The Sunday Intertitle: Wodehouse Playhouse

No sooner had I finished turning one of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s literary intertitles into an actual graphic, than I stumble upon another story with an intertitle in it, this time PG Wodehouse’s Pigs Have Wings (a Blandings novel). The relevant bit goes —

If she had appeared, looking as she was looking now, in one of the old silent films, there would have flashed on the screen some such caption as:

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The missing comma that makes the second sentence read very awkwardly, is of course deliberate satire. It’s 1952 and he’s making fun of silent movie title writers. One of the remarkable things about Wodehouse is that his failure, or refusal, to move with the times does not harm his work, or hardly at all. No doubt facilitated by the fact that he never returned to England after WWII, he went on writing a world that never advanced socially from the 1930s, and indeed has much of the early 1900s about it. But because his particular comic universe simply had to be insulated from the darker things in life anyway (other comics thrive on darkness: Wodehouse can only use the tiniest grain of it), this time-capsule effect isn’t a problem at all, except when some glancing reference to modern events creeps in. When Roderick Spode, Wodehouse’s devastating parody of fascist Oswald Mosely, returns in the very last Jeeves & Wooster book, there’s some mental confusion created in the reader about when this is all happening — it can’t be 1974, when the book was published, but when is it? Spode has given up on fascism some time back, it seems, but WWII is not mentioned — it simply couldn’t be (WWII was a painful subject for poor Plum).

Wodehouse engaged with the cinema quite a bit, or tried to, but apart from the excellent A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, co-scripted by him from one of his own books, little of his work has really succeeded on the screen. This is odd, since filmmakers have been trying since 1915. Wodehouse had success on the stage; his dialogue is exquisite, if protracted (Hollywood tried to get him to cut it down, which rather ruins the effect, since circumlocution and repetition are such major tools in his comic armoury); his plots are ingenious; and he had a handy sideline as lyricist, though the movies didn’t exploit that much either, apart from the sublime song Bill appearing in all three versions of SHOWBOAT.

Piccadilly Jim, Wodehouse’s first big bestseller, was first adapted in 1919, and again in 2005. I had a look at the 1936 version. It keeps the characters and throws out the whole story. Well, arguably the story is a bit too convoluted, and has some tricky backstory coming in from a previous novel. Charles Brackett had a hand in the new plot, and dialogue is courtesy of Samuel Hoffenstein (of the very mildly Wodehouseian country house comedy CLUNY BROWN) and Lynn Starling (ditto HE MARRIED HIS WIFE). Robert Montgomery and Frank Morgan are well cast.

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So why does it seem so strained and unfunny? Precisely the quality that a Wodehouse piece has got to not have. I think it’s because they’re trying to write funny dialogue for the characters. Witty dialogue. This is a fairly major misunderstanding of Wodehouse, whose characters are rarely witty on purpose. Like the best comic characters, they’re funny in spite of themselves, just by being so openly and helplessly themselves. When the Jim of the novel asks for a job, he doesn’t get laughs intentionally, but by stressing how he really doesn’t mind what he does as long as it isn’t work. Work would be a waste of his talents. But he’s sunnily certain he’ll be a great success in any position which doesn’t require him to exert himself.

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Glancing through Between Flops, James Curtis’s biography of Preston Sturges, I was pleased to find Sturges, in a letter, expressing supreme admiration for Wodehouse. And it occurred to me that THE PALM BEACH STORY is a Wodehouse type of story, filtered through the brasher Sturges sensibility. It’s a comedy about the deserving poor trying to get into the pockets of the frivolous rich, by various impostures and lies.

Then I read Wodehouse’s Uncle Dynamite (Uncle Fred may be mu favourite Wodehouse character: too bad he’s in so few stories), and it seemed to me that the influence worked both ways. The novel, written in 1948, opens with a young man on a train being embarrassed by an impromptu welcoming committee waiting for him at the platform — a situation Sturges introduced in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO. And the young man is just back from a trip up the Amazon, like Henry Fonda in THE LADY EVE.

Did Wodehouse borrow lightly from Sturges on this occasion? It would be nice to think so, and certainly Sturges would have been flattered.

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18 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Wodehouse Playhouse”

  1. Arthur Treacher appeared twice as Jeeves in two 1930s movie adaptations, Thank You Jeeves!, which kept the novel’s basic premise but then turned it into a lame spy story, and Step Lively Jeeves, which not only did away with Jeeves’ god-like persona (turning him into an easily duped character), but did away with Bertie altogether (what the filmmakers didn’t understand is that the humor comes via Bertie). The Jeeves/Bertie adaptation I’m most curious to see are the early 1960s TV shows with Ian Carmichael as Bertie and Dennis Price as Jeeves; as far as I know, they haven’t been presented on DVD.

