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The Same, But Different.


There is a moment early in The Awful Truth (1937) when Lucy Warriner/Irene Dunne, having decided to divorce her husband, Jerry/Cary Grant, telephones their lawyer. Rather than cutting to the interior of a suitable office, the scene cuts to a large but gloomy drawing-room, filled with old-fashioned lumps of furniture. The telephone is answered by a man with silvery-gray hair and a moustache; his role as lawyer clearly mirrors a patriarchal role--the Law of the Father. Discovering the reason for Lucy's call, the lawyer's jovial tone turns to benevolent concern, and he attempts to lecture Lucy on how "Marriage is a beautiful thing". As he speaks, his own wife enters the room; she hovers in the background of the frame, repeatedly interrupting him.

Lawyer: As I was saying, Lucy, [smiling and sincere], marriage is a beautiful thing, and when you've been married as long as I have, you'll appreciate it too.

Wife: [stepping forward and speaking quite crossly] Your food is getting ice cold. You're always complaining about your food. How do you expect me -

Lawyer: [interrupting angrily] Will you shut your big mouth! I'll eat when I get good and ready and if you don't like it you know what you can do! So--shut up! [Turns away again] Lucy, darling [soft and gentle], marriage is a beautiful thing!

The couple's age and stiff appearance and their outdated decor evoke a past era. The Victorian myth of domestic bliss is casually ripped to shreds, even as the voice of its authority--the lawyer/patriarch--attempts to reassert its value. Patriarchal authority is undermined further by the fact that Lucy clearly does not take his advice: the next shot is of the chancery court, and while the lawyer is present at the divorce hearing, he does not say a word.

Bearing this moment in mind, there is an evident tension between the diegetic representation of marriage and the screwball narrative's drive to unite the couple. Marriage is never a "beautiful thing" in screwball comedy; it is always a problem. No one simply falls in love, gets married and lives happily ever after. Instead, the central couple pretend to be married (If You Could Only Cook [1935], Midnight [1939]); pretend they are not married (The Palm Beach Story [1942]); think they are married (Mr. and Mrs. Smith [1941]); or get divorced (His Girl Friday [1940]). Engagements are made to be broken (My Man Godfrey [1936], Bringing up Baby [1938], Holiday [1938]), implied adultery abounds (She Married Her Boss [1935], The Awful Truth, Topper [1937]) and bigamy seems almost inevitable (Libeled Lady [1936], My Favorite Wife [1940], Too Many Husbands [1940]). Every variation on the theme of marital duplicity and infidelity is made use of in screwball comedy. Indeed, there are hardly any happily married characters : it is a world peopled with widowed fathers, maiden aunts, bachelor butlers and maids. Thus, although the central couple are inevitably united at the end of the film, the exact status and conditions of this relationship should not be too hastily or unequivocally identified with the traditional institution of "marriage", let alone with the convention of "living happily ever after".

It is this tension between the union of the couple and the representation of marriage that I want to review in this article. If marriage is not a beautiful thing, the question remains, what is it? A closer look at It Happened One Night (1934) elucidates the cycle's attitude. Ellie Andrews/Claudette Colbert is already married to King Westley/Jameson Thomas, but according to her father/Walter Connolly she will "never [...] live under the same roof with him." "Living under the same roof" clearly functions euphemistically for the sexual consummation of the marriage, but it proves to mean much more, since Ellie does live under the same roof with Peter Warne/Clark Gable, while pretending to be his wife (cf. Cavell, 85-86). Is "marriage" constituted by the social and legal fact of the wedding ceremony, or by the personal and physical act of "living under the same roof"? Further questions develop when Ellie and Peter convince two detectives that they are married by quarrelling. He accuses her of butting in, and the argument quickly turns towards issues of protection, possession and jealousy. Ellie pretends to cry, while Peter shouts at her to "quit bawling", even threatening to hit her; she cowers in her seat in the lower left corner of the frame, while Peter looms over her, oppressively pacing back and forth. This miserable excuse for a relationship convinces not only the detectives, but the camp manager as well: "I told you they were a perfectly nice married couple."

