Joel and Ethan Coen make two types of films. Both types are comedies.
The first type sometimes gets mistaken for a drama. They’re the dark comedies that usually operate within a specific genre. Some of these are easily spotted – even Wikipedia calls Fargo a comedy – but it’s easy to get distracted by how serious they look on the surface. The Man Who Wasn’t There is a black-and-white period noir, which somehow overrides that the whole film is set in motion by someone coming up with this totally crazy idea he’s calling “dry cleaning”. The closest to a true drama that the Coens have directed is probably No Country for Old Men, but it has a huge amount of funny hair for a very serious, tense movie.
The other type never gets mistaken for anything, except occasionally for being bad. The Coen brothers’ wacky comedies are silly and odd and incredibly distinctive. There is, of course, a sliding scale of goofiness in the Coens’ films, but there are very clearly two camps. Inside Llewyn Davis is in the serious-seeming dark comedy pile, but any of the shenanigans involving the cat prove that a less wacky Coen brothers film is much wackier than the average film off the street. In this, the Coens are not unlike their predecessor Billy Wilder: even though the main characters in Sunset Boulevard meet at a chimpanzee’s funeral, it definitely goes in Wilder’s unwacky camp when you put it next to Some Like It Hot or Irma La Douce.
Even on a sliding scale, the Coens’ truly wacky comedies stand apart. They’re silly, often gloriously so. They have characters with names like Rex Rexroth and Howard D. Doyle of Doyle Oil. They generally open to mixed reviews, or at least a less rapturous reception than their more serious comedies. They certainly don’t win Oscars. Sometimes they gain a devoted following – Raising Arizona or especially The Big Lebowski – and sometimes they are only remembered to be reviled, justly or unjustly.
Around the time Hail, Caesar! was released, ranking the Coens’ filmography was briefly a trend in certain corners of Twitter and on various online publications. These lists vary a lot, but the bottom tier tends to be wall-to-wall wacky comedies: The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Burn After Reading. Even those who defend these films don’t really defend them, armed instead with a list of concessions about shallowness and lack of heart or artistic merit, and the timid assertion that they’re enjoyable anyway.
Joel and Ethan Coen are often accused of style over substance and of lacking heart, especially in their zanier stuff. But the Coens’ wacky comedies brim over with joy. Every frame thrums with I can’t believe we were allowed to make this. Beneath the madcap antics, there’s much more heart than they get credit for. They make pastiches, sure, of other genres and other eras, but that doesn’t mean the pastiche is empty. Billy Wilder was accused of being such a cynic he didn’t even believe his own cynicism, and like Wilder, the Coens’ apparent cynicism often reveals emotion and humanity and a romantic streak, aimed in unexpected directions. Nowhere is all of this truer than in The Hudsucker Proxy.
I love The Hudsucker Proxy. I love it completely. I’m not going to take individual parts of it and tell you why they’re better than the whole. I’m not going to tell you it isn’t a terrible film. I’m going to tell you it’s a great film, and one of the Coen brothers’ very best.
The Hudsucker Proxy opens with a suicide. Waring Hudsucker, the president of Hudsucker Industries, gets up in the middle of a meeting and jumps through a window. The board of Hudsucker Industries, and particularly Sidney J. Mussburger (a wonderfully villainous Paul Newman), fear losing control of the company when the late Waring Hudsucker’s shares are sold off, and so they make a plan to promote a helpless idiot to president so that the share price drops and they can buy them cheaply to maintain a majority shareholding. That makes the film sound really convoluted and probably very cynical, like it’ll have a bunch of confusing stuff about how stocks and shares work, but it’s really a very simple story. It’s a satire of big business, but mostly it’s a screwball comedy, and a great one.
Screwball is a term that’s no stranger to misuse, but its definition is actually narrow: comedies about the clashing of opposites – men and women, rich and poor – involving fast talking, farce and plots about courtship and marriage. It Happened One Night more or less invented the genre in 1934, and though it disappeared in its purest form sometime during the 1940s, some of its elements lived on in romantic comedies after that. But The Hudsucker Proxy doesn’t just borrow elements from screwball comedies – it is one, as completely as a film made in that era.
Like all great screwball comedies, The Hudsucker Proxy is a love story. Tim Robbins plays Norville Barnes, a recent graduate from the College of Business Administration in Muncie, Indiana who comes to New York City. The New York of The Hudsucker Proxy is not a New York that has ever existed. It’s a magical place, made up of breathtaking sets. It’s the kind of New York that has only ever existed in movies and in the imaginations of people who watched them. It’s the New York that got shuffled off screen by people like Martin Scorsese and a new, gritty vision of New York by people who lived there. But Norville wanders into this old New York, as intact as Frank Capra left it. After less than half a day working in the mailroom, he is sent to deliver a letter to Sidney J. Mussburger and finds himself made president of Hudsucker Industries. Norville has no idea that he’s being used. It’s hard to believe that Hudsucker came out the same year as The Shawshank Redemption, in which Tim Robbins plays a fully grown adult man and then continues to play him for a timeline of twenty years, because Tim Robbins plays Norville so wide-eyed and naive that he seems hopelessly young. Norville is sweet and soft and trusting.
