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.
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.
In Germany, Ernst Lubitsch had become internationally famous for such epic films as Madame Dubarry, which he balanced with eccentric, stylized comedies like The Oyster Princess and Romeo and Juliet in the Snow. (One of these, 1917's The Merry Jail, is available on DVD as a supplement to the Criterion edition of Trouble in Paradise.) Brought to the U.S. in 1923 to direct Mary Pickford in the drama Rosita, he seemed stalled until, influenced by Charles Chaplin's light handling of adultery in his 1923 drama A Woman of Paris, Lubitsch began creating a series of light comedies on the same themes of infidelity, husbands' (and wives') wandering eyes, and mix-ups between wives and mistresses in The Marriage Circle (1924), Lady Windermere's Fan (1925), and So This is Paris (1926). These comedies' light touch inspired the ambiance of many screwballs a decade later, and the phrase "the Lubitsch touch" is still referred to by film critics.
Trouble in Paradise
With the coming of sound, Lubitsch made a series of musicals with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald (from 1929's The Love Parade through 1934's The Merry Widow), rehearsing variations on a theme of the reform of a sexually promiscuous rake at the hands of a virginal but equally randy female partner. Beginning with 1932's Trouble in Paradise, a wonderful romance of two jewel thieves (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins), Lubitsch brought the continental sophistication and lyrical dialogue of his musicals (sans music) to two follow-ups, Design for Living (1933) and Angel (1937). None of these are "screwball" as the term was being contemporaneously defined, but share with screwball romance an interest in adult sexual behavior mixed with a gently mocking melancholy that was peculiarly Lubitsch's own.
Lubitsch paid homage to the new "screwball" style in the rather frantic Bluebeard's Eighth Wife of 1938, which involved womanizer Gary Cooper being so traumatized by a willful Colbert that he winds up in a straitjacket. It was co-scripted by fellow German émigré Billy Wilder, who followed Lubitsch to MGM in 1939 to co-script the extremely successful satirical romance Ninotchka. Its mockery of both capitalism and communism, the latter personified by icy commissar Greta Garbo and dethawed by the decadent West in the person of frequent screwball leading man Melvyn Douglas, showcases the suitably defiant attitude period comedy could have for politics, responding to the rigidities of totalitarianism with a child's raspberry (or, in Ninotchka, with Garbo's laugh).
Garbo laughs in Ninotchka.
Freelancing for the rest of his career, Lubitsch directed at least one more "screwball" comedy of infidelity, 1941's That Uncertain Feeling (a remake of The Marriage Circle), as well as the classic romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner (1940; remade in 1949 as the musical In the Good Old Summertime and in 1998 as You've Got Mail). His wartime work includes two of his best, the brilliantly "bad taste" anti-Nazi comedy To Be or Not to Be (1942; Carole Lombard's last film, remade by Mel Brooks in 1983), and the nostalgic romance Heaven Can Wait (1943; not remade at all by Warren Beatty, whose 1978 Heaven Can Wait - are you writing this down? - is a remake of 1941's non-Lubitsch Here Comes Mr. Jordan instead). When Lubitsch died of a heart attack in 1948, Billy Wilder made a famous retort to a graveside postmortem: "No more Lubitsch"; "Worse, no more Lubitsch films." Of his final works, 1946's Cluny Brown has a little of the old screwball flavor, particularly when Jennifer Jones' plumber tells Charles Boyer how she solves drain blockages: "Bang, bang, bang!"
Preston Sturges and the End of Screwball
Broadway playwright and amateur inventor Sturges scripted several splendid romantic comedies in the 1930s, most famously The Good Fairy (1935) and Easy Living (1937), before being allowed to direct his own scripts. He directed The Great McGinty in 1940, a political satire that ruthlessly mocked the idealism of Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington of a year earlier. Intimately familiar with screwball comedies' gentle wars between the sexes, Sturges heightened the stakes with two classics that proved a death knell to the cycle. The Lady Eve (1941) burns to the ground the conventions of the comedy of remarriage established only four years earlier with The Awful Truth, raining humiliations on doltish husband Henry Fonda via an endlessly clever Barbara Stanwyck. The Palm Beach Story (1942) reverses Claudette Colbert's trajectory in It Happened One Night, sending her down to Florida to escape a husband rather than north from Florida to find one. Its self-conscious play with screwball conventions marks their end even as Sturges' brilliant Hollywood comedy about Hollywood, Sullivan's Travels, closes the door on the prewar playground. Sturges' subsequent wartime comedies The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1945) point the way to a crowded postwar world with no room for romance.
The Lady Eve
In tandem with the antifeminism of wartime and postwar comedies (emblematic of which is Colbert humiliating herself to win John Wayne's favor in 1946's Without Reservations) came the shift of strong female characters in Hollywood film, from the screwball comedy (Stanwyck in The Lady Eve) to the spider woman of film noir (Stanwyck in Double Indemnity). Times had decisively changed. It would take thirty years before, in the 1970s and since, women would rediscover screwball heroines as role models, and screenwriters, usually clueless, would try to recover their appeal.
Gregg Rickman is the editor of The Film Comedy Reader (2001) and The Science Fiction Film Reader (2004) as well as the co-editor of The Western Reader (1999). In the 1980s he published two books of interviews and a biography of the late Philip K. Dick. He's also the author of our Silent Film Comedy primer. Rickman teaches film at San Francisco and Sonoma State Universities and lives with his wife, dog and cat in Berkeley, California.