“The essential comic resolution, therefore, is an individual release which is also a social reconciliation. The normal individual is freed from the bonds of a humorous society, and a normal society is freed from the bonds imposed upon it by humorous individuals.” – Northrop Frye
While reading Northrop Frye’s discussions on Old/New Comedy in English Institute Essays, I stumbled upon this quote and found myself mostly convinced by its argument, if not for comedy as a whole then certainly for the genre of screwball comedy. In particular, I thought of Bringing Up Baby, and how the character of David seems to represent the “normal” individual in the comedy, whereas Susan fills the role of the humorous individual who reveals the apparent humor in society.
I feel that Northrop’s comic resolution is best exemplified at the climax of this film, where Susan comes to see David at the museum as he is working on his brontosaurus reconstruction. At first, David is fearful of her as she climbs up to talk to him; by now the audience is well aware of her entropic qualities, and her proximity to David’s prized Brontosaurus skeleton only puts David (and like the audience) on edge. As she reveals her gift of the missing Brontosaurus bone and million dollars to the museum, and they gradually progress into confessing their love for each other as Susan excitedly but dangerously rocks back and fourth. Caught up in the moment, David’s movements only build her momentum, and after they admit their love, she loses her balance and struggles to keep from falling. Only by climbing onto the Brontosaurus and unintentionally destroying David’s work is he given the chance to save her. Rather than reject her, as he did before, he accepts the loss and finally embraces her.
Perhaps paradoxically, this embrace of chaos serves as David’s release from the humorous society; by accepting Susan, the humorous/chaotic she represents becomes his new normal. Rather than winning the fight against the abnormal, David’s resolution comes from being freed from his societal obligations.
Northrop Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays (New York: Columbia, 1949), 58-73.
Hawks, Howard (dir). Bringing Up Baby. New York, NY: RKO Pictures, 1938.
Scene at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JoIRmQW2es&ab_channel=Movieclips