Screen Couple Chemistry

[ Film and Media Studies ]

Screen Couple Chemistry

The Power of 2

By Martha P. Nochimson

An examination of what sets the synergistic couple apart from other onscreen pairings, plus extended discussions of four enduring screen couples--Maureen O'Sullivan/Johnny Weissmuller, Myrna Loy/William Powell, Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers, and Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy.

2002

$37.00$24.79

33% website discount price

This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.

Paperback

6 x 9 | 408 pp. | 21 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-75579-6

Astaire and Rogers, Tracy and Hepburn. Just the mention of their names evokes the powerful chemistry between these screen couples, which utterly transcended the often formulaic films in which they appeared together. Indeed, watching the synergistic flow of energy between charismatic screen partners is one of the great pleasures of cinema and television, as well as an important vehicle for thinking through issues of intimacy and gender relations.

In this book, Martha P. Nochimson engages in a groundbreaking study of screen couple chemistry. She begins by classifying various types of couples to define what sets the synergistic couple apart from other onscreen pairings. Then she moves into extended discussions of four enduring screen couples—Maureen O'Sullivan/Johnny Weissmuller, Myrna Loy/William Powell, Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers, and Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy. Using theories of neuroscience, she demonstrates that their onscreen chemistry is a very real phenomenon, powerful enough to subvert conventional formulations of male/female relations. Material she has uncovered in the infamous Production Code Administration files illuminates the historical context of her contentions. Finally, Nochimson traces the screen couple to its present-day incarnation in such pairs as Woody Allen/Diane Keaton, Scully/Mulder of The X-Files, and Cliff/Claire Huxtable of The Cosby Show.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One. An Introduction to the Importance of Couple Chemistry under the Studio System
  • Chapter Two. Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan: Tarzan and Jane
  • Chapter Three. Myrna Loy and William Powell: The Thin Man Takes a Couple
  • Chapter Four. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Music Makes Me
  • Chapter Five. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy: Much Ado about "the Little Woman"
  • Chapter Six. The Post-Studio Synergistic Couple: The Thin Aliens
  • Chapter Seven. The Thematic Couple: A Post-Studio Innovation
  • Appendix One. Fred, Ginger, and RKO
  • Appendix Two. Theorizing Chemistry in Entertainment via Neuroscience
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Browse the book with Google Preview »

What do the four following lines of dialogue have in common?

  1. "(Scream) Don't let me go: hold on to me." Tarzan the Ape Man (1932, Dir. W. S. Van Dyke)
  2. "Boys, boys and girls, and you too Honey." Flying Down to Rio (1933, Dir. Thorton Freeland)
  3. "Pardon me if I seem to intrude." Manhattan Melodrama (1934, Dir. W. S. Van Dyke)
  4. "Yes, yes, in a belligerent sort of way." Woman of the Year (1942, Dir. George Stevens)

Quite a lot. Each is the first line of dialogue exchanged between an onscreen couple that proceeded to knit itself into the public imagination as a fundamental part of the cultural capacity to imagine both erotic intimacy and human connection. Each of the above quoted lines of dialogue resonated far beyond its filmic moment, or even the film in which it appeared. In each case, a partnership was generated that took on a life of its own, beyond the plans of the individual actors, the creative teams that made the movie, and even the studios that theoretically controlled all the materials and personnel concerned. The disparate tones, contents, and resonances of the lines are indicative of the divergent destinies that governed the making of the series of films that ensued. However, in each case, screen chemistry was the catalyst, and in each case screen chemistry resulted in a partnership that was much more than the sum of its parts.

The first line of dialogue, spoken by Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane to Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, is little more than a cliche of the exotic action picture genre, a stereotypical female call to a strong male for protection, but it masked the gender-bending, generally unconventional, and purely serendipitous Tarzan series that would ensue. Somewhat more predictive, the second line, spoken by Fred Astaire as Fred Ayres to Ginger Rogers as Honey Hale—separating Honey out from the "boys and girls," playfully leaves her in gender limbo. This line suggests the ludic strangeness that would make RKO all but bludgeon the reluctant pair into their nine-picture partnership under its auspices, not counting the last picture they made together ten years later, once again because studio pressure, this time from MGM, made it a reality.

The third line is spoken by Myrna Loy as Eleanor Packer to William Powell as Jim Wade, as she, a perfect stranger, flings herself into the backseat of a taxicab with him. This line is still more prefigurative, tinged with the arch couple humor invented for the screen by these two highly harmonious actors, who contentedly collaborated with MGM's plans for their repeated pairing, after they recovered from the surprise of their amazing compatibility, a surprise quite similar to Eleanor's sudden eruption into Jim's life. Finally, the last line is spoken by Spencer Tracy as Sam Craig while looking at Katharine Hepburn as Tess Harding, responding to a question by a third party inquiring whether the two had met. This line prefigures quite vividly the combative attraction that Hepburn and Tracy would themselves consciously cultivate in nine films, while a bemused MGM hierarchy gave them their lead. However belligerent or intrusive, willing or unwilling, the merged energies of these acting pairs inspired the creative teams around them toward onscreen ironies and even luminous challenges to conventional filmic representations of love, courtship, and marriage that elevated often pedestrian scripts to unconventional eloquence. These four couples combined the unexpected with the immense popularity usually reserved for predictable cliches in the mass media as the hallmark of their special kind of Hollywood pairing, widely acclaimed both in its own time and now, here called the Synergistic Couple.