Marriage is commonly understood in the screwball world to involve oppression and confinement; it is "nice" because it is legal and "respectable". At the same time, marriage no longer necessarily involves a lifetime commitment: the narrative demands that Ellie should divorce one husband to marry the man to whom she is pretending to be married. For this reason, I find Thomas Schatz's claim that the film's "two false marriages [...] prepare us for the 'real' marriage at the end" inexplicable (154). It seems far more logical to read the two "false" marriages as undercutting the status of the legal and social institution, especially considering the words of the auto-camp manager's wife at the end of the film: "If you ask me, I don't believe they're married." The paradox that Ellie and Peter are now less convincing as a "perfectly nice married couple" is clearly related to the film's earlier representation of the institution as a battleground of misery, not a playground of fun and games and toy trumpets. Moreover, Ellie and Peter's "difference" is repeatedly coded as eccentric "craziness"-the antithesis of the social stability normally associated with marriage. For example, when Mr. Andrews asks Peter if he loves Ellie, Peter evades the question: "A normal human being couldn't live under the same roof with her without going nutty"; when pushed to answer more directly, Peter yells, "Yes! But don't hold that against me-I'm a little screwy myself!" Apparently, the question of living under the same roof has been answered, and it has just as much to do with being institutionalized for insanity, as with the institution of marriage.

Schatz goes on to argue that "their personal union serves to celebrate integration into the community at large, into a social environment where cultural conflicts and contradictions have been magically reconciled" (155). However, the couple's reunion-the "real" marriage-is not even seen; our last view of Ellie is her running away from the altar. The distance placed between the couple and society (including the spectator) seems to indicate a withdrawal from the public sphere, and quite the reverse of the social integration traditionally found in romantic comedy. Even on those occasions when the narrative does culminate in a wedding, the effect is usually far from affirmative, and only serves to undermine the status of the institution further. A key example is the end (and beginning) of The Palm Beach Story, in which the myth of marital bliss is undercut by the use of transparent framed titles-the first declaring "and they lived happily ever after", but the second asking "or did they?" The qualification certai nly seems justified if a closer look is taken at the final ceremony. Although the New Comedy conceit of twin siblings manipulates the possibility of a happy ending for all, the actual ceremony belies that possibility: while J.D. Hackensacker III/Rudy Vallee is smiling at his bride, she peers round at her "sister" Gerry Jeffers/Claudette Colbert as if to ask, "What have I got myself into?" before forcing a sickly grin; meanwhile, Tom Jeffers' "brother"/Joel McGrea does a double-take of his bride, Princess Centimilla/Mary Astor, as if to say, "How did I get here?" The presence of the Princess's pet admirer, Toto/Sig Arno, at the end of the line-up (as Best Man?) is the final taunt to the "sanctity" of marriage and the "happiness" of endings.

Despite screwball comedy's remorseless attitude to "beautiful marriage", most critics still presume that the union of the couple is inherently conservative. For example, Wes D. Gehring argues that

The game still has the most conservative of goals: the heroine 's madcap maneuvers are often used to capture a male and break him-or save him-from [...] antisocial rigidity. This is best summed up with the term marriage, or the promise of marriage, which ends the screwball comedy, reaffirming one of the most traditional institutions in Western society. (154-155)

In other words, the mere fact of the couple's intimate relationship is automatically and inevitably tied to traditional marriage and reaffirmation of the status quo-irrespective of the thematic and narrative content of the film. There is no alternative for the heterosexual relationship: it must mean marriage, monogamy and social reproduction; it must also mean inequality, confinement and patriarchy. This attitude preempts discussion of the films, since it refuses to consider the contradictions of the text. For example, it is unclear how the "heroine's madcap maneuvers" can be equated quite so easily with "traditional" marriage, considering that traditionally marriage is controlled by patriarchy. Disrupting conventional gender roles is just one way in which the screwball narrative complicates and counteracts a preferred reading of conservative reaffirmation.

Part of the problem, therefore, is the critical tendency to collapse the union of a heterosexual couple with the social and ideological institution of marriage: the screwball ending tends, as Gehring so imprecisely puts it, to be "summed up with the term marriage" (my emphasis). However, not all screwball comedies end with a proposal, let alone a wedding; there is no mention of marriage at the end of Holiday or Bringing Up Baby, for example. While marriage may well be implied, this is not the same thing as conservative reaffirmation. It would be literally impossible for a 1930s' Hollywood film, made under the moral guardianship of the Production Code and the Legion of Decency, to explicitly reject marriage as the framework for a heterosexual relationship; but this does not necessarily mean that the film endorses that framework. The awful truth for screwball comedy is that there is no alternative to matrimony.

The very term "marriage" is a source of some confusion and a lack of critical precision can indeed make it seem as if the institution is inescapable. For example, David R. Shumway's criticism of Stanley Cavell's work on the comedies of remarriage fails to recognize that he is using the term "marriage" in quite a different sense from Cavell.

