Class, Language, and American Film Comedy

Class, Language, and American Film Comedy

Class, Language, and American Film Comedy

Class, Language, and American Film Comedy

Synopsis

Examining the evolution of American film comedy since the beginning of the sound era (c. 1930), Christopher Beach focuses on how language, class, and social relationships in early sound comedies by the Marx Brothers, the screwball comedies of the 1930s by Capra, Sturges and others, and 1950s comedies of Frank Tashlin and Vincente Minnelli, and contemporary films by Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, and the Coen brothers. Beach argues that sound and narrative expanded the semiotic and ideological potential of a film, providing moments of genuine social critique and also mass entertainment. Christopher Beach teaches at the University of California, Irvine, and has taught at the University of Montana and Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of three books on American poetry, including Poetic Culture (Northwestern, 1999). This is his first book on film.

Excerpt

Of all the genres of Hollywood film that underwent the transition from silent to sound production in the late 1920s and early 1930s, it was the comedy, along with the musical, that most obviously benefited from the arrival of the “talkies. ” Screen comedies of the silent era–though they had included sophisticated social comedies by directors such as Cecil B. DeMille and Ernst Lubitsch–had been dominated by the physical, slapstick, or clown comedy popularized by such actors as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. The sound era brought to the fore an essentially new genre of dialogue-based romantic comedy, a genre that foregrounded both the art of spoken language and the nuances of class-based relationships.

In silent comedy, class divisions tended to be depicted in terms of crude dichotomies. The characters created by comedians like Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, and the Keystone Kops represented working-class types and situations that were immediately familiar to their audiences and that would allow the filmmakers to parody conventional middle-class standards of behavior. In Chaplin's films, for example, the tramp figure stands as a universally recognizable icon of lower-class status rather than as a fully delineated social individual. The tramp was already well established as a stock figure in American popular culture, from music hall and vaudeville to pulp literature, newspapers, comic strips, and nickelodeon pictures. Chaplin's tramp, as a particularized variant of the . . .

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