Screwball comedy is a subgenre of the romantic comedy film that became popular during the Great Depression, originating in the early 1930s and thriving until the early 1940s. It is widely known for satirizing the traditional love story. Many secondary characteristics of this genre are similar to film noir, but it distinguishes itself for being characterized by a female that dominates the relationship with the male central character, whose masculinity is challenged. The two engage in a humorous battle of the sexes, which was a new theme for Hollywood and audiences at the time. What sets the screwball comedy apart from the generic romantic comedy is that "screwball comedy puts its emphasis on a funny spoofing of love, while the more traditional romantic ultimately accents love." Other elements of the screwball comedy include fast-paced, overlapping repartee, farcical situations, escapist themes, physical battle of the sexes, disguise and masquerade, and plot lines involving courtship and marriage. Screwball comedies often depict social classes in conflict, as in It Happened One Night (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936). Some comic plays are also described as screwball comedies.
Screwball comedy has proved to be one of the most popular and enduring film genres. It Happened One Night (1934), is often credited as the first true screwball, though Bombshell starring Jean Harlow preceded it by a year. Although many film scholars agree that its classic period had effectively ended by 1942, elements of the genre have persisted or have been paid homage to in contemporary films. Still more, other film scholars argue that the screwball comedy lives on.
During the Great Depression, there was a general demand for films with a strong social class critique and hopeful, escapist-oriented themes. The screwball format arose largely as a result of the major film studios' desire to avoid censorship by the increasingly enforced Hays Code. In order to incorporate prohibited risqué elements into their plots, filmmakers resorted to handling these elements covertly. Verbal sparring between the sexes served as a stand-in for physical, sexual tension. Though some film scholars, such as William K. Everson argue "screwball comedies were not so much rebelling against the Production Code as they were attacking–and ridiculing– the dull, lifeless respectability that the Code insisted on for family viewing.
The screwball comedy has close links with the theatrical genre of farce, and some comic plays are also described as screwball comedies. Many elements of the screwball genre can be traced back to such stage plays as Lysistrata by Aristophanes, William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Other genres with which screwball comedy is associated include slapstick, situation comedy, romantic comedy and bedroom farce.
Films definitive of the genre usually feature farcical situations, a combination of slapstick with fast-paced repartee and show the struggle between economic classes. They also generally feature a self-confident and often stubborn central female protagonist and a plot involving courtship and marriage or remarriage. These traits can be seen in both It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey (1936). The film critic Andrew Sarris has defined the screwball comedy as "a sex comedy without the sex."
Like farce, screwball comedies often involve masquerade and disguise in which a character or characters resort to secrecy. Sometimes screwball comedies feature male characters cross-dressing, further contributing to elements of masquerade (Bringing Up Baby (1938) I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and Some Like It Hot (1959)). At first, the couple seem mismatched and even hostile to each other but eventually overcome their differences in an amusing or entertaining way that leads to romance. Often this mismatch comes about when the man is of a lower social class than the woman (Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, both 1938). The final romantic union is often planned by the woman from the outset, and the man is seemingly oblivious to this. In Bringing Up Baby, the woman says to a third party: "He's the man I'm going to marry. He doesn't know it, but I am."
These pictures also offered a kind of cultural escape valve: a safe battleground on which to explore serious issues such as class under a comedic and non-threatening framework. Class issues are a strong component of screwball comedies: the upper class are represented as idle, pampered, and having difficulty coping with the real world. Some critics believe that the portrayal of the upper class in It Happened One Night was brought about by the Great Depression, and the financially struggling moviegoing public's desire to see the rich upper class taught a lesson in humanity. (See also My Man Godfrey, 1936.) By contrast, when lower-class people attempt to pass themselves off as upper-class, they are able to do so with relative ease (The Lady Eve, 1941).
Another common element of the screwball comedy is fast-talking, witty repartee (You Can't Take It With You (1937) and His Girl Friday (1940)). This stylistic device did not originate in the genre (although it may be argued to have reached its zenith there): it is also found in many of the old Hollywood cycles, including gangster films and romantic comedies.
Screwball comedies also tend to contain ridiculous, farcical situations, such as in Bringing Up Baby, where a couple must take care of a pet leopard during much of the film. Slapstick elements are also frequently present, such as the numerous pratfalls Henry Fonda takes in The Lady Eve (1941).
