The screwball comedy is a beloved comedy subgenre that flourished in Hollywood from the mid-1930s through the early 1940s. The word “screwball” literally means crazy and therefore perfectly captures the spirit of fast-paced, zany mayhem that typifies many of the best comedies of that era. Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is widely credited with kickstarting the genre by establishing its core conventions, the influence of which can still be found on Hollywood comedies today. Since the humor in screwball comedy is dependent upon language as much if not more so than sight gags, it is entirely logical that this genre would peak in the early sound era when sound recording technology was still relatively new.
The conventions of screwball comedy are:
- A battle-of-the-sexes love story (there is frequently a healthy sense of competition to go along with the courtship of the male and female leads)
- Rapid-fire, machine-gun paced dialogue (it is sometimes impossible to understand the characters, which doesn’t really matter as the sound and speed of their voices can be more important than what they’re actually saying)
- Female protagonists who are independent, strong-willed and free-spirited
- Situations that become increasingly ridiculous as the protagonists pursue their goals.
These conventions are all beautifully exemplified by three of my favorite screwball comedies, all of which I frequently show in film history classes: Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941).
When Leo McCarey won a Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth in 1938 he noted in his acceptance speech that he had won the award for the wrong movie, a reference to his superb work on the tearjerker Make Way for Tomorrow, which he had directed the same year. Contemporary critics and viewers seem to have taken McCarey at his word; the reputation of Tomorrow has soared in recent years as that film has received deluxe home video releases in both America (The Criterion Collection) and the U.K. (a Masters of Cinema Blu-ray). It’s a shame though that the reputation of The Awful Truth, which is only available in a mediocre quality DVD released almost a decade ago, has been seemingly downgraded at the expense of Make Way for Tomorrow because the movie that actually won him the Oscar is one of the best and funniest screwball comedies ever made.
The Awful Truth tells the story of a married couple, Jerry and Lucy Warriner (the unbeatable pair of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne), who get divorced due to mutual suspicions concerning infidelity and then promptly proceed to sabotage one another’s new romantic relationships. The film is based on a stage play and yet, as was customary for McCarey, the final script evolved out of improvisations with the actors, resulting in a feeling of uncommon spontaneity. While a sense of carefully structured chaos characterizes McCarey’s very best comedies (he also directed the immortal and anarchic Marx Brothers romp Duck Soup), he lends the film’s two part structure a formal elegance and sense of harmony through a delightfully symbolic use of doors: characters are constantly hiding behind them or trying to knock them down, and scenes frequently begin and end with characters barging through them. The door symbology reaches its apex in the final shot of the film where a male figurine follows its female counterpart through the tiny door of a cuckoo-style clock, one of the cleverest instances of sexual innuendo in Hollywood’s studio system era.
The chemistry between Grant and Dunne is amazing. They make the viewer feel that, even though their characters seem to be at odds with one another, they each really want the same thing deep down inside, causing us to root for them into getting back together. A good example is the climactic scene where Lucy pretends to be Jerry’s drunken floozy of a sister in order to undermine his new engagement to a prim socialite. Jerry’s reaction to Lucy’s antics is a mixture of annoyance and barely concealed glee that lets us know he actually appreciates the cleverness of her performance. This makes us feel that these characters were meant to be together. If, as has been said, all screwball comedies are about either the construction or the re-construction of a couple, The Awful Truth is the best example of the latter that I have ever seen.
Bringing Up Baby, on the other hand, is a superb example of how the screwball comedy can chart the construction of a couple, which should not be surprising considering that screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde fell in love while writing it. They, along with director Howard Hawks, clearly used The Awful Truth as their model. Bringing Up Baby, made just one year after McCarey’s film, carries over both Grant and Skippy (AKA Asta) the dog, as well as a reference to Grant’s character having the ridiculous nickname of “Jerry the Nipper.”
