Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing. Having recently gone bananas for Preston Sturges, and also having tackled much of the AFI 100 Years, 100 Laughs list, I’ve been dusting off a lot of Coen brother films and giving them another go. They’re really fascinating to watch within the context of knowing how derivative they are of Sturges and other classic Hollywood comedies. Today’s re-watch focuses on The Hudsucker Proxy.
Editor’s Note: I realize I’ve been going a bit Coen-heavy lately. While there’s been a context to it, and an enthusiasm about discovering their roots, I promise I’ll put them away for a little while after this article.
The First Viewing
My initial viewing of Hudsucker came, oddly enough, during a political science course during my freshman year of college. It just happened to be the same year that the film was released. My professor was a bit of a scatter-brained individual. He was a nice enough guy but he was a lousy teacher. And that’s why now, nearly 18 years later, I couldn’t begin to tell you why the hell he made us watch Hudsucker for an intro political science course. My hunch is that it had something to do with the endless possibilities of free-market capitalism–the professor was a staunch right winger–but I honestly am not sure. If that was his intention, I can say that it backfired for me. I loved the movie, but only because the ruthlessness of those at the top of Hudsucker Industries spoke to the grouchy white liberal inside of me. I loved that the Coens were presenting the wealthy in entertaining, hilarious, and yet nefarious ways. Of course, I didn’t KNOW that it was a Coen brothers film at the time. The only one I’d seen before then was 10 minutes of Raising Arizona when I was 11 years old (that’s a story for another time). As far as I knew, it was just a movie, and an entertaining one to boot. I thought the humor was fresh and it was hard not to giggle at the doltish nature of Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins).
It was one of my favorite Coen films for a long time, if for no other reason than it had been my first. And the liberal overtones spoke to me. The satire of late 1950s America cracked me up. Whenever it was on, I’d make it a point to watch at least a few minutes, although I hadn’t re-watched it in its entirety until just the other day. It has since been replaced by several Coen films as my favorite, though it will always have a soft spot in my heart.
Clearly, in 18 years, my focus in watching Hudsucker had shifted. The angry young liberal that I used to be has been replaced by… well, a less angry, older liberal, far less interested in flaunting the fact. Rather than it being a failed educational attempt by a political science professor, this time I was watching it in the hope of putting it into the context of film history. What I nearly glossed over by watching it in that frame of mind is that it still holds up as a damn fine film. It’s still loaded with humor, and it has all of the classic Coen tropes. Having re-watched it, it didn’t rocket back to the top of my favorite Coen films. But I do feel justified in keeping it around 5th or 6th (with the caveat that I said ‘favorite’, not ‘best’).
There were two scenes that I’d completely forgotten about, and I gained a new appreciation for them. The first was the hula hoop montage. It illustrates just how razor-thin Norville’s success had been. It also possesses a delightful visual and conceptual economy, pairing only a flurry of bite-sized clips with Carter Burwell’s score to take Norville from failure to success, all with a dash of humor:
The second scene was the fight scene at the end between Hudsucker Industry’s two maintenance men, the evil Aloysisus and the saintly Moses. There’s nothing particularly amazing about it. I was simply struck that only the Coens could have two elderly maintenance men, each seemingly biblical, having a broom-infused duel for the soul of one of their characters. It’s a pretty damned funny concept when you cut to the heart of the scene.
As for the the reason I re-watched it–tracking classic Hollywood comedies, notably Preston Sturges’ comedies–there are a plethora of influences. For instance…
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944): The male lead in both films is named Norville (spelled ‘Norval’ in Morgan’s Creek). Both Norvilles are bumbling buffoons with a heart of gold. There’s also a throw-away reference to the name “Ignatz” in Hudsucker, which was the fake name that Norval came up with for himself in Morgan’s Creek.
His Girl Friday (1940): Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) plays a fast-talking female journalist willing to do anything to get her story. This is a nod, at least partially, to Rosalind Russell’s portrayal of Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday. Of course, it’s also a reference to…
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936): Frank Capra’s classic also featured a female journalist willing to do anything to get her story. And in this case, it’s an even more direct reference, as Deeds’ Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) tricks the male protagonist into revealing his own corny, small-town morality, just as Amy Archer does in Hudsucker. That plot point in itself ties the two films together. Each film possesses a small-town male lead who becomes rich, and whose naïveté is exploited by wealthy captains of industry. It’s also a reference to Christmas in July (more on that in a second). Additionally, both Deeds and Hudsucker contain scenes in which a clichéd psychiatrist with a German-Austrian accent tears the protagonist down (using charts) before determining that they’re manic-depressive, and thus no longer fit to handle their fiscal fortune.
Christmas in July (1940): Preston Sturges’ lesser-known film features a protagonist with an idea that everyone else thinks is crazy, and he rides it to the top. For Jimmy (Dick Powell) in Christmas in July, it’s a ridiculous and illogical advertising slogan for a coffee company. For Norville Barnes, it’s a circular coffee stain on a piece of paper. You know, for kids.
And as much as anything else, Sturges’ calling card- rapid-fire one-liners, each overlapping the other- is present throughout the Coens’ homage.
It’s really fascinating to me to break a movie like The Hudsucker Proxy down and build it back up again using these classic films. It’s clearly not necessary to enjoy the movie, as I enjoyed Hudsucker a great deal the first time I saw it with no knowledge of any of these other films. It’s simply an extra layer that added to my enjoyment.