Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Humor Me

As a change of pace, I would like to respond to or rebut some reader comments made about a trio of movies mentioned in “A Mess of Pottage” (November 24) on the Rule of Reason site, particularly about The Manchurian Candidate and His Girl Friday. President-elect Barack Obama and his plan to expand FDR’s welfare state programs, together with the looming threats of Islam, Russia and other predators, including Congress, are not going away any time soon, so there will be plenty of time and opportunity to discuss them in the future.

Some readers agreed with my very brief endorsement of The Manchurian Candidate. It is a very serious, revealing, and compelling drama. But, believe it or not, some critics treated it as a comedy or satire! I can only surmise that these critics’ intention was to deny the seriousness of the story and infect the minds of anyone who saw it soon after its release. Virtually the sole humor in it is expressed by one of the villains, Yen Lo (played by Khigh Dhiegh), the apparent mastermind behind the Sino-Soviet plot to install a president in the White House who could help facilitate the Communist conquest of the United States. This humor attacks the U.S. and Lo’s immediate victims, and is not funny. But, in the context of the story, Lo’s humor plays a legitimate role. It underscores his and his co-conspirators’ evil, much as Ellsworth Toohey’s humor underscores his evil in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

My only reservation about the film is that it credits evil men with too much intelligence or with a species of omniscience, that is, with a capacity for successful long-range planning or with the ability to make the unreal appear to be real. Recall, for example, those notoriously failed Five-Year Plans, and our own government’s actions to “fine-tune” or “manage” the economy, a policy failure which it refuses to acknowledge and which Obama plans to exacerbate with his own Lenin-esque New Economic Policy.

It seems that two readers of the “Pottage” commentary have based their objections to the humor in His Girl Friday on what very little Rand wrote or spoke about humor. While she addressed or identified some fundamentals concerning humor, I do not think she exhausted the subject, perhaps having had little time or interest to devote to it. She did remark, however, that

“Humor is a metaphysical negation. We regard as funny that which contradicts reality: the incongruous and the grotesque.”*


“What you find funny depends on what you want to negate. It is proper to laugh at evil (the literary form of which is satire) or at the negligible. But to laugh at the good is vicious.”**

Rand wrote what I would say were general guidelines to humor, and sketched out the parameters of what is legitimate and vicious humor. There may be in the Rand archives at ARI as-yet unpublished material on the subject. I am reminded of the plot of The Name of the Rose (1986), set in a medieval monastery about a lost book or treatise by Aristotle on comedy (with Sean Connery as the detective monk).

Some comedies are funny, other comedies not so funny, and still others not funny at all. His Girl Friday (1940) is uproariously funny. It does not rely on sight gags or humor as crude as that of The Three Stooges or even of the Marx Brothers. Its humor is just a shade above subtle, and pokes fun at the metaphysically negligible, such as Rosalind Russell’s fiancé and the Mayor and his lackey sheriff. This was the second film version of the 1931 production, and far superior to it. It was based on the play co-written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (1928), who also collaborated on the screenplay of another “screwball” comedy, Twentieth Century (1934), and on three non-comedic dramas: Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), and Gunga Din (1939).

The central story line of His Girl Friday is the hilariously unscrupulous campaign waged by Walter Burns (Cary Grant), the editor-in-chief, to keep his best reporter, Hildy Johnson (Russell), from leaving his newspaper and his life. (In the original play and first film version, Hildy was a male role, and no romantic relationship between Burns and Hildy was suggested or insinuated). Burns entertains no dichotomy between his paper and Hildy; they are one and the same, and he is in love with them both. Of course, all the actions Burns takes to keep Hildy are exaggerations of actions that could be taken in real life: setting up Hildy’s insurance salesman fiancé for several falls, beating other newspapers to a breaking story, getting the goods on a pompous, two-faced politician and his cronies.

As for Hildy, she is tempted to leave the career of a “newspaperman” (that’s what she calls herself) for the sedate existence of a housewife (“…and in Albany, too,” Burns kids her), and possibly because her romance with Burns hasn‘t progressed beyond chasing the news together and the occasional bedroom fling.

Burns and Hildy are divorced, but the divorce isn’t working (now, that’s funny). Burns knows Hildy better than Hildy knows herself, and it doesn’t take long for him to convince her that Bruce Baldwin (played wonderfully down to the meanest mannerism by Ralph Bellamy) is not the man for her and that the conventional life Bruce promises her would be suffocatingly dull.

