Screwball Comedies

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Screwball Comedies

Born in the early 1930s, during the bleakest years of the Depression, the screwball comedy became a very popular variation of the romantic comedy film. Although the leading characters were usually reconciled to the basic values of polite society by the story's end, most screwball comedies, up until that final reel, were irreverent toward the rich, big business, small town life, government, and assorted other sacred cows, not the least of which was the institution of marriage. Among the unorthodox notions that these movies advocated were the ones that marriage could be fun, that women and men were created equal, and that being bright and articulate was not necessarily a handicap for a woman.

There were, from the early 1930s to the mid-1940s, well over 200 screwball films, almost all of them dedicated to the celebration of eccentric, unconventional behavior and attitudes and the proposition that life could be a lot of fun in spite of war and a fouled-up economy. These movies frequently offered smart, savvy reinterpretations of such classic folk tale plots as Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, and, most especially, Cinderella. Although the plots always dealt with romance, the focal couple might also find themselves involved, while trying to pursue the path of true love, with kidnapping, election campaigns, scandals, runaway leopards, shipwreck, amnesia, divorce, murder, seeming adultery, and all sorts of impersonations.

Of the considerable number of actors and actresses who tried their hands at the screwball category there were several who displayed a true knack for the genre and appeared in quite a few successful titles. Among the women were Rosalind Russell, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, and Irene Dunne. Top men included Cary Grant, Joel McCrea, Melvyn Douglas, Fred MacMurray, and William Powell. It was not just the madcap heiresses, masquerading shop girls, and disinherited playboys who behaved in wild and eccentric ways. A majority of the films were peopled with a wide variety of odd and outrageous minor characters. Anybody from a rural judge to a Park Avenue cabdriver to a nightclub torch singer might turn out to be a world class screwball. Frequently falling into this category were Alice Brady, Charlie Ruggles, Eugene Pallette, Eve Arden, Mischa Auer, Una Merkel, Robert Benchley, William Demerest, Franklin Pangborn, Billie Burke, and Luis Alberni. Many of these gifted character actors appeared so frequently in this sort of film that they give the impression they must have been permanent residents of a special screwball world. Ralph Bellamy was the ablest portrayer of an essential screwball movie type: the attractive but flawed suitor who is never going to win the leading lady.

Movies with most of the essential screwball ingredients started to show up on the screen in 1932, notably Trouble in Paradise. Set in Venice, it dealt with a pair of thieves, played by Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall, who set out to fleece wealthy Kay Francis. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch from a script by Samson Raphaelson, it also made use of several actors who would become part of the screwball stock company throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s—Charles Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, and Robert Greig (who specialized in grouchy butler parts and worked with everybody from the Marx Brothers to Veronica Lake). The following year saw such films as Bombshell, which featured Jean Harlow, aided by the energetic Lee Tracy, in a very funny burlesque version of what looked a lot like her own life as a movie star. Things picked up even more in 1934. Probably the most important screwball comedy was Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, scripted by Robert Riskin. Claudette Colbert was the runaway heiress who ends up taking a very strenuous cross country bus trip with salty reporter Clark Gable. Backing them up were portly Walter Connolly, an expert at irascibility, and Roscoe Karns. The film swept the Oscars and put Columbia Pictures firmly in the screwball business for the rest of the decade. Also released in 1934 was The Thin Man, adapted from the Dashiell Hammett novel and briskly directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Extremely appealing as the wisecracking husband-and-wife detective team, Myrna Loy and William Powell, went on to make five more movies about Nick and Nora Charles as well as several very good non-mystery comedies, including I Love You Again and Libeled Lady.

