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 Screwball Comedy


©Copyright 2002-2008
[Shawn Nacol]
All rights reserved

Screwball Comedy

by Don Reid

...An exhausting history of the movies that got folks through the Depression, and then some...

Screwball comedies were made for only a short time, relatively speaking, in the history of American film. They flourished under the Great Depression and went into their final phase just as the United States entered World War II. Using social and sexual role "inversion", screwball comedy commented on life during the Depression. The rich can be quirky yet still hold the capability to be "just folks"; wealth and true love is attainable by the very poor; and most importantly, transcendence of class, sexual and other differences is shown to be possible. While their usage of sex and class role reversal, as a comic way to deal with a changing American society, has fallen out of vogue, the best screwball comedies are ones that still have resonance for our modern society. Many of these films are unsentimental yet extremely telling and oddly sympathetic about the way that people organize both their inner psyches and social spheres, about sexual roles, and most of all, about how people fall in love. Some of them would later provide dark visions of relations between people, and between people and the society that they live in. These visions could be seen as a precursor to film noir.

(Below) Carole Lombard,

Queen of the Screwballs, looking

uncharacteristically dramatic.

What is a screwball comedy?

Carole LombardCarole Lombard, screwball's brightest female star, began, after her turn in the prototype Twentieth Century0 (1934), to accrue critical acclaim as a "screwball dame"1, referring to the dizzy, scatterbrained state her film characters were perpetually in. That explains the "screwball" of the phrase. But what are the components of a "screwball comedy"? These films tend to include one or both of two important ingredients: role manipulation (as opposed to out-and-out role reversal), either between the sexes, or between the classes; and more obviously, wacky and oddball behavior - either by a daffy, lovestruck and well-meaning character, usually female, or by a character who desperately needs to cut lose from "the real world" and proceeds to go temporarily insane, usually male. Usually the former is a catalyst for transformation of the latter, from a somewhat stuffy fellow to a bubblehead who has learned to treat life - and love -as one big adventure. A good example of such a transformative fluffhead is Lombard in My Man Godfrey, an immature but sweet-natured rich girl who rescues hobo William Powell from the city dump, installing him as her family's newest butler and then proceeding to fall in love with him. Lombard rolls her eyes, leaning against the walls, making goo-goo eyes at Powell's Godfrey. Even a trip to Europe can't end her infatuation with the butler; everywhere she went, she tells her sister upon her return, "was Godfrey, Godfrey". Godfrey in general keeps it together, compared to some of the males in the later films of the genre, but he does get loosened up, drunk, humiliated (even in print - everyone in the society pages knows of Irene Bullock's infatuation), and eventually married to Lombard's kook.

"Irene Bullock's" counter, the prototype of a man who needs to cut lose, is Cary Grant, as a bookish paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby. At the beginning of this classic screwball, he is planning a wedding to his equally nerdy assistant, a sexless, tight-lipped woman in glasses. By the end of the film, he has fallen madly in love with Katherine Hepburn, after she virtually kidnaps him to Connecticut and sends him on a wild goose chase after her brother's pet leopard. Along the way he's been forced to wear women's clothing, dig up dog bones, goaded to sing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" to the leopard, and thrown in jail. Probably the most famous scene in Baby is the last scene, where Hepburn accidentally destroys his most important dinosaur skeleton. As she climbs to embrace her new lover, she collapses his favorite project - the one, ironically, that has brought the two of them together - as she has methodically, if accidentally, destroyed all vestiges of the man he once was.


The Birth of Screwball

Not all the characters in screwball comedies must fit into the pattern of dominant, dizzy female characters countering passive, humiliated male characters. Neither of the two films which are generally accepted as the first screwball comedies stick strictly to this rule. In 20th Century, which helped change Carole Lombard's image from one of weepy 'Orchid' woman to the ultimate screwball lady, she and John Barrymore scream and vent hysterically at one another, but he eventually gets the better of her. The stage was (both literally and figuratively) set for the screwball genre in this film, as Barrymore tries to win his ex-wife back to Broadway (she has escaped to Hollywood) and hopes (of course) to resume their relationship. Class distinction is not so much an issue as it would become in screwball comedies, however; nor, apparently, is sexual roleplaying: it is clear from the beginning that Barrymore's Svengali is going to regain control of his ex-protege. While predicting the "subgenre of remarriage" (which began with the dissolving of an union and attempted to bring a couple back together), 20th Century achieved seminal status because of what it did for Carole Lombard's persona:

...that's the sort of picture it was, with Lombard like no other Lombard you've seen....When you see her, you'll forget the rather restrained and somewhat stilted Lombard of old. You'll see a star blaze out of the scene and that scene, high spots Carole never dreamed of hitting.2

Carole Lombard was not a newcomer to the movie business in 1934; she had made forty-five movies previous to 20th Century, including twelve of Mack Sennett's slapstick comedies. However, immediately previous to working on 20th Century, she had been contracted to Columbia, which tried to mold her into "The Orchid Lady," a so-called "weepie" heroine, giving her soppy roles that did not at all jibe with the real Carole Lombard, who was renowned for her foul language, her humor, and adored by film crews as "one of the guys". One biography describes the sort of hijinks Lombard was known for:

...John Hay Whitney gave an elaborate costume party for Hollywood notables. The invitations requested that guests appear in something white. With her unfailing sense of humor, Lombard arrived at the party in a white ambulance and was carried into the Whitney mansion on a stretcher.3

Howard Hawks, director of 20th Century, and John Barrymore helped push the 'real' Carole Lombard into acting from experience and intuition (almost Method-like), rather than from a stilted, overthought idea of what her character was supposed to do. Allegedly, Hawks threatened to fire Lombard on her first day unless "you do any damn thing that comes into your mind that's natural and quit acting."4 Between Hawks' threat and Barrymore's obvious relish for his craft, after 20th Century, Lombard's on-and-off screen personas began to merge in screwball comedy; her acting in dramatic roles, such as 1939's enthusiastically received Made For Each Other, with Jimmy Stewart, would get good reviews from then on. But, when Lombard followed 20th Century four films later with Hands Across the Table, she would forever be Queen of the Screwball Comediennes. She also blazed a trail for mostly dramatic actors who would subvert their images by appearing in one or a handful of screwball comedies, such as Katherine Hepburn.

