24 January 2011

So You Want to Start Watching Screwball Comedies, An Introduction

So You Want to Start Watching _______is an occasional feature here at Riku Writes. It is a guide to anyone unfamiliar with a particular star, director, genre, or time period in films. After a brief introduction, I will provide a sampling of films to watch. Although I will always strive to include the best possible films for each chapter in the series, I will also look to present representative work. I'll say a little bit about each film, all of which will be provided in chronological order. This is the second of the series. in the first I provided an introduction to the films of Humphrey Bogart.

One of the surest cures for the blahs is to settle down on the sofa and pop a screwball comedy into your DVD player. These are films that, by definition, are designed to tickle the funny bone. As the name suggests, a "screwball" comedy is one that features oddball characters engaging in what has come to be known as "madcap antics." That is, you should expect the unexpected and all in the name of laughs. 

The heyday of the screwball comedy was the from the mid 1930's to mid '40s. American audiences needed a diversion from the Great Depression and ominous events unfolding in Europe, then the war itself. They were given a rich supply of musicals, from the likes of Busby Berkeley and Astaire and Rogers and screwball comedies. Perfect diversions.

If there was a king of screwball comedy it was Cary Grant. His good lucks, charm, physicality and timing made him perfect for any type of comedy, but he excelled in those films in which he could cut loose by executing a pratfall or playing the straight man for a dizzy broad. Screwball comedies always have a wacky woman at the heart of the story. While Grant would bear the mantle of patriarch to the genre, female counterparts abounded. Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne and even Katharine Hepburn excelled.

Screwball comedies usually were farcical and included a romance and, oh yes, a happy ending. I've been using the past tense because...well they just don't make 'em like they used to. I could have easily provided a list of well over a dozen rib tickling screwball comedies from the 1930's and 40's alone. However though the genre faded considerably in the years after WWII it did not die entirely. I've thus included a few films from later years. The consequence is that there's only a small sample of the classics from the prime years. There's many many more and I listed some at the end. Enjoy. (Warning: watching these films can result in severe self knee mutilation from excess slapping.)

My Man Godfrey (1936) In my humble opinion Carole Lombard was the best of the Screwball actresses and she positively shines here opposite William Powell. The latter is a hobo (or is he?) taken in as a butler by a wealthy family. The wealthy were invariably at the heart of the genre. One of the troublesome daughters (Lombard) in the household falls madly in love with him. This is a screwball with a social conscience, but all the requisite zaniness.

Topper (1937) The first of three consecutive Grant films that I'll mention, he stars here with Constance Bennett as a very very happily go lucky rich couple who die in a car crash early in the film. Sounds rather grim, I know, but it is their ghosts who provide the fun. They try to loosen up the title character (Roland Young) who's the only person who can see or hear them.

The Awful Truth (1937) Some will argue this is the best of the bunch. Grant and Dunne were an excellent team. Here they play an estranged married couple who can't seem to realize they're still very much in love. Both go to hilarious lengths to woo back the other. Asta, of Thin Man fame, co-stars.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) Here's another that many claim is the best of the lot. The madcap and the wacky are the order of the day as Grant teams with Ms. Hepburn who plays the dizziest dame you'll ever want to meet. The supporting cast includes a leopard. The action features a case of mistaken leopard identity, piecing together a dinosaur, Grant in a woman's night gown and society swells in lock up. You know, the usual.

Midnight (1939) In addition to the leads, Ms. Colbert and Don Ameche, the cast includes Mary Astor (a frequent co star in screwballs) and the great John Barrymoore who's resume, for my money, could have included more screwballs. The setting is Paris, the uber rich are again involved. But this time the love is between a cab driver and penniless ex dancer. Or is it? Some of the funniest scenes in filmdom are featured.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) Talk about something screwy, this is a comedy directed by none other than the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. When it came to directing screwballs he's one-for-one with a resounding hit. It helped that he had Ms. Lombard as the female lead and Robert Montgomery as her on again off again husband. The plot of a happily married couple discovering they were never legally married has since been done to death in sitcoms. This is the original and it's hilarious.

Monkey Business (1952) Not to be confused with the Marx Brothers film of the same name which was made 20 years previous. Grant again, this time with Ginger Rogers, Marylin Monroe, Charles Coburn, a chimp and a potion that makes the older set young again. Howard Hawks directed. All the classic elements of a screwball this time in a post War setting.

What's Up Doc (1972) From director Peter Bogdanovich starring Barbara Streisand and Ryan O'Neal. Let's see there's competition for a musicology grant, rare igneous rocks, government spies, mistaken luggage and a most wacky dame head over heels for a straight-laced and engaged fella. Bogdanovich mixed all the disparate elements together for a classic screwball brew. San Francisco's makes for a perfect back drop.

Arthur (1981) In my mind the very best screwball comedy of the last 60 years. Dudley Moore had a short career as an A list star and this film was the pinnacle. Liza Minelli played the love interest and John Gieguld won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as his valet. Moore plays a filthy rich and stinking drunk playboy who falls for commoner, the family has other plans for him. Will true love win out? Suffice to say that much laughter ensues.

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) Maybe there's something about the surname Grant, but Hugh, though no Cary, was made for screwballs. Shame he wasn't around in the 1930's because he's not seen a script this good since. 4WAAF was actually a Best Picture contender. It's got all the screwball elements: a romance, quirky supporting players and slapstick silliness. Rowan Atkinson's brief scene as a minister is a highlight.

Others to consider: My Favorite Wife (1940), It Happened One Night (1934), The Lady Eve (1941), Easy Living (1937), To Be or Not to Be (1942), The Major and the Minor (1942), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), His Girl Friday (1940), Some Like it Hot (1959), There's Something About Mary (1998), Palm Beach Story (1942).


R. D. Finch said...

Great post on a genre dear to my heart, to my mind one of the most wholly enjoyable ever created by Hollywood (I'm also partial to Westerns and film noir--wonder if you'll be covering these in the future), at least in the sound era. Your main and supplemental lists include the essentials. I am especially pleased to see the neglected gem "Midnight" included. Personally, I'm torn between "The Awful Truth" and "Bringing Up Baby" as the best of the lot. Each is perfect in its way. I could recommend a few others (actually, very few, so thorough is your list), but the two films I would definitely add to the list are "The Philadelphia Story" and "Twentieth Century." Most people are aware of the former. The latter was made in 1934, the same year Capra minted the genre with "It Happened One Night" and stars two whom you single out for praise--Carole Lombard and John Barrymore. Oh, yes, it was directed by Howard Hawks and contains the seeds of his later great screwballs.

Lynne said...


I was wondering if you've ever seen The Bride Came COD. It'not in the same league as my favorite screwball, Bringing Up Baby, and had some stupid scenes of Davis falling into cacti, but it does have its charms. I love Davis and Cagney and enjoy the supporting cast of Eugene Palltte, Jack Carson (a criminally underrated actor) and Harry Davenport.

Richard Hourula said...

Yes I've seen it and I liked it. I consider just a notch below the films I've listed.

pdub said...

"Ball of Fire" by Hawks & Wilder