Where Cavell goes wrong [...] is his position that the screwball comedies he discusses succeed in enlightening us about marriage itself. My argument is that they do just the opposite: they mystify marriage by portraying it as the goal--but not the end--of romance. The major cultural work of these films is not the stimulation of thought about marriage, but the affirmation of marriage in the face of the threat of a growing divorce rate, (7)

Shumway is referring purely to the institution of marriage, presuming it is constituted by the final union and the legal fact; the state of marriage is therefore "mystified", since it is rarely shown as part of these films' plots. Cavell's use is much broader, however, referring to the concept of marriage, which he explicitly disconnects from the necessity of a legal contract: in It Happened One Night,

what we have been shown in the [...] auto camps is something like their [Ellie and Peter's] marriage. We know of course that they have not been legally, actually married, but we also know that those things do not always constitute marriage, and we may freely wonder what does. (85)

On some level, both Shumway and Cavell are right: the films tend to mystify the state of marriage by postponing the legal fact until the end of the film; on the other hand, we are clearly meant to understand the central couple's relationship as questioning the constitution of that marriage, and as proposing an alternative model. For if Ellie and Peter's relationship seems "something like a marriage" to Cavell, it is certainly characterized as something like a "not-marriage" by the conventions of the diegetic world. Cavell's use of the term "marriage" confuses the issue: although his discussion may offer an ideal model for the heterosexual relationship, the collapse of any distinction between this relationship and "marriage" effectively reabsorbs the potential space for resistance to the institutional status quo. [1] (To avoid further confusion, the use of the term "marriage" is hereon restricted to the legal fact).

A further problem arises from the critical tendency to treat marriage ahistorically as "one of the most traditional institutions in Western society" (Gehring), rather than as a culturally-determined convention, whose specific meaning and function alters over time. Even when a connection is made between the rising American divorce rate and screwball comedy, the connection is rarely pursued further. The tendency is to assume, like Shumway, that the "major cultural work" of screwball comedy is the conservative affirmation of monolithic marriage, rather than the--at least potentially--progressive critique and reform of an outmoded version of the institution. [2] Cavell, on the other hand, recognizes that the emphasis upon remarriage indicates that it is "as if marriage, which was to be a ratification, is itself in need of ratification" (31). Although he does not explicitly place this need for ratification within a material context, his discussion does at least suggest that a specific cultural moment has prompted this narrative interest in the state and constitution of marriage.

For while the fact of marriage may not have changed, the popular conception of marriage was shifting during the 1920s and 1930s, particularly as it related to the meanings and expectations of "love" and "family". [3] There was a sense of crisis as divorce rates soared, almost doubling between 1910 and 1940, from 4.5 to 8.7 divorces per 1,000 marriages (Jacobson & Jacobson, 90). Marriage rates dropped, while birth rates reached an all-time low in 1935; the size of the middle-class family shrank, from an average of six children to two or three. Contemporary debates considered marriage to be in a state of transition, and frequently contrasted an outmoded patriarchal Victorian model to a modern egalitarian concept of love companionship. For example, J.P. Lichtenberger claimed that "the ancient economic-patriarchal form of the family has fulfilled its function and is becoming obsolete [....] Masculine lordship is now being replaced by mutuality or mergence [sic] of wills in domestic affairs" (285). The Victorian m odel was widely understood to be founded upon economic considerations and gender inequality, with arranged marriages and the strict separation of male/public and female/domestic spheres. Moreover, a "sex-negative Victorian culture was thought to have suppressed the awareness of the sexual underpinnings of marriage" (Steven Seidman, 76). [4] Although coitus was an accepted part of Victorian marriage, moderation was recommended and the act was supposed to be brief and missionary; it was a necessary means to a procreative end--not an expression of love. Sexual desire and sensuality were considered base and egotistical, threatening both the spiritual nature of love and the social "responsibility" of procreation. Sexual desire was also a distinctly male prerogative, and the double standard prevailed: while the beastly husband struggled to contain his vile passions, the "cult of true womanhood" placed the morally and sexually pure wife on a pedestal.

In the age of the "New Woman" and the flapper, such constrained images of female sexuality and behavior were simply no longer acceptable; indeed, it was commonplace to attribute the "changing morality" to the demands of the emancipated woman. The traditional stereotypes of female sexuality (passive, indifferent, disinterested) were being undermined by the actions of these women. Increasing emphasis was being placed upon mutual sexual satisfaction and, for the first time, it "function[ed] as a standard of a happy and successful marriage" (Seidman, 66). This potentially radical acknowledgement of female sexuality was usually qualified, however, by the reiteration of conventional gender traits: the female was generally still cast as the more passive and sensitive partner, with the male in control of the situation.

