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October 13, 2011

Film Noir: Bibliography

Build Your Gallows High

Abbott, Megan (2002) The Street was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

Allen, Virginia M. (1983) The Femme Fatale: Erotic Icon (New York: The Whitson Publishing Company).

Beeler, Karin (2006) Tattoos, Desire and Violence: Marks of Resistance in Literature, Film and Television (Jefferson NC: McFarland).

Biesen, Sheri Chinen (2004) ‘Manufacturing Heroines: Gothic Victims and Working Women in Clasic Noir Films’ in Film Noir Reader 4: The Crucial Films and Themes, ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New Jersey: Limelight): 161-173.

--. (2005) Blackout: World War Two and the Origins of Film Noir (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press).

Boozer, Jack (1999) ‘The lethal femme fatale in the noir tradition,’ Journal of Film and Video 51.3/4: 20-35.

Bould, Mark (2005) Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City (London and New York: Wallflower).

Cassuto, Leonard (2009) Hard-boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories (New York: Columbia University Press).

Chopra-Gant, Mike (2006) Hollywood Genres and Postwar America: Masculinity, Family and Nation in Popular Film and Film Noir (London and New York: IB Tauris).

Corey, William (1999) ‘Girl Power: Female Centered Neo-Noir’ in Film Noir Reader 2, ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight): 311-327.

Diapaolo, Marc (2011) War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film (Jefferson NC: McFarland).

Doane, Mary Ann (1987) The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (Bloomington and Indianapolis IN: Indiana University Press).

--. (1991)Femme Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis(London and New York: Routledge).

Evans, Caroline (2007) Fashion at the Edge (New Haven CT: Yale University Press).

Farber, Stephen (1999) ‘Violence and the Bitch Goddess’ in Film Noir Reader 2, ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight): 45-55.

Fay, Jennifer and Justus Nieland (2010) Film Noir: Hard Boiled Modernity and the Cultures of Globalization (London and New York: Routledge).

Feasey, Rebecca (2009) ‘Neo-Noir’s Fatal Woman: Stardom, Survival and Sharon Stone’ in Neo-noir, ed. Mark Bould, Kathrina Glitre and Greg Tuck (London and New York: Wallflower).

Flory, Dan (2010) Philosophy, Black Film, Film Noir (University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press).

Forter, Greg (2000) Murdering Masculinities: Fantasies of Gender and Violence in the American Crime Novel (New York and London: New York University Press).

Hollinger, Karen (1996) ‘Film Noir, Voice-over, and the Femme Fatale’ in Film Noir Reader, ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight): 243-260.

Irwin, John T. (2006) Unless the Threat of Death is Behind Them: Hard-boiled Fiction and Film Noir (Baltimore MD: John Hopkins University Press).

James, Dean (1998) ‘Interview with Sara Paretsky’ in Deadly Women: The Woman Mystery Reader’s Indispensible Companion, ed. Jan Grape, Dean James and Ellen Nehr (New York: Connell and Graf Publishers): 287-290.

Kinsman, Margaret (1995) ‘A Question of Visibility: Paretsky and Chicago’ in Women Times Three: Writers, Detectives, Readers, ed. Kathleen Gregory Klein (Bowling Green OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press): 15-28.

Maxfield, James F. (1996) The Fatal Woman: Sources of Male Anxiety in American Film Noir, 1941-1991 (Madison/Teaneck: Farleigh Dickenson University Press).

Menon, Elizabeth (2006) Evil by Design: The Creation and Marketing of the Femme Fatale (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois).

Orr, Stanley (2010) Darkly Perfect World: Colonial Adventure, Postmodernism, and American Noir (Columbus OH: Ohio State University Press).

Phillips, Gene D. (2000) Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction and Film Noir (Lexington KT: University Press of Kentucky).

Pronzoni, Bill (1998) ‘Women in the Pulps’ in Deadly Women: The Woman Mystery Reader’s Indispensible Companion, ed. Jan Grape, Dean James and Ellen Nehr (New York: Connell and Graf Publishers): 17-19.

Reddy, Maureen T. (1988) Sisters in Crime: Feminism and the Crime Novel (New York: Continuum).

