SCREWBALL COMEDY – Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film

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 fiance´e, 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 fiance´e, 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 naı ¨ve 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?
But even without a sheepskin, screwball males tend to be
absent-minded antiheroes who add to their own (comic)
frustration by trying to be rational in an irrational world.
Bergson’s ‘‘inversion’’ is apparent in the screwball formula’s dominant woman, instead of the demure heroine
normally associated with romance. The male is first
victimized and then rescued by this strong, free-spirited
woman. Appropriately, the birth and initial success of
screwball comedy was tied to a period of transition in
American humor when the antihero was in ascendancy
over the capable cracker-barrel figure. Coincidentally,
early literary proponents of the antihero, such as James
Thurber (1894–1961), also showcased this phenomenon
in the ‘‘battle of sexes,’’ which provided more fodder for
screwball comedy.
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.