As women were becoming more overtly sexual, sex was becoming divorced from its procreative function. Victorian marriage had been predicated upon procreation, but modern couples were actively avoiding having children, despite legal prohibitions on contraception. Unsurprisingly, birth control was seen as playing a major part in the changing ideology of marriage; indeed, according to Ben Lindsey, "Birth Control [...] brought the Companionate [Marriage] into existence" (v).

Lindsey defined this new form of marriage quite specifically: "Companionate Marriage is legal marriage, with legalized Birth Control, and with the right to divorce by mutual consent for childless couples, usually without payment of alimony" (v). Companionate Marriage was recognized as a co-existing alternative to the traditional "Family" marriage (indeed, should a Companionate couple have a child, then the marriage would automatically revert to the traditional concept). Moreover, barring the legal aspects, Lindsey repeatedly asserted that Companionate Marriage was not an innovation, but a reality- at least for those middle-class couples with enough education and wealth to employ birth control methods and lawyers.

Companionate Marriage, in Lindsey's sense, required a specific institutional system, but as the term became popularized it was understood to redefine marriage in more egalitarian terms, reflecting the increased independence of women. With time, "companionate marriage" also became conflated with the more general sense of "love companionship", emphasizing emotional compatibility and mutual interests. Love was the new catchword in talking about marriage. For example, according to Ludwig Lewisjohn, marriage should not only "be held to be created by love and sustained by love", but that love should involve a "precise blending of passion and spiritual harmony and solid friendship" (200). In other words, "love" was no longer a wholly spiritual emotion; it also incorporated sexual fulfillment and companionship.

Modern love not only extended into the bedroom, therefore, but also into the public domain of shared leisure activities. It is no coincidence that the increased emphasis on personal happiness and on enjoying pursuits together corresponded with the rise of consumerism. It certainly shaped the future of personal relationships-not least with the development of "dating" in the 1920s. By its very nature, dating necessitated consumption, since it took place in the public sphere of cinemas, diners, and dance halls. Thus, while Victorian habits had emphasized economy and self-restraint, modern consumerism and leisure demanded that people not only spent money, but that they should enjoy doing so. This entailed a fundamental shift in the American consciousness, succinctly described by Martha Wolfenstein as "the emergence of [...] 'fun morality."' As Wolfenstein observes, "fun, from having been suspect, if not taboo, ha[d] tended to become obligatory Instead of feeling guilty for having too much fun, one [was] inclined to feel ashamed if one [did] not have enough" (168).

Once these economic and social changes had been set in motion, not even a stock market crash could reverse the process. With the onslaught of the Depression, the hedonistic impulses of the twenties were abruptly arrested, but their ideological repercussions were still being negotiated. By 1939, it was clear to James Harwood Barnett that "the social conception of the nature of marriage has greatly altered and that modern marriage is increasingly regarded, by the middle classes especially, as a highly personal relationship, rather than as an institutional, social relationship" (32). This new form of marriage involved crucial shifts: from duty to pleasure; from spirituality to sexuality; from social responsibility to personal satisfaction. Most importantly, the basic unit of this marriage was no longer the family; it was the companionate couple.

It is probably worth spelling out some of the implications these wider cultural issues have for screwball comedy. The "patriarchal" Victorian marriage was explicitly being denounced as outmoded: it was repressed, rooted in gender inequality, tied down with responsibility, and absolutely no fun. Screwball couples not only eschew the responsibility of having children ("babies" are leopards and dogs), but eschew all responsibility and behave like children. The screwball relationship is rooted in having "fun" (which, by the power of the Production Code, also means sex) and this fun is repeatedly formulated in terms of revitalizing marriage. If this process of revitalization is seen as a metaphor, rather than as a reactionary reaffirmation, then "remarriage" can involve replacing the old model with the new: the same, but different.

The Awful Truth provides a well-defined demonstration of this metaphorical transition. The lawyer/patriarch's concept of "beautiful" marriage is visually associated with the outmoded Victorian model of separate spheres and "domestic bliss". Jerry and Lucy's divorce complies with Lindsey's sense of Companionate Marriage: divorce by mutual consent for a (wealthy) childless couple, with no payment of alimony (Jerry inquires, "You've never asked for money, and ... well, do you need any?" The answer is no). It is as if this divorce is an intermediate stage, however, since it is initiated through the collapse of Jerry's double standard: "What wives don't know won't hurt them." He has spent two weeks pretending to be in Florida, but is disconcerted to discover that Lucy is not dutifully awaiting his return, especially when she finally does appear in dazzling evening dress, closely followed by a handsome Frenchman, Armand Duvalle/Alex D'Arcy. It is indicated to the spectator (through performance style, convention an d cliche) that Lucy is telling the truth about her overnight adventure--in which case, the question remains, why is Jerry so quick to seek a divorce? The issue at stake is not so much Lucy's innocence or guilt (and even less so Jerry's), but Jerry's discovery that Lucy is not dependent on his presence. It is the shock of discovering her autonomy that proves too hard to bear.

