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Noel Coward’s Private Lives and Alfred Hitchcock’s Easy Virtue: An Exploration of the genres, “Comedy of Manners” and “Romantic Comedy”

Noel Coward’s Private Lives and Alfred Hitchcock’s Easy Virtue: An Exploration of the genres, “Comedy of Manners” and “Romantic Comedy”

Noel Coward’s Private Lives is a cross between a comedy of manners and a romantic comedy, as both a play and a film. In the tradition of a comedy of manners, this work deals with the faults and foibles of a highly sophisticated society as seen through their worldview. In similar fashion, romantic comedy focuses on the fragmentation, limitation, and regrets that result when male and female meet under the spell of the romantic moment. Private Lives fits this description.

Romantic Comedy is an intimate genre and does not call for a large cast. Amanda and Elyot, formerly married to one another, find themselves in adjacent hotel rooms while honeymooning with their new spouses, Victor and Sybil, respectively. The story takes place in the comedy of manners’ private sphere, beginning with the hotel rooms and balconies. In the play, the lovers run off together to Amanda’s Parisian flat. The movie takes them to a Swiss chalet. The romantic comedy structural component of the “first encounter” that Amanda and Elyot experience, proves to be hateful. There is a great deal of resentment left from their bitter parting:

Amanda: Whose yacht is that? Elyot: The Duke of Westminter’s I expect. It always is. Amanda: I wish I were on it. Elyot: I wish you were too.

After the silent film era, filmmakers wanted material that would make use of dialogue. In a comedy of manners, the emphasis is on the dialogue, rather than the action. The film therefore works wonderfully as a romantic comedy since it is in line with one of classical romantic comedy’s most fundamental conventions: repartee. The word play between the characters places them on equal intellectual ground, perfect territory for the battle of the sexes. Amanda and Elyot serve both as protagonist, and as antagonist to one another.

In addition to the fast, witty dialogue of the play, the film makes use of comic staging. For example, Amanda and Elyot seem to be sleeping alone together in a close two shot after the first night on the run. The camera then pans out to reveal that they are sleeping with a room full of people. In another example of this strategy, the wedding scene in the beginning stages laughing children behind the couple as they get married, such that the focus is not on the act of matrimony itself. This set-up foreshadows the tone.

Through the work, Coward invokes the tone of flippant seriousness. Flippancy towards the rest of the world is a theme that Elyot grasps to firmly as a personal mantra. “You mustn’t be serious my dear one,” he tells Amanda. “…it’s just what they want…All the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable. Laugh at them. Be flippant. Laugh at everything…Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light.”

Characters in comedy of manners are types. None of the four characters in this film are changed by the end. Although Victor and Sybil end the play arguing with one another, in a fashion similar to Amanda and Elyot, they nonetheless remain sensible, rather wooden archetypes. Amanda and Elyot likewise remain unchanged in their cycle of attraction and repulsion to one another.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Easy Virtue also has characteristics of the comedy of manners tradition as well as the romantic comedy. It too takes place in private parlors of the wealthy. While having her portrait painted, Larita Filton is almost seduced by the artist. Her drunken husband divorces her on the grounds of adultery, although she has done nothing wrong. ‘The attractive wife of a drunken husband alone all day with a man who loved her - the evidence looks conclusive to me,” reads the title card of the jury’s swift decision. Gender, love, sex, marriage, and adultery are common issues dealt with in a comedy of manners and scandal is a common device of the plot.

The perfunctory court hearing satirizes societies attitude towards woman. Her guilt, as a female is assumed. The court hearing begins with an extreme close up of the judges’ white wig. He slowly and dramatically raises his head until his eyes stormy eyes come into frame. His accusatory glare fills the screen in a representation of the oppressive patriarchy that determines Larita’s newly slandered identity as a women of “easy virtue.” The judge takes a dominant, centered position in the frame while Larita is slightly off-center. Close ups are used in this section to accentuate the passage of time and suspense, as well as the standoff between Larita and the questioning attorney. Larita and the attorney’s heads appear in profile against opposite sides of the screen. Because this is a silent film, the dialogue so important to romantic comedy and comedy of manners isn’t possible. So, the positioning of the characters in the frame takes on added significance.

Larita goes to the South of France to escape her reputation and prying photographers. There she meets and falls in love with a young man named John who asks for her hand in marriage, claiming that her past is unimportant. He takes her home to his family, where Larita finds rejection, especially from John’s mother. Larita stills seems unable to meet the standards of an exacting society and the mother succeeds in poisoning John against her. Again, we see the theme of a double standard. John’s mother claims to be a moral woman, yet she does the best she can to break up her son’s marriage.

The film seems to be more melodrama than romantic comedy. John offers no match for Larita in the sense of romantic comedy’s battle of the sexes; he is weak and immature, his mind easily molded by his mother. Additionally, the story of Larita’s relationship with the painter is told in flashback, a convention of melodrama. . Another convention of melodrama seen here is the repetition of objects. The camera is a symbol of society’s judgmental voyeurism and appears at both of Larita’s trials, as well as in the house. Society’s gaze through these camera sees Larita as an easy woman, a completely mistaken point of view as Larita’s actions prove her to be the most dignified character in the story. At one point in the story, Larita is seen ascending the stairs. The shot is wide and includes the family sitting in the parlor below the staircase. The staging speaks to Larita’s transcendence above this world.

Casper, Drew. Postwar Hollywood: 1946-1962. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Glitre, Kathrina. Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union, 1934-1965. United Kingdom: Manchester UP, 2006.

Film Romantic Comedy Hollywood History


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