Silver Screen Standards: Celebrating Screwball
The world can be a sad, scary place much of the time, and when I feel overwhelmed by bad news there are certain kinds of classic movies that ease my anxiety and remind me to embrace joy where I find it. The screwball comedy is one of my favorite tonics for dark days, and for good reason. Forged in the misery of the Great Depression, screwball celebrates laughter in the midst of chaos and scrappy survivors who persevere no matter how absurdly terrible their lives become. Modern comedy can be cruel; so often it laughs at characters instead of laughing with them, but screwball makes us fall in love with its wacky protagonists even as they fall in love with each other. Screwball is special for many reasons, but some of its best elements are its lively heroines, its absurd situations, and its ultimate emphasis on the joy of life.
The screwball comedy genre emerged just as the Hays Code cracked down on the more explicit sex comedies of the early 1930s, forcing filmmakers to get creative in their depictions of sexual tension and desire. The physical comedy and wacky chaos convey passion the same way that dance expresses it in musicals, and audiences still get the idea. Certain directors leaned into the comedic opportunities of the genre, including Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Mitchell Leisen, and George Cukor, among others, with Sturges making a rapid-fire series of screwball comedies in the early 1940s.
Screwball stars are some of classic Hollywood’s most beloved icons: Claudette Colbert, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Katharine Hepburn, and Carole Lombard, just to name a few. The films themselves are delightfully madcap but also quite willing to tackle the most serious issues of their day, from the Forgotten Man of the Great Depression and unplanned pregnancy to divorce and wartime housing shortages.
With leading men like William Powell, Clark Gable, Grant, and McCrea, the heroes of screwball are no slouches, but screwball men are often serious fellows who need their lives thoroughly shaken up, and screwball heroines are there to get the job done. The first thing Barbara Stanwyck does when she sees Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve (1941) is drop an apple on his head, and from there she literally trips him up at every turn. The screwball heroine might be a mobster’s moll, a smart career gal, or a pampered heiress, but she always brings needed renewal through chaos and upheaval. She breaks rules, ignores conventions, makes demands, takes chances, and never relents until the inevitable happy ending arrives. Sometimes she learns a lesson or two along the way, as Colbert’s and Hepburn’s spoiled heiresses do in It Happened One Night (1934) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), but she’s just as likely to be as unteachable as Lombard’s and Hepburn’s scatterbrained socialites in My Man Godfrey (1936) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). Screwball heroines are forces of nature; it’s not necessarily their job to change because they already embody the fullest versions of themselves. The heroes, however, are often stuck, repressed, frustrated men who need a beautiful wrecking ball to break them out of their unsatisfying status quo.
As the wrecking ball image suggests, the action of screwball comedy can be extreme, which makes it as unpredictable as the tricky baseball pitch for which it’s named. Sure, we expect a happy ending, but all kinds of crazy things can happen along the way. Our protagonists might find themselves in jail, kidnapped by the mob, robbed, attacked by leopards, in the newspaper headlines, or penniless in the rain in Paris in nothing but an evening gown, which happens to Claudette Colbert at the beginning of Midnight (1939).
Real life isn’t usually quite as absurd as a screwball plot, but we recognize the truth in not knowing what could happen next. Sometimes we’re on top, but more often we’re struggling to get by, and the reversals of fortune in screwball make us laugh because they’re so ridiculous and also because we sympathize. Even if Cary Grant has never accidentally torn the back of your dress off in public, you’ve experienced embarrassment akin to what Hepburn’s heroine feels in that scene in Bringing Up Baby. Sometimes the misadventures take a dark turn, as they do for Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), reminding us of real adversity and, hopefully, making our troubles look less dire in comparison. The ups and downs show our protagonists at their best, as beautifully dressed as Stanwyck and Fonda on the cruise ship in The Lady Eve, and at their worst, as bedraggled as Gable and Colbert trying to hitch a ride in It Happened One Night. One of my favorite things about screwball is the way it liberates its actresses from having to be glamorous all the time by putting them into hilarious but relatable situations, whether that’s Jean Arthur with pigtails and a face full of cold cream in The More the Merrier (1943) or Veronica Lake dressed as a penniless boy in Sullivan’s Travels.
However wild the turns of fortune may be, screwball comedies end happily because the joy of life is one of the genre’s most important themes. Yes, it’s scary and confusing and sometimes terrible to be alive, but it’s also wonderful and sweet and worth it to keep trying. You never know what lucky break or unexpected happiness might be just around the corner. In screwball, absurd good luck is just as possible as absurd bad luck, as long as the protagonists don’t stop trying. You could even find out that your unrequited crush has a conveniently single identical twin, as Rudy Vallée and Mary Astor discover in The Palm Beach Story (1942). The unlikely couples who end these movies in love or at the altar might seem destined for divorce down the road, but that’s a problem for another story – or a perfect starting point for The Awful Truth (1937), The Philadelphia Story, and The Palm Beach Story.
Life is change and chaos and uncertainty, but screwball reminds us to roll with the punches and even laugh at our own misfortunes while we hang on for better times. It’s no wonder Depression and WWII Era audiences responded to these movies, and it’s a shame we don’t see more similar comedy being made today, when most of us could really use a morale boost. Luckily, we do have these delightful classics to revisit and enjoy whenever we feel overwhelmed by the weight of our modern world.
In addition to the films already mentioned, check out classics like Twentieth Century (1934), Libeled Lady (1936), Nothing Sacred (1937), Holiday (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). For more musical variations on the screwball theme, try Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers pairings like The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Carefree (1938).
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.
Ooh, love this tribute to my favorite film genre!
What a lovely post! Screwball comedy is definitely my favorite genre from the Old Hollywood and I would love to watch more contemporary movies influenced by it. Thank you Jennifer for the wonderful suggestions, I’ve been looking forward to watch Twentieth Century for quite some time, maybe this was a sign haha. <3 Kisses from Brazil!
Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
I love this post and these recommendations, screwball comedies are so much fun! Thank you for mentioning Ball of Fire, it’s one of my favourites – if you ever do a post on it, that would be amazing 🙂 Happy Holidays!