Small wonder, then, that actresses today often try to recapture the spirit of screwball with quasi-screwball comedy vehicles of their own (Julia Roberts as The Runaway Bride, for example). Hollywood in the 1930s was truly a "Golden Age" not just for the studio system but for a plethora of talented women, each with their own clearly defined persona. The arch and mischievous Colbert was showcased in several more romantic comedies - She Married Her Boss (1935), Tovarich (1937), Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), Midnight (1939), It's a Wonderful World (1940) - while chic, witty Myrna Loy (voted "Queen of Hollywood" in the same 1930s press agent's poll that voted Clark Gable its "King") played opposite chic, witty William Powell not just in subsequent entries in the Thin Man series (1935-1947) but also in the very funny Libeled Lady (1936), Double Wedding (1937), and Love Crazy (1941). Loy also had excellent chemistry with Gable, as in 1938's Too Hot to Handle. (Too many of these titles are unavailable on DVD at the moment.)
Lombard with Powell in My Man Godfrey
To many, Carole Lombard is the epitome of screwball for, unlike Colbert and Loy, her best work is largely within its confines: she's beautiful, but she's also strenuously daffy in Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey and Nothing Sacred (1937). As an heiress mad for butler William Powell in Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey she's an irresistible force of nature, gleefully hopping up and down like a child when she's provoked the unflappable Godfrey into pushing her into a shower, "Godfrey loves me! He loves me!" Trading socks on the chin with Fredric March in Nothing Sacred and famously bedecked with a black eye in the oft-reprinted poster for Love Before Breakfast (1936), Lombard is the poster child for screwball violence, and a reminder to feminists of its limits. My Man Godfrey, like It Happened One Night, is a film about patriarchy's restoration, as Powell teaches an entire family to show more respect for their harassed father.
Yet egalitarian strains run through the cycle. The Great Depression going on outside movie theaters moved inside them with the crowded buses and outdoor camps of It Happened One Night, the Hooverville of My Man Godfrey, and the hobos and shelters of Sullivan's Travels (1942). Many screwball heroines are not crazy heiresses but women who must work for a living - thus such proletarian stars as Ginger Rogers, often a working class counterpoint to elegant Fred Astaire in their celebrated musicals, many of which could qualify as screwball comedies with dance numbers. In Garson Kanin's Bachelor Mother (1939), Rogers' department store clerk is falsely believed to be the unwed mother of department store heir David Niven's child; like her other films, Bachelor Mother is very aware of the harassment single working women are heir to.
La Cava's Stage Door (1937), set in a boarding house for aspiring actresses, builds on its creation of a space for women away from the man's world outside into a very interesting hybrid - part screwball, part melodrama. It speaks strongly for all women being equal in its distribution of parts large and small, and particularly in the wary friendship that develops between Rogers, emissary of common folk, and Katharine Hepburn, initially at her most hoity-toity as a slumming aristocrat.
Hepburn's reputation today far outshines Rogers, whose other contributions to the cycle include Vivacious Lady (1938), Fifth Avenue Girl (1940), Tom, Dick and Harry (1941), in the Renée Zellweger role in the non-musical version of Chicago, Roxie Hart (William Wellman, 1942), and in the very interesting post-screwball era but very screwball-ish Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952). Hepburn, of course, transcended any one genre with stellar work in most of them, but must be mentioned for her daffy heiress in Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938) and her responsible sister in an excellent comedy-drama about keeping the spirit of screwball alive, George Cukor's Holiday (1938). As representative of feisty, stuck-up 1930s women she became a target for put-downs in Cukor's The Philadelphia Story (1940) and George Stevens' Woman of the Year (1942), two films that for all their other merits seem overtly anti-feminist in their agendas. Nonetheless, her post-war comedies opposite Spencer Tracy worked to keep the egalitarian spirit of the 1930s alive in a very hostile era. Tracy first teamed with her, of course, in Woman of the Year, telling Hepburn she's not a real woman, and then notably in Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952) - both of them directed by Cukor and sharply scripted by husband-wife Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon.
Oh, Mr. Grant
Many women had stellar careers in screwball comedy. But the genre produced one great male star - Cary Grant.
Grant had made his mark earlier in the 1930s as a Paramount leading man, playing support for such female stars in the Pre-Code era as Marlene Dietrich (Blonde Venus, 1932) and Mae West (I'm No Angel, 1933). Freelancing after 1936, he first showed he had something special as the Cockney Monk (lower class and amoral; Katharine Hepburn calls him a "pig") in the unique cross-dressing adventure Sylvia Scarlett (Cukor, 1936). Grant really blossomed the next year as Irene Dunne's errant spouse in The Awful Truth (1937), largely improvised on set by director Leo McCarey (who had some experience in comic anarchy, having directed the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup) and his game stars. It's a classic screwball romance balancing eccentric humor - the divorcing pair fighting over the affections of their dog - and sentiment. The latter is exemplified by their last minute reunion, before the divorce is final, memorably timed around a cuckoo clock and a stuck door.
Grant's in the middle of it, with Stewart and Hepburn, in The Philadelphia Story
Grant's roles over the next few years consolidated his stardom. In addition to Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, his work with Dunne in the McCarey-Garson Kanin My Favorite Wife (1940), and with Rogers in McCarey's Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) showed he could make even the unlikeliest scenario work. He showed his greatest range for director Howard Hawks: his bespectacled, absent minded professor love-struck by a daffy Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938) is very different from his ruthless newspaper editor in His Girl Friday (1940), completely in command of everything around him. (Hawks also put this bold, virile Grant on display in 1939's air adventure Only Angels Have Wings, and saved Grant's put-upon performances as a meek intellectual for his postwar comedies I Was a Male War Bride and Monkey Business.) Grant continued to topline romantic comedies through 1966, a lasting survivor of the buoyant 1930s.
Some Key Filmmakers
Screwball magician directors Gregory LaCava, Howard Hawks and Leo McCarey, and the more workmanlike Garson Kanin (prewar director, postwar screenwriter) and William Wellman (Nothing Sacred, Roxie Hart) have already been mentioned. Aside from that fine group, "One Take Woody" W.S. Van Dyke (all of the Thin Man series) and Jack Conway (Libeled Lady and so on) directed most of the important MGM screwballs. But it is three more key directors who most warrant discussion.
Frank Capra's status within screwball is central, but equivocal. Present at its creation (It Happened One Night), Capra had also directed some important precursors, such as the witty newspaperman-marries-heiress comedy Platinum Blonde of 1931. After the enormous, multi-Oscar success of It Happened One Night, Capra, usually working in tandem with screenwriter Robert Riskin, changed direction and embarked on a series of highly successful, still-potent commentaries on American life in the prewar crisis years: notably the trilogy of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1935), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). While all of these films have screwball elements (wisecracking reporters, wacky humor, strong females like Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck who could play comedy), and build on screwball scenarios (as in Deeds, in which a greeting card writer becomes a multimillionaire overnight), they're not screwball comedies - they're screwball melodramas.
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