Screwball Comedy

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Screwball Comedy


In the mid-1930s a new film genre, screwball comedy, arose in American cinema. Based upon the old "boy-meets-girl" formula turned topsy-turvy, it generally presented the eccentric, female-dominated courtship of an upper-class couple. Archetypal examples include Bringing Up Baby (1938) and its loose remake, What's Up, Doc? (1972). The birth of this approach, which might also be labeled "new American farce," was due to developments that occurred in the early 1930s.


Screwball comedy was tied to a period of transition in American humor that gained momentum by the late 1920s. The dominant comedy character had been the capable cracker-barrel type, such as Will Rogers; it now became an antihero, best exemplified by characters in The New Yorker writings of Robert Benchley (1889–1945) and James Thurber (1894–1961), or Leo McCarey's (1898–1969) silent comedy shorts with Laurel and Hardy. (McCarey would later direct the screwball classic The Awful Truth, 1937). Antiheroic humor is driven by the ritualistic humiliation of the male; screwball comedy merely dresses up the setting and substitutes beautiful people for this farcical battle of the sexes.

The Great Depression fueled the antiheroic nature of the screwball genre. Moviegoers looked to the movies as a means of lighthearted escape from their everyday worries. Coupled with this was the Depression-era fascination with the upper classes, which is still a component of the genre, as in the wealthy backdrop of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Moreover, screwball plotlines sometimes pair couples from different classes, as in Frank Capra's (1897–1991) watershed work, It Happened One Night (1934), in which a blue-collar reporter (Clark Gable) and a runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) squabble but eventually fall in love. This romance becomes a metaphor for various forms of reconciliation, be it romantic or generational. Garry Marshall updated many of these components in his 1999 salute to the genre, Runaway Bride, which featured both a reporter (Richard Gere) and a woman with commitment issues (Julia Roberts). Similarly, writer and director Steve Gordon (b. 1938) brilliantly focuses on the genre's occasional union of classes in Arthur (1981), with a billionaire (Dudley Moore) falling for a waitress (Liza Minnelli).

Hollywood's implementation of the Production Code in 1934 also affected screwball comedy. This same year saw the release of such pioneering examples of the genre as Howard Hawks's (1896–1977) Twentieth Century and It Happened One Night. Since American censorship has always been more concerned with sexuality than with violence, it hardly seems a coincidence that a genre sometimes referred to as "the sex comedy without sex" should blossom at the same time the code appeared.

A fourth period factor was the film industry's then recent embrace of sound technology. Whereas silent comedy keyed upon the solo-hero status of personality comedians such as Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) and Buster Keaton (1895–1966), talking pictures were geared toward the verbal interaction of doubled heroes, such as the screwball couple. Even the early sound personality comedian films had a multiple-hero interaction, with the 1930s being the heyday of comedy teams from the celebrated Marx Brothers to period favorites such as Wheeler and Woolsey and the Ritz Brothers. The extension of these manic comedy teams also influenced screwball comedy. A defining trait of the screwball couple was having them act more like broad comedians. They were sophisticates gone silly. Pioneering examples of the sexy but clowning screwball couple include John Barrymore (1882–1942) and Carole Lombard (1908–1942), interacting in zany slapstick situations in Hawks's benchmark Twentieth Century, and Gable and Colbert, pretending to be an argumentative married couple in It Happened One Night.

b. Archibald Alexander Leach, Bristol, England, 18 January 1904, d. 29 November 1986

Cary Grant put his stamp on screwball comedy like no other performer. In the genre's heyday he seemed to appear in every other watershed film. These classics include The Awful Truth and Topper (both 1937), Holiday and Bringing Up Baby (both 1938), His Girl Friday (1939), and My Favorite Wife (1940). Moreover, in the post–World War II era, when screwball comedy was less frequently produced, he starred in two excellent revisionist examples of the genre directed by one of the major directors of screwball comedy, Howard Hawks: I Was a Male War Bride (1949) and Monkey Business (1952). In the formulaic world of screwball comedy, Grant remains the genre's only indispensable actor.

The Grant screwball comedy persona was a product of his ability to combine great physical and visual comedic skills with the more traditional characteristics of the leading man. Here was something unique—a visual comedian who was tall, dark, and handsome, and who had a pleasant speaking voice. It is a generally ignored fact that the boy Archie Leach (Cary Grant) began his entertainment career as an acrobatic comic in the music halls and variety theaters of England. This was an early training ground not unlike that experienced by one of Grant's favorite comedians—Charlie Chaplin. Still, the suave Grant brought a touch of class to slapstick. And conversely, just as he elevated low comedy, the physical shtick gave him a touch of the everyman. One cannot emphasize enough the attractiveness of Grant's double-edged screwball persona.

