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Class, Language, and American Film Comedy
Christopher Beach
Cambridge University Press, 2002.
£45.00, 241 pages, ISBN 0-521-80749-2 (hardback)
£15.00, 241 pages, ISBN 0-521-00209-5 (paperback)

Nicolas Magenham
Université de Paris X - Nanterre

Watching any Woody Allen comedy or TV sitcom is enough to realize that language is one of the most significant elements of sound comedy. In his new book, Christopher Beach analyzes language in American film comedy from the late 1920s to the present, emphasizing the relationships between speech acts and class issues.

In chapter I, Beach examines what might seem to be a hackneyed topic as regards language in cinema, but which is in fact curiously not so common: Lubitsch's dialogue (here, in Trouble in Paradise, 1932). The originality comes from the fact that by dint of praising only the visual aspect of Lubitsch's films, some critics forget that his witty and double-entendre-ridden dialogue is brilliant and worth listening to carefully. Although Beach is attracted to the sophistication of the Austrian director's writing, he also argues that it is socially conservative: the film's artificial dialogue contributes to its "overall sense of stylistic decorum, and the fact that it fails to challenge the social order in any profound sense", which "lead[s] us to read it as ideologically conservative, especially within the context of Depression-era America". The absence of social interest in Trouble in Paradise in such a socioeconomic context may be meaningful regarding Lubitsch's ideas about society, but it could be meaningless too. So it would be hasty to deduce from this silence that Lubitsch's vision is conservative in this film; I for one would say that, just as Woody Allen in his recent films, he has simply other (formal) interests.

It could have been easy for Beach to equate the language issue with dialogue only (that is, the characters' lines as they appear in the screenplay), but fortunately, he is also interested in the way the actors tell the lines, in their intonations, accents and other sounds. His pages on the Marx Brothers exemplify this approach. For instance, he alludes to Groucho's "grating voice" or Chico's "non sequiturs, fragments, and malapropisms". Then, Beach draws interesting parallels between the language of the trio and their image. For him, "each of the Brothers is associated with a highly iconographic physical appearance that finds its verbal accompaniment in a particularized style of speech".

With Harpo Marx, Christopher Beach has to study the absence of speech too. In many westerns, male protagonists are often characterized by their silence (Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's films, for example). In psychoanalysis, the reticence with language reinforces the powerful image of the self, since language creates a symbolic castration, and so threatens the image of the self as omnipotent (see Steve Neal, "Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on Men and Mainstream Cinema", Screen, 24:6 (Nov-Dec 1983), pp.5-8). However, contrary to Eastwood's silence, Harpo's silence cannot be connected with a display of power. As Beach points out, Harpo is not really reticent with language, it is just impossible for him to speak because of a "socioeconomic and mental impoverishment". Furthermore, Harpo's silence and visual gags are also a way of going back to an earlier (film) era. I agree with Beach when he speaks of a "reversal of film history", but I am less enthusiastic when he writes that in this reversal of film history, "we can perhaps read a desire to turn back the clock to an earlier and happy time, a time before the market crash and the onset of greater class antagonisms created troubles in paradises". In the earlier time he refers to, America was a more pleasant place to live in than in the 1930s, but it was far from being a "paradise". In the 1920s, the US experienced an economic expansion, but Big Business triumphed and there was a strong renewal of conservatism.

In the chapter on 1930s romantic comedy, Beach purports to link class issues to gender and sexuality, taking as examples a rarely discussed film called The Girl from Missouri (Jack Conway, 1934), and above all, Mitchell Leisen's Easy Living (1937). The latter introduces a female worker (played by Jean Arthur) who turns into a female consumer in the second half of the film. And as such, she embodies the female shopper stereotype advocated by dominant ideology in order to keep women in the private sphere. Furthermore she is a good example of the contradictory gender roles that women were ascribed to in the 1930s, when "American culture […] saw women as both erotic and pure, as both the agents of excessive consumption and the household regulators of consumer desire".

When it comes to postwar comedies, in chapter 5, Beach argues that at the time, "Americans wanted more than ever to believe in the myth of a socially homogeneous and virtually classless society, and Hollywood was happy to oblige them in this wish". During World War II, a class conflict would have been regarded as subversive and un-American, and afterwards, a class consensus was still sought in order to destroy the threat of communism during the Cold War. Thus, unlike screwball comedies of the 1930s, 1950s comedies are globally distinguished by an absence of social mobility. Beach even challenges the idea that Howard Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) deals with women who want to cross class barriers: "it is not so much class status that Lorelei [Marilyn Monroe] is seeking as money, or, to be more precise, the materialized form of money as diamonds". In other words, Lorelei prefers the economic capital (diamonds) rather than the cultural capital (like, for example, and according to the well-known song of the film, "a kiss on the hand"). Therefore, the film conforms to the myth of a classless society that the US wanted to believe in during the war and postwar eras. Nevertheless, referring only to the class issue, Beach gives the impression that Hawks's film is a mere conformist film, which is not the case if analyzed from a feminist point of view. Listening to the constructionist "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" is enough to understand that the film has a progressive flavor too.

On top of all the films that I have alluded to, Beach's book also contains good pages on Frank Capra's social critiques (which was inevitable), on comedies by Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks dating back to the early 1940s, and on Frank Tashlin's satires. There are also two appealing chapters on contemporary comedies, in which Woody Allen and the Coen brothers are prominently featured. The corpus is well-balanced: classic comedies and less known or underrated comedies (from Billy Wilder's The Apartment to Ben Stiller's The Cable Guy) are equally treated. And if Class, Language, and American Comedy lacks some important and/or successful titles—there is no mention of Blake Edwards's films, for instance—Beach's book nevertheless constitutes an original approach to comedy.

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