Unquiet Americans: Laughter, by Aaron Pinkston
Twice a year at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, the School of the Art Institute provides a class that doubles as a film series open to the public — in the past, I’ve followed along with these series here at Battleship Pretension. This fall, the class is entitled “The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.” with lectures from great Chicago film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, based on his book of the same name. The series includes American comedies ranging from 1930 to 2006, all bucking the trends of societal norms in an unapologetic way. The series kicks off with a rarely remembered film, 1930’s Laughter, an appropriately named romance about art, wealth and happiness.
Coming only a few years after the sound revolution, Laughter is somewhat a bridge between silent comedies and the popular screwball films from later in the decade. In retrospect (and at the time, I’m sure), the early sound period was incredibly exciting, allowing for different types of stories to be told and different types of filmmakers to find a place in the industry — Laughter is a big beneficiary of the technological boom, as a film that simply couldn’t have existed a few years earlier. Overall, the film is light on the visual gags and madcap action that would define comedies before and after, instead fully using the new medium by relying on its dialogue and character interactions.
The other interesting thing about this time in film history was the way films could get away with almost anything. Though there was a Hollywood production code in place, Laughter beat the strengthened Hays Production Code (the only code you really hear about) by a few years. This era, known specifically as “Pre-Code,” was much more sexually explicit and morally ambivalent. With the ability of dialogue, this was a great time for screenwriters, especially ones with sharp tongues, who could be more pointed and critical of society. Being a film series about transgressive comedies, this is a perfect era in which to start, and Laughter has some fairly shocking content.
The main plot of the film involves a classic love triangle (actually two by film’s end) between a young woman named Peggy (Nancy Carroll), her banker husband (Frank Morgan, aka the Wizard of Oz) and her former lover, Paul (Frederic March). There is a casual attitude toward adultery, without much hubub when Peggy reunites with Paul fairly openly. Another character has unrequited feelings for Peggy, but ends up in a romance with her step-daughter in a fairly creepy plot development. Laughter has enough laughs to classify as a comedy, but a really dark streak comes through with these torrid affairs, eventual falls from grace, and explicit suicide. The film never really criticizes its characters for being overly sexual or flighty, though it condemns the character who may be the most pure. This is a stark difference from similar films that would soon come, and it is a delight to watch.
As a contemporary film released shortly after the beginnings of the Great Depression, money is on its mind. The love triangle is neatly defined between the comforts of wealth and the joy of art (ie, no wealth). Peggy’s wealthy, stuffy husband is matched up against the exciting, cultured former fling. One is unlovable but secure while the other is fun but not reliable. Overall, wealth in Laughter is treated rather cooly, with the artistic sensibility seeing it as dirty — at one point Paul explicitly asks Peggy to leave this “dirty lifestyle” for him and that laughter is the only cure for her awful stability. Even some of the well-off characters respond to money in dismissive ways, notably Gibson’s daughter, who enjoys the benefits her father’s bank account provides but acts like the very idea of money is relentlessly boring. To the wealthy, money is the only important thing, while secondary pleasures like art, passion, even love aren’t necessary for a fruitful life. Toward the end of Laughter another dark streak comes up with public joy over seeing these wealthy people experience a fall from grace. This particular beat proves to be significant today, in our current tabloid culture that worships wealth but openly cherishes scandal.
It should be noted, however, that Laughter really isn’t really a tale of wealth vs. poverty, but wealth vs. non-wealth. That certainly makes it easier to root for the charismatic Paul, as Peggy isn’t really choosing between her current lifestyle and hunger. Strangely, the two artists we see in the film are a classical pianist and a sculptor, which are both typically considered as “high art” today. Their attitudes and others’ attitudes towards them, though, are lower class. Still, there is something pure about someone dedicating their life to art in place of merely making money, which I suppose is something the greatly depressed audience would have sided with, even if they would prefer showtunes to Beethoven and could never afford the bust of a Greek poet.
Laughter was directed by long-forgotten Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, one of the strangest names in the history of Hollywood. d’Arrast had a fairly brief career as a film director, though he did spend time helming Wings, the first Oscar winner for Best Picture, and had a close working relationship with great auteur Charlie Chaplin. Given my previous idea that this period was ripe for great screenwriters, it should be pointed out that the story was written by Donald Ogden Stewart. Stewart was known for his sophisticated comedies, such as his Oscar winning script for The Philadelphia Story, and for his a close relationship with novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. This relationship comes through in Laughter’s tragic spectacle.
In the grand scheme of film history, Laughter doesn’t necessarily stand out on its own, but is a good representative for pre-code Hollywood, one of cinema’s most transgressive periods. This series will certainly have higher highs with more straight-forward comedies. Still, its look at the wealth gap is as important today as it was in 1930. Laughter’s biting edge is worth celebrating, and this series looking at critical and transgressive films is a perfect way to do so.