2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 56, winter 2014-2015
review by Andrew J. Douglas
Scott Balcerzak, Buffoon Men: Classic Hollywood Comedians and Queered Masculinity (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013). 258 pages.
In applying gender and queer theory—primarily through the work of Alexander Doty and Judith Butler— as well as Freudian psychoanalysis, to his exploration of the careers of Hollywood comedians of the early sound era who do not often receive such intellectual treatment, Scott Balcerzak, in Buffoon Men, offers cultural context and scholarly underpinning for the sources and specific nature of the masculinity these men performed. W.C. Fields, both with and without Mae West, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, Laurel and Hardy, Wheeler and Woolsey, and Abbott and Costello serve as case studies for his particular take on queered masculinity that he identifies as “buffoonish masculinity.”
Gender scholars will find the application of queer theory and Freud to these particular comedians interesting, and academics familiar with comedy studies will gain from viewing these specific performers through the critical lens of gender analysis. Yet, much of this ground has been trod before, albeit sometimes while focusing on other stars, by a number of scholars, including Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, Susan Murray, Neil Schmitz, and Virginia Wright Wexman, among others.[open endnotes in new window] However, Balcerzak contributes to the discourse in his use of Doty’s approach to queerness, his focused incorporation of Freud, and his detailed discussions of select stars, some of which have not previously been the subjects of such close readings.
Balcerzak suggests that in some cases these buffoon men are not straight because their films have other characters, played by more conventional men, who embody the more traditional role and execute the usual duties of leading man, and that on the occasions when the comedian tries, he is unable to successfully woo his intended. But is it a stretch to call the absence (or failure) of the romantic pursuit of a woman a “queered masculinity”? Balcerzak makes clear that he is borrowing Doty’s definition of queerness, which he relays as,
“a quality related to any expression that can be marked as contra-, non-, or anti-straight.”
This seems a perilously broad definition on which to base so many focused readings of performers who clearly and routinely utilize, as comedians have from time immemorial, the tropes of status change, including the switching and subverting of traditional gender roles, and incongruity, a staple of which is drag. From this perspective, I think one would be hard pressed to find a star of this genre that is not a buffoon man, in which case the usefulness of the term is not readily apparent. This question is raised again in Balcerzak’s conclusion, which ends with a discussion of Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and other comediennes who qualify as buffoon women, risking further dilution of the term.
Furthermore, there is something reductive about defining masculinity—even the narrow yet hyperbolic masculinity of the Hollywood screen—as the (successful) pursuit of a female romantic/sexual partner. Certainly, such romance is a significant element of many screen masculinities, but it is also treated as incidental, or a formality, in many films within a number of genres in addition to comedy—gangster and western pictures for example—that are not known for their queered masculinities. This disinterest in the opposite sex could be seen as a way of avoiding the misogyny that many, including Balcerzak, see permeating these comedies, as well as the industry producing them.
Or it, and the other transgressions against women, might be part and parcel of the immaturity and/or child-like nature ingrained in the performances of other comedians, including Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Jackie Gleason, and Chris Farley. Their characters’ behaviors toward women often could be more accurately described as pre-female rather than anti-female; asexual, not aggressively heterosexual. For example, despite the many threats he makes toward Alice, Ralph Kramden, in large part because of his (and Gleason’s) weight, comes across less like an abusive spouse and more like a boy on the playground having a tantrum because he is confused by his new, unfamiliar feelings for a female classmate and is powerless to act productively on them. Might the same be said of W.C. Fields, whose performance in My Little Chickadee is, as Balcerzak accurately explains, “by its very nature, absurd in its fragile declaration of power?”
It is this film and the intersections between gender, performance, sexuality, and drag that co-stars Fields and Mae West provide that are the topic of Buffoon Men’s first chapter. Its contextual ground is a little too fertile to be tilled effectively, and the requisite inclusion of Ramona Curry’s work on West and Judith Butler’s explorations of gender and drag performance, as well as excursions into Joan Riviere’s and Mary Ann Doane’s work on feminine masquerade and a visit from Freud, take the section a little far afield. Yet, the argument serves to emphasize the performative nature of gender, and Balcerzak uses West’s unique version of femininity to put Fields’s take on masculinity in stark relief.
