Marriage and Its Representations in Classical Hollywood Comedy, 1934-1945. Stanley Cavell, the Concept of Skepticism, and Kierkegaard's Legacy

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This article explores the questions of marriage and divorce as discussed by Stanley Cavell in his study of classical Hollywood comedies, in which he considered a popular subgenre of the American comedy of the thirties and forties that he dubbed the
  Marriage and Its Representaons  | 2018, 4/2, 23–37 Toufc El-Khoury Marriage and Its Representations in Classical Hollywood Comedy, 1934–1945 Stanley Cavell, the Concept of Skepticism, and Kierkegaard’s Legacy ABSTRACT This article explores the questions of marriage and divorce as discussed by Stanley Cavell in his study of classical Hollywood comedies, in which he considered a popular subgenre of the American comedy of the thirties and forties that he dubbed the “com-edy of remarriage”. It focuses on Cavell’s analysis of a series of lms and the way these comedies belong to a specic American school of thought with a case study of T A- T (Leo McCarey, US 1937). It then seeks to identify traces of Kierkegaard’s mor-al legacy, by way of Wittgenstein’s inuence on the American thinker, in Cavell’s srcinal approach to marriage and divorce in light of his discussion of philosophical skepticism. KEYWORDS Classical Hollywood comedy, Stanley Cavell, cinema, skepticism, cinematic represen - tations of marriage, Søren Kierkegaard BIOGRAPHY Touc El-Khoury is Assistant Professor (Maître de conférences) at the Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth (USJ, Beirut, Lebanon) and Lecturer at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA, University of Balamand, Lebanon). He is the author of La Co - médie hollywoodienne classique (1929–1945), structure triadique et médiations du désir    («Champs visuels», 2016) and the co-editor, with Alain Brenas, of La ville méditerrané-enne au cinéma  (Orizons, 2015). He is the editor of the Film Studies series «Cinémato-graphies» (Orizons, Paris, France). MARRIAGE AND ITS REPRESENTATIONS IN COMEDY Representations of marriage in theater and lm, more specically in comedy, are logically correlated to the mores, habits, and customs of the countries that produce them. We can identify two ways those dramatic representations have DOI: 10.25364/05.4:2018.2.2  24 | Toufc El-Khoury 2018, 4/2, 23–37 been the subject of signicant transformation and also how the production con-text has inuenced the conventions of comedy.First, the basic narrative structure of Greek new comedy, or Menandrian comedy (fourth century BCE), the dominant comic model in western theater until the seventeenth century and based in the Greek and Latin traditions, be-came obsolete when the conception of marriage started to change. The narra-tive structure of new comedy was summarized by Northrop Frye: What normally happens is that a young man wants a young woman, that his desire is resisted by some opposition, usually paternal, and that near the end of the play some twist in the plot enables the hero to have his will. In this simple pattern there are several complex elements. In the rst place, the movement of comedy is usually a movement from one kind of society to another. At the beginning of the play the ob-structing characters are in charge of the play’s society, and the audience recognizes that they are usurpers. At the end of the play the device in the plot that brings hero and heroine together causes a new society to crystallize around the hero, and the moment when this crystallization occurs is the point of resolution in the action, the comic discovery, anagnorisis or cognition. 1 This narrative model remained the comic convention in western theater until the beginning of the seventeenth century (Molière respected it, while parody-ing it, in most of his popular plays – see, for instance, L’Ecole des femmes  or the subplot of L’Avare ). Playwrights in various countries had begun, however, to take liberties with it: Shakespeare in England, Lope de Vega in Spain, and Cor-neille in France (though less popular for his comedies than Molière, he contrib-uted substantially to the genre 2 ) were modifying the comic dynamics of the cen-tral conict. The main change was in the representation of the principal young couple: while in the new comedy model the obstacle the lovers must overcome is externally imposed, in the comedies of the abovementioned authors, the ob-stacles are a product of the couple’s own actions and desires. Conict takes place within the intricacies of reciprocal aection rather than in the midst of social or generational opposition. 