Release Date: April 23, 2019
A Conversation with Wes D. Gehring
An analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s methodical use of comedy in his films is past due, and Hitchcock and Humor: Modes of Comedy in Twelve Defining Films helps to fill this void. The book examines what should be obvious: Hitchcock systematically incorporated assorted types of comedy—black humor, farce/screwball comedy, and romantic comedy—in his films to entertain his audience.
Alfred Hitchcock Master is honored to have had the opportunity to interview Wes Gehring about his work on the book, and we are proud to present it here for your reading enjoyment.
AHM: Could you describe Hitchcock and Humor for our readers? What makes this book stand out amongst the others in your opinion?
WG: As the back cover blurb suggests, in preparing for TCM’s 2017 online Hitchcock class, as one of the resident scholars, I was shocked that there was no other in-depth examination of the director’s systematic incorporation of assorted types of comedy—black humor, parody farce/screwball comedy, personality comedy, and romantic comedy—in his films to entertain his audiences with compound comic thrillers.
I have done multiple books on all of these comedy genres. Plus, many of my 39 books key upon comedians who mesh with another comedy genre, such as multiple books on Chaplin and his use of dark comedy—someone who influenced Hitchcock in many ways. Fittingly, my last book on the comedian—”Chaplin’s War Trilogy: An Evolving Lens in Three Dark Comedies, 1918-1947“—was picked by Huffington Post as one of the Best Film Books of 2014. It also generated an invitation to speak at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Plus, CHOICE said of it: “Gehring remains supreme in film comedy scholarship.”
Farce/screwball comedy is another genre in which I have also written extensively, from two books on this comedy type, to biographies of key players, from director Leo McCarey, to the “screwball girl”—Carole Lombard, who starred in Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941). Hitchcock scholars treat the film like a sorry step-sister, but no other humor genre is more central to Hitchcock’s filmography (with the exception of dark comedy).
AHM: How did you choose which twelve films to discuss?
WG: A major factor was the often neglected British films—both in general comic terms, and the complete comic neglect of the brilliant Peter Lorre in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Secret Agent (1936). Period reviews even compared him to Harpo Marx (I have done two books on the Marx Brothers.) Both films are an inspired mix of black humor and personality comedy with a pinch of farce. Plus, the British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much completely blows the bloated American remake out of the water. It is fast, funny, and feels so spontaneous.
Blackmail (1929) was a must because Hitchcock’s career really starts here. It was the beginning of so many of his auteur traits, but it also screams (pun intended) black comedy, especially with it reoccurring Rosetta Stone painting of a court jester.
Hitchcock’s two greatest British films, The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) were a given, both because the duo are so tied to ‘tongue-in-cheek’ screwball comedy. Moreover, The 39 Steps borrows heavily from two pioneering screwball comedies—It Happened One Night (1934), and to a lesser extent another pivotal quasi-screwball comedy, The Thin Man (1934). And the beauty of all this is that one need not take my word on it—consult period reviews. I am a devil on period research that has fallen through the cracks of time. For example, just read my well-received 2018 text “Buster Keaton In His Own Time: What the Responses of 1920s Critics Reveal.” Besides being another darkly comic comedian who influenced Hitchcock, I completely focused on period literature and presented a new perspective on the comedian. And Hitchcock’s iffy perspective on humanity and relationships was obviously impacted by Keaton.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith was a must for reasons already mentioned, and as a bridge to his American films. Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rope (1948), and Stranger on a Train (1951) fall together as what I call Hitchcock’s “Nietzschen Dark Comedy Trilogy.” Shadow was Hitchcock and wife Alma’s favorite of his films, and no other Hitchcock film better showcases his misanthropic and misogynistic nature. Even Peter Bogdanovich has stated that “Hitchcock definitely gives Joseph Cotton his position [in Doubt].” And this is hardly press kit material, or the director’s career would have been much shorter.
Moreover, Stranger’s key character, Robert Walker’s Bruno, is arguably the director’s greatest dark comedy creation. (I know, what about Norman Bates? Let’s not argue.) Moreover, Strangers is also very close to the director’s misanthropic/misogynistic nature—with his daughter as a mouthpiece for it in her supporting role.
