The screwball comedy is a principally American genre of comedy film that became popular during the Great Depression, originating in the early 1930s and thriving until the early 1940s. It is characterized by fast-paced repartee, farcical situations, escapist themes, and plot lines involving courtship and marriage. Screwball comedies often depict social classes in conflict, as in It Happened One Night (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936). Some comic plays are also described as screwball comedies.
It has proven to be one of the most popular and enduring film genres. It first gained prominence in 1934 with It Happened One Night, which is often cited as being the first true screwball. Although many film scholars would agree that its classic period had effectively ended by 1942, elements of the genre have persisted, or have been paid homage, in contemporary film.
During the Great Depression, there was a general demand for films with a strong social class critique and hopeful, escapist-oriented themes. The screwball format arose largely as a result of the major film studios’ desire to avoid censorship by the increasingly enforced Hays Code. As such, they were routinely able to incorporate adult, risqué elements, such as pre-marital sex and adultery, into their plots.
The screwball comedy has close links with the theatrical genre of farce, and some comic plays are also described as screwball comedies. Many elements of the screwball genre can be traced back to such stage plays as Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Other genres with which screwball comedy is associated include slapstick, situation comedy, and romantic comedy.
While there is no authoritative list of the defining characteristics of the screwball comedy genre, films considered to be definitive of the genre usually feature farcical situations, a combination of slapstick with fast-paced repartee and show the struggle between economic classes. They also generally feature a self-confident and often stubborn central female protagonist and a plot involving courtship and marriage or remarriage. These traits can be seen in both It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey. The film critic Andrew Sarris has defined the screwball comedy as “a sex comedy without the sex.”
Like farce, screwball comedies often involve mistaken identities or other circumstances in which a character or characters try to keep some important fact a secret. Sometimes screwball comedies feature male characters cross-dressing, further contributing to the misunderstandings (Bringing Up Baby, I Was a Male War Bride, Some Like It Hot). They also involve a central romantic story, usually in which the couple seem mismatched and even hostile to each other at first, but eventually overcome their differences in an amusing or entertaining way that leads to romance. Often this mismatch comes about because the man is much further down the economic scale than the woman (Bringing Up Baby, Holiday). The final romantic union is often planned by the woman from the outset, while the man doesn’t know at all. In Bringing Up Baby we find a rare statement on that, when the leading woman says, once speaking to someone other than her future husband: “He’s the man I’m going to marry, he doesn’t know it, but I am.”
These pictures also offered a kind of cultural escape valve: a safe battleground on which to explore serious issues like class under a comedic (and non-threatening) framework. Class issues are a strong component of screwball comedies: the upper class tend to be shown as idle and pampered, and have difficulty getting around in the real world. The most famous example is It Happened One Night; some critics believe that this portrayal of the upper class was brought about by the Great Depression, and the poor moviegoing public’s desire to see the rich upper class taught a lesson in humanity. By contrast, when lower-class people attempt to pass themselves off as upper-class, they are able to do so with relative ease (The Lady Eve, My Man Godfrey).
Another common element is fast-talking, witty repartee (You Can’t Take It With You, His Girl Friday). This stylistic device did not originate in the screwballs (although it may be argued to have reached its zenith there): it can also be found in many of the old Hollywood cycles including the gangster film, romantic comedies, and others.
Screwball comedies also tend to contain ridiculous, farcical situations, such as in Bringing Up Baby, in which a couple must take care of a pet leopard during much of the film. Slapstick elements are also frequently present (such as the numerous pratfalls Henry Fonda takes in The Lady Eve).
One subgenre of screwball is known as the comedy of remarriage, in which characters divorce and then remarry one another (The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story). Some scholars point to this frequent device as evidence of the shift in the American moral code as it showed freer attitudes about divorce (though the divorce always turns out to have been a mistake).
The philosopher Stanley Cavell has noted that many classic screwball comedies turn on an interlude in the state of Connecticut (Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth).