The Synergistic Couple, with its vortex of wild forces, is a natural outcome of the American mass media insofar as it has made its enigmatic, major creative contributions by what might seem to be its greatest limitation, the triumph of energy over craft, a situation that deserves a closer look. The craft of the popular has always been dazzlingly effective at distraction, or escapism as it is generally called, but limited in its capacity for expression about the human condition. By contrast, the raging energy released by Hollywood has, under certain conditions, become a distinctive vehicle of expression. The chemistry of the onscreen media couple is one important aspect of commercial filmmaking that can create those special conditions through which the torrents of popular culture energy are channeled as a form of intelligent communication. The energy circulating between certain acting pairs, their chemistry, can become a singular mode of contemplating intimacy, its mysterious fusion of two into a manifold one, that terrible and wonderful sliding of individual boundaries. How to deal with this kind of connection that often grabs us without permission and leaves us confused about where self ends and the beloved begins? How to deal with its vertiginous pleasures that, as the song says, make us forget the "ordinary things that everyone ought to do" and thereby may make us run up against established cultural values and priorities? The wordless chemistry of onscreen couples, widely recognized as a source of pleasure and even seduction, is also surprisingly effective at enabling Hollywood to say much on the subject. This is particularly true of the Synergistic Couple, the kind of movie couple that this study will distinguish as the most dangerous, fascinatingly powerful type of couple in commercial, mass media film.

The energy of the onscreen couple, which becomes at its most intense a form of synergy between two actors, has been relatively easy to recognize, but difficult to discuss, if only because of the abundance of acting pairs to consider. The Hollywood studio era of the 1930s and 1940s produced a fairly large number of screen couples, and audiences immediately reacted. The post-studio media have produced a much smaller group, but still substantial in number, and these too have commanded powerful audience response. Audiences have room for spontaneous engagement with a virtually infinite number of such experiences, but critical exploration into the fascination of the screen couple requires selection and some sorely needed distinctions, to be made in these pages. Among the best and worst cases of what Hollywood screen couples have told us about our need for intimacy will be represented of necessity by a chosen group of captivating acting pairs.

The most focused attention will be given to the quartet of onscreen acting teams evoked above in their introductory exclamations: Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane; William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles; Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; and Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Our travels will begin and linger with them, and their contrasts with other onscreen acting teams of their day that were neither as enduring nor as complex in their depiction of love and emotional closeness. Ultimately, we will also hazard the terrain of the contemporary media. To speculate about what post-studio era screen couples have inherited from the great screen couple traditions, we will look at the work of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton; Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman; and the character pairings of Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) on The X-Files, Luke (Tony Geary) and Laura (Genie Francis) on General Hospital, Maddie (Cybill Shepherd) and David (Bruce Willis) on Moonlighting, and Cliff (Bill Cosby) and Claire (Phylicia Rashad) Huxtable on The Cosby Show. The beauty and danger of the four screen couples from Classic Hollywood on which this study will initially—and primarily—focus spans the spectrum of the kinds of films produced in Old Hollywood: comedy, musical, melodrama, mystery, and exotic action adventure. It also spans the length of the heyday of the studio system. Weissmuller and O'Sullivan worked together from 1932 to 1942. Powell and Loy worked together from 1934 to 1947. Astaire and Rogers worked together from 1934 to 1939 and then again in 1949. Finally, Tracy and Hepburn worked together from 1942 to 1967. These discussions will provide a basis for exploring today's media screen couples.

Each of these couples was bigger than the films they made together, the beauty of their several rapports seeming to break free from the constraints of any particular story, the relationship itself becoming a freestanding energy vortex. Their too great impact on moviegoer sensibilities imperiled the public's social grounding in reality, often blurring the boundaries between actuality and illusion, as in some part of the audience's mind the real personhood of the actors slipped into the identities of the onscreen lovers, and chemistry slipped into history. The public imagined the screen couples as offscreen intimates, without actually marking the place where slippage had taken place. Today, removed from the white-hot glare of momentary celebrity into abiding cultural significance, their transcendence no longer disorients our historical sense of the real. All the purely sociological motives offered by critics that explain audience interest in their charisma as escapism—relief from particular political and economic conditions, the influence of marketing pressures—exhausted themselves as the films left their immediate circumstances. In the long run, we know them to be seminal imaginative experiences. If moviegoers long ago used these couple fantasies primarily as trivial distractions, that is not the full extent of their import. They are a cultural legacy of how we thought (and think?) about desire and love. Their enduring strength is a phenomenon that is ripe for contemplation in terms of meaning.

