Today, I’m hitting up some comedies, specifically screwball comedies. What makes a screwball comedy you ask? Well, the classic genre involves a lot of snappy dialogue, and a ridiculous situation that leads to a lot of misunderstandings. Look back at films like His Girl Friday or It Happened One Night for great examples of the genre. There’s usually a love story included as well, and today’s films don’t ignore that aspect either. Today we have:
Joel and Ethan Coen – The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Billy Wilder – Some Like It Hot (1959)
Both films from directors I haven’t covered before, and both from all-time great directors. Interestingly, I’m picking what is probably considered a lesser Coen brothers film by many people, and one of Billy Wilder’s more famous films (if not his most famous).
However, for me, The Hudsucker Proxy is an important, special film. You see, my last name is Hunsucker. And let’s be honest, it kind of sounds like a joke. And I’m certain that the Coen brothers chose that name because it sounds kind of funny. But for a young kid with a weird name, seeing something so close to my own name in a video store was a big moment for me.
Let’s talk about the film.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The Hudsucker Proxy is a film about Hudsucker Industries, a large company in New York. When their founder and president commits suicide, the board realizes his stock will be available to public in a month, and they can’t afford to buy a controlling interest. They decide to hire an idiot to be the president of the company to spook investors and drive down the price. What could go wrong?
The film stars Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Paul Newman, and all are essentially perfectly cast. In a film like this, the style is as important as anything else. If your actors can’t talk fast enough and really sell the style, then you might as well not make the film. All are great, but Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer really hits it out of the park. I didn’t count, but I imagine the speed of her dialogue gives her the most words to speak in the entire film. It’s amazing watching her.
The film begins at the end, with an opening narration from an unseen character. The camera pans over a cityscape and lands on a building with a large clock. It’s almost midnight. The camera pans over and we see a man climbing out a window onto a ledge. It’s Norville Barnes, played by Tim Robbins. Before anything happens, the narration finishes and we move back to the beginning of the story.
At the beginning, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) is listening to a presentation from his board while Norville gets off a bus from Muncie. As Hudsucker hears about the success of his company, Norville heads to the employment office. A sticker from the Muncie College of Business Administration appears on his suitcase. As jobs flit by, he sees that all of them require experience. He gets discouraged.
At the end of the presentation, Hudsucker calmly gets out of his chair, and climbs onto the board room table. Meanwhile, Norville finishes his lunch, reading the want ads. As the waitress pulls his coffee away, we see it has left a ring around a job listing for Hudsucker Industries, with no experience necessary. Norville might miss it! But magically, the paper flies out the door and follows him down the street, hitting him in the leg. He picks it up, and sees the ad, heading to Hudsucker. He gets there just in time for Waring Hudsucker to run down the board room table and vault out the window, falling from the 44th floor. (45, counting the mezzanine.) The film cuts back and forth smoothly, trusting that the audience will understand that both scenes are happening simultaneously.
The plot is in motion, as Norville gets a job, and Sidney Musberger (Paul Newman), discusses what to do as second in charge. The film really establishes it’s style here as the board members start speaking rapid fire dialogue, one line after another. The jokes move so fast the audience might miss them, but in this kind of film, it doesn’t matter. If you miss the first joke, three more are coming right after. The film also makes great use of repetition, another screwball comedy trait. By repeating the joke over and over, the audience can’t miss it.
In the board room scene, the Coens are able to advance the plot through Sid while allowing the other board members to sprinkle in jokes as responses. For instance, look at this exchange:
Board Member 4: What are you suggesting Sidney? Certainly we can’t afford to buy an controlling interest.
Sidney J. Mussburger: Not while the stock is this strong. How soon before Hud’s paper hits the market?
Board Member 8: January 1st.
Board Member 2: 30 days.
Board Member 4: 4 weeks.
Board Member 5: A month at the most!
Sidney J. Mussburger: One month; to make the blue chip investment of the century look like a round trip ticket on the titanic.
Sid plays it serious, while the insanity goes on around him. It makes for a really effective joke and gets the plot moving. Meanwhile, Norville is getting his orientation in the mail room. The mailroom is shown as total chaos. A man shouts at Norville all the myriad ways his pay can be docked while he pushes a mailcart down the aisle, with people running up and handing him more packages with increasingly specific requirements.
We start to get a sense of Norville in this world. He’s out of place, overwhelmed, and barely keeping up. As he gets to his station, he reveals his big idea. He proudly shows a coworker his design, and says “You know, for kids!”. The paper shows nothing but a circle.
