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Vol. 8, No. 1, 2009
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Don Dewey has published 25 books of fiction, non-fiction and drama, including Marcello Mastroianni: His Life and Art, James Stewart: a Biography and The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartoons.

The setting can be an elegant restaurant, an over-furbished library, or a dank cellar. Present are one American and one or more foreigners. The foreigner wants something of value from the American --- an object, a piece of information, some other concession. He is willing to be polite about getting it, but a threat in the air suggests he has no objection to resorting to violence for his purposes, either. The American tries to disguise his discomfort by cracking wise about the foreigner’s persistence --- upon which the foreigner, whether born in Hamburg, schooled in Algiers, or married in Kuala Lumpur, will utter the immortal line: “Zat most be ze famus Amerikan senz off yamur.”

The famous American sense of humour. It is a national trait that Americans have had ascribed to them on movie screens for decades. The chest expands before the compliment. Along with loving children and being kind to animals, being recognized for a sense of humour forms the holy trinity of reassurances sought by any culture that deems itself humane and enlightened. Who would want to deny having a sense of humour? Godliness and cleanliness pale next to it.

But wait. What American sense of humor? George Washington’s? George Carlin’s? That of George W. Bush’s speechwriters? What George are we talking about here? And since when has it been so famous? Did I miss those high school history classes that would have told me how much of a cutup George Custer had been at the Little Big Horn? Conversely, have I been completely imagining those bookstore shelves filled with collections of French bon mots, Czech ironies and Irish outlandishness? Some of the material in them goes back centuries, doesn’t it? When did Europeans, especially, become good only for an occasionally sardonic expression of a keenly felt smugness (that made them calculating, not comical)? Just exactly when did the United States win not just World War I, World War II, the Race to the Moon War, the Grenada Dental School War, the Cold War, the Miniature Gulf War, and the Halliburton War, but also the Funny War? From what private stock of chauvinist spirits have those generations of California screenwriters been drinking?

One clue is that word “famous.” Remember the last time we heard it -- for describing those Page Six and “Entertainment Tonight” party-goers who were famous because they were famous? Could this be another example of that media rush we have come to embrace as cultural attribute, the alternative being that gloomy feeling of being left out, left behind and left at the curb? As we know, the only thing worse than being accused of lacking a sense of humour is being oblivious to lacking it.

A second clue is the medium -- motion pictures -- that has done so much to propagandize our humour superiority as fact. That line about the famous sense of humour became boilerplate more or less in the 1930s, the period when the Grants, Hepburns and Astaires were sweeping through the suave, the brilliant and the zany. To read some film histories, that marked the coming of age of screen comedy -- and it didn’t happen in Bucharest. Nor did it happen on a theatre stage where only a few hundred people could appreciate it. The movies were critical not only for making the humour cultural claim for Americans, but for making it around the world three or four shows daily to millions. When the projector spoke, we listened, relishing the thought that audiences in lederhosen and saris were hearing the same announcement in their villages. If they accepted us as the most humourous people on earth, who were we to object?

Who are we to object even now? However pretentious, what harm can such a claim do? Saying we have a famous sense of humour is hardly as ominous as saying we have a famous sense of habeas corpus; just because that boast served as the prelude to ugly contradictions doesn’t mean we’re all soon going to be banning jokes as a security measure against terrorism. Saying we have a famous sense of humour might be vain typology, but that doesn’t make it lethal to non-Americans taking us at our word, does it? Aren’t we entitled to a small illusion of homeland security?

Sure we are -- provided we forget about history. And that’s led to serious problems before.

Since motion pictures have been so instrumental in illuminating our humour chromosomes, let’s start with their history. By now it is practically a military secret that in its earliest days film humour was very much a European province. The grandfather of all movie laughter was Louis Lumiere’s L’Arroseur arrosée, an 1897 French short that depicts a jaunty gardener watering his lawn, a boy sneaking up to step on the hose, the surprised gardener examining the nozzle of the hose to see what’s wrong, and the boy immediately stepping off the hose again to soak his victim. Thomas Edison was so taken with L’Arroseur arrosée that he copied it for his 1898 one-reeler “Washday Troubles,” bothering only to substitute a tub of soapy water for the hose.