Buffoon Men becomes more focused as the author moves to the second chapter, a consideration of the comedian’s solo career instructively divided along the lines of the two primary masculine types Fields portrayed: the con man and the husband. The former is explored through readings of Poppy (1936) and The Old Fashioned Way (1934), and the latter through It’s a Gift (1934) and Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935). Balcerzak argues that both roles are buffoons, responding to
“changes in perception toward maleness that occurred between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century. This is a phenomenon historians often called the crisis of masculinity, a label suggesting that white males felt their phallic power slipping away, thus there existed on overcompensation of manly identities.”
In discussing Fields’s con-man roles, Balcerzak identifies the characters’ fear of matriarchy, resistance to feminization, avoidance of the domestic sphere, and lack of athletic/physical prowess. For this last attribute, he refers to a failed attempt at juggling by the actor’s character in The Old Fashioned Way and acknowledges the similarities between this scenario and the frequent challenges with inanimate objects that confront many silent comedians in countless films. The author cites Buster Keaton as a contrasting performer who, it is implied, reacts to such problems by remaining calm and ultimately figuring out a way to master the task at hand, or succeed in achieving his goal in some other way. Conversely, in similar scenarios, Fields
“adopts an aggressive tone as he loses more and more dignity, an act exemplifying his queering of masculine performance.”
While I generally agree with Balcerzak’s assessment of Keaton (though his early work with Roscoe Arbuckle may complicate things) and have no quarrel with his reading of Fields, I do question the assertion, left unexplained, that aggression and resultant loss of dignity indicate a wholly queered masculinity. By this, I mean that while the masculine trajectory described is familiar enough—think Jackie Gleason and Chris Farley (and possibly some men you know, on occasion)—I don’t see how it represents a queered masculinity. I think we can all agree that the absence of physical prowess argues against a depiction of traditional masculinity, but the impatience, belligerence in the face of embarrassment, and escalating frustration that lead to the loss of dignity are quite conventional in actual men and some Hollywood versions of them. Personal observation at least suggests an alternative to the exclusively misogynist brush with which Balcerzak seems to paint these performers.
The author provides a useful sketch of the history of male comedians deriving comedy from the imagined horrors of married/family life, and he situates Fields’s husband roles within some roughly contemporaneous changes to the societal view of masculinity. But here, as in the earlier section on Fields, Balcerzak’s analysis is too heavily filtered through the lenses of misogyny, sexuality, and Freud. Given that there is such a long and continuing tradition of using marriage as an object of comedic scorn, that such problematic views and depictions of women were rampant and still exist (within media and without), and that Freud’s limitations are well known, just how instructive is this approach? This issue is exemplified by the author’s focus on what he views as elements of implied incest in Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935).
In that film, Ambrose (Fields) is stuck in an unhappy marriage to a woman described as “stereotypically shrewish and domineering,” in a household that also includes her uptight mother and spoiled son. Ambrose’s daughter from his first marriage, Hope (Mary Brian), lives there as well, and she is her father’s only defender and source of comfort, in part because he only married into this family to provide a mother for her. Balcerzak asserts that Hope is “a type of surrogate mistress for Fields, as she emotionally fulfills the function usually supplied by an extramarital affair in a story of marital unhappiness,” and that their relationship “remains idealized and substantially more intimate than the marital relationship.”
Of course it does, since the marriage has been depicted as woefully and comically terrible. Leaving aside that the hallmark of most extramarital affairs is not emotional fulfillment, Hope facilitates her father's contentment with behavior that is decidedly asexual and well within the realm of reasonable familial expectations. Balcerzak cites as evidence of the incestuous relationship that Hope bails Ambrose out of prison, drives him to work, is his staunch ally against all comers, and does not have a suitor, as daughters often do in domestic comedies. Such behavior hardly suggests the taboo relationship the author asserts, especially in the era in which the film is made, when a child’s sense of obligation to her parent was far different than it is today. Sometimes a dutiful daughter is just a dutiful daughter.
Another complication is that Balcerzak does not seem to acknowledge the difference, among comic performers/characters, between a “comedian” and a “clown,” as explained by Henry Jenkins and Kristine Karnick, among others. Comedians are characters who are struggling to fit into the society in which they find themselves. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, in most of their features, are examples. Conversely, a clown’s comedy is derived from “disruptions and transgressions arising from a desire to break free from constraint,” and such a performer “maintains a highly stylized acting style which marks (his) separation from the larger social order.” Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners, John Belushi as Bluto in Animal House and as other characters, Chris Farley (in just about everything), and, I would submit, W.C. Fields fall into the latter category. If “clown” is the appropriate label for Fields, then his railing against marriage and domesticity is rooted in a powerful and elemental, though generic, desire to get free of all restraints at least as much as it is in any sort of gender-defined struggle. Balcerzak mentions something along these lines when he references Frank Krutnik’s notion of considering comedians in terms of disruption and containment, difference and conformity, but that is as far as he goes.
