Screwball comedy, a genre invented during the Depression, often features a madcap woman (think Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck) embroiling an earnest and slightly stodgy man in a series of wild adventures. Along the way, Mr. Uptight is humiliated in one way or another and has his masculinity challenged. Although women are the undisputed stars of screwball, these films are full of gorgeous men in delightfully awkward situations.
Sometimes, the male lead is only temporarily at a disadvantage, and he is allowed to reassert his masculinity, as in My Man Godfrey, where William Powell, homeless and penniless, accepts a job as a butler in the home of a rich girl played by Carole Lombard. Eventually, of course, he saves the family and marries the beautiful wild child.
Screwball, named for the erratic baseball pitch, is about reversing expectations and the battle of opposites: rich/poor, aristocratic/working class, man/woman. It Happened One Night is often cited as the first screwball comedy, but the screwball element consists mainly in the encounter between rich girl Claudette Colbert and down-on-his-luck journalist Clark Gable, who go cross-country together. In part, screwball was a response to the censorship of the Motion Picture Production Code, which had been implemented in Hollywood in 1930. The Code strongly discouraged the portrayal of “excessive or lustful kissing” or “a man and woman in bed together.” Screwball managed to be very sexy while following the code to the letter.
I consider two films to be the dual apotheosis of screwball. One is Bringing Up Baby, featuring rich girl Katharine Hepburn and nerdy paleontologist Cary Grant. Intent on completing his Brontosaurus skeleton and marrying his dull fiancée, the hapless scientist falls into the hands of Hepburn, who thinks he’s a zoologist and brings him home to assist in the rearing of her new pet leopard. Before the end, Grant finds himself without clothes, is locked in jail and has his precious fossil “intercostal clavicle” stolen by Susan’s dog, George.
The other divine exemplar is The Lady Eve, in which con artist Barbara Stanwyck falls for Henry Fonda’s nerdy rich ophiologist (snake scientist). After discovering she’s a swindler, he dumps her, and she takes her revenge by reappearing as “Lady Eve Sidwich” to tease and torture him. Fonda eventually escapes her clutches, only to be recaptured and happily accept his fate…
As this example shows, the difference between screwball comedy and conventional romantic comedy is that a screwball “romance” avoids sentimentality, melodrama or anything heavily romantic. Indeed, screwball makes fun of the conventional romance, which is why the men so often end up needing to be rescued, rather than playing the rescuers.
Another favorite screwball topic is marriage (and divorce, remarriage, annulment, adultery, bigamy). The 1930s were a time of social change, when divorce became less stigmatized; screwball gleefully punctures the idea that two people get married and live happily ever after. Indeed, despite the romance in Bringing Up Baby, there is no wedding at the end. Long-suffering David may be reconciled to a relationship with wild woman Susan, but its exact nature is left undetermined.
In The Awful Truth, both Irene Dunne and Cary Grant have adulterous affairs, then divorce, but each tries to sabotage the other’s new romance.
Disposing of the inconvenient fiancée is a classic screwball plot point which recurs in some of the later revivals. The Parent Trap (1961) is a variation on screwball in which twin girls scheme to reunite their divorced parents. They go on a camping trip with their father’s fiancée Vicky, and torment her until she loses her temper, demonstrating her unfitness for step-parenthood.
My favorite post-1950 screwball is Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972) which follows all the classic conventions: uptight but cute scientist meets a wacky woman who leads him on a wild goose chase (and along the way, disposes of his fiancée).
Many of the greatest male stars of the 1930s and 40s appeared in screwball: Clark Gable, John Barrymore, William Powell, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Joel McRea, Fredric March. Among current movie stars, George Clooney has come the closest, in Intolerable Cruelty (a Coen Bros movie) and Leatherheads, which Clooney directed.
I think it’s time for a new screwball revival! Bring on Channing Tatum, the two Ryans (Reynolds and Gosling), Tom Hardy, and (oh please) Tom Hiddleston!
This post is part of the Addicted to Screwball Blogathon, hosted by Pfeiffer Philms and Meg Movies! Give it a look for many tributes to screwball, classic and modern.