Sometimes the stars align, and you can convert hours of procrastination into productivity. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself about this week’s blog post, which is the result of a Veep marathon and viewing of two Irene Dunne films in a row. Call it a stretch or serendipity, but I keep observing similarities between the Julia Louis-Dreyfus-helmed TV show about a vice president and Together Again (1944), a film about a small-town mayor. Both keep returning to some of the same themes for humor, and both succeed.
Fairy Tale Romance? Not for Them
In Together Again, Irene Dunne (as Anne Crandall) plays a widow who takes over as mayor after her husband dies. The film begins with a shot of a statue created in her husband Jonathan’s honor. The unlikely Cupid of the film, Crandall’s father-in-law (Charles Coburn), is disgusted by this hero worship, which he considers against his son’s wishes. He tries to convince his daughter-in-law to find a man.
I can’t decide what’s more delightful: Crandall’s response, or her amusement in expressing it: “You can’t bear to see a woman living alone and liking it. No man can. Instinctively, it terrifies them. You’re a vanishing race and you know it. And the minute you lose your hold over us emotionally, wow. So naturally, your platform must be husbands are necessary. And they’re not really.”
His rebuttal, refreshingly, is not that singlehood is wrong; he just believes the state is not for her: “You talk like a free soul, but you’re the most manacled creature I’ve ever seen…Everything you do, everything you say, everything you breathe is the way Jonathan did it, said it, and breathed it. Why don’t you stop living his life and live your own?”
Veep’s heroine too is annoyed by others’ desire to fit her into a typical female role–in her case, as a happy wife and mother. At the start of Season 2, Julia Louis-Dreyfus attacks her former strategist (Gary Cole) for trying to force an image of the perfect family on her, which led to an uncomfortable river rafting trip with her daughter, her estranged husband, and his mistress. Their spat takes place in the Oval Office, and hilarity ensues when her lipstick marks up the sacred carpet.
The Nonsense of Politics
Since Together Again is a romantic comedy, its primary interest, unlike Veep‘s, is not politics, but it has its moments, as in this great exchange between Randall and Mr. Witherspoon, who is in charge of the town’s sanitation and keeps leaving the south side blanketed in “a lot of old potato peelings.” His sorry excuses echo those that flood Veep:
Mr. Witherspoon: “It’s the manpower, your honor.”
Crandall: “Manpower, my eye. Use womanpower then.”
Mr. Witherspoon: “Women? To collect garbage?”
Crandall: “Why not? Women see more garbage in their lives than men do, don’t they? They might as well get paid for it.”
The scene highlights Randall’s power in the town. The joy of Veep, in contrast, is witnessing Meyer’s pathetic attempts to muster up the illusion of power she doesn’t have. And since we’re talking about D.C., the whole city is doing the same. After watching the jockeying for position among staffers, Congress members, and the administration, one wonders whether anything but ego is at stake for them. My favorite moment in the first season may be when the president’s lackey forbids the VP to adopt a dog because it’ll distract from the White House’s new pup: “Ma’am, you need to kill the dog. Not literally, but yeah, if it comes to it, yeah literally.”
Female Power: Is It All about the Hat?
Much of the plot of Together Again hinges on Crandall’s choice of a flirtatious hat over her usual professional attire when she goes to meet Corday (Charles Boyer), a sculptor in New York. The hat acts as a stand-in for the sexuality she’s been repressing as a widow. She’s bought it upon her father-in-law’s recommendation; he advised her when she departed their town to replace her functional one.
“When women starting wearing hats that look like hats,” he says, “they’re on the way out. At your age, you ought to be on the way in.”
When Corday sees her in it, he assumes her a model rather than the mayor. Of course, no powerful woman could wear something so becoming, right? She hides the hat—and the nightclub raid she later gets involved in because of it—as soon as she returns home. But the hat keeps turning up again. My favorite moment is when her father-in-law walks in wearing it.
Written seven decades later, HBO’s Veep focuses on a woman who is next in line to the president; it seems, on television at least, women have come a long way. But have they? Yes, the mayor of a tiny town is a far cry from the vice president of the United States, but perhaps not as far of a cry as we might wish. When Meyer asks why her presidential bid failed, her press secretary, Mike (Matt Walsh), responds, “You looked tired a lot and the hat….The hat hurt us. Your head looked weird in the hat; that’s all I’m gonna say.”
Convictions? What Convictions?
In Veep, it’s clear where Meyer’s convictions lie: she doesn’t have any. She puts an oil lobbyist on her clean jobs task force without hesitation. She tries to repress delight when a shipyard accident takes away her bad press. “Well, I think that worked out pretty good,” she says to her staff with a big smile.
(Of course, she tries to take it back when she discovers there were fatalities.) Self-interest trumps her idealism every time, which makes her a blast to watch.
While Crandall’s political beliefs are only briefly sketched, her devotion to her dead husband and to the town he once led clearly dictates her behavior. She seems to be a very moral woman, bound by duty. Curiously, though, she seems content to leave the town she’s worked so hard to serve in the hands of her unscrupulous rival once she decides (as we know she will) to go after Corday.
The More, the Merrier
It’s refreshing to find in Veep a female led-show so entirely unconcerned with romance. But while her romantic interludes are brief and mildly funny, Meyer’s interactions with her staffers are fantastic. As a long-time Arrested Development fan, I was pleased to see Tony Hale (aka Buster) in another meaty role, treating Meyer’s various failures with compliments and tea and going to ridiculous lengths to satisfy her needs, as when he draws her chief of staff from her father’s bedside: “Something has happened to the vice president. I know your dad is dying and I’m really, really sorry, Amy, but I think Dana took Selina’s lipstick. It’s the one thing Selina asked for, and I don’t have it, and it’s ruining her night.”
I’ve left out much of the plot of Together Again in this review. The romance is fine, and Boyer a convincing lead. But it’s the Coburn-Dunne chemistry that kept me watching, especially when late in the film the two start riffing on youths’ views of aging. Coburn makes such a perfect Cupid that I can’t wait to see him play it in The More the Merrier.
Of course, there are other films and shows that tackle this same political ground. Parks and Recreation takes on the small-town concerns Crandall struggles with and makes them fresh and hilarious. But I could see little of Leslie Knope in Crandall or Meyer. Knope worships her town; Crandall belittles hers. And Meyer looks like a Knope foe: world-weary, cynical, and always out for herself.
Crandall and Meyer are alike, even if Meyer is looser ethically than her predecessor: both are hyper-aware of their public images and frustrated with the bureaucracy politics brings, but nevertheless, they manage to survive politics’ worst ravages, and in Crandall’s case, even find love along the way. And neither can resist a good hat.