Philosophy and the movies share an ancient origin. In the Republic, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine human beings living in a cave, where from childhood they have been forced to face straight ahead. Above and behind them a blazing fire projects shadows against the wall, as animals and other men—sometimes silently, sometimes with sound—move between the fire and the prisoners below. In rendering problematic the shadows which the prisoners are likely to mistake for reality, Plato’s myth of the cave thus eerily anticipates, by almost 24 centuries, part of the enigmatic fascination of the cinema.
Stanley Cavell would hardly find agreeable images of deluded entrapment in defining the movie audience; and, as an aesthetician, he has discovered sublimities on the screen which few other philosophers have noticed—much less deemed worthy of meditation. But such an illumination is the remarkable achievement of his new study of seven romantic comedies which Hollywood produced between 1934 and 1941 and in 1949. Apart from Shakespeare’s comedies, Cavell has largely disregarded the standard works of art which other scholars have already stuffed and mounted. He has identified a genre and examined it ingeniously. As a revelation of the evocative power of commercial film and as a demonstration of “man thinking” (Emerson is a favorite of Cavell’s), the results are amazing.
Pursuits of Happiness deserves three kinds of readers, with the categories (like Howard Hawks’ dialogue) often overlapping. Philosophers, whose esoteric interests have led them to join in the common academic enterprise of taking in each other’s washing, now have a model of how issues of ordinary life and of mass art might be addressed without short-circuiting the thought processes which their own training has refined. Intelligent moviegoers will appreciate the thoughtfulness which the author of The World Viewed once again applies to works rarely under the surveillance of an austerely serious mind. And readers mystified by the arithmetic of marriage, according to which one plus one are supposed to equal one, may have their grasp of that most resilient of social institutions deepened.
But this mixture of academic discipline, popular genre, and topical issue may be too combustible for some readers, who might feel themselves subjected to cross-purposes. Philosophers may continue to suspect that the author’s cargo of learning and cogitation threatens to sink vessels in which players like Irene Dunne and Claudette Colbert are featured; and he has no fight to pick with colleagues who remain more comfortable with War and Peace and Guernica. Even wellread moviegoers may find themselves looping in and out of passages on Kierkegaard, Thoreau, and Wittgenstein. For Cavell has not gone to the flicks only to relax; and in Pursuits of Happiness he is very much at work, even if it is the night shift. One sign of the book’s eccentricity is the freshness and openness with which Cavell has tackled his unusual subject. Another sign, alas, is his prose, which has to make this unexplored region accessible but which is itself sometimes so dense and tangled that the reader may despair for a machete. An adequate appreciation of Cavell’s claims for these films therefore requires not only a close reading but, quite probably, a rereading, This book is so exasperating in its very brilliance that possession of it demands its repossession.
Such a rereading would resemble what Cavell considers pivotal to the Hollywood definition of marriage that is his subject. Neither a legal document such as a license nor a festive occasion such as a wedding provides authentication. It is not a sacrament nor is it an economic necessity. It is, according to the author’s interpretation, “a ratification” of a relationship that is “itself in need of ratification,” in which a man and a woman must learn to rediscover the unsponsored possibilities of romantic adventure for themselves. “The finding of an object is in fact the refinding of it,” Cavell quotes Freud as announcing; and the acknowledgment of mutual freedom and need, intimacy and sociability, privacy and reciprocity requires for its success reconciliation and regeneration. In Catholic societies, where divorce has been prohibited or stigmatized, one outlet has been adultery. In Protestant societies, or where the interdictory force of religion has waned, separation and divorce are genuine threats to conjugal permanence, enlarging the arena of the pursuit of happiness. In Catholic countries the comic response has been the farce, presenting marriage and romance as incompatible. In America, where the dream of starting again or starting over has been so firmly implanted, the comic response has been It Happened One Night (1934), The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), and Adam’s Rib (1949).