The film uses a lot of circular imagery. We’ll talk about this more later, but so far we’ve seen the circular clock, the coffee cup ring which highlighted the job ad, and now Norville’s inexplicable invention.
One thing the film does to show us who Norville is is to put him out of place in this world. While everyone else talks fast, he talks slow. When others run, he’s struggling to keep up. Everyone else is smart, he is dumb. When others are cynical, he is optimistic.
Through a clever plot device, Norville is sent to Musberger’s office to deliver an important letter, a blue letter. He decides to pitch his idea. After hearing his still inexplicable idea, and seeing Norville set his office on fire, Musberger realizes he’s found the man to ruin his company.
The film cuts to a montage of Norville making the transition between a mail room clerk and the company president. The film uses montage incredibly effectively. In this case, every character is constantly laughing as we cut between Norville getting his hair done, getting a new wardrobe, and having his picture taken for the paper. We get a few of these throughout the film, and they’re always satisfying.
The film then introduces the love interest/part-time antagonist. Amy Archer, a local journalist doesn’t buy the hype and decides to do an expose. She poses as a Muncie girl to get close to him. Her plan is executed from the perspective of two blue collar workers who sit across from them at the lunch stand. We don’t hear any of the dialogue between Norville and Amy, but the entire scene is narrated. They see her ploy coming a mile away, and can’t believe Norville is falling for it.
This scene is another example of the stellar writing and acting in this film. Every line is perfectly crafted, as is every response. Pairing that with the perfect acting of people like Jennifer Jason Leigh, and you have an amazing movie. In her first scene with Norville here, she’s speaking a mile a minute while Norville carries her into his office. He continually tries to speak, but she just doesn’t stop. She is playing him, and repeats the bait line several times until he hears and she reveals that she’s from Munice. He takes the bait and the trap is sprung. A story about Norville being an imbecile appears in the paper the next day.
We begin to see a softening of Amy after this. This is the power of Norville on her character. She’s been portrayed as cynical and tough up to this point, but as he questions the life of the unknown reporter to her face, she begins to see the value of Norville’s optimism, and even begins to fall in love with him. There’s a beautiful scene at a party, where they find each other on a balcony and begin to talk. Norville describes how they might have been animals in a previous life, and discusses the idea of karma (another bit of circle imagery), and it really speaks to Amy.
Eventually, Norville gets a chance to reveal his big idea to the board. As the board stares in astonishment, he demonstrates what he has invented: the hula hoop. The board hates the idea, but Sid champions it, assuming it will be a huge failure and make the stock easy to buy.
We move to another montage, the best in the film, where we see the entire process of the hula hoop going to market, including the manufacture, pricing decisions, and naming. The naming scenes are particularly funny, as two marketers pitch increasingly bizarre names like “The Belly-Go-Round” and “The Wacky Circumference”.
We also see how it fares when entering stores, first being a huge flop, until a young boy discovers it, demonstrating it for other kids, and starting a craze. The hula hoop becomes a huge success, and it starts to go to Norville’s head. He starts bragging about himself, and spending time with celebrities, even receiving a phone call from President Eisenhower.
This begins his downward spiral. With their plans ruined, the board has no more use for Norville. He has an encounter with Buzz, the friendly, overzealous elevator operator played by Jim True-Frost, and the board uses it to claim Norville stole his idea from Buzz. They also discover who Amy is, and Norville feels betrayed.
There’s a subplot here that’s pretty important. There are two characters playing maintenance men in the film, Aloysius and Moses. Aloysius paints names on executives doors, while Moses cares for the clock, who also happens to be the narrator from the beginning. He claims to see everything that happens at Hudsucker Industries.
There’s a lot of symbols involved here. We enter the inner workings of the clock in the film. I’ve already mentioned that the clock is one of the circle symbols we’ve seen. But when we enter the clock, we see it’s full of gears, more circles, and furthermore, Moses is the one that keeps them running. He’s the keeper of circles. Moses appears to be a god-like figure in this world. He sees all, and he’s in control of the machinery that keeps things running. We’ll see an even more explicit example of this later.
Aloysius sets himself up against Norville, providing Sid with the information on Amy’s real identity. Does this make him the devil? Not sure, but this subplot will climax with the rest of the film.
Finally, we return to the scene we saw in the opening. Norville creeping out onto the balcony. He feels he’s ruined and that his life is over. As he climbs out the window, we see Aloysius close and lock it behind him, trapping him, Norville has second thoughts and tries to return, but he can’t. He slips. He falls. The clock is striking midnight on New Years Eve.
