Notebook Primer: Screwball Comedy

Screwball comedy’s fast-paced battle of the sexes explored the socio-economic politics of the 1930s and 1940s.
Olympia Kiriakou
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Twentieth Century
A common misconception about 1930s Hollywood cinema is that escapism was the trend du jour. The ubiquity of genres like historical melodramas and musicals indicates that rationale may be true to an extent, but even the most fantastic films were grounded in some semblance of social realism. And how could they not be? With nearly one in four Americans out of work by 1933 and a slow-but-stable economic recovery stimulated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program, the bleakness of the Great Depression and the disparity between the haves and have-nots was an omnipresent thread throughout the decade’s popular culture. Like any major American industry, Hollywood was formative to the public’s perception of culture and politics, and the movies were a temperature gauge of the decade’s cultural climate. In the mid-1930s audiences were introduced to a new type of comedy style that blended that Hollywood-lite social commentary with eccentric romance, rapid-fire dialogue, combative gender dynamics, and slapstick. This cycle of films came to be known as screwball comedy, and nearly 90 years later it remains, paradoxically, a distinct time capsule of its era and one of the most transcendent genres of the classical Hollywood period.
In 1934 two Columbia Pictures films, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century, ignited the screwball comedy firestorm. They could not be more different in tone, sentimentality, and plot, but they share an unorthodox portrayal of romance, defined largely by playful antagonism and Depression-era cynicism. Capra’s narrative is quaintly charming (leading some critics to give his films the unflattering label “Capricorn”), while Hawks’ sardonic world is full of characters that are deliciously self-absorbed. In It Happened One Night, newspaperman Peter (Clark Gable) gives heiress Ellie (Claudette Colbert) the cheeky nickname “brat” in an effort to cure her of her snobbiness, while in Twentieth Century, Oscar (John Barrymore) and Lily’s (Carole Lombard) oversized egos confirm their undeniable compatibility. Although the genre did not come to be known as “screwball comedy” until mid-1936 (first used in a Variety review of Lombard’s performance in My Man Godfrey), these two films captured the absurd eccentricities that came to define screwball comedy’s approach to love, gender, and politics.
It Happened One Night
In his seminal book Pursuits of Happiness, philosopher Stanley Cavell identifies “remarriage” as a recurring trope in the screwball genre. He based his concept on the prevalence of bickering couples like those in It Happened One Night and Twentieth Century that break-up (or divorce) over the course of a film and reunite by its conclusion. Reflecting on films like The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937), His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940), and The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940), Cavell notes that “neither law nor sexuality is sufficient to ensure true marriage…what provides legitimacy is the mutual willingness for remarriage.” His emphasis on mutuality arises from the changing conception of marriage in the mid-1920s, which evolved from an ascetic Victorian ritual to a union based on companionship. As women became increasingly visible in the public sphere due to their right to vote and greater employment opportunities outside of the home, their sexual liberation became a symbol of their modernity. By the 1930s marriage no longer centered exclusively around progeny and domestic servitude, but instead compatibility and sexual fulfillment. Thus, the remarriage storylines that populate the screwball genre emphasize the screwball couple’s chemistry, and the romantic epiphany that is borne out of their temporary separation.
The Awful Truth’s opening scene begins with the lies and misunderstandings that lead to Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy Warriner’s (Irene Dunne) divorce, complete with a chaotic courtroom battle in which the exes fight over the custody of their dog, Mr. Smith. Only by dating other people—Jerry a snooty heiress, and Lucy a stodgy Oklahoma oilman—do they finally admit that they still have feelings for each other. In screwball comedies like this one, divorce is treated like a rebirth, giving characters the clarity that eventually leads back to a reunion. Cavell calls screwball narratives “fairy tales for the Depression” which speaks, in part, to the genre’s socio-economic themes. However, this designation also summarizes the ways that these films neatly tie up their romantic discord with happy endings. By the end of The Awful Truth, Jerry and Lucy have ditched their respective love interests, and have holed up in her aunt Patsy’s cabin in the woods. They stew in separate bedrooms over their unresolved feelings and, eventually, the couple reconciles—conveniently before the stroke of midnight on the day that their divorce was to be finalized.