Rear Window (1954) is the director’s most beloved study in voyeurism, as well as the beginning of making the audience feel increasingly creepy about what’s going on in Hitchcock’s world. Indeed, anyone who would rather spy on his neighbors than spend time with Grace Kelly has issues. And Jimmy Stewart’s phallic cast merely underlines his messed-up priorities in almost every shot.
The Trouble with Harry (1955) was Hitchcock literally doing an obvious black comedy and somehow failing at the box office. If for no other reason, that was grounds to further explore it. Plus, though initially seen as an “English” project, there is more early American humor involved in the project that has gone unexplored. Plus, the director’s dive into TV at this time is a factor also neglected.
With North by Northwest (1958), Hitchcock had come full circle back to his British comic thrillers, à la The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, which had brought him to America. Thus, it seemed a good stopping point for examining the various comedy genres he had elaborately intertwined around the filmography’s black comedy core. It is also his most full-blown comedy.
However, one cannot close without some passing commentary on Psycho (1960) in the epilogue, though references to the film are peppered throughout the text. Still, the humor factor here seemed too obvious to belabor over a full chapter.
AHM: Were there any unique challenges that you had to face in making the book a reality?
WG: In doing so many books I am blessed to have a solid working relationship with McFarland and some other publishers. Thus, getting a contract did not prove to be a problem. Of course, the wonderful response of TCM viewers to the online Hitchcock class did not hurt. Thus, I owe a major thank you to the man most responsible for both the series, and my involvement—Richard Edwards. And once again, McFarland did an excellent job in supporting and showcasing my work.
AHM: When did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and what instigated the interest?
WG: As a Baby boomer, I grew-up with Hitchcock’s TV series and often terrorized my sister with a so-so impression of the director while humming his theme song, the “Funeral March of a Marionette.” It is also an 1872 composition, which, fittingly for my book’s focus, was composed as a darkly comic spoof.
Also, as someone who has written a great deal about dark comedy, I had always wanted to further elaborate on the famous Hitchcock “MacGuffin.” This is something that seems very important at the beginning of a Hitchcock film, but by the close does not really matter. However, since Hitchcock has called all of his films dark comedies, no one has made the natural leap to black humor and a theatre of the absurd primer like Waiting for Gadot (1953). That is, early in Samuel Beckett’s play, and other works of existential ilk, the characters are given the quasi-MacGuffin idea that God and/or something else of extreme importance is to surface by the story’s conclusion. These invariably amusing figures (usually inspired by primal comic characters) then invariably both charm the viewer and give them a reason to watch a rather illogical story (Hitchcock’s modus operandi), in which the big finish never occurs. This serious though seemingly logical tie of the MacGuffin to dark comedy hits all the genre’s basics—from absurdity to death—and fits Hitchcock’s misanthropic nature.
AHM: We occasionally borrow a question from Robin Wood and ask scholars why people should take Alfred Hitchcock’s work seriously. In this instance, I’d like to add to this question and ask why scholars should take the director’s use of humor seriously. Why is it important to examine or study the humor in Hitchcock’s oeuvre?
WG: One should take the time to examine the work of any popular artist seriously, even if he or she is not a favorite. As my graduate school mentor, Richard D. MacCann was fond of saying, “If someone’s work has become unusually popular they have hit upon some basic universals which bear looking into.”
With regard to humor, from my darkly comic perspective, as I noted with the additional definition of a “MacGuffin,” life is essentially a joke. It’s the old axiom of tragedy with time. All the great humorists have a perspective along those lines, whether it’s Vonnegut casually using the mantra “And so it goes” for the worst horrors one can image, to Chaplin observing of life, “In the end it’s all a joke.”
Dark comedy is the bravest of all genres, because it allows one no crutches, no happy endings. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is you die.” Maybe Joseph Heller said it best via Yossarian in Catch-22 (1961): “[Things] could be one hell of a lot better… And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways. There’s nothing mysterious about it. He’s not working at all.” But I most embrace Mark Twain’s perspective, “It’ll be a hell of a heaven if everyone goes that thinks he will.”
Consequently, it’s important to study the neglected humor (especially dark humor) in Hitchcock because it gives his work substance. In The 39 Steps when our hero and heroine reach for each other’s hands at the close, do the handcuffs dangling from his wrist really qualify as a happy ending?
AHM: How did humor in his early British films differ from the humor that saturated his work once he started making films in America?
