'You don’t have to be crazy to work, but it helps' : work in film comedies of the 1930s

White, G ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4826-5190 2013, ''You don’t have to be crazy to work, but it helps' : work in film comedies of the 1930s' , in: Work in Cinema : labor and the human condition , Macmillan, New York, pp. 191-207.

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Abstract

It is curious how relatively seldom work appears in the foreground of film comedy texts. Work is the background, the normal and quotidian against which the comic can emerge. Certainly there is humour to be found in work activities and environments, but work itself is so monolithic in our lives that our fondest wish is often to escape it and its domination of our time. Comedy reflects this by preferring to associate itself with either the opposite of work (the holiday, the circus or carnival, the seaside) or time out from the busy working day (home, relationships, the things we do to distract ourselves from the fact that our lives are governed by work). The ways in which the genre of comedy treats work is examined through mainly American films from across the 1930s, in which an economic situation not unlike that of 2013 applied. The post-war economic boom of the 1920s had led to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 when paper stock fortunes were lost overnight and the ensuing slump – the Depression – required the Roosevelt government’s New Deal to put the country back on track. Both middle class and proletarian film audiences were able to recognise that the WASP elite who had led the country into the Depression through incompetence or corruption had lost a considerable amount of moral authority. The economic conditions of the thirties demanded some thought was given to the organisation of society and particularly issues relating to employment. If we are to understand how much comedy texts agree or disagree with societal attitudes towards work we must consider the mythology of work and the way that the capitalist hegemony of western society has established work as an accepted, necessary obligation. Work is an activity that the individual undertakes for the benefit of themselves and society. As such it is rewarding (the satisfaction of a job well done), responsible and mature to work. Work allows individuals to provide for themselves, their family and their future. It offers workers the chance to ‘make good’ and advance themselves. This mythology is so embedded in society that not working has negative connotations, whether it is the ‘idle rich’ living on inherited or speculatively gained wealth or the ‘idle poor’ living on government benefits and often depicted as a direct burden on those working. However much we might want to debate the nuances of such mythology, it is at least understood that working for remuneration is the norm and that this is a prevailing view in our culture. If it was not recognised, comedy at its expense would not be possible. Films discussed in detail in this article are: Duck Soup (1933), If I had a Million (1932), Busy Bodies (1933), Oh, Mr Porter! (1937), The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935).

Item Type: Book Section
Editors: Mazierska, E
Schools: Schools > School of Arts & Media
Publisher: Macmillan
ISBN: 9781137370853; 9781349475445
Funders: None
Depositing User: Dr Glyn White
Date Deposited: 16 Oct 2019 13:16
Last Modified: 02 Mar 2020 09:08
URI: http://usir.salford.ac.uk/id/eprint/37539

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