The Awful Truth
Screwball comedy cannot be extricated from the material reality of the Production Code, which was a list of guidelines that was designed for the film industry to self-regulate form and content during the studio era. The Code came about because the Hollywood studios were facing increasing pressure in the 1910s and 1920s from the Catholic church and conservative social groups to “clean up” the movies. The studios and their industry trade association, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, eventually realized that they had no choice but to respond to the growing external pressure. In 1930, they came up with the Production Code as a catch-all guide that mirrored the conservative morality of the industry’s most ardent critics. The Code included provisions about the representation of topics like crime, sex, vulgarity, and religion, and became uniformly enforced in July 1934 by the Production Code Administration (PCA).
With the exception of a handful of films including It Happened One Night and Twentieth Century, the majority of classical screwball comedies were released post-July 1934; screwball comedy is therefore a distinctly Code-era genre. As Cavell’s book endeavors to show, divorce is a common topic in screwball comedy, however, given the profound influence of religious conservatives on film production in the studio era as well as PCA head Joseph Been’s staunch Catholicism, divorce was considered an unsavory last-resort. For Breen and the PCA, heterosexual marriage and family were cornerstones of a thriving society, and Hollywood films aimed to preserve traditional domestic sanctity at all costs. The remarriage trope became the ideal vehicle to explore the sexual liberation that comes with temporary single life, all while technically adhering to the Code’s engrained domestic morality. 
Nevertheless, some screwball practitioners pushed back on the Code’s stance on marriage. Preston Sturges leaned into the fairy tale trope quite literally in The Palm Beach Story (1942) with tongue-in-cheek “and they lived happily ever after” title cards that bookend the film’s opening and concluding scenes. The last title card reads “… or did they?” which leaves open the possibility that the film’s multiple marriages are not the catch-all solution for the combative couples. The weight of  “…or did they” cleverly alludes to the fact that screwball’s moralistic domestic bliss was merely a fantasy.
The Palm Beach Story
Andrew Sarris famously described the screwball genre as “sex comedies without the sex,” referring to the fact that explicit portrayals of intimacy were discouraged under the Code. Without the ability to depict sex, it had to be abstracted. There arose one of screwball’s most enduring tropes: the battle of the sexes. Like the remarriage narratives, the “battle of the sexes” gave filmmakers an opportunity to circumvent the Code by framing the combative relationship of the romantic leads as a substitute for overt sexual expression.
To convey sexual tension without sex, screwball comedies often rely on “play.” Play can be literal—like characters playing a game, as is the case with the scavenger hunt in My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936), and the hunt for the intracoastal clavicle bone in Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938)—or metaphorical, represented through fast-paced banter and physical comedy. In Nothing Sacred (William Wellman, 1937), which is arguably the most physical comedy-heavy screwball film ever made, a small town woman named Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard) pretends to have terminal radium poisoning in order to get a free trip to New York courtesy of The Morning Star newspaper. In an effort to conceal Hazel’s fake illness and avoid humiliation in front of prestigious European doctors, reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) tells her that she must pretend to look sick. Minutes before the doctors’ arrival, Wally says, “We gotta raise your pulse to 160, quick! We gotta have you gasping, panting and covered with a cold sweat inside of five minutes.” To rile Hazel up, Wally encourages her to hit him—which Hazel eventually does, but not before he knocks her out with a swift punch in the jaw.