While not as universally praised as Lombard (and not achieving the same sort of immortality through an early death), Claudette Colbert created the 'madcap heiress' character that Lombard would use to such great effect in My Man Godfrey. Colbert's role as Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night, considered the first of the screwball comedies, garnered her an Academy Award and resuscitated a career whose main highlight had been a bath in asses' milk (in a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle, of course). In all ways, It Happened One Night was a case of serendipity: a truly happy accident. While the film is not as well known to today's generation of filmgoers as say, His Girl Friday, or more especially Bringing Up Baby, the legend of It Happened One Night is often chronicled. Frank Capra, son of immigrant Italians, had previously made some melodramas with new star Barbara Stanwyck, and was working at "Poverty Row" studio Columbia when a cycle of "bus stories" appeared in pulp fiction form. Depressing stories, they covered budding romances aboard the bus; Capra, with the aid of screenwriter Robert Riskin, turned these pulpy stories into a vivacious class comedy. He had a difficult time finding a heroine for his new movie, but MGM's head, Louis B. Mayer, had decided to punish one of his stars for the gall of asking for a raise - and so Clark Gable would also add to the charm of It Happened One Night, and eventually pick up his own statuette. According to Elizabeth Kendall in The Runaway Bride, Colbert decided to join this cheapo production after sizing up her chances for stardom at her own studio, Paramount. Working with Gable would increase her own reputation, and Kendall suggests "she was lucky that Capra saw through her charm to the intelligence that controlled it"5, and that it created another dimension to the screwball comedienne, a woman whose intelligence and cunning laid beneath all the wackiness.

It Happened One Night has a plot whose dimensions have been oft-copied since its release in 1934; yet it remains eternally fresh and surprisingly funny more than 60 years later. A willful heiress jumps off her father's yacht after his disapproval of her marriage to a sleazy playboy (hence the title of Kendall's book), running away to join him in New York City and forced to take the bus to reach him. On the way she bumps into newspaperman Peter Warne, who's just been fired from his job, quite tipsily - a man rebelling against "paternal" authority himself (his boss at the newspaper). While intelligent, Ellie needs Peter's common sense and advice; Peter is invigorated by Ellie's exuberance - and also desperately needs the money a top scoop - a story about a runaway heiress - will provide. Capra and Riskin provided messages about class, Colbert and Gable provided romance, and a lovely time was had by all. Almost overnight, the screwball genre was born.


Making Classics

Frank Capra, the director of It Happened One Night, walked away from the Oscars with his own award, and single-handedly turned Columbia studio's fortunes around in some of the darkest days of the Depression. He is best known today for his class and civics parables like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's A Wonderful Life; even in light of his creation of It Happened One Night, that is no mistake. Almost immediately after joining forces with Robert Riskin, Capra's films began to inch further and further away from screwball and more towards populist "dramedy". Critics disagree about whether to consider two of his next films, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Meet John Doe, as screwball comedies. Some include them because the cycle they made up with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington included elements that could work well in screwball: a bumbling everyman elevated to higher stature, and a sneaky and smart working girl who tricks the everyman into giving her what she wants, including true love. While It Happened One Night created a environment of class and sexual friction utilized well in screwball, Capra and Riskin were always moving closer and closer towards straight social commentary only occasionally leavened by comedy. Some playwrights and scholars consider the "Capracorn" treatment of the stage play You Can't Take It With You butchery in the name of populism, sacrificing the original wit and flavor of the play, which was somewhat darker in tone and ending. However, Capra's save of Columbia gave greater precedence to a director's role in making classic cinema;

He was known to hold up production for recasting and script changes; he insisted upon authority over the "final cut" (i.e., the fully edited version); he was a driving force in the establishment of the Directors' Guild and acted as its first president.6

Howard Hawks was another director who made a seminal screwball picture or two and went onto other things; but instead of sticking to sentimental formula, as Capra had, Hawks became a master of all he attempted - westerns (Rio Bravo), gangster films (the original Scarface, with Paul Muni), and sharp, sexy noir romance like To Have & Have Not and the otherwise incomprehensible The Big Sleep. More importantly, Hawks made 20th Century and Bringing Up Baby, then helped subvert the "remarriage variation" of screwball (see below) into the darker, later period of the forties with His Girl Friday. One of Hawks' best decisions, besides pairing a young Lauren Bacall with Humphrey Bogart, was his judgement about Katherine Hepburn, who seemed to be fighting the stigma of "box office poison" throughout the 1930s. It was quite risque to base an entire film on Hepburn's characterization of anxious, brittle-but-brilliant madcap Susan in 1938's Bringing Up Baby. (After all, while Cary Grant was helped immeasurably by Baby, he spends much of his time reacting to Hepburn's stunts.) Her intellectual pursuit of David Huxley, Grant's worried paleontologist, (Huxley follows her around and argues with her, she believes, because of man's misguided "love impulse") and her giddy manipulation of circumstance was not received well by the public. However, in more recent times, because Hepburn resembles more closely the women of today, Bringing Up Baby has been resuscitated as a definitive screwball, its sophistication finally appreciated. More especially, it further elevated the role of director in making a classic and gained Hawks even more brownie points, however many years after the fact.

