Screwball Comedy



RELATIONSHIPS AND GENDER

Screwball comedy is often confused with romantic comedy, but while the two genres share some elements, screwball comedy is a parody of romantic comedy. Romantic comedy's earnestness regarding love, as found in the impassioned conclusions of When Harry Met Sally … (1989) and As Good As It Gets (1997), is entirely absent from screwball comedy. Such sentiments would immediately be subject to satirical rebuke. For example, in the screwball What's Up, Doc? , the traditional love interest (Madeline Kahn) observes, "As the years go by, romance fades, and something else takes its place. Do you know what that is?" The devastatingly funny put-down from her fiancé (Ryan O'Neal, star of the earlier Love Story [1970], no less), is "Senility." The screwball genre always accents the silly over the sentimental. For instance, in the noteworthy My Man Godfrey (1936), the first period film to rate the screwball label, Carole Lombard decides that William Powell's having put her in the shower fully dressed is the height of romance, and she next proceeds to jump up and down on her bed, joyfully spraying water everywhere.

Avoiding serious and/or melodramatic overtones (such as in Love Affair [1939] and Sleepless in Seattle [1993]), screwball comedy instead shows irreverence for love and an assortment of other topics, including itself. The Awful Truth and Nothing Scared both burlesque scenes from Capra's populist romance Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), which is sometimes wrongly labeled a screwball comedy. In Twentieth Century John Barrymore spoofs his "Great Profile" with a putty nose, while Cary Grant mocks his real name (Archie Leach) in His Girl Friday . And at the close of What's Up, Doc? Ryan O'Neal ridicules the romantic drivel, "Love means never having to say you're sorry," the tag line from Love Story .

Coupled with this affectionate parody are occasional patches of more biting satire, such as Ben Hecht's frequent comic diatribes against journalism in his Nothing Sacred script, or onetime lawyer McCarey derailing the courtroom in both The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife (1940). Joining journalism and law as an especially popular screwball satirical target, is academia and intellectual pretension; the "dean" of this approach is Howard Hawks, with his winning trilogy Bringing Up Baby , Ball of Fire (1941), and Monkey Business (1952). Other skewered subjects include the upper class, in My Man Godfrey ; Las Vegas and the mob, in Honeymoon in Vegas (1992); gay stereotypes, in In & Out (1997); and the makeover mentality in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001).

The crazy characters of screwball comedies contrast sharply with their realistic romantic counterparts. For example, James Stewart's clerk in The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and Tom Hanks's businessman in the loose remake, You've Got Mail (1998), are earnest, while Irene Dunne's title character is decidedly wild in Theodora Goes Wild (1936). Other memorable screwball characters include Katharine Hepburn's socialite in Bringing Up Baby , Barbra Streisand's kook in What's Up, Doc? , Cary Grant on youth serum in Monkey Business , the skydiving Elvises in Honeymoon in Vegas , and Hugh Grant's flatmate (Rhys Ifans) in Notting Hill (1999).

When naturally zany plays thin, screwball comedy often reinvents itself by introducing a catalyst for "crazy." Topper (1937) ushered in a fantasy cause for eccentricity, as Cary Grant and Constance Bennett play "ectoplasmic screwballs" (ghosts) come to loosen up Roland Young's staid title character. This was followed by two sequels and numerous future fantasy variations, from I Married a Witch (1942) to All of Me (1984). More recently, the genre has used celebrity as a trigger for screwball behavior, such as in Runaway Bride , Notting Hill , and America's Sweethearts (2001).

While romantic comedy follows a more traditional dating ritual, with the male taking the lead (usually after some maturing), as with Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally … (1989) and John Cusack in High Fidelity , 2000), screwball comedy is female driven, with an eccentric heroine saving an antiheroic leading man from a rigid (read "dead") lifestyle. Classic examples include Hepburn rescuing Grant from a double dose of dead (a bloodless career and an equally sterile fiancée) in Bringing Up Baby , Liza Minnelli freeing Dudley Moore from the same dual dilemma in Arthur , and Lily Tomlin helping Steve Martin evade yet another domineering fiancée and dead-end job (lawyer) in All of Me . This free-spirited emancipator is usually a force to be reckoned with, be it Goldie Hawn's pathological liar in Housesitter (1992, first cousin to Lombard's master fibber in True Confession , 1937), or more recently, Queen Latifah, who awakens Steve Martin's "wild and crazy" past in Bringing Down the House (2003). The inevitability of the screwball heroine's victory is nicely summarized by Streisand at the close of What's Up, Doc? : "You can't fight a tidal wave." Still, the genre also has room for the antiheroic screwball heroine who wins despite herself, such as Renée Zellweger's title character in Bridget Jones's Diary . Eventually, she both loosens up the classically rigid male (Colin Firth) and frees him from a domineering, deadening fiancée.

