Monday, July 14, 2008

An Unsuitable Attachment: The Classic American Screwball Comedy

In the late 1930's and early 1940's, comedy in American movies was dominated by what came to be called screwball comedy. In Britain, the genre was known as crazy comedy, which British writer Gerald Halliwell defines as "seemingly adult people behaving in what society at the time thought was a completely irresponsible way" (Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion). My own conception of American screwball comedy is more specific than this.

For me screwball comedy has a classic trajectory. A character is forced to choose between two opposing alternatives. On the one hand is safety, conformity, and predictability; on the other is risk, idiosyncrasy, and unpredictability.

Most often this choice is presented in romantic terms: a man or woman must choose between two possible love interests, each of whom represents one of these alternative ways of seeing the world and behaving. Typically, the main character initially chooses the safer, more conventional alternative. The movie, then, details how this person comes to change his or her mind and instead opts for the more adventurous alternative. This is invariably the resolution of the conflict, for Americans prize individuality (on the ideal level at any rate) above all other character traits.

This basic situation is in truth not all that innovative. It is essentially an Americanized updating of the classic romantic dilemma created by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice, whose heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, must choose between the sanctimonious, asexual Mr. Collins and the rich, handsome, and intelligent Mr. Darcy. What transforms this traditional romantic dilemma into screwball comedy is the addition of the element of conformity versus nonconformity to the choices confronting the main character.

The first American screwball comedy is generally, and I believe rightly, considered to be Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934). So completely did this new kind of movie captivate audiences and the industry that the movie received all four major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, and Director), the first time this had ever happened and an accomplishment not to be repeated for more than forty years, by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975).

In Capra's movie, heiress Claudette Colbert runs away from her overprotective father to marry a fortune-hunter she has become infatuated with. Pursued by the kind of fast-talking, get-the-story-at-any-cost newspaper reporter (Clark Gable) who populated city rooms in the movies of the 1930's, the initially hostile Colbert is finally and reluctantly won over by Gable's working-class, no-nonsense, down-to-earth masculinity and bravado. He, in turn, comes to see her as more than just a spoiled, self-centered heiress out of touch with the realities of the world. In the end, she finally sees the unsuitability of her fortune-hunter and exchanges him for another man whom she at first found just as unsuitable, but finally comes to realize is actually exactly the right choice for her.

Capra is sometimes considered the King of Screwball Comedy, but except for You Can't Take It With You (and that movie is based on a popular play), he never really repeated anything approximating this formula again. Instead, he veered into making comedies with a social conscience and a more sentimental undertone, movies like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe. His attempt at black comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace (also based on a popular play), is an overly frenetic and labored work that is at times almost tedious. (How many times can one watch Uncle Teddy race up the stairs yelling, "Charge!" before the charm wears off?)

His last great work, It's a Wonderful Life, admittedly both a popular and artistic masterpiece, is a very melancholic movie that isn't really a comedy at all. A few Christmases ago, I watched a severely truncated version of this film on a Spanish-language TV channel. Running less than an hour in its entirety, it consisted mostly of the mid-section of the unedited film, the parts describing George Bailey's vision of what life would be like if he had indeed never been born and his horrified reactions when everyone he encounters really does treat him as though he had never existed. Everything before this was reduced to a couple of scenes, as was everything after. The effect was unnervingly like watching an especially macabre episode of The Twilight Zone.

A good example of the typical screwball comedy is the second version of Holiday (1938), directed by George Cukor. Here, when Cary Grant comes to meet the family of his rich, conventional, and dull fiancee, he unexpectedly encounters her alcoholic brother (Lew Ayres) and her rebellious sister (Katharine Hepburn). Both are suffering from an obvious case of inadequate parental affection and consciously-chosen arrested development. (Much of the movie takes place in their childhood nursery, a place of refuge for these sibling misfits).