Burns succeeds in keeping Hildy. She is a value to him. That makes him, if not the hero of an epic, then the hero of a satire on newspapers. “Screwball” comedy like His Girl Friday is not supposed to be taken seriously. It is a kind of dessert to be enjoyed after a main course. Both Rule of Reason commentators implied that since the film did not adhere to the defining attributes of an epic or serious drama, then it couldn’t be good. No one is supposed to take seriously the bête noire of the story, the pathetically meek and unstable Earl Williams, scheduled to be executed for shooting a policeman but whose timely pardon by the governor is suppressed by the corrupt mayor. He escapes in the most ludicrous circumstances and winds up hiding in a roll-top desk. Another commentator asked,

“How can you laugh at a woman convincing a murderer that it isn’t his fault that he used a gun to kill a man because, after all, the purpose of a gun is to kill?”

In this instance, one can’t. Hildy, in the prison interview scene, isn’t trying to convince Williams that it wasn’t his fault; she is simply probing the mind of a lunatic to find a context in which to write her story, and in the bargain mocking Marxist economics (production for use, not for profit, etc.). And, one doesn’t laugh at Hildy; one merely appreciates her sense of a news story and the lengths to which she will pursue it. So, one laughs with her as she pursues it, such as when she literally tackles the bailiff who can grant her the prison interview with Earl Williams.

What is also humorous is Hildy’s futile efforts to combat Walter Burns’ constant scheming to stymie her impending marriage to Bruce Baldwin. She is foiled by him everywhere she turns. By the film’s end, she is furiously pounding out the story on her typewriter, taking her cues from Walter Burns, while Bruce is on the far periphery of her consciousness, contradictory to her character and rendered negligible. She is at home, and Walter Burns has won.

His Girl Friday is one of my favorite comedies. Each line of dialogue in it feeds the next at a nonstop pace; it is the dialogue that establishes the context for the action, instead of the other way around, which is the standard practice in most comedy. It is from this and other films (not all comedies, of course, not to mention plays and novels) that I learned how to craft dialogue for my own stories.

Rand wrote,

“Good natured, charming humor is never directed at a value, but always at the undesirable or negligible. It has the result of confirming values; if you laugh at the contradictory or pretentious, you are in that act confirming the real or valuable.”***

That statement can apply to much of what could be called benevolent comedy. A comedy can feature admirable, eccentric, or likeable characters caught in preposterous or absurd situations. American instances of this in film are Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), and Born Yesterday (1950). British instances are The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and The Man in the White Suit (1952). There are many more instances of this level of comedy in film, too numerous to mention here.

Humor -- the benevolent, non-vicious kind, at least -- also is highly contextual. Someone who might enjoy the television series Fawlty Towers may be left cold by My Name is Earl; conversely, someone whose measure of good comedy is The King of Queens may be unmoved by P.G. Wodehouse Theatre. The context and what enjoyment one derives from any of these television series, or any comedy, both depend on one’s sense of life: Is it benevolent and rational, or malevolent and eclectically chaotic?

Does a person need a laugh track to prompt him that something funny has happened or has been said? Should a comedy require a person’s full focus to detect, appreciate or evaluate its humor, or should it patronize his mental passivity? Does one enjoy seeing a good character get his “comeuppance,” or a bad character his? Is one willing to suspend belief in order to enjoy a light-hearted, benevolent comedy, or should one emulate the Classicists, and approach it in a second-hand, doctrinaire frame of mind?

If Aristotle truly wrote a treatise on comedy as a companion or supplement to his Poetics, these and other questions might have been answered. Except for plot, characterization, and resolution, the requisites for great drama are not all applicable to comedy. Drama is the broader literary form and subsumes all the criteria necessary for good comedy. Some of the greatest literature also includes unparalleled humor.

What did not amuse Queen Victoria might have amused me.

*Chapter 11, ”Special Forms of Literature,” in Ayn Rand -- The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, edited by Tore Boeckmann, Plume softcover, 2000, p. 165.
**Ibid, p. 166
***Ibid, p. 166


Andrew E. said...

Well played as usual. I've got His Girl Friday queued up in the Netflix list.
And I'm so glad you mentioned P.G. Wodehouse. I've recently discovered him via recommendation from - a British humor/lifestyle magazine, which I recommend a visit to as well. While much of Wodehouse's dialog from story to story is of a similar recipe, I can't seem to get enough of it. Currently, I'm deep into The Complete Jeeves - which for my level of familiarity is light-yet-clever English humor at its absolute best. Here's to desert!


Dagny Taggart said...

His Girl Friday is one of my very favorite films.

Another one that I love (that was not mentioned) is Desk Set... that film has quite a bit of sparkling wit.

djr said...

After your post, we rented His Girl Friday and The Mouse that Roared. HGF was a hoot and clever. TMTR was, in my view, a weak production of what was a pretty good story. I am glad to have seen both. It's surprising that the muck of our culture (poked at in these oldies) isn't as new as I think.

Anonymous said...

Postscript to Humor Me: I ended it with a play on Queen Victoria's famous reply: "We are not amused." What didn't amuse her was this: She caught one of her grooms-in-waiting mimicking her in Buckingham Palace. Two biographies confirm the incident.

That would have amused me.

Ed Cline