Richardson, Michael (2010) Otherness in Hollywood Cinema (New York and London: Continuum).

Spicer, Andrew (2002) Film Noir (Harlow: Longman).

Telotte, J.P. (2004) ‘Voices from the Deep: Film Noir as Psychodrama’ in Film Noir Reader 4: The Crucial Films and Themes, ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New Jersey: Limelight): 145-159.

Wager, Jans B. (2005) Dames in the Driver’s Seat: Rereading Film Noir (Austin TX: University of Texas Press).

Ward, Elizabeth (1999) ‘The Unintended Femme Fatale: The File on Thelma Jordan and Pushover’ in Film Noir Reader 2, ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight): 129-136.

December 14, 2010

Hollywood Goddesses and my Christmas Tree

Christmas Tree Decorations

This year I decided to make some of my own Christmas decorations featuring my favourite women stars of Hollywood’s golden era. Here are my favourites…

Ingrid Bergman

From Hitchcock’s Notorious. This really is one of my favourite films, because Bergman isn’t playing the role of the pure one, but the woman with a reputation. The film really clarifies society’s disdain for women who don’t live up to society’s standards.

Louise Brooks

Various clips. I remember seeing her in Pandora’s Box as a student and being very taken with her. Again she is playing one of those women who push at the boundaries of society.

Greta Garbo

From Queen Christina.

And yet, in this deified face, something sharper than a mask is looming: a kind of voluntary and therefore human relation between the curve of the nostrils and the arch of the eyebrows; a rare, individual function relating two regions of the face. A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic harmony. Garbo’s face represents this fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archtype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces, when clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman. -Roland Barthes


Lena Horne

From Stormy Weather

Katy Jurado

You are a good looking boy. You have big broad shoulders, but he is a man. It takes more than big broad shoulders to make a man, Harvey and you have a long way to go. (In High Noon)

Kathryn Hepburn

From Bringing Up Baby

Veronica Lake

From The Glass Key

Nina Mae McKinney


Eve Marie Saint

From Hitchcock’s North by Northwest

Jean Simmons


and my absolute favourite Rita Hayworth

From Gilda

November 03, 2010

Visit to the National Gallery of Art in DC: The Age of Innocence, Gesture and the Fan.

Follow-up to Screening Intimacy Panel at 'Writings of Intimacy in the 20th and 21st Centuries'. from The Midnight Heart

When I was in Washington D.C. last week, I visited the National Gallery of Art where they have a show on at the moment: From Impressionism to Modernism – The Chester Dale Collection . There were some very impressive paintings on display, but what particularly struck me was a series of paintings that featured women in sumptuous surroundings holding fans.

Only recently, I wrote up a blog entry on gesture and intimacy from a paper that I saw by the film academic Steven Peacock at the Writings of Intimacy conference . In his paper, Peacock talked about Scorsese’s film The Age of Innocence based on the book by Edith Wharton. Both the film and the book focus on the scandalous Countess Elena Olenska, whose separation from her husband causes ripples in 1870s upper-class New York society. Newland Archer is fascinated by the Countess Olenska, in spite of the fact that he is about to marry the innocent, pure, beautiful May Welland.

What Peacock talked about was how Scorsese uses gesture as a kind of power play between Elena Olenska and Newland Archer. Here is what I said about it in my previous blog entry:

Peacock analyzed the scene in the box at the opera in which Elena’s gestures are both declamatory and intimate. Elena extends her arm to Newland to be kissed, but her hand hangs there while he hesitates. They start to make smalltalk and in discussing her experience of the opera, Elena extends her fan over the spectators. When she does so, she is expressing her fondness for the place, yet it is also a gesture that claims dominion.

When I was looking at paintings in the Chester Dale collection, I remembered Peacock’s reading of The Age of Innocence. I was fascinated to note too that many of the paintings from around the time when The Age of Innocence was set (1870s) featured women with fans, and in each case the fan seems to signify something different,

The first painting was Madame Camus by Degas (1869-70):

Degas - Madame Camus (1870)

Here, the woman, who might be another Countess Olenska, is sat up in her seat in sumptuous surroundings. We see her thoughtful face in profile, and the fan in reaching out and up from the chair suggests intention. The scarlet colours of the background, her dress and the fan suggest love, sexuality, passion even. Altogether, the picture presents a vision of someone on the verge of doing something and the fan is almost leading her there.