Norville falls and falls, screaming the whole way. Suddenly, he stops in mid-air. This isn’t a freeze frame, he can still move. As he looks around confused, the camera cuts to the clock, which has stopped, and then to the gears, jammed with a broom handle. We see Moses, looking directly into camera who says:
Here we see that Moses does have god-like powers. He controls the clock, and the clock apparently controls the entire world. Also, this resolution makes a literal deus ex machina, a god in the machine.
Norville is then visited by the angel of Waring Hudsucker, who reminds Norville that he never delivered the letter he was tasked with early in the film. It turns out that Hudsucker had directed the board to give his shares to whoever the new president was, assuming it would be Sid. But since it was Norville, he now has a controlling share of the company.
While he learns this, Moses and Aloysius battle in the clock tower. Moses eventually wins, and Norville falls safely to the ground, running out to tell Amy the news. Moses narrates the epilogue, and Norville announces his new circular invention to the board: the frisbee.
This is one of my favorite films. I of course was drawn to it because of the name and the relationship to my own name, but once I saw it, I could see how special it was. It’s sad to me that it isn’t held up as one of the best Coen brothers movies. I’m sure it gets discounted being a comedy rather than a drama, and even among the Coen comedies, I assume most people would prefer The Big Lebowski over The Hudsucker Proxy.
That’s a shame, because everything in this movie works. The writing and acting are perfect, every cast member adds to the film. The Coen brothers do an amazing job of nailing the style, which is a great job of directing their actors to play a style that essentially died decades ago. The editing is great as well. The film is filled with montages which are essentially an editing problem to solve, and the editors line them up expertly. The Coen brothers normally edit their own films, but in this case, the film is edited by Thom Noble.
I’m not a fan of everything the Coen brothers have done, but this is certainly my favorite film of theirs. It’s such a joy to watch, and so incredibly satisfying all the way through. If you are a Coen brothers fan, and you haven’t seen it, give it a shot, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Some Like It Hot is a film about two musicians who witness a mob hit. As a way to get out of town, they disguise themselves as women and join an all-woman band on their way to Florida. Will they be able to keep their secret long enough to survive the mob?
This film is a classic comedy from Billy Wilder, probably his best known film (though probably not his best). The film stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as the musicians, and Marilyn Monroe as the star of the band they infiltrate. This is held up as one of, if not the best comedy of all-time. I don’t know if I totally agree with that, but it’s a very funny film.
As a screwball comedy, it doesn’t quite have everything. The dialogue isn’t particularly fast and snappy, but there are lots of misunderstandings, and the situation is among the most ridiculous ever put on film. So while I’m no expert on the genre, I think we can safely include this in the screwball comedy canon.
We open with an exciting chase. The police are chasing down some bootleggers in a hearse, with a coffin filled with bottles of booze. They make it to a funeral home where there’s a secret speakeasy, the film proudly announces that it is set in Chicago, 1929. We move inside and find our two stars, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), who are playing in the band. During a break, they discuss who they will pay first with the money they hope to receive that night.
The police raid the speakeasy and Joe and Jerry manage to make it out without being arrested, but lament the job they’ve lost. They start visiting agents, trying to find a new gig, and hear about an all woman band that needs a bass player and a sax player. Jerry thinks they can manage it by disguising themselves, but the booking agent obviously doesn’t go for it. They do manage to get a job in Champaign-Urbana, and borrow a car to get there.
When they get to the garage with the car, they walk in on a mob hit, and the gang sees their faces before they get away. They need to get out of town, and Joe calls the agent again, putting on a female voice to book the gig. They dress in female clothes and make up and make it to the train with the all-woman band.
So there’s the setup, and we get into the film. Joe and Jerry are trying to keep their secret, and Jerry at least is going girl crazy, especially when Sugar, played by Marilyn Monroe shows up. The film makes no apologies for playing up her sex symbol status, almost leering at her in many shots. Joe and Jerry have plenty of comments on her figure as well. It’s a little much from a modern perspective, but we’ll talk more about that later.
As they take a train to Florida, Joe and Jerry (Josephine and Daphne in their alter-egos) both try to get closer to Sugar. Jerry throws a party in his bunk, which every other girl in the band joins in on, and Joe bumps into her in the bathroom, learning more about her ideal man, a wealthy, classy man, wearing glasses and intelligent.
When they arrive in Florida, Joe puts this information to use, stealing some clothes and glasses, and deciding to pretend to be Sugar’s perfect man to seduce her. Jerry meanwhile get noticed by a wealthy man named Osgood who just will not take no for an answer.