France’s other great film pioneer, George Melies, was first of all a comic satirist, specializing in technical gags that reflected his earlier career as a professional magician. His 1899 piece, The Conjuror, is a flashy series of vanishing acts and physical displacements aimed at laughs. And only the reverence accorded the 1902 fantasy A Trip to the Moon for its influence on the film medium as a whole obscures the parodies at the heart of Melies’s treatment of many of its characters. Most seminal of all in the evolution of cinema humour was yet another Frenchman, Max Linder (Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle), whose dandy lay-about character polished film slapstick, established him as the world’s leading comedian up to World War I, and served as an inspiration for Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin.

Other European countries were not too far behind France in going for the funny bone; indeed, the only conspicuous exception between the turn of the 20th century and World War I was Russia, where the Czar clamped an iron hand over any film project that failed to celebrate the Romanovs or great patriotic figures. In Germany, Oskar Messner starred in a number of risqué comedies that were popular not only in his own country and around Europe, but also in the United States. Long before he had gained a reputation as a masterful director of sophisticated comedy, Ernst Lubitsch had developed a following on the continent for a series of comic shorts in which he played a German bumpkin named Meyer. Around the same time in Sweden, Mauritz Stiller was crafting a Scandinavian genre of ironic comedy, but not so preciously that there wasn’t room for scores of pratfalls and various other visual gags in works like The Modern Suffragette (1913) and When the Mother-in-Law Reigns (1914).

In London, Robert Paul, the first exhibitor of British films to a paying public, began turning out comic shorts before the turn of the century with the confidence that they would be his most profitable source of income. One of the most technically elaborate and financially successful of all British films before World War I was A Suffragette in Spite of Himself (1912), a revival of the pranksterism from Lumiere’s L’Arroseur arrosée in its tale of an obnoxious male chauvinist who walks around London unaware that teenagers have stuck a pro-feminist declaration on the back of his coat. Comedies were also a film staple in Denmark, Italy and Hungary.

The genre continued to rule throughout Europe’s silent film era. As box office receipts on both shores of the Atlantic confirmed, foibles were foibles, and exposing them, exaggerating them and enjoying them were pastimes without borders. But then came sound, and the predilection by movie makers to hang more of their humour on dialogue. What was funny grew vulnerable to extra-national translation problems that were not always resolved happily; i.e., verbal idiosyncrasies hilarious in Italy might only perplex audiences in the Netherlands dependent on approximate subtitles or syllable-conscious dubbing. Moreover, the very prospect of foreign verbal comedy could daunt audiences in a way imported dramas, action adventures and mysteries did not because it called for an ongoing, expressive participation from the spectator known as laughter. It didn’t really matter whether the absence of that laughter was due to the original film, inept subtitling or dubbing, or the obtuseness of the viewer in the orchestra; the main thing was that audiences expected to laugh that didn’t laugh were very uncomfortable audiences, and uncomfortable audiences were unlikely to expose themselves to a potentially disagreeable situation a second time. The upshot was that, lacking a major star to assure long lines outside the cashier’s booth in both Lisbon and Warsaw, comedies became the least desirable film genre in Europe in the first decade of sound.

If American studios experienced fewer problems on the continent, it was largely because of their control of European distribution networks and block booking: To get Greta Garbo, Switzerland also had to take some B comedy about Nebraska wheat growers and make the best of all those jokes about Lou Gehrig. But even in this monopolistic context it soon became evident that some very important figures in American screen humour -- Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Philip Barry, S.J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman, to name just five -- did not travel well in Europe. (Although somewhat more popular, Groucho Marx would have to wait years for his work to gain recognition as more than an appendage to Harpo’s antics or even to his own makeup). At the same time, in a market already restricted to a handful of foreign imports every year, European comedies of the 1930s found little of the enthusiasm in the U.S. that had welcomed Max Linder and Oskar Messner. Whether it was Rene Clair’s A Nous la Liberté (1931) or even a British comedy such as J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions (1933), satire was still something that closed on Saturday night.

