The last detail: Trouser pegs: Gilbert Adair on the comic absence of pants and the hilarious presence of sock suspenders

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The Independent Culture
ALMOST every reviewer of Noises Off tended to feel that a major problem left unresolved by its director, Peter Bogdanovich, was his (mostly) American cast's unfamiliarity and unease with the quintessentially British tradition of trouser-dropping farce.

Now, there is a lot wrong with Bogdanovich's film but its failure cannot honestly be attributed to a collision of cultures that simply does not exist. One of the finest of Hollywood's early burlesque shorts was Putting Pants on Philip, an amazing movie even now, in which the desperate endeavours of Laurel and Hardy to switch trousers (don't ask why) in back alleys and on construction sites are continually thwarted by snooping neighbours whose suspicions of a pair of grown men huddled together in their underpants are precisely what they would be today. And it's hard to think of any prominent male star of the Thirties and Forties whom one has not seen at least once sans pants.

The director Howard Hawks, in particular, savoured the spectacle of his leading men scampering about in what used to be called their BVDs. But virtually all the masters of screwball humour had a perverse penchant for pantless heroes, and it sometimes felt as if the sole difference between slapstick farce and 'sophisticated' comedy was that, in the latter, the same crude knockabout gags were performed by actors better-known for debonair nonchalance. Low comedy was Abbott and Costello falling into a horse trough, whereas high comedy was James Stewart and Jean Arthur falling into a horse trough.

There was, though, another distinguishing feature, one which has remained for me the very signifier of classic American comedy: the sock suspender. An indelible image of Hollywood's golden age (pallidly revived by Christopher Reeve in Noises Off) is of Cary Grant trouserless in a hotel corridor, not knowing which way to turn, his boxer shorts (never, never briefs) half-obscured by his shirt tails - and the focus of my attention, the punctum as Barthes would say, the ostensibly peripheral detail that nevertheless makes everything else fade into insignificance, his pair of sock suspenders.

It may be that men's suspenders were once considered as erotically arousing as those worn by women, although I seriously doubt it. For modern spectators, at any rate, what they convey is not the potency of nakedness but the impotence of 'unclothedness' (as in a nightmare). Their principal effect, in short, is to keep nudity at bay, to hold not only socks but sex in suspension.