During the screwball era—1934 through the early 1940s—romantic comedy was one of Hollywood's most important genres. Named for the zany behavior and improbable events that it depicts, screwball comedy combines elements of farce and traditional romantic comedy. Like the former, it typically deals with older, previously married characters, putting them into risqué situations; like the latter, screwball comedies end with a wedding, thus affirming, rather than questioning, the connection between romantic love and marriage. The screwball form first appeared in 1934, on the cusp of the new production code, along with Frank Capra's (1897–1991) It Happened One Night (1934) and Howard Hawks's (1896–1977) Twentieth Century (1934). It Happened One Night , which swept the major Academy Awards ® in 1935, developed the strategy of indirect eroticism that builds between the central couple, a strategy that became all the more important after the Code prohibited more overt sexuality. In Twentieth Century Hawks introduced the fast talk that would reach its extreme in His Girl Friday (1940), where he encouraged actors to talk over each other's lines. Both of these techniques would help define romantic comedy of this period.
One group of screwball comedies has been identified by Stanley Cavell as comedies of remarriage. In addition to It Happened One Night , these include some of the most important romantic comedies of the studio era: Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth (1937), Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday , Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve (1941), and George Cukor's (1899–1983) The Philadelphia Story (1940), and, although not a screwball Adam's Rib (1949). Cavell argues that in depicting genuine conversation between lovers, these films tell us something about marriage.
Unlike most previous romantic comedies, these films show us the growth of a relationship between the central couple. Yet Cavell's point is undermined by the fact that these films deal with characters who are not married to each other and who often seem to be in quasi-adulterous relationships. It thus seems that they mystify marriage by blurring the boundaries between it and an illicit affair.
Proper romantic comedies continued to be made after 1934, but they remained a subordinate form. Lubitsch made one of the most significant, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), in which the father, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), owns a shop where the central couple, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), are employed. They fall in love by correspondence, so they do not know that they have fallen for a co-worker. At work, in person, the two do not get along. This provides for some of the competitive bickering familiar from Much Ado About Nothing 's Beatrice and Benedict, which became a feature of screwball comedies as well. But what distinguishes this film as a proper romantic comedy rather than a screwball comedy is that the lovers are young (implicitly virgins) and their relationship untriangulated.
The importance of romantic comedy in this era is demonstrated by its leading stars, whose reputations and personas were established in such films, and the leading directors who made at least one romantic comedy, including even Alfred Hitchcock ( Mr. and Mrs. Smith ). Carol Lombard (1908–1942), the female lead in Hitchcock's film, was a star especially identified with romantic comedy. Her career was defined by her role opposite John Barrymore in Twentieth Century , and she later appeared in both My Man Godfrey (1936) and To Be or Not to Be (1942). Lombard's roles were often typical of the screwball heroine, who may be zany but also tough, determined, and intelligent. Irene Dunne (1898–1990) perhaps best embodied the seemingly paradoxical combination of the ditzy and the smart in films like Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth , and My Favorite Wife (1940).
Katherine Hepburn (1907–2003) endured a long series of box-office failures, including the romantic comedies Bringing Up Baby and Holiday (1938), before her career was revived in The Philadelphia Story . Based on a Philip Barry play written for Hepburn, the film was widely understood to be about her. She plays Tracy Lord, the divorced daughter of an haute bourgeois family, on the eve of her wedding to a nouveau riche prig (John Howard). During the course of the film, she is described as a "virgin," a "goddess," a "scold," and a "fortress" by both her father and her ex, C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). In order to become a fit mate, the film suggests, she must be humanized by being taken down a peg, which happens when she gets drunk and cannot remember what she did with Macaulay Connor (James Stewart). As a result, the prig dumps her, and she winds up remarrying Dexter. The audience apparently believed in the transformation, and Hepburn went on star in, among many other films, a series of romantic comedies opposite Spencer Tracy.
Ernst Lubitsch was the director most closely identified with the genre of romantic comedy during the studio era. He was known for the "Lubitsch touch," the ineffable combination of gloss, sophistication, wit, irony, and, above all, lightness, that he brought to his material.
