Monday, August 1, 2016

Screwball Comedies and Comedies of Remarriage

Cary Grant, Rosiland Russell, Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday
A good marriage requires a curse on the lips, a .45 in his hand, and a Remington 870 pump shotgun in hers: two people, back-to-back, who tolerate each other, telling the world: "Don't mess with us - we're crazy." As long as you hate everybody else more than you hate your spouse, you have the foundation for a good marriage.

- The Bear

Comedy of Remarriage

In the 1930's and into the 40's there was a motion picture type called "the comedy of remarriage." A good example (enjoyable, but a mediocre film) is That Uncertain Feeling (1941) starring Burgess Meredith (before he was on half the Twilight Zone episodes), Melvyn Douglas (before he was old) and Merle Oberon (not well-remembered, but an anglo-indian beauty). Often screwball comedies were comedies of remarriage, such as the much better classic His Girl Friday (1940) starring Cary Grant and Rosiland Russell.

Usually it's the wife who leaves her husband for another man, for reasons that are unclear to the point of irrelevance. But these are comedies, after all. The husband still loves his wife, and, truth to tell, she still loves him, despite divorcing him for some other guy. (There's a reason they're called "screwball comedies.") The husband must convince his estranged wife - often against a tight deadline - that it is really him that she loves. This usually involves elaborate and comic schemes.

The new husband-to-be is not necessarily unsympathetic.  But Ralph Bellamy's insurance salesman from Albany makes an unfavorable contrast to dapper, fast-talking editor Cary Grant. The original husband often slyly patronizes his rival in a friendly manner.

If the Bear were not so slipshod, he could probably think of some modern rom coms that feature a comedy of remarriage, except he does not watch modern rom coms. They're not very Bearish. You would lose all respect if the Bear confessed to adoring rom coms. But if they're black-and-white, that makes it okay under Bear social conventions.

The Impact of Divorce on Films

Divorce was rare in 1930. But by the end of the decade, it had climbed to 19%.  By 1949, it was at 27%. At this scale, it was a new American phenomenon. Comedies of remarriage of the 30's and 40's might be mistaken for a cultural rearguard action, but they are really just dealing with a theme in the only way then available.

Comedies of remarriage are notable for their absence any religiosity in any of the characters. Marriage was already a matter solely of the heart and lawyers. The sacramental element was cut out of the American movie depiction of marriage. The estranged wife re-falls for her old husband because she loves him more than husband-to-be. There's chemistry between them. That's it. The realities of marriage could not be farther from these comedies.  No stigma is attached to divorce. Going to Reno for a quick divorce is already a well-known option.

In the 1930s and 40s,  Hollywood was obliged to follow what is commonly known as "The Hayes Code." The institute of marriage was not to be trifled with. Comedies of remarriage could handle divorce, as long as the original couple got back together. It was also a way for Hollywood to deliver a frisson of illicit romance. The "other man" steals a rival's wife, but it's alright, because the "other man" is actually the female lead's lawfully wedded husband.

At the beginning of the classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday, former ace reporter Rosiland Russell is going to pay a final visit to her old newspaper and its editor, the ex, Cary Grant. She tells her hapless insurance salesman intended  Ralph Bellamy that she'll be back in ten minutes. Sure she will. This is a comedy of remarriage.

The Forgotten or Misunderstood Romance of Marriage

We should not forget that one definition of "romance" is an epic narrative. Consider that in The Song of Roland, the sword Durandal was given by an angel, and contained a tooth of St. Peter, the blood of St. Basil, the hair of of St. Denis and a piece of the Virgin Mary's garment. You need a sword like that to fight heroic battles. That's romance.

But that definition is forgotten, and we have Valentine's Day cards instead. (Bears hate being culturally guilted into buying stuff. A nice mess of fresh fish is what your sweetheart really wants to be presented with on that morning, right in bed!)

The Bear believes there is nothing more romantic than the recommitment, or even falling back in love, of a married couple. Why do so many people opt for divorce instead of giving the old comedy of remarriage a chance? In nature, Bears don't make much of a thing about mating, and never see their cubs. But humans... the Bear expects better. By 1985 the divorce rate was 50%.

Comedy of Remarriage in Judging Angels

One of the things the Bear wanted to do in Judging Angels was to play the comedy of remarriage on hard mode, which always included the very real likelihood that there would be no happy reunion. It is the 21st century, and we must learn how to deal with failed marriages. But just making getting back together an option explores the nature of marriage.

The Bear suspects that it is not really not husband vs. wife; or wife vs. other woman; or husband vs. other man, but wife vs. wife, and/or husband vs. husband. New woman, new man, come after someone has messed up themselves somehow, and made their marriage a casualty.

A good marriage needs, in the Bear's humble opinion, two people who are committed to living an ideal with a very imperfect spouse, even when warm feelings have cooled. Western culture has not been kind to marriage with its unrealistic insistence on romance and happily-ever-after lives after the big white wedding.