One subgenre of screwball is known as the comedy of remarriage, in which characters divorce and then remarry one another (The Awful Truth (1937), The Philadelphia Story (1940)). Some scholars point to this frequent device as evidence of the shift in the American moral code, as it showed freer attitudes toward divorce (though the divorce always turns out to have been a mistake).
Another subgenre of screwball comedy has the woman chasing a man who is oblivious to or disinterested in her. Examples include Barbara Stanwyck chasing Henry Fonda (The Lady Eve (1941), Marion Davies chasing Antonio Moreno (The Cardboard Lover (1928), Marion Davies chasing Bing Crosby (Going Hollywood (1933), and Carole Lombard chasing William Powell (My Man Godfrey (1936).
The philosopher Stanley Cavell has noted that many classic screwball comedies turn on an interlude in the state of Connecticut (Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth). In Christmas in Connecticut (1945), the action moves to Connecticut and remains there for the duration of the film.
Other films from this period in other genres incorporate elements of the screwball comedy. For example, Alfred Hitchcock's thriller The 39 Steps (1935) features the gimmick of a young couple who find themselves handcuffed together and who eventually, almost in spite of themselves, fall in love with one another, and Woody Van Dyke's detective comedy The Thin Man (1934), which portrays a witty, urbane couple who trade barbs as they solve mysteries together. Many of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930s also feature screwball comedy plots, notably The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Top Hat (1935). The Eddie Cantor musicals Whoopee! (1930) and Roman Scandals (1933), and slapstick road movies such as Six of a Kind (1934) include screwball elements. Some of the Joe E Brown comedies also fall into this category, particularly Broadminded (1931) and Earthworm Tractors (1936).
Actors and actresses frequently featured in or associated with screwball comedy include:
Some notable directors of screwball comedies include:
Various later films are considered by some critics to have revived elements of the classic era screwball comedies, including:
Elements of classic screwball comedy often found in more recent films which might otherwise simply be classified as romantic comedies include the "battle of the sexes" (Down with Love, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), witty repartee (Down with Love), and the contrast between the wealthy and the middle class (You've Got Mail, Two Weeks Notice). Many of Elvis Presley's films from the 1960s had drawn, consciously or unconsciously, the many characteristics of the screwball comedy genre. Some examples are Double Trouble, Tickle Me, Girl Happy and Live A Little, Love A Little. Modern updates on screwball comedy also sometimes are categorized as black comedy (Intolerable Cruelty, which also features a twist on the classic screwball element of divorce and remarriage). The Coen Brothers often include screwball elements in a film which may not otherwise be considered screwball or even a comedy.
In his 2008 production of the classic Beaumarchais comedy The Marriage of Figaro, author William James Royce trimmed the five-act play down to three acts and labeled it a "classic screwball comedy". The playwright made Suzanne the central character, endowing her with all the feisty comedic strengths of her classic film counterparts. In his adaptation, entitled One Mad Day! (a play on Beaumarchais' original French title) Royce underscored all of the elements of the classic screwball comedy, suggesting that Beaumarchais may have had a hand in the origins of the genre.
The television series Moonlighting (1985–1989), Married... with Children (1987–1997), NewsRadio (1995–1999), Gilmore Girls (2000–2007), The O.C. (2003–2007), Standoff (2006–2007), and Gossip Girl (2007–2012) have also adapted elements of the screwball comedy genre for the small screen.
The second part of the 1978 film Superman, set in fictional Metropolis, takes on a screwball tone after the seriousness of the original story.
The screwball comedy is funny film noir that has a happy ending... The premise of the film is about the struggle in their relationship. During the course of the struggle, which is highly sexually charged, the maleness of the central character is challenged. The female is the dominant character in the relationship. This role reversion is central to the screwball comedy.
With the explosive exception of His Girl Friday, screwball comedy had calmed considerably by 1940 from its peak of zaniness in 1937-38.
