CANNED GOODS AS CAVIAR: American Film Comedies of the 1930s by Gerald Weals

CANNED GOODS AS CAVIAR: American Film Comedies of the 1930s

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Weals combines the complexity and accuracy of the scholar with the aphoristic, lucid style of the popularizer in this leisurely study of 12 film comedies from City Lights (1931) to Destry Rides Again (1939). Each essay begins with a summary of the critical consensus on each picture, followed by a detailed analysis of the film and a conclusion that places the movie, with its stars and director, in the Hollywood canon. Cross-references to other films, to vaudeville acts, and to magazine humor of the 30s are so frequent as to sometimes obscure any clear focus on the main film being discussed, as in the confusing chapter on Chaplin's City Lights. Weals is best as a freewheeling anti-snob offering apt and accurate descriptions of screen personae little and big, from Noah Beery and Franklin Pangborn to Myrna Loy and Carole Lombard. Weals rightly calls himself a ""methodological packrat."" Using sources as diverse as Antonin Artaud and Silver Screen, he weaves popular and academic strands together to produce a remarkably detailed yet witty account that is serious without ever becoming pretentious. Even Duck Soup, that perfectly devised trap for the high-minded critic, is seen less as a self-conscious satire than as the single film in which the Marx Brothers' proclivity for unimotivated mayhem found its perfect subject and setting: war. Other highlights include a brilliant appreciation of W.C. Fields, shrewd analyses of the evolving comedic skills of Cary Grant, William Powell and Katherine Hepburn, and the following memorable interpretation of Mae West's falsies: ""She padded herself heavily not to make herself sexy but to allow her to be the most imposing figure on the stage. She was not Tennessee Williams' Laura. . .slipping on 'Gay Deceivers'; she was a Greek actor pulling on cothurni."" Weals' rejection of theory will upset some film historians, but his occasional reinvention of a wheel or two (most topics here have been more fully debated than his sketchy summaries might suggest) does little to detract from this engagingly offhand feast of insights.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago Press