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Screen Couple Chemistry

Screen Couple Chemistry: The Power of 2

Copyright Date: 2002
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  • Book Info
    Screen Couple Chemistry
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-70305-6
    Subjects: Film Studies
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-x)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. xi-xiv)

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

    “(Scream) Don’t let me go: hold on to me.”

    Tarzan the Ape Man(1932, Dir. W. S. Van Dyke)

    “Boys, boys and girls, and you too Honey”

    Flying Down to Rio(1933, Dir. Thorton Freeland)

    “Pardon me if I seem to intrude.”

    Manhattan Melodrama(1934, Dir. W. S. Van Dyke)

    “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...


    The most inexplicable of the Synergistic Couple phenomena to be discussed in this study is the onscreen partnership of Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. Whereas Loy/Powell, Astaire/Rogers, and Tracy/Hepburn each had the kind of proven talent and expertise that reassuringly generates rationalizations for their dazzling synergies, O’Sullivan and Weissmuller leave the observer defenseless against the bald fact of chemistry at its purest. In looking at this pair, we are forced to immediately confront chemistry as a pure synergy of forces that defies theory as a fully explanatory method yet leaves room for theory to trace its...

  6. CHAPTER Three MYRNA LOY AND WILLIAM POWELL: The Thin Man Takes a Couple (pp. 85-134)

    The chemistry of the Synergistic Couple, as we have seen, is a force that altered escapist movie formulas in the Tarzan and Jane series, disrupting and feeding the studio system at the same time, paradoxically using cliche as a springboard to authentic expression. Yet there are nuances to the significance of Hollywood’s Synergistic Couple that cannot be probed through the collaboration of Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane, for example, the relationship between acting proficiency and couple chemistry. Both Weissmuller and O’Sullivan were limited in their skill as actors, which may in their case have been a...

  7. CHAPTER Four FRED ASTAIRE AND GINGER ROGERS: Music Makes Me (pp. 135-184)

    The luminous partnership of Astaire and Rogers was comparatively brief, from 1934 to 1939, followed by a pallid one-time-only reunion ten years later in 1949, but their work as an onscreen couple has indelibly impressed on the culture its immense erotic power. They were and remain the reference point not only of all onscreen couple dancers, but of the very concept of the pair. In our culture things go together like ham and eggs, coffee and doughnuts … Fred and Ginger. At the same time, many believe that the movies they made are fragile, silly excuses for their exquisite dancing...

  8. CHAPTER Five KATHARINE HEPBURN AND SPENCER TRACY: Much Ado about “the Little Woman” (pp. 185-234)

    Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made their major films together between 1942 and 1953, a time when Hollywood was besieged by dauntingly direct political influence as never before or since. Their films reflect both the politics of the period and the crisis of couple chemistry that was a central feature of their time. Hepburn and Tracy joined forces during a period in Hollywood in which there was, paradoxically, an increase in both government censorship and legal protection for freedom of expression in commercial feature films. While the Supreme Court was in the process of extending the First Amendment protection of...

  9. CHAPTER Six THE POST-STUDIO SYNERGISTIC COUPLE: The Thin Aliens (pp. 235-284)

    Looking back, we can see the footprints of a great couple tradition containing a rich body of work, a number of principal creators, a relatively well-defined economic and social relationship to the Hollywood studio system, a number of generic characteristics and thematic concerns, and a complex relationship to ideology. In Old Hollywood, the screen couple could be either a conservative or a radical figure. It was conservative in that all media couples suggested that we would find who we are through the beloved. Thus it favored a notion of fixed rather than socially constructed identity. Nevertheless, it could be comparatively...

  10. CHAPTER Seven THE THEMATIC COUPLE: A Post-Studio Innovation (pp. 285-312)

    Our last look—at the latest bend in the road for the onscreen couple—is at its newest category: the Thematic Couple. A product of acting technique rather than the summoning of wild, wildly connected energies of an acting pair, the Thematic Couple is a descendant of the Iconic Couple, but it is fully a consequence of the heightened freedom of the post-code era. The new parameters permit mass culture to deal more searchingly and explicitly with couple issues once taboo in the media, but which have always been part of the conceptual agenda of high culture. Thus, the Thematic...

  11. APPENDIX One FRED, GINGER, AND RKO (pp. 313-324)
  13. NOTES (pp. 329-370)
  14. BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 371-376)
  15. INDEX (pp. 377-394)