Bringing Up Baby concerns the misadventures of David Huxley (Grant, playing the straight man), a deadly serious paleontologist whose life is turned upside down by the madcap heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). After meeting cute on a golf course, Susan does everything she can to prevent David’s impending wedding to a frigid woman named Alice Swallow. This includes convincing David to help her escort a pet leopard (the “Baby” of the title) from her luxurious New York City apartment to her aunt’s house in the Connecticut countryside. The scenes become increasingly ridiculous as Susan, determined to prevent David from returning to New York, sends his clothes out to the dry cleaners while he’s taking a shower. This forces him to don a frilly, feminine-looking bathrobe, the only available clothing item in the house. When confronted by Susan’s aunt regarding his strange attire, the only explanation David can offer is that he “just went gay all of a sudden!” This line, which doesn’t appear in any known version of the screenplay, was apparently ad libbed by Grant and, due to the rapid-fire nature of the delivery, snuck past the censors of the time. It is now believed to be the first time the word “gay” was used in a Hollywood film to connote homosexuality, and the line always gets a big laugh from my students when I screen the film in class today.
In another memorable line of dialogue, David tells Susan that he’s strangely drawn to her in quiet moments . . . although there haven’t been any quiet moments. As McCarey did in The Awful Truth, Howard Hawks spins comic gold out of a scenario where Grant is tricked into going along with the harebrained scheme of a wacky female. Crucially, the success of this scenario in Baby stems from the audience’s belief that David has recognized that Susan, his opposite number, is somehow good for him and thus he has actually half-allowed himself to be virtually kidnapped.
While the battles-of-the-sexes on display in The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby prove that the women are at least equal to the men in terms of intelligence and cleverness, the balance shifts decisively in favor of the fairer sex in Preston Sturges’ 1941 film The Lady Eve. Sturges’ masterpiece concerns both the construction and reconstruction of the same couple. This is possible because the male lead, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda, sensational in his only comedic role), is so dumb that he never realizes the two different women he has fallen in love with, Jean Harrington and the Lady Eve Sidwich, are in fact the same person (Barbara Stanwyck in her prime). As the kids like to say, boo-yah!
The Lady Eve begins with Pike returning to “civilization” after spending a year up the Amazon studying snakes. (The snake imagery allows Sturges to sneak in a wealth of both biblical and sexual references.) While aboard a luxury liner that will take him back to America, Pike meets and falls in love with the con artist Jean. Although it is her initial plan to fleece the “tall, backward boy,” she unexpectedly falls in love with him. After Pike learns of her original intention, he unceremoniously dumps her, which causes Jean to create a new identity in an attempt to even the score. Preston Sturges was the first significant Hollywood director of the sound era to write his own screenplays and, elsewhere on this blog, I have compared him to Mark Twain for, among other things, his brilliant ear for satirical dialogue. Here is a small sampling from The Lady Eve to prove my point:
“I need him like the axe needs the turkey.”
“Well, it certainly took you long enough to come back in the same outfit.”
“I’m lucky to have this on. Mr. Pike has been up a river for a year.”
“You ought to put handles on that skull. Maybe you could grow geraniums in it.”
“If you waited for a man to propose to you from natural causes, you’d die of old maidenhood. That’s why I let you try my slippers on. And then I put my cheek against yours. And then I made you put your arms around me. And then I, I fell in love with you, which wasn’t in the cards.”
“I positively swill in their ale.”
“What I am trying to say is: I’m not a poet, I’m an ophiologist.”
And the memorable last line: “Positively the same dame!”
The specter of screwball still rears its head in the never-ending permutation of rom-coms today that, for many years running, all seem to star some combination of Kate Hudson/Gerard Butler/Jennifer Aniston/Matthew McConaughey/Katherine Heigl and blur together into one generic and forgettable movie. Sadly, Hollywood no longer produces comedic screenplays with dialogue like the kind cited above (which is not to say that such dialogue is no longer being written) and, for a variety of reasons, can’t seem to make movies that are nearly as funny today. But, to paraphrase Rick Blaine, we’ll always have the ’30s and ’40s, the golden age of the still uproarious screwball comedy.