JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Eddie Cantor, seen here in Palmy Days (1931), was, as Balcerzak explains, subjected to on-screen de-Semitization, a common (and often self-inflicted) practice in the Hollywood of this era.

Fatty Arbuckle playing himself.

According to Balcerzak, Laurel and Hardy are “the most overtly queer of the on-screen buddies” and form a “queered unit” because of the lack of contrasts — in areas other than temperament and physicality, one assumes — between the individuals.

Balcerzak asserts that in many comedy duos, such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, there is a considerable gulf in heterosexual prowess that further individualizes each man, precluding the formation of a “queered unit.”

Laurel and Hardy (in 1934’s The Live Ghost), it would seem, have no such gulf.

In Sons of the Desert (1933), Laurel and Hardy are lampooning the fraternal organizations that were important in defining the working- and middle-class masculinity of the era.

Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates (1941), given the proximity of its production and release to U.S. participation in World War II, does not show the duo in combat and mocks their incompetence, while the Army itself escapes unscathed.

Lee Bowman romances Jane Frazee in Buck Privates, exemplifying Balcerzak’s point about assigning the romantic duties of the protagonist to the “straight” lead, leaving the “buffoon men” free for more hijinks.

Wheeler and Woolsey’s Half Shot at Sunrise (1930), being released in the middle of the interregnum between the world wars, takes aim at the institution of the U.S. Army itself, viewing it as a fraternal organization worthy of ridicule, similar to the eponymous order in Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert.

 

 

Production still is from Roman Scandals (1933). Here Cantor leaves behind his role as ethnic/Jewish nebbish to play more of an “every nebbish.” Balcerzak does not sufficiently explain the differences between these character types, and I could not discern any (other than the period garb). As this lobby card for Roman Scandals conveys, Cantor appears in blackface in the film. Balcerzak does a fine job of dissecting this mode of performance, in part by considering W.T. Lhamon Jr.’s concept of the “lore cycle.”
Balcerzak suggests that Jack Benny is a “buffoon man” in part because he usually played an unflattering character named “Jack Benny,” and was subjected to the humiliating conflation of his personal and professional lives. Here we see Benny’s supposed feud with Fred Allen, in the middle of which Mary Martin finds herself in this picture. Of course, Jack Benny was not the first comedian to play a character identified as, or assumed to be, himself. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, not to mention Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and, to a large degree, Charlie Chaplin, did so as well.

I think, though it is not explicitly stated, that Balcerzak means that because Jack Benny is playing “Jack Benny” as a man with these attributes, the star is, more so than other comedians, subjecting himself to ridicule. While this may be the case, I think the author is too quick to discount Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and other stars of his era whom frequently exhibited foolish or embarrassing behavior on screen. They often either played characters that shared their name or were defined very generically, as Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton often did. Other performers, like Charlie Chaplin, played characters like the Tramp that, to the public, became interchangeable with the performer.

The rest of the Benny chapter applies some concepts from Michelle Hilmes’s Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952 (1997) and Doty’s Making Things Perfectly Queer (1993), which has a section focused on the comedian, to Benny’s radio show and the movies that were spun off from it in 1940, Buck Benny Rides Again and Love Thy Neighbor. It then concludes with brief looks at the subsequent movies, not related to his broadcast work, in which Benny appeared, including Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be (1942).

Balcerzak's chapter on Laurel and Hardy, and the international appreciation society they inspired, named after Sons of the Desert (1933), begins with an overview of the duo’s career and their approach to humor, which utilizes the familiar outsider position—a tactic exploited by the other comedians in the book—and also sets up a dynamic as an incongruous pair. And this is another tactic covered in Buffoon Men, seen in Martin and Lewis, Gleason and Carney, or (Chris) Farley and (David) Spade.