A moderately successful Broadway playwright before going to Hollywood, Preston Sturges started writing comedy screenplays in the mid-1930s. His adaptation of The Good Fairy changed the Ferenc Molnar play completely, turning it into an effective screwball comedy set in Vienna. William Wyler directed, and Margaret Sullavan and Herbert Marshall starred in this variation of the Cinderella story that has orphan Sullavan instrumental in changing the fortunes of struggling attorney Marshall; character actors included Frank Morgan and Reginald Owen. Sturges' Easy Living came out in 1937, with Mitchell Leisen directing. Another cockeyed Cinderella story, it has working girl Jean Arthur being mistaken for the mistress of wall street tycoon Edward Arnold. Ray Milland is the young man who falls in love with the transformed Arthur. Demerest and Pangborn are in the cast and Alberni gives a bravura performance as the English-mangling, hyper-active manager of a faltering ritzy hotel who offers Arthur a luxury suite because he thinks it will influence Arnold.

Finally in 1940, Paramount Pictures offered Sturges the opportunity to direct and he proceeded to turn out an impressive string of successful comedies at a rapid rate. They included The Great McGinty, with Brian Donlevy, The Lady Eve, with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, The Palm Beach Story, with McCrea and Colbert, Sullivan's Travels, with McCrea and Lake, and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, with Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton. Sturges' comedies had a headlong pace, bright dialogue, social satire, enough eccentrics, curmudgeons, and fatheads to populate a small city, and generous helpings of broad slapstick. He gathered around him a group of gifted comedy actors who appeared in nearly every one of his films. These included Greig, Demerest, Pangborn, Raymond Walburn, Al Bridge, and Eric Blore.

Leisen, working with various writers, provided a string of other screwball comedies. Among them were Hands across the Table, with Lombard, MacMurray, and Bellamy—as the fellow who does not get the girl—and Take a Letter, Darling, with MacMurray as a very reluctant male secretary to Rosalind Russell. He also directed, with a script by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, the quintessential screwball Cinderella movie of the period, Midnight. Colbert is a gold digging chorus girl stranded in Paris and she ends up impersonating a countess. Don Ameche is a cab driver who falls in love with her, and John Barrymore and Mary Astor are also on hand.

The performer several critics and historians consider perhaps the best comedienne of these years always thought of herself as a serious actress and a singer. Irene Dunne had to be coerced into taking the starring role in the 1936 comedy Theodora Goes Wild at Columbia Pictures. Cast opposite Melvyn Douglas, she plays a quiet small-town young woman who writes a racy bestseller under a pen name. The transformation she undergoes after meeting and falling in love with Douglas, and then realizing that he is even less liberated than she is, forms the basis for the story. Dunne had, in the words of historian James Harvey, "the acutest kind of self-awareness. Where Lombard seems driven and distrait, Dunne seems intoxicated, magical, high-flying. Dunne does not just see the joke—she is radiant with it, possessed by it and glowing with it. Nobody does this so completely or to quite the same degree." The next year Dunne appeared in Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth, which has been called "the definitive screwball comedy." It is about infidelity, love, trust, and the inevitability of some relationships. Cary Grant, who did not want to, plays opposite her and establishes the characterization he used for much of his subsequent career. Ralph Bellamy does one of his most memorable turns as the loser of the girl and, for good measure, the dog who played Asta in the Thin Man movies appears as the pet over whom the divorcing Dunne and Grant get into a custody battle. As in Theodora, Dunne gets to cause considerable embarrassment for the object of her affection by impersonating a different sort of woman, this time Grant's vulgar, and fictitious, sister. She made a few more comedies, including the equally successful My Favorite Wife, again with Grant, in 1940.

On the long list of other screwball comedies many others stand out. They include Nothing Sacred, with Lombard, Connolly, and Fredric March; My Man Godfrey, with Lombard and William Powell; Bringing Up Baby, with Katharine Hepburn and Grant; Bachelor Mother, with Ginger Rogers and David Niven; Ninotchka, with Melvyn Douglas and, of all people, Greta Garbo; His Girl Friday, with Grant and Russell; The Major and the Minor, with Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland—the first film directed by Billy Wilder; and The More the Merrier, with Arthur, McCrea and Charles Coburn. While attempts have been made in most subsequent decades to revive the genre, for the most part the best screwball comedies remain the ones made more than 60 years ago.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Bassinger, Jeanine. A Woman's View. Hanover, Wesleyan University Press, 1993.

Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Kendall, Elizabeth. The Runaway Bride. New York, Alfred A.Knopf, 1990.