The Funny Papers: Surviving Holiday Mayhem


Surviving Holiday Mayhem
With These Ladies of Screwball Comedy

the awful truth movie poster


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…

– female-driven
– 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.


Katharine Hepburn

katherine-hepburn-with-tiger-bringing-up-babyKatharine Hepburn and ‘Baby’ in Bringing Up Baby

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.



Irene Dunne in The Awful TruthIrene Dunne in The Awful Truth

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).



Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl FridayCary Grant and Rosalind Russell in My Girl Friday

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.



Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in The Lady EveBarbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve

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.



Carole Lombard and William Powell in My Man GodfreyCarole Lombard and William Powell in My Man Godfrey

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).


Carole Lombard with Christmas Tree
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 ( 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.

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18 Responses to The Funny Papers: Surviving Holiday Mayhem

  1. Jodi says:

    Some of my favorite movie memories are of watching Screwball Comedies in my film study classes! What a great, fun genre! Glamour and comedy is an unbeatable combination! Love, love, love all the movies you mention…Bringing up Baby is one I continually introduce others to…Everyone HAS to be made to see the leopard mating call scenes, of course! You put a smile on my face, Annmarie! I love your blog and your Twitter feed. Truly some of the best of the best online! Thank you for all that you do. Your dedication is unmatched. (I detest so much of today’s “culture” so reading your content is always a breath of fresh air)!

    • Kellee Pratt says:

      Thanks so much, Jodi! Actually this was not written by Annmarie, but by me, Kellee Pratt of Outspoken & Freckled at /twitter @IrishJayhawk66 . But you’re right- Annmarie does a phenomenal job! But I do hope you enjoyed my piece on these leading ladies of Screwball Comedy. I taught a Screwball Comedy course recently and my next course will cover Hitchcock. More articles to come for my ‘The Funny Papers’ column- hope you enjoy them, as well!

    • Kellee says:

      Jodi, I’m so glad we share a mutual affection for this incredibly fun and glamorous style of comedy. Actually, Annmarie did not write this piece- I did… Kellee Pratt of ‘Outspoken & Freckled’ blog at twitter @IrishJayhawk66. But I agree that Annmarie does a PHENOMENAL job with this site, her blog, and her tweets. But I do hope you enjoy my column here, ‘The Funny Papers’ and I hope you continue to enjoy my profiles on comedy.
      Thanks again! …Kellee

  2. The Awful Truth was directed by Leo McCarey who had worked earlier at the Roach Studios. After this movie was released, Hal Roach released a Little Rascals comedy titled The Awful Tooth as a hat tip to their friend, Leo McCarey.

    • Kellee says:

      Isn’t that marvelous?? The Awful Truth is one of my absolute favorites of this genre so I think it’s fun that Hal Roach honored it with that tribute. Thank you Barbara for reading my column- hope you continue to enjoy it! … Kellee

  3. Brittaney B says:

    Screwball comedy is my absolute favorite film genre and I’m so glad you highlighted it. Bringing Up Baby was my introduction to the world of classic film and Grant and Hepburn remain my favorite actors to this day. But I also adore the other actresses you mentioned as well. These films always manage to brighten my day with their quick paced dialogue and outrageous situations.

    • Kellee says:

      Thanks so much, Brittaney! Those actors that ruled the Screwball Comedy era were talented, hilarious and glamorous. Impossible not to love ’em! So glad you enjoyed my column this month… Kellee

  4. Billy Slobin says:

    Great post as always!

  5. David Hollingsworth says:

    I love this post! Screwball comedies are so awesome during the rather mundane holidays. The Lady Eve is one of the all-time greatest! It was very funny and subtly sexy. It was fun seeing Henry Fonda falling for Stanwyck’s charm.

  6. Brett Doze says:

    I’m still working on getting into the screwball comedy, but I have seen “It Happened One Night” and “His Girl Friday” in the last year, both for the first time. I think the term “screwball” can sometimes be misleading for some, as these films can be quite sophisticated for their name. They are always a delight though!

  7. Gloria Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for this! Just reading the descriptions and being reminded of the films I’ve seen brightened my day. Now I have leads to some others too! In THE LADY EVE my favorite scene is when Jean brings Hopsy to his knees by requiring help with her shoe. It’s possibly the funniest erotic scene ever. It makes me want to put on heels and find a nice sap to waggle my foot at.

  8. I love so many of these films! “Bringing Up Baby” is probably my favorite. It’s one of those I can watch time and time again and laugh like it’s the first time I ever saw it. I love how so many of these comedies had such witty dialogue. You can’t find that humor in today’s films.

  9. Candy Pfaltzgraf says:

    I think Irene Dunne had such a range; but her movies with Gary Grant, namely The Awful Truth and Penny Serenade, are my favorites. Rosalind Russell’s timing was marvelous, with her rapid fire wit. People sometimes only think of Carole Lombard as the love of Clark Cable’s life, but she was a gifted comedienne before being Mrs. Clark Gable. Then there is The Women. A veritable smorgasbord of comedic talent.

  10. Pingback: The Funny Papers: Christmas in Connecticut – Holiday Classic or Feminist Screwball? | Classic Movie Hub Blog

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