Dry November: Day 17

November 17, 2018

I’m in the BFI bar, surrounded by booze. A family near me, or rather families, a gaggle, had gotten four pints for the price of two due to ineptitude behind the bar. As if by karma for their ungainly glee, one of their children has promptly knocked a full pint over. A British man on my other side is trying to convince Spaniards to drink. They seem like colleagues though it’s a Saturday afternoon.

I’ve just seen The Awful Truth (1937), in which they drink in every scene, sometimes falsely substituting ginger ale for sherry, at others using eggnog as a threat and nutmeg as a form of aggression, but above all, luxuriating in champagne. They drink it from coupes, as today’s flutes were not in vogue until the ’50s. As that article says, Napoleon is said to have said of champagne something like “In victory we deserve it; in defeat, we need it,” and in the film the couple’s first and final days are carbonated by it. It’s a film about infidelity and divorce, though it’s no Kramer vs. Kramer, and certainly no A Separation or Viaggio in Italia, it nonetheless has its moving moments. Much is the same today as it was eighty years ago, the suspicious minds, half-hearted breaks, petty hypocritical jealousies, though the frequency of unexpected visits is drastically higher than it is today, at least in my life, at least in London. That joke, so cliché in the film that it’s joked about, to quote the Smiths, isn’t funny anymore:

“Who’s that lady I saw you with?”

“That’s no lady, that’s my wife!”

The animal gags and typical screwball situational antics are consistently hilarious, and, though it loses momentum in its final third, it has aged remarkably well. Nor is it without its points of poignancy:

“You said, ‘Lend an ear, I implore you.

This comes from my heart: I’ll always adore you. Til death do us part…’ Remember?”

The biggest difference to films today, as audiences of the time would have been well aware, but which today provides only a puzzlingly long denouement, is the Hays Code, introduced in 1934, which is the reason why after midnight, when their marriage has officially ended, there’s all this tension over whether they will get in bed—the code made it illegal for unmarried men and women to appear in the same bed. It is also possible that the bizarre clock with the human puppets, presumably filmed on an enormous purpose-built cuckoo clock, also appears in The Clock—though I can’t be sure of this.

Last night the dinner party was a pleasure, with great conversation. My abstention from the plentiful wine posed no problem, once again once we’d settled in. At 2am we were still speaking, to the chagrin of my exhausted partner (and possibly our gracious hosts). In the Uber home, she compared me to the Energizer Bunny; apparently alcohol is not the only fuel for my incessant speech, cannot be solely culpable.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.