The turning point in Lucy and Jerry's separation comes after the recital fiasco. Jerry stumbles in uninvited, still determined to believe that Lucy is having an affair with Armand, but Lucy displays no anger at Jerry's own impromptu "performance", only amusement. As he finally rights himself, hair in his eyes and a drawer in his hand, Jerry looks at Lucy and raises his eyebrows; her answer turns the final notes of her song into vibrato laughter, and she is still laughing when the dissolve brings up the next scene. It is this fiasco which forces Lucy to admit, "I'm still in love with that crazy lunatic and there's nothing I can do about it." She is compelled to remember the "grand laughs" that she and Jerry used to share. It is this sense of having fun together, therefore, which becomes all important, and it is no coincidence that the laughter of the recital is reversed and reinforced by Lucy's second "performance" as Jerry's socially-unacceptable "sister", Lola, at the Vances' stuffy party. Lucy demonstrates an equal willingness to appear ridiculous, and Jerry is the only one who appreciates her act; while the Vances shudder, he simply cannot help laughing.

Lucy's active pursuit of Jerry raises the issue of gender roles in screwball comedy. Whereas social convention was still rooted in essentialist gender traits and the idea of complementary gender roles, screwball comedy takes gender one step further, inverting convention to further disrupt patriarchy. The Awful Truth begins by placing the spectator in a highly privileged position, aligned with Jerry's point of view: we are privy to an overtly masculine world (the inner sanctums of the Gotham Athletic Club) and to a male conspiracy of silence ("What wives don't know ..."). In this masculine world, Jerry is incredibly self-confident--certain of his ability to deceive, and thereby control, his wife. The film then systematically inverts this initial state of masculine omnipotence, undermining Jerry's complacency (and our confidence in his authority) before realigning our sympathies with Lucy (around whom most of the plot action revolves). Ultimately, it is Lucy who orchestrates their reconciliation, through a lib erating process of masquerade, social and legal transgression, and seduction.

It is Jerry who must change his attitude, and his re-education is made all but explicit at the Vances' party:

Jerry: [somewhat pompously] Oh, Barbara--you can't have a happy married life if you're always suspicious. No--there can't be any doubts in marriage; marriage is based on faith, and if you've lost that, you've lost everything.

Although Jerry claims, "I think I read it in a book or something," this little speech in fact repeats Lucy's words almost verbatim ("... there can't be any doubts in marriage: the whole thing's built on faith. If you've lost that--well, you've lost everything"). I must take issue with Cavell, therefore, who attributes the original speech to Jerry (234 & 244). It is vital to understand that Jerry has learned a lesson, and that this lesson was not learned in a book, but from Lucy. His pomposity in repeating her words only serves to emphasize his self-delusion, and his pride prepares the spectator to expect another fall (promptly provided by Lucy's masquerade). It is not until the final scene of the film that Jerry can fully acknowledge his error:

Jerry: [...] you're wrong about things being different because they're not the same. Things are different, except in a different way [....] You're still the same only I've been a fool. But I'm not now.

Lucy: [murmurs] Oh!

Jerry: As long as I'm different, don't you think that, well, maybe things could be the same again--only a little different, huh?

The confusion of terms in this speech (which again echo words spoken by Lucy, in the preceding sequence) encapsulates the process by which their relationship has been transformed: things are the same, because they will continue to be married; but things are different, because the constitution of that marriage has changed.

Cavell's misrepresentation of the "marriage is based on faith" speech raises concerns about his understanding of the comedies of remarriage. He repeatedly argues that the man's lecturing indicates that an essential goal of the narrative is the education of the woman, where her education turns out to mean her acknowledgement of her desire, and this in turn will be conceived as her creation, her emergence, at any rate, as an autonomous human being. (84)

Quite apart from the implication that the male hero "creates" the woman, this completely ignores the fact that "the man's lecturing" is usually mocked or proven unsound. Cavell cites Peter's lectures in It Happened One Night as key evidence: the equation of correctly dunking doughnuts with becoming autonomous is baffling; but ignoring the fact that it is Ellie who succeeds when Peter's hitch-hiking demonstration fails is inexcusable. Elsewhere, "lectures" are given by: Walter Burns/Gary Grant (His Girl Friday)--a proven liar, cheat and manipulator; David Huxley/Cary Grant (Bringing up Baby)--who is constantly ignored; and Charles "Hopsie" Pike/Henry Fonda (The Lady Eve [1941])--who even Cavell acknowledges "is treated to [a relentless] exposure of pompous self-ignorance" (56). Nonetheless, Cavell apparently still believes his lesson worth learning.