As Schatz suggested earlier, one of Capra's greatest gifts to screwball may actually have been improving the lot of his fellow directors, increasing the power of Leo McCarey and Preston Sturges to make the movies they wanted, themselves auteurs of many classic screwballs. Hawks, also, with his encouragement of Lombard in 20th Century, and choice of Hepburn for Bringing Up Baby, helped create an atmosphere in Hollywood where "artificial" would be replaced by intuition, creativity, and resourcefulness.

Leo McCarey was the most benefited by this shift in atmosphere. His films had a sensitiveness about human beings' emotional frailty that Capra could not come close to, however beset by troubles a George Bailey or John Doe might be. (It is fortunate that Sleepless in Seattle revived McCarey's An Affair to Remember (1957), itself a revision of the screwball-turned weepie Love Affair.) Cavell characterizes it as such:

[McCarey] has the power to walk a scene right to that verge at which the comic is no longer comic, without either losing the humor or letting the humor deny the humanity of its victims.7

Possibly his best film was The Awful Truth, which introduced the "remarriage variation" of screwball and made Cary Grant a bona fide star. The humor of the screwball scenario is made all the more poignant and deep when McCarey shows us glimpses of real anguish behind the slapstick and sophistication. The Awful Truth chronicles the divorce of a couple who may or may not have been cheating on one another, but who have definitely lost the ability to communicate with one another and can only really relate to their beloved dog, "Mr. Smith". Both of them pull crazy antics in hopes of saving the marriage before the divorce goes into effect; the humor of their situations engages both the love that they still feel for one another and the pain that goes with it. An excellent case in point is where Irene Dunne as Lucy says to Cary Grant's Jerry, when toasting him on his future remarriage, "This will hand you a laugh." She then recites the poem he once wrote for her when they were still together. Neither of them laugh at the irony. They then have some champagne which is flat. Here, Cavell notices "...they are unable to celebrate either divorce or marriage."8 Truly, this is a situation where the comic is no longer comic, without killing humor or humanity.

Another important innovation McCarey accomplished with Awful Truth was improvisation on the part of the cast and crew. Ironically, because The Awful Truth was popular enough to make Cary Grant a bona fide leading man, Grant was so unnerved by the prospect of improvising with McCarey that he offered Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn $5,000 to get out of the picture. Naturally, Grant needn't have worried. Although McCarey had only finished the collaboration of The Awful Truth 6 days before filming, he was excellent at letting people ad-lib with a "state of mind" rather than an artificial situation. He let the actors create the "artificialness" of situations and gags themselves, out of their own uncomfortableness - their own feeling of being "on the spot." "He liked to see them in a state of bewilderment," writes Kendall.9 Perhaps McCarey realized that bewilderment would provide breathless comedy, and that the underlying nervousness of Grant, and Dunne's natural warmth beneath her charm, would reach out to audiences from below their lines.

The last of the great screwball comedy directors was Preston Sturges. Sturges sat out most of the seminal '30s as a writer, and his screwball comedies definitely shifted away from the traditional 30s form. "In Sturges' universe, the heroine receives everything and gives up nothing," Kendall writes.10 Indeed, there is liberal altering of the "screwball myth" in Sturges' films, but a lack of sympathy for the characters, and no transcendent event that reforms or changes the characters or their romance. In essence, with a movie such as The Lady Eve, where Barbara Stanwyck's Jean heartlessly manipulates Henry Fonda's Hopsie out of deep-seated class resentment, as well as contempt for men, the artificiality of the entire situation is shown up. One wonders why Sturges chose to work in screwball, as romance - even lust - is lacking at the heart of his vision.

Sullivan's Travels is considered to be Sturges' best film, where he pokes fun at Frank Capra (and well-meaning directors in the King Vidor and Elia Kazan vein). Sullivan is a film director who makes light-hearted comedies but hits the road as a bum to study the reality of Depression society for his message film "Brother, Where Art Thou?" Sturges has Sullivan realize, through a cynical look at the tough world outside, that what the world really needs is funny movies that take people's minds off reality.

Sturges' work in screwball so manipulated the genre that his work is probably more influential of the romantic comedy films of the later 20th century than others. He also laid down the foundation for film noir women, many of whom match Barbara Stanwyck's Jean in their amorality, using men to get what they want. Obviously, to the viewing public's mind, some people were even more responsible for the success (or lack thereof) of a screwball vision: the actors themselves. Specifically, no account of screwball comedy can be considered complete without a discussion of Cary Grant's role in giving screwball such a classy and eventually long-lived reputation. Sadly, neither Carole Lombard nor Irene Dunne had the length of screwball careers that Grant did; the British transplant was making late screwballs, as did Katherine Hepburn, years after its "golden era".

In the preface to Cavell's Pursuits of Happiness, he says of Cary Grant:

This man, in words of Emerson's, carries the holiday in his eye; he is fit to stand the gaze of millions.

Cary Grant is fit to stand the gaze of millions in almost every genre he has chosen to work in, but his chameleon image in screwball, where an attractive, well-spoken, well-educated man could also be emotionally confused, humiliated and clumsy, set the stage by which all screwball performers were later judged. Deschner describes "paradoxes" in Grant's screwball characterizations as such:

[Grant has a] special blend of worldliness and naivete and his ability to mix polish and pratfalls in successive scenes. Grant is also, refreshingly, able to play the near-fool, the fey idiot, without compromising his masculinity or surrendering to camp for its own sake.11

More telling is the scene in Billy Wilder's drag comedy Some Like It Hot, (which certainly should be considered a late entry in the screwball vein) where Tony Curtis imitates Grant's meld of both British and American accents, in an attempt to make Marilyn Monroe believe he is an aristocrat. "No one speaks like that," his partner, Jack Lemmon, says,

as if not merely to ridicule both Curtis and Grant for implausibility, but also to emphasize that Grant belongs nowhere and everywhere.12

Grant later admitted how he tried to make a "cocktail mixture" of such gentlemen as Noel Coward and Douglas Fairbanks ("the last for his luxury-cruise tan.")13 with his character, to live in sync and contrast with his past life as Cockney circus performer Archie Leach, a pratfaller who ran away from home.