Pace also plays a major role in screwball comedy. While the romantic story slows to narrative apoplexy at the close as the audience agonizes over whether the couple will ultimately get together, as in Tom Hanks's drawn-out orchestration of love at the end of You've Got Mail , or Billy Crystal's finally reconnecting with Meg Ryan at the conclusion of When Harry Met Sally … , screwball comedy's normally quick pacing escalates even more near the finale, as the title of Theodora Goes Wild suggests. This pell-mell speed is often coupled with genre-defining action, such as Hepburn knocking down Grant's bronotosaurus skeleton (symbolically the last vestiges of his academic rigidity) in Bringing Up Baby , and Martin and Tomlin concluding All of Me with an out-of-control jazz dance number, designating the death of his law career to become a musician.

As this overview suggests, the screwball formula has not changed markedly since the 1930s. Today's take on the genre might actually have gay characters, as in In & Out and My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), whereas a pioneering screwball comedy only teases about it—as when a frilly night-gowned Cary Grant jumps in the air and yells, "I just went gay all of a sudden!" in Bringing Up Baby . New catalysts for craziness, such as celebrity, have evolved, as in the comic chaos Hugh Grant creates by bringing a movie star (Julia Roberts) to his grown sister's birthday party in Notting Hill . But these developments are merely concessions to evolving tastes, not major change. A greater issue is that the screwball heroine has lost some of her allure. For instance, both My Best Friend's Wedding and Forces of Nature (1999) start off as traditional examples of the genre. In the 1930s the leading ladies of these pictures (Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, respectively) would have broken up the weddings and saved the men from lives of boring rigidity, but in these two films the guys opt for the less flashy and eccentric fiancées. In áe as a life-sucking drone, these pictures portray her as safe and comfortable. Ultimately, both movies break with the screwball mold and essentially embrace romantic comedy. In today's truly life-on-the-edge existence, with new dangers from terrorist acts to AIDS, unpredictability is less appealing.

Finally, the term screwball merits some closing clarification. Too often people wrongly pigeonhole as screwball any comedy with zany components, from films with personality comedians such as the Marx Brothers to the dark comedy of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Along related lines, just because a manic clown has a girlfriend does not make a picture a screwball comedy—all movie funny men have romantic interests. For instance, calling the dark comedy collaboration between Paul Thomas Anderson and Adam Sandler Punch Drunk Love (2002) a screwball comedy would be like labeling Casablanca (1942) a musical because Dooley Wilson sings "As Time Goes By." Screwball comedy simply uses a strong eccentric heroine to parody the traditional romance. genre that normally paints the fiance

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938).

SEE ALSO Comedy ; Genre ; Romantic Comedy

Byrge, Duane, and Robert Milton Miller. The Screwball Comedy Films: A History and Filmography, 1934–1942 . Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991.

Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Gehring, Wes D. Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference . Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

——. Screwball Comedy: A Genre of Madcap Romance . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.

——. Screwball Comedy: Defining a Film Genre . Muncie, IN: Ball State University, 1983.

Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges . New York: DaCapo Press, 1998.

Jenkins, Henry. What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic . New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Karnick, Kristine Brunovska, and Henry Jenkins, eds. Classical Hollywood Comedy . New York: Routledge, 1995.

Kendall, Elizabeth. The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s . New York: Knopf, 1990.

Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies . 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Neale, Steve, and Frank Krutnik. Popular Film and Television Comedy . New York: Routledge, 1990.

Sikov, Ed. Screwball: Hollywood's Madcap Romance . New York: Crown, 1989.

Wes D. Gehring



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