The woman opposite him is none of those things.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Amy Archer, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who goes undercover to investigate Hudsucker Industries’ new and inexperienced president. When people talk about why they don’t like The Hudsucker Proxy, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance is usually at the top of the list. She’s a fast-talking newspaper dame with a typewriter and a cigarette, like Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell. Leigh’s performance, especially her basically perfect accent, is often described as being too mannered, too stylised, as if the screwball comedies of the 1930s were naturalistic. It would make much more sense if people accused her of just doing a good impression, but they’d be wrong there too. Leigh goes beyond impression to make Amy Archer a genuinely affecting character – and watching her slowly fall in love with Norville while the Norville she loves disappears, losing his soul to big business, is about as moving as anything you’ll see in a romantic movie.
I’ve never understood the consensus that the Coen brothers make films without heart. I can think of dozens of heartfelt moments from their work without even trying – the ending of Raising Arizona is lovely, Marge’s relationship with her husband in Fargo is incredibly sweet, Miller’s Crossing is very sad (and very gay). But this charge is perhaps most often levelled at The Hudsucker Proxy. Roger Ebert wrote, “Everything is style. The performances seem deliberately angled as satire.” The Washington Post said, “Missing in [The Hudsucker Proxy’s] performances is a sense of humanity, the crucial ingredient in the movies Hudsucker is clearly trying to evoke.” Variety called it “a wizardly but artificial synthesis, leaving a hole in the middle where some emotion and humanity should be.” But to me, The Hudsucker Proxy is sweet and funny and sad, and has one of the most magical moments I’ve ever seen on film.
One of the most frequently derided parts of The Hudsucker Proxy is its ending. I’ve been avoiding spoilers in case you haven’t seen Hudsucker and you might be convinced to watch it for the first time. But I have to talk about the ending, because it might be my favourite part of the film.
The Hudsucker Proxy starts with Norville standing on a ledge at the top of the Hudsucker building on New Year’s Eve, wearing his apron from the mailroom, ready to jump. The main narrative is an extended flashback, letting us know how he ended up there. You’ve seen this scene before. Someone will talk him down. Everything will be okay.
But Norville falls. He’s falling just like Waring Hudsucker did before him.
And then all of a sudden, he isn’t anymore. He is suspended in mid-air, snow falling around him. Moses the clock man jammed the gears on the giant clock of the Hudsucker building, and as the clock stopped, so did time. Waring Hudsucker appears as an angel, and tells Norville to read the letter that he was supposed to deliver to Mussburger but never did. It bequeaths him, as Waring Hudsucker’s successor, all of his shares – and a second chance.
To naysayers, this is insincere sentimentality – a happy ending that the Coens don’t believe. But when the clock stops, I gasped with joy. There are occasional moments that are so special because they remind you of what a film can do. The clock stop in The Hudsucker Proxy is one of the purest movie-magic moments I can think of. Naturalism is in these days, and you get used to the rules of a film. The reminder that a film can do anything, even grant miracles, is jubilant. The Hudsucker Proxy is a screwball comedy, but because it was made in 1994, it can do things the original screwballs couldn’t quite. Its camera can move as fast as its characters can talk. We’ve seen a man on a ledge before, and we know that he will be talked down. But Norville falls, and the film saves him. The film’s world says that Norville won’t be allowed to die. The clock stop is It’s a Wonderful Life for someone who wasn’t as endlessly good as Jimmy Stewart, someone who allowed himself to become cold and hard. But he deserves a second chance just as much.
During the acclaim for and subsequent backlash against La La Land this year, a peculiar idea emerged: that artistic forms strongly associated with an era should stay back where they belong. Nobody quite said it out loud, but there was hostility to the idea that it was hard to get an original movie musical made by a studio, and some of the accusations of racism brought up the idea that celebrating a style that had its peak popularity during Jim Crow was racist in itself. But there is nothing about brightly coloured, CinemaScope musicals where characters burst into song during conversation that is inherently of the 1950s and 60s. There were social, political, economic and technical reasons that musicals were especially popular then, but there is nothing about the style itself that is inextricable from that time and makes anything made later a pale imitation. There are also lots of reasons that screwball comedies were especially popular in the 1930s – mainly the Great Depression, and its joint wants of escapism and seeing rich people get taken down a peg – but there’s nothing about screwball comedies as a genre that means a great one couldn’t be made in 1994, or today.
Films like La La Land and The Hudsucker Proxy – or The Artist, a film that everyone has forgotten is actually really good – approach old forms with the same wide-eyed excitement about the possibilities of film as the pioneers of early cinema. Working in genres that rarely exist now isn’t soulless pastiche – it’s rescuing from extinction whole worlds of artistic expression that would otherwise be lost.
“It’s the case where, having seen those movies, we say, ‘They’re really fun – let’s do one,’ as opposed to, ‘They’re really fun- let’s comment upon them,’” Ethan Coen said.
The Coen brothers love screwball comedies, so they made one. And it’s everything you could hope for it to be.