Carole Lombard, discussed earlier, also had experience in slapstick comedy, suffering good-naturedly through Mack Sennett comedies, where a pretty face such as hers would be smeared with cream pies more than a few times. However, the other seminal screwball performer to compare with Grant and Lombard was Irene Dunne, who had no such experience in shallow sideshow performance. Dunne's image was one of a refined "lady", one who could cut loose and act crazy in such gems as Theodora Goes Wild and the aforementioned The Awful Truth, perhaps because she started screwball comedy rather late, in 1936's Theodora, and is considered the last of the great screwball heroines to join the genre. Like Grant and Lombard, Dunne, a trained singer, paid her dues in work that was beneath her talent, but she appeared in musicals and "drawing-room dramas" on Broadway and in film instead. (Much humor comes of the scene in The Awful Truth where Dunne and Ralph Bellamy duet on "Home on the Range", with Bellamy summing up his off-key rendition with a proud assertion that he's never been trained.) When screwball died down, Dunne found it easy to turn her ladylikeness into sympathetic matron roles in films such as I Remember Mama. Lombard, of course, never lived to see the emergence of film noir, (which could have been ably subverted by such a beloved "madcap" actress) nor to attempt the matronly roles that Hollywood thrust upon actresses during World War II. Selling war bonds in 1942, she, her mother, and the crew aboard her plane were killed in a air crash in Nevada. "It seems eerie that she was the one who died young," writes Kendall, "...she who represented the pure spirit and untrammeled instinct of this thirties folk figure, the romantic-comedy heroine."14

While no one could replace Lombard, or really challenge Irene Dunne, two other actresses, Katherine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert, made their own mark on screwball comedies. Both Hepburn and Colbert were reliant on 'stagy', more intellectual acting rather than Lombard's intuitive whirlwind and Dunne's ease at improvisation. However, Hepburn's brittle smarts have aged better for today's audience than Colbert's image, and Hepburn remains more respected and more cited in film texts. Hepburn was a Bryn Mawr graduate and thus by extension very intelligent and born to high society - that makes her descent into screwball antics all the more interesting. Colbert, on the other hand, nicknamed "the Fretting Frog" by one of her directors, came over from France as her father tried to resuscitate his business. With his untimely death, Colbert had to make her way in the world to help support her family. In terms of her facial features alone, Colbert was very different from Hepburn, who with her angular face, height and leanness, was as much a signature "Howard Hawks woman" as Lauren Bacall. Instead, Colbert had a very round, and exaggeratedly "cute" face, which masked determination and intelligence, as Kendall mentioned earlier.15 It is ironic that Hepburn gets more credit in film criticism for her brains, since it must have been just as difficult for Colbert (and her screwball heroines) to disguise her intelligence behind coyness and a cute face. The Palm Beach Story, one of the last screwballs made, picked up on this facility by casting Colbert as a woman who turns to gold-digging in order to support a failed inventor husband.

Even less than Colbert and Hepburn's lack of importance in comparison to Irene Dunne and Carole Lombard, no other male actor could do screwball like Cary Grant. William Powell was excellent as Godfrey in My Man Godfrey and as Nick in The Thin Man, but like Melvyn Douglas (also often considered a seminal screwball hero), his classy, suave gentlemen never really lost their composure to the degree Grant's would. Godfrey reteamed Powell with his ex-wife, Carole Lombard (they stayed close friends after the divorce, and Powell even insisted on Lombard's casting), using their opposite temperaments to heighten the crazy atmosphere. Melvyn Douglas' polar opposite, and friend, Fred MacMurray, would co-star with Douglas to the same effect. Unlike the Cary Grant-Ralph Bellamy team, where Bellamy always ended up loser, it was not possible in the Jean Arthur and Douglas-MacMurray film Too Many Husbands to predict who would win in the end. Fred MacMurray exemplified the all-American "every guy" so well he continued to reprise such a role as the father on My Three Sons. It also made his descent into evil (and manipulation by Barbara Stanwyck, glowing with the malice only hinted at by The Lady Eve) in Double Indemnity all the more frightening.

The film series American Cinema suggests, however, that the most important creators of screwball comedy were the writers, many of whom came in a mass exodus from New York City in the early 30s. Herman Mankiewicz' telegram to his friend Ben Hecht is as famous as the It Happened One Night legend:

Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. Three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around.16

"While the New York writers delivered the witty repartee," American Cinema's scripter Molly Ornati says, "the Hollywood directors [such as Capra, who had honed his craft in cheapie slapstick] provided the pratfalls."17 Hecht, writer of 20th Century, was later to say about scriptwriting, "It's just as hard to make a toilet seat as it is a castle window. But the view is different."18

As can be seen by these writers' wit, possibly the best import of these classy Broadway writers was their ingenuity in getting around the Hays Code, newly implemented in 1934. Riskin and Capra used what Cavell calls "the most famous blanket in the history of drama"19 to not only reiterate the chasteness of a bedroom scene in It Happened One Night, but to draw attention to the sexual tension pulsing underneath. The blanket, nicknamed "The Walls of Jericho," not only allows the characters of Peter and Ellie to remove their clothing and go into their separate beds, but it also symbolizes the wall between men and women. Cavell manages to extract another meaning:

"In one camera set-up we watch the blanket screen with the man as it is rippled and intermittently dented by the soft movements of what we imagine as the woman changing into pajamas in cramped quarters. The thing that was to "make everything all right" [the blanket, or 'Walls of Jericho'] by veiling something from sight turns out to inspire as significant an erotic reaction as the unveiled events would have done."20


Sexuality & Sex Roles in Screwball

The Hays Code, coupled with then-contemporary America's instinctive preference for euphemism over bluntness, helped create some of the funniest scenes in screwball. Hawks in particular was very adroit in his usage of euphemism; throughout Bringing Up Baby, he makes Freudian allusions to Cary Grant's search for his dinosaur bone, his "clavicle," leading Hepburn to exclaim, "it's just an old bone." Hepburn makes some Freudian allusions of her own, as in a scene where she attempts to get out of jail by impersonating the tough gangster moll the police believe her to be. Apparently offering information, she says she'll "open her puss." Hawks, in his noir-detective classic The Big Sleep, later wrote a very amusing dialogue where Bogart and Bacall compare their relationship obliquely to that of racehorses 'in season."

Also, the palpable sexual tension beneath the constant squabbling in screwball subverted the Hays Code, reflecting what Molly Haskell sees as "something puritanical in our society...That's what makes the screwball so American."21

However, it was the topsy-turvy gender roles that both made screwball fresh and daring in their own time and so much more relevant in the later part of the century. Whether or not there was class difference between them, it was clearly the women who ran the screwball world. Lombard's Irene Bullock not only hires Godfrey in an attempt to mold him as protege, she eventually gets him to marry her (rather than the other way round). Hepburn's Susan bulldozes her way through Grant's personal and professional life in Baby, literally kidnapping him to Connecticut, and ruining his impending marriage. Another marriage - this time a second one - is destroyed by a screwball heroine in The Awful Truth. Irene Dunne had been courted by Ralph Bellamy only to have her romance undermined by ex-husband Cary Grant. In return, she humiliates him in front of his future wife and in-laws by pretending to be his sister - a sister who is both a nightclub stripper and a drunk. The sexual undertones that still exist between Grant and Dunne's ex-spouses serve to create imaginary "incestual" overtones, which of course dooms his new romance.

Men are routed by women in such screwball films as The Lady Eve, Nothing Sacred (where Carole Lombard does not pull her quite literal punches against love interest Frederic March), and The Palm Beach Story. Even in His Girl Friday, where newspaper editor Cary Grant manipulates ex-wife Rosalind Russell, she gets the top scoop - and like Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, she has already realized Ralph Bellamy is not the right suitor for her and makes the decision to split with him herself.

Combined with the aforementioned euphemism in language and scene, screwball comedies were just as surprising as the pitches they were named for. Particularly since the 30s was only the second full decade where women had the right to vote, giving screwball an underlying fear, one that Molly Haskell describes as

that women would get a taste of freedom and never come back. And you sense that, as one of the core themes in screwball comedy.22

That fear, coupled with the puritan ethics of the Hays Code, colored the black and white screwball in shades of grey. Babington and Evans, in looking at Bringing Up Baby, talk about

... [the] denial of the final kiss or embrace...In [Baby] the embrace is surrounded by a whole series of displacements and enlargements, games, metaphors, and double entendre, so that when it is finally enacted it is inevitably suffused with ambiguity.23

This ambiguity, existing even more so today, makes these films all the more relevant to modern society.


Gender = Class Differences

The opening credits [of My Man Godfrey], with the sound track playing "Manhattan Serenade" while the actors' names in a neon light up one by one atop the skyscrapers of a stylized Art Deco skyline, immediately set the tone and atmosphere of a New York as impossibly glamorous as only Hollywood in the 30s could picture it."24 Screwball comedy operated in either one or both of two locales - that of the very rich, or that of the very poor. Together, as in Godfrey, the poor could come to morally surpass the rich as screwball women would often surpass men in their power, intelligence, and resourcefulness. Or perhaps the two separate classes would learn to appreciate their commonality as both fellow kooks and fellow human beings, such as in It Happened One Night.

It Happened One Night trailblazed the way for screwball comedies to deal with class distinction as well as changing gender roles. During the beginning of the Depression, Sennett writes, movie-going women liked to watch melodramas:

In a succession of tawdry melodramas, Hollywood was telling that girl in the audience: Follow your dream of luxury and romance, but more likely than not it will turn to ashes or dust. Go after that handsome young man in the tuxedo but chances are he will lead you to ruin and disgrace...and oh, so comforting to learn that [the female viewer] would be better off exactly where she was.25

What It Happened One Night told women was that rich girls would be better off where working-class women were - in the arms of a caring man, however poor he might be. Kendall describes Gable's Peter in One Night as "a surprisingly frank embodiment of the ineffectuality of the American male in the face of the Depression," because "[h]e's broke; he's out of a job; he can't even run fast enough to catch the guy who stole Ellie's suitcase." However, Kendall notes, "He can do only one thing well: take care of someone who's lost."26 But in a time when women had to go to work for the first time to help out their families, and when businesses and homes could be lost in an instant, many, many people were lost. At the same time, male viewers must have been pleased by the characterization of Colbert's Ellie: she may have been spoiled, but she shows bravery in her trek across the country to reach her errant fiancé. After her companion fails miserably at his attempt to get them a ride, she simply shows a little leg to the road and a car immediately stops. This is hardly the act of a haughty, overindulged heiress who would be above partnering with a working man; she is also very different from a weepie heroine (whose reputation would probably have been ruined for such an "audacious" act, somehow). Kendall analyzes the class conflict between these two worthy, prideful people, in the beginning of the film, as they both meet aboard the fateful bus:

