A Katharine Hepburn season runs at BFI Southbank February-March 2015.
Flourishing in the 1930s and early 40s, screwball comedies were a breed of quick-talking romantic farces that fused silliness with sophistication in ways that still have the power to stupefy audiences. How can we keep up with dialogue that goes so fast? Or with an urbane wit that takes no prisoners?
Modern films by directors such as the Coens or David O. Russell that have explicitly attempted something like the speed and panache of films like Bringing Up Baby (1938) or The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943) have looked sadly laboured. Screwball’s effervescence seems impossible to recapture.
It needed a time and a place. The time was the Great Depression, when – as is so often stated – audiences were in need of escapism to glitzier worlds. The place was Hollywood and an industry that wasn’t taking long to get used to talking pictures, finding a generation of writers (often from the New York theatre or European émigrés) who would seize the opportunity to get smart talk into the movies.
Their scripts typically involved battles of the sexes, or what critic Stanley Cavell called ‘comedies of remarriage’, with hapless men often caught up in the whirlwinds of feisty women. Circumstance, coincidence, fortune and misfortune show their successive cards with a logic, wit and lightness of touch rarely seen since the comedies of Shakespeare or Beaumarchais.
The women were Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck and Irene Dunne. The man might have been Cary Grant (in which case things got really good), Fred MacMurray, Gary Cooper or Clark Gable. And one of the joys of watching screwball comedies is getting to recognise all the supporting players who recur in these films’ helter-skelter worlds: the roll call includes Eugene Pallette, Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, Mary Astor, Ralph Bellamy, William Demarest and Melville Cooper.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
While a product of the west coast’s industry, screwball comedies were more often set on America’s eastern seaboard or in the midwest. Two films in 1934 are said to have kickstarted the screwball wave: It Happened One Night, which takes place during a trip from Florida to New York, and Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century, named after and taking place on the train that runs between Chicago and New York. Florida figures often, usually with gold-diggers in tow. And more than one classic screwball takes time out in Connecticut or Vermont.
The map is partially drawn, but which are the 10 essential screwball comedies?
It Happened One Night (1934)
Director Frank Capra
Superficially, It Happened One Night seems the most stolidly respectable of the screwballs – unusually for a comedy it swept the Academy Awards (becoming the first of only three films ever to have won the ‘big five’ Oscars), and reputable bodies have long since canonised it as a classic while many of its contemporaries languish in semi-obscurity.
So it’s a delight to watch Frank Capra’s gem 80 years after its release and discover that no dust has settled: it’s as funny, romantic and quick on its feet as ever. Claudette Colbert is the spoilt rich girl who, running away from her father, is thrown together with a hack journalist (Clark Gable) on a series of buses, trains and hitched lifts as she travels from Florida to New York to rejoin her fiancé. The sparkling interplay between Colbert and Gable, forced among other risqué indignities to share a motel room, is the stuff of movie legend, but what’s equally wonderful is the film’s feeling for Depression-era people and places. It Happened One Night is not just the wellspring for 1930s screwball but also an early prototype for the great American road movie.
My Man Godfrey (1936)
Director Gregory La Cava
This 1936 film breathes some of the same lunatic air as certain biting satires that came out of France in the early 1930s. First you’ve got the idea of a vagrant (William Powell) being picked up off the street and given a home by a wealthy sponsor (Carole Lombard, playing the naively impulsive daughter of a big New York family), which mirrors the plot of Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932). Then there’s the vision of high society blithely tottering through chaos, with incursions of the animal kingdom (a goat, a horse, a gorilla impression) that would have been at home in one of Luis Buñuel’s early surrealist films.
Made at the height of the Depression, My Man Godfrey is an archetypal screwball vision of the nitwittery of the rich. Godfrey becomes manservant in the madhouse, and moral compass too, and if the finale rather conservatively retreats into a restoration of capitalist order, there’s immense fun to be had along the way. “All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people,” remarks the despairing family patriarch, and this one has the right kind of people: Lombard at her flighty best as the smitten rich kid; Eugene Pallette on harrumphing form as the dad; and Mischa Auer as the spineless gigolo Carlo.