Lubitsch began his career in Germany, where he made slapstick comedies and historical epics. He came to America in 1922, carrying the reputation as "the greatest director in Europe." In his first romantic comedy, The Marriage Circle (1924), he staked out the artistic territory that would define the rest of his career: Lubitsch's attitude and technique are illustrated by a shot of Professor Stock (Adolph Menjou) as he reacts with a smile to evidence of his wife's adultery. In 1925 Lubitsch adapted Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan without making use of any of the celebrated playwright's dialogue. Lubitsch's willingness to disregard the details of his sources allowed him to turn bad plays into good or even great films.
Lubitsch made a series of farcelike operettas for Paramount featuring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald, including The Love Parade (1929) and One Hour with You (1932), a remake of The Marriage Circle . These films were sexy, stagy, unembarrassed froth that used music and lyrics to develop character and advance the plot. With Trouble in Paradise (1932), a nonmusical comedy in which style counts for everything, he directed what he regarded as his most accomplished work. He followed it with Design for Living (1933), an adaptation of Noel Coward, which ends with the heroine (Miriam Hopkins) leaving her bourgeois husband (Edward Everett Horton) for the two men (Gary Cooper and Fredric March as an artist and a playwright, respectively) with whom she had previously shared a Paris garret.
After making his final operetta, The Merry Widow , for MGM in 1934 (a box-office failure, but perhaps his best musical), Lubitsch became the only major director to serve as the head of production at a major studio, Paramount. In the main Lubitsch ignored the screwball trend, but he made one film in that mode, Ninotchka (1939), Greta Garbo's first comedy. This was followed by an equally successful foray into traditional romantic comedy with The Shop Around the Corner (1940).
If Lubitsch's reputation has not held up as well as some of his studio-era contemporaries, it may be because his stylish comedies fail to deal with serious issues, even serious issues of love or romance. But one film at least cannot be dismissed in this way. To Be or Not to Be (1942) is a romantic comedy set in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Although the making of a comedy set in war-torn Europe troubled many at the time, the film may be Lubitsch's most enduring work.
The Marriage Circle (1924), Lady Windermere's Fan (1925), The Love Parade (1929), Trouble in Paradise (1932), Design for Living (1933), The Merry Widow (1934), Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Barnes, Peter. To Be or Not to Be . London: British Film Institute, 2002.
Eyman, Scott. Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Paul, William. Ernst Lubitsch's American Comedy . New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
Poague, Leland A. The Cinema of Ernst Lubitsch . South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes and London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1978.
Weinberg, Herman G. The and Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study . 3rd edition. New York: Dover, 1977.
David R. Shumway
The actor whose career owed the most to romantic comedy, however, was undoubtedly Cary Grant (1904–1986). While he already appeared in twenty-eight films between 1932 and 1937, The Awful Truth defined
Grant's persona: sophisticated, intelligent, ironic, self-aware, confident, witty, but also capable of pratfalls and zaniness equal to those of screwball heroines. He became a model of masculinity unlike the more traditional paradigm represented by such actors as Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. Hawks pushed this second side of Grant to the limit in Bringing Up Baby , in which Grant is subjected to repeated humiliation at the hands of Hepburn, with whom he nevertheless falls in love. But Hawks also made Grant the almost inhuman editor Walter Burns in His Girl Friday , in which he wins the tough Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) only by being more wily and tenacious. This duality served Grant well in a variety of films, including not only those that borrow from romantic comedy, such as North by Northwest (1959, but also romantic films of adventure or suspense, such as Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Suspicion (1941), and Notorious (1946).
While screwball heroines are among the most independent and intelligent women in studio-era films, the romantic comedies of this era continued to depict them as if their choice of a mate was the only serious decision they might face. While they often best their male counterparts in these films' comic battles, what women win in the end is marriage. Similarly, screwball-era romantic comedies often flirt with a populist view of class relations. My Man Godfrey , for example, deals with the problems of the Depression as represented by the unemployed "for-gotten men" who live in a shantytown. But the film's hero is merely posing as one of them, and he ends up marrying a heroine of his own bourgeois class. Other comedies, like The Philadelphia Story , can be read as apologetics for the rich.