Gable chastises Colbert for her squeamishness about bus crowding. He turns gentleman to chase a thief who steals Colbert's suitcase. Colbert turns lady and offers Gable money. Provoked, he sheds his manners and calls her a brat. Back in the bus, Gable chivalrously rescues Colbert from a vulgar seatmate, but he does so in working-class style by claiming her as his wife.27

What's really going on here is a discussion of social roles. In this scene, both of them act patronizingly towards one another - Gable because of his sexual superiority, Ellie because of her class superiority. The plot articulates early on that if they are to end up together, both of them have to figure out how to transform the social-based snobbery of the other person into respect for who they are as individuals - creating a transcendence over stereotypes, in other words. While Ellie is not the aggressor of this film in the same way later screwball heroines would be, she is the first to change.

Another scene shows Ellie refusing the offer of a carrot, complaining that Peter should get her "something nicer to eat". Peter angrily responds, "...The idea of offering a raw carrot to an Andrews..." Later on, when they are picked up as hitchhikers, he refuses to let them stop to get something to eat, punishing her for her snobbery. She later finds one of those same carrots in his coat pocket and eats it. Cavell notes how this endears her to Peter:

He had liked the taste she showed in people...but then he had despised her sense of exemption from the human condition, a sense he calls her money. Eating the carrot is the expression her acceptance of her humanity, of true need--call it the creation of herself as a human being. No doubt he is also won because eating the carrot is an acceptance of him, being an acceptance of food from him. It is also an acceptance of equality with him, since he has been living on that food.28

After a misunderstanding breaks up the couple just as they have realized their love for one another, Peter goes to Ellie's father in order to receive his reward for watching over the wealthy man's errant daughter. Yet

[He] is not interested in a $10,000 reward but he insists on being reimbursed in the amount of $39.60, his figure fully itemized. The economic issues in these films, with all their ambivalence and irresolution, are invariably tropes for spiritual issues ...The purpose of [Emerson, and Gable's character of Peter] in both cases is to distinguish themselves, with poker faces, from those who do not know what things cost, what life costs, who do not know what counts.29

In other words, Gable's character has grown to see past Ellie's class stereotype to see what really matters. By the same token, Ellie shows that she has learned what "life costs" and "what counts" when she again takes on the mantle of the runaway bride, this time to join the working man she truly loves. Even her father, a rich man who would probably not be as sympathetic in a later Capra film, has learned what "life costs" and "what counts" -or else he would not goad his daughter to join the newspaperman waiting outside the gates.

Presumably due to the influence of It Happened One Night, Sennett says writers learned to relax and "recognized that...girls could pursue, find, and even enjoy great wealth and remain untarnished." But, however, "they had to make certain that their shopgirls, waitresses and homeless waifs ended...with the Prince Charming in overalls or a ten-dollar suit."30 An excellent example is Hands Across the Table, which teamed future Gable spouse Carole Lombard with Fred MacMurray. The two make friends after they both realize they're golddiggers, but are willing, by the end of the film, to face an uncertain economic future if it means that they will be together.

Of course, some screwballs paired up rich men and poorer women. In the films where the woman is lower class, or the same class as the man, such as in His Girl Friday, Nothing Sacred, or in Easy Living, where Jean Arthur's life is changed because a mink coat falls on her, the working gal is much more manipulated by the man, particularly in Svengali-type situations that were influenced by 20th Century. In Nothing Sacred, the early Libeled Lady, and The Gilded Lily, lower-middle class women are exploited for the sake of a newspaper story by men of their own class. If men and women were on even ground class-wise, the screwball movie was much more likely to revert to sexist stereotypes. Few screwballs showed true penniless "bums" as My Man Godfrey and Meet John Doe dared to do (and Godfrey was really part of a Boston Brahmin family, slumming because of a failed love affair). Unlike women, men would never need to depend on marriage for support -they will always be more likely to find a job, Depression or not.


Dark Evolution & Screwball Today

Earlier, Preston Sturges' influence was described as both one that changed the screwball form dramatically and one that influenced modern comedy more today than 30s screwball. Preston Sturges' screwball masterpiece, The Lady Eve, is actually very much removed from the beginning of the genre, It Happened One Night, both in plot and in characterization. Sturges was obsessed with turning film form on its head, particularly that of romantic comedy. Many critics have noted the scene at the beginning of The Lady Eve, where Barbara Stanwyck observes Henry Fonda in a crowded cruise ship dining room through her mirror. It acts as a sort of "movie within the movie," being one of many ways that Sturges spotlights the artificiality of the form he was working with. By pushing screwball to such unbelievable heights and turning the heroines of the pictures from kooky women who love the men they are chasing to women who are using men only for what they desire (i.e., money), Sturges helped set up the stage for film noir, and the co-opting of screwball as the Second World War approached. Obviously, films needed to help the war effort, and the United States would have a hard time encouraging people to buy war bonds and suffer through shortages if Cary Grant and Irene Dunne were still prancing about in ostentatious wealth. Women, also, were going to have to be encouraged to stand tall in hard times and although the Sturges hero at the end of Sullivan's Travels believes that the way to uplift morale was to make funny movies, women-in-wartime films like Mrs. Miniver, (and Wish You Were Here, starring Claudette Colbert) and patriotic musicals like This is the Army were what film audiences really wanted to see.