It is important to Cavell’s argument, though not decisive to an appreciation of his book, that these films be understood in terms of a common theme of conjugal love lost and regained. In them marriage is consecrated by the couple’s “willingness for repetition,” as the primacy of their devotion to one another is tested before it can be reaffirmed. What Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert do together in It Happened One Night, Cavell writes, “is less important than the fact that they do whatever it is together, that they know how to spend time together, even that they would rather waste time together than do anything else—except that no time they are together could be wasted.” Even after their divorce in His Girl Friday, Gary Grant and Rosalind Russell “appreciate one another more than either of them appreciates anyone else, and they would rather be appreciated by one another than by anyone else. They are just at home with one another, whether or not they can live together under the same roof.” This establishment of a genre is somewhat compromised by the evidence, however, in that the couples in It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby do not remarry because they have not been married. Gable/Colbert and Grant/Hepburn act as though they have been married, Cavell insists, adding that “our genre is meant to have us wonder” what the institution of marriage is anyway.
What matters is how the pair understands the bond they share, and the author finds these movies endorsing John Milton’s opinion that “a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage, for we find here no expression so necessarily implying carnal knowledge as this prevention of loneliness to the mind and spirit of man.” Six of these films were conceived within the first dozen years after the invention of the talkies, and all of them radiate with the zany wit that distinguishes the idiom of these couples. The formalities of a divorce therefore exert little impact, because “the conversation between the divorced pair is continuous with the conversation that constituted their marriage.” The absence of children is noteworthy in these motion pictures, because progeny would interrupt the flow of conversation and therefore cannot certify the value of such marriages. The presence of children in recent American films about divorce and remarriage helps keep such movies from being comedies.
Except for the pre-Socratic writings, philosophy itself originated in conversation; and Cavell’s explication of this “meet and happy” aspect of the films endows his book with novelty and idiosyncratic bravura. Yet surprisingly little is said about the calibre and genesis of the scripts themselves. Pursuits of Happiness contains nine references to Nietzsche, none to Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, who co-wrote Bringing Up Baby. Rousseau is cited—but not Robert Riskind, the scenarist of It Happened One Night, Not even Ben Hecht, who co-authored The Front Page as well as its reincarnation as His Girl Friday, is given more than passing mention. Nor does Cavell assess the contribution that director Preston Sturges made to The Lady Eve by writing it.
To be sure, such appraisals are offered elsewhere by historians and critics who can rarely match Cavell’s powers of observation; but his book omits much else. The skills of the directors are admired and analyzed. But he makes little attempt to show how these particular movies display their own individual signatures, thus sparing the sensitivities of viewers who cannot tell a Hawks from a handsaw (or a Peckinpah). Although these comedies were crafted when the studio system was ascendant, their producers are unidentified. There are perceptive remarks about the acting of Hepburn, Gable, and especially Grant, whose roles in four of these seven movies make him Cavell’s star witness in the trials of marriage and remarriage. But generally the author says little about the elusive art of acting. Though he occupies a chair of aesthetics at Harvard, he brings little critical pressure to bear upon the formal dimension of these movies, how their fusion of image and sound, composition and montage, narrative and atmosphere has left us something blissful. On some viewings The Awful Truth has struck Cavell as the finest and perhaps the most profound of the films. (It is also the least known. ) But rarely does Cavell develop a sustained evaluation based upon artistic criteria. The seven comedies are not compared to one another in terms of their aesthetic or historical importance, nor are they assessed in relation to other films that have been more frequently studied or more often considered classics. The richness of meaning that he has extracted from them is quite extraordinary, but they are neither placed within the general history of the cinema nor fitted within the context of the Great Depression or the testing of American values which the dramatic collapse of unregulated capitalism engendered. Pursuits of Happiness is almost entirely innocent of the impact of sociology upon criticism, in that Cavell refuses to guess which messages the audiences of the 1930’s and 1940’s might have been responsive to—or which signals they might have missed that can now be decoded.