Where Laurel and Hardy do differ, Balcerzak asserts, is in their being

“the most overtly queer of the on-screen buddies in that they represent a queered unit as opposed to contrasting sexual identities, a sexual dynamic found in most other comedy duos.”[14][open endnotes in new window]

Balcerzak focuses here on Sons of the Desert as a “comic affront to the parameters of homosocial male brotherhood—queering the fraternity,” that also

“explores the sexualized dynamics of male-male companionship as a more successful pairing than each comedian’s respective heterosexual marriage.”[15]

Balcerzak positions the club itself among other instances of participatory culture, and suggests that since there is “undeniably . . . something queer about Laurel and Hardy,” there must also be in the “long-held fan obsession over the duo.”[16]

While it is hard to refute there's something “queer” about Laurel and Hardy (and their society, for that matter) if one is using the book’s theoretical application of the term, the author supports his case with instructive references to Steven Cohan’s discussion of Hope and Crosby and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work.[17] Balcerzak also insightfully elucidates attributes that Laurel and Hardy do not share with other duos, such as the pair’s lack of one member that queers the other through a (hetero)sexual imbalance that exists between them, as exemplified by Jerry Lewis’s high-pitched, awkward, and hysterical performance contrasting with Dean Martin’s smooth, confident, and seductive take on conventional masculinity. He suggests this identifies Laurel and Hardy as a “queered unit,” as well as a pair that had a longer, more prolific, and more harmonious run than any other comedy duo.[18]

Balcerzak explains that Laurel and Hardy “denaturalize the homo/heterosexual binary through a disruption of the social institutions promoting its limited conception of sexuality,”[19] which is one of the reasons a discussion of the fraternal order they inspired is so relevant to his reading of the duo. In lampooning such organizations in the film Sons of the Desert, the comedy team is critiquing a substantial element of nineteenth and early twentieth century culture, argues the author, because working and middle class men were participating in labor unions, religious organizations, sporting clubs, political groups, and professional organizations to a degree they had not before and, I would add, no longer do.

More so than other such organizations, the fraternal lodges, like the one depicted in the film, are “all-male social spaces designed explicitly to promote a supposed brotherhood,” states Balcerzak, in which “we find the most peculiarly ritualistic celebration of rank-and-file maleness.”[20] Balcerzak explores this realm by reviewing a history of such organizations and the scholarship about them, and by viewing them through the lenses of Freud and George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890—1940 (1994), among other texts.

Buffoon Men’s final chapter is dedicated to the military comedies of Abbott and Costello and to the duo the author sees as their most direct forerunners, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, who reached their pinnacle in RKO pictures of the 1930s. As he does throughout, Balcerzak begins with a brief overview of the history of the performers and their work, in this case situating Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates (1941) and other films among the rash of military comedies that would come out in 1941 and continuing during World War II. He then elucidates the similarities between the two duos, including their reliance on “joke-based routines,” and contrasts them with Laurel and Hardy. He writes:

“Abbott and Costello adopt many of the basics of Freudian aggression and degradation that grounds buffoonish masculinity as a genre staple. Unlike the other duos mentioned thus far, the aggressor is the straight man who consistently attacks or, at least, humiliates the comedian as victim, providing a differentiation from the 'queered unit' found with Laurel and Hardy.”[21]

While the hostility and occasional violence that Costello exhibits toward Abbott considerably exceeds the aggression in the relationship between Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, a similar dynamic clearly exists. Whether it is Hardy exclaiming, “Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into,” or shoving Laurel for procrastinating during their efforts to sell Christmas trees in “Big Business” (1929), both comic duos often have the more substantial member of the pair abusing his smaller counterpart for comic effect. However, the duos come from different eras, with their differences in film length, use of sound, and approach to narrative, as well as their sub-genres—slapstick vs. more joke-reliant humor. Such differences make direct comparison difficult, but because the author successfully analyzes key aspects of the two duos' performance of masculinity that are similar, this for me is enough to raise questions about Balcerzak’s identification of Laurel and Hardy as a uniquely “queered unit.”

Returning to Abbott and Costello, the author situates them among the more conventional masculinities and conservative films in the years leading up to the war. He makes reference to From Chivalry to Terrorism (2003) by Leo Braudy and Joshua S. Goldstein’s War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa (2001) for the former, and Thomas Doherty’s Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (1999) as well as Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies by Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black (1987). In so doing, he makes the important point that having a sense of the shifting masculinities and evolving perspective on the necessity of the war are essential to understanding changes to the public’s conception of the soldier, which in turn will necessarily impact how the military can be mined for comedy. Here, again, Balcerzak returns to the notion that the men in movie audiences felt inadequate in comparison to Hollywood’s idealized masculinity as embodied, for example, by Gary Cooper in Sergeant York (1941), but could more readily identify with the buffoonish masculinity of the comedians who enlisted on screen.

