Kant meets Frank Capra, Nietzsche meets Leo McCarey--as Harvard professor Cavell continues to insist, sometimes quite...


PURSUITS OF HAPPINESS: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage

Kant meets Frank Capra, Nietzsche meets Leo McCarey--as Harvard professor Cavell continues to insist, sometimes quite eloquently, sometimes rather opaquely, on the conjunction of philosophy with our most everyday, down-to-earth experiences. But, though there are elusive, hard-won rewards when Cavell applies his philosophy-of-film ideas (cf. The World Viewed, 1972) to popular Hollywood movies, he himself advises stymied readers to skip over the philosophy--to concentrate instead on his challenging but considerably more accessible literary/social/psychological vision of the seven great Hollywood comedies studied here. The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Adam's Rib, The Awful Truth--Cavell sees them as ""comedies of remarriage,"" heirs to Shakespearean romance and to Ibsen's Doll House. He studies them one by one, finding the common themes and motifs that make them add up to a genuine genre. (Typically, this will lead peripatetic Cavell into a digression on the whole idea of ""genre."") He invokes Freud (with uncommon skill). He analyzes the food imagery and Clark Gable's paternal/maternal role in It Happened. He ponders the ""obsessive sexual references"" in Bringing Up Baby. He rather pedantically compares the use of singing in all the films. He describes His Girl Friday as ""the introduction of a Shakespearean leading pair into a Jonsonlan environment:"" He compares dialogue in The Awful Truth to Plato's Parmenides. He sees Midsummer Night's Dream as ""subtext"" for Philadelphia Story. But while these close readings of the films sometimes provide dwindling returns, Cavell's central thesis becomes increasingly persuasive, and even moving: if farce is a ""comic No"" to marriage, these films are ""a comic Yes""; the equal romantic partners remake marriage on their own terms, not society's (which involves their return to childhood, to innocence); and ""the happiness in these comedies is honorable because they raise the right issues""--issues which are left unresolved, with a lifetime ahead of continuing, daily reaffirmation and adventure. Which means, of course, that these comedies of ""dailiness"" are landmarks in the history of male/female relations--and Cavell's book becomes, in an odd way, almost an inspirational volume for those trying to find a place for marriage 40 years later. Marvelously eclectic, richly self-skeptical as well as self-indulgent--difficult, provocative, distinctly warm-blooded work from a genuine, reaching thinker.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1981

ISBN: 067473906X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1981