Any casual discussion about American movies in the 1930s makes some acknowledgement that audiences flocked to comedy, musical, adventure, suspense, and romance films to escape from the pressures of the Great Depression and looming threat of world war. What is interesting is not so much that these types of films succeeded - why wouldn’t you want to see King Kong in 1933? - but that even within those broad genres, audiences were quite willing to acknowledge their collective plight. In the midst of our own uncertain time in America, it is interesting to look back at what once brought people together. The six comedies showing during the Aero’s annual screwball comedy series do just that.
Take December 29th’s double feature of It Happened One Night and The Palm Beach Story. Released in 1934 and 1942 respectively, they give the widest impression of the era in this series. It Happened One Night was not the biggest hit of 1934, but it is perhaps the most enduring. It won all five Academy Awards for which it was nominated (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay), has appeared on innumerable best-of-all-time lists, and is credited with establishing a permanent romantic comedy formula - man (Clark Gable) and woman (Claudette Colbert) can’t stand one another, but are thrown together by circumstance and gradually fall in love. Of considerable appeal to an audience of the time must have been that Gable played a reporter down to his last dime who can score a big paycheck by getting an exclusive story on a runaway heiress (Colbert), who’s being forced to face the hard life for the first time.
The 1930s were littered with films forcing the wealthy to run up against poverty, with the wisdom of the downtrodden usually proving their saving grace. On December 30th, for example, the Aero shows My Man Godfrey and Ruggles of Red Gap. The former has William Powell picked off the street during a scavenger hunt to become a butler for Carole Lombard. Turns out he used to be a society man himself, whose bad fortune sent him to the streets, where he was redeemed by the boundless optimism of the men who had nothing. This format flatters audiences of all walks - the poor are innately good, and the rich are only a conversation away from recognizing it.
A similar pattern plays out in Ruggles, with an added dash of America-ain’t-so-bad-after-all culture-clash. Charles Laughton plays an exceedingly-mannered valet to an Englishman who quickly bets and loses Laughton’s services in a card game. The winner is a Wild West ranch tycoon. The humor, should it not already be self-evident, enters almost immediately when the tycoon recognizes a fellow American in the streets of Europe and the two proceed to whoop it up in a classy restaurant. Ruggles can barely comprehend what he’s been gotten into. But he soon finds Americans to be a jovial, accepting lot whose free society allows him the only independence he’s ever known. While poverty is not the focus here, America’s platform on the world stage is. As war was brewing in Europe, so too was a sense of American exceptionalism. We might not have the manners or history of our European counterparts, but our way of life will ultimately persevere. Nowhere is this better expressed than when Laughton recites the Gettysburg Address. The moment is cut with irony - he, an Englishman, is the only one in a room full of Americans who knows its text - but few things rouse American patriotism like seeing a foreigner embrace the country’s values.
True to his nature, Preston Sturges crafted too elaborate a plot in The Palm Beach Story to even begin to recount here, but suffice to say the marital woes it chronicles are initiated from a lack of money. In The Awful Truth, probably the greatest comedy of remarriage to ever hit the screen, divorce is a light affair cut through with bitter practicalities (not the least of which is: who will keep the beloved dog Asta).
The only film in this series truly removed from any sort of financial trials is Howard Hawks’ supreme comic masterpiece Bringing Up Baby. Not coincidentally, perhaps, it is the only film in this series that both floundered at the box office and received no love from the Academy Awards. It is so removed from any connection to our reality, Hawks lamented that he should have made just one character a “normal” person. Instead, we’re treated to an unending cavalcade of comic personalities, each one more insane than the last. There’s no real reason we should root for Cary Grant’s oddball paleontologist to wind up with Katharine Hepburn’s daffy socialite. They’re not particularly likable or familiar types of people. But they’re exciting to watch together. We’re used to identifying with movie characters, and wanting the best for them; in Bringing Up Baby, we want them together because it’s best for us. How else are we to loose leopards on homesteads and send intricate museum displays crumbling? Chaos reigns.
While Bringing Up Baby did fairly well on the coasts, Middle America had little idea what to make of it, and its lack of genuine romance kept it out of the sphere of romantic comedies the industry liked to reward at the time. But time has been kind to it, and to all these films. The promise of escape seems all the more tantalizing when diving back into the past. Surely these portraits of a “simpler time” will offer a reprieve from our complex and fraught world. What we find instead are many similar people with many similar concerns. These films help remind us that political and social strife is cyclical. We can laugh in recognition, and realize everyone else in the crowd has our same concerns and uncertainties. These films were made for people facing poverty and destruction; they were made, in a way, for us.
Scott Nye is the editor-at-large at Battleship Pretension and a contributor to CriterionCast. He can regularly be found at Los Angeles's many repertory theaters, or on Twitter @railoftomorrow.