Notable examples of the genre from its classic period
Trouble in Paradise (1932), d. Ernst Lubitsch
It Happened One Night (1934), d. Frank Capra
Twentieth Century (1934), d. Howard Hawks
Hands Across the Table (1935), d. Mitchell Leisen
She Married Her Boss (1935), d. Gregory La Cava
Libeled Lady (1936), d. Jack Conway
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), d. Frank Capra
My Man Godfrey (1936), d. Gregory LaCava
The Awful Truth (1937), d. Leo McCarey
Easy Living (1937), d. Mitchell Leisen
Nothing Sacred (1937), d. William A. Wellman
Tovarich (1937), d. Anatole Litvak
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), d. Ernst Lubitsch
Bringing Up Baby (1938), d. Howard Hawks
Holiday (1938), d. George Cukor
Merrily We Live (1938), d. Norman Z. McLeod
You Can’t Take It with You (1938), d. Frank Capra
Vivacious Lady (1938), d. George Stevens
The Mad Miss Manton (1938), d. Leigh Jason
Bachelor Mother (1939), d. Garson Kanin
It’s a Wonderful World (1939), d. W. S. Van Dyke
Ninotchka (1939), d. Ernst Lubitsch
Midnight (1939), d. Mitchell Leisen
His Girl Friday (1940), d. Howard Hawks
Too Many Husbands (1940), d. Wesley Ruggles
My Favorite Wife (1940), d. Garson Kanin
The Philadelphia Story (1940), d. George Cukor
That Uncertain Feeling (1941), d. Ernst Lubitsch
Ball of Fire (1941), d. Howard Hawks
The Lady Eve (1941), d. Preston Sturges
Rings on Her Fingers (1942), d. Rouben Mamoulian
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), d. Alfred Hitchcock
The Palm Beach Story (1942), d. Preston Sturges
To Be or Not to Be (1942), d. Ernst Lubitsch
The More the Merrier (1943), d. George Stevens
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), d. Frank Capra
Other films from this period in other genres incorporate elements of the screwball comedy. For example, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller The 39 Steps features the gimmick of a young couple who find themselves handcuffed together and who eventually, almost in spite of themselves, fall in love with one another, and Woody Van Dyke’s 1934 detective comedy The Thin Man portrays a witty, urbane couple who trade barbs as they solve mysteries together. Many of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930s also feature screwball comedy plots, notably The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Top Hat (1935).
Later screwball comedies
Various later films are considered by some critics to have revived elements of the classic era screwball comedies. A partial list might include such films as:
The Mating Season (1951), d. Mitchell Leisen
Monkey Business (1952), d. Howard Hawks
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), d. Jean Negulesco
The Seven Year Itch (1955), d. Billy Wilder
Bell, Book and Candle (1958), d. Richard Quine
Pillow Talk (1959), d. Michael Gordon
Some Like It Hot (1959), d. Billy Wilder
The Grass Is Greener (1960), d. Stanley Donen
One, Two, Three (1961), d. Billy Wilder
Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964), d. Howard Hawks
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) d. Richard Lester
What’s Up, Doc? (1972), d. Peter Bogdanovich
For Pete’s Sake (1974), d. Peter Yates
Elements of classic screwball comedy often found in more recent films which might otherwise simply be classified as romantic comedies include the “battle of the sexes” (Down with Love, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), witty repartee (Down with Love), and the contrast between the wealthy and the middle class (You’ve Got Mail, Two Weeks Notice). Modern updates on screwball comedy may also sometimes be categorized as black comedy (Intolerable Cruelty, which also features a twist on the classic screwball element of divorce and re-marriage). The Coen Brothers often include screwball elements in a film which may not as a whole be considered screwball or even a comedy.
- Funniest Movies of All Time (mrmovietimes.com)
- The 100 Essential Directors Part 6: Ernst Lubitsch to Vincente Minnelli (Feature) (popmatters.com)
- One Nutty, Crazy, Koo Koo, Flipped Out, Screwball, Best Day of Days – EVER! (barkinginthedark.wordpress.com)
- Holiday (waldina.com)
- Thomas Gladysz: Howard Hawks Retrospective in Berkeley (huffingtonpost.com)