Monday, March 17, 2003

[3/17/2011] Wolcott Gibbs Tonight: "Glorious Calvin (A Critical Appreciation)" -- the clown prince of screen comedy? (continued)


Glorious Cal in one of his most hilarious roles (see below)

"As I write this it occurs to me to doubt whether this man, who was known and loved by millions of moviegoers, was essentially a comedian. There was more than a hint of tragedy in the shy little figure staring with solemn bafflement on an inexplicable world. There was a great pathos about him as he went awkwardly and unhappily through the gaudy antics which were so hilariously at variance with his appearance."
-- Gibbs, in "Glorious Calvin (An Appreciation)"


While he was indeed elected in his own right in 1924, he became president in 1923 when, as vice president, he succeeded Warren G. Harding following the latter's death. That's right, this was a guy who was put on the Republican ticket in 1920 as an afterthought to one of the least competent men elected to the presidency, who despite his shortened tenure established himself as surely -- against some stiff competition -- our most disastrous president before "Chimpy the Prez" Bush. (Chimpy, of course, went out and simply obliterated the competition.)

If you want an example of the gutless editorial "evenhandedness" to which Wikipedia is prone, read this paragraph:
Coolidge restored public confidence in the White House after the scandals of his predecessor's administration, and left office with considerable popularity. As a Coolidge biographer put it, "He embodied the spirit and hopes of the middle class, could interpret their longings and express their opinions. That he did represent the genius of the average is the most convincing proof of his strength." Some later criticized Coolidge as part of a general criticism of laissez-faire government. His reputation underwent a renaissance during the Ronald Reagan Administration, but the ultimate assessment of his presidency is still divided between those who approve of his reduction of the size of government programs and those who believe the federal government should be more involved in regulating and controlling the economy.
The mind boggles. Glorious Cal left office on March 4, 1929. The stock market crashed on Black Thursday, October 24. Luckily for fans of economic catastrophe, the new president, Herbert Hoover, was another small-government enthusiast who fanned that crisis into the Great Depression. Anyone who believes that either of these clowns did anything for "the spirit and hopes of the middle class" is dumber than they were, which is saying a lot.


The text of "Glorious Calvin" that appeared in The New Yorker of Feb. 9, 1929, has notable differences from the version I'm presenting here, from Gibbs's 1958 anthology More in Sorrow. For one thing, the 1929 version is all in the present tense (i.e., "The comic art of Calvin Coolidge is a thing so subtle . . ."), which makes sense, since after all Glorious Cal was still the president. Also, the two versions end significantly differently. The final paragraph in 1929 was:
As this is written I have before me an announcement that Coolidge will leave the pictures in March. His successor, I learn, is to be Herbert Hoover, a comedian whose work in supporting rĂ´les has displayed a certain similarity.
(Gibbs was being playful here. Though in accordance with the old presidential calendar Hoover wasn't inaugurated until March 4 -- it wasn't till FDR's second inauguration, in 1937, that Inauguration Day was moved up to January -- Glorious Cal had announced in the summer of 1927 that he wouldn't run for reelection in 1928, and the Republican nominee to succeed him, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, not at all Cal's choice, had been elected in November.)

Okay, I think we've attended to all the preliminaries. Here, then, is --

Glorious Calvin
(A Critical Appreciation Many Years Later)
[1958 version, from More in Sorrow]

The comic art of Calvin Coolidge was a thing so subtle that it almost defied analysis, for, like all great actors, his was the technique of implication. In fact, in his ability to suggest frustration -- the bitter futility of all living -- by such small things as an eyebrow infinitesimally raised, an incomplete, embarrassed gesture, he was equalled only by the immortal Chaplin, only occasionally approached by Harry Langdon. As I write this it occurs to me to doubt whether this man, who was known and loved by millions of moviegoers, was essentially a comedian. There was more than a hint of tragedy in the shy little figure staring with solemn bafflement on an inexplicable world. There was a great pathos about him as he went awkwardly and unhappily through the gaudy antics which were so hilariously at variance with his appearance. This great sense of the comic value of paradox was never better illustrated than in the magnificent film in which, resplendent in buckskin and feathers, he was created a chieftain of the Blackfeet Indians. While tom-toms beat under a copper sky, naked red bodies circled in a furious dance about a tightmouthed little man with the edge of a stiff white collar showing at the neck of his costume and the toes of sturdy black boots peeping out under the gay fringe at the bottom of his trousers. His expression, which never varied throughout the ceremony, suggested the faintly apprehensive geniality of an elderly gentleman who has been dragooned into a game of Post Office. The effect was irresistible.

