Screwball comedy is perhaps the most misunderstood of the comic genres. More than merely outrageous comedy, screwball comedy is essentially a spoof of romantic comedy. A second cousin to farce, screwball comedy flowered during the Great Depression, when the new censorship code (1934) necessitated sex comedies without sex. In the topsy-turvy Depression era the old
"boy-meets-girl" formula was turned on its ear, with screwball comedy presenting a zany, woman-dominated courtship of a male who often is unaware that open season has arrived.
A popular screwball formula has an antiheroic male who is under the thumb of a dominating fiancée, only to be liberated by a free-spirited female. A signature example of this is Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938), in which a paleontologist played by Cary Grant is henpecked by the fittingly named fiancée, Miss Swallow (Virginia Walker), then romantically rescued from deadly rigidity by the livewire, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). That film was inventively remade by director Peter Bogdanovich as What's Up, Doc? (1972), and there have been countless variations on the story—the most brilliant being Arthur (1981) by writer-director Steve Gordon, with Dudley Moore as a lovable lush.
The genre's free-spirited heroine exercises her own control over the screwball male. Stanley Cavell (1981) likens her power position to that of a director within the picture. An example is Jean Harrington's (Barbara Stanwyck) running commentary on the progress of the handsome but awkward and naïve Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), reflected in her makeup mirror, as he enters the ship's dining room in The Lady Eve (1941). She ultimately asserts control by tripping her prey and dazzling him with sex appeal. The year before, in My Favorite Wife (1940), Ellen Wagstaff Arden (Irene Dunne) directs her husband (Grant) on what to say and do when telling his second wife that spouse number one (Dunne) has returned from the grave.
Laughter (1900), the landmark theory of comic superiority by the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941), anticipates screwball comedy in typing comic character development as "absentmindedness," "inversion," and role-switching (pp. 68, 174–175). Bergson all but describes the absent-minded professor, a central male figure in screwball comedy from Grant's roles in Bringing Up Baby and Monkey Business (1952) to similar characters played by James Stewart in Vivacious Lady (1938), Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve , Gary Cooper in Ball on Fire (1941), and Ryan O'Neal in What's Up, Doc?
Other themes that carried over from the Depression era include screwball comedy's fascination with the idle rich, and with the eccentric romantic couplings of members of different social classes, as with the characters played by Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934) and Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli in Arthur . As the title of Nothing Sacred (1937) suggests, while these films love to spoof romance, they do often end happily, ultimately endorsing love. Cavell refers to a number of these films as "comedies of remarriage," a genre in which the woman is married and the thrust of the plot is not to bring the central pair together but reunite them after separation and divorce (Cavell, 1981). Other subjects satirized by screwball comedy range from the aforementioned academics to professions such as journalism ( His Girl Friday , 1940, and Runaway Bride , 1999), the law ( The Awful Truth , 1937, All of Me , 1984), and even cinema itself ( The Princess Comes Across , 1936, and America's Sweethearts , 2001).
For many the comedy genres are not as impressive as the self-conscious angst of serious drama. But in the final analysis, comic art seems so much more honest and universally pertinent to the various hurts we all quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) suffer. And by topping it off with a comedy-produced smile of recognition, these various formulas for funny gift us with a minor victory we might not otherwise have known.
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Wes D. Gehring