Next was The Loge (1882) by American artist, Mary Cassatt.

Cassatt - The Loge (1882)

A loge is a small compartment, a box at the theatre or a separate forward section of a theatre mezzanine or balcony. In this exclusive space sit two young women, a decorous spectacle for the theatre-goers, and the scene is very reminiscent of The Age of Innocence. The two women, however, seem uncomfortable with the situation, and one is almost hidden behind her fan. These female figures resemble the good, true and innocent May Welland more than Countess Elena Olenska.

Finally is another painting by Mary Cassatt, Miss Mary Ellison (1880):

Cassatt- Miss Mary Ellison (1880)

The title suggests that this portrait must have been a commissioned work, yet strangely the figure is picture of dejection. Staring into the distance, she is lost in her own thoughts, and the way that she holds the fan seems mechanical, as though she is merely going through the motions of proper manners and delicacy. There is also something very vulnerable about the figure, since reflected in the mirror behind her is the back of her head and her shoulders.

In each of these paintings, the fan works differently to suggest passion, shyness and dejection. It would be interesting to know whether Wharton or Scorsese were aware of paintings like these and to what extent they might have contributed to their renderings of The Age of Innocence.

October 14, 2010

Panel on Cinema, Feminism, Gaze at 'Violence and Reconcilation'

Writing about web page

Sorcha Gunne and I recently spoke at the conference ‘Violence and Reconciliation’. We were talking on narrativising rape and revising scripts of power in short stories by Isabel Allende and Rosario Castellanos. You can see our abstract here Alongside us were papers by Andrew Hennlich who spoke on William Kentridge’s film Ubu Tells the Truth and Xavier Aldana Reyes who discussed ‘Contemporary Horror and the Mediation of Violence.

Hennlich focussed on the links between Kentridge’s film about witnessing violence in South Africa (made in 1997) and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1927). Hennlich analyzed the words FOR GIVE which appear onscreen and questioned whether to give is an act of compassion or an act of aggression related to the Afrikaans word ‘gif’ meaning poison. Often Kentridge’s imagery suggests that humanity is troubling, e.g. the pig’s head wearing earphones. One particularly interesting scene that Hennlich commented on was the moment when the camera becomes complicit in acts of violence itself; Kentridge shows it blowing up bodies, an act that was based on testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Even for the camera, it is impossible to recover those lost in the violence of Apartheid.

Reyes also commented on the legacies of violence describing the plots and motifs of some very disturbing horror films. The films discussed included Funny Games (1997), My Little Eye (2001), _The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007) and Untraceable (2008). Most of these films have plots relates to recording extreme violence and Reyes described them as Sadeian. Reyes also suggested that the films were not as popular as horror blockbusters like Hostel, because the plots are far more uncomfortable. These films reflect a wound culture, where people stop to look at dead bodies on the pavement and internet users are given the choice whether or not a person dies horribly.

We had an interesting discussion after the panel about the representations of women in these films. Reyes explained that in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, an FBI film analyst tells the other agents that after his wife saw a short extract from one of the tapes, she was so traumatized that she couldn’t let her husband touch her for a year. Again in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a victim of the murderer who survives, Cheryl Dempsey, is unable to function socially and ends up committing suicide. I had a look on YouTube after the paper and found this disturbing video related to The Poughkeepsie Tapes – disturbing because half way through the “interview” with Cheryl, it becomes clear that she has been severely physically damaged. I actually find the representation of Cheryl extremely objectionable. All it seems to do is reactivate the same old scripts of gendered power and domination. From what Reyes told us about Untraceable, it seems that similar scripts are at work in the representation of the heroine, Jennifer Marsh, who at the end of the film (spoilers!) is caught and tortured before she finally kills the murderer. I am amazed that these exploitative representations of women are still being used, even if it is the horror genre.

October 12, 2010

Screening Intimacy Panel at 'Writings of Intimacy in the 20th and 21st Centuries'.