All in a Night's Work is a 1961 American romantic screwball comedy film starring Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine, and directed by Joseph Anthony.Emergency Landing (1941 film)
Emergency Landing (a.k.a. Robot Pilot) is a 1941 American aviation spy-fi romantic screwball comedy film directed by William Beaudine. The film stars Forrest Tucker in his second film and in his first leading role with co-stars Carol Hughes and Evelyn Brent. Emergency Landing features lots of mismatched stock footage of various types of aircraft.Fly-by-Night (film)
Fly-by-Night is a 1942 American thriller/screwball comedy film directed by Robert Siodmak, starring Richard Carlson and Nancy Kelly. It was Siodmak's second American film. The film finds a young doctor tracking down a Nazi spy ring in an effort to clear his name after being charged with the murder of a scientist.For Pete's Sake (film)
For Pete's Sake is a 1974 American screwball comedy film directed by Peter Yates. The screenplay by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin chronicles the misadventures of a Brooklyn housewife. In 1977 it was remade in India as the Hindi film Aap Ki Khatir.Hands Across the Table
Hands Across the Table is a 1935 American romantic screwball comedy film directed by Mitchell Leisen and released by Paramount Pictures. It stars Carole Lombard as a manicurist looking for a rich husband and Fred MacMurray as a poor playboy, with Ralph Bellamy as a wealthy ex-pilot with a disability. The teaming of Lombard and MacMurray was so well received, they went on to make three more films together, The Princess Comes Across (1936), Swing High, Swing Low (1937), and True Confession (1937).I Want to Die with You
I Want to Die with You or Yo quiero morir contigo is a 1941 Argentine screwball comedy film directed by Mario Soffici.It's a Small World (film)
It's a Small World is a 1935 screwball comedy film starring Spencer Tracy and Wendy Barrie, directed by Irving Cummings. In production February 2–March 2, 1935, it was Barrie's American film debut.Love Crazy (1941 film)
Love Crazy is a 1941 screwball comedy film pairing William Powell and Myrna Loy as a couple whose marriage is on the verge of being broken up by the husband's old girlfriend and the wife's disapproving mother. This was their eleventh of fourteen films appearing together.Monkey Business (1952 film)
Monkey Business is a 1952 American screwball comedy film directed by Howard Hawks, written by Ben Hecht, and starring Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn, and Marilyn Monroe. To avoid confusion with the 1931 Marx Brothers film of the same name, this film is sometimes referred to as Howard Hawks' Monkey Business.Rings on Her Fingers
Rings on Her Fingers is a 1942 American screwball comedy film directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney. The screenplay concerns a poor man who gets mistaken for a millionaire and is swindled out of his life savings.That Wonderful Urge
That Wonderful Urge is a 1948 20th Century Fox screwball comedy film directed by Robert B. Sinclair and starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney. It is a remake of Love Is News (1937), which stars Power and Loretta Young.The Doctor Takes a Wife
The Doctor Takes a Wife is a 1940 screwball comedy film starring Loretta Young and Ray Milland as a best-selling author and medical school instructor, respectively, who find it convenient to pretend to be married, even though they initially loathe each other.The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag
The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag is a 1992 American screwball comedy film written by Grace Cary Bickley and directed by Allan Moyle. The film stars Penelope Ann Miller, Eric Thal, Julianne Moore, William Forsythe, Cathy Moriarty and Alfre Woodard. Rock and roll recording pioneer Cordell Jackson played a bit part as "Bathroom Woman."
The film was distributed by Touchstone Pictures for Interscope Communications.The Lady Is Willing (1942 film)
The Lady is Willing is a 1942 Columbia Pictures screwball comedy film starring Marlene Dietrich and Fred MacMurray, directed by Mitchell Leisen.The Road to Reno (1938 film)
The Road to Reno is an American screwball comedy film starring Randolph Scott and Hope Hampton.They All Kissed the Bride
They All Kissed the Bride is a 1942 American screwball comedy film directed by Alexander Hall and starring Joan Crawford and Melvyn Douglas. The film was produced by Edward Kaufman and distributed by Columbia Pictures. The screenplay by P. J. Wolfson was based on a story by Gina Kaus and Andrew P. Solt.
The plot follows a trucking firm executive who falls in love.
Crawford took over the title role after Carole Lombard died in a plane crash in early 1942. Crawford donated all of her pay for this film to the American Red Cross.True Confession
True Confession is a 1937 American screwball comedy film directed by Wesley Ruggles and starring Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, and John Barrymore. It was based on the play Mon Crime, written by Georges Berr and Louis Verneuil. In 1946 it was remade as Cross My Heart.Wedding Present (film)
Wedding Present is a 1936 romantic screwball comedy film directed by Richard Wallace and starring Joan Bennett and Cary Grant. The screenplay was written by Joseph Anthony, based on a story by Paul Gallico. The film was distributed by Paramount Pictures.Yes, My Darling Daughter (film)
Yes, My Darling Daughter is a 1939 American screwball comedy film directed by William Keighley and starring Priscilla Lane. Ellen Murray (Priscilla Lane) is a young woman determined to spend a weekend with her lover, Douglas Hall (Jeffrey Lynn) before he takes off to Europe for his new job.
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