- Comedy, Capitalism, and a Loss of Gravity
Sometimes, in his wild way of talking, he would say that gravity was an errant scoundrel; and he would add,—of the most dangerous kind too—because a sly one; and that, he verily believed, more honest, well-meaning people were bubbled out of their goods and money by it in one twelve-month, than by pocket-picking and shop-lifting in seven.—Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy
In 1932, the American economy plunged to its lowest point. Stock prices fell to 20 percent of their 1929 value, a quarter of a million families lost their homes, and Fleischer Studios,1 with Paramount Pictures, released Betty Boop’s Ups and Downs, an animated short that dramatized the housing foreclosure crisis. I want to use the movie to make four basic points: (1) that the idiom of gravity and levity points to meaningful connections between comedy and capitalism; (2) that we should regard capitalism with a comic “attitude toward history”; (3) that studies of comedy and of capitalism often, [End Page 139] wrongly, discount the importance of the pursuit of happiness; and (4) that Betty Boop’s Ups and Downs suggests an eco-cosmopolitan thesis about the importance of moving beyond local forms of identity, coming back down not to Earth in the abstract but to the Earth as a whole. These may seem to be excessive claims for an obscure Betty Boop short, but another crucial idea underlying my analysis is that the Fleischer brothers’ films—and this one in particular—merit such critical attention not only because of the brilliance and insight with which they illuminated their own moment, circa 1932, but also because of the light they can shed on ours.
Betty Boop, a popular animated figure in the early years of the Great Depression, has staged a triumphant return, through merchandising, in our own day. Among relevant points of comparison between the Fleischers’ moment and ours are the following: In the economic crises of both the 1930s and the 2000s, housing bubbles led to epidemics of foreclosures and evictions as inflated asset prices induced a crash of debt and equity markets. Betty, from the Fleischers’ day to ours, has been an icon of consumerism, a floating signifier of desire. At the same time, technological innovations gave rise to experiments in new narrative media (motion picture technologies in particular) with new ways of imagining the material planet and our relation to it. New forms of art occasioned new imaginary states of nature and new ways of being in the world. Furthermore, dramatic demographic changes internationally, the pressure of refugees on the American rhetoric of freedom, and anxiety about borders provoked major debates on national identity and immigration. A vital consequence of mass migration and urbanization then and now has been to draw heightened attention to the ethics and aesthetics of cosmopolitanism or global citizenship, which has pictured the globe as home to all creatures but also as being degraded by capitalism, human industry, and mass society. Betty Boop’s Ups and Downs, as I aim to show, is an important work of modernist art that sheds light on these historical developments. The film dramatizes homelessness in terms of an Earth at risk. A close analysis of the film can therefore also contribute meaningfully to the current eco-critical conversation.
In my reading, Betty Boop’s Ups and Downs becomes an urtext of what Ursula Heise calls “eco-cosmopolitanism” and an allegory of de-territorialized, environmental world citizenship. Heise argues that ecologically oriented thinking needs to come to terms with the connectedness of societies around the world and, by extension, with “the emergence of new forms of culture that are no longer anchored in place.”2 In contrast to the anticapitalist, often antiglobalization bias of much environmental rhetoric, the Fleischer film [End Page 140] participates in the global economy that it also depicts as comic. The film both critiques excessive investment in the local and celebrates its own extraordinarily innovate narrative art, in surrealist imagery and jazz music, using technology not simply as a means to an end but as a revelation of a new...