Easy Living (1937)
Director Mitchell Leisen
A sable fur coat falling from a New York penthouse roof provides a magical open sesame to a world of wealth and privilege in Easy Living. Dropping onto the shoulders of ordinary gal Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), who is passing by on an open-topped bus, the garment leads first to her dismissal (for what office clerk could afford a coat such as this?) and then to her being mistaken as the mistress of a Wall Street millionaire (he of the penthouse).
Directed by the great Mitchell Leisen, it’s a pristinely plotted delight from the pen of Preston Sturges, in which misunderstanding is piled upon misunderstanding like an ever-more precarious house of cards. Ray Milland is on hand as John Ball Jr, the son of the millionaire, who fancies his chances in the real world, and there are matchless supporting turns from Franklin Pangborn and William Demarest – two actors who’d become staples in Sturges’ later films as director.
The Awful Truth (1937)
Director Leo McCarey
With this 1937 film from director Leo McCarey, the quickly blossoming screwball sub-genre recruited one of its giants: Cary Grant. Before this film, Grant had impressed in supporting roles but had not yet quite hit the big time. The Awful Truth changed all that, establishing him as Hollywood’s debonair light comedian par excellence and the perfect fit for a run of screwball comedies and comedies of remarriage that includes Bringing Up Baby, Holiday (1938), His Girl Friday (1939), My Favorite Wife (1940) and The Philadelphia Story (1940).
In McCarey’s film, Grant plays Jerry Warriner. We first meet him at a tanning salon – he needs to convince his wife, Lucy (Irene Dunne), that he’s been in Florida, like he said he was going to be. But when he returns home, to one of those vast houses that we see so often in screwball world, he finds Lucy absent. Both Warriners have been playing away from home, and mutual suspicion quickly leads to plans for divorce – which only means that everything’s now in the right place for the pair to gradually re-realise why they got married in the first place. This is 24-carat comedy, as gentle as it is hilarious about our foolishness in matters of the heart.
Nothing Sacred (1937)
Director William A. Wellman
Carole Lombard emits a priceless hiccup in Nothing Sacred. She plays a hick from the sticks who enjoys sudden celebrity after being brought to New York by newspaperman Fredric March to live a little before she snuffs it from radium poisoning. Attending a cabaret show, this “little doomed child” is paid earnest tribute by the emcee, who dedicates his entertainment to her “last brief hour of mirth and jollity”. Sozzled on champers, Lombard greets the toast with her belch, though her hangover will mingle with increasing guilt that she isn’t really dying at all – she simply let a misdiagnosis stick as a ruse for an escape from Nowheresville, Vermont.
This is Hollywood in 1937, merrilly sticking it in the ribs of a pious society that’s quick to jump on the latest sentimental band wagon. William Wellman’s classic is cynical about the manipulations of the tabloid press (for whom March is a figurehead without scruple), but it’s doubly cutting – and hilariously so – about borrowed grief and our soft spot for a pretty-faced tragedy.
As a side note, this is one of the earliest full-colour feature films, and the handful of shots outside in New York are quite something.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Director Howard Hawks
The world seems so ordered to begin with: Cary Grant is David Huxley, a paleontologist in thick-rimmed specs who is on the cusp both of completing his brontosaurus skeleton and of marriage to his rather starchy fiancée. But, at a golf course, his path crosses with that of free-spirited socialite Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) and the world starts to tilt precariously, as David is drawn reluctantly but irrevocably into her vortex of disruptive energy.
It’s Howard Hawks at the helm, gleefully putting Grant through his paces as David is forced to follow Susan up to Connecticut, with her pet leopard in tow, in order to try to secure an all-important donation to his museum. This is a bona fide classic, but newcomers should be prepared for how exasperating the experience of watching it can be: it’s a trip into a topsy-turvy world where nothing goes the way sensible people wish it would, with one of the funniest scripts ever written as our travel guide.
Director Mitchell Leisen
Another screwball tale of social climbing. Claudette Colbert is Eve Peabody, a penniless showgirl who arrives in Paris from Monte Carlo, befriends a helpful taxi driver (Don Ameche) but then leaves him for dust after successfully passing herself off as the ‘Baroness Czerny’ at a high-falutin’ soirée. Unlike the kismet of the fallen coat in the same director’s Easy Living, here Eve’s leg up into high society comes thanks to a combination of her own wiles and some self-interested string-pulling by jealous millionaire Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore), who hopes this beautiful newcomer will tempt away his wife’s gigolo lover.
