Classic Screwball Comedies: Rx for Our Fraught Times

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Screwball comedy may be the perfect tonic for our unhappy times — with American democracy under siege from within, leadership hapless, the public hopping mad at just about everything. In fact, we might call our times screwball tragedy.

Given screwball comedy’s classic elements — unlike characters meeting in unlikely circumstances, who spark to each other (“spark” being a screwball verb) but who for their reasons resist that spark, until finally, after an often antic journey together (or escapade), they give in to the power of Love — the allure is enduring. In screwball, characters are likeable, the world is tractable, humane, fun — imagine!

An element I especially like: The woman exercises power equal to the man, both in action and snappy dialogue, making for more dynamic engagement than traditional romance. The comedy comes out of the revelations of human nature caught in the pixilating throes of Love — “What fools these mortals be!” Words like “romp” and “charming” apply to great screwball — again, tonic. Of course, screwball can’t shoo our present crisis away, but the fizzy effect lingers, reminding us: Love is the prize.

Historically, the screwball comedy came into being in the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the Hollywood studios responded to that national crisis with the stated intention of giving the masses fare to enjoy. That era also gave us beauty — the peerless dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — and a spunky child, Shirley Temple, who gave people hope in America’s future. (Would that today’s filmmakers understood the eternal need for laughter and beauty and spunk in dark times.)

Screwball energy being hard to maintain, some specimens, after a bang-up set-up, sag in the second act, for example “His Girl Friday,” “My Man Godfrey,” “Libeled Lady,” and “Sullivan’s Travels.” The latter film, though, captures screwball’s essence: portraying the human parade, “with a little sex in it.” The ten films below are listed in approximately chronological order. The spoilers should not deter from the fun.

“It Happened One Night” (1934; dir. Frank Capra)

Considered the progenitor of the genre, “It Happened One