A Beginner’s Guide to Screwball Comedies

Black and white films are a hard sell these days, and there’s a definite division between the people who grew up with them, and the teenagers/twentysomethings that won’t touch them with a barge pole. The people in between aren’t really bothered in having an opinion about them. And the fact is, is that they’re missing out. Despite the fact that by not watching black and white films you’re really cutting about 35% of films ever made out of your life, you are missing out on one of the greatest eras of cinema, that of the screwball comedy.

People like to talk a good game about the claustrophobic censorship of classical Hollywood cinema, whilst simultaneously glorifying it as a special time in the history of film. And, without knowing it, they’re right. It was a hard system, but one under which many creative people thrived. To clarify, the censorship of this time wasn’t a big pressurised system where you ‘COULDN’T’ do something, it was more optional than that. You see each US state had different rules about what could and couldn’t be shown in the cinema, so if you made a film in California you couldn’t guarantee that the same version would turn up in Indiana, Florida etc. So Will Hays created ‘The Hays Code’, which gathered together all these rules into one tidy little list (this included the length of a kiss, the violence of a death scene, the portrayal of alcohol, etc.). And if your film followed this code you could be certain that it would be distributed, unsullied by state film boards (although it’s unclear whether the censors were actually doing this for the good of the industry or the conservative public). So you either made your film (and got censored), wimp out and do as you were told, or find a way around the rules. The screwball comedies are the most exceptional example of this. These romantic comedies possessed all the sexual tension and innuendo of modern films, but with nothing explicit ever said or done. Unfortunately the era was short-lived, with only fifty or so films being made from 1940s-1950s. Below are a list of what I think are four of the best screwball comedies.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

(Directed by: Howard Hawks. Starring: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn)

Far and away the best screwball comedy. The film follows the story of David Huxley, a paleontologist, whose seemingly perfect life is interrupted by eccentric society girl, Susan. Despite David’s protestations they, as in all good comedies, are forced together (well, that and Susan won’t let him get away). You see David needs funding from Susan’s aunt for the museum where he works, and Susan has been lumbered with a baby leopard, whose presence she uses to guilt David into an embarrassing series of events. Not a likely set of circumstances, but just go with it. It is not an over exaggeration to say that Grant and Hepburn are incredible together, and this has to be their best film. The dialogue and direction is sharp and witty, and their performances are perfectly timed. You will not have more fun watching a film, ever!

His Girl Friday (1940)

(Directed by: Howard Hawks. Starring: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell)

‘His Girl Friday’ follows the story of Walter, a newspaper editor, and his long-suffering ex-wife (and best reporter) Hildy. The film begins with Hildy packing up her life as a reporter to go and marry the stable but dull, Bruce. But Walter is loath to part with her, and as a major story unfolds Walter pulls every trick in the book to keep her at the paper and at his side. ‘His Girl Friday’ is one of the best examples of scriptwriting you will ever find, it is fast and sharp, and very funny. Hawks does a sterling job of creating a kind of chaos, one which Grant and Russell really seem to revel in it. Proof of ‘His Girl Friday’s’ engaging, fast-paced story, can be seen in the fact that it has been remade a number of times, with the most recent version being ‘Switching Channels’ (1988).

It Happened One Night (1934)

(Directed by: Frank Capra. Starring Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert)

A real classic of the classical Hollywood period, ‘It Happened One Night’s’ screwball roots often get forgotten. Because even though it pulls every trick in the ‘dodgy innuendo book’ its cinematic grace has held it high above the quirky rom-com genre it originated from. The story is of Ellie, a spoiled rich girl who is on the run (incognito) from her family, after they separate her from her new husband (who she quite clearly married just to wind them up). But she doesn’t know how to fend for herself in the real world, so when she meets Peter she follows his lead. What she doesn’t know is that Peter is a news reporter, who knows her for who she is and is hoping to write an expose on her. Peter is hard and easily annoyed, she is young and naive, but they eventually wear each other down. The film won Best Picture, Best Adaptation, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress at the 1935 Oscars. And although I’m never a big supporter of ‘the Academy’s’ choices, they got it right on this one.

The Lady Eve (1941)

(Directed by: Preston Sturges. Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda)

‘The Lady Eve’, like all good classic romances, takes place on a ship. Jean is a cardshark who preys on Charles, an heir to millions. She’s hard and conniving, he’s sweet and naive. Cue falling in love, and misunderstandings. Although not as quick-witted as its fellow screwball comedies, ‘The Lady Eve’ pushes the envelope for what was acceptable onscreen 1940s sexiness. Jean’s flirtations are easily camouflaged as being part of the character, and there’s one scene… well, how can I say this. It’s hot! Jean rests in a chaise lounge, absent-mindedly massaging Charles’ head. It’s right up there with the spanking scene from ‘The Secretary’. I have to hand it to the screwball genre, to insinuate so much without revealing a thing (pun intended)… they really knew what they were doing.

You make think me slightly naive, surely censorship should anger me? But it’s hard not to admire a group of films that so smartly found their way around the system. Sure, censorship is a bitch, but if you’re creative and sharp, it needn’t be a problem. Life’s sexiest moments aren’t about nudity, they’re about implicit meanings and held gazes. These films are positive proof of the phrase ‘less is more’, and show that even with the tightest of restrictions real creativity can shine through, even thrive. I would definitely recommend you watch the above films, although I might ruin the whole genre for you as these are the best. But I would also recommend that you watch ‘The Philadelphia Story’ which, although it is not technically of the genre, is equal to it in its wit and sexiness.

N.B. the term ‘screwball comedy’ is thrown around a lot when describing modern films, and I suppose they do exhibit certain aspects of this genre. But it is this particular era of films which are technically recognised as ‘screwball comedies’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.