Writing about web page

Screening Intimacy: Papers from Peacock, Reed and Schaller.

Steven Peacock’s paper focussed on how within the big architecture of film, scenes of intimacy could emerge. He looked at two great films; The Age of Innocence (dir. Scorsese) and The Insider (dir. Mann), and he argued that the narratives of the films were presented in a way that made them extensive and intimate. For The Insider, Peacock analyzed the first meeting between the producer Lowell Bergman and the insider on US tobacco, Jeffrey Wigland, and he discovered a tension between intimate spaces of enclosure and dangerous spaces of openness. Particularly interesting was Peacock’s discussion of The Age of Innocence, in which Newland Archer is to marry May Welland but instead develops an attraction to the disgraced family member, Elena Olenska. Peacock analyzed the scene in the box at the opera in which Elena’s gestures are both declamatory and intimate. Elena extends her arm to Newland to be kissed, but her hand hangs there while he hesitates. They start to make smalltalk and in discussing her experience of the opera, Elena extends her fan over the spectators. When she does so, she is expressing her fondness for the place, yet it is also a gesture that claims dominion. In detailing the precarious relationships of Elena, Newland and May, Scorsese focuses on gestures that are both intimate and public.

Clare Reed from University of Reading gave an entertaining paper on representations of lesbians on TV. The paper was titled ‘The Kisses of Her Mouth: The Invisible Intimate Lesbian in Friends and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. Reed argued convincingly that lesbian kissing is absent these programmes, or if it is present it is exploitative playing on men’s sexual fantasies. There are lesbian characters in Friends: the lesbian couple Carol and Susan who are made safe by the fact that they are mothers (Ross is the father).Carol and Susan are financially secure and professional and they do not conform to the butch-femme dynamic of some lesbian relationships. Reed analyzed the episode, ‘The One Without the Ski Trip’, which shows Carol taking a hair (pubic?) out her mouth, but nothing more graphic is shown. She also looked at ‘The One with Rachel’s Big Kiss’, which features an exploitative kiss between Rachel and an ex-college friend. In Buffy, Willow and Tara are the sole gay couple; they are not ‘visually obvious’ lesbians and they are aesthetically similar. Reed analyzed the episode ‘New Moon Rising’, where the lesbian kiss between Willow and Tara is hidden when they blow out a candle. ‘Touched’, too, shows Willow and Tara in bed but nothing intimate is shown. Reed highlights that the women are only seen in a sexual way in ‘Restless’ when Zander has an erotic dream about them. Overall, Reed seemed to suggest that TV representations of lesbians are still not very progressive. It is interesting to note, however, that she only looked at American TV and in particular at programmes which had their hayday in the nineties. It would be interesting to consider whether British TV of this period has any more progressive representations of lesbians (e.g. Queer as Folk?). It might be interesting too to consider American TV of the noughties which features lesbians, and I am thinking particularly of characters like Keema Greggs in The Wire. I am not so sure about Reed’s demand for visually obvious lesbians on TV, e.g. butch and femme identities. Perhaps the idea of a ‘visually obvious’ lesbian needs questioning – do butch and femme stereotypes need to be subverted too? – but I am with Reed in condemning the striking avoidance of honest, genuine scenes of lesbian intimacy.

The final paper on this panel was by Karen Schaller of UEA and it was on Elizabeth Bowen’s short story, ‘Dead Mabelle’. Schaller put forward an argument that Bowen writes this story in a language of the cinema that works with gaze, lighting, camerawork. Written in 1927, the story tells how Williams falls in love with a dead film star, and it describes the process of watching her films until he comes to her last. Mabelle’s films are not enduring art – her film reels are later melted down for patent leather. She is, however, a femme fatale whose excess of presence represents a lack. My notes on this paper are not absolutely complete, but Schaller’s analysis of how the cinema and the short story ‘accelerate together’ was especially fascinating.

August 06, 2010

CWWN Conference Panel: “Constellations of Home Ground”.

Writing about web page

Here are my notes on a panel on ideas of home at the CWWN conference . If you were there and I missed something, don’t be afraid to add a comment. It’s hard to remember all the details and I have terrible hand-writing in my notes!