To some degree, this formulation presumes that viewers do not prefer the aspirational or admirable traits in their stars, but rather a sense of mere adequacy or superiority. There is not much in the history of movie stars to suggest this is the case, though admittedly the latter feelings are in line with a current of populism that runs through U.S culture from time to time. One thing is certain—scant adequacy and a sense of superiority are common ingredients in comedy, and as such cannot be claimed solely by these buffoon men. Given this, in trying to flesh out the characteristics of this type of masculinity, it might be more effective to compare these comedians to other performers in their genre, rather than to a star like Gary Cooper acting in a war-time drama.

More specifically, Buck Privates—like the Marx Brothers films the author discusses in the introduction and some of W.C. Fields’s and Eddie Cantor’s work—has a narrative split in which there is a main plot with romance and a conventional leading man (in this case, Lee Bowman), and a humorous alternate plot in which the comedians are central. Balcerzak labels them respectively as the “'straight' dramatic” and the “'queered' comedic” plots and suggests that this approach makes room for both types of stars discussed in the previous paragraph and their respective masculinities. This arrangement is ideal for pre-war propaganda, Balcerzak argues, because

“maintaining a separate ‘straight’ and ‘queered’ maleness creates a fantasy dichotomy, allowing the relatable comedians to be the major selling point to the public while also providing unreal male archetypes to promote military duty.”[22]

Wheeler and Woolsey’s military comedy, Half Shot at Sunrise (1930), takes a different tack, presenting the military as a fraternal organization worthy of ridicule—similar to Sons of the Desert—even before the duo arrives on the scene to wreak comedic havoc. This contrasts to Buck Privates, where the military is given a respectful and idealized depiction and does not appear as an institutional excuse or “ritualistic façade” for “adolescent sexual games.”[23] Abbott and Costello provide plenty of disruption and frivolity but they, rather than the military itself, are the source of the humor. This distinction is a clear result of the films’ respective eras with the earlier one coming almost in the middle of the years between the two world wars, and the latter being released after FDR instituted a peacetime draft and months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Balcerzak notes another key difference: Wheeler and Woolsey see combat in their military film while the comedians in the pictures made near or during wartime do not.

In his introduction, Balcerzak explains that his analytical approach “must be understood as having multiple potentials for challenging the social order,” because it

“provides us with a wealth of insights into some of cinema’s most popular stars and their cultural significance, both as a historical reality defining a popular cinematic genre and a critical tool for contextualizing the nature of queered gender.”[24]

Comedy itself, as discussed in texts ranging from Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965) to Gerald Mast’s The Comic Mind (1979) to Henry Jenkins’s What Made Pistachio Nuts? (1992) to Kathleen Rowe Karlyn’s The Unruly Woman (1995), is predicated on challenging the social order, and the best of it does so on multiple levels. Balcerzak touches on all of these works—and more—in his brisk but effective review of the genre’s literature and in support of his arguments throughout. But for reasons that remain unclear, he insists on gathering the various acts of boundary-pushing his subjects perform under the critical umbrella of “queering.” In so doing, he risks bending that term beyond its breaking point.

Scott Balcerzak’s Buffoon Men is most valuable for the detailed studies of comic performers it contains and the breadth of the historical contexts within which they are situated. Unfortunately, its attempt to gather such a diverse range of comedians under one theoretical rubric, while admirable and ambitious, is ultimately unsuccessful. By the end of the book, particularly after the conclusion that endeavors to bring dozens of notable comics from the last seven decades into the fold, I was left wondering: If every comedian is a buffoon man, is any comedian a buffoon man?

In his conclusion, Balcerzak seems to be making the case that virtually all comedians since the inception of sound cinema—such as every prominent alumnus of Saturday Night Live, including Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, and Will Ferrell—are “buffoon men, despite their substantive differences in comedic approach, performance style, and subject matter.”

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