Nothing Sacred
The sexual subtext throughout Nothing Sacred is all too clear, and while Wellman and producer David O. Selznick abided by the Code’s letter, they flaunt its spirit with gusto. Opining on the Nothing Sacred roughhousing, the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther cheekily lamented that screwball comedy brought about the “demise of fragile femininity,” which gets to the heart of the genre’s attitude towards gender. Crowther’s observation points to the then widely-held cultural assumptions about the incongruity between physicality and conventional femininity. The idea that “women are fragile” and can’t perform comedy is not only historically inaccurate, but it also implies that “unruliness”—or what Kathleen Rowe Karlyn describes as a defiance of conventional notions of feminine behavior and appearance—is inherently problematic. Screwball comedies like Nothing Sacred refute such notions and prove that physical comedy is a negotiation, not a negation, of one’s femininity. In both style and narrative, screwball comedy reclaims unruliness as a badge of honor.
Some screwball characters like Hazel Flagg used physical comedy to subvert gender norms, while others used their voices. His Girl Friday is the apex of the fast-talking screwball comedies, and journalist Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is the undisputed fast-talking queen. Hers and ex-husband Walter Burns’ (Cary Grant) ping-pong dialogue is dizzying and, at times, almost impossible to follow. When they get into a groove, as is the case when they are dictating live telegraph copy to their editors over the phone, their overlapping voices create a cacophony of noise that is symbolic of the genre’s electric energy. Hildy’s frenetic dialogue also reinforces her self-confidence and adaptability in what is a predominantly male space. It is no coincidence that she is repeatedly called a “newspaperman” by Walter and her colleagues: Hildy is not given any special accommodations because of her gender, and by their own admission, she’s a better journalist than any one of them.
His Girl Friday
In Fifth Avenue Girl (Gregory La Cava, 1939) Ginger Rogers’ character, Mary, reminds us that “rich people are just poor people with money.” This line vividly captures screwball comedy's approach toward the fleeting nature of prosperity: neither wealth nor social status are measures of happiness. The Depression is ever present in screwball, and punctures through some of the genre’s light-hearted moments. In It Happened One Night, the night bus passengers’ peaceful journey is interrupted by the fearful scream of a young boy whose mother has just fainted from hunger. Poverty rears its head in Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen, 1937) in an underweight piggy bank and an overdue rent notice slipped under the door. These moments are full of pathos, but are not necessarily moralistic, nor do screwball comedies typically aim to offer any solution to the era’s socio-economic woes; in fact, far from it. Where else but screwball comedy would a $58,000 sable fur coat fall from the sky on a working class woman’s head and effectively change her life? 
Easy Living
Some of the most popular stories take place in spaces that are inhabited by the rich like hotels, nightclubs, and trans Atlantic ocean liners. But these films do not celebrate wealth. Screwball comedy portrays its rich characters as blubbering buffoons that have little grasp of life outside of their upper class bubble. This is illustrated effectively in My Man Godfrey, which begins with dizzy New York socialites, Irene and Cornelia Bullock (Carole Lombard and Gail Patrick, respectively), searching for items at the city dump, which doubles as a temporary refuge for forgotten men. There they find the titular Godfrey (William Powell), who Irene hires to be the family butler in an effort to make him fall in love with her. 
Such juxtapositions offer humorous, albeit superficial critiques of the ultra rich, while also acknowledging the urgent sense of desolation that pervaded 1930s American society. And yet as Cavell duly noted, like other genres of the period, screwball comedy grounds its political critique in Hollywood fantasy. The pointed class consciousness that My Man Godfrey introduces in its opening scene is spoiled by the realization that Godfrey is not actually a forgotten man, but an educated member of Boston’s upper class. He invests his wages to build a ritzy nightclub on the site of the city dump and rescues the Bullocks from financial ruin after it’s discovered that patriarch, Alexander (Eugene Pallette), has used stockholder money to recoup his business’ losses. Godfrey’s financial savvy saves the Bullock fortune and secures their respectability and social standing in their upper class circle. Cavell’s “fairy tales for the Depression” claim could not be more apt when it comes to how screwball comedy engages with the era’s politics. Like other films in the genre, My Man Godfrey reinforces a worldview without substantial economic mobility, and normalizes the two-tiered class system that it aimed to critique.