WG: Hitchcock’s British films were full of more farce, and with Lorre, darkly comic personality. Once in America, after Mr. & Mrs. Smith, there is more focus on the black humor of the aforementioned Nietzschean Trilogy, followed by an often uneven period, in which one remake, The Man Who Knew Too Much, is a step back, while North By Northwest actually improves upon The 39 Steps. In a sentence, American Hitchcock was simply more eclectic, though one film actually changed the nature of horror and campy dark humor—Psycho.
AHM: As you have already mentioned, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Trouble with Harry are among the twelve films discussed in your book. These films are often written off as anomalies that do not represent the director’s typical modus operandi. It is obvious that you disagree with this evaluation. Why is it a mistake to write these films off as atypical Hitchcock efforts?
WG: Mr. & Mrs. Smith is important because besides being a natural link to the farcical British films which got Hitchcock to America, it plays as a darker screwball comedy—which was typical of several Lombard examples of the genre involving murder, such as The Princess Comes Across (1936) and True Confession (1938). Then, this farcical segue turns on a dime to Hitchcock’s darker noir-ish films, such as Shadow and Strangers.
The Trouble with Harry is closer to Hitchcock’s American filmography on two counts. First, it’s a whimsical first cousin to the Nietzschean Trilogy about a title character who is spoofing a Jesus figure who won’t stay buried—which is more fully articulated in the novel from which it is adapted. Second, Hitchcock blames its poor box office on trying to be too old school British. But it really has much more to do with many branches of American humor, from 19th century women humorists, to Hitchcock’s American world being greatly impacted by New Yorker writers such as Robert Benchley and cartoonists like Charles Addams. Thus, in its own way, it is another transition film.
AHM: Do you think that the director’s claim that all of his films are dark comedies is accurate or is this merely hyperbole? Where do his darker efforts (such as Sabotage, Notorious, I Confess, The Wrong Man, and Vertigo) fit into this statement? There may be humor in some of these films, but I feel that the overall tone of these efforts are decidedly more serious. Would you agree or disagree with this assessment?
WG: I would stand somewhere between hyperbole and serious on your question about dark comedy in films like The Wrong Man or Notorious. The Wrong Man is pure Kafka, such as The Trial or The Castle—which are essentially black comedies on acid. While Notorious is chapter two of North by Northwest, when Cary Grant begins to wonder if the less than “Saintly” Eva Marie will have any other weekends when she just decides to fall in love with someone.
Remember, I’ve previously written that I see all of life as a dark comedy. There are just degrees. My philosophy of life is “cling to the wreckage.” Hitchcock claims I Confess fails because it had no humor. But given his negative perspective on the Catholic Church, I think that his subtextual damning of an institution (a pivotal part of dark comedy) slides it into a deep state dark comedy. And with Vertigo—between the miscasting of Stewart and Hitchcock channeling his increasingly perverse perspective as director through Stewart’s character—I find it a black comedy for the Hitchcock aficionado.
AHM: What is your favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, and which film do you think best represents the director’s particular brand of humor?
WG: Given my screwball comedy/American farce background, North by Northwest is my favorite. Grant was also Hitchcock’s favorite actor, as well as mine—someone who brings delightful humor to any situation, however dark. Plus, given Grant was Ian Fleming’s model for James Bond, a great case can be made for this being the first real 007 movie. Finally throw in one of Hitchcock’s most entertainingly slick villains in James Mason, and it is hard not to love the picture.
Though Psycho was the most influential of Hitchcock’s films—literally changing horror from old scary Europe to the contemporary world of that “nice” American boy that lives next door, I would go with The 39 Steps as the director’s most representative film. The BFI has selected it as his best British-made film. Plus, the huge ongoing success (since 2005) of The 39 Steps as a play which so successfully spoofs all of Hitchcock’s work would be my trump card in choosing it.
AHM: Do you have a least favorite Hitchcock film?
WG: My least favorite Hitchcock films would include several of the silent he made following The Lodger (1926). But in the sound era I struggle with the Jamaica Inn, because of how Charles Laughton takes the picture over and drowns it in his hamminess. Producer David Selznick also controls Rebecca (1940). But at least one still has a wonderful picture (just not a Hitchcock one).
[Note: Some of the opinions expressed in this interview are not necessarily shared by Alfred Hitchcock Master. Please be respectful to others in your comments if you wish to dispute any of these opinions. This is a friendly community.]
Interview by: Devon Powell