Balcerzak takes on the buffoon man as nebbish in his study of Eddie Cantor and offers an interesting discussion of the actor’s film work and the various modes of racial and ethnic identity that he consistently negotiated, initially leaning on Henry Jenkins’s discussion of the comedian in What Made Pistachio Nuts?. He then moves on to Sander Gilman’s work in The Jew’s Body (1991) and Freud, Race, and Gender (1993), and Richard Dyer’s White (1997) when considering Cantor’s activism as a Jew, its impact on his performance persona, and the extent to which it expedited his on-screen de-Semitization, a common process in the industry at the time. Balcerzak’s Freudian analysis of scenes from some of Cantor’s films supports the notion of the feminized Jewish comedian, but when the author wades into the waters of circumcision, phallic lack, and anal penetration, I was left wondering if the Gentile audience that necessitated Cantor’s de-Semitization would have had enough familiarity with Jewish tradition to even wonder about circumcision, let alone its symbolic ramifications.
The author then moves on to films like Roman Scandals (1933) and Kid Millions (1934), in which he suggests Cantor plays the “every nebbish” of no particular ethnicity, though how this character type differs from the earlier ethnic/Jewish nebbishes is not made clear. The subsequent section on Cantor’s blackface performances is among the most instructive in the book, concisely discussing a number of aspects of the problematic trope, including the differences between Cantor’s and Al Jolson’s depictions, and bringing in W.T. Lhamon Jr.’s consideration of it as a “lore cycle.”
Balcerzak begins his discussion of Jack Benny by emphasizing the comedian’s differences from the other performers in Buffoon Men. Benny is distinguished by his rise to considerable stardom, in the 1930s through the medium of radio, which presents disembodied voices and broadcasts to families and individuals in their home rather than to larger groups in public venues. Radio also utilizes the series format, which in Benny’s case, the author points out, morphed over time from something akin to the vaudeville shows of prior decades to a program more closely resembling the sitcoms that would come to populate television.
He then moves into a more specific discussion of Benny’s on-air persona, the obnoxious, pompous skinflint for which he was best known. Balcerzak states that the consistent and convincing way Benny portrayed this personality was unprecedented. He asserts that
“it is difficult to think of an entertainer who more actively set himself up to public degradation for comedy.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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. 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.
Balcerzak explains that Laurel and Hardy “denaturalize the homo/heterosexual binary through a disruption of the social institutions promoting its limited conception of sexuality,” 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.” 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.”
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.”
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.” 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.”
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?
2. Alexander Doty, (1993): quoted by Balcerzak (2013), p. 6.
3. Balcerzak (2013) p. 49.
4. Balcerzak (2013) p. 59.
5. Balcerzak (2013) p. 68.
6. Balcerzak (2013) p. 72.
7. Balcerzak (2013) p. 74.
8. Balcerzak (2013) p. 74-5.
9. Jenkins, Henry and Karnick, Kristine Brunovska (1995), “Introduction: Acting Funny,” in Classical Hollywood Comedy (Karnick and Jenkins, eds.). New York, Routledge. p. 156.
11. Balcerzak (2013) p. 6.
12. Lhamon, W.T., Jr. (1998) Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 70.
13. Balcerzak (2013) p. 118.
14. Balcerzak (2013) p. 143.
16. Balcerzak (2013) p. 145.
17. The author references Cohan’s essay “Queering the Deal: On the Road with Hope and Crosby” in Hollywood Comedians: The Film Reader, edited by Frank Krutnik (2000), as well as Sedgwick’s books Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985) and Epistemology of the Closet (1990).
18. Balcerzak (2013) p. 147.
19. Balcerzak (2013) p. 148.
20. Balcerzak (2013) p. 151.
21. Balcerzak (2013) p. 171.
22. Balcerzak (2013) p. 178.
23. Balcerzak (2013) p. 179.
24. Balcerzak (2013) p. 8.
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