But first, a return to The Lady Eve, and how this late entrance to screwball undermined the believability of the form. With the mirror scene, Cavell explains that "we are informed that this film knows itself to have been written and directed and photographed and edited."31 More importantly, he tells us,

Sturges is trying to tell us that tales of romance are inherently feats of cony catching, of conning, making gulls or suckers of their audience, and that film, with its typical stories of love set on luxurious ships or in mansions and containing beautiful people and horses and sunsets and miraculously happy endings, is inherently romantic.32

What Cavell doesn't say is that those conning films that make "suckers of their audience" include the screwball comedy. The screwball comedy often drew on audience sympathy for underdogs - for instance, in My Man Godfrey, the worldly-but-penniless butler is not the only person the audience applauds, but also Irene Bullock, who is forever being bullied by her nasty older sister. It also asked the audience to look past the unbelievable events to see the conflict that was going on inside of people's hearts - such as in The Awful Truth, where Cary Grant was the more likely adulterer of the divorced couple, and where both he and his wife show remorse that their pridefulness has destroyed their marriage. Most importantly, it asked an audience of people suffering through the nation's worst economic times ever to believe that those who were rich might be unhappy, too - and what's more, that as human beings the rich and poor both deserved to be as happy as anyone else.

Kendall talks about Henry Fonda's character in The Lady Eve, Hopsie, the heir to a large "ale" estate:

...Hopsie is a person who's lived a good deal inside himself, who doesn't know how to listen, who has no reflexes or instincts, whose generic good manners have anesthetized his mind - and who is unacquainted with what romantic comedy considered the prime tool for coping in the world: irony.33

A viewer must obviously ask why Stanwyck's character of Jean/Eve, who first tries to sucker Fonda out of his riches, would then fall in love with him? Hopsie may be a snake collector, and Jean may suddenly be aroused by Freudian dreams of snakes, but the idea of a romance - as in a love relationship, not simply one of lust, which the Freudian allusions could describe - between the protagonists stretches belief. It shows that Sturges was willing to sacrifice naturalness and chemistry for an artifical setting, whereas an improvisation-friendly, much less artificial director such as McCarey or Hawks would never have let one of their screwballs risk insulting the audience's intelligence, in the name of "form subversion" or not.

Cavell notes that the way Lady Eve and His Girl Friday, both late additions to the genre, don't end, "even by implication, with a request for forgiveness by the man and woman of one another...is a way of understanding the terrible darkness of [these comedies]." Indeed, Cavell tells us, the only reprieve is the one the governor gives the insane criminal in His Girl Friday.34

If the character Barbara Stanwyck created in The Lady Eve is one she would improve upon as a manipulator and eventual Black Widow of her husbands in Double Indemnity, a noir classic, then the way that His Girl Friday is literally "painted" black also influenced noir. Cavell grafts meaning onto the shot where Hildy enters the insane Earl's cage, in silhouette, "immediately backed by the bars that Earl is immediately fronted by," showing the ambiguity of Hildy's position - she wants to help this man, but she also wants to simply leave the city to get married, and if she has already begun to consider taking on his story, she may already be considering whether the paper's manipulation of his circumstances is right. Hildy also confronts her fellow newsmen, who are haranguing Earl's girlfriend, with a simple, "Gentlemen of the press," as if to cement that while she is one of the press, she is not a "gentleman," but a lady, with sympathy for this other woman. She will not debase herself by being as cruel as they are. Cavell also draws out her last line to Earl, which is simply, "Goodbye Earl. Good luck.":

I gloss the line, said then by this woman to this man there, in the following way: "I know you Earl and if you could know anything you would know me. We are both victims of a heartless world, and condemned to know it. The best the likes of you and me can hope for is a reprieve from it, on grounds of insanity. Good luck to us both."35

Another way to understand the terrible darkness of this comedy is to realize that screwball's form of insanity and foolishness have previously not been seen as an escape hatch from an "heartless world" but a means of transforming people from what they stand for (class and sexual roles) into who they really are (loving, eccentric individuals). Here this insanity is not only real, but by implication the combat and craziness of Russell and her manipulative ex-husband is only a way of escape that does not at all change the essential ambuiguity and hardships of life. Nor does it make it easy to ride over the difficulty of either an ambiguous relationship or an ambiguous world, as many screwballs seem to promise at the end. In other words, madcap antics are no longer a transformative means to an end, but childish acting out employed only so a controlling ex-lover like Grant in His Girl Friday or Stanwyck in The Lady Eve can get what they want.



Unfortunately, screwball cannot enjoy the sort of renaissance it once did. Today is a time both literally and figuratively when a couple can end up having sex the same day they meet, as they do in recent screwball Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Sexuality is dealt with today in almost clinical detail, cheating the filmgoer out of the mystique by leaving nothing to the imagination. One or two bona fide screwball comedies have been made in the last couple of years, notably Year of the Comet (1990), a film where a well-off professional wine "pricer" (Penelope Ann Miller) searches out an important bottle of wine, both aided and foiled in turn by an adventurer of somewhat lower class (Tim Daly). However, it did not garner uniformly excellent reviews, although it deserved to be a sleeper hit if nothing else. Today, while some romantic comedies still tackle sexual issues (such as When Harry Met Sally [1990] and its question about male and female friendship) rather than the prevailing "romance in artificial situations" (shades of Preston Sturges), it is from a more cynical bent. Class based romances are notably absent, unless one counts films like Trading Places and Taking Care of Business, in which men play the main roles and women are in the background. Occasionally a filmmaker attempts to look at cross-racial pairing, such as in Zebrahead, Jungle Fever, and Mississipi Masala, but happy endings are no longer guaranteed, and these films are hardly screwball.

