MUBI's series Screwball Now & Then is showing November 21–December 21, 2019 in the United Kingdom.
Preston Sturges was a writer and director who could pass muster as a percussionist; his deliciously black-hearted screwball comedies of the forties moved at a clip that would tongue-tie most screen performers today. Rhythm is integral to Sturges’ comedies and his characters move and speak so quickly they can get away with all kinds of things. In his beloved series of films of that decade—The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero (both 1944), among others—Sturges would help to perfect a very particular form of romantic comedy. That venerated form, known as screwball, reached its apotheosis in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, characterized by sharp verbal sparring, chaotic plot twists, and snappy pacing that veered from witticism to pratfalling as it pleased.
In The Palm Beach Story, Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea play a down-on-their-luck married couple, Gerry and Tom, who love each other but can’t make ends meet. Gerry, hoping to unburden her husband, hatches a plan to marry a rich man and thus ensure both of their futures. Naturally, Tom wants her for himself. When Colbert hitches a train to Florida and lands in the sights of the wealthy John D. Hackensacker (Rudy Vallee), a zig-zagging series of events ensues, featuring a bunch of millionaire quail hunters, overpriced nightgowns, and unbelievably friendly taxi drivers.
The finest progenitors of screwball—Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, George Cukor—were also cleverly testing the boundaries of the Hays Production Code, bamboozling censors with their double-entendres and complex love triangles that would nonetheless have to conclude, in accordance with the Code, with marriages and morals intact. The censors disapproved of any films which condoned divorce. Scholar Stanley Cavell rightly called films like The Palm Beach Story,The Lady Eve, His Girl Friday (1940), and The Awful Truth (1937) “comedies of remarriage,” referring to their tendency not only to reunite the estranged married couples within them, but to make sure their women protagonists had the upper hand. The immense pleasure of classic screwball comedies is knowing precisely where they’re headed, but no idea of the loopy roads they will take to get to their destination.
In Sturges’ work, the loopier the better. Full of triple crosses and absurd physical comedy, his films might seem frivolous to a casual viewer. Yet they’re balanced out by a sardonic eye toward romance, sex, and traditional morality throughout, with women characters who frequently outwit their male counterparts and steal the show from them completely. Although other screwballs shared this trait, few were as freewheeling and non-judgmental as Sturges. Such is the case with The Palm Beach Story, where the doll-like beauty of Claudette Colbert is only second to her mile-a-minute chatter, and she utilizes both to secure a luxury lifestyle. It’s also true of The Lady Eve, where card shark Barbara Stanwyck ekes out every ounce of sex appeal to catch her millionaire prey. Women use what they have at their disposal in Sturges’ movies, and mercenary tactics are accepted with a lighthearted spirit. In fact, Sturges often seems to be cheering them on from the sidelines.
All of these elements are drawn into the mix in the Coen brothers’ 2003 screwball homage Intolerable Cruelty, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney. Joel and Ethan Coen are nothing if not avid students of film history, throwing up countless old Hollywood references in films like the Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and Barton Fink (1991). In their 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? borrows heavily from Sturges’ Depression-set road comedy Sullivan’s Travels (1941). In fact, the title of the Coens’ film comes directly from the comedy director protagonist of Sullivan’s Travels, also played by McCrea, who wants it for a new social drama he desires to make.
With Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens were using fewer cinephile inside jokes but an equally self-aware homage to Sturges’ combination of dark humor and lovable hijinks. The all’s-fair-in-love-and-war battle between divorce attorney Miles (Clooney) and vixenish serial divorcee Marilyn (Zeta-Jones) has the right set-up; it has two beautiful movie stars; and yet, there’s something flat about it. Zeta-Jones is miscast. She has none of the effervescence or speediness of the classic screwball heroine, but instead the slow, poised allure of a femme fatale from an entirely different sort of movie. The looser and less literal the influence of screwball, the better the results, and Intolerable Cruelty is best when it is cleaving to contemporary humor about divorce.
Maybe it’s the pacing, or the sly innuendo in lieu of anything carnal, or the gender dynamics that don’t quite scan the same, but putting screwball comedy in a contemporary setting—or “updating” it—proves incredibly difficult. More than the noir, the western, or even the musical, it seems to be the most intractably specific to its era, the most impossible to recreate, of all Hollywood genres. How do modern actors—never mind audiences—respond to the 240-word-per-minute dialogue of a movie like His Girl Friday? Directors try to recalibrate the timing, as the Coens do, and suddenly the rhythm of the whole movie seems off. If Preston Sturges was a master percussionist, most modern filmmakers are offbeat.
In the 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich gave it a try. His What’s Up Doc? (1972), starring Barbra Streisand as a Katharine Hepburn-style agent of chaos and Ryan O’Neal as a buttoned-up professor, has its moments, and approximates the joyous anarchy of older movies. Bogdanovich would return to the genre again in 2015 with She’s Funny That Way, an entertaining but unmemorable homage starring Imogen Poots and Owen Wilson, but it lacked the star power of its predecessor. In 1987, director Herbert Ross made The Secret to My Success, starring Michael J. Fox. Although the film has never built up much of a reputation, it’s a surprisingly well-handled and zany throwback, featuring love triangles, mistaken identity, sex farce, and a lot of comedic running between rooms.
It’s been 70 years or so since the heyday of screwball, and many directors—understandably—look back at it fondly, but seeking to mimic it is dangerous territory. Cleverly disguising sex and marital infidelity has had its day, but neither are verboten to audiences now; we see them onscreen all the time. The very existence of the censor helped to define the screwball comedy. The name “screwball” itself was famously derived from an unpredictable baseball pitch; writers like Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer figured out ways to twist and curve their writing so it’d fly right past puritanical overlords. But when there’s no censor to fight against, dart around, and poke fun at, where’s the tension in the contemporary screwball comedy?
It’s fair to say that since the golden age of the screwball, there have been admirable attempts and misfires and also-rans, with a few rare gems here or there. But generally speaking: screwball belongs to the thirties and forties; to Preston Sturges, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and George Cukor. Why try to improve on perfection?