Class, Language and American Film Comedy

Christopher Beach,
Class, Language and American Film Comedy
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
ISBN 0 521 00209 5
£16.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Cambridge University Press)

Any book entitled Class, Language and American Film Comedy risks tempting fate. Inevitably, the task of surveying such an infinite field is impossible without drawing some rigorous parameters. Here, author Christopher Beach stakes out his territory by imposing one major restriction, looking solely at the deployment of language in his study of class and American comedy. In removing visual elements from the purview of his study, he remains clearly focused; the trade off is that he cuts off a rich vein of alternative formal sources for scrutinising class, from production and costume design, to editing, sound and performance.

Beach further refines his field by focusing on a select group of filmmakers. Taking a chronological, decade-by-decade approach, he begins with the early sound comedies of the 1930s and continues through to the 1990s. In particular, his focus is on the work of the Marx brothers, Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra and Woody Allen, with special nods to Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Frank Tashlin, Whit Stillman and the Coen brothers along the way.

Recent texts addressing comedy, such as Geoff King’s Film Comedy (Wallflower Press, 2002) and Nicole Matthews’ Comic Politics: Gender in Hollywood Comedy after the New Right(Manchester University Press, 2001) have engaged productively with the writings and theories of Mikhail Bakhtin on language and the carnivalesque. It’s hardly surprising then, that in his introduction Christopher Beach singles out Bakhtin’s work as fundamental to his analysis. He refers approvingly to Bakhtin’s understanding of language as “a dynamic process constantly generating new norms or challenging the official norm”, encouraging “a polyphonic mix of different styles, genres and voices” (12).

However, apart from some very general references to the over-stretched concept of the carnivalesque, Bakhtin is rarely invoked again. Likewise, the theories of French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu are cited in the introduction, only to go AWOL when analysis begins in earnest. Instead, Beach presents a series of close analyses of favoured films such as Trouble in Paradise (USA, 1932), Duck Soup (USA, 1933), Mr Deeds Goes to Town (USA, 1936), The Lady Eve (USA, 1941), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (USA, 1957), Manhattan (USA, 1979) and Raising Arizona (USA, 1987). These sections largely comprise plot synopses, literary assessments of scripts and dialogue, and some biographical detail.

Given this coverage, how thoroughly does Beach establish his central argument that “the issue of social class was crucially important to the development of sound comedy” (2) as a cinematic form? Unfortunately, the evidence that he offers is unconvincing. While this argument is most apposite to the 1930s films under examination, and is engaging when looking at the ouevre of the Marx brothers, it does not sustain his analysis of subsequent decades. The film selections from 1940 on seem designed to provide an opportunity to consider a small, idiosyncratic group of favoured works through the prism of class and language. The range of films and directors examined outside the early sound period is far too arbitrary and limited to enable any sustained argumentative thread; indeed, only one chapter is devoted to the 1950s and 1960s combined.

Analysing American comedy since the 1970’s, Beach cites Fredric Jameson in constructing the category of postmodern comedy. He defines it as “a genre exemplified by the work of such filmmakers as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Joel and Ethan Coen, John Waters, Susan Seidelman, Albert Brooks, Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch and Whit Stillman” (157). He then opposes the works of these directors to “the vast majority of Hollywood comedies, which continue to rely on the conventional structures of romantic comedy, domestic comedy or farce” (157).

Leaving aside the question of just how postmodern these nominated filmmakers are, this demarcation would appear myopic to any observer of contemporary Hollywood. Almost all recent successful comedies, from Zoolander (USA/Australia/Germany, 2001) and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion(USA, 1997) to Mike Myers’ Austin Powers and Wayne’s World series, or Shrek and Toy Story, resort to the historical pastiche or parody that he ascribes to his chosen auteurs. In the case of these films, this approach is underpinned by a sophisticated network of cross references and allusions to the entire panoply of popular culture, from dance and popular music to advertising, television, sport, cartoons and other movies. Even the most traditional of romantic comedies such as Sleepless in Seattle (USA, 1993) and You’ve Got Mail (USA, 1998) self-consciously mine their classical Hollywood models.

Beach’s blind spot here is indicative of a wider deficiency in his study. As he moves away from the early sound period, he focuses on distinctly literary or canonised directors at the expense of genuinely popular works that are just as likely to address the question of class and language in an intelligent and enlightening manner. The work of the Farrelly brothers is an obvious example; it also seems remiss to not consider the films of African-American comedians, in particular Richard Pryor and the inheritors of his mantle such as Eddie Murphy, Chris Tucker and Chris Rock. This lost opportunity is particularly acute, given that his comments on the links between ethnicity, class and language in the films of the Marx brothers are amongst the most illuminating in the book.

This book adds an extra, if limited, dimension to the recent spate of scholarly works attracted to the incredibly fertile, and often under-valued, era of early sound cinema. Its early focus on class and language in the 1930s supplements texts such as Lea Jacobs’ The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942 (University of California Press, 1997) and the work of Richard Maltby, Thomas Doherty and Mark Vieira on pre-code Hollywood. Readers searching for insights into the role of class and language in the development of American film comedy since this era will need to look elsewhere.

Tim O’Farrell,
La Trobe University, Australia.
Created on: Tuesday, 4 May 2004 | Last Updated: 4-May-04