Howard Hawks’s 1938 screwball comedy is being shown in a film and lecture series called “Gender & Sexual Ambiguity in the Hollywood Film,” and one could carp about film scholars’ typically myopic infatuation with Hollywood when the rich tradition of avant-garde filmmaking really has engaged such topics. The absurdly frilly bathrobe that paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) wears as he announces he’s “just gone gay”–thought by some to be the first use of the word to mean homosexual in popular culture–is evidence enough that all is not straight here. But this is hardly queer cinema either. Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) virtually kidnaps David, “the only man I’ve ever loved,” employing various ruses to prevent him from leaving, and this nutty love story is full of veiled allusions not to gay sex but to heterosexual rear-entry intercourse. In one scene the ripped rear of Susan’s gown causes her to walk with her back pressed against David, and in a weird night image the couple creeps about on all fours–one of many references to dogs. But his hilariously funny and genuinely great film should not be seen mainly in terms of current interest in sex and gender. Hawks’s images–never formalist and never pretty–flow beautifully out of the characters’ gestures and movements; foreground and background, light and dark often seem to collide, visually mirroring the narrative’s tensions. Hawks’s humor is a matter of subtle timing, achieved through fast-paced dialogue and editing that responds organically to character movements. But humor also functions to unsettle the characters’ expectations, keeping them perpetually off balance. When Susan drives away early in the film with a surprised David on her running board, we are swept off our feet along with him into a sustained near hysteria that, mostly emanating from Susan, makes it hard not to love her. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, March 5, 6:00, 443-3737. –Fred Camper
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.