By the end of the movie, they (especially Hepburn) have persuaded Grant to reject their sister and a life of comfortable but unexciting wealth as a drone in the family corporation. He opts instead to see the world and exchanges his original fiancee for the adventurous and unconventional Hepburn. One unsuitable mate is swapped for another who at first seemed unsuitable herself but turns out to be exactly right for Grant's newfound values and his newly acquired craving for excitement and unpredictability in life.

By about 1940, the screwball approach to comedy had become so ubiquitous, and had produced so many mediocre movies, that it was in real danger of running its course. The choice confronting the main characters in romantic comedies was becoming less and less one between freedom and conformity and was instead beginning to revert to the conventional romantic choice based on temperament and sexual attraction. (Of course, sex had always been an implicit element of the classic screwball comedy: Cary Grant is sexy, exciting, and slightly dangerous; Ralph Bellamy most definitely isn't.)

Filmmakers looking for ways to prolong the life of the genre, however, came up with inventive variations of the basic situation. In My Favorite Wife (1940) Cary Grant's first wife (Irene Dunne), missing at sea for several years and just declared legally dead, turns up right after his wedding to his second wife. This situation provokes many farcical complications, including an unanticipated attack of jealousy on the part of Grant when he meets the hunky athlete (Randolph Scott) Dunne was stranded on the island with, before Grant finally acknowledges that he is still in love with her. The deus ex machina of his second marriage being ruled invalid in court saves the day, and the couple (it had always been made apparent to the audience that Dunne is more temperamentally suited to Grant than his second wife) are at last reunited.

In The Lady Eve (1941) the intrepid Preston Sturges gave Barbara Stanwyck a most unusual dual role. In this film she plays both potential love interests for nerdy herpetologist Henry Fonda--gold-digging conwoman Jean Harrington, who is rejected by the rich Fonda, and the fictitious British aristocrat Lady Eve, whom she creates and impersonates to ensnare him for revenge.

Sturges took even more audacious liberties with the genre in his 1942 masterpiece The Palm Beach Story. Here Claudette Colbert leaves inventor Joel McCrea for personal reasons--his disbelieving jealousy when she accepts money from the "Wienie King" with no strings so that he can build his bizarre invention, an airport suspended over a city on a net--as well as practical ones--she wants to marry a millionaire to finance the invention. She becomes engaged to an effete, hare-brained millionaire (Rudy Vallee) while his sex-crazed sister (a hilarious Mary Astor) pursues McCrea when he follows Colbert to Florida. In an outrageously surreal denouement, everybody gets their cake and eats it too when it turns out that McCrea and Colbert are both identical twins (thus explaining the enigmatic prologue to the movie, which apparently shows Colbert pushing herself into a closet and locking the door before rushing off to marry McCrea). McCrea and Colbert re-marry while Vallee and Astor marry the twins, in a triple wedding.

By the early 1940's the worsening situation in Europe, the entry of the U.S. into WW II, and the end of the Depression (class distinctions and the conflict between the rich and the poor had from the beginning often been important issues in the genre) made the screwball approach to comedy seem frivolous and irrelevant. But for nearly ten years, beginning with It Happened One Night, screwball dominated the comedic output of the Hollywood studios with absolute authority.

My favorite screwball comedies (in alphabetical order):
The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey (1937)
Bringing Up Baby, Howard Hawks (1938)
His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks (1940)
It Happened One Night, Frank Capra (1934)
, Mitchell Leisen (1939)
My Man Godfrey
, Gregory LaCava (1936)
The Palm Beach Story, Preston Sturges (1942)
The Philadelphia Story, George Cukor (1940)
Twentieth Century, Howard Hawks (1934)

My second-favorites:
Bachelor Mother, Garson Kanin (1939)
Holiday, George Cukor (1938)
The Lady Eve, Preston Sturges (1941)
The More the Merrier, George Stevens (1943)
My Favorite Wife, Garson Kanin (1940)
Theodora Goes Wild, Richard Boleslawski (1936)
You Can't Take It With You, Frank Capra (1938)

American-style screwball comedy never seemed to catch on in Britain, but one outstanding British example ranks with the best of the American films:
I Know Where I'm Going, Michael Powell (1945)

I'll be writing about Howard Hawks's screwball masterpiece His Girl Friday in a future edition.


