by Gregg Rickman
What is this thing called screwball? Most commonly thought of as a cycle in Hollywood romantic comedies, running from the notable year of 1934 (The Thin Man, Twentieth Century and above all It Happened One Night) through to Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), screwball is still very much with us, as a beacon of the giddy achievement possible within popular entertainment.
The Thin Man
"Screwball" came to the fore directly with the adoptation of the rigid, censorial Production Code of 1934, which put an end to the carnal delights of the "Pre-Code" era of early sound cinema. In Pre-Code Hollywood, such topics as adultery, homosexuality and prostitution could be more or less openly addressed, and characters clearly slept together without benefit of clergy. As such, the development of the madcap lovers of screwball comedy can be seen as compensation, asserting some form of rebellion against the harsh strictures that insisted even married couples be seen sleeping in separate beds. Thus came the childish qualities of many screwball protagonists: the "madcap heiresses" played by Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey (1936) and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), to name three prominent examples; with male counterexamples such as the perpetually drunken William Powell in The Thin Man series, shooting out Christmas tree ornaments with an air gun in the 1934 original's most famous scene. In Twentieth Century, John Barrymore's producer and Lombard's stage star embody expressions of the unrestrained egotism of childhood, in perpetual motion.
But what this fails to account for is the mature understanding of male-female relationships achieved in the best of these films, together with their warm romanticism. With an open depiction of the aggression of genuine adult sexuality - the subject matter of such harsh Pre-Code gems as Baby Face (1933), wherein Barbara Stanwyck literally sleeps her way from the bottom to the top floor of a corporation - now forbidden, couples were forced to sublimate their desires. Powell and Myrna Loy clearly enjoy each other in every way in The Thin Man, but their pleasure in each other was limited on screen to looks, glances and inference (plus the occasional childish stuck-out tongue).
It Happened One Night
All of this can be demonstrated in what is perhaps the quintessential screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, directed by Frank Capra from a script by Robert Riskin. Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, daughter of a millionaire (Walter Connolly), who flees her riches in an attempt to rejoin her husband in name only, golddigging aviator King Westley. With her dad's detectives everywhere, Ellie heads to the backroads, where a hard luck reporter, Peter Warne (Clark Gable), takes her under his wing. He teaches her how to survive on the road, eating carrots and dunking doughnuts the workingman's way.
It Happened One Night
A drunken Warne is introduced being hailed by his fellow reporters, en route to being fired, with the salute "Make way for the king!" The scenario enacted in It Happened One Night has the old king (rich dad Connolly) and the false king (King, the husband) displaced by the true king (Gable), much more of a common man than either. It Happened One Night thus works as a New Deal allegory, with old money and the sponging parasite Westley, associated with the decadence of the 1920s, giving way to the honest workingman Warne. The film takes pains to demonstrate that Gable's character won't propose to Ellie until he's proven himself financially. His failure to demand any more money from Connolly's character than what he's already spent wins dad's approval. The film works to demonstrate the passing of a torch from an old patriarch to a new one, a notion strengthened by Gable's role in maturing Colbert away from a "brat" who won't eat the food her dad offers her, to a woman who's learned to eat doughnuts and carrots properly.
Yet the film can also be seen as a 1930s feminist high point, if only for its famous image of Ellie Andrews running away from her remarriage in favor of eloping with Peter Warne. More so than in any previous era in Hollywood history (and more so than for decades to come), the era of screwball comedy was a period of strong women's roles, of feisty women who fight back against their male lovers on roughly equal terms. Thus Carole Lombard kicking back at John Barrymore in a famous image from Twentieth Century, Loy and Powell sticking their tongues out at each other in The Thin Man, and Colbert out-dueling Gable as a hitchhiker in this film. All of this is always in the context of traditional love and marriage within a clearly male-dominated society (the endless succession of Kings), but in this clearly defined space women could lead men on quite merry chases indeed.
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