A Book Review by Anthony Uzarowski.
“Anybody got a match?” Who doesn’t remember the first time they heard Lauren Bacall utter these words; the first time they, along with Humphrey Bogart, laid their eyes on her in To Have and Have Not. Did we fall under her spell in the very same moment he did? It’s entirely possible, even if our moment came decades later than theirs did – for in the world of film, time and space are relative. When two actors fall in love on film (and in the case of Bogart in Bacall, also in life), some of that love seeps its way into our consciousness, the magic reaching across from the screen and seducing us as viewers. For the cinematic love to work, it has to be a triangle: the two stars and the viewer, with each participant equally vital to this unique equation. Thanks to the magical nature of cinema, this first encounter can occur again and again, new and fresh each time, losing none of its intoxicating quality.
In his new book Gestures of Love (SUNY Press, 2017), Steven Rybin explores these ideas with great passion and a nuanced understanding of performance and the effect it has on film audiences. Basing his argument on a close examination of the way love is performed in three major genres of Classical Hollywood – screwball comedy, film noir and family melodrama – Rybin is unafraid to consider his own scopophilic pleasures in order to better understand the unique appeal of these films. By tackling the most emblematic genres of each of the three decades of Classical Hollywood, Gestures of Love builds a cogent and engaging narrative that offers a refreshingly modern and meticulously analysed reading of some of the most beloved classics of American cinema, while shedding new light on the way audience’s love of performance and performers becomes part of a film’s very lifeblood.
While the consensus often encountered within the academic circles of film scholars is that the study of Classical Hollywood has been exhausted, books such as this one are proof that this notion is far from true. Rybin demonstrates with ease and sharpness that there exist vast plains of uncharted territory when it comes to our understanding and appreciation of the magical legacy of the Golden Age, starting with the question of why is it that new generations keep falling in love with the performers and performances from that era. “I strive to take the magic out of quotation marks,” notes Rybin in the book’s introduction. “I am earnestly interested in the magic of film performance, not the ‘magic'” (3). He continues to reveal that he has not selected the actors he writes about, but rather, they had selected him. This is the key to the book’s innovative approach: the acknowledgment and celebration of the intimate love which exists between audiences and film stars.
What follows is a carefully constructed series of analytical readings of films through the prism of the way love is performed in them. Starting with the pre-code, gender-bending and delightfully naughty comedies like Twentieth Century, starring Carole Lombard and John Barrymore, and Thin Man (both 1934), starring Myrna Loy and William Powell, Rybin warms up by dissecting the films’ narratives carefully and with great precision, before moving on to the films of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant (Sylvia Scarlett, 1935; Bringing Up Baby; Holiday, both 1938; and The Philadelphia Story, 1940), where he is having the most fun and reaches the most interesting conclusions in this part of the book. While noting the brilliant comedic timing of both Hepburn and Grant, Rybin also seeks to uncover a more profound meaning in their hilarious flirtations, and this he achieves successfully. Sylvia Scarlett, Holiday and Bringing Up Baby all challenge society’s conventions, not least by playing with established gender roles and the very idea of the traditional, heteronormative process of falling in love. This risky concept works because of Hepburn, who, as Rybin eloquently points out, demonstrates “a total, radical philosophy of life, a way of being” (97), while at the same time delivering her signature witty charm and exquisite gift for physical comedy. Above all, the Hepburn/Grant films celebrate love as a union of two individuals who are allowed to maintain their respective personas, even at the risk of leaving the viewer feeling that they might not be a perfect match. As noted by Rybin, it might be “precisely because the two aren’t exactly ‘perfect’ for one another” (115), that the Hepburn/Grant comedies remain so popular with contemporary audiences.
As the 1930s drew to a close, and the ever-powerful Hays office begun to enforce the rules of its Production Code with increased pressure, ways of portraying love and all its shades changed, as did audience’s participation. With the arrival of darker, more ambiguous narratives of the 1940s, a new kind of sophisticated shorthand developed between the performers onscreen and the audience in the theatres. For the next two decades films would depend on this unspoken understanding between screen performers and viewers: words acquired new meaning, gestures and looks became vital, silence and dissolve into darkness came charged with suggestion.
The second part of the book, dedicated to film noir, is surprisingly modest in its scope, limiting itself to the analysis of Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and the four films starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This however does not weaken Rybin’s argument, even if it leaves the reader thirsty for more – one yearns to know what the author might make of the shady relationships in Double Indemnity (1944), The Killers, Gilda, or The Postman Rings Twice (all 1946).
The third and final part, focusing on the glossy, Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s, examines celluloid love complicated by post-war social changes and patriarchy, through a detailed analysis of such classics as Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955) and Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956).
What we are left with after reading the book is a greater understanding of the complexities of the way love is performed in classic Hollywood cinema and its effect on the viewer, but we also feel a desire to know more, to immerse ourselves in this glorious love affair with the movies, to experience this love at first sight, even if its nature still leaves us a little puzzled – we are eager to celebrate it.
Anthony Uzarowski is a Film Studies MA graduate from University College London, currently perusing his doctoral research at Queen Mary University of London. His first book (co-authored with Kendra Bean) is Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press, 2017; reviewed in Film International here). His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Gay Times, Queerty, and Film International. His main research interests are classical Hollywood and star studies in relation to the representation of women in film and queer studies.