This intelligent emphasis on contrast was present in all Coolidge's camera work. I recall happily the film in which, attired in a cowboy suit with "Cal" stenciled across the seat of the trousers (a touch of genius, by the way), he made timid overtures to a faintly derisive steer. Incidentally, an adroit and characteristic touch was added to this picture by a subtitle, reading "COOLIDGE IS AMUSED BY RODEO," which was immediately followed by a glimpse of the comedian, his back turned morosely on the rodeo, staring with horrid dejection at nothing whatever.

Coolidge, ascetic in cap and gown, receiving a degree from the president of a university; Coolidge, in yachting costume, with a vague hint of nausea in his expression, standing at the rail of the Mayflower; Coolidge, in overalls, thriftily chopping kindling against the bitter Massachusetts winter (the glittering nose of an enormous Packard appearing in a corner of this scene was a note of sheer and beautiful idiocy); Coolidge, the fisherman; Coolidge, the President of the United States -- the man's comic sense was unerring and his range apparently infinite.

In passing, it is perhaps worth noting that while, unlike Chaplin, Coolidge varied the major details of his costume with each part, the stiff collar was a constant item. With an unfailing instinct for the incongruous, he chose it as the inevitable label of the urban, the clerkly, the humdrum. Infinitely more subtle than Chaplin's cane, derby, and baggy trousers, it was at the same time far more effective. To take a setting as strange and beautiful as the one used in a picture he made in Georgia -- bearded Spanish oaks, oxcarts, the lovely keening of spirituals -- and in an instant reduce it to absurdity by the introduction of a stiff collar, that was something very like genius.

While Coolidge depended upon simple incongruity for most of his effects, when he did introduce gags they were incomparable. I have in mind a bit, again in the Georgia picture, in which the comedian entered surrounded by secret-service men in business suits, uneasily raised a gun to his shoulder and fired once into the air. A subtitle was then flashed on the screen -- "tribute to a steady hand and a clear eye" -- and the next picture showed us two guides shouldering a long pole, bowed under the weight of a deer, two or three smaller animals which appeared to be raccoons, and several wild ducks. The expression of the comedian's face as he studied this exhibit -- wild surmise succeeded by a nervous and deprecating smile -- I regard as one of the screen's great comic achievements.

Unlike many cinema favorites, the introduction of the talking picture held no terrors for Coolidge. His voice, happily, was perfectly in keeping with the part he has chosen to portray -- dry, nasal, utterly without inflection. The lines, which I am told he made up himself, were miracles of brevity and did much to further the effect of anticlimax upon which his art depended. Again in the Georgia picture there was the moment when the comedian rode onto the scene, seated upon an ancient wooden cart drawn by oxen. His progress through the green tunnel made by the overhanging trees was attended by the wailing of spirituals, the cracking of whips, and the muffled clump of the oxen's hooves. It was a moment of rare, almost intolerable beauty. The cart stopped as it reached the forefront of the picture and the spirituals died away. There was a sudden silence, which was broken by Coolidge's companion, who addressed him in a tone of great deference upon a problem apparently of national importance. . . . "What is your solution of that, Mr. President?"

The comedian smiled nervously, stared at the oxen, but did not reply. His companion tried again.

"What would you think of putting a tax on gasoline?"

This was obviously intended to be facetious, but the comedian considered it with perfect solemnity. At last his face brightened.

"Wal," he said, "I don't think I'd be in favor of that."

The spirituals rose again, and the cart drove on.

When Coolidge left the pictures, he was succeeded by Herbert Hoover, a comedian whose work displayed certain similarities. To the critical mind, however, it was thin and derivative, a self-conscious echo of his predecessor's magnificent technique. I doubt if we shall ever see the Master's like again.




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