Scott Balcerzak argues that several film comedians of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey (pictured) perform a particular type of queered masculinity that renders them “buffoon men.”
Buffoon Men covers a good bit of familiar ground, as several scholars have looked at comedic performance through the lens of gender studies, including Kathleen Rowe Karlyn in her 1995 book, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter, which examined humor, excess, and spectacle in the work of comediennes ranging from Mae West to Roseanne.
Milton Berle (here with Bob Hope), who is not discussed in Buffoon Men, is but one example of the long tradition of cross-dressing — by both men and women — for comedic ends, an effective practice due to its inherent subversion of expectations and changing of social status.
In his films, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, seen here in a frame from “The Knockout” (1914), performs a common type of comedic masculinity. He has a disinterest in or mild aggression toward females that does not originate in conventional misogyny but in an immaturity or infantilism more pre-sexual than anti-woman. Balcerzak combines disinterest in, fear of, and unfamiliarity with women with genuine hostility toward women under the umbrella of misogyny. That oversimplifies the gender issues at work.
Along these lines, as this image from The Honeymooners illustrates, Ralph Kramden’s bluster comes across more akin to a child’s tantrum than a bully’s serious threat (in large part, I would argue, because of his weight). From her expression Alice shows she's not afraid of her husband.
Balcerzak acknowledges the flimsiness of such comedic masculinities in a portion of his discussion of W.C. Fields, seen here sucking up to Mae West in My Little Chickadee (1940).
West’s overly defined femininity provides a striking contrast to Fields’s fragile masculinity in this production still from My Little Chickadee.
Ambrose (W.C. Fields) and Hope (Mary Brian) have a traditional, caring father-daughter relationship in Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), despite the assertions of incestuous undertones made in Buffoon Men.
A routine falls short for Fields in The Old Fashioned Way (1934). Frustration in the face of failure characterizes a range of masculinities, both on screen and off.
review by Andrew J. Douglas
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,
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
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
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