My Man Godfrey
The classical screwball period reached its zenith in the mid-to-late-1930s. Although the United States’ economic recovery was still sluggish, by the end of the decade the looming wars in Europe and the Pacific were a growing threat to the safety and stability of American life. The beginning of screwball comedy’s decline in popularity roughly coincided with the U.S.’s involvement in the Allied war effort in late 1941. Just as they had done in World War I, once the U.S. officially joined the war, the Hollywood studios shifted their focus to aid the federal government’s propagandistic efforts, and worked hand-in-hand with the Office of War Information to produce informative and entertaining films that would reinforce American democratic values and boost the morale of the nation. There isn’t a single event or specific film that brought about the end of screwball comedy, and films in the genre continued to be made during World War II, many of which touched on topical subjects like the housing shortage in George Stevens’ The More the Merrier (1943) and military discharges in Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). However, the severity of the global conflict and the international implications of the Allies’ success exacerbated the reality that there were more pressing issues at stake than screwball’s gender, economic, and class cynicism. As the U.S.’s ideological perspective shifted during the war and in the immediate years thereafter, so too did Hollywood’s approach to comedy. In many ways screwball’s politics were a product of their time, and no longer fit in with the country’s wartime and post-WWII worldview. The classical screwball period may have reached its natural conclusion by the end of the war, but filmmakers from the 1940s to today have continued to borrow from the genre’s rich bag of tricks, proving that there’s a certain timelessness to madcap romance.
Screwball comedy’s enduring popularity means that many of the genre’s canonical films have transcendent reputations. Therefore, in addition to all of the aforementioned films, below you will find a mix of classics and lesser-known titles that are mandatory viewing for both screwball devotees and newcomers alike.
  • Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936): Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, and William Powell star in Metro-Goldwyn Mayer’s enchanting story about a convoluted four-way romantic entanglement. Heiress Connie Allenbury (Loy) sues the New York Evening Star for libel after it accuses her of breaking up a marriage. The newspaper’s editor, Warren Haggerty (Tracy), enlists his long-suffering fiancée, Gladys (Harlow), and debonair reporter, Bill Chandler (Powell), to help him fight Connie’s lawsuit. He convinces Bill and Gladys to get married, so that Bill can seduce Connie and have Gladys expose her as a husband-stealer. However, Warren’s plan goes awry when Connie and Bill fall in love. This was the fifth of 14 Loy-Powell films, and their screen chemistry is just as strong as ever, while Harlow’s sassy attitude and Tracy’s earthiness add dimension to this luscious comedy. MGM was not known for its screwball proficiency in the 1930s, but Libeled Lady holds its own among some of the genre’s best.
  • Theodora Goes Wild (Richard Boleslawski, 1936): Irene Dunne sparkles as the boisterous titular character Theodora Lynn, a Sunday school teacher who writes racy novels under a pseudonym. On a trip to New York to visit her publisher, Theodora meets illustrator Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas) who encourages Theodora to come out of her shell and “go wild.” While The Awful Truth (released a year later) has gained an almost peerless reputation in the screwball pantheon, Theodora Goes Wild is undoubtedly Dunne’s star vehicle, and firmly cemented her status as one of classical Hollywood’s most charismatic comediennes. Melvyn Douglas, a stalwart screwball second lead, charms with his usual droll sophistication, but allows Dunne’s effervescence to take center stage.
  • Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938): As one of the most celebrated screwball comedies of the 1930s, Howard Hawks’ story about the adversarial romance between a paleontologist, David Huxley (Cary Grant), and madcap Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), is the genre’s blueprint. Eccentricity reigns supreme as David and Susan go on the hunt for his prized intracoastal clavicle bone, which was stolen and buried by her dog, Skippy. Bringing Up Baby is a riotous screwball romp that ticks all of the convention boxes including play, fast-paced dialogue, a battle of the sexes relationship, and even a missing leopard. Cinematographer Russell Metty’s deft camerawork enhances the exhilarating pace of David and Susan’s hijinks, while Cary Grant’s bemused energy blends perfectly with Katharine Hepburn’s airy, joie de vivre performance. 