A level of patriarchal assumption underpins not only Cavell's argument, but also the general critical tendency to posit the female as the "problem" in screwball comedy. The effect of such arguments is to overemphasize the education of the female, at the expense of the male, leading to an unbalanced view of the cycle's conflicts and resolutions. The male's desires can prove just as problematic as the female's, and the majority of screwball comedies involve a certain amount of mutual re-education. For example, Theodora Goes Wild (1936) first centers upon Michael Grant's/Melvyn Douglas's "education" of Theodora Lynn/Irene Dunne. He likens her life in Lynnfield to jail and lectures her to "Break loose, be yourself and tell Lynnfield, 'Go take a jump.' [...] It's the only way you'll ever be a happy, free soul." Once Theodora has told Lynnfield where to go--declaring her love for Michael in the process--he disappears; she follows him only to discover that he is trapped in a loveless marriage to please his father. T heodora returns the favor by liberating Michael: "You're living in a jail too--you can't call your soul your own!" What is particularly striking about their respective family "jails" is their overt gender determination, reinforced by domestic/public and rural/urban conflicts. Theodora lives wit two maiden aunts in a small town named after her family, while a black sheep uncle lives in the city; her behavior is restricted by small-town values and conventional feminine domesticity (including gossip). Michael's father is Lieutenant Governor and a city banker, and it is the patriarch's public dignity which must be protected at all costs; Michael's divorce must be postponed until his father's retirement from office. In both cases, liberation entails breaking free from the constraints imposed by family and social mores.

Like Theodora, most screwball heroines acknowledge their own desire before the heroes acknowledge any desire (She Married Her Boss, My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby). It is the male who must learn to accept the female's desire, and the education that takes place does not necessarily demand the female's "emergence" as an autonomous being, but rather the male's recognition of her (existing) autonomy. For example, in It Happened One Night, Peter describes his ideal love: "If I could ever find the right sort of girl [...] Someone that's real, someone that's alive--they don't come that way anymore." The camera closes in on Peter's face as he settles back against his pillow and daydreams:

She'd have to be the sort of a girl who'd, well, jump in the surf with me, and love it as much as I did [....] You know, nights when you 'n' the moon 'n' the water all become one, and you feel you're part of something big and marvelous [....] Boy, if I could ever find a girl who was hungry for those things.

Visibly moved, Ellie takes action, breaches the blanket-boundary and acknowledges her desire: "Take me with you, Peter. I love you. Nothing else matters." Peter's initial reaction is rejection. Ironically, Cavell expresses Peter's problem well:

What surprises him is her reality. To acknowledge her as this woman [of his dream] would be to acknowledge that she is "somebody that's real, somebody that's alive," flesh and blood, someone separate from his dream [...] and this feels to him to be a threat to the dream, and hence a threat to him. (100)

It is precisely a question of recognizing her autonomy that is at stake here, and Peter's misrecognition is emphasized by the fact that what did happen one night was exactly the stuff of his dream: he and Ellie have already frolicked in the water, under the stars and moon, while crossing the river (cf. Cavell, 99-100). Peter also has a lesson to learn, therefore, but--unlike Ellie who displays an admirable flexibility and willingness to learn--he stubbornly clings to his stagnant rules, claiming an authority which he cannot prove, let alone maintain. It would seem that the male's lecturing has far more to do with clinging to his own threatened power than with educating the female.

In this sense, the screwball heroine does represent a "problem"--the autonomous, desiring New Woman--but screwball comedy does not punish her for her actions. Nor do the hero's lectures reform her. Susan Vance/Katharine Hepburn is not transformed at the end of Bringing Up Baby into the dutiful, passive wife; Lucy Warriner does not submit meekly to the authority of her husband; and Hopsie Pike is only too glad to rediscover the transgressive Jean Harrington/Barbara Stanwyck after his encounter with her alter ego, the Lady Eve. This, if nothing else, should verify that screwball comedy is about more than just reaffirming traditional gender roles. The question of the absent mother is also worth mentioning in this respect. According to Cavell, "Mythically, the absence of the mother continues the idea that the creation of the woman is the business of men" (57). However, if the corresponding absence of children is taken into account, there is a more obvious reason for this general absence of the mother: procreation is not the point; it is the autonomous individual which is at stake. The absence of procreation in these films directly relates to the cultural transition from the family-based patriarchal marriage to the couple-oriented companionate marriage: the screwball couple want to make love, not babies. Similarly, the absence of the mother reflects the diminished influence of the domestic sphere, allowing the female into the public domain beyond the conventional space of gender destiny.

