Reading Note:
Dawn Powell and the Smiths
25 April 2019

I’ve been reading Dawn Powell this week, and for the first time since I discovered her thirty years ago I am doing so without wondering when she is going to catch on with the reading public, when everyone is going to recognize her as a great American novelist. The “great” has always seemed at least slightly in doubt; the books that I know are somewhat clouded by Powell’s inability (or unwillingness) to resolve the conflicts in her prose between satire and “literature.” In that, she is very American — important books shouldn’t try to make you laugh (unless they’re by Mark Twain, who by the way never makes me laugh). And yet her way of being American is wholly at odds with being “American.” She has a way of suggesting, in a very unladylike way, that America is a crock.

Also for the first time, I was wondering if Dawn Powell is funny. Sure, she makes me laugh — she is a born wisecracker. But the laughs can be widely spaced, and they can be triggered by passages that, as to both tone and topic, are less than seamlessly joined to the stories in which they are lodged. In Turn, Magic Wheel, for example, Johnson, the junior partner at the publishing firm, McTweed & Co, is the star of a sort of isocolonic burlesque that has nothing prosodically to do with the rest of the novel. Johnson is desperately but unsuccessfully trying to distinguish himself from all the other “And Companys,” Ivy League grads just like himself with “agreeable deep voices left over from old Glee Clubs.”

He tried to break away from this insidious chain. He married a chorus girl, instead of a Bryn Mawr girl, a very pretty one from Face the Music. But all the other And Companys that year had married chorus girls from Face the Music and furthermore, like Mrs Johnson, the girls were all private-school products and all wrote an occasional poem for F.P.A. or the weekly magazines, dealing with the curious effect nature had upon them and how, in sum, it made them feel alone. 

Powell goes on to work this topsy-turvy rhetoric to a very high pitch. It is the purest, most refreshing water — to the oil of Turn‘s major concern, Effie Callingham’s immolation in abandonment, to which it adds the faintly undercutting wink of a melodrama by Edward Gorey. If it weren’t such a riot, the “And Company” bit would be the most abject filler. 

Worse, Powell lets many of her hilarious setups lead to situations that are not amusing at all but just plain mortifying. And I do mean mortifying for the reader. When staid Mary Donovan, in Angels on Toast, greets her husband at the door by writhing out of her clothes and imploring him to teach her the hoochy-coochy, which, she now knows, is more to his taste than her kind of waltz, we earnestly avert our eyes — too much information! And, perhaps because Angels begins on a Pennsylvania Rail Road express train from Chicago to New York — a beloved type of setting for comedy in the Thirties and Forties — it occurred to me that the notorious Production Code protected us not just from adult sexuality but from the laughter-killing embarrassment that so often accompanies it. For all the occasional resemblances — Powell was a well-paid Hollywood scriptwriter for a while, and her settings all seem borrowed from RKO’s art director, Van Nest Polglase — Angels on Toast is too gritty, too heavier-than-air to be mistaken for a screwball comedy. It’s just not fun

I tried to think of a movie that also dons the wings of screwball, only to plunge into the drink, and there it was: the film made by Alfred Hitchcock as a favor to his good friend, Carole Lombard: Mr & Mrs Smith

Nobody likes Mr & Mrs Smith. Hitchcock fans are annoyed because its chirpy score and want of corpses mislead them into the erroneous conclusion that it is not like other Hitchcock movies. Screwball fans dislike it for reasons that I have already suggested: it is really rather unpleasant for a comedy. Almost everything curdles. Consider the nightclub scene, and compare it to the nightclub scene in that purest of screwballs, The Awful Truth. (Both clubs are even named after states!) At the Virginia Club, Lucy Warriner and her new beau walk in on Jerry Warriner and his new — floozy. The floozy sings a sappy song with a vulgar “wind effect.” It ought to be very embarrassing, and it is, but only for the characters, from whom Leo McCarey separates us with the most adamantine Bergsonian circle. Nothing about them excites our sympathy. If Lucy Warriner gets bored, she can always go to Tulsa — a line made quite unaccountably funny by Cary Grant — and when we see that Lucy shares the judgment cloaked by Jerry’s crack, we don’t feel sorry for her; we think what an idiot she is to seek happiness in the arms of Daniel Leeson. 

At the Florida Club, the floozies are not delicate Southern Belles but lamé-clad truckdrivers. They are gross, and we are repelled. Instead of fooling around for the nonce, David Smith can’t wait to quit their company. The one bit of fun turns ugly. To impress his erstwhile wife, Ann, who is sitting with somebody else at a nearby table, David mimes a conversation with the woman to his left, a lady not of his party. She is a gorgeous, mystically transfixed blonde with a sausage-curl pompadour just so, and David should be so lucky. When the woman suddenly realizes what David is doing, she alerts her boyfriend, a pug whose first response is to envision knocking David’s block off. To extract himself from the general imbroglio, David gives himself a nosebleed, with a saltceller wrapped in a napkin. Instead of being allowed to leave, he is stretched out unceremoniously on a bench of chairs; his “date” knows how to deal with nosebleeds. “Cut my throat,” he begs. The blonde’s boyfriend smugly remarks that he knew something like this would happen. 

To underline how not funny all of this is, Hitchcock packs the set with double the lawful occupancy. Nobody, fancy dress notwithstanding, can make a move without pushing someone else. The dance floor is even worse. From the moment David is led to his table by a maitre d’ who looks like he could use a machete, the Florida Club is crossed off our list of silver-screen destinations. 

Angels on Toast and Mr & Mrs Smith don’t really have much in common — maybe nothing. Like all of his films, Hitchcock’s screwball is straightforward and devoid of diversions. More than most examples of its genre, the story seems to be controlled, once the premise is laid out, by nothing more complicated than gravity. It seems inevitable that Ann and Jeff should go — from the Florida Club! — to the World’s Fair, only to get stuck in the rain on the parachute jump. Not just gravity but causation itself contributes little to the resolution of Angels on Toast. Its almost arbitrary ending is saved from total ambiguity only by a very funny line, almost as good in its way as “Nobody’s perfect.” Both works, however, illustrate the perils of going against the grain without developing an altogether new grain. They will always have admirers, but not very many.

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