Pardon My French: Foreign Languages and Wit in the Movies

If they ever make a movie about the Tower of Babel, it ought to be a romantic comedy.

After living in a France for two months, I learned just how funny linguistic confusion can be. Notice I said after, because those kinds of problems are only humorous in retrospect, or when they’re happening to someone else. Which brings us to movies and the mildly sadistic pleasure we derive from the befuddlement of others, so long as they’re fictional.

Language versus Body in Design for Living

Some of the most innovative comedy scenes I can think of involve the unexpected interjection of a foreign language—and would fall completely flat without that language, unlikely to be spoken by the majority of viewers. Consider this sublime opener to Lubitsch’s 1933 Design for Living, in which two male friends, George and Tom, (Gary Cooper and Fredric March) meet Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) who’ll become the focus of the love triangle that fuels the movie.

(If, for some reason, you can’t play the video here, I direct you to the unlisted video on my YouTube page and ask that you please not share the link for commercial purposes.)

Look, there’s a lot that’s funny about this, but I’m going to stick to the French. So—apart from how hilarious it is to consider that anyone would ever mistake Gary Cooper for a Frenchman—what’s remarkable about the clip is that the first lines spoken by the main characters wouldn’t have been understood by most audience members. Hollywood isn’t exactly known for giving viewers a lot of credit in the brains department. In fact, Darryl Zanuck actually hired a man he knew to be an idiot because, “I know if a situation is clear to him, it’ll be clear to anybody.” Thus is the importance of clarity to the studio system and, I’d argue, to cinema in general!

This opener harkens back to silent aesthetics, since it relies so heavily on gestures and facial expressions to carry across its meaning. The sound tells you nothing for most of the clip. The image shows you everything. It’s all very physical: from Gilda’s, and our, deduction of Tom and George’s personalities from their sleeping faces to the subjective blurred image of her dainty foot as seen by George. Am I dreaming or is there a fetish object in my lap?

Then again, imagine the scene after everybody wakes up with English instead of French chatter and what have you got? Well, basically an exaggerated argument between quibbling artists.  Goofy, yes, but not truly funny and definitely not witty. The foreign language completes the alchemy of the opening. To a certain extent the misunderstanding that Gary thinks Miriam is French and vice-versa is funny, but even without the great “Aw, nuts!” reveal, the scene would be droll for an American audience.

In my opinion, the humor resides foremost in the fact that we may possibly understand others just as well without speaking their language. It’s just a funny thought: I don’t know what you’re saying, but I know exactly what you mean. We can get the significance even if we don’t get most of what’s being signified linguistically.

It’s the superfluity of language that becomes amusing. There they are, trying so hard to debate the hell out of Frederick March’s upper maxillary bones in a second language, and they might as well have just pointed with the occasional growl. The intellect that it takes to discuss anatomy in French offers a droll juxtaposition to the crude and obvious nature of the gestures and the emphasis on the body in the opening shots. It’s embarrassing, because they (and most other humans) like to believe that they’re perfectly fluent linguistic communicators and thinkers, above caveman grunts. Gilda exclaims her frustration when she feels she can’t win the argument by talking and defending her artistic choice: “Ceci est une caricature!

And what does she say when she breaks into her native language? “Aw, nuts!” It doesn’t get more anatomical than that. The inelegant, staccato English slang even suggests the crassness of what she’s saying and overturns the implicitly civilized nature of all language, which makes all things more abstract and general. The mind and the tongue, the “higher” parts of our nature, serve the body, the physical, the tangible. The way the body and the mind wrestle with each other makes up most of comedy. Lubitsch makes it palpable by switching from a comedy of images to a comedy of words versus images.

I believe that Lubitsch is suggesting that, in the end, humans are pretty primitive. We canget by with gestures, even when discussing something as sophisticated as artistic perspective. Though a fully modern, spirited woman, Gilda can’t help but focus on the physical, too, forming a relationship with the physiognomy of the two men long before she meets them.

And Tom and George, roused (ahem), by a woman’s tiny foot, are not all that far from “Me Tarzan. You Jane.” They’re homo sapiens in nice suits with a smattering of continental charm, but the physical dimension still rules their lives, as it is at the heart of our need to communicate. A big preoccupation of language is courtship. How many times have we mentally face-palmed ourselves after a particularly awkward exchange with a desired individual of the opposite sex?

