Film & TV Muse

Old but gold: In praise of Screwball Comedy

Molly Leeming examines the appeal of a classic Hollywood genre that has managed to withstand the test of time

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Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

Screwball comedies are romantic comedies from the 1930s to early 1940s, supposedly named after the term for a particularly erratic baseball pitch. They are very distinctive in tone and themes, often based on battles of the sexes, class conflict, outrageous slapstick, razor sharp dialogue, and for some reason a truly bewildering array of highly unusual pets, such as Baby the leopard in Bringing up Baby, or Emma the snake in The Lady Eve. While they are between seven and eight decades old, they retain their subversive, hilarious brilliance, and deserve to be watched today alongside the most popular modern rom-coms.

Perhaps the most obvious way in which Screwball Comedy stands out today as strikingly modern is in its gender relations. Forget the stereotypical simpering starlets and hyper-macho leading men of classical Hollywood, one of the defining features of Screwball is its gleeful tearing up of the  traditional gender conventions rulebook. It is chock-full of utterly formidable, subversive women. To name but a few iconic characters: Rosalind Russell’s capable, dizzyingly fast-talking journalist Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, or Barbara Stanwyck’s magnificently sexy Jean in The Lady Eve, who, with a careful deployment of skilful manipulation, outrageous sexuality, and card sharping, manages to play the man she is after like a fiddle. No helpless damsels in distress here.

However, it’s not just the women that get to subvert gender expectations. The men of Screwball, in order to serve as worthy foils to their female counterparts, are freed from the restrictive and dull shackles of conventional movie masculinity. They serve as legitimate objects of desire for the women, without having to conform to usual ideas of male desirability.  Perhaps the key figure showing this is Cary Grant. Grant, with his powerful, rugged physique, might be better known for his more traditionally masculine, commanding performances in films such as Hitchcock’s Notorious, but in Screwball he is freed up to become a dazzlingly deft and charming comic performer. In Bringing up Baby he plays an endearingly flustered palaeontologist, serving as the perfect foil to Katherine Hepburn’s irresistibly chaotic force of nature, who bewilders and attracts him in equal measures. It is delightful to see Grant and Hepburn upending gender expectations, such as in the iconic scene where he runs around her house in her fluffy dressing gown, hysterically jumping around and proving himself a master of slapstick comedy, while she calmly goes about her business.

Even so, while the gender dynamics of Screwball are undeniably ahead of their time, these films are not straightforwardly feminist in the twenty-first century sense of the term. Despite its bold challenging of received gender roles, Screwball certainly isn’t free from traditional, outdated patriarchal structures. One of the (remarkably few) aspects of Screwball comedy which has not aged well is its tendency to emphasise the role of the female protagonist’s father. For example, in both It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story, the approval of the female protagonist’s father is integral in securing the couple’s happy romantic resolution. There is a somewhat queasy echo of the traditional patriarchal structure of a woman being handed down from her father to her husband. Nevertheless, it is important not to lose sight of the revolutionary gender relations of Screwball comedies, with their peerlessly well written, redoubtable women, while also acknowledging that they are in other ways dated.

Another factor giving Screwball its highly distinctive feel is the fact that it came from the era of the Great Depression. This context arguably shows in its escapist tendencies, with its recurring theme of wealthy, beautiful people being very silly in a series of zany situations. However, far from simply indulging itself entirely in escapist shenanigans, Screwball engages with its socioeconomic context, often with a fantastically light touch. Money and class is an integral part of Screwball, with almost all of them involving some sort of confrontation between classes. Sometimes this is uncompromisingly barbed, such as in The Lady Eve, in which the heroine and her father, both professional con artists, reduce their mega-rich victim, a desperately naïve and prudish Henry Fonda, to a wreck, both mentally and physically. This is done in relentless, beautifully executed feats of slapstick which leave him sprawling in the mud, covered in roast beef, falling over sofas and in many other undignified positions. Others, such as Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, arguably the first Screwball comedy, address class dynamics with both wit and tenderness, with Claudette Colbert’s sheltered heiress taking an odyssey through ordinary, working class America as she buses and hitchhikes her way from Florida to New York, overcoming class boundaries by making genuine, human connections.

Perhaps another consequence of Screwball’s origins in the Great Depression, a period of great uncertainty and instability, is the fact that these films defy straightforward resolutions. They acknowledge, in a playful, entertaining way, the unpredictability of all relationships, including marriage.

Romance is not presented as the ultimate certainty, as it so often is in modern rom-coms, with our rapturously lovestruck protagonists completely assured of eternal happiness and fulfilment.

Nothing stays still for long in the world of Screwball, and this extends to relationships, which are explosively dynamic and anything but certain. One particularly notable example of a film in which marriage is presented as wildly erratic is The Philadelphia Story, in which the icily imperious heiress Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) must choose between her fiancé George Kittredge (John Howard), the handsome, cynical young reporter Macaulay Connor (James Stewart), and her down-to-earth, and on a side note, somewhat oddly named, ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). The film ends with Tracy running from one wedding ceremony into another hasty (re)marriage ceremony, it is nail-bitingly unpredictable to the very last minute.

All this brings me to what is easily the most important part of any romantic comedy- they are blisteringly funny.

These films may be seventy to eighty years old, but they are still overflowing with deep-cutting one liners, and genuinely hilarious moments of slapstick, all delivered by extremely skilful comic actors. What really stands out, though, is Screwball’s incredible verbal dexterity. There is a popular saying that once film learned to talk, it couldn’t stop talking, and Screwball, emerging as it did in the mid-1930s, at the beginning of talkies becoming standard practice, certainly supports this statement. I prefer to watch ‘His Girl Friday’ with subtitles on, so as to keep up with the electrifying, superhumanly fast dialogue between Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, whose legendary verbal sparring is quintessential Screwball.

Despite the often startling modernity of Screwball comedies, in other ways they are also undeniably very much of their time. The world of Screwball is almost universally white and heterosexual, very few of them are likely to pass the Bechdel test, and of course they are not free from patriarchal social structures. However, there is so much more to them than simple than boy-meets-girl, ultimate meaning found, end of story. Romance is presented in these films as a dynamic and exciting clash, in which traditional gender and class relations are often boldly challenged, and what’s more, they are hysterically funny. Screwball is the wellspring from which the modern rom-com emerged, and the best of them, such as Intolerable Cruelty, the Coen brothers’ criminally underrated 2003 rom-com, take very clear inspiration from them, foregoing gooey sentimentality for sharp wit and a relentlessly compelling battling central couple. However, Screwball comedies deserve to be watched, not just as an important part of film history, but as brilliant, trailblazing films in their own right, which can be appreciated both on a political level, and as ingeniously constructed, extremely enjoyable comedies.

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