Of course, European film comedy in the 1930s was up against more than the problems posed by sound and block booking. In Germany there was Adolf Hitler, in Italy there was Benito Mussolini and in the Soviet Union there was Joseph Stalin. Spain went through two upheavals to end up with Francisco Franco, and the entire continent staggered under an economic depression. If European film makers concluded there was not too much to laugh at, they could be forgiven their grasp of reality. If they decided that attempts by the continent’s various dictators to encourage more comedies in order to generate an illusory sense of national well-being defined whistling in the dark, they could be equally pardoned. Genuine laughs simply didn’t come easily in the Europe of the 1930s.

Nevertheless, it was a giant leap from the perception that nationally flavoured comedies reliant on dialogue humour from severely tested countries were not so exportable to the view, rampant in Hollywood films from the early 1930s, that the only good European was a humourless European. That judgment required considerable reaching, starting with the need to ignore the European comedies the American industry knew were out there along with the latest grim Fritz Lang masterwork. Paradoxically, it required Americans to take themselves more seriously; i.e., to be more consciously ideological. It also required absolute denial that this was what was going on.

The first public figure recorded as using the word ‘ideology’ disparagingly was Napoleon, when he shrugged off French philosophers opposed to his imperial ambitions as “mere ideologues.” Gradually, the word degenerated into a synonym for everything from inert intellectualism and overripe theorizing to dogma and outright lie. Outside academe, few held to the term’s fundamental meaning as a would-be total view of human activity and purpose enlisting the dynamics of intellectual speculation, idealistic belief and social arrangement. Fewer still were those who, not hypnotized by the neat schematics of their own worldview, acknowledged the constant shifts of perspective necessitated by evolving realities and envisioned by French philosopher DeStutt de Tracy when he proposed ideology as a new science of ideas at the beginning of the 19th century. When ideology didn’t invite rejection for being its own worst ism, in other words, it was ridiculed or dismissed for parenting harmful offspring.

Sometimes the children haven’t even had to seem menacing to be spurned. One striking feature of American skepticism toward isms is that, while most often explicitly addressed to the aspirations embodied in European anarchism, fascism and communism, it has also been close to the surface in attitudes toward the ideological contents of the French Revolution and even those of the American Revolution. A review of the U.S. mass media’s understanding of the French Revolution over the years, for example, would disclose little more than a social eruption that began in the best of times and worst of times and that ended with some people doing a far, far better thing than they had ever done before -- if only because the Scarlet Pimpernel couldn’t save them in time. At home, once having dispensed with terms like freedom and independence, we appear to have exhausted our interest in the social and political substance of the American Revolution. Certainly, it has been less taxing to dwell on the image of a colonial rebellion rather than on that of a revolution proper, since this has allowed us to regard ourselves as emotional, instinctual and ultimately responsive only to what any aggrieved innocent would have been responsive to in such oppressive circumstances.

Has it been mere coincidence within this anti-intellectual tradition that the entertainment media’s treatment of the American Revolution has, after the singing and hoofing of 1776, mostly started and stopped with television serials adapted from mass paperback romances and best-selling biographies? Doubtlessly assisted by the calculation that enemies who sport powdered wigs and fire one-shot muskets aren’t anywhere near as enthralling in trailers as unkempt rebels charging down a hill and blazing away with Colt .45s, Hollywood (but also Publishers Row and other hubs of public fantasy) has tended to take D.W. Griffith at his word that the Civil War, not the War of Independence, marked the birth of the nation. And of course the true values of that conflict, as we have been told since grammar school, were simplicity itself: no secession and no slavery, hallowed propositions requiring no more thought than that needed for espousing freedom and independence.

