Screwball comedy was tied to a period of transition in American humor that gained momentum by the late 1920s. The dominant comedy character had been the capable cracker-barrel type, such as Will Rogers; it now became an antihero, best exemplified by characters in The New Yorker writings of Robert Benchley (1889–1945) and James Thurber (1894–1961), or Leo McCarey's (1898–1969) silent comedy shorts with Laurel and Hardy. (McCarey would later direct the screwball classic The Awful Truth , 1937). Antiheroic humor is driven by the ritualistic humiliation of the male; screwball comedy merely dresses up the setting and substitutes beautiful people for this farcical battle of the sexes.
The Great Depression fueled the antiheroic nature of the screwball genre. Moviegoers looked to the movies as a means of lighthearted escape from their everyday worries. Coupled with this was the Depression-era fascination with the upper classes, which is still a component of the genre, as in the wealthy backdrop of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Moreover, screwball plotlines sometimes pair couples from different classes, as in Frank Capra's (1897–1991) watershed work, It Happened One Night (1934), in which a blue-collar reporter (Clark Gable) and a runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) squabble but eventually fall in love. This romance becomes a metaphor for various forms of reconciliation, be it romantic or generational. Garry Marshall updated many of these components in his 1999 salute to the genre, Runaway Bride , which featured both a reporter (Richard Gere) and a woman with commitment issues (Julia Roberts). Similarly, writer and director Steve Gordon (b. 1938) brilliantly focuses on the genre's occasional union of classes in Arthur (1981), with a billionaire (Dudley Moore) falling for a waitress (Liza Minnelli).
Hollywood's implementation of the Production Code in 1934 also affected screwball comedy. This same year saw the release of such pioneering examples of the genre as Howard Hawks's (1896–1977) Twentieth Century and It Happened One Night . Since American censorship has always been more concerned with sexuality than with violence, it hardly seems a coincidence that a genre sometimes referred to as "the sex comedy without sex" should blossom at the same time the code appeared.
A fourth period factor was the film industry's then recent embrace of sound technology. Whereas silent comedy keyed upon the solo-hero status of personality comedians such as Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) and Buster Keaton (1895–1966), talking pictures were geared toward the verbal interaction of doubled heroes, such as the screwball couple. Even the early sound personality comedian films had a multiple-hero interaction, with the 1930s being the heyday of comedy teams from the celebrated Marx Brothers to period favorites such as Wheeler and Woolsey and the Ritz Brothers. The extension of these manic comedy teams also influenced screwball comedy. A defining trait of the screwball couple was having them act more like broad comedians. They were sophisticates gone silly. Pioneering examples of the sexy but clowning screwball couple include John Barrymore (1882–1942) and Carole Lombard (1908–1942), interacting in zany slapstick situations in Hawks's benchmark Twentieth Century , and Gable and Colbert, pretending to be an argumentative married couple in It Happened One Night .
Cary Grant put his stamp on screwball comedy like no other performer. In the genre's heyday he seemed to appear in every other watershed film. These classics include The Awful Truth and Topper (both 1937), Holiday and Bringing Up Baby (both 1938), His Girl Friday (1939), and My Favorite Wife (1940). Moreover, in the post–World War II era, when screwball comedy was less frequently produced, he starred in two excellent revisionist examples of the genre directed by one of the major directors of screwball comedy, Howard Hawks: I Was a Male War Bride (1949) and Monkey Business (1952). In the formulaic world of screwball comedy, Grant remains the genre's only indispensable actor.
The Grant screwball comedy persona was a product of his ability to combine great physical and visual comedic skills with the more traditional characteristics of the leading man. Here was something unique—a visual comedian who was tall, dark, and handsome, and who had a pleasant speaking voice. It is a generally ignored fact that the boy Archie Leach (Cary Grant) began his entertainment career as an acrobatic comic in the music halls and variety theaters of England. This was an early training ground not unlike that experienced by one of Grant's favorite comedians—Charlie Chaplin. Still, the suave Grant brought a touch of class to slapstick. And conversely, just as he elevated low comedy, the physical shtick gave him a touch of the everyman. One cannot emphasize enough the attractiveness of Grant's double-edged screwball persona.
The finishing touch on Grant's comedy persona came courtesy of pivotal screwball director Leo McCarey and the making of The Awful Truth . McCarey's storytelling actions were so infectious that the performers often ended up aping the director. Grant's screen penchant for everything from flirtatiously self-deprecating humor to the amusingly expressive use of his hands and eyes were all signature trademarks of McCarey long before they became synonymous with the actor; Grant brought the quizzical cocked head, the eye-popping expressions, the forward lunge of surprise, inspired double takes, and an athletic agility to the McCarey character.
While McCarey molded the Grant screwball persona, director Howard Hawks maximized the actor's gifts to the genre in Bringing Up Baby , His Girl Friday , I Was a Male War Bride , and Monkey Business . Hawks's one addition to the Grant screwball shtick was the absentminded professor demeanor. But the succinct take on Grant's screwball success remains that combination of movie-star good looks and a flair for being funny.
Topper (1937), The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), My Favorite Wife (1940), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Notorious (1946), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), Monkey Business (1952), To Catch a Thief (1955), North by Northwest (1959), Operation Petticoat (1959), Charade (1963)
Britton, Andrew. "Cary Grant: Comedy and Male Desire." Cine Action! 7 (December 1986): 36–51.
Gehring, Wes D. Leo McCarey: "From Marx to McCarthy . " Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004.
Kael, Pauline. "The Man from Dream City." The New Yorker (July 14 1975): 40+.
Nelson, Nancy. Evenings with Cary Grant . New York: Morrow, 1991.
Schickel, Richard. Cary Grant: A Celebration . Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.
Wes D. Gehring
Yet another catalyst in the 1930s for screwball comedy was the genre's marriage of directors trained in silent comedy to the army of wordsmiths who descended upon Hollywood with the coming of sound. Journalists,
playwrights, novelists, humorists, and every other kind of writer found at least a temporary California home as the film capital panicked over the sudden importance of words. All this talent helped usher in a golden age of dialogue comedy. Frequently these writers fed on their journalistic past. Thus a good number of screwball comedies have a newspaper backdrop, from the studio era's It Happened One Night , Nothing Sacred (1937), and His Girl Friday (1940) to Runaway Bride .
Screwball comedy's wittiest dialogue was the product of former Broadway playwright Preston Sturges (1898-1959), the writer and director of such watershed examples of the genre as The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). But he was also a student of slapstick, which made him a perfect auteur for a farcical genre defined by both verbal wit and visual comedy. Sturges notwithstanding, most of the key screwball directors, such as McCarey and Hawks, received their cinematic start in silent pictures. Indeed, McCarey's motto was "do it visually." Consequently, the sight gag (from a facial expression to a fall) was a natural component of the screwball comedy arsenal.