A good marriage requires a curse on the lips, a .45 in the husband's hand, and a Remington 870 pump shotgun in the wife's: two people who tolerate each other telling the world: "Don't mess with us - we're crazy." As long as you hate everybody else more than you hate your spouse, you have the foundation for a good marriage.

The Bear really should be a marriage counselor.

The Bear has observed that a human male can "fall in love with" a new woman at the drop of a hat. Why not? Aside from premium features like being younger and prettier, the main thing is that she's new. Primates find it hard to resist shiny new things. The Bear supposes it's like "new car fever" men get. (This is why human males must avoid "new" at all cost; and wives must be prepared to kill "new" on sight.)

In any case, screwball comedies and more sedate comedies with the comedy of remarriage make for very enjoyable watching. There is a reason His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, and Bringing Up Baby are considered classics.


  1. I hope the Bear realizes my two recent posts were in jest.

    "Divorce was rare in 1930. But by the end of the decade, it had climbed to 19%. By 1949, it was at 27%."
    This underscores my case that blaming the situation in the Church solely on the hierarchy post-VII overlooks the moral problems in the laity prior to VII. All was not well before VII in the Church, even if it were the Protestants contributing more to those divorce statistics at the time.

    The understanding of marriage was already in decline as the Bear notes. It moved from understanding that the primary end was the procreation and education of children (secondary end being the mutual help and support of the spouses), to marriage being first and foremost an institution of companionship. "My spouse will make me happy and we will have fun times together." Children were an after thought, if desired at all. [JPII didn't help with effectively making primary the "mutual sanctification of the spouses"].

    Then, when the companionship isn't so fun, why be married? "I'm not being fulfilled and self-actualized." The baby boomer generation really solidified this new understanding.

    With marriage now as an institution of companionship, what defense is left against "gay mirage"? None. It satisfies companionship.

    While researching civil annulment requirements for an entirely different project, I noticed that the states I looked at all had provisions (to various degrees) for annulment due to impotence. Impotence is distinct from infertility. In canon law impotence at the time of the wedding [as opposed to later acquired impotence] by either party invalidates the marriage. Impotence need not be absolute, but relative to the spouse. To put it delicately, it's defined in rather rudimentary terms. The male can penetrate the female, and the female can receive the male. The most fundamental aspect of the conjugal act.

    I was rather disappointed that the state attorneys general defending marriage laws did not attempt to make recourse to this in defending against gay mirage. It was already within state law that the conjugal act was central to marriage (and sodomy was well known at the time). What gay mirage creates is a special class of citizens that enter civil marriage that by law is intrinsically invalid and can escape by use of civil annulment rather than via divorce court. OTH, removing the provision does harm to heterosexual couples by removing a right they once had.

    Then again, the state attorneys general never struck me as trying all that hard to defend marriage.

    1. Very good comment. The liturgical changes post-V2 (which is what everybody saw and thinks of) made the appearance of a dramatic change. Everybody committed the logical error of post hoc ergo propter hoc. The Catholic Church remembered the words to marriage, but not the tune, unfortunately, as you also point out. The Protestant West did not maintain a health environment.

      Walt Disney is probably most to blame. "True Love" of a 16-year-old princess is a tough act to keep up for the next 65 years. The Bear believes in arranged marriages, but can't seem to get anyone else in the family behind that idea. Although his daughter did pretty well on her own.

    2. Yes, the Bear knows they were in jest. But the Bear's sense of humor ends where his contractual obligations to a publisher begin. He's sure you can appreciate that.

    3. I absolutely appreciate it, and fully support your efforts.

      (and I've got skin in the game, as I have a book riding on those met obligations).

  2. There is a scene in the movie "The Best Yeas of Our Lives" (1946) that would never, ever find its way into our local cineplex now.

    1. Good catch, Jane. Great film. But can't think of one where the sacramental dimension is even mentioned. And don't say they couldn't do it. The joke ran "Hollywood is a place where Jews make movies about Catholic theology to sell to Protestants."

  3. Oh, you mentioned it, one of my FAVORITES, The Philadelphia Story! Love it! I must say, Katherine Hepburn is so superb in this film, it really is a must see. She also made a brilliant move here, by insisting on a cut of the profits.
    The other film in this genre that is brilliant and wonderful to watch is "The Awful Truth" with Irene Dunne and again, Cary Grant. Listen for the incredibly great line "Here's your diploma".

    1. Thanks for the tip! I'll have to watch that one.

  4. Philadelphia story....absolutely Kathleen! Great movie.

    A recent one (though not near the class, beauty, humor, and timelessness of the older classics) was "Liar Liar" with the patheticly confused Jim Carrey.

    1. Thanks, I've never seen that, but Jim Carrey can be very good. You can't beat those classic films though.


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