The first speaker on this panel was Bonnie Kime Scott who discussed home as a domesticating term. The most memorable part of the talk for me was where Kime-Scott discussed Barbara Kingsolver’s book of non-fiction essays High Tide in Tucson, the title of which refers to a hermit crab that Kingsolver accidentally brings back with her from the Bahamas to her desert home. Kime Scott suggests that in writing about the transplanted crab, Kingsolver is articulating an ethics of care. Kime Scott also discussed a writer that I hadn’t come across before: Mary Lou Awiakta. Awiakta is a Native American author of the Cherokee tribe and Kime Scott explains that Awiakta presnts in her writing a sacred respect for the earth and for the “Earth mother”. Kime-Scott focuses though on an essay by Awiakta titled Baring the Atom’s Mother Heart , in which a history of Cherokee women is articulated through science: the quark, the atom’s mother heart, the eternal life-force that drives all human beings.

Nuclear energy is the nurturing energy of the universe. Except for stellar explosions, this energy works not by fission (splitting) but by fusion—attraction and melding. With the relational process, the atom creates and transforms life. Women are part of this life force. One of our natural and chosen purposes is to create sustain life—biological, mental and spiritual. (Nantahala Review )

This positive view of nuclear energy contrasts with the attitudes of many American writers, for example Terry Tempest Williams from Utah who wrote about the prevalence of cancer in her family after they were exposed to radiation during the nuclear testing in the Utah desert between 1951 and 1962. See her moving essay: The Clan of the One-Breasted Women .

Next was Pauline Newton who discussed home in relation to ideas of transplantation. Newton mentioned a few writers, but mainly talked about Jamaica Kincaid and her relationship with Wordsworth. Newton began though by discussing the symbolism of gardens in colonialism, noting the colonialist ideal of the garden/colony as a bounteous Eden. In her essay ‘Dances with Daffodils’ and her novel Lucy, Kincaid has described her feelings of disquiet about Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’, in part because she associates the poem with the colonial education system. Reconciling herself to the poem, however, Kincaid describes how her own garden has thousands of daffodils and she uses that garden to think carefully and deeply about troubling moments or aspects in history.

Finally Nancy Srebro spoke about Gurinder Chadha and her film Bride and Prejudice focussing on the different spaces that appear in the movie, including Amritsar in India, Britain and LA in the States. Chadha works out of the heritage film tradition and its sentiment for countryside spaces (especially England). Chadha, however, uses the visual style of the heritage film to focus on India and Indian women. So, in reworking Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet family become the Bakshi family and Bollywood meets Hollywood. Srebro notes that in this meeting, a lush and visual India is contrasted against the homogeneity of LA, yet the India presented is a ‘Disneyland India’, which makes it all the more ironic that discovering an authentic India is one of the themes of the film.

February 12, 2007

Note to Self: Must Watch These Films with Links to Poetry…

Cinema Paradiso

Anaemic Cinema
A spiral design spins dizzily. It’s replaced by a spinning disk. These two continue in perfect alternation until the end: a spiral design, a disk. Each disk is labelled and can be read as it rotates. The messages, in French, feature puns and whimsical rhymes and alliteration. The final message comments on the spiral motif itself. Directed by Marcel Duchamp.

At Land
Film by May Deren – “remarkable fractured narrative connected by story fragments that have a perfect dreamlike logic”.

Bells of Atlantis
This dream-journey features Anais Nin reading an extract from her novella House of Incest.

A film-poem:’a Sufi road movie’.

A film-poem by Peter Todd, ‘layers of emotions that shape the most ordinary of lives’.

First Hymn to the Night Novalis
A film-poem by Stan Brakhage, ‘hand painted…interwoven with words’.

Hugh MacDiarmid
A film poem about the poet, Hugh McDiamid.

Kokoro is for Heart
Features poet Gerry Shikatani. The irregular, yet rhythmic sound of the cameras inner working echoes Gerry’s phrasing, and re-phrasing.

L’Etoile de Mer
Film poem by Man Ray inspired by Robert Desnos: ‘Desnos brought me a script-like poem…inspired by a starfish he kept in a jar by his bed’.

