Tag Archives: screwball

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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Slapstick Signage #2

A crate in the back of The Last Gasp Saloon in Edward F. Cline’s My Little Chickadee, written by W.C. Fields and starring Mae West and Fields. On the box is written the words “Last Gasp” – a reference to the literal denouement of the film as well as the nurturing nature of the bar  – and, underneath, “Greesewood” – the name of the western town the film takes place. (Cline also directed most of the best Buster Keaton’s shorts, including the infamous Balloonatic, and was the best of all Field’s directors with the possible exception of Norman Z. McLeod)

Fields, like Groucho Marx, was known for his insinuating names for things and characters, and though not this film, often penned scripts using pseudonyms. His favorite pen-name, or at least the one hi chose most often, was Charles Bogle. He also used Mahatma Kane Jeeves and Otis Criblecoblis, the former in another of Cline’s directions: The Bank Dick.

The most frustrating element surrounding My Little Chickadee is that it’s not considered a screwball. This is a gross error even though the reasoning is simple: the characters are not in any way wholesome.

Conversely, in a typical screwball otherwise “normal” human beings are made mad or abnormal by their desires for each other, desires that neither one can speak of in any straight-and-arrow way, hence the clever use of innuendo and comedy.

But in My Little Chicakdee you have two unabashed heathens – Flower Belle Lee and Cuthbert Twillie – speaking with virtual clarity about their mismatched desire for nasty indecencies: Flower Belle shakes her hips for everyone except Twillie; and inversely, Twillie pines only for the shapely Flower Belle.

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