The Great Couple Tradition

Studying these four couples affords many opportunities for renewed appreciation of their achievements, and it affords clarity about the nature of their difference from the large number of insignificant screen couples produced in Old Hollywood. Close scrutiny also promotes understanding of how they built a foundation for those impressive and expressive screen couples of today that similarly generate audience loyalty, exhilaration, and sometimes outright frenzy. This appreciation and clarity, however, will depend on the evolution of a precise definition of the screen couple—an amorphous category that is due and overdue for rigorous articulation—and on the articulation of a historical perspective on the way the great couple tradition developed in commercial entertainment. For the purposes of this articulation, a significant distinction will be made between screen couples that bear narrative and psychological weight and those that are trivialized. Movies and television shows dominated by action relegate the couple relationship to a few strategically placed scenes, and cannot be said to contain a screen couple in any important sense, but rather to feature a shorthand for romance that adds color or sizzle. The screen couple of the weighty type, by contrast, is the kind that is of interest to this study. The first crucial characteristic to be discerned about this kind of significant popcult, onscreen pair is that it is not a perfunctory narrative element but rather depicts an intimate relationship that is the central dynamic of the movie or television show. Its nuances are as crucial to the storytelling as the outcome of any action in which the characters may be involved.

Weight and importance in screen couples will also be distinguished in terms of the heft of repeated collaborations of specific actors who together spark chemistry. The media have for a long time featured co-stars who work together numerous times as the narrative and psychological core of a series of movies or a television series. Ostensibly, there is little more to this couple phenomenon than its commercial value as a box office attraction. However, the importance of this kind of repetition is not only economic; in fact their commercial success is, from a long-range perspective, the least interesting feature of such a professional association. This study will distinguish the capacity of some acting pairs to create a body of work for the media that, because of their synergy, establishes in its totality a comprehensive, dimensional portrait of intimacy for mass audiences. The result of these ensemble images of connection is a widely accessible, extended, and sometimes surprisingly cogent meditation on the relationship between the couple bond and social pressures.

The chosen quartet of "golden age" screen pairs have this weight and heft, and although they might not include everyone's favorite choices, they will be universally recognized as prime examples of those screen couples from Old Hollywood whose repeated work together articulated a multifaceted fantasy universe in which the various couples they played reflect off each other to create a nuanced portrait of passionate connection as one single movie could never do. That is, there is an intertextual Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers universe made up of their many performances together that forms a multi-perspectival portal for mass audiences into a complex understanding of love, courtship, and the human capacity for bonding. The same is true of the movies made by Weissmuller/O'Sullivan, Loy/Powell, and Tracy/Hepburn. As exemplars of the most intense portrayal of the couple in the mass media, they are useful and revealing about the great tradition of the screen couple as an ongoing and widespread industry phenomenon.

The present examination of their films and the production conditions that brought them together will show how the significant screen couple—including its descendant the television couple—differs from more trivialized couple representations, even though both types emerged from the same economic and cultural roots. Historically, both significant and trivial onscreen pairs evolved as an efficient and cost-effective business practice. In an industry organized into studios, the deployment of contract actors as couples to attract audiences was economically feasible and rewarding. At the same time, the historical development of all onscreen romantic pairs was also a matter of storytelling practice: audiences were generally unsatisfied unless the joinings and separations of couples punctuated the plot conflict in some respect. In fact, as David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson have estimated in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, between 85 and 95 percent of mass culture movies before 1960 contained a significant romance element. Most of these were perfunctory screen pairs, which I will classify as the Functional Couple, the most trivial kind of screen couple, which fulfills only the minimum economic and narrative functions. This kind of screen pair will hover in the background of this study, forming the mass of duo presences whose contrast to the chosen quartet of couples from the studio era, and a selection of couples from the post-studio era that will be discussed at the end of the study, establishes the richly nuanced qualities of the latter. The screen couple, in its most significant form, has a significance beyond business and basic narrative issues. It is about the way we process information about eroticism and intimacy. That process is not divorced from business and narrative issues, but is in its fundamental identity a matter of the energy by which the intertextual world of the significant popular culture couple is created, star chemistry. Star chemistry is crucial to our understanding of the major issues surrounding the weighty onscreen couple: the star system, the slippage between art and life, and the conflict between image and story text in cinema.

Star couple chemistry is the primary element that separates the trivial from the weighty screen couple and that determines the potential for films about couples to establish meaning. It is a troublesome fascination that in the short run beguiles us. But certain manifestations of couple chemistry also have an interesting, often happy, astringent quality. Star chemistry can be manipulative, burying the audience in escapist illusions about love. Yet it can also work in the reverse way. It can liberate the film from the illusions otherwise fostered by the kind of simplistic plot favored by the commercial film industry under the studio system.

A very early development of mass movie culture in Hollywood was its emphasis on plot over image as the primary structure of the movie, despite the visual nature of cinema. This emphasis on plot remains with us today. Critics and audiences overwhelmingly talk about the meaning of a film in terms of its story. Easy absorption of simple plots was and is more consumer-friendly than a complex modernist formation of narrative out of the juxtaposition of images. Any attempt to establish meaning for mass audiences through visually based narrative, typical of avant-garde and artistic cinema, appeared (and still appears) to threaten them with confusion. However, another early commercial film interest, the star image, reasserted and still reasserts the power of the visual for mass audiences. Mass audiences are not threatened by star images, which reduce story to second place behind the attractions of the star, as attention shifts to the glance of an eye, the turn of a head, an expression, and away from the logic of the plot, which can go to hell in the process. For this reason, the pleasure of the star image is generally assumed to work against meaning in a film. However, the power of the visual reasserted by star chemistry can sometimes work not against meaning but against the reductiveness of the typical mass culture story, particularly when the core of the film deals with intimacy.