  2. There’s plenty of that series on YouTube. My verdict: Price is great, Carmichael is terrible, despite the fact that as a younger man he could have embodied Wooster splendidly. Here he gives it the monocle and it’s terribly overdone. He makes Bertie an arrogant toff.

  3. Dennis Price was virtually a Wodehouse character, albeit with more tragic overtones than PG included in his works. Upon being called up in the Army in 1940 he took six pairs of silk pajamas with him to wear under his uniform as he worried that it may be too rough. When he was revived after attempting to gas himself in the 1950s his first words to the doctor were “What glory Price?”

  4. simon kane Says:

    I loved that series, and adored Laurie’s Wooster, but Fry never struck me as quite inscrutable enough. Actually, now we don’t have poshoes playing everyone willy nilly I’d love to see a cockney Jeeves (like RAF pilots, we tend to think of butlers sounding like the RP actors who played them) or failing that, Mark Strong.

  5. It’s a hard role to play. Jeeves is, after all, God.

  6. He’s a total deus ex machina, yes.

    Love the Price stories!

    Jack Nicholson refers to Philip Stone as “Jeevesy” in The Shining and I always had a desire to see Stone in the role. That coldness he displays so well would be a change, but I think the part could stand it.

    Having just watched a doc on Michael Crawford, I can see him managing a good Wooster in his youth (Bertie is often played too old, it seems to me). A cockney Jeeves is an idea, but Wodehouse’s dialogue is clearly not written that way: when he writes cockneys, they’re very specific and quite credible, and you KNOW he’s doing it.

    Need someone whose brain bulges out at the back. Stone’s did it at the front, which is part of why I think of him.

    Anthony Hopkins has a big head…

  7. The two Jeeves movies are trivial Bs, but the DVD release included some meaty background material. A haunting comment from one of the Wodehousians interviewed: In real life, nearly all the Bertie Woosters died in WWI trenches. So Wodehouse was writing about a lost world as early as the 20s.

    Popular culture is full of such worlds. Sometimes they’re recognized as lost (America’s old west or Sherlockian London). Other times they’re stubbornly put forth as somehow current (small-town America and “high society”). In either case, they’re heavily mythologized. Why the mythology is occasionally recognized as such, too often these lost worlds are held up as real history we should aspire to now.

  8. In ‘Performing Flea’, a volume of Wodehouse’s letters to an old schoolfriend over a period of 30 years, he describes his experiences while on the payroll at MGM. It seems he caused a furore by telling a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that his one regret was “he had been paid such an enormous sum of money without having done anything to earn it.” Which apparently stirred the Hollywood financiers into some drastic action.

    Naivety seems to have caused PG considerable trouble throughout his life.

  9. Saki’s stories are set in a similar milieu to Wodehouse, but his young man are more Wildean. Saki (Hector Hugh Monro) was one of those who perished in The Great War.

    Wodehouse was confidently predicting that there would be no WWII well into 1939. Not a political thinker.

  10. Shortly after his arrival in Hollywood, Herman J. Mankiewicz sent a telegram to Ben Hecht in New York: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

  11. I ran into one of the Carmichael/Price TV episodes, and it stopped me cold as soon as I realized it has Bertie wanting to get married. What were they thinking? Matrimony was the one thing he avoided throughout. The rest of the episode was pretty faithful to the short stories from which it was adapted.

  12. mndean: Wodehousian men were highly susceptible, if only temporarily. They’d quickly apply themselves to engineering an escape, or the ladies in question would sensibly reject them before that became necessary.

  13. Aren’t there one of two Woosters where he falls temporarily under the spell of some popsy and Jeeves has to straighten him out? But yes, in a normal frame of mind he regards marriage with horror.

    The Wodehouse interview revealed that studios were throwing money at writers in the middle of the depression. It prompted some economy measures and didn’t help Plum’s popularity with other screenwriters…

  14. I do remember a couple fairly early on, though I mostly remember Jeeves helping extricate some of Bertie’s friends from their supposed mismatches. I don’t remember Bertie ever proposing.

  15. I have a half-memory that he did, but I don’t recall the circs. My far bigger problem is a middle-aged man in a monocle playing Bertie. Fry & Laurie introduced the idea of Jeeves as Bertie’s contemporary, which is perfectly fair enough. Jeeves can be older or young, it doesn’t matter too much.

  16. I had a problem with Ian C as well, he’s 15-20 years too old for it. The episode I found was not bad, really, but it was all there was at YouTube yesterday. Whatever others there were must have been removed.

    I think I remember one short story where Bertie was infatuated with a commercial artist, but that’s all I can remember now.

  17. Pretty quickly the idea of him as eternal bachelor took hold, and Jeeves’ function becomes to keep him that way. I certainly agree that in adapting the stories it’d probably be best to focus on the ones that follow that clearly established pattern.

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