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Capra's America in The Hudsucker Proxy

In 1994, the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, decided to bring Frank Capra back to the movie theaters with their comedy, The Hudsucker Proxy. Tim Robbins plays the role Capra gave to Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper. He’s a naturally decent American, too simple for the complexities and corruption of the metropolis, with its hierarchies, intrigues, and snobs, but just the man to save the day by reminding Americans of their character and of their belief in the equal dignity of human beings.

Robbins plays Norville Barnes, graduate of the business school at the University of Muncie, Indiana, ready to make his way in America. More specifically, New York City, in December 1958. Norville starts in the proverbial—in this case, comically Gothic—mailroom and ends up in the boardroom in two easy steps. First, the CEO of Hudsucker Industries, the very WASP-named Waring Hudsucker (played by Charles Durning), jumps out the window to his death. No one understands his melancholia—business was very good.

Secondly, the Hudsucker board, led by Sidney J. Mussburger (played by a comically villainous Paul Newman), hires Norville to ruin the company, tank the stock, that they may buy Hudsucker’s shares for pennies. The late Hudsucker had no heirs, was indeed all alone in the universe, which seems to have prompted his suicide. Who is to run the business? The board figure that the press will love an underdog story but will also love to tear Norville apart when he inevitably fails at a job he is not qualified to do, at which point they can save the day.

Capitalism and Managers

This is one of the big issues in the story. The little people should know their place, but they inevitably get uppity—so the big shots have to put them in their place. But they have to do so indirectly, by conspiracy. Why daren’t they act publicly? The company sells to the public and the public buys the shares, which may be its real product after all. Mussburger’s contempt for everyone less successful than himself (“Do you mean to say any slob in a smelly tee-shirt will be able to buy Hudsucker stock?”) and his attempt to outdo those more successful than him is all about putting as much distance between himself and the people, as the top floor of the skyscraper eloquently suggests. He wants to succeed because he sees others failing—he has no interest in doing anything other than managing. From his point of view, Hudsucker Industries is not a productive enterprise, but a protective one—it’s his castle, in short.

This probably works much of the time, but there are exceptions to the claims of competent management of such elites. Economic crises, obviously, as well as technological disruption. But the Coen brothers went out of their way to find a comic exception in the average person instead, which is not merely a symbol of democracy, but somehow a key to understanding much of what goes on in a democracy. Norville ruins Mussburger’s clever plot, because he has a simple, but unbeatable idea. He invents the hula hoop and a fortune is soon made and we get a whole story out of it to enjoy.

Capitalism often enough gives the people what they want and, often enough, the people want to have fun. The hula hoop is an insult to the too-clever-by-half lawyers and financial types who try to predict the future by rationalizing people’s lives. Somehow, they don’t count on either spontaneity or choice. There is something very unnatural in their plans, perhaps a certain kind of sterility. The circle, which appears in many places in the movie and symbolizes a bunch of different things, including angelic haloes, reveals their lack of imagination. Norville shows it to everyone, but they don’t get it.

How can something be so clever as to make a fortune once it’s a product everyone loves, yet so obvious that a child could have thought it up? This seems to be the question at the core of the story. The Coens are particularly interested in it for two reasons. We all want to know, why do we believe Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper could save the day? The Mr. Smiths and Mr. Deeds are mere everymen, not heroes! But are not the beliefs by which we lead our lives also something a child could know? Morality has something in common with our capitalist economy.

Frank Capra’s America

The other reason is as important: Jokes are as obvious as anything once you hear them, anyone could have thought of them, we all share them, but it takes clever comic poets to come up with them in the first place. The Coens themselves depend on the American people, not just the capitalists. Hudsucker Industries is transformed into a producer of entertainment, as many others are in our age of wealth and boredom. People want to be entertained, they’re willing to pay, and they have the money. You might say, they are serious about being unserious.

Yet for all the cleverness found in this remarkable pastiche of Capra, The Hudsucker Proxy failed to make any money. Not even critics really liked it, but they were all wrong—it’s hilarious and achieves its humor while avoiding anything sordid. It persuaded me it would be no great difficulty to bring Capra back to the screens. Americans loved him in his time, and we have since learned to love It’s a Wonderful Life, which was no big success when it hit theaters.

I won’t spoil the plot, but I trust you guessed already that the Mussburgers of this world won’t easily let the Norvilles keep something they can take from them. And that the Norvilles are not above being led astray by luxury and flattery. And that, as in Capra movies, all the comedy rests on an abiding faith in the justice of the American people and their faith that there is a providence for good men brought to despair on New Year’s Eve.

Americans care about the big dramatic changes that happen rather frequently in American life. But they like the protagonists, not the writers.

Comedy for the Holidays

Of course, America itself has changed since Capra’s days. The economic situation has changed even more, since Capra made most of his movies during the Great Depression. Poverty isn’t really the issue anymore, but Americans still need to find their heroes to have any kind of community, to hold together and to act together in trying times. The Coens show us the post-War prosperity that changed the country, but they do not believe it has put them out of business. America hasn’t overcome its political conflicts, it helps to make light of some of our foibles.

The opposite of Norville’s childish enthusiasm and child-like ideas about having fun is not the board of directors, but the press. This is also an element of Capra’s movies, which were quite critical of the cynicism of that business. A young lady like the ones played by Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck in the Capra movies appears, Anne Archer (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). She’s tough, she takes no nonsense, and she has a certain claim to superiority to go with her beauty—known as a Bryn Mawr accent back when Katharine Hepburn talked that way.

It’s not an accident that Anne is the key to Norville’s drama rather than her boss Al, editor of the Argus (played by John Mahoney), or her colleague there, Smitty (played by Bruce Campbell). Nobody expects men to be friendly, their very loyalty—even the loyalty of hard-drinking, chain-smoking, ambulance-chasing journalists—excludes strangers. Anne is able to enter Norville’s private life, for better and for worse. This may seem a plot cliché, but it points to the fundamental connection between love and hoping for a bright future—what we call the American dream, which Norville seems to be living.

Norville’s romance with Anne also connects to the movie’s holiday theme. New Year’s Eve is a lonelier time than ever in an America that is more unmarried than ever. For all our sophistication—after all, the Coens are very aware of all the ways in which they imitate the old Hollywood they were born too late to be part of—we are also unhappier than ever. This is probably because we find it harder to believe in either a bright future or love. One way to invite these thoughts back in would be to treat them comically rather than too seriously.

The press in The Hudsucker Proxy, the storytellers for that fictional America, are no help. Their cynicism is a consequence of the popular lack of interest in writers. Americans care about the big dramatic changes that happen rather frequently in American life. But they like the protagonists, not the writers. The absence of national honor for writers in a nation too large to conduct its business in person is a great danger to its freedom, since writing is the only way to achieve a coherent vision of America at any moment, and thus reveal threats to freedom that are less urgent than those everyone can see, but not less important. Moreover, the successful in America, just like the people taken together, have vast fortunes, whereas journalists comparatively have precious little. That impotence leads to either populism or craven service to elites and, either way, to abandoning the all-American love of the facts, and debasing the love of stories, too.

Hence, it takes poetry. The Coens do the job Capra would have wanted them to do, restoring some hope in American life without ignoring the predicament that makes us turn to entertainment. Perhaps we can learn to take our storytellers more seriously, to demand something better as entertainment, and to remember the great stories. We might thus find it in our hearts to care for America as a whole, as it emerges in stories, not just our narrow experiences. As crushing as that attempt threatens to be—consider Norville’s plight—and as comical as we prefer our entertainment, we need heroes.

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