  • True Confession (Wesley Ruggles, 1937): The third of four Carole Lombard-Fred MacMurray film pairings is an adaptation of the 1934 Georges Berr and Louis Verneuil play, Mon Crime. It tells the story of compulsive liar Helen Bartlett (Lombard), who is wrongly accused of murdering her lecherous boss. MacMurray plays Ken, Helen’s straight-laced lawyer husband, who must defend his wife against the false charges. 1930s cinema stalwart Una Merkel shines as Helen’s sarcastic best friend, Daisy, while John Barrymore electrifies the screen as the gregarious drunkard, Charley (in a role given to him at the behest of Lombard). Filmed partially on location at Lake Arrowhead, Ted Tetzlaff’s glistening outdoor shots are a tranquil counterpoint to screenwriter Claude Binyon’s kooky, fast-paced story. In the 1930s, Carole Lombard was known as the “Queen of Screwball Comedy,” and True Confession amply showcases her unrivaled comedic finesse.
  • The Mad Miss Manton (Leigh Jason, 1938): Three years before Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda lit up the screen in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941), they starred in this screwball-mystery hybrid about a madcap socialite who, along with her debutante friends, go on the hunt for a murderer. Stanwyck dazzles in virtually every role she played in her 60-year career, and this film is no exception. She brings a light-hearted cheeky quality to her performance as the eponymous Melba Manton, and balances out Fonda’s understated aura. Nicholas Musuraca’s shadowy cinematography captures the eeriness of the film’s suspenseful moments, such as when Melba’s gang searches for clues at the scene of the crime. The Mad Miss Manton is a delightful example of how screwball’s tropes could be adapted to other popular Hollywood genres.
  • The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges, 1944): While it’s not Preston Sturges’ most famous comedy, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is arguably his most provocative. It tells the story of Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), who attends a going-away party for soldiers. During the night’s festivities, Trudy hits her head on a chandelier; still dizzy the next morning, she recalls that she married a soldier whose name she does not know because they used pseudonyms, and weeks later, discovers that she is pregnant. Hutton leads a cast of seasoned character actors including William Demarest, Eddie Bracken, and Porter Hall, with special appearances by Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy, who reprise their roles from another Sturges comedy, The Great McGinty (1940). Sturges managed to get away with his story because he deliberately withheld portions of his script from the PCA (and even shot scenes prior to their approval). This made it difficult for the PCA to get a sense of just how risqué the film is; what resulted is a screwball comedy peppered with bawdy humor quite unlike any other film from the classical Hollywood period.
  • What’s Up, Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972): As one of the only contemporary screwball comedies that embodies the spirit of the genre’s classical period, Peter Bogdanovich’s loose remake of Bringing Up Baby remains one of the funniest films ever made. It tells the story of the romantic engagements of Dr. Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal), a musicologist from Iowa, and free-spirit Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand), over the course of several days in San Francisco. Bogdanovich has identified screwball comedy as his favorite genre, and his admiration shows. He weaves together all of screwball’s quintessential tropes including fast-paced dialogue and slapstick with clever cinematic referentiality (like nods to Casablanca, Bugs Bunny, and O’Neal’s own Love Story) and self-reflexivity (through breaks in the fourth wall) that offer a modern twist on the genre’s conventions. Streisand and O’Neal lead a formidable cast of supporting actors that includes Austin Pendelton, Kenneth Mars, Mabel Albertson, and Madeline Kahn, who plays Howard’s fiancée, Eunice, a parody of mid-century priggish morality (she famously asks Judy, “don’t you know the meaning of propriety?”). If there is one post-classical screwball comedy that remains peerless in its stylistic flourish and uproarious comedy, it’s What’s Up, Doc?


ColumnsLong ReadsHoward HawksFrank CapraLeo McCareyGeorge CukorPreston SturgesGregory La CavaWilliam A. WellmanMitchell LeisenGeorge StevensJack ConwayRichard BoleslawskiWesley RugglesLeigh JasonPeter BogdanovichNotebook Primer
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