"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

May 1, 2012

Screwball comedies (1934-1942)

Screwball is a style of Hollywood comedy popular during the Great Depression. Its heyday lasted from 1934 to 1942. Screwball comedy is characterized by:
  • fast-paced repartee - the wittiest dialogues ever
  • farce - mistaken identities, misunderstandings, even slapstick
  • escapism - "Gold-digger" themes: young people striking it rich by catching a millionaire partner
  • romance - courtship makes the world go round
  • critique of the pampered wealthy class - this is a recession, after all, so a cultural escape valve was useful
  • strong (even stubborn) women, weak "emasculated" men - the first "feminist" films. A good example is Barbara Stanwyck raining humiliations on her doltish lover/husband Henry Fonda. 
Furthermore, screwball comedy should be non-sentimental, fast-paced fun with no political or other messages.

[Claudette Colbert]

Indirectly, screwball comedy was brought about by the introduction of censorship in the form of the Hays Code that forced studios to evade subjects as pre-marital sex, adultery and prostitution. But when they were sufficiently madcap, risqué elements could still be introduced. When in It Happened One Night Clark Gable has to spend a night in the same hotel room with Claudette Colbert, a woman he is not married to, he makes fun of the Hays Code by hanging a blanket between their beds and call it the "walls of Jericho." Screwball was a rebellion against the harsh rule of the Code that even husband and wife had to sleep on screen in separate beds.

[Myrna Loy]

Although screwball comedy had predecessors in pre-code films as Lubitsch' Trouble in Paradise (1932), the style only really starts in 1934 after the enforcement of the Hays Code, and lasted until 1942 when the U.S. participation in the WWII made light, romantic comedy impossible. Films as The Miracle of Morgan's Creek by Preston Sturges from 1944 are no real screwball comedies anymore, as several important elements are missing (setting in rich milieu, gold-diggers theme).

By the way, the name "screwball" comes from baseball, where it is a curve ball with a reverse wrist action that gives it a spin designed to confuse the batter.

[Cary Grant]

Several actresses made name by playing in screwball comedy: arch and mischievous Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night, She Married Her Boss, Bluebeard's Eight Wife, The Palm Beach Story); chic, witty Myrna Loy (The Thin Man series, Wife vs. Secretary, Libeled Lady, Too Hot to Handle); beautiful but daffy Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey, Twentieth Century, Hands Across the Table, Nothing Sacred); and feisty Katharine Hepburn (Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story).

[Carole Lombard]

Two popular actors were the gentleman-like William Powell (The Thin Man, My Man Godfrey, Libeled Lady, Love Crazy) and the dashing, debonair Cary Grant (The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, My Favorite Wife, etc.).

[Katherine Hepburn]

The best screwball comedies are:
  • It happened one Night (1934) by Frank Capra, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. A spolied heiress ruining away from her family is helped by a man who is in fact a reporter looking for a good story. (9)
  • Midnight (1939) by Mitchell Leisen and with Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche and John Barrymore. An American showgirl is stranded in Paris and "set up" by a millionaire to break-up the affair between his wife and another man. (9)
  • The Thin Man (1934) by W.S. Van Dyke and with William Powell and Myrna Loy. A former detective banters and boozes with his wife, and playfully solves a difficult case. (9)
  • The Philadelphia Story (1941) by George Cukor and with Katharine Hepburn, James Steward and Cary Grant. The re-marriage plans of a wealthy socialite are upset by the arrival of her former husband and a tabloid magazine journalist. (9)
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938) by Howard Hawks and with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. A mild-mannered paleontologist is pursued by a flighty heiress with a pet-leopard ("Baby"). (8.5)
  • My Man Godfrey (1936) by Gregory La Cava with William Powell and Carole Lombard. A scatter-brained rich young socialite picks up a tramp from a garbage dump and turns him into her butler, with unexpected results. (8)
  • The Lady Eve (1941) by Preston Sturges and with Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck. A naive, rich young man falls into the hands of a con artist aboard a luxury liner. (8)
  • Easy Living (1937) by Mitchell Leisen and with Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold. A rich banker throws his wife's fur coat out of the window, angry at her free spending ways. It lands on a poor working girl, with unexpected consequences... (8)
  • Ball of Fire (1941) by Howard Hawks and with Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper. A group of professors writing an encyclopedia learn from a nightclub singer how real people talk and then help her to escape from the Mob. (8)
  • Holiday (1938) by George Cukor and with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. A young man is engaged to a wealthy socialite, but the only one who understands his free-thinking life-style is the eccentric sister of his fiancée. (7)
  • Bluebeard's Eight Wife (1938) by Ernst Lubitsch and with Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper. The daughter of a penniless French marquis marries a millionaire banker, but as she is his eight wife, plays "difficult to get" after the marriage to teach him a salutary lesson. (7)
  • Hands Across the Table (1935) by Mitchell Leisen and with Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray and Ralph Bellamy. A manicurist and a poor playboy are both looking to marry money and form an uneasy alliance. A wealthy but handicapped ex-pilot is interested in the manicurist... (7)
  • The Palm Beach Story (1942) by Preston Sturges and with Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea. The wife of an inventor tries to raise cash for him by having a divorce and marrying a millionaire. (7)
  • The Awful Truth (1937) by Leo McCarey and with  Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. As a rich couple starts divorce proceedings, both partners try to undermine the other's chances of finding new romance. Are they still in love? (6.5)
  • Nothing Sacred (1937) by William Wellman and with Carole Lombard and Frederic March. A young woman supposedly dying from radium poisoning is invited to New York by a major newspaper. (6.5)
  • His Girl Friday (1940) by Howard Hawks and with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. A newspaper editor tries to prevent his ex-wife and star reporter to settle down to a quiet married life with a bland husband. (6.5)
  • My Favorite Wife (1940) by Garson Kanin and with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. A woman who has been missing for seven years and is presumed dead, returns on the day her husband is marrying again. Due to some sentimentality, this is not pure screwball. (6.5)
  • Rings on her Fingers (1942) by Rouben Mamoulian and with Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney. A beautiful department store girl is "used" by two con artists to swindle millionaires out of their money, but they pick the wrong guy... (6.5)