When an onscreen couple generates powerful energy and boosts the image to prominence as a structural element in the film, chemistry becomes an important part of storytelling, a phenomenon about which serious study of popular culture has been silent, primarily because chemistry is a part of Hollywood history that film studies has rarely dealt with. Chemistry, though a central feature of the mass media concept of entertainment, lurks vaguely on the periphery of informed discussion. For good reasons. It is unquantifiable, a given rather than a constructed phenomenon, difficult to study—much like the challenge for physics of dealing with smoke and clouds. To the mind trying to pin down its smoke-like elusiveness, it is a disturbing phenomenon. But it is that very disturbance that has proven to be the key to its importance. And one of the most disturbing aspects is the sense of it as an almost invincible enemy of truth. Yet, as we shall see, a more precise understanding of this phenomenon involves making distinctions between its existence as escapist distraction and its existence as the antidote to escapism. Making that distinction requires a clear mental separation of the three types of couples produced by Old Hollywood: those that had star chemistry—Synergistic Couples and Iconic Couples—and those that didn't—Functional Couples. These distinctions will, by the end of this study, help us to understand a new type of couple that evolved in the post-studio era, the Thematic Couple.

The most basic, largest, and least inspired category of screen couples was the Functional Couple, a simple cog in the wheel of the churning plot, adding little if any screen chemistry to the experience of the movie, and therefore interesting to this study only as a matter of contrast. Nothing could be clearer than the distinction between a sparkling star pair and a plodding Functional Couple. The Iconic Couple lies in between the magical Synergistic Couple and the plodding Functional Couple: such pairs, though they may have some degree of star power, tend to reiterate empty cliche. The Thematic Couple, a post-studio descendant of the Iconic Couple, differs from the latter in its tendency to be yoked to more dynamic and more socially realistic scripts than the old Iconic Couple. Another feature of the Thematic Couple is its tendency for image to be subordinated to rational purposes as opposed to tapping into the subconscious level. With the Functional Couple as a contrast or background, we will examine the subtle, interesting, and important distinctions among Synergistic, Iconic, and Thematic Couples, three types of screen pairs built around stars that furnish varying amounts of chemistry. These three types each have significantly different relationships to the typical Hollywood plot, and use the star image differently in connection with the values carried in the formulaic stories common to Old Hollywood, and to some extent the post-studio mass media.

Of the star pairings under the studio system, the most important and influential category of star couples for this study and for the implications of popular culture's contribution to human understanding is the provocative Synergistic Couple. The stars that formed Synergistic Couples empowered popular culture to make genuine expressions about intimacy by breaking up conventional narrative recipes for storytelling. A simple way of speaking about the difference between the Synergistic Couple and other star pairings is through a partially negative definition: Synergistic Couples were never closely connected with a narrative recipe by means of which a variety of partners might produce similar effects. Their effect was uniquely possible only with each other. The narratives of the films of Synergistic Couples might easily be analyzed for formulaic elements, but none of the routine story elements was particularly instrumental in the success of the film. In fact, what was characteristic of Synergistic Couples was that their energy tended to disrupt the formulas in interesting ways so as to create highly distinctive perspectives on the social practices embedded in the usual narrative pattern. The Synergistic Couple brought a healing energy to a world of cliches. The Astaire/Rogers characters, for example, would typically stumble around a mazelike world of superficial distractions that stood as barriers to their desire for intimacy with each other, though their wholeness as a couple was always manifest in dance. Typically, the energy finally released in dance brought them to the moment of clarity that released them from a still dysfunctional culture. Weissmuller and O'Sullivan's Tarzan and Jane combined into a potent couple energy that enabled them to cope with a world shattered into hostile camps because of greed, redeeming the situation by their enduring completeness, while the world remained as rapacious as ever. Powell and Loy's Nick and Nora, similarly, redeemed the family by their integrity as a couple, while dysfunction (generally also related to greed) ravaged families around them. Finally, the Tracy and Hepburn characters, in their best work, transcended through the organic bond between them a world lying in political, economic, and ethical ruins. As the exception to the rule, the Synergistic Couple gave the audience a way to stand at a distance from the more repressive aspects of society and to think about themselves and their desires in a new way.