1 Frye 1990, 163. Charles Mauron gives a dierently detailed account of this narrative convention in his Psychocritique du genre comique: “The young girl, the object of dispute, is the property of the father who guards her or the Ieno who sells her. The emancipation by marriage is henceforth the story’s challenge. The general raits if the new comedy are thus established for many centuries. Its necessary types – rich father (and his avatars), young and penniless lover, cunning servants, young girls and courtesans – will pass under slightly modied forms from antiquity to modern comedy, bringing with them a whole procession of much older grotesque gures: parasite, cook, rural gures, blowhard sol-dier, etc.”, Mauron 1970, 80, my translation.2 The plays that epitomize those changes are La Galerie du Palais (1631) and La Place Royale  (1633) by Corneille, The Gardener’s Dog   (1618) by Lope de Vega, and The Taming of the Shrew  (1592),  A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595), and Much Ado About Nothing   (1599), among others, by Shakespeare.  Marriage and Its Representaons  | 2018, 4/2, 23–37 These changes in the representations of marriage in comedy are explained by a shift in western societies whereby marriage was no longer considered sim-ply a family pact and the views of the couple were taken into consideration. Irène Théry has proposed that the idea of a “marriage of love” appeared in literature and was staged in the theater as a reaction against the abuse of pa-ternal power, family alliances, and the Church. The success of works promoting “renewal of the matrimonial relationship” (as in the subsequent novels and es-says of Rousseau) especially with female readers is evidence of the centrality of the female identity to demands for a new model of marriage. 3  Freedom became part of understandings of marriage, specically the freedom of the individuals who might marry to accept or reject the married condition.The new comic convention, with the obstacles to the happiness of the couple generated by the couple themselves, became more popular as the societies in question underwent transformations that included the emergence of a middle class which formed a signicant part of the theatrical audience. 4  In addition, the denition of marriage as a social pact was gradually replaced by the possibility of reconciling social necessity and individual aspiration. Within the context of the contestation of the traditional matrimonial model, “free choice of spouse” became one of the major themes of comedy. In Shakespeare, Corneille, and Lope de Vega we see the comic tension shifting from a conict between law and desire to a more detailed investigation of the contradictions of desire it - self. 5  Thus, these authors opened the way for modern comedy, anticipating the works of Marivaux or Goldoni. 6  For instance, Marivaux’s female characters, al-though in part inspired by comic types inherited from the Commedia dell’arte ,   acquired a strong individual conscience, and the “internalization of conict, es- sential for the development of comedy”, 7  became one of the most remarkable specicities of his theater. 8 3 See Théry 2001, 81.4 See Girard 1990, 54–55.5 In most cases, the traditional authority gures become conscience gures  in modern comedy: they comment the heroes’ actions instead of opposing them and have only a peripheral impact, and some -times no impact, on the course of events (Girard 1990, 53), as observed in Shakespeare’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Marivaux’ Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard . In American comedy, this is obvious in the use of character actors specialized in sharp wit and ironic commentary, such as Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cun-ningham) in T A T, a movie we will discuss later. See Karnick 1994, 133.6 In the case of Pierre Corneille, we can cite his rst comedies, La Galerie du palais  (1631–1632), La Place Royale  (1633–1634), and La Suivante  (1634). Marie-Claude Canova discusses the distance between new comedy and the French theatrical tradition by way of Corneille, who substituted “for the traditional Italian intrigue of blocked love aairs, the dramatic canvas of the love chain inherited of the pastorale, with its conicted couples and the opposition of faithful or philandering and indierent lovers”, Cano-va 1993, 70–71: my translation.7 Martin 1996, 11. 8 See La   Double   Inconstance  (1723), Le   Dénouement   imprévu  (1724), Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard  (1730), Les   Serments   indiscrets  (1733), and L’Heureux   stratagème  (1734).  26 | Toufc El-Khoury 2018, 4/2, 23–37 An interdisciplinary examination of the relationship between societal legiti-macy and organization of marital status, on one hand, and comic traditions, on the other, in a specic community, society, or country would surely be fruit-ful. The way a society conceives marriage conditions the way it laughs about it. When we look at classical cinema in the United States, Italy, and Egypt, we observe that certain comic traditions related to adultery, divorce or plotting the death of a spouse are more similar for American and Egyptian cinema than for the two western societies. For example, one convention absent from American and Egyptian comedies, though very popular in Italian comedies, is the killing of a spouse, especially the woman. Whereas Catholic Italian society forbids or highly stigmatizes divorce, such is less the case in Protestant and Muslim socie-ties. “Divorce Italian style” (an ironic metaphor for a husband plotting to kill his wife popularized by the title of a Pietro Germi comedy with Marcello Mastroi- anni 9 ) could therefore ourish in Italy but be completely inconsistent with other audiences’ comic habits. 