Screwball may become more influential again, aside from the Sturges-influenced, darker comedies like Romancing the Stone, and the positively gruesome War of the Roses, where the warring ex-spouses are positively evil to one another, and die as soon as they decide to get back together! There is apparently a market for those sorts of screwballs, but in order to appreciate classic screwball comedy of the 1930s, one has to go back to the source, to see that

...even where its conclusions sometimes draw a veil of realism over the unrealistic liberation of its middle parts, [classic screwball] continues to be inspired by misrule, rebellion, irrationality, and the topsy-turvy vision of life so well adapted by Katherine Hepburn's Susan [in Bringing Up Baby] and so emphatically, not to say exasperatedly, underlined by Cary Grant's David when he remarks, "Susan, you look at everything upside down!" 36

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American Cinema: Romantic Comedy. Narr: Katy Selverstone, Host: John Lithgow, Prod./Writer: Molly Ornati. PBS. 1994.

Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. Affairs to remember: The Hollywood comedy of the sexes. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Byrge, Duane, and Robert Milton Miller. The Screwball Comedy Films: A History & Filmography, 1934-1942. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1991.

Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Deschner, Donald. The Films of Cary Grant. Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press, 1973.

Dooley, Roger. From Scarface to Scarlett: American Films in the 1930s. New York: Harcourt Bruce Jovanovich, 1979.

Gehring, Wes D. Screwball Comedy: A Genre of Madcap Romance. Contributions of the Study of Popular Culture, Number 13. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Kendall, Elizabeth. The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s. New York: Alfred R. Knopf, 1990.

Ott, Frederick W. The Films of Carole Lombard. Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press, 1972.

Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, & the Studio System. New York: Random House, 1981.

Sennett, Ted. Lunatics & Lovers: A Tribute to the Giddy & Glittering Era of the Screen's "Screwball" & Romantic Comedies. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1973.


Principal Filmography

20th Century. Dir. Howard Hawks. With John Barrymore & Carole Lombard. Columbia, 1934.

It Happened One Night. Dir. Frank Capra. With Clark Gable & Claudette Colbert. Columbia, 1934.

My Man Godfrey. Dir. Gregory La Cava. With Carole Lombard & William Powell. Universal, 1936.

The Awful Truth. Dir. Leo McCarey. With Irene Dunne & Cary Grant. Columbia, 1937.

Bringing Up Baby. Dir. Howard Hawks. With Katherine Hepburn & Cary Grant. RKO, 1938.

His Girl Friday. Dir. Howard Hawks. With Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell. Columbia, 1940.

The Lady Eve. Dir. Preston Sturges. With Barbara Stanwyck & Henry Fonda. Paramount, 1941.



  • 0 From here on, this film will be shortened to just 20th Century.

  • 1 My Man Godfrey (Review). Variety, September 23, 1936, pg. 16.

  • 2 Fleming, William. "Perfect Abandon for Carol Lombard," Shadowplay, June 1934, pp. 30-31, 64-66. (Quoted in Ott, pg.20-21).

  • 3 Ott, pg. 31.

  • 4 Ott, pg. 27.

  • 5 Kendall, pg. 38-39.

  • 6 Schatz, pg. 174.

  • 7 Cavell, pg. 243.

  • 8 Cavell, pg. 236.

  • 9 Kendall, pg. 197.

  • 10 Kendall, pg. 240.

  • 11 Deschner, pg. 3.

  • 12 Cavell, pg. 22.

  • 13 Babington and Evans, pg. 21.

  • 14 Kendall, pg. 155.

  • 15 Kendall, pg. 38-39.

  • 16 American Cinema, also Byrge and Milton Miller, pg. 21.

  • 17 American Cinema.

  • 18 Martin, Jeffrey Brown. Ben Hecht: Hollywood Screenwriter. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1985.

  • 19 Cavell, pg. 80.

  • 20 Cavell, pg. 82.

  • 21 American Cinema.

  • 22 American Cinema.

  • 23 Babington and Evans, pg. 30-31.

  • 24 Dooley, pg. 51-53.

  • 25 Sennett, pg. 20-21.

  • 26 Kendall, pg. 45.

  • 27 Kendall, pg. 41.

  • 28 Cavell, pg. 28.

  • 29 Cavell, pg. 5.

  • 30 Sennett, pg. 21-23.

  • 31 Cavell, pg. 55.

  • 32 Cavell, pg. 48-49.

  • 33 Kendall, pg. 250.

  • 34 Cavell, pg. 183.

  • 35 Cavell, pg. 173.

  • 36 Babington and Evans, pg. 16

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  • LUCY: You're all confused, aren't you?

    JERRY: Uh-huh. Aren't you?

    LUCY: No.

    JERRY: Well, you should be, because you’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different, except in a different way. You’re the same, only I’ve been a fool. Well, I’m not now. SO as long as I’m different, don’t you think things could be the same again? Only a little different?

    The Awful Truth

    screenplay by Vina Delmar


    Some characteristics of Screwball Comedy:
    µ   Reverse class snobbery, to be poor is somehow to be more noble. What’s more, to be rich is to be castigated, passions befitting theater patrons, during the Great Depression.

    µ   A very skillful blend of sophistication and slapstick. Although screwball characters move in an elegant world, where even a simple bathroom appears to be the center of their universe, they may still whack one another over the head, but while The Three Stooges use sledgehammers, screwball characters use silver chafing dishes, and the like—weapons of the upper class.

    µ   A well written script, laced with barbed dialog. An overlapping style of delivery, with lines tossed off in rapid fire.

    µ   An emphases on elegant clothes, cars, and furniture. The use of exotic locals, even the dump site in “My Man Godfrey”, (see below).
    The hero or the heroine living by his or her wits alone, though this is often balanced by a reliable gainfully employed love interest.

    µ    Last and probably most important, supporting casts of first-rate character actors playing eccentric types as well as a stable of familiar faces in leading roles (Cary Grant, William Powell, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn)

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