Friday, February 27, 2009

Battling Romeos

For his first movie in five years, writer/ director James L. Brooks is looking to cast comic actors Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd as two men vying for the affections of Reese Witherspoon. Comedy situations built around romantic rivalry are not at all appealing to me. I don't know, maybe I see this as lazy storytelling. A writer puts two guys in an empty room. All he needs to do to stir up conflict is have a pretty girl walk into the room. Big deal. Writers have known for centuries that having the hero battle an evil opponent to win a lady's favor instantly brings together romance, action and adventure. The Farrelly Brothers took the romantic rivals concept to such an extreme in There's Something About Mary (1998) that this should have been the romantic rival comedy that ended all romantic rival comedies. But, I guess, Hollywood never tires of the concept.

I got my 14-year-old son, Griffin, to sit down with me and watch the DVD American Slapstick 2. It was hard to explain to my son the many unfamiliar items, customs and habits that came his way watching this collection of silent comedies. At one point, I had to explain to him the reason that people were at one time willing to crowd together at a lunch counter. A Woolworth's lunch counter has been preserved in the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History. Maybe, I could take him to see that some day.

Then, my son asked me why women are so mean in silent comedies. The question, I believe, had to do with the troublesome romantic rivalries that were at the core of many of the comedies. Often, the heroine does not acknowledge the rivalry, as if blissfully unaware of the havoc she is stirring up around her. Other times, she is a fickled individual who encourages the rivalry, reveling in the notion of two men battling fiercely to win her. This woman, whether insensitive, fickled or malicious, doesn't seem to be worth all the fuss.

My son's question came directly after we had watched a Sennett comedy called Be Reasonable. In Be Reasonable, Billy Bevan and Mildred June meet up at the beach, where June accepts an expensive pearl necklace as a gift from Bevan. June's dog, Fifi, chases a ball out into the surf and gets pulled into the undertow. Bevan tries to dive off the pier to rescue the dog but he misses the water and dives headfirst into the sand. Meanwhile, lifeguard Harry Gribbon dives into the water and carries out the dog. At this point, June's affection shifts to Gribbon. Bevan is unable to squeeze himself between June and Gribbon. When June cuddles up next to Gribbon on a blanket, Bevan asks her to give him the necklace back. June holds onto the necklace tightly. "It's mine," she insists. This leads Bevan to burglarize June's home to get back the necklace. Bevan, in the end, gets chased by an army of police officers.

On the same disk was Call the Wagon, another comedy that deals with courtship and romantic rivals. Dick (Neal Burns) wants to propose marriage to Mary (Charlotte Merriam), the daughter of a rich businessman, but he finds himself competing with a mob of suitors. Walking into Mary's home, Dick confronts four eager suitors packed together on a sofa. The men are waiting while Mary gets ready in her bedroom. Dick decides to get rid of these other guys by getting the maid's help to play a prank. At first, the maid (Babe London) passes through the parlor pretending to be bringing Mary false teeth in a glass of water. When she comes through a second time, the maid drops hair extensions, which she also mentions belong to Mary. The idea that Mary is not all that she seems to be sends her suitors scrambling for the door.

Dick, as the last suitor standing, is free to propose marriage to Mary. Mary, though, has learned about Dick's prank and is determined to get back at him. After accepting his marriage proposal, Mary sits down on the sofa with Dick and asks him if he minds her making herself comfortable. She proceeds to pull off a wig. Then, she pretends to be plucking out a glass eye. Finally, she acts as if she is yanking out false teeth. She has one eye squeezed shut and her teeth drawn back behind her lips to make herself look like a toothless, one-eyed hag. Merriam plays this scene perfectly. Maybe it's just me, but I still find Merriam adorably cute without her curls, her smile or her right eye.

Dick pretends to be insane to get out of marrying Mary. But Mary is not finished getting revenge on him. She lays a live electrical wire on a chair just as Dick is about to sit down. While Dick is hopping around from the effects of the voltage, Mary calls an insane asylum to have caretakers come to drag him away.

Dick isn't the most sympathetic character in the comedy, but this cruel treatment doesn't seem to be something he deserves. Mary could have avoided Dick's pranks if she fairly evaluated one suitor at a time.

For something to be funny, it has to be relatable. Personally, I have never had to compete with a villain to persuade a woman to go out on a date with me. All this boy has ever had to do is turn on the Balducci charm and wait a few minutes for the magic to happen. I don't mind admitting that I have been influenced by romantic heroes of the movies. To start, Barrymore taught me that a man with a great profile should never miss an opportunity to show it off. So, when sitting down with a woman, I make a point to turn my chair sideways so that the woman is better able to see my rugged brow, my classical Roman nose and my modelesque cheekbones. I then work the muscles in my face to create the cocked eyebrow and sneering lips that made Clark Gable so irresitable to women. I squeeze my chin to create a cleft like the one that Kirk Douglas had as he charmed the likes of Lana Turner and Kim Novak. I relax my eyelids to make them as seductively droopy as James Dean's eyelids. You want to see how it looks when I put it all together.

Yeah, that's the kind of movie star looks that I have. Chill, ladies, there's enough to go around for everyone.

Leaving my personal experiences out of it, I have to wonder if the genre conventions that surround these comically heated rivalries can be found in the real world. I know that competition for a mate has historically led to some great fights. This is something that presumably went on as far back as the caveman days. But what about today? Last July, the New Hampshire Union Leader printed the story "Camping trip turned deadly for romantic rivals" about a local man beaten to death at a campsite. The police were able to determine that the killer got rid of the man upon learning they were both interested in the same woman. He punched the man repeatedly, kicked him once he got him on the ground, and finished him off by smashing him in the head with a rock. Last October, All Headline News released the story "Teen Disfigures Romantic Rival's Face With Brass Knuckles" about an 18-year-old girl arrested for beating and disfiguring a 17-year-old girl's face with a pair of brass knuckles in a dispute over a boy. I guess, courtship is not all flowers and candy. It can, at times, involve outrageous, if not comical, violence.

It would seem more reasonable for rivals to act civil towards one another until the fair lady decides which one of them she likes better. In Dear Ol' Pal (1923), best friends Paul Parrott and Snub Pollard become interested in the same girl (Marie Mosquini). They are concerned about competing fairly to preserve their friendship, but they still keep getting mad at each other and exchanging blows. It's a confused state of affairs, which the friends have trouble working out. Mosquini becomes surrounded by flames in a burning building while the pair are trying to decide who should be the one to rescue her.

A more modern twist on this situationally awkward brotherhood can be found in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), the plot of which involves composer Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) losing his girlfriend Sarah to self-involved British-rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Bretter and Snow, as Parrott and Pollard, become pals. The two men engage in male-bonding while sitting on surfboards out in the ocean. Snow compliments Bretter's music. Bretter tells Snow, "Fuck, you're cool. It's hard to say because I hate you in so many ways but, whatever, I know what Sarah likes about you." The two men commiserate about Sarah's flaws. They end up developing a bromance. It is hard to imagine Harold Lloyd taking screen time to develop a friendship with his romantic rival. If you put Lloyd and his rival on the beach with surfboards, it wouldn't be long before the two of them were having a surfboard competition. In the end, neither Bretter nor Snow is interested in dating Sarah, who suffers the indignity of being dumped twice on the same day. Bretter calls Sarah the devil before he storms off.

A woman can, indeed, look like the devil sitting at the center of these unreasonable rivalries.

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