Monday, October 12, 2009

The Depressing Comedy of the '50s

I didn't mean to do another post in my unofficial "the obscure live-action films of Frank Tashlin" series so soon, but I finally managed to get a letterboxed copy of The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, Tashlin's first film for Fox and (therefore) his first in CinemaScope. Watching the movie, instead of half of it -- this is early 'Scope, so it's almost literally cut in half in the pan-n-scan version -- I like it better than I used to, although it's still not nearly as good as The Girl Can't Help It or Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and though it's from his '50s prime, you can see the elements that would become out of control in his work, leading to his '60s artistic burnout.

I've posted the Rita Moreno scene before, with Moreno parodying Marilyn Monroe from Seven Year Itch (the fact that she's the wrong physical type probably makes her impression funnier: it's a parody of the fact that in the '50s, everyone is under pressure to act like Monroe). It's obviously much more effective in 'Scope:

A lot of '50s comedy movies have a cruel, even depressing edge to them, as if the slower pacing of the era (and 'Scope had a very bad effect on comedy pacing, creating a whole generation of clunky, lumbering comedies) revealed all the nastiness that was hidden by the speed and style of '40s comedies. Skirts is a direct response to, and in some scenes a parody of, The Seven Year Itch, one of the most depressing light comedies ever made. And it's not so much a movie as a series of escalatingly cruel moments, culminating in a sequence where Tom Ewell tries to Gaslight his wife into thinking she's insane, so that she'll be kicked out of the Air Force on a Section 8.

What makes it a better movie than Seven Year Itch, and certainly a more interesting movie, is first of all that it sometimes acknowledges its own cruelty and is willing to make us feel really uncomfortable; there are moments that are intentionally not a lot of fun to sit through, where we feel how painful it would be to go through these situations in real life. There's a surprising amount of real pain in this goofy comedy.

The best moment in the movie, though it's not at all funny, comes early in the film when Ewell is telling his stories of World War II heroism. He's interrupted by a young flier who recently became a hero and is about to have a book written about his exploits: the young man treats Ewell, and by extension all WWII veterans, with complete contempt, as a relic of an old war and old fighting techniques. The scene takes the big joke of this movie and Seven Year Itch -- a middle-aged man like Ewell as a leading man -- and actually makes us feel rotten for him when someone calls attention to his age.

The scene is also a commentary on the U.S.'s attitude to war in the '50s, the treatment of it as just another celebrity industry: people flock to the newest star with the newest killing technology, and WWII vets like Ewell's character are treated as washed-up celebrities.

The whole movie is most interesting for the points it makes about the place of the military in peacetime: both lead characters see their military service as the most fulfiling moments in their lives, and see the peacetime military as a sort of easy way to recapture the sense of being needed. And of course it has plenty of jokes about postwar male anxiety, with Ewell spending most of the movie desperately trying to force his wife back into a role he's comfortable with. This being a comedy, the characters get the fulfilment they're looking for and re-enforce the traditional gender roles in the traditional way: with a baby. But it's pretty mean and nasty about these issues in the course of the movie, and unlike most '50s and '60s comedies, it doesn't try very hard to disguise the nastiness.

That's why it's hard not to be a Tashlin buff if you're at all interested in the issues that people were preoccupied with in the '50s: in most '50s comedies, these issues are just encoded, presented almost unconsciously. Tashlin is always aware of them and insists we be aware of them, even at the expense of some laughs. Again, it's no wonder he was such a big influence on Godard, another filmmaker who is always trying to make us look at things from the outside instead of just letting us sit back and get involved in the story.


Ricardo Cantoral said...

Though it's not depressing, Beat the Devil (1953) is a light hearted film with a rather serious plot. The story is a collection of crooks trying to score on a Uranium feild in Africa. Though the film does not reveal why any country would want to pay for Uranium it's still interesting to see such a film during the height of the cold war. I guess most people just did not what uranium was for back then and of course this could never be made in a post 9/11 world.

Yowp said...

Jaime, you wrote:
people flock to the newest star with the newest killing technology, and WWII vets like Ewell's character are treated as washed-up celebrities.

Tex Avery made the same point at the start of Little Johnny Jet. For us today, the cartoon seems pretty tame. Maybe when it came out, that part seemed like real social commentary, worthy of an Oscar.