BRIDE, n. A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.
BRUTE, n. See HUSBAND.
— Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914/15)
There’s a breakup scene in Fox’s New Girl that neatly showed us Nick and Jess are destined to be together. The lovebirds, played by Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel, are having a fight over the assemblage of a child’s toy, which turns into a fight about their future, which then turns into a breakup. “If I was always honest with you, then we would never stop fighting,” Jess yells at one point. At the end of the March 25 episode, “Mars Landing,” after they inadvertently set fire to their apartment, they return to their room.
“I love you,” Nick says.
“I love you too,” Jess says.
“More than I’ve ever loved anybody,” Nick says.
“But what if that’s the only thing we have in common?” Jess says, with tears in her eyes, and then it’s over.
But to anyone who watches scripted television, it doesn’t seem over. In fact, it’s pretty certain Nick and Jess will get back together. You can trace your certainty — that these two people with nothing in common are destined to be together — back 70 years to the screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s.
In The Runaway Bride, professor Elizabeth Kendall claims the dawn of what she terms the Depression romantic comedy was in 1934’s It Happened One Night, and her description of that movie sounds quite similar to our contemporaries squabbling Tuesdays on Fox: It Happened One Night, she says, is a genre-definer that uses the charming but ditzy heroine to symbolize Americans’ good impulses and “the heroine’s romance with a charming but psychologically underdeveloped young man to dramatize a rapprochement between the good and the more negligent impulses.”
The heroine’s relationship with a relative man-child is what sets this apart as a fresh idea in storytelling — that and what film scholars Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer describe as the depiction of a man and a woman having “private fun … in a private world of their own making,” a world that treats every day as a crazy adventure. This development took romantic comedy in a newer and screwier direction. In Pride and Prejudice (1812), to take an earlier rom-com example, the “happily ever after,” with all misunderstandings resolved, will be decidedly more tranquil than the confounding courtship. In the 1930s, this is tweaked, with marriage resolving nothing and instead ensuring a lifetime of crazy.
As film critic Raymond Durgnat says, film comedies concerned themselves with the upper middle class in the 1930s, which philosopher Stanley Cavell says is necessary for this type of “remarriage” (or “breaking-up-getting-back-together”) rom-com. The characters in these movies, Cavell says, must have “unmistakable wealth; the people in them have the leisure to talk about human happiness, hence the time to deprive themselves of it unnecessarily.” As audiences have become habituated to the screwball love affair, this necessity has dissolved somewhat (see: the screwball affairs of teacher’s-salary Jess and ever-broke Nick). World War II marked a turning point in the movies: Hollywood lost a significant amount of talent to military concerns, while the wacky antics of the ritzy and ditzy started to seem unpatriotic; movies shifted their gaze to decent, ordinary folk, and, to a certain extent, didn’t look back.
The emergence of the self-assured, klutzy heroine and her somewhat undeserving man in the 1930s can be credited to several developments: the arrival of the middle class in movie theaters in the ’20s and early ’30s (which shifted the focus of films to the upper classes and away from working-class films); the consolidation of the Hollywood studio system (which also shifted the focus of films to the upper classes and away from working-class films); and the Great Depression (which, in the midst of widespread doubt and anxiety, shifted the focus away from fundamentally decent male characters and to fundamentally decent female characters). Kendall argues that this Depression focus on heroines and “feminine” values (i.e., emotions) was meant to restore trust in emotional bonds while other all other bonds seem flimsy; literature professor Franco Moretti put it elegantly, describing the role of love in novels where “love is the one source of permanence in a world where everything else is scattered by fortune to the four winds, and acts therefore as a figure for the social bond in general.”
An influential factor in the promotion of permanent love was censorship; the Hays Production Code, as enforced by Joseph Breen starting in 1934, was rather strict about what kind of relationships could be shown in theaters (just trying to protect the moral fiber of the country). Breen, a Catholic, was appointed head of the Production Code Administration shortly after Catholic bishops threatened to start a movie boycott of the increasingly sexy movies attempting to perk up the Depression box office. The code, which was instituted but not obeyed for several years before it went into full force in 1934, states under Section II (SEX) that the “sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld” on screen. Later in the code, it states, “Even within the limits of pure love, certain facts have been universally regarded by lawmakers as outside the limits of safe presentation” (emphasis original). “Impure love,” on the other hand, “must not be the subject of comedy or farce, or treated as material for laughter.”
Despite the code’s relative vagueness (“pure love,” LOL whut), the implications are clear: Unserious treatment is only appropriate for SERIOUS LOVE, and SERIOUS LOVE has to end in marriage (looking at you, Nick and Jess). No jokes were to be made about unserious, or socially unsanctioned, love. (The code also mentions that miscegenation is to be treated “within the careful limits of good taste.”)
Solidly in the center of the censored, SERIOUS-silly remarriage comedy genre is The Awful Truth, a 1937 movie in which a couple files for divorce in the beginning and nullifies the divorce by the end: The film is apparently a matrimonial ’30s blueprint for the love affair in New Girl. As Irene Dunne’s Lucy talks about the man she’s dating post-divorce, she asks her aunt, “Is there anything wrong in liking a man who’s sane and considerate?” Answering honestly, her aunt would have to say “the story structure,” because later in the film, Lucy tells her aunt she can’t marry a new man on account of her “insane and inconsiderate” almost-ex-husband Jerry, played by Cary Grant. Lucy’s resigned: “I’m still in love with that crazy lunatic, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Lucy doesn’t have to worry, of course, because in screwball, a breakup is just a vehicle for discovering that you are truly in love with your ex (how else would you know?!). In The Philadelphia Story (1940), where Katharine Hepburn plays her trademarked zany heiress, Tracy, the character only discovers that her ex-husband is her one true love two years after their breakup, while she is wearing the wedding dress in which she planned to marry another man. Love only reveals itself in contrast, the brightness of a lost love only visible through the dullness of another lover.
Before the breakup, New Girl’s Nick says, “You can create a plan for your life, and then crazy things get thrown at ya. And that, by the way, is the closest thing that I have to a plan.” Strangely, this rings somewhat true, but the audience knows that his relationship with Jess is the one thing that won’t waver.
The irrelevance of compatibility comes to the fore in Bringing Up Baby, a 1938 movie that pairs two fundamentally incompatible people. “Now it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan, because after all, in moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn towards you, but, well, there haven’t been any quiet moments,” Cary Grant’s David tells his wacky new acquaintance Susan, played by Katharine Hepburn. He continues: “I hope that I never set eyes on you again.” The next day, he is in her car and they’re driving a leopard to the countryside. Later, Susan — after she’s derailed David’s wedding and confessed her love for him and lost and found a dinosaur bone that’s integral to his work — is despondent. “I’ve made a mess of everything, haven’t I?” she asks. He says that she shouldn’t feel sorry. “You see, well, I just discovered that was the best day I ever had in my whole life.”
“I love you,” says Nick.
“I love you too,” says Jess.
“More than I’ve ever loved anybody,” says Nick.
“But what if that’s the only thing we have in common?”
It really doesn’t matter if that’s the only thing they have in common. Thanks, screwball.