Screwball Comedies

Screwball Comedies

The screwball comedy is a subgenre of the romantic comedy motion picture that popped up after the onset of the Great Depression and stuck around up to about the time America's involvement in World War II. These films tended to buck the recently ramped constrictions of the Motion Picture Production Code, that served as a way for Hollywood to self-censor to keep away any governmental attempts to do so and placate social organizations rallying against the 'moral failings' of Hollywood.


Compiled by:
Brandon R.
The Awful Truth
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Awf

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne wanted out of this picture during the first five days of filming because of director Leo McCarey's unusual style of working (barely a script, just a bunch of sitting around and telling stories), but they came to appreciate his use of improvisation, even having the actors create their own dialogue and blocking before shooting a scene. The film established the persona Cary Grant would carry with him for the rest of his career (and his penchant for improvisation too).


Bringing Up Baby
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Gre

Written specifically for Katherine Hepburn, this film was a box-office flop when initially released (its classic status stems from its later popularity found from being shown on television in the '50s). Hepburn would reunite a few years later with Cary Grant on The Philadelphia Story in a successful attempt to get herself off a list of actors thought to be 'box office poison'. Bringing Up Baby features two veteran animal actors, Skippy/Asta the dog and Nissa, the title character/leopard, who at one point during shooting lunged at Hepburn only to be barely stopped by the animal trainer. Many of the shots can be seen to incorporate rear projection and matte work to keep the leopard separated from the cast and crew.


Easy Living
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Eas

Preston Sturges wrote this "high society screwball comedy" and re-used many of the supporting players here as his stock troupe in subsequent films he directed himself. It being his first assignment for Paramount, the script was initially rejected because "1936 was not the time for comedies", but he went around the studio and gave the script to director Mitchell Leisen who had the clout to get it made. "All of the furs and jewelry used in this film were real and that guards were posted during shooting to ensure that none of the valuables disappeared."


His Girl Friday
Adult Audiovisual DVD - His

Based on the award-winning play The Front Page, the film changes the role of Hildy Johnson to a woman and  contains perhaps the fastest delivered dialogue in motion picture history up to that point. Rosalind Russell was chosen after many others turned it down, but she brought her own ghostwriter on-board (in secret) to provide quality 'improvised dialogue' to rival Grant and Hawks' penchant for ad-libs. Regardless of who wrote it, she made the film all the better for it.


It Happened One Night
Adult Audiovisual DVD - It

The first of only three films to win all five major Academy Awards, this was one of the first screwball comedies and one of the last romantic comedies to be made before the Motion Picture Production Code was strictly enforced in 1934. Claudette Colbert reportedly hated making the picture and Clark Gable was begrudgingly loaned out by MGM (as punishment for his affair with Joan Crawford), but they are both marvelously witty in it, obviously.


The Miracle of Morgan's Creek
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Mir

How to choose which Preston Sturges film to include here? I would recommend them all. This is truly subversive screwball comedy, though. Critic James Agee marveled at its ability to pass censorship restrictions, saying: "the Hays office has either been hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep" (perhaps harsh language to read for a comedy, but coyly relevant to the film itself).


Mistress America
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Mis

Greta Gerwig stars in this film she co-wrote with director/partner Noah Baumbach. It uses screwball pacing and style to tell the story of a female friendship and her character appears to be artificially performing her own life as if she is in a screwball comedy. The intentional awkwardness is not for everyone, but the particular section set in the mansion is a magnificent example of the genre. See also: Gerwig's excellent screwball performance in Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan.


Raising Arizona
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Rai

This is somewhere between a screwball comedy and a full-on live-action cartoon. The film language and dialogue are pure screwball, though the crime element obscures this a bit. Still, it's hard to think of a zanier paced film of its time. The relationship and class distinctions on display are definitely indebted to the screwball comedy. "I'll be taking these Huggies and, uh, whatever cash you got".


Silver Linings Playbook
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Sil

David O. Russell has flirted with screwball comedy throughout his career from 1996's Flirting with Disaster to the 2015's discarded Nailed (that eventually became Accidental Love). Since we don't currently have I Heart Huckabees (my personal favorite), this one covers most of the bases of the screwball comedy (though it notably flips gender role stereotypes). Its slightly elevated/artificial tone, even in its tackling of real-world serious subjects like mental illness, make the relationship aspect of the film very much indebted to and in the vein of screwball comedy.


Twentieth Century

Howard Hawks
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Twe

Released the same year as It Happened One Night, this is also considered one of the prototypes of the screwball comedy ("a dizzy dame, a charming, but befuddled, hero, dazzling dialogue, and a dash of slapstick"). Unlike the aforementioned Best Picture of the Year, this was a box-office disappointment. However, it gave us the first of many brilliant comedic performances by Carole Lombard. See also: Nothing Sacred (my personal favorite) or My Man Godfrey.


What's up, Doc?
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Wha

Peter Bogdanovich, given an opportunity to make a picture for Barbra Streisand, worked with his chosen writers for the screenplay, to "update the opposites-attract screwball convention for contemporary times" as a clear homage to the original screwball comedies of the 1930s. Despite it being one of the most popular films of 1972 (Bogdanovich turned down The Godfather to make this), it didn't quite bring about a new batch of classic films like it. Though, he did return to the genre more recently with the underappreciated She's Funny that Way.