Tag Archives: Easy Living

The Economics of Pratfalls

Slapstick, like Noir, is a film genre tethered to the industrialized modern world. The most famous jokes involve enormous buildings (Harry Lloyd), coal-powered trains (Buster Keaton), unforgiving factories/nations (Charlie Chaplin), etc. There is further evidence of this link throughout the 20’s and 30’s in Hal Roach productions, early Capra, and on and on. Those of you following along at home can perform a pratfall as such:

What is it? It’s a wide shot, confirmed by Chaplin and Keaton. Why? Because we have to see the entire fall, the whole fall, uninterrupted, uncorrupted, unadulterated. It is a beautiful thing and therefore can speak for itself.

But as sound enters into films – 29-ish – the pratfall begins to obscure and fragment, as though filmmakers (except Hitchcock) have forgotten how to use them. We see by end of the twentieth century they have all but disappeared from movie houses.

There is the simple explanation: since sound and picture have integrated in narrative film production, the need for a purely visual spectacle is obsolete. So in comedy, physicality no longer takes primacy. Look at the masters of comedy since the pratfall: writer-directors Sturges, Wilder, Allen; actors Sellars, Martin, Allen. We see the transition so early with the downturns of Keaton, Langdon and Lloyd and the emergence of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and more of those singing-types.

In the scene below, from Easy Living (1933), we see an opera of pratfalls, they being a predilection of screenwriter and soon-to-be-director Preston Sturges. But also in this scene we can draw a direct parallel between this post-silent era exaltation of the pratfall and the economics of the Depression:

The pratfall is the Icarus myth told in less than two seconds but with all its complexity left intact. Pratsfalls are about the possibility of freedom, for, at least in North America, freedom is synonymous with two functions. The first is Choice, and the second is Success. Without freedom one cannot make decisions, which is an extension of responsibility to self and others. Nor without freedom can one be able to attempt at success. Contrary to the prevailing perversity of the ‘success story,’ in order to attempt at success one needs to be allowed to fail. This is one of the ways advanced, modern societies are desirous and humane: they allow for the possibility of, expect and accommodate human failure.

So what if the pratfall’s gradual extinction from cinema were a symptom of diminishing possibilities within society? If that were the case, society would act largely outside the guidelines of responsibility or, its sons and daughters, their consequences. And, more dire than privileging success over failure, the very opportunity to fail would be denied, the very cornerstone of a society that respects the privileges of success in areas of human achievement. This doubly make sense when we observe that the only time in modern cinema (with the occasional exception of some animated features) when bodies fly through the air is when they are reduced to corpses.

To a prude, writing a comedy about the Depression at its inception – and Preston Sturges would go on to write more than a couple – would seem exploitative and insensitive, even perverse. But comedy protects the right of failure in times of economic disparity and defends against the general harshness that accompanies tight-belt eras. And it’s during these that the act of falling down needs to be not only protected but practiced.

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Sturges and Neologisms

Preston Sturges – that’s Tinseltown’s Shakespeare to you –  shouldn’t be considered just a sillier version of Ben Hecht or a craftier version of the Brackett-Wilder team. He, and his successful flock and fold (notably both Coen Brothers), produce cinematic scenarios where the written word can’t be stripped in any way from its visual dramatization. Dialogue after Sturges is no longer just a creative flare and flourish, or something to be seen as creative independently from the visual design of the film like two parallel lines moving left to right and that – no matter how exquisitely crafted or extremely pleasurable the two are drawn – have damned little to do with each other. Instead, the spoken word is grafted into the picture in a way that radically transforms and complicates cinema as a dramatic art.

Like the best of the Marx Brothers, Sturges not only played with Freudian parapraxes – those telling puns that let repressed or concealed meanings slip out like sore thumbs – but also linguistic constructions that have more to do with Joycean neologisms – finely conceived puns based on playing with words which have different but metonymically related definitions to produce new words that although made-up have a ring of insight and sometimes even epiphany.

Take for instance the character of Mr. Louis Louis (“Louie Louie”) in the Sturges-penned, Mitchel Leisen-helmed 1937 hit screwball, Easy Living, played by real life Louie, Luis Alberni:

Scenes with one character and one line are always amazing achievements, but rarely is the line this fantastic: “How can such a phenonument be a flop?”

There are converging ideas here. The first is the common idiom of a “phenomenal flop”. Hotel Louis is just that and the man is drowning in debt. A second idea concerns opposing ideas: that of a “monument” – a towering one at that – and that of a “flop”, which besides meaning a colossal failure is also slang for a bed, which the building is filled with. So in this combination of opposites we have also have a visual contrast between the vertical buildings and the flattened Louis, reiterated by the simple shot-reverse construction of the solitary hotel from a low angle hinting at a POV, and the POV’s source from a high angle of the worried Louis.

The puns continue as he enters into the hotel chased down by the ever-aghast Franklin Pangborn playing Mr. Van Buren, this time through the two exchanging mismatched signifiers “Bull”,”Broad”, and “Ball”, which along with “Chicken” carry latent but unqualified sexual double-meanings, which is what the scene is explicitly about: hinting at perversity. So again here the dialogue operates as a structural double to the drama.

Then we have the final pun, that seemingly of a traditional comically conceived parapraxis: “Mr. Van Buren, with a little corruption from you…”

Yet, even here we have another of Sturges’s structural doubles – or to be more precise, a structural onomatopoeia, where the concept that being is conveyed is being conveyed as an example of that very concept. This is because “Corruption” is another name for a parapraxis. The Oxford English Dictionary defines corruption as “the unconscious or accidental alteration of a word or passage so altered,” and cites the following passage from C. K. Chesterton, with some pretty Sturges-esque surnames: “It is not for me to settle the question between two such men as Professor Hugg and Sir William Whisky as to whether Notting Hill means Nutting Hill (in allusion to the rich woods which no longer cover it), or whether it is a corruption of Nothing-ill, referring to its reputation among the ancients as an Earthly Paradise.”

Corruption is, after all, a major theme in Sturges’ work. Unlike W.C. Fields’ obsession with suckers and cons, Sturges was interested in corruption as it underscores how fragile and impermanent life’s ideals truly are. How does his active corruption of language relate to this theme? The goal of neologisms as a literary tactic is for insight and epiphany, not ad hoc manipulation for manipulation’s sake. Like Fields, too, Sturges’ warmest characters came up with the most cockamamie schemes. He was corrupt through and through.

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