Written by the a-team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (in the same year that they penned that other fine Parisian romance, Ninotchka), Midnight comes to a head at the Flammarions’ country chateau, where Eve’s efforts to outwit her erstwhile cabbie lover spin the story into progressively more vertiginous flights of chaos.
His Girl Friday (1939)
Director Howard Hawks
It’s a principle of the screwball comedy that it’s not a very good thing to hail from Albany; this most metropolitan of genres is not the place to find pejorative notions of ‘the sticks’ overturned.
Enter Albany-bound insurance man Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) into the Chicago newspaper offices of his fiancée Hildy Johnson’s (Rosalind Russell) first husband. It’s the opening scene of this 1939 masterpiece. I’ll only be gone 10 minutes, she says, leaving him while she settles accounts with her ex. “Even 10 minutes is a long time to be away from you,” comes Bruce’s answer, and our collective cringe immediately puts our backs up against all that is dependable and boring and Albany and insurance salesman-y.
Bruce is nice enough, but this is the universe of Howard Hawks and the lightning-fast ping-pong repartee between city slickers Hildy and her estranged husband/editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is so much more brutal and thrilling. The chemistry between Grant and Russell in this peerless comedy of remarriage is justly celebrated, but spare a place in the pantheon for their hapless foil too – no one does dullards like Ralph Bellamy does dullards.
The Lady Eve (1941)
Director Preston Sturges
Let loose to direct his own screenplays with The Great McGinty in 1940 (he sold his script for $1 on condition he sit in the director’s chair himself), Preston Sturges proceeded to skip through seven peerless comedies in five years before his energy finally began to wane. The third of these, The Lady Eve, is a pure-gold gold-digging farce in which Barbara Stanwyck’s beautiful con artist Jean Harrington and her similarly unscrupulous ‘colonel’ father (Charles Coburn) set out to fleece explorer, snake expert and heir to the Pike Ale fortune Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) on an ocean cruise.
The showdown between a repressed boffin and a whirlwind of femininity recalls Bringing Up Baby, but Sturges’ film is much sexier and even more suggestive. Confronted with this seductress’s outstretched leg, the ophiologist’s ardour is palpable: “You’re certainly a funny girl for anybody to meet who’s just been up the Amazon for a year,” Charles tells her. Critic Roger Ebert later said: “If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve.”
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Director Preston Sturges
Another Sturges and only a scintilla less essential. In some ways, this foreshadows the much more famous Some Like It Hot (1959) in its movement from a northern state to the sunshine of Florida, the playground of millionaires and gold-diggers alike. Claudette Colbert is back hunting for a rich husband, as she was in Midnight. She’s already married to an inventor (Joel McCrea), but he’s struggling financially – a minted second husband could benefit them both. In Sturges’ world, such a move is both selfish and delightfully idealistic – for we never doubt that Colbert and McCrea are still in love with each other, nor that Colbert’s wealthy target John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallée) is capable of falling for her just as hard.
All of which is to say that there’s a genuine feeling for people coursing under all the Palm Beach pandemonium. The film raises the very real quandary that there’s not enough of certain folk to go around – but then there is, and all is resolved, in a way that’s very silly, very wonderful and very screwball.
To our list above, you voted to add these classic screwball comedies…
- Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)
- Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra, 1944)
- Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936)
- Holiday (George Cukor, 1938)
- Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934)
- The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934)
- To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)
- The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges, 1943)
- The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
- Topper (Norman Z. McLeod, 1937)
We wanted to spread the screwball love around, so didn’t include more than two Howard Hawks films in our top 10. But many of you thought Ball of Fire deserved a place too, and it was this week’s most cited omission. Quite right: it’s a doozy all right, with Barbara Stanywyck at her best as the vulgarly spoken siren recruited by a group of seven fusty academics (led by Gary Cooper) for help with updating their encyclopedia entry on modern slang.