Screwball comedy is concerned with creating a more egalitarian heterosexual relationship, therefore, and part of this concern involves the disavowal of romance. The screwball couple never fall in "love at first sight", but come to appreciate each other through their shared misadventures. Consequently, the central metaphor for romantic love--the embracing kiss--is subordinated or denied altogether. In The Awful Truth, Lucy and Jerry's relationship is defined by shared laughter; the only embrace we see is a quick peck on the cheek in their first scene together The couple's reconciliation, and its sexual consummation, is left implicit: Lucy's last word is a laughing "Goodnight." We are left watching the cuckoo clock once more, as it strikes quarter to midnight (fifteen minutes before their divorce becomes final); this time, the boy figurine skips around to follow the girl figurine back through her doot Similarly, the couple retreat behind closed doors at the end of It Happened One Night and The Lady Eve, while t he final embraces in Love Crazy (1941) and Mr. and Mrs. Smith occur just out of frame. In each case, it is sex--not romance--which is implied.

Even those screwball comedies which do include an onscreen embrace usually do not treat it in a conventionally romantic way. Virginia Wright Wexman has argued that "The movie kiss represents a privileged moment of romantic bonding [....] Customarily this moment is designed to highlight the expression of romantic fulfillment on the face of the woman, who is foregrounded by a key light while her male partner remains in the shadows" (18). In other words, the romantic embrace focuses attention upon the passive object of desire (the woman's carefully-lit, soft-focus face) and conforms with conventional understanding of the power structures of the gendered look. It is an image which anyone familiar with classical Hollywood film should recognize, but it is not one found in screwball comedy. The screwball embrace offers quite a different spatial representation, symbolizing the equality of the couple. The couple face each other, not the camera, creating a balanced division of frame space; indeed, they are often seated , de-emphasizing the male's height so that the couple's heads are relatively level. The shot/reverse shot articulation of looks is noticeably absent from these sequences: the couple remain together in the democratic two-shot while the spectator remains outside the space of their embrace. The camera also maintains its distance, and the screwball embrace is rarely seen in anything closer than a medium shot.

The final embrace in Bringing Up Baby offers a clear illustration of this argument. There is certainly nothing conventionally romantic about David and Susan's courtship, which is spent changing identities as often as clothes, chasing dogs and leopards, and systematically destroying property. Ultimately, their relationship is ratified by David's words: "I've just discovered that was the best day of my whole life [....] I never had a better time!" It is this anarchic fun which David translates into "I love you, I think," and his qualification applies as much to the appropriateness of the word "love" to their relationship, as to its instability. As the final vestige of patriarchal society--the dinosaur--collapses at their feet, David hoists Susan up to his platform. The couple sit facing each other, symmetrically sharing the frame space of a medium long shot; even as they embrace, the spectator is excluded, since they turn their heads away from the camera. Of course, Susan acts first, embracing David while telli ng him how he feels, to which David can only sigh, "Oh dear! Oh my!" before relinquishing all control and returning her embrace. Cavell describes this embrace as "notably awkward" (120), but, in the circumstances, how could it be anything else? A conventional romantic close-up would be far more incongruous. The film's theme returns. The image cuts to an extreme long shot of the couple on the scaffold. Fade to black. And they lived happily ever after.

Or did they? Cavell feels that the collapse of the dinosaur casts a shadow over the happiness of this ending, and has trouble accepting that David should still want to embrace Susan, as his work lies in ruins (121). However, the internal logic of the film demands the collapse of the dinosaur, as the symbol of all that is wrong with society: stagnation, repression, capitalism, and patriarchal sexuality (cf. Britton, 41). The film does not ask us to imagine what comes next; the couple are literally left in mid-air, in a moment of total chaos. Cavell recognizes the "ambivalence and instability" (124) of this couple's mode of sexuality, but rather depressingly insists on pointing out that "the situation between this pair cannot remain as it is" (124). The obvious reason for this is that the couple cannot really escape patriarchal society. Their triumph is both symbolic and fleeting; it is a Utopian moment, not Utopia.