Anonymous said...

"Arsenic And Old Lace" is not tedious. It´s a great comedy.

Anonymous said...

I discovered the screwball comedy a couple of years ago and immediately fell sappily in love with them. "His Girl Friday" makes me laugh out loud every time I toss it in my DVD player and is a title I reccomend to anyone looking for a romantic comedy that isn't formulaic tripe. Screwball comedies are great for anyone of nearly any age and I have found do not loose their charm or wit. For the most part I do disagree with the author re: "Arsenic & Old Lace." While I do admit Uncle Teddy is tedious, the two sweet, endearing aunts who casually poison their boarders without much afterthought are some of the funniest characters in film.

Anonymous said...

Definitely disagree about Arsenic and Old Lace. Also think Ball of Fire should be in there. A forgotten classic example of the screwball comedy.

QNormal said...

Preston Sturges, George Cukor, Howard Hawks--Hollywood has not seen such terrific filmmakers in a long time.
On the Side, "It Happened One Night" and "One Flew Over a Cuckoos Nest" each also won Best Screenplay, meaning they won the top 5 Oscars.

simplysimon said...

There is no second tier: all of them arfe 1st class.

Prospero said...

Bring Up Baby happens to be my all-time favorite movie. An excellent post.

Anonymous said...

You forgot "Vivacious Lady" - George Stevens with Ginger Rogers and Jimmy Stewart from 1938 and "A Lady Takes A Chance" - William Seiter with Jean Arthur and John Wayne from 1943. Both laugh out loud, formula Screwball Comedies that merit a place over some on your lists.

Francesca said...

I'm glad someone else pointed out the fact that King Westley is very much seen and heard in "It Happened One Night." I would also like to point out that Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life" was a box office failure during its initial release. It was the first and only film released by Republic Pictures, and it bankrupted that company. The film passed into the public domain and was picked up by networks as a cheap source of programming at Christmastime. This led to its rise in stature and popularity - not because of any sense of nostalgia from its initial audience.

Anonymous said...

'Randolph Scott, in real life Grant's "roommate" at the time'...a not-to-subltle acceptance of the gay Scott-Grant theory. It's pretty well-known by now that Grant and Scott intentionally played up the "roomate" angle as a gag, when in reality they were just roomates.

"The Lady Eve" second-tier? You've got to be kidding. And "I Know Where I'm Going" equal to the best American examples? A dull, sad little movie, at best.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the author about "Arsenic and Old Lace." It's just plain tedious and silly.

Anonymous said...

"Ball of Fire" is one of the great screwball comedies, and should be included in the top tier, as should "Bachelor Mother".

Meek said...

I hit a screwball comedy phase in my netflix queue last year, and I jumped into Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night and (my favorite of the ones I've seen) The Philadelphia Story. The three leads in that film are amazing. The whole middle section where Jimmy Stewart is drunk - his performance is terrific. What initial lead me to watch Philadelphia Story was actually a review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which called it a post-modern/fantasy re-working of the PS story model. You begin the film with two lovers breaking up, and the film is about getting them back together despite their bickering...

Really informative post. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Bennett hardly considers Mr. Collins for a moment. Yes, the Mr. Collins/ Mr. Darcy dilemma would aptly fit in with your ideas of the screwball comedy, but I would disagree that it's a good example. I'd say her biggest choice is between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham. She actually likes Wickham before finding out the truth.

But I adore It Happened One Night.

I like Arsenic and Old Lace, but it's not my favorite.

Anonymous said...

Another error to correct -

"It's A Wonderful Life" was not released by Republic; it was released by Liberty Films, which folded after two releases, not one. Republic Films was a studio that lasted from the 1930's into the 1950's; they released many John Wayne and Roy Rogers films, as well as Orson Welles's version of "Macbeth".

R. D. Finch said...

Thanks to the commenters who pointed out my inaccurate statement about "It Happened One Night." It has been a number of years since I last saw this movie, and clearly I misremembered this detail. The offending statement has been removed from the post.

