Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What's the World Coming To? (USA, 1926)

This film follows the tradition of situational comedies by Hal Roach studios, as opposed to the faster pace and greater emphasis on physical humor and typical of slapstick comedies of that era. Featuring Australian actor Clyde Cook, a silent comedian not well known today, the plot deals with the inversion of gender roles in society. This film was made in the Roaring Twenties and its plot reflects the values of its time. Indeed, it is no surprise that henpecked husbands were shown with some frequency in films by Hal Roach's studios back then.
In 100 years from now (as the first intertitle says) newlyweds live with the wife being the prominent member of the family while the husband had his traditional role dramatically reduced. This has made clear all along even with the bride wearing more masculine clothes and having a more proactive attitude while the husband acts shyly, just like a Victoriam “blushing bride” would do. 

Those stereotyped scenes reflect a common misconception theoretically held decades ago that more liberated women would have end up being too masculine, aggressive rather than delicate and motherly, as they were supposed to be. In other words, this “new woman” would also be “anti-virtuous” and “anti-natural”. 

During the wedding ceremony we can notice a mysterious woman named Lieutenant Penelope “casting a sinister shadow over the happy event”. She had a rather masculine look and was watching the wedding from a distance. No further information is given about her in this scene.
Realizing Clyde has made a fool of himself in front of the whole society, his father arrives and finds Clyde sitting at home reading, while his wife was away, a complete inversion of the usual custom of women being involved in domestic activities while the husband was away for the day as the breadwinner of the family. There is even a spoof of “Ladies' Home Journal” as “Husband’s Home Journal”. At that time this journal, having been founded on late XIX century, was already very popular among American women of the era.

Then, urged by his father’s words, Clyde confronts the daily absences of his wife. As soon as they start arguing, the wife finds out her father-in-law was hiding in the living room and threatens to leave her husband. However, the argument is cut short by a mouse who appears out of turn. It is very interesting the brief use of animation in this scene when the mouse is shown. But the argument does not change the fact that the woman is away from home, even overnight, and detached from her family most of time. 

After a while, the final “insult” happens. Penelope appears out of nowhere, with an even more masculine appearance than the wife, and she gives to the husband some make up and a necklace as a present, both of which he is ready to wear as if they were the most natural items of a typical men’s wardrobe. No reason is provided for where Penelope came from and why she gave those items to the husband.  We can perhaps assume that this character appeared as if to show that if the wife does not take a good care of her husband, another woman will propably do. Anyway, this is just an assumption. When the wife arrives back home and realizes there was another woman there trying to seduce her husband, a serious fight starts to take place. 

After this second woman is kicked out of the house, the film reaches its most absurd point, which is that, while the father in law is helplessly hanging on the window, a stork appears with a baby, who looks just like his father. We may assume that it shows the couple had a child and it melted the wife’s heart and she magically starts being motherly and attached to her family, just like all “delicate” and “natural” women must be. 

A noteworthy detail in the film is the background scenery shown outside the house, which represents a 1920's vision of a futuristic city that helps reinforce the prediction that women would become liberated like that in the following century. In the time elapsed since this film, we are able to judge for ourselves how accurate their predictions were and what was sheer exaggeration.
Although it is not a slapstick comedy, we can notice some physical gags, including kicks on the butt of characters, buckets of water being thrown at Clyde, some falls and even broad gestures by Clyde Cook when, for instance, a mouse hides under his trousers and he starts jumping and making some over the top gestures that audiences perhaps would not expect in this sort of comedy. But we must not forget that the distinction between so-called “broad slapstick” and “subtle comedy” is not always 100% clear and that some actors, after having acted in slapstick for a while both in films and vaudeville, had perhaps incorporated those broad gestures and physical gags to their acting and “old habits die hard”.

Further reading and materials:
1. A History of the Hal Roach Studios by Richard Lewis Ward  

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