Yet, amazingly enough, this book works because it reverberates with the force of formidable mental energy and resourcefulness. The author may lack what Nietzsche labeled the sixth sense, the feel for history. But at 24 frames a second, Cavell is blessed with 20/20 vision in illuminating the subtleties of conjugal intimacy projected in the dark. As though it were a point of intellectual honor, he refuses to retrace the lines of attack that other critics and scholars have drawn. Instead of following the careers of directors or scenarists or stars, instead of speculating about what audiences might have noticed or misunderstood, Cavell has trusted his own responses. His is not a definitive book, and in places it is not even proleptic; but it is a very personal work that sometimes seems to turn the screen into a mirror. Yet Cavell believes that movies—like books, like our very lives—tend to be underinterpreted rather than overinterpreted; and he is willing to risk the impression that he has chewed more than he has bitten off.
In tracking the cinematic meaning of the pursuit of happiness, his book is stripped of any discussion of archetypes and myths; and in mentioning symbols (such as the black cat Irene Dunne shoos away in The Awful Truth), Cavell suggests that even the characters may consider them merely symbols—and thus ancillary to the vitality of experience. Instead of locating stereotypes, the author observes Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell embodying independent, vibrant, self-assured women who seem not to suffer from the emptiness, disenchantment, and lack of fulfillment that Betty Friedan was to call “the problem that has no name.” Such women are as smart and as quick, as efficacious and engaging as the men in whose lives they are implicated. Indeed, in The Lady Eve, Barbara Stanwyck is several steps ahead of Henry Fonda (whom Charles Coburn calls “sucker sapiens”). Cavell cares little for the historical evidence that has accumulated on the eclipse of feminism after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. He describes instead the reciprocal marriages depicted in these romantic comedies, whose subject is “the creation of the woman, or of the new woman, or the new creation of the human.” Such films are comedies because they hint that pleasant dreams may come true. They are romances because of their suspicion that such love cannot easily be domesticated or accommodated to the existing world. But such films do not violate credibility, Cavell argues, because the couples do not live happily ever after but rather in “a present continuity” of attractive silliness.
No review can do much more than report upon the suggestiveness and fertility of insight in Pursuits of Happiness. But especially interesting is its claim that these films, like philosophy itself, are “self-reflexive,” indicating an awareness of the camera and of the act of film-making. Here Cavell is particularly inventive, discerning in each of these works a character who partly serves as a surrogate director. And in The Awful Truth, when Grant beams directly at the camera during a dance floor sequence, it is “as full an emblem of the viewer-viewed, the film turned explicitly to its audience, to ask who is scrutinizing whom, as I know in film.” Cavell also devotes nine ingenious pages to the home movie shown in Adam’s Rib, the parody melodrama which comments so extensively and ambiguously on the larger film in which it is embedded. Self-referential inside jokes are sprinkled in these movies as well. (Cavell does not deign to mention that in His Girl Friday Grant is introduced to Ralph Bellamy and wonders whether they had not seen one another before. Indeed they had—in The Awful Truth, three years earlier.) Such lines and situations enhance the large claims Cavell makes for the aura of knowingness that pervades these pictures.
All of these movies impinge on the problem of modern journalism. Some of the stars play newspapermen, or the stories in these films are triggered by newspaper “stories,” or reality seems to be validated by the press itself. It is therefore unfortunate that Cavell does not pursue this particular tangent more than he does, since the awareness of journalistic activity in these comedies has relevance for epistemology. It is no coincidence that the most cogent statement of this problem, in which the press has come to authenticate reality while obscuring it, is Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922), an analysis which opens with the Platonic myth of the cave, Cavell’s own formulation is more Kantian, but still echoing Plato in his assertion that our plight may not be that we are limited by our experience but that we are confined “to experience.” Cavell’s steady thoughtfulness may have led him to overestimate how much philosophy is in films. But in bringing the gift of philosophy to certain films, he has kept his end of the conversation alive; and Pursuits of Happiness has thus accomplished a most satisfying remarriage of its own.