Thanks also to those who presented their own ideas about which are the great screwball comedies. I presented my own lists in the recognition that all qualitative judgments about movies are opinions and therefore entirely subjective.

A note about my reference to "Pride and Prejudice": I did not mean to imply that Elizabeth ever seriously considered Mr. Collins as a mate. Unfortunately, the heroes and heroines of screwball comedies are not always so perspicacious.

For the record, my very favorite of all the films I listed is "Bringing Up Baby," which for me elevates silliness to the level of art.

Thanks again to everyone who took the time to respond to my thoughts.

Ed said...

Another ingenious Preston Sturges film that approaches the screwball genre is THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK. In this film, however, the female protagonist chooses her suitable male mate for a reason and in a manner that is stunningly different than in all the more definitive screwball comedies already mentioned. The film is sort of a reversal of the screwball convention, and it is hilarious. I won't say anything more for fear of spoiling the film for anyone who hasn't yet seen it. Sturges films were a bit too eccentric to be classified as anything other than Sturges films.

By the way, I agree with you about Arsenic and Old Lace. It doesn't quite work for me.

flixfan said...

Not to be picky, but how can you talk about screwball comedy without mentioning Ernst Lubitsch? Perhaps his movies weren't typical American screwball - they had wit and sex in equal measure - but what else would you call sophisticated comedies like Trouble In Paradise and Ninotchka.

The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire are two of my all-time favourite movies - bonus that they're screwball comedies and double bonus that they star the magnificent Barbara Stanwyck.

mike weber/fairportfan said...

Possibly Arsenic and Old Lace might have been a better film had Boris Karloff been cast in the part he played on Broadway...

Anonymous said...

A great modern (ish) screwball comedy is 'Gridlock'd' with Tim Roth and Tupac. 10 years old, I know, but it proves that the genre is viable if overlooked. A great film.

Anonymous said...

Any article on The Classic Screwball Comedy that doesn't include Nothing Sacred, 1937, directed by the great William A Wellman and with a marvellous script by Ben Hecht cannot be taken seriously. Such an article shows a curious ignorance on the subject and must be said to have more than one screw loose.

Douglas said...

I agree with Finch's assessment of Arsenic and Old Lace, and I second Ed's shoutout to The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Another interesting inversion of formula is Sturges Sullivan's Travels (1941), in which McCrea is trapped in marriage with his undesirable wife and only after he is mistakenly declared dead and she remarries is he free to pursue Veronica Lake; the screwball element takes a backseat to the main plot, but it is there. While Nothing Sacred certainly feels like a screwball comedy, it really doesn't fit the formula that Finch is arguing. I would suggest Hitchcock's only experiment in the genre, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1937), is more important than Nothing Sacred, and another inversion of the formula. For those offering latter-day examples, I think the final word in post-1940s screwballs has to be Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? (1972), a transparent homage that may not be a great film but is nearly as much fun as the classics of the genre.

R. D. Finch said...

I did see "Nothing Sacred" again recently. I wanted to give it another chance (it does have all the right credentials--Lombard, March, Hecht, Wellman), but again I was disappointed in it. For me it is simply not as good as the films I discussed.

Two others I wish I could like more (because Jean Arthur is such a wonderful actress, not to mention Edward Arnold and Charles Coburn) are "Easy Living" and "The Devil and Miss Jones." But again I just don't find them as good as the ones I listed. And not all of these really fit with my thesis.

Allow me to reiterate that I am aware that my preferences are wholly subjective. But I do appreciate and respect the views of others who are passionate enough about movies and about this genre to express an opinion.

Zelig said...

Where is Lubitsh and his "To Be Or Not To Be" with the GREAT Carol Lombard? I Liked Arsenic and Old Lace. One question: Isn't "The Thin Man" considered screwball?

Anonymous said...

What about The Miracle of Morgan's Creek? It was hilarious, fast paced and pretty controversial dealing with a one night stand and accidental pregnancy in 1944.

flixspix said...