Synergistic Couples showed Old Hollywood at its most creative and stood apart from the largest category of star couples, the Iconic Couple, which was really a showy and charismatic version of the Functional Couple. The Iconic Couple succeeded in making cliches glamourous and established dramatic and comic recipes that could work for comparatively large numbers of interchangeable star partners: glamour, replaceability, and cliche were the hallmarks of the Iconic Couple. If the Functional Couple worked as a mundane cog in a plot that in Hollywood fashion chugged along well-defined tracks, the Iconic Couple, no less a part of the obligatory formulaic movie plot of the studio era, made cliches seem more exciting and truer, more entertaining because of the technology of the glamourized star images involved. The difference between Synergistic and Iconic Couples is the difference between star power that rocks old ways of thinking and star power that gilds tired old cliches. This distinction requires a complex comparison between the almost fully manipulated image of stereotype and the substantially raw image powered by wild energy.

The Iconic Couple is a powerful form of Hollywood illusion, lending to stereotypes a seductive charm. Energizing the clichéd plot of the typical Hollywood movie, the Iconic Couple gives enchanting bodies and faces to the gender stereotypes that the mass media catered to. The unofficial king of Iconic Couples was Clark Gable. And so I will call the usual pattern of casting Iconic Couples the Gable Plus One phenomenon. Then, as now, the men tended to be the primary consideration in the formation of the couple, though occasionally there were female actors who might be in the dominant position: it would be possible to speak of a Dietrich Plus One formula and much later, in the fifties, of a Crawford Plus One casting decision. During the studio era, it would also be possible to rename the Gable Plus One phenomenon for John Wayne, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Melvyn Douglas, Maurice Chevalier, or the less enduring but once quite popular Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, John Payne, and Dennis Morgan.

But Gable makes a convenient focus, both for his abiding popularity and for his distillation of the Iconic Couple male. He played the male partner in a number of couple series with several actresses who had powerhouse images themselves: Joan Crawford (eight films), Lana Turner (four films), Myrna Loy (six films), and Jean Harlow (six films). Perfectly adaptable to a large number of acting partners, Gable required only that they be sexually attractive, possessing a headstrong femininity that could serve as a foil for his stereotypical but thrilling patriarchal lessons in love—lessons that were inherent in the less colorful Functional Couples, but not nearly as much fun. Gable brought a special energy to his three-part taming process, lending a charm to the first step, in which he established that women need a firm hand; the second step, by which they learned that he was right; and the third step, whereby they learned the joys of internalization of lessons one and two, indicated by the smile on their formerly wayward faces. Many of the Gable formula films are now all but forgotten—Dance, Fools, Dance (1931, Dir. Harry Beaumont), Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931, Dir. Robert Z. Leonard), Dancing Lady (1933, Dir. Robert Z. Leonard), Test Pilot (1938, Dir. Victor Fleming); others have made it into film history and maintain a modest reputation—Red Dust (1931, Dir. Victor Fleming), Cain and Mabel (1936, Dir. Lloyd Bacon), Honky Tonk (1941, Dir. Jack Conway). One or two classics used Gable's image to enduring advantage: It Happened One Night (1936, Dir. Frank Capra) and Gone with the Wind (1939, Dir. Victor Fleming). However, more powerful than any of the films themselves, the pattern lingers on. The Iconic Couple in classical Hollywood energized a formulaic script and makes submission to cultural stereotypes seem like a party.

As cultural stereotypes increasingly lost favor as a mode of characterization in the post-studio era, the Iconic Couple became an iffy proposition, though it did not disappear. In the last chapter of this study, we shall see how it became both duller than it had been under the studio system and less important, though it still continued to feature stars. At the same time, a new category of onscreen star pair, which I will call the Thematic Couple, partially filled the vacuum it left, emerging in the post-studio era. I will discuss this type in depth in Chapter Seven. As more freedom became available to moviemakers, scripts stopped unequivocally enforcing traditional stereotypes and began to tentatively question them. Actors energizing this kind of script often disrupted traditional stereotypes without disrupting the script. This type is most meaningfully represented by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, in their numerous screen collaborations; Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, in the television series Moonlighting; and Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad, in the television series The Cosby Show. But thoughts about the Thematic Couple in the post-studio era take us ahead of our story. To critically appreciate that kind of star coupling, and the fin de siècle version of the Synergistic Couple, it is necessary to first consider in depth and detail the foundation for the couple tradition in mass media entertainment built during the studio era.

The chemistry of the Gable Plus One package is as undeniable as the chemistry of the Astaire/Rogers series. Yet the differences between these two categories of chemistry go to the heart of my attempts to understand the possibilities and limitations of the Hollywood that existed between 1930 and 1950. Primarily, attending to these two kinds of couple chemistry helps us to see with fresh eyes not only the figure of the couple in Classical Hollywood, but also the expressive consequences of the relationship between filmic sound and visual elements and the literary/formulaic/ideological elements in the popular culture movie.

Raw and Cooked Image in Hollywood

There has been a dearth of thinking about couples in Hollywood movies. Astoundingly, there is no serious, extended criticism of the work of any of the four classical Synergistic Couples identified here, a situation that has left this study almost completely dependent on primary sources. Moreover, in what criticism exists about the couple phenomenon, the tendency has been to address the content of the script, the concept of the love story, and their cultural and ideological implications. This kind of study, though important, leaves out the most telling aspect of the screen couple: image. In this investigation I will consider the stories too, but the main emphasis will be on the relationship between the story and the image imprinted by charismatic screen couples. Screen couple chemistry is an energy issue, by itself a conceptually neutral element of moving pictures, the release of high-impact images into Hollywood movies. Screen couple chemistry is not inherently attached to any particular social values; rather it becomes attached to values depending on the way it is narratively used. It is necessary to discriminate among the possible ways of invoking values through screen chemistry. That discussion must be based on an understanding of the way chemistry is processed industrially through the filmic image, its vehicle, and how the processing affects absorption of the image by the spectator.