Looking for Langston
Film-poem about Langston Hughes.

A film-poem – ‘the first genuine avant garde film produced in the United States’.

Meshes of the Afternoon
Another Maya Deren – the ‘trance film’ – ‘a web of dream events that in the final scene appear to spill over in reality’.

Pan Tadeusz
Andrzej Wajda’s film of ‘Pan Tadeusz’ – a big hit in Poland in 1999, regarded as the national poem.

Narrated by madrigal singers.

Impressionistic portrait of Rome.

The Sentimental Bloke
A silent film using an Australian poem by C.J. Dennis.

The Sweet Hereafter
Features Robert Browning’s ‘Pied Piper’.

Words for Battle
A film-poem: dir. by Humphrey Jennings – ‘he composes exactly like a poet’.

Sally Potter film for which she wrote the poem-script.

August 23, 2006

Yeah and I used to be a hunchback by C.P. Lee, an article on the Marx Brothers

Lee, C.P. ‘ “Yeah and I used to be a hunchback”: Immigrants, humour and the Marx Brothers’. Because I Tell A Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference. Edited by Stephen Wagg. London and New York: Taylor & Francis, 1998. 165–179.

Marx Brothers - Animal Crackers

C.P. Lee begins the essay with two quotations: one from Theodore Roosevelt stating that there can be one language only and the other a play on words by the Marx Brothers. Lee responds: ‘So much for legislating the most amorphous and misleading of things—–language’ (165). Lee suggests that verbal displays were a means of defence for immigrant in the US. This was a way of coming to grips with ‘WASP (White Anglo–Saxon Protestant) principles’ which were used as a means of controlling how people thought and behaved (166). The Marx Brothers’ humour is thought of as a means of rebelling against this and Lee quotes Groucho from Animal Crackers: ‘Put it on the penultimate Jameson, not on the dipthonic’ (qtd. in Lee, 166). Lee admires the Marx Brothers who are described as ‘three Jews pretending to be a harp–playing mute, an Italian con–man and a motor–mouthed shyster’ who ‘could cross over from the ethnic melting pot and establish a rich vein of absurdist humour’ (166).

Lee argues that the situation of immigrants lends itself to this kind of comedy. Those immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island faced hostility and the difficulty of integrating into a new language. In juxtaposition with comments on the polylingualism that existed within US communities, Lee offers a sketch from Animal Crackers that plays with pronunciation and mispronunciation:

GROUCHO: Put it in a box Jameson. Mark it Fra–Gilly.
ZEPPO: Fra–Gilly?
GROUCHO: Look it up in a dictionary Jameson. It’s under fragile. (qtd. in Lee, 166)

Lee considers how ‘mini–language communities’ survive giving examples of patois, argot and slang. The essay argues that ‘the English of The Marx Brothers is that of a dominant tongue filtered, mediated and regurgitated through the consciousness of an essential ethnicity of perception’ (168).

Lee outlines the Marx Brothers background. They were brought up in Harlem , New York, which was then not a predominantly black neighbourhood but a mixture of different ethnicities. Their father, Sam, was French (from Alsace), while their mother, Minnie, was German. The Marx Brothers grew up speaking German and Yiddish at home. Groucho later based routines on his act as a dialect comic. Lee sees this kind of dialect comedy not as racist but ‘as an agent of cohesion, awaiting recognition, agreement and unity’ and he then quotes a scene from Go West (170).

GROUCHO: White man’s red friend. White man want to make friends with red man’s brother.
CHICO: And sister too.
INDIAN: Beray! Beray! Kulah! Kulah! Cocho! Rodah! Nietzsche! Pardo.
GROUCHO: Are you insinuating that the white man is not the Indian’s friend? Who swindled you out of Manhatten Island for $24?
CHICO: White man.
GROUCHO: Who turned you into wood and stood you in front of a cigar store?
CHICO: White man.
GROUCHO: Who put your head on a nickel and then stole the nickel away?
CHICO: Slot machine. (qtd. in Lee, 170)

Dialect became an essential part of the Marx Brothers’ developing act – they experimented with Irish and German accents, but finally Chico was the only brother to retain the cod–Italian accent. However Lee suggests that one element of the original act was retained – the idea of otherness. The dowager, Margaret Dumont, then becomes a means for hegemony to be undermined.

