be seen strikingly in I Was a Male War Bride, in which incredible circumstances force Cary Grant to dress in drag to pose as his own wife.
I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

The days of the “pure” Screwball Comedy formula are over, but the genre’s zany legacy still lives on. Though they may be rearranged, inverted, reframed, or scrambled, the core elements of the Screwball Comedy can be found in films spanning the decades.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Firefly: Sci-fi or Western?

Although Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly draws heavily from John Ford’s classic Western Stagecoach, and is very much a Western in many respects, elements of science fiction set it apart from traditional Westerns, not only in setting and iconography, but in the way it approaches technology and civilization.

One obvious distinction between the genres of science fiction and Western is the difference in technology. In a traditional Western, the filmmaker and audience look back to a time before modern technology, when the only machines around were the pistol on our hero’s hip and that newfangled railroad signaling the the taming of the west. In a science fiction world like that of Firefly, we’re looking ahead to a high-tech future, and there are certain plot elements that would not be possible in a story set in the Old West. Early in the episode we see the threat of the Alliance electronically ID-ing and tracking the Serenity—not something Western outlaws had to contend with. Communication is another threat to the crew; the undercover law-man is able to pass information directly and instantly to the Alliance, which would never be possible on the frontier of the Old West. An even more sinister effect of futuristic science is River’s condition. Though we don’t know exactly what happened to her, we know it was a brain experiment of some sort.

The setting is another very prominent difference between a classical Western and a Space Western. The geographical/temporal setting of the Old West is the most defining feature of the Western genre, and the way it functions is more or less consistent, with contrasting forces of wildness vs. the civilizing influence of the East. In Firefly, setting functions much more in the tradition of science fiction. By setting the story in the future, Joss Whedon makes Firefly not a nostalgic picture of a bygone era, but a dark look ahead at a possible future, and by extension, a reflection of our current path. This view on civilization is another aspect that aligns Firefly more with science fiction than the Western. Although some Westerns depict the Union unfavorably, or question the morals of mainstream civilization, there is also the theme of civilization taming the West, and there is never the absolute, dystopian post-civilization common to many sci-fi stories, usually brought about by technology. Though the world of Firefly isn’t a total dystopia, it has some elements in common with dystopian sci-fi stories. It takes place in the aftermath of a world war, leaving only two nations, with space in the control of an ineffectual and unjust government. Much like in Outland, technology in Firefly has allowed people to set up lives on the outskirts of civilization, where corruption rules and morals have eroded. The most striking example of this is the Reavers, men who ventured to the edge of the galaxy and turned savage. In Firefly it isn’t that civilization hasn’t arrived yet, but that it’s already fallen apart.

Though Firefly might be characterized as a Western set in space by some, I would argue that the story and its themes are a true blend of two genres, and couldn’t exist as solely Western or the science fiction.