Here the film almost, ALMOST makes a very progressive statement about how women are treated in society. But it isn’t quite self-aware enough to make the point. It’s all there, even on the surface, but the film just plays it for laughs. We see Jerry running from the overzealous Osgood, and the line of men watching the women walk into the hotel, and we see Jerry making endless comments about the women, but then it just moves on, accepting the behavior as normal, just funny when it happens to men. It’s a lot to expect from a film from 1959, but the material is still there at least.
As Joe puts his plan into action, we get a pretty decent Cary Grant impersonation from Tony Curtis. Dressed in a sailing outfit with thick glasses, he manages to get Sugar’s attention immediately. Jerry figures it out and tries to sabotage him, but Joe manages to stay one step ahead. He uses Osgood’s obsession with Jerry to further his plan, ensuring that Osgood will be off his yacht on a date with Jerry so he can take Sugar there.
But the fun can’t last forever, as the gang that was chasing them shows up at the hotel in Florida for a conference on “Italian Opera”. The chase begins and the two barely escape, forced to take a ride with Osgood. Sugar chases them too to be with Joe, and the four ride off into the sunset.
As Osgood drives the small boat away from the dock, Jerry tries to convince him they can’t be married. Osgood has a response for every excuse. Finally, Jerry removes his wig and reveals he’s a man. Osgood responds with one of the best closing lines in cinema:
“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
So, if we ignore some of the behavior in the film, this is still an incredibly funny film. If you’re particularly sensitive to gender stereotypes and such, this might not be as enjoyable. But the film is from 1959, and it’s from another time. I don’t want to spend too much time concerned about the portrayals.
The cast is pretty good. Tony Curtis’ Cary Grant impression is pretty hilarious and unmistakable. Jack Lemmon is good later in the film, but in the train sequence when he sees all the women surrounding him, he spends the entire time cackling after every line. It’s really overdone, and takes me out of the film.
Marilyn Monroe is also excellent, considering the extensive stories about how difficult she was on set. Knowing more about her life at this point, it seems likely she was suffering from some mental health issues, so seeing her turn out this performance with that baggage is particularly impressive. I totally buy her as the woman trying to get away from her past mistakes and find the right man, but just falling back into her old patterns again, regardless of the deception. It is sad that she was branded as ‘difficult’ and ‘unprofessional’ instead of getting some help.
And the film really holds up as a comedy. Tastes in comedy change over time, jokes that worked great decades ago seem tired and played out now, but Some Like It Hot manages to stay fresh almost 60 years later.
The Double Feature
It was a lot of fun watching these two movies together. I’d seen both of them before, but Some Like It Hot only once previously. Both of them are so funny, and so joyful, that it’s hard not to come out of watching them feeling good.
Comparing the films, on the surface they might not seem to have much in common, but if we look a little deeper, we see that both films look at gender issues. In Hudsucker Proxy, we see Amy Archer trying to make her way in a man’s world, and does so by trying to be tough and cynical. In Some Like It Hot, we see what women are treated like by men on a daily basis. And while the film doesn’t quite go far enough into that issue to really give us something to chew on, Joe and Jerry at least see that it isn’t all fun and games.
Plot-wise, the films couldn’t be more different. Also, while Some Like It Hot puts pretty normal characters into an extraordinary situation, The Hudsucker Proxy really plays up the fantastical elements of the plot, without losing the inherent reality of the characters. It’s an interesting contrast.
I love this genre, and I’ll definitely be exploring more of them in the future.
So, from here, we move to a weekly schedule. That’s my plan. I might find I have enough time to do two a week, and if so, that’s what I’ll do, but I’m only promising one post a week. It’s been a lot of fun doing this blog up to this point. I haven’t counted the words, but considering I’ve turned out 16 posts around 4000-6000 words each, I’ve written somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 words this summer so far, and I’m going to keep going.
When I started this blog, I was not doing great. I really wondered if I was on the right track in life. Now I feel like my life is getting back to normal. The biggest thing this blog provided me was proof that if I set my mind to a project I could succeed. That’s going to be really important to me as time goes on. My struggles aren’t over, not by any stretch. I’ve got a long way to go. But I think I’m ready to get back on the road and feel my way through.
So for next week, I think I’m going to look at some films that really explore the fantasy element of film. So next week’s films will be:
Victor Fleming – The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Edgar Wright – Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)
OK, I’ll be the first to admit, this is a weird pairing. But both films involve fantastic settings and characters that may or may not be fantasizing about the events of the film. I’m going to give it a shot.
See you next week.