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Buffoon Men

Classic Hollywood Comedians and Queered Masculinity

Scott Balcerzak

Publication Year: 2013

Film scholars and fans have used distinctive terms to describe the Classic Hollywood comedian: He is a "trickster," a "rebel," or a "buffoon." Yet the performer is almost always described as a "he." In Buffoon Men: Classic Hollywood Comedians and Queered Masculinity, Scott Balcerzak reads the performances of notable comedians such as W. C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello through humor and queer theory to expose a problematic history of maleness in their personas. He argues that contrary to popular notions of Classic Hollywood history, these male comedians rearranged or, at times, rejected heteronormative protocols. Balcerzak begins by defining the particular buffoonish masculinity portrayed by early film comedians, a gender and genre construct influenced by the cultural anxieties of the 1930s and '40s. In chapter 1, he considers the onscreen pairing of W. C. Fields and Mae West to identify a queered sexuality and drag persona in Fields's performance, while in chapter 2 he examines the two major constructions of Fields's film persona-the confidence man and the husband-to show Fields to be a conflicted and subversive figure. In chapter 3, Balcerzak considers the assimilation and influence of Eddie Cantor as a Jewish celebrity, while he turns to the cross-media influence of Jack Benny's radio persona in chapter 4. In Chapters 5 and 6, he moves beyond the individual performer to examine the complex masculine brotherhood of comedy duos Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Buffoon Men shows that the complicated history of the male comedian during the early sound era has much to tell us about multimedia comedic stars today. Fans and scholars of film history, gender studies, and broadcast studies will appreciate Balcerzak's thorough exploration of the era's fascinating gender constructs.

Published by: Wayne State University Press

Series: Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii-vii

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pp. ix-x

Like many first books, this work represents a long journey through various universities, libraries, conferences, and classrooms. Foremost, I am indebted to Maureen Turim, who saw early on that my obsession with Classic Hollywood comedians masked possibly a greater obsession with the limitations of gender labels. During my time at the University of Florida, her mentorship was ...

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Introduction: “Someone Like Me for a Member”

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pp. 1-24

After creating a string of successful slapstick comedies, Woody Allen wrote and directed possibly his most acclaimed work with Annie Hall (1977). The film is often celebrated as the first truly postclassical romantic comedy since it moved away from farcical plot into a comically enhanced, stream-of-consciousness meditation on post-sexual-revolution gender relationships.1 Yet the ...

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1. “Novelties and Notions”

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pp. 25-51

Throughout the latter half of 1939, Universal Studios’ pairing of Mae West and W. C. Fields in what would eventually become My Little Chickadee (1940) was big news in the industry. After being dropped by Paramount Studios and remaining off screen for two years, West’s contract negotiations were reported as a top story, routinely making the front page of Daily Variety. Her eventual ...

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2. Con Men and Henpecked Husbands

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pp. 53-78

The above description of W. C. Fields comes from a peculiar article titled “A Red Nose Romeo,” written as the comedian was establishing himself as a topbilled draw at Paramount Studios. Not as tongue in cheek as one might expect, the piece is the rare occasion of a publicity article overtly sexualizing a male comic. While not suggesting the same levels of sexual icon status as Mae West, ...

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3. “Whitefacing” the Nebbish

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pp. 79-109

In the joke-filled dictionary The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten provides a definition of nebech (as he suggests the primary spelling) that contains some decidedly telling connotations. He writes it suggests, as a noun, an “innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless or hapless unfortunate. A Sad Sack. A ‘loser’ . . . 3. A nonentity; ‘a nothing of a person.’ ”1 He provides nebbish as a word that ...

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4. Queered Radio / Queered Cinema

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pp. 111-138

Unlike the other Classic Hollywood stars this book covers, Jack Benny can be unquestionably classified as a radio comedian, a new type of celebrity that emerged in popular culture during the 1930s.1 While Eddie Cantor found major success on the air with The Chase and Sanborn Hour, his celebrity was fostered on the Broadway stage and expanded through his motion pictures ...

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5. Queering the Fraternity

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pp. 139-163

Written as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were gaining widespread celebrity in sound shorts, the above observation acknowledges one of the key points stressed throughout this book. The comedians of Classic Hollywood could serve as points of identification for the male public, who could “see themselves” in the comedians’ outsider positions. As comics embraced often-neglected ...

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6. Military Disservice

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pp. 165-190

On September 14, 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into effect the Selective Training and Service Act, historically a marker of the American government’s fear of the looming threat of world war in Europe. This act, the first peacetime draft in American history, required men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty to register with local draft boards.1 As this suggests, Roosevelt’s ...

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Conclusion: Beyond Classic Hollywood / Beyond Buffoonish Masculinity

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pp. 191-199

One of the highlights of the 2007 Academy Awards ceremony begins with comedian Will Ferrell sitting next to a piano, holding a single rose, and wistfully singing the above lyrics. The tempo then picks up as fellow comic Jack Black rushes onto the stage. Black asks, through song, why Ferrell ever expected to be accepted by the Hollywood community: “What did you think? / That you ...


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pp. 201-235


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pp. 237-248


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pp. 249-258

E-ISBN-13: 9780814339664
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814339657

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 19
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series
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OCLC Number: 864685869
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Buffoon Men

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Comedy films -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Motion pictures -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Masculinity in motion pictures.
  • Queer theory.
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