As an aside, I sell vintage movie paper on Ebay. I have noted a dramatic increase (which is encouraging after the non-stop escalation of Universal Horror and 50's Sci-Fi) in demand and prices for screwball comedies. I think this is a reflection of the numerous posts of people's recent discoveries of the genre. I would have to add myself to that list in order to be well versed on their quality and plot lines. To that I can report that presently, Carol Lombard is virtually in a class by herself in demand. But in my mind clearly the two queens of screwball are Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck. So personally not listing YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (absolutely some kind of a triumph when a film can bring a tear to your eye of utter joy hearing "Polly Woddle Doodle") and BALL OF FIRE (which while watching I realized in the last 10 minutes or so that it was a very clever take on SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS.) And the best director of screwball, Preston Sturgess, hands down!

Anonymous said...

Excellent article and comments. A more "recent" (although already forty years old) variation on the screwball formula is "The Graduate." The heroine's choice at the end, in fact the entire ending, is a reworking of "It Happened One Night."

Anonymous said...

Bringing Up Baby is too long and Katherine Hepburn is too annoying in it. One that you failed to mention is Sullivan's Travels, classic screwball with a strong message that defends the genre.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with the comment about 'You Can't Take It With You'. That is about as great as screwball gets. Fabulous cast, excellent director, incredible story. Sheer genius all the way around, basically set the standard for many years to come.

ericthatsme77 said...

Definitely agree that "Ball Of Fire" and "Nothing Sacred" should be on your list as well. As well as "Twentieth Century" (H.Hawks; John Barrymore and C.Lombard); and "It's Wonderful World" (W.S. Van Dyke; J. Stewart and C.Colbert).

Always maintained if their were a Mount Rushmore of Greats of American Film Comedy, it would be Capra, Sturges, Lubitsch, and Wilder. As you pointed out, "One Night", and possibly "You Can't Take It With You" are the only two that can be considered out-and-out screwball comedies, however.

In my mind though, Preston Sturges has to be the father, and foremost practicioner of srewball comedies. While Capra, Lubitsch and Wilder can drift into socially-concious, and/or romantic comedy, there is always a topsy-turvy, eccentric, never know when the mood will change (sometimes just for an instant) into absurdity or kookiness aspect to *all* of the films Sturges directed (w/the exception of "The Great Moment" and "The French, They Are a Funny Race", the former being not the film that Sturges wrote *or* directed, and the latter the last film that Sturges had anything to do with, and just done for the paycheck). I mean, it just doesn't get more screwball then 'Morgan's Creek', or "The Lady Eve", or 'Palm Beach', or "Sullivan's Travels". Or "Hail The Conquering Hero", what is to my mind, his best film. Also, three great (screwball) comedies he wrote, w/others directing: "The Good Fairy" (William Wyler; Margaret Sullivan, Herbert Marshall); Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen; J.Arthur and Ray Milland) and "Never Say Die" (Elliot Nugent; Bob Hope and Martha Raye.) Of course, seeing as how Sturges directed *and* wrote some of the greatest screen comedies, gives further credence to the "father" status I give to him, as well as just being one of the great comedy practioners of all time. (in that respect, the only two right there w/him would be Wilder and Woody Allen).

Anyway...I think there are some very good (screwball) comedies being neglected here--those being the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It's not much-acknowledged today, but, besides being a showcase for Fred & Gingers' dancing abilities, some of those are quite masterful comedies as well, espcially the ones w/Edward Everett Horton and/or Eric Blore lending superb comedic support. *Especially* "Top Hat", every bit as enjoyable a comedy as it is a musical (and that's saying quite a bit.)

"I Know Where I'm Going": it's an immensly charming, capital 'R' romantic film, as are a few in the Powell cannon--but screball? I don't know about that. But, certainly, a film everyone should see. *All* of the Powell, and Powell & Pressburger output, as a matter of fact.