But the scarcity of persuasive fictional portrayals of the American Revolution has not prevented film makers from attempting to define the American character or the values supposedly shaping it; on the contrary, once moved to a safer (more commercial) contemporary setting, that task has been a preoccupation of reflective film makers since -- wouldn’t you know it? -- the 1930s. Even today a poll asking where American social and cultural beliefs have found their clearest and most potent cinematic expression would yield as a popular answer Frank Capra’s Everyman pictures in the 1930s and 1940s, when Mr. Smith went to Washington and Mr. Deeds dropped in on the town. And what exactly were the values advocated by Capra through his James Stewart and Gary Cooper heroes even as they both were deluged by seas of cynicism? Honesty, for one. The rewards and satisfactions to be gained from hard work, for a second. The democratic right to happiness, for a third. In other words, no principle normally thought of as -ismic; indeed, nothing that required any of that book learnin’ at all. As Mr. Smith made clear during his filibuster, the only modern text worth paying attention to was the Constitution; as Mr. Deeds demonstrated, the only honest writing was to be found in the doggerel of greeting cards -- a tip of the hat to the Bible for having inspired the best sentiments of both.

As the scores of Hollywood films unspooled after Smith and Deeds argued repeatedly, these core values had absolutely nothing in common with the ideologies that had taken root in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, neither in content nor in form. For openers, the European ideologies would have been inconceivable without their elaboration and argumentation in books and periodicals -- suspect intellectual arenas to congressmen and jingle writers. To one level of sophistication or another, anarchism, fascism, and communism (the three most prominent isms) were programmatic philosophies that proposed specific steps to reach specific objectives. In their realization, action was stipulative, not instinctive; was predicated on theoretical as much as social achievement. Even those not sharing the European ideology in question were directly relevant to its embrace as active or potential foes, as part of the problem when not of the solution. From ideology’s viewpoint, everybody was involved.

But despite its proud impatience with the European isms, the ideology known as the “American way of life” has also had its own all-inclusiveness. If only species of the lunatic fringe have actually gone around talking about ‘Americanism’ as some philosophically delineated vision, there has remained a much vaster consensus around the conviction that personal ambition, agility and spontaneity animate capitalism with a human face, and that this too includes everybody, successfully or not, like it or not. At no time was this belief more visibly urgent than in the 1930s, when the depression had wiped the humanity off capitalism’s face and the ideologies from abroad were doing all that infamous creeping into American society. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called on Hollywood to help the country through the depression (and, later, through World War II), he wasn’t talking only about the gangster films Warner Brothers was churning out with the Cagneys, Robinsons and Bogarts. There was just so much restorative entertainment to be had reminding ourselves that crime didn’t pay. What was needed was something accenting the positive -- the kind of buoyant affirmativeness that made the rigors of competition and hardy individualism easier to take even as they were being justified as cultural premises. When you have a social outlook that often resembles making it up as you go along, the glib isn’t that far removed from the patriotic.

It wasn’t a glibness completely synonymous with fantasies about the posh and the luxurious, the way ‘white telephone’ screen melodramas were meant to divert audiences from the daily grimness of Mussolini’s Italy. Although plenty of Hollywood comedies were set in mansions and gave steady employment to actors adept at playing butlers, humour was a first democratic principle endemic to every class setting. Millionaires were funny, hobos were funny, even gangsters fired off cracks as regularly as their .38s. Many of the most popular or accomplished pictures from the period -- My Man Godfrey, Sullivan’s Travels, the Thin Man series -- rounded up all the classes for their jokes. Hitler had his Nuremberg rallies, the United States had neighbourhood movie theaters on every corner from New England to California.

Expropriation of some universal human quality for a claim of cultural primacy is nothing new; the function of propaganda has always been to dehumanize the enemy in one way or another. In the particular case of the 1930s and 1940s, there might have been no refuting the enemy’s efficiency (Nazi), zealotry (communist), or recklessness (anarchist), but without that leavening ability to laugh at himself as much as at others, he (or she, if she was Ninotchka) was a loser. As long as there was humour in one’s makeup, even despair (a constant in the Capra films) turned out to be a temporary aberration. Humour crystallized the whole man, the completely committed man, the victorious man. It was from the hierarchy of divine blessings. One ideology was indeed more inclusive than the rest -- and would have the armies, foreign aid and gross national product to prove it for decades to come. He who laughed most laughed last; he who laughed least didn’t last.

Which should make us wonder about the ideological significance in more recent times of resorting to laugh tracks.

Also by Donald Dewey:
Cartoon Power


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