Most discussions of Hollywood assume that the processing of images is always through cases and that in all cases spectators read these images through social codes that subtly glamourize the conventional values promulgated by scripts supervised by the conservative/reactionary Production Code Administration. But in the case of screen chemistry, when its force turns into screen couple synergy, there are raw documentary elements in the image as well as elements fabricated by studio manipulation of technologies. That uncontrollable aspect of the Synergistic Couple contains not only fascination but also the potential for spectators to receive impressions that go beyond socially devised languages and systems. When this potential is realized, meanings that challenge formulaic cultural understanding are forged. In the specific case of the screen couple, an understanding of chemistry goes to the heart of why stereotypical representations of intimacy are connected with the more processed Iconic Couple, while unorthodox representations of intimacy follow from a more intense raw presence in images generated by Synergistic Couple chemistry.

In the case of the Iconic Couple formed by the Gable Plus One package, Gable's macho manhood chemistry is itself subordinated by an aggressive structure of stereotype and formula that objectifies the sensuality of Gable and his partners through a narrative of a domination/submission pattern of love. By contrast, in the case of the films made by the focal synergistic quartet, chemistry plays a more primary role. In, for example, the Astaire/Rogers series, Astaire's offbeat indeterminate masculinity, Rogers's equally ambiguous femininity, and the odd mutuality of their battle of the sexes forced their vehicles to adopt less aggressive narrative structures that took oddly indeterminate forms to accommodate their deluge of screen chemistry. Such synergy as theirs both disrupts a formulaic script and evolves a counterpointed visual continuity that forms the basis of a new perspective on old stereotypes.

The same can be said for the association between offbeat gender definition and the raw aspect of image in the other three couples in the focal quartet. Weissmuller/Tarzan's strange combination of male physicality with a whimsical, even receptive, nature usually associated with women fuses in a dynamic pairing with O'Sullivan/Jane's oddly unthreatening combination of receptive, fragile English Rose beauty and aggressive openness to difference and adventure typically associated with men, all of which erupted in a synergy requiring an unusually pliant narrative. Powell and Loy, both of whom had been cast as evil characters in earlier films, brought this edgy legacy to bear in the Thin Man mystery series, making for a darkly shaded, somewhat unsettling portrait of their intimacy. Finally, Hepburn's androgynous energy paired with Tracy's stolid bourgeois patriarchal energy charges with visual expressiveness and unique psychological complexity their often simplistically overwritten films.

Documentary image as a raw element of photography doesn't exist as a pure entity in any form of photography as, even in the most naked of photographic glances at the external world, there is always the issue of framing, which is inevitably connected with the values, ideas, and background history of the photographer. The studio-created Hollywood image is in general far more managed than it is documentary in character. However, the term "documentary" can, and should, also be applied to Hollywood movies, albeit as a highly qualified concept, particularly in relation to the Iconic Couple. There is a documentary element even in Gable's highly manipulated image. He was in front of the camera and there was a specific magnitude and tone to the energy that his body projected, but it was consistently subordinated to the purposes of molding and maintaining Gable's stardom, encased, unshifting, a thinglike, dependably consistent icon, one that never revealed the ineluctability of the body. Gable's energy was the foundation of his image, which proposed a false, glamourized idea of body, as an armor that his inner force illuminated but never animated. The patent-leather hair, with one or two wayward strands; the dark, hostile eyes sometimes shot through with a gleam of warmth that registered the minimal recognition that the narcissist can have of the presence of another who pleases him for a moment; the dimples in the tightly sculpted face; the thin moustache above the cherubic lips; the one oddity that perhaps energized his charm, his protruding ears: the composition was never stirred by any emotion that rearranged the sculptural effect. The preservation of that image superseded his delivery of lines and emotions in a scene, which, subordinated to the static image, was always mechanical; never a surprising improvisational gesture that could not be imagined by the spectator before it was performed. Much the same could be said for the stars he worked with. Joan Crawford, for example, exuded a raw chemistry that had a documentary origin in her, but it too was packaged to fit a static iconic image: her sultry, enormous eyes and full, sulky mouth, all molded into a characteristic expression of cruelty and pathos: the victim/adventuress. Crawford's large-boned body swaggered through the film frames as well defined as a statue, calling attention to itself, offering itself to be dominated. She clicked into place with Gable, but she clicked into place within any story formula tailored to her goddess/sacrifice image.