And last, but not least, though we've concerned ourselves w/the directors--a "Capra" film, or a "Lubtisch" film, let's not forget, (w/the exception of Sturges) there was always a writer behind the director (even if in most of the cases, these directors had a great deal of input and influence of the shaping of these films). Many of Capras' great films was written by the very talented Robert Riskin. Lubitsch had Samson Raphaelson, Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett. As a matter of fact, Hecht had one the most interesting, varied, and brilliant writing careers in Hollywood history. Besides the classic dramas he wrote, and collaborations with the likes of Hitchcock and Otto Preminger, he also penned, or helped pen some classic comedies: "His Girl Friday", "It's a Wonderful World", "Nothing Sacred", "Twentieth Century", and "Design For Living". And Wilder himself, who after going on to direct a WIDE variety in films, got off to a start in co-writing classic screwball comedies: "Midnight", "Ninotchka", "Ball Of Fire", and "The Major and the Minor" Actually, all were co-written w/Charles Brackett (who, after his Wilder collaboration, would write the thrillers "Niagra" and "Titanic"; they seemed to bring out each other's inner screball). Though he would go on to write classic comedies w/I.A.L. Diamond, not so much in the "screwball" vein (w/the possible exception of "The Fortune Cookie").
Anyway, those are my LENGTHY additional comments to this fine blog.

R. D. Finch said...

It's clear that many commenters feel I haven't given adequate recognition to Lubitsch and Sturges. These are unquestionably two of the greats, each with a distinctive take on life and a c.v. of genuine classics. I've seen only five films by Lubitsch so can't really claim to be well acquainted with his work. Although I liked them all very much, my favorite is "The Shop Around the Corner."

As for Sturges, what can one say? Cinematic genius is almost an understatement. I've never seen a film by him that I didn't like except "The Great Moment" (which isn't a comedy), although "The Great McGinty" strikes me as not quite in the same league with his other works. Besides "Palm Beach" I particularly like "Sullivan's Travels" (his masterpiece of masterpieces?) and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek." Has anyone seen "Christmas in July"? Although not as well known as his other comedies, it's an excellent movie.

However, as I wrote near the beginning of my post, my definition of screwball comedy is a rather limited one, and this was the main point I wanted to make. I limited my comments largely to movies which clearly fit my definition (although I did go off on a tangent with Capra). Even "Bringing Up Baby" fits it if you consider that Grant's choice is between Hepburn (nonconformity) and his work (conformity). When the dinosaur skeleton collapses at the end, it is more than just a funny sight gag. It's the illustration of Hepburn finally conquering her rival, which is Grant's career.

If a screwball comedy were simply any movie in which wacky and unpredictable things happen, then the definition would be so general that even the Marx Bros. would fit it, and the topic would have been unmanageable. So just because I didn't mention a particular film doesn't necessarily mean that I don't like it or find it lacking in quality. Many fine films that were mentioned by commenters simply don't fit my narrow definition of the term and therefore would not have been appropriate examples of my thesis.

A comment about my division of the films I listed into "top" amd "second tier": This division is strictly relative, and the distinction between the two categories is a fine one indeed. It's essentially the difference between awarding a movie **** or ***1/2. So they're all great films, and I was just being extra-picky to try to help those unfamiliar with the genre decide which to see first, then continue with the second batch if they found they liked the first one. I'm sure that just considering the movies I listed, others would have divided the list differently or perhaps not at all.

Again I can't adequately thank all those who commented by sharing their thoughtful views on the subject, whether you agreed or disagreed with me. Tomorrow I will be publishing my post on "His Girl Friday," and I hope that all of you will read it and, if you like, leave a comment.

Anonymous said...

Another relatively recent variation on screwball comedy: "Shakespeare in Love." At the end, the wedding between the heroine and the establishment character does take place, but her heart is with the "outsider," Shakespeare. (And, yes, I know it's not an American film.)

The Rush Blog said...

As much as I love "THE AWFUL TRUTH" and "MY FAVORITE WIFE", I have a problem with both movies. Namely the endings. Both movies ended with the main couple having their final reconciliations in the countryside. And I found both final scenes to be boring. It seemed as if the screenwriters for both films simply ran out of gas before the movies could end.