The finishing touch on Grant's comedy persona came courtesy of pivotal screwball director Leo McCarey and the making of The Awful Truth. McCarey's storytelling actions were so infectious that the performers often ended up aping the director. Grant's screen penchant for everything from flirtatiously self-deprecating humor to the amusingly expressive use of his hands and eyes were all signature trademarks of McCarey long before they became synonymous with the actor; Grant brought the quizzical cocked head, the eye-popping expressions, the forward lunge of surprise, inspired double takes, and an athletic agility to the McCarey character.

While McCarey molded the Grant screwball persona, director Howard Hawks maximized the actor's gifts to the genre in Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, I Was a Male War Bride, and Monkey Business. Hawks's one addition to the Grant screwball shtick was the absentminded professor demeanor. But the succinct take on Grant's screwball success remains that combination of movie-star good looks and a flair for being funny.


Topper (1937), The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), My Favorite Wife (1940), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Notorious (1946), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), Monkey Business (1952), To Catch a Thief (1955), North by Northwest (1959), Operation Petticoat (1959), Charade (1963)


Britton, Andrew. "Cary Grant: Comedy and Male Desire." Cine Action! 7 (December 1986): 36–51.

Gehring, Wes D. Leo McCarey: "From Marx to McCarthy. " Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004.

Kael, Pauline. "The Man from Dream City." The New Yorker (July 14 1975): 40+.

Nelson, Nancy. Evenings with Cary Grant. New York: Morrow, 1991.

Schickel, Richard. Cary Grant: A Celebration. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.

Wes D. Gehring

Yet another catalyst in the 1930s for screwball comedy was the genre's marriage of directors trained in silent comedy to the army of wordsmiths who descended upon Hollywood with the coming of sound. Journalists,

playwrights, novelists, humorists, and every other kind of writer found at least a temporary California home as the film capital panicked over the sudden importance of words. All this talent helped usher in a golden age of dialogue comedy. Frequently these writers fed on their journalistic past. Thus a good number of screwball comedies have a newspaper backdrop, from the studio era's It Happened One Night, Nothing Sacred (1937), and His Girl Friday (1940) to Runaway Bride.

Screwball comedy's wittiest dialogue was the product of former Broadway playwright Preston Sturges (1898-1959), the writer and director of such watershed examples of the genre as The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). But he was also a student of slapstick, which made him a perfect auteur for a farcical genre defined by both verbal wit and visual comedy. Sturges notwithstanding, most of the key screwball directors, such as McCarey and Hawks, received their cinematic start in silent pictures. Indeed, McCarey's motto was "do it visually." Consequently, the sight gag (from a facial expression to a fall) was a natural component of the screwball comedy arsenal.


Screwball comedy is often confused with romantic comedy, but while the two genres share some elements, screwball comedy is a parody of romantic comedy. Romantic comedy's earnestness regarding love, as found in the impassioned conclusions of When Harry Met Sally … (1989) and As Good As It Gets (1997), is entirely absent from screwball comedy. Such sentiments would immediately be subject to satirical rebuke. For example, in the screwball What's Up, Doc?, the traditional love interest (Madeline Kahn) observes, "As the years go by, romance fades, and something else takes its place. Do you know what that is?" The devastatingly funny put-down from her fiancé (Ryan O'Neal, star of the earlier Love Story [1970], no less), is "Senility." The screwball genre always accents the silly over the sentimental. For instance, in the noteworthy My Man Godfrey (1936), the first period film to rate the screwball label, Carole Lombard decides that William Powell's having put her in the shower fully dressed is the height of romance, and she next proceeds to jump up and down on her bed, joyfully spraying water everywhere.

Avoiding serious and/or melodramatic overtones (such as in Love Affair [1939] and Sleepless in Seattle [1993]), screwball comedy instead shows irreverence for love and an assortment of other topics, including itself. The Awful Truth and Nothing Scared both burlesque scenes from Capra's populist romance Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), which is sometimes wrongly labeled a screwball comedy. In Twentieth Century John Barrymore spoofs his "Great Profile" with a putty nose, while Cary Grant mocks his real name (Archie Leach) in His Girl Friday. And at the close of What's Up, Doc? Ryan O'Neal ridicules the romantic drivel, "Love means never having to say you're sorry," the tag line from Love Story.

Coupled with this affectionate parody are occasional patches of more biting satire, such as Ben Hecht's frequent comic diatribes against journalism in his Nothing Sacred script, or onetime lawyer McCarey derailing the courtroom in both The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife (1940). Joining journalism and law as an especially popular screwball satirical target, is academia and intellectual pretension; the "dean" of this approach is Howard Hawks, with his winning trilogy Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire (1941), and Monkey Business (1952). Other skewered subjects include the upper class, in My Man Godfrey; Las Vegas and the mob, in Honeymoon in Vegas (1992); gay stereotypes, in In & Out (1997); and the makeover mentality in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001).

