World War I Film Comedies and American Society: The Concern with Authoritarianism
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 5, Number 3, September 1975
- pp. 7-21
- Additional Information
WORLD WAR I FILM COMEDIES AND AMERICAN SOCIETY: THE CONCERN WITH AUTHORITARIANISM MICHAEL T. rSENBERG Historians are beginning at last to realize the worth of film evidence . This evidence comprises not only the so-called "documentary" and "semi -documentary" films, but also those films made by commercial organizations with the goal of profit. I have outlined elsewhere^ some of the reasons that have delayed the profession in coming to grips with the vast and rewarding world of film. Here I hope to indicate by example some of the insights film may provide the students of American society. The example is drawn from the commercial films having World War I as a subject and made during the period 1914-1919. 2 The discussion is limited to the war "comedies" of the period, with a view toward gaining insight into American society as a whole. Comic art is far more rewarding in terms of social analysis than is tragic art. Comedy plays an innately social function as a salve to soothe society's wounds. Democracies rightly value it among the most precious of their treasures, since it is so necessary to explain the incongruities which inevitably appear in professedly egalitarian social systems. The late sociologist Hugh Dal zi el Duncan has explained it thus: We learn in comedy that the virtues of superiors are not so great after all, the humility and loyalty of inferiors are not without limits, and that friends and peers sometimes deceive us. But guilt lightens in laughter as I admit that if they are rascals, so too am I. We begin by laughing at others only to end by laughing at ourselves . The strain of rigid conventions, of majestic ideals, of deep loyalties, is lessened, for now they are open to examination. They can be questioned, their absurdities can be made plain. Now Michael T. Isenberg holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Colorado and has published several articles in the field of film and history. that we can openly express our vices, there is hope for correction. At least we now have company in misery; we are no longer alone and can take heart for another try. For when all is said and done, what do we have but each other? So long as we can act together we have all the goodthereis in life.^ Comedies of World War I may seem at first glance to be misplaced in time and space. Yet their humor seldom was derived from the war itself. These films retained most of the comic mechanisms found in standard slapstick comedies or polite drawing room farces. War comedies in fact contained social and intellectual themes that may be examined in the context of comic art. By asking the question, "What was so funny about the war?" we may not arrive at answers to why the war was so funny, but we may achieve some idea why Americans laughed. In essence, the comedies used military "comic heroes" to explore questions of authority within the democratic system. In this guise, clowns in uniform commented endlessly on virtually all of American society. That society, in spite of the boast and brag of its egalitarian tradition, has been like any other society a hierarchy of superiors, inferiors , and equals. Comedy has been called that "sanctioned doubt" which allows the claims of superiors to be deflated and the preposterous behavior of inferiors and equals to be reassuring.5 In a sense, the society that denies itself comic art operates on artificial social planes. Comedy often bestows implicit approval on hierarchical social structures. It thus tends to ameliorate the inevitable tensions arising from the discrepancy between social theory and social practice. Most of the producers of these comedies probably never considered authority to be a central issue in the success (or failure) of their films. Their comic heroes were clowns who specialized in exposing social vices to movie audiences, who in turn were both well aware that the vices existed and in agreement as to the need for exposure. Although they also were used to reject as well as support authority, the screen comedians who duelled against the authoritarianism of military life usually were harmless...