But if Hollywood fame often depended on the ability of an actor to find such a reproducible image to contain and delimit the necessary star energy, and the Hollywood couple might often mean a matched pair of icons, there were star couples that altered the logistics of the artificial star package. Fred Astaire, for example, when he worked with Ginger Rogers, to take perhaps the most cliche-shattering and abiding of the four pairs to be studied here, entered the frame with more raw energy than fixed image. "Being debonair" became a rigid pose for Astaire with other partners. But with Rogers, his image armor was in the immaculate, but ultimately removable tuxedo, which the audience knew was only a covering. In the Astaire/Rogers series, the Astaire tuxedo brings into conjunction both the external constraints of social order and an almost indescribable inner energy of resistance to all the formality to which his character is subjected. Moving along a spectrum of changing shapes, the inner protean Astaire is sometimes light enough to escape into the air through his white-tied collar, sometimes as physically obdurate as a balking mule. In his synergy with Rogers, he sometimes meets her with a puckish, elfin pliancy, maneuvering to soften her hard-edged self-protectiveness through play; other times he prods her and coaches her physically as an animal speaks to another (intractable) animal, drawing from within her rhythms she is rejecting. There are still other times when he meets her with an Oberon-like force, surprising her like a lightning strike. If Astaire's formal clothes satisfy the Hollywood mandate for reproducible images, when he worked with Rogers, there was that within the uniform that amplifies the documentary, mysterious energy of the human body.

On her part, Rogers, too, had a synergy with Astaire that complicated the standard glamour of her obligatory Hollywood feminine allure accessories. Rogers's cloud of blond hair, her clingy gowns, her feathers, satins, lamés, sparkles, and high heels may be the uniform of Hollywood seduction, but with Astaire, she exuded an energy from within the glamour drag, unreproducible by any starlet or female impersonator; the energy was inimitable, even by her. Her shifts in body and emotional tone matched, provoked, and answered Astaire's in a documentary surge of life force. Rogers ran the gamut from ice queen implacability to irrepressible effervescent playfulness. But she could also exude a searching energy of earnest intention to pursue her own agenda that excluded him completely, as well as a kind of openness to him that verged on ecstasy. Her permutations existed in immediate, spontaneous response to his; in the case of raw synergy, there can be no standard blueprint.

The differences between the Iconic Couple, represented by the Gable Plus One phenomenon, and the Synergistic Couple, represented by the work of Astaire and Rogers, were not the result of a studio decision, but rather of the opportunities created by the collaborative conditions of the studio system. As far as explicit studio policy was concerned, from the earliest days of the studio system, screen chemistry was a commodity. But if the studios had to see chemistry in that way, its reality evaded them. It was not a commodity, even in Hollywood, but an energy that sometimes was generated by the spontaneity that marked the collaborative commercial film process. In an effort to understand the Synergistic Couple phenomenon, which was permitted because it was thought of as a marketable commodity in Hollywood, this study will explore the emergence of screen chemistry as the result not of the decisions of the studio hierarchy but rather of the vortex of multiple perspectives that was an everyday part of the fragmented studio structure. The inability of any one point of view to dominate the collaborative process built into the studio system, combined with its fostering of situations in which stable acting partnerships could be formed that involved highly conflicted energy, is at the basis of screen chemistry. Studios permitted, and even forced, performers to explore the interesting, if on occasion exasperating, results of working through the dynamics of difference.

The fact of onscreen chemistry in movies must be closely read in terms of the production conditions from which those films evolved, in terms of both studio policies and the particular creative teams that made them, for it is no small point of interest that couple chemistry is an inherent and spontaneous quality that flourished in spite of and in some ways because of a manipulative industry formed by highly specific historical conditions. The historical conditions are almost as important as the innate energy in considering couple chemistry, as there was a symbiotic relationship between screen chemistry and the studio-generated star system. If the star system became a feature of the American culture industry by virtue of screen chemistry, screen chemistry moved from a notable phenomenon to force majeure because of the star system. During the studio system years in Hollywood, the star system and screen chemistry fed each other. Painted with the broadest brush, the situation was this: The political and economic power accorded to a star created a dynamic whereby that actor became increasingly at liberty to release the inner force more freely, which etched the performer more deeply into the public imagination and promoted stardom more indelibly, which led to more emphasis on the power of the screen energy in the actor's instrument, and so forth. This was true for all stars and all star pairs; the distinction of the Synergistic Couple was that its energy was more resistant to the control of studio technology over its release.

Nonetheless, the significance of the Synergistic Couple depends on the energy with which the studio sought to process it. Ironically, the energy of the star couple image became a significant element of meaning because of the presence of the artificial features of movies so cultivated by the studio system: the formulaic narrative and idealizing costumes, makeup, and lighting. In non-Hollywood films that use loose, personally imagined narrative elements, improvisation, and a desire to reach for the purity of unlabeled documentary image, actor chemistry is just another form of raw image. In contrast, studio products heighten the impact of star chemistry by the extreme tension created between that raw energy and the multitude of artificial technologies used by Hollywood. The effect of the synergistic actor's raw energy is magnified on the screen when it is virtually the sole raw element of the composition of mise-en-scène and story that are formed by the highly artificial Hollywood formulaic plot, as well as manipulated lighting, costume, and makeup. The star's raw energy, and especially the combined energies of a star couple, appears even more powerfully because of its inevitable resistance to the artificiality, as elemental life forces in ordinary situations will appear even more intense if there is an attempt to cultivate them. So let us say it is the imposition of the formal, quasi-military, somewhat repressive, and certainly ideologically resonant lines of the tuxedo on Fred Astaire, combined with the artificial glamour of Rogers's wardrobe, that ratchets up the power and the visibility of the non-ideological force of the energy of their chemistry. And the synergy of Astaire and Rogers is ratcheted up by the artificiality of the script and setting. Detractors of the studio system and of Hollywood in general give the men in charge of the mass media high marks for effective manipulation of the movies in terms of the ideologies they transmit and economic successes they create. And often these evaluations are correct. Yet studio politics and their attendant cultural ideologies have never been successful at fabricating the real magic of Hollywood, such as that given to them by the accident of Rogers and Astaire.