In Design for Living, we see how often humor is about sex and rivalry, and how often sex and rivalry are humorous. And, in this brilliant opener, we also see how intimately language is bound up with physicality. Language and the mind are the slaves of the body, Lubitsch chuckles at us from behind the screen, and don’t you forget it.

Wooed by Mr. Wu, or Very Creative Intertitles

I could go on forever with examples of comedic moments hinging on language. In Gilligan’s Island, not known for particularly intellectual comedy by a long shot, Ginger announces that she can speak some Hawaiian that she learned while singing in a bar in Waikiki which she promptly rattles off, sounding sultry and exotic. Skipper asks what it means. “The bar is off-limits to all military personnel,” she matter-of-factly replies. That’s another (rather funny) problem with languages we don’t understand. The textures, the feel of the sounds, become more powerful than the meaning. Who needs significance when you have a beautiful, mysterious signifier? Which brings me to case two…

Intertitles, in theory at least, disambiguate the plot of a silent picture. For proponents of pure cinematic art, captions were the bête noire of the silent era, threatening to sully the image with words designed to impose an interpretation. The prejudice continues. When I was a little girl, I read in the Eyewitness Guide to Film, “Poor-quality silent films made heavy use of caption cards, but good directors preferred instead to rely on the cast to tell the story.” In other words, intertitles served as support for the narrative, filling gaps, sort of like plumbers caulk, and nothing more.

That, however, is not always the case.

I had the privilege of seeing the silent film Mr. Wu at the Cinémathèque Française. It’s a very strange film, comprised of 80% Oriental hokum, 20% pure stylistic genius, which comes in flashes. In one scene, a young British imperialist cad, Basil Gregory (the lovely Ralph Forbes), finds his way into the palace walls of a powerful Chinese warlord. Basil immediately proceeds to try to woo the Big Boss’s daughter, Nang Ping (Renée Adorée). As maidens are wont to do, she stumbles and twists her ankle. After some aggressive flirting on Basil’s part and some mute shock on Nang Ping’s, the young lady’s compainion Loo Song (Anna May Wong) arrives to intervene.

That’s when it happens. The screen explodes with dancing calligraphy. Slashes, curlicues, strokes of white, all governed by some order that assimilates them into an unknown meaning, burst across the black screen in vertical bars, pairs, slants, single characters, superimpositions, constellations. In Eisensteinian dynamics, black titles flash into starburst drawings and lines that radiate from the Chinese characters. The maidens talk in shot-reverse-shot, but their words combust.

The audience becomes Basil, beguiled and confused by this plunge into a world of mysterious signifiers. And yet, it’s funny! Even the stiffly urbane spectators at the Cinémathèque couldn’t repress a chuckle at this sly metafilmic subversion.

We read intertitles to understand, but these deliberately vex us. The character-strewn cards use a language we know, the cinematic language, to remind us of a language we don’t. The slight worry on Rénée Adorée’s stretched brows and Anna May Wong’s pout of disapproval give us the gist of the scene (I don’t like that guy one bit! Oh, but he’s so cute!),but the exact exchange escapes us. We are closed out of comprehension. By the very thing that’s supposed to render the film explicit. We’re helpless in the dark. So, of course, we laugh.

Once the clash of symbols has subsided, Nang Ping surprises her suitor by announcing that she does indeed speak English. She may understand without being understood. It’s quite meaningful that the women speak both languages, but the man doesn’t. The female of the species contains the allure of the symbol still to be learned by a foreign male. The woman is the cipher, the indecipherable character.

“We’re speaking different languages!” So goes the refrain of so many failed relationships. Basil and Nang Ping’s relationship—spoiler alert!—is doomed from the start. I can’t help but admire the aptness of the intertitles’ metaphor.

So, I’d observe that the sudden interjection of a foreign language, of something incomprehensible, punctuates a movie with comedy because it touches on a sore spot: the absurd things we manipulate language for… and how language, in turn, manipulates, embarrasses, and tantalizes us— especially when we don’t understand.

Movies are so popular, I suspect, because they largely dwell within the universally, often instantly comprehensible language of images. When a language we can’t make sense of pops up, however, there’s a combustion. We become aware of what we can convey without speaking and we also become more aware of what we don’t know, what we can’t decipher. Language comedy imposes a certain amount of vulnerability on the audience who’s placed its confidence in the readability of the image. It’s a shocking and brash betrayal. And all we can do is laugh.

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