Stanley Cavell, who passed away this past June at the age of 91, was a figure whose field of interest, and whose importance within American thought and culture, extended far beyond the realm of the cinema. An esteemed philosopher, scholar, and teacher, and a writer with a style and sensibility all his own, Cavell was not first and foremost a commentator on the movies. But the art of the moving image was nevertheless an abiding fascination for him, and his impact on film studies is immense, thanks to his seminal books “The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film” (1971), “Contesting Tears: The Melodrama of the Unknown Woman” (1996), and, above all, “Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage” (1981).
“Pursuits of Happiness” astutely identified and brilliantly analyzed the hidden micro-genre that he called the “comedies of remarriage,” a group of classic Hollywood films by Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, and Preston Sturges. Ostensibly romantic comedies, the quick, unassuming wit and apparent light-heartedness of these films belied their profound wisdom regarding human psychology and relationships, their often deeply moving emotional dynamics, and their capacity for justifying sustained, penetrating analysis. “Pursuits of Happiness” remains one of the most perceptive and rewarding books on classic Hollywood cinema ever written, and we can think of no better way to pay tribute to Cavell within a repertory film context than to organize screenings of the seven films featured in the book, with film descriptions drawn from his text.
Special thanks to Cathleen Cavell; Daniel Bish (George Eastman Museum); Jason Jackowski (Universal Pictures); Dave Jennings (Sony Pictures); Mark McElhatten (Sikelia); Kristie Nakamura (WB); and Todd Weiner & Steven Hill (UCLA Film & Television Archive).