Serious consideration of the clash between the manipulated technologies of Hollywood and the raw energy of couple chemistry that the studios tapped into but never could create forces us to rethink how the spectator receives the image and the potential for Old Hollywood to make meaning in ways that confounded studio control. Much of current film studies has approached the making of meaning in the movies as a function of ideology. That is, film has been widely explored in terms of how it re-inscribes the value systems of Western society in general and capitalism in particular through its visual modes of storytelling. Ideology is understood to be a powerful set of assumptions built into the structure of our institutions, which set the boundaries to our beliefs and behavior. Much of American ideology embedded in the structure of government, education, business, religion, and the armed forces has been identified as an inevitable limitation on our thought and actions. The dominant ideology is said to coerce beliefs in hierarchy, patriarchal entitlement, a preference for competition over cooperation, dominance/submission over mutuality, and the rational over the emotional. While it is accurate to say that ideology often functions in this way, however, ideology is too frequently seen as a total form of tyranny, and this is not correct. There are many fissures and ruptures, of which film studies must take heed. The tendency in film studies toward an anxious certainty that the rational supersedes the emotional, preventing us from thinking beyond the parameters established by ideology, has created unnecessary blind spots, particularly with regard to screen chemistry. The overemphasis on the power of ideology has made it impossible, heretofore, to discuss screen chemistry as anything other than a socially manipulated weapon in ideology's arsenal. However, all evidence in the films themselves points toward a form of chemistry quite independent of ideology, and cutting-edge experiments in neuroscience support this observation. Reason and the ideology it creates, this work suggests, are but one of a number of modes of making meaning. The implication of these experiments for film studies is that they establish theoretical support for a raw, non-ideological image, which, along with learned ideology, plays a role in the way we make meaning as we view and make meaning of films—including our engagement with screen couples.

As neuroscience has been making clear, the rational constructs of ideology are not necessarily the final determinants when it comes to making meaning; nor are the non-rational areas in the mind that are more linked to inherent body and emotional processes totally in control. Rather, these different brain functions are mutually important in the process of making meaning, possibly differing to the greatest degree in terms of their positions in different parts of the cycle of making meaning. The raw image may be understood as that part of the screen image that speaks to the subcortical, preconscious mind, which seems to initiate the process of making meaning. In this initial engagement with the screen image, the spectator is responding below the level of rational awareness. (For a more detailed discussion, please see Appendix Two: "Theorizing Chemistry in Entertainment via Neuroscience.") By contrast, those aspects of the screen image associated with Hollywood technologies that are part of the social coding may be understood to be read by the reasoning centers of the mind, which have a second-cycle involvement in thinking. In this light, the raw energy of screen chemistry may be theorized as part of the way movies make meaning. In its ability to replicate the first stage of thinking through body image, screen couple chemistry is plausibly one aspect of the entertainment industry that produces a cycle of relationship between image and concept so rapid that it comes as close as we can ever come to infusing an uncoded experience into the meaning of the Hollywood movie. Paradoxically, then, chemistry, despite its reputation as the mark of the repressiveness of the Hollywood system, may also be the sign of potential resistance to the constraints of escapist storytelling. The juxtaposition of the raw image with the artificiality of Hollywood technologies will be explored in the films of the Synergistic Couples in Chapters Two to Five, as a way of creating a new perspective on the way the mass public reads, enjoys, and is stimulated by the clash between chemistry and formula in Hollywood movies. A larger goal of these discussions is to explain why the culture forms enduring attachments to the screen couples that embody the irritant juxtaposition of convention and unbound energy, while it forms only temporary interest in screen couples that are purely conventional/ideological.

Martha P. Nochimson is Professor of Film and Literature and Director of the Film Studies Program at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York. A frequent contributor to Film Quarterly and Cineaste, she is the author of The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood and No End to Her: Soap Opera and the Female Subject, and she has also written for television.

"A book that I read with great interest, often thrilling in its insights, Screen Couple Chemistry is an important piece of scholarship in the areas of gender and media studies.... It significantly enlarges the conversation about a vital, overlooked, and still nebulous dimension of popular film—the transcendent movie couple and its power to articulate trenchant concerns through formula fiction."
—Diane Negra, author of Off-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom

Also by Author

The Passion of David Lynch MORE +