Far from reaffirming the status quo, screwball comedy maintains a precarious balance between total anarchy and stable resolution. Whether the couple retreat behind closed doors, set sail for another country (She Married Her Boss, Holiday, The Lady Eve) or just sit in midair, the screwball ending typically places the couple in limbo. As Andrew Britton argues, "It is an essential characteristic of the couples created at the end of these films that they cannot exist in established bourgeois society" (39). Consequently, the screwball ending is distinctly antisocial: instead of festive integration, the cycle insists upon the couple's extraordinary status in society. While I consider the couple's antisocial privacy to coincide with their progressive potential (representing their rejection of patriarchal sexuality and society), Shumway reasserts a conservative meaning:

since these are thoroughly bourgeois comedies, there is no sense of festival accompanying the marriage. Marriage is a private matter [....] The ending leaves the couple isolated in their own bliss [...] In other words, there is no possibility of post coitum triste, but rather the explicit denial of the temporality of satisfaction. It is in this illusory eternity that marriage is rendered mystical, in spite of whichever of its realities the film has indulged earlier. (16)

Once again, the heterosexual couple cannot win: social integration reaffirms the status quo; but privacy is bourgeois romanticism. To the extent that screwball comedy assumes the importance of the subjective personal relationship, Shumway's argument is right: these films "solve" the problems of one extraordinary couple; they do not change the social system, nor challenge the material realities of inequality. However, the films themselves acknowledge both the extraordinary status of the couple, and the instability of the resolution: the same, but different. It is the sense of flux that most clearly informs the cycle's concept of remarriage. Screwball comedy insists that the couple must keep on playing, keep on reinventing themselves, and keep on learning to love each other. The "illusory eternity" of just living happily ever after is wholeheartedly demystified.


The research for this article was made possible by a Postgraduate studentship from the British Arts and Humanities Research Board.

Kathrina Glitre is currently completing her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Reading, England.

(1.) For this reason, this article's title ("The Same but Different") is deliberately intended to echo Cavell's chapter on The Awful Truth ("The Same and Different"). The slight change is integral to my navigation of Cavell's arguments: "but" opens up space for negotiation, while "and" collapses this space.

(2.) Tina Olsin Lent's "Romantic Love and Friendship: The Redefinition of Gender Relations in Screwball Comedy" proves an exception, providing a detailed overview of the cultural context; unfortunately, the films themselves are treated too simplistically. Published in Classical Hollywood Comedy, eds. Kristine Brunovska Karnick & Henry Jenkins (New York & London: Routledge, 1995).

(3.) The following analysis inevitably involves a white, middle-class bias; marriage is a notoriously bourgeois institution, and middle-class attitudes predominate both in contemporary discussions and in screwball's representation of marriage.

(4.) In recent years, historians have revised these stereotypes of Victorian sexuality and marriage (see Seidman, 16-17).


Barnett, James Harwood. Divorce and the American Divorce Novel 1858-1937: A Study in Literary Reflections of Social Influences (Reissue). New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.

Britton, Andrew. "Gary Grant: Comedy and Male Desire", CineAction!, No.7, December 1986, pp. 36-51.

Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cambridge, MA, & London: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Gehring, Wes D. Screwball Comedy: A Genre of Madcap Romance. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Jacobson Paul H. & Pauline F. Jacobson. American Marriage and Divorce. New York: Rinehart, 1959.

Lewisjohn, Ludwig. "Love and Marriage" in Our Changing Morality: A Symposium (ed. Freda Kirchwey). London: Kegan, Paul, Tranch, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1925.

Lichtenberger, J.P. Divorce: A Social Interpretation. New York & London: Whittlesey House, 1931.

Lindsey, Judge Ben B. & Wainwright Evans. The Companionate Marriage. New York, London & Paris: Brentano's Ltd., 1928.

Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.

Seidman, Steven. Romantic Longings: Love in America, 1830-1980. New York & London: Routledge, 1991.

Shumway, David R. "Screwball Comedies: Constructing Romance, Mystifying Marriage", Cinema Journal, Vol.30 no.4, Summer 1991, pp. 7-23.

Wexman, Virginia Wright. Creating the Couple: Love, Marriage, and Hollywood Performance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Wolfenstein, Martha. "Fun Morality: An Analysis of Recent Child-training Literature" in Childhood in Contemporary Cultures (eds. Margaret Mead & Martha Wolfenstein). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955.
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Title Annotation:marriage in comic motion pictures
Author:Glitre, Kathrina
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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