10  Comedy conventions will vary depending on society’s laws and moral norms. While this particular question deserves its own expanded study, which would involve a comparative examination of comedy in relation to judicial, sociocultur-al, or theological topics, here we concentrate on a core study of the representa-tion of marriage in American classical comedy. We will focus on Stanley Cavell’s analysis of a specic comic corpus and on the way these comedies discussing marriage belong to a specically American school of thought. We will then seek to identify traces of Kierkegaard’s philosophical legacy, by way of Wittgen-stein’s inuence on Cavell, in this American thinker’s denition of marriage. STANLEY CAVELL, SKEPTICISM, AND REMARRIAGE: THE AWFUL TRUTH  1937 Of the seven movies discussed in Cavell’s famous essay on American comedy, Pursuits of Happiness: Hollywood and the Comedy of Remarriage , only two treat marriage directly, showing the internal functioning of a married couple with a minimum of external interferences: T A T (Leo McCarey, US 1937) and A’ R (George Cukor, US 1948). And of those two movies only T A T has its narrative focused solely on the marriage question – A’ R centers on two lawyers, happily married, who nd themselves on opposing sides in a trial of a philandering husband and a jealous and murderous wife, with 9 Some of the comedies centered on this particular comic plot: I V (Dino Risi, IT 1959), D I   S (D ’, Pietro Germi, IT 1961). 10  In France, historically a Roman Catholic country but marked by denitive secular traditions since the beginning of the twentieth century, the “divorce by murder” comic convention appears occasionally in cinema, as with L P (Sasha Guitry, FR 1951), about an elderly rural couple trying to murder each other.  Marriage and Its Representaons  | 2018, 4/2, 23–37 their marriage aected by the twists of the legal procedure. T A T   is therefore of special interest in the present case: it is a thorough examination of what marriage is and launches discussion of what marriage is thought to be or can become.The story is simple: Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne) Warriner, a rich and happy couple, decide to divorce immediately after each suspects the other of adultery – even if that adultery is never conrmed or refuted, with neither of the protagonists making much eort to prove the spouse wrong. After a short battle to gain custody of the dog, Mr. Smith (a comic substitute for children), Lucy Warriner is courted by the handsome but naïve Southern oil tycoon Dan Leeson, played by Ralph Bellamy – Bellamy plays another “whip-ping boy” character for Grant in H G F (Howard Hawks, US 1940), an-other “comedy of remarriage” discussed by Cavell. After Jerry has done every-thing to undermine that relationship and Lucy is ready to come back to him, a series of misunderstandings again alienates the couple. Jerry then courts a rich heiress, but Lucy succeeds in sabotaging the engagement – leading to her reuniting, in a “screwball” way, with Jerry. The nal scene, in a movie lled with quips, misunderstandings, and farcical situations, is subtly and surpris-ingly cerebral.In this nal scene, Jerry and Lucy Warriner nd themselves in their old coun-try house, in separate rooms, trying but unable to sleep. A door with a defective lock separates them but continually opens by itself, leading rst to a dry verbal confrontation and then to a more intense and intimate conversation. Each of the protagonists has obvious diculty in dealing with his or her “opponent’s” intimacy and space. This problem of intimacy is persistent: sleeping in contin-gent rooms, they have a problem with going through the common doorway that no one would have used if the door had not had a defective lock. In ad-dition, the initial confusions are never claried, unlike, usually, those in comic theater: the two weeks that Jerry Warriner spent in Florida remain a mystery, as does the “night” Lucy and her piano teacher, Duvalle, spent in a hotel room as a result the breakdown of the car. McCarey is less interested in the resolutions of farcical misunderstandings than in confronting the characters with their de-mons and, one might say, the hellish nature of conversation or the lack of con-versation: the movie’s twists are not parenthetical to the couple’s harmony but rather a critical reevaluation of what legitimizes such a harmony. Moreover, the nal sequence, punctuated by the failures of the defective lock that open the door and force them into conversation, introduces a dialogue built on strange and amusing syllogisms, or rather anti-syllogisms, where the logical terms den-ing a love relation seem to be leading to illogical compromises.Cavell constructs his analysis of remarriage comedy around the issue of skep-ticism. According to Hall’s summary,
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