The crazy characters of screwball comedies contrast sharply with their realistic romantic counterparts. For example, James Stewart's clerk in The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and Tom Hanks's businessman in the loose remake, You've Got Mail (1998), are earnest, while Irene Dunne's title character is decidedly wild in Theodora Goes Wild (1936). Other memorable screwball characters include Katharine Hepburn's socialite in Bringing Up Baby, Barbra Streisand's kook in What's Up, Doc?, Cary Grant on youth serum in Monkey Business, the skydiving Elvises in Honeymoon in Vegas, and Hugh Grant's flatmate (Rhys Ifans) in Notting Hill (1999).

When naturally zany plays thin, screwball comedy often reinvents itself by introducing a catalyst for "crazy." Topper (1937) ushered in a fantasy cause for eccentricity, as Cary Grant and Constance Bennett play "ectoplasmic screwballs" (ghosts) come to loosen up Roland Young's staid title character. This was followed by two sequels and numerous future fantasy variations, from I Married a Witch (1942) to All of Me (1984). More recently, the genre has used celebrity as a trigger for screwball behavior, such as in Runaway Bride, Notting Hill, and America's Sweethearts (2001).

While romantic comedy follows a more traditional dating ritual, with the male taking the lead (usually after some maturing), as with Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally … (1989) and John Cusack in High Fidelity, 2000), screwball comedy is female driven, with an eccentric heroine saving an antiheroic leading man from a rigid (read "dead") lifestyle. Classic examples include Hepburn rescuing Grant from a double dose of dead (a bloodless career and an equally sterile fiancée) in Bringing Up Baby, Liza Minnelli freeing Dudley Moore from the same dual dilemma in Arthur, and Lily Tomlin helping Steve Martin evade yet another domineering fiancée and dead-end job (lawyer) in All of Me. This free-spirited emancipator is usually a force to be reckoned with, be it Goldie Hawn's pathological liar in Housesitter (1992, first cousin to Lombard's master fibber in True Confession, 1937), or more recently, Queen Latifah, who awakens Steve Martin's "wild and crazy" past in Bringing Down the House (2003). The inevitability of the screwball heroine's victory is nicely summarized by Streisand at the close of What's Up, Doc?: "You can't fight a tidal wave." Still, the genre also has room for the antiheroic screwball heroine who wins despite herself, such as Renée Zellweger's title character in Bridget Jones's Diary. Eventually, she both loosens up the classically rigid male (Colin Firth) and frees him from a domineering, deadening fiancée.

Pace also plays a major role in screwball comedy. While the romantic story slows to narrative apoplexy at the close as the audience agonizes over whether the couple will ultimately get together, as in Tom Hanks's drawn-out orchestration of love at the end of You've Got Mail, or Billy Crystal's finally reconnecting with Meg Ryan at the conclusion of When Harry Met Sally …, screwball comedy's normally quick pacing escalates even more near the finale, as the title of Theodora Goes Wild suggests. This pell-mell speed is often coupled with genre-defining action, such as Hepburn knocking down Grant's bronotosaurus skeleton (symbolically the last vestiges of his academic rigidity) in Bringing Up Baby, and Martin and Tomlin concluding All of Me with an out-of-control jazz dance number, designating the death of his law career to become a musician.

As this overview suggests, the screwball formula has not changed markedly since the 1930s. Today's take on the genre might actually have gay characters, as in In & Out and My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), whereas a pioneering screwball comedy only teases about it—as when a frilly night-gowned Cary Grant jumps in the air and yells, "I just went gay all of a sudden!" in Bringing Up Baby. New catalysts for craziness, such as celebrity, have evolved, as in the comic chaos Hugh Grant creates by bringing a movie star (Julia Roberts) to his grown sister's birthday party in Notting Hill. But these developments are merely concessions to evolving tastes, not major change. A greater issue is that the screwball heroine has lost some of her allure. For instance, both My Best Friend's Wedding and Forces of Nature (1999) start off as traditional examples of the genre. In the 1930s the leading ladies of these pictures (Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, respectively) would have broken up the weddings and saved the men from lives of boring rigidity, but in these two films the guys opt for the less flashy and eccentric fiancées. In áe as a life-sucking drone, these pictures portray her as safe and comfortable. Ultimately, both movies break with the screwball mold and essentially embrace romantic comedy. In today's truly life-on-the-edge existence, with new dangers from terrorist acts to AIDS, unpredictability is less appealing.

Finally, the term screwball merits some closing clarification. Too often people wrongly pigeonhole as screwball any comedy with zany components, from films with personality comedians such as the Marx Brothers to the dark comedy of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Along related lines, just because a manic clown has a girlfriend does not make a picture a screwball comedy—all movie funny men have romantic interests. For instance, calling the dark comedy collaboration between Paul Thomas Anderson and Adam Sandler Punch Drunk Love (2002) a screwball comedy would be like labeling Casablanca (1942) a musical because Dooley Wilson sings "As Time Goes By." Screwball comedy simply uses a strong eccentric heroine to parody the traditional romance. genre that normally paints the fiance

SEE ALSO Comedy;Genre;Romantic Comedy


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Gehring, Wes D. Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

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Wes D. Gehring