Hollywood’s Golden Age coincided with America’s Great Depression. Sound films premiered in 1927, and within a decade Americans wanted only talkies: talk was cheap, there was a lot to talk about, and now pictures could do the talking. Chattering classics like The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), and Adam’s Rib (1949) did more than entertain: they offered Americans a form of talk therapy that they could afford, using dialogue to debate the place of women, evolving social classes, and the institution of marriage. These films followed a period of feminist activity in America that culminated in women’s suffrage in 1920. Divorce was an increasingly acceptable option, and women were not only able to choose their careers and their candidates, but also their mates.
The headstrong heroines given voice by Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, and Rosalind Russell all brush off the advice and expectations of their families. In film after film, female protagonists protest that fathers do not know what’s best and a woman ought to be able to choose her own romantic adventure. They engineer their own romantic ordeals by forsaking arranged unions and respectable suitors. Poor Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Spencer Tracy are always trying to do the right thing, but finding themselves forced to do the wrong thing if they are to win over women who would have more easily fallen into their arms in earlier cinematic and literary iterations.
The philosopher Stanley Cavell’s beautiful, bizarre book on this period of cinema history observes that Hollywood became interested in “remarriage.” Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981) notes that the most successful romantic comedies of this era feature married, separated, and divorced heroines to skirt decency laws that censored everything from profanity and miscegenation to the depiction of clergy and pre-marital sex. These remarriage plots shook off the conventional constraints of romantic dramas to portray relationships of “mutual willingness.”
Conceived in an era when money and religion were often off the table, these comedies are about love in the most romantic sense: men and women finding soul mates without regard for familial or social expectation. Once married, the mandates of innocence and virginity were lifted; because they were formally “attached,” these women could talk honestly, without the interference of the censors, about attraction and infidelity, engagement and divorce, dating, and even domestic violence.
But these comedies of remarriage don’t simply talk about these things—they talk to these things. Adulterers talk to newlyweds, divorcees talk to free agents, heiresses talk to gossip columnists, new money talks to old money, and everyone in between.
Cavell argues that these films descend directly from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Just as the Bard rescued love from its aristocratic trappings, making poetry from tensions between social expectations and personal ambitions, these films pursue the happiness of characters rather than compliance with class expectations.
In McCarey’s The Awful Truth, Cary Grant thinks that wife Irene Dunne is two-timing him with her dashing music teacher. They divorce. She takes up with a neighbor while he’s seen around town with an heiress. Each realizes they had true love with one another, but only through a tremendous comedy of errors do they find their way back into one another’s arms. At one point in their frenzied tango, Cary Grant says, “Our marriage was one of those tragedies you read about in the newspapers.”
It is the same sort of salacious, mock-tragedy that Grant pens in His Girl Friday. He and Rosalind Russell play divorced journalists trying to land one final scoop. Grant has stayed on as editor of The Morning Post even though Russell, his star gumshoe, has left him and the paper for a nice quiet life in the suburbs. Russell wants the story, but Grant wants Russell back.
There is often an eager journalist somewhere in these films. An unemployed Clark Gable thinks he’s found his way back into print in It Happened One Night when heiress Claudette Colbert bounces onto his bus headed for New York City. Colbert is trying to outrun the annulment that her father has planned for her marriage, trying to get back to her gold-digging, playboy husband.
Clark Gable blackmails her: give him the scoop on her shotgun wedding or he will take the reward her father is offering for her return. Their own romantic odyssey begins, and within a few nights Colbert has fallen for Gable.
“Have you ever been in love?” she asks him, and Gable replies obliviously: “Sure I’ve thought about it. Who hasn’t? If I ever met the right sort of a girl, I’d—. Yeah, but where are you going to find her, somebody that’s real, somebody that’s alive? They don’t come that way any more.”
It’s no wonder that It Happened One Night swept the Oscars in 1934—becoming the first of only three films ever to win best actor, actress, director, picture, and screenplay. Gable and Colbert make a lovely couple, but they are also perfect conversation partners. As Cavell says in Pursuits of Happiness, comedies of remarriage move their characters from Rodin’s The Thinker to The Kiss: Colbert and Gable move from their separate pursuits to a common purpose.
One of the film’s loveliest scenes takes place in a hotel, where the not-yet-love-struck couple is forced to share a room. Gable divides their beds by a blanket that he calls the “Wall of Jericho.” Like that ancient city’s walls, this blanket will later fall and the actors will fall into one another’s arms, but not before they have talked through all the complexities of love, ambition, and inheritance.
That men and women have much to talk about is a preoccupation of these comedies of remarriage. Desire may inspire attraction, but conversation is a prerequisite for romance in these films. Take Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby. Cary Grant plays an amusingly absent-minded paleontologist in search of the intercostal clavicle that he needs to complete his beloved brontosaurus skeleton. He doesn’t notice that vixen Katharine Hepburn is batting her eyelashes at him all the way from New York to Connecticut. It’s love at first sight for the dreamy Hepburn, but Grant is engaged to marry his dreary assistant. The series of hijinks that brings them together hinges on the eponymous Baby, a leopard that Hepburn’s brother has sent to America for his aunt, the same aunt whose million-dollar donation Grant is after for his natural history museum.
Hepburn looks down from a similarly high social pedestal in George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story. At the start of the film, she’s divorced Cary Grant and taken up with John Howard, only to find herself falling for Jimmy Stewart, the writer sent to cover her upcoming nuptials for Spy magazine. Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven is the right kind of socialite, but the wrong kind of husband; Stewart’s Mike Connor is the right kind of husband, but the wrong class; and Howard’s George Kittredge isn’t the right sort of anything.
The comedy of The Philadelphia Story comes from watching a woman struggling not to find but figure out what she wants, reasoning her way from divorce to remarriage. Sharp, sassy exchanges about love permeate the film. Cavell sees The Philadelphia Story as America’s story. The city where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, it is now the city where lovers are free to move beyond expectation and obligation.
Freedom, in fact, is the central subject of all the comedies of remarriage. What sort of love we choose and how we make the choice when we are free to choose became the preoccupation of these films, the pinnacle of which is Adam’s Rib, where the leads aren’t fighting over their own marriage, but someone else’s. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play wedded lawyers who test their marriage by representing opposing sides of a domestic violence case. Tracy prosecutes a woman accused of attempting to murder her adulterous husband; Hepburn rises to defend the woman, believing she had every right to act after being spurned.
“What is marriage,” Tracy asks, answering, “it’s a contract, it’s the law.” Only marriage is no longer contractual; the law no longer holds marriages together. These comedies of remarriage have so much to talk about because the legal definitions and social expectations of marriage were shifting at the time.
And they shift still—yet contemporary film has not found a genre that can talk convincingly of marriage. If the Golden Age of cinema was an age of remarriage, ours is an age of pre-marriage: capers of adolescent love, melodramas of solitude, and comedies of cohabitation. In comedies of remarriage, the leads never have children, but our contemporary romantic comedies feature leads who are children themselves. Today’s version of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable are too busy talking about themselves to talk about love. To reverse Cavell’s scheme, they are trapped as Rodin’s The Thinker and cannot find their way to The Kiss.
That’s one of the reasons we are so dissatisfied with the dialogue of contemporary romantic comedies: there’s simply not enough of it. We miss the rapid-fire conversations of the golden-era films. Our pictures haven’t gotten smaller: they just got more childish, and more quiet.
About the author: Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.