Surviving Holiday Mayhem
With These Ladies of Screwball Comedy
Dan (Ralph Bellamy): “I certainly learned about women from you.”
Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham): “Here’s your diploma.” (As she hands him Lucy’s break-up letter)
In The Awful Truth (1937), Ralph Bellamy as wealthy cowpoke Dan does indeed learn a great deal about the risks and foibles of falling for a glamorous socialite (Irene Dunne), still in love with her soon-to-be-ex husband (Cary Grant). In the 1930s and 40s, the Screwball Comedy emerged as a uniquely delightful film subgenre caught in the crosshairs between slapstick and romantic comedy. Traversing the battle of the sexes, these charming romps spotlighted some of the most talented and beautiful actresses of that era.
As we enter the zany holiday season, it’s fun to be inspired by these Screwball dames and imagine how they would handle the chaos of the typical holiday mayhem. One of my favorite classic comedy subgenres, the Screwball Comedy, often possessed these specific characteristics…
- plots involving courtship, marriage or remarriage
- fast-paced repartee
- chase or escapist themes
- farcical, if not ridiculous, situations
- elements of slapstick, origins in physical comedy
- parody of the romantic comedy
- quirky character actors
- social class struggles/differences
- female is usually upper-class socialite or heiress
- male is less dominant, frustrated
- battle of the sexes
- both male and female in the couple are frequently eccentric
From my childhood days, I was drawn to the Screwball Comedy, thanks in large part to the leading ladies. The top Hollywood actresses rose to the challenges of madcap energy, rapid-fire dialogue, self-assured confidence, and unforgettable beauty. Here are my top picks for my favorite Ladies of Screwball Comedy classics.
In Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) Katharine Hepburn dominated the genre and the screen. Portraying Susan Vance the Connecticut socialite in pursuit of Dr. David Huxley the overwhelmed paleontologist (the king of screwball, Cary Grant), Hepburn masterfully combines eccentric sophistication and outright silliness. The plot in its absurdity includes hunting dinosaur bones and chasing leopards with a roller coaster pace. As another screwball signature, mixed up identities is exasperatingly present, from twin leopards to mixed up cars, to mistaken characters that result in jail time. For a hilarious dose of slapstick, Hepburn creates chaos for Grant in a club scene where each exit in a shredded gown and tux. To exemplify her life of high society leisure, Hepburn is frequently seen wearing stunning gowns and costumes by Howard Greer. Notable screwball sidekick: George, the dog (Skippy, aka “Mr. Smith”, aka “Asta”). George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story was released two years later with Hepburn paired again with Grant with some of the screwball traits.
Leading the lady lunacy trend, Irene Dunne stars as Lucy Warriner in Leo McCarey’s screwball classic The Awful Truth (1937). Teamed up with Cary Grant as Jerry Warriner, their marriage is on the outs. Jealousy, misunderstandings, and too much upper class boredom creates division for this couple. The twosome are on the path to be a threesome, then a foursome with characters like Ralph Bellamy and Alexander D’Arcy vying for their affections. In divorce negotiations, their talented dog, Mr. Smith (yes, the same) becomes the point of contested custody. Dunne is exquisite as she lounges in Robert Kalloch designed gowns. Dunne exudes comfortably confident sophistication in these incredible fashions that practically steal every scene. Practically, because only the charm of Dunne can carry it off so the gowns drape like her natural skin. Although most of the physical comedy is executed brilliantly by Grant and Skippy, all the screwball ingredients are strong in The Awful Truth. Notable screwball sidekick: Cecil Cunningham as Aunt Patsy delivers some of the best lines. The chemistry between Dunne and Grant is perfection. In my honest opinion, she was his best pairing for comedies. Another great example of this can be found in Garson Kanin’s My Favorite Wife (1940).
Less sophisticated than the country club set but leading the pack for rapid-fire delivery, Russell puts a new twist on the screwball lady. Shortly after her stand-out performance in a large, all-female cast, George Cukor’s The Women (1939), Russell starred in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940). Russell was not Hawks’ first pick (he wanted Carol Lombard but she was already booked.) So, she worked diligently, practicing that lightning speed over-talking, to convince him he still made the right choice, even if she wasn’t his first pick. In the end, it’s hard-pressed to imagine anyone other Russell as the iconic Hildy.
Russell commanded a successful film career, including the ever-popular Auntie Mame. But as Screwball dames go, Hildy will always be a favorite.
Goddess of the Pre-Codes, Stanwyck transitioned easily into the Screwball Comedy world as Jean in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941). As a beautifully confident and savvy con artist, Jean falls for her mark, Henry Fonda as the sweet but gullible “Hopsy.” Irresistibly street-smart and sultry, Stanwyck charms even more men as Sugarpuss O’Shea when she educates a bookworm Gary Cooper and a group of bachelor professors while dodging her mobster lifestyle. Barbara Stanwyck flourished in decades of performances so it’s no surprise that she shines as a Screwball Comedy superstar.
Considered the ultimate queen of the Screwball Comedies, beautiful and talented Lombard masterfully embodied the many traits for this subgenre of the eccentric, chaotic socialite for the silver screen. Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934), Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936), Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be (1942), Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), and William A Wellman’s Nothing Sacred (1937) are examples of why she dominated the laughter and lunacy.
Other queens of the screwball screen include Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1937), Midnight (1939) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), as well as Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1937) and The More the Merrier (1943).
The beautiful Carole Lombard
If you could sit at the dinner table with Susan Vance and Dr. David Huxley for a holiday meal, what would you discuss besides leopard calls and dinosaur bones? I’m sure “Skippy” would be close by for table scraps. Or, would you rather Godfrey served dinner as you, and the rest of the Bullock family debate over who gets the wishbone?
So, as you’re busy battling the long grocery store lines, basting that turkey, entertaining family and friends, all while pretending to find Uncle Joe’s jokes funny as the dog chases cat underfoot, or whatever whacky traditions your family brings this holiday season… don’t be overwhelmed. Simply imagine how Carole Lombard, Kate Hepburn or Cary Grant would handle the chaotic humor of a battle of the sexes over a Butterball, and pull off your madcap holiday celebrations in grand Screwball style!
–Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing and social media as her day gig, Kellee Pratt writes for her own classic film blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com). Kellee teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Screwball Comedy this Fall). Unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, Social Producer for TCM (2015, 2016), and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayHawk66.