Lee suggests that there are three ‘geopsychical spaces within the language community’ that the three brothers represent.
•Groucho, the ‘intellectual’, is ‘quick–witted’ and ‘fast–talking’ and he ‘controls the speech situation’ (173).
•Chico battles with the ‘weapon’ of ‘unyielding literalness’ and he represents ‘the eternal battle of the plain speaker up against the Latinate ruling class culture’ (174).
•The primitive noises and gestures of Harpo take us into the realm of the Shaman according to Lee – a world of magic, of Levi–Strauss’ bricolage.

Lee now makes a strange diversion into discussing Kaballah in which ‘all words resonate with power, and this power can be concentrated in order to effect changes in reality’ (175). Lee states that although the Marx Brothers were not interested in this kind of magick, they did have an awareness of the power of language. He compares Kaballah with the tradition of Calypso.

Lee now tackles the topic of the Marx Brothers’ Jewishness and while he admits that there is a brand of ‘Jewish humour’, he is reluctant to suggest that the Marx Brothers’ comedy was exclusively Jewish. However, Lee points out ‘a survival mechanism adopted by European Jewry in the nineteenth century of carrying your trade in your head’ and Lee wonders if this could be a reason for the proliferation of Jewish performers.

Lee suggests that post–war, so–called ‘ethic comedy’ was less in favour and that performers became more detached from their cultural identities. Yet Lee suggests that the Marx Brothers championed a brand of comedy that acted as a tool of defence and integration for immigrants. To conclude his essay, he cites one of Groucho’s anecdotes:

‘In the 1920s two friends of the Marx Brothers were walking along 5th Avenue. The first was Otto Kahn, a patron of the Metropolitan Opera. The second was Marshall B. Wilder, a hunch–backed script writer. As they walked past a synagogue Kahn turned to Wilder and said, “You know I used to be a Jew”. And Wilder said, “Yeah and I used to be a hunchback”.’ (qtd. in Lee, 179)

'American Classic' by Richard Rowland, an article on the Marx Brothers

Rowland, Richard. ‘American Classic’. Hollywood Quarterly. Vol 2. No. 3. (April 1947). 264-269.

The Marx Brothers

In this essay, Richard Rowland wonders which films will stand the test of time (and as this article was written in 1947 one feels rather strange looking back on it nearly sixty years later). Rowland suggests that Marx Brothers films have such a legacy, although he admits that some of the humour is dated. Rowland proceeds to ask why the films persist. One reason suggested is the excellent script writer S.J. Perelman who worked mainly on the early films. Rowland states, ‘Perelman has a remarkable talent for torturing the English language into a sort of insane poetry, formed by weird juxtapositions of formal diction and advertising copy, of slang and preciosity, so that he becomes a slapstick James Joyce’ (265). Yet Rowland notes that the Marx Brothers continued to be funny after Perelman finished writing for them, so he wonders could the legacy be rooted in the ‘comic genius’ of the acting?

Rowland rejects this line of thought too and he concludes that the nature of reality is what is at stake here:

‘They deal with the gravest question with which comedy can deal. They ask us, at least the successful ones do, “What is the nature of reality?” ’(265).

What unfolds is an interesting argument as Rowland notes the inherent unreality of the Marx Brothers’ world:

‘Harpo’s wig is clearly a wig and, indeed, often seems in danger of falling off. Groucho’s mustache [sic] is either painted or fastened to his cigar, we are never quite sure which. Chico’s accent is as detachable as the wig or the mustache [sic], and is sometimes similarly askew.’ (265-266)

Rowland describes how in some scenes, the Marx Brothers miraculously provide all the comforts of home aboard a travelling steamer and he concludes that, ‘disorder succeeds, and the way of order becomes the way of failure’ (266). Margaret Dumont and the other ‘stooges’ are consequently ‘doomed’ because the rules of logic that they try to use do not apply in this world (266).

‘This is more than a joke; it is a moral lesson. No world, dream or real, will allow itself to be fitted into a system—-though the nature of man demands that he go on trying to make it fit’ (266).

Sometimes the Marx Brothers deal with the nature of reality directly. Rowland gives the example of Night at the Opera where a huge number of people are fitted into a small room. The idea of it is unreal, yet one witnesses it before one’s very eyes. In the same film, a harassed tenor continues to sing as the Marx Brothers accidentally change the back-drops to scenes totally inappropriate for the opera being performed. Rowland also mentions the famous scene is Duck Soup in which the brothers all dress as Groucho leading up to the broken mirror scene where Harpo pretends to be Groucho’s reflection.

‘Are there two of me? Is that other figure real? Who, indeed, am I? Am I real myself? Never, perhaps, has the shifting instability of the dream world been more vividly presented on screen.’

Rowland gives further examples, such as the Punch and Judy scene in Monkey Business where Harpo fights with puppets. Who is real and who is make-believe?

Some of the most interesting insights that Rowland makes, however, are on the nature of language in the Marx Brothers films. Rowland describes how faith is words has ‘collapsed’ (267). To the admonition not to ‘burn the candle at both ends’, Harpo can produce just that object – a candle burning at both ends – and Rowland describes how we respond by feeling ‘the failure of words which seemed real but which have suddenly proved worse than useless since they always mean the wrong thing’ (267).

July 07, 2006

Oneliners in Gilda (1946)

Forties and some fifties films have the best dialogue that one can find, so I have a little project here on my blog to collect great passages of dialogue from mainly forties films with the desire to learn in my own writing.


Gilda 1946Gilda: I can never get a zipper to close. Maybe that stands for something, what do you think?
Mundson: I think you were very rude to him.
Gilda: To whom?
Mundson: Johnny.
Gilda: Was I? Oh, dear. That’s one of the things you’ll have to teach me, Ballin. Good manners.
Mundson: I want you to like him.
Gilda: You sure about that?
Mundson: What do you mean?
Gilda: He’s a very attractive man, if you like the type.
Mundson: He’s a boy.
Gilda: Boys have the darndest way of growing up, Ballin. Almost when you’re not looking.
Mundson: But I’ll be looking.

Gilda: Now isn’t this something? It’s a small world in Argentina, isn’t it?
Johnny: Isn’t it? Why did you marry him?
Gilda: My husband’s a very attractive man.
Johnny: You don’t love him.
Gilda: What was that word again, Johnny?
Johnny: You married him for his money.
Gilda: That happened to come with it.
Johnny: Now, that’s a great way to make a living.
Gilda: That wouldn’t be the big pot calling the little kettle black, now would it?
Johnny: I was down and out. He picked me up. Put me on my feet.
Gilda: Now isn’t that an amazing coincidence, Johnny. That’s practically the story of my life.

Johnny: You can’t talk to men down here the way you would at home. They don’t understand it.
Gilda: Understand what?
Johnny: They think you mean it.
Gilda: Mean what?
Johnny: Doesn’t it bother you at all that you’re married?
Gilda: What I want to know is, does it bother you?


Johnny: I got some news for you, Gilda. He didn’t just buy something. He’s in love with you.
Gilda: Is that so hard to understand?
Johnny: And you’re not going to do anything…
Gilda: I’ve got some news for you, Johnny. I’m going to do exactly what I please when I please. I was true to one man once, and look what happened. I made up my mind then…
Johnny: This isn’t about us, it’s about him.
Gilda: Really? You don’t say so.
Johnny: And get this straight. I don’t care what you do, but I’m going see to it that it looks all right to him. From now on, you go anywhere you please with anyone you please, but I’m going take you there and I’m going pick you up and bring you home. Get that? Exactly the way I’d take and pick up his laundry.
Gilda: Shame on you, Johnny. Any psychiatrist would tell you that your thought associations are very revealing.
Johnny: What are you talking about?
Gilda: Any psychiatrist would tell you that means something, Johnny.
Johnny: Did you hear what I said?
Gilda: Sure, I heard what you said. You’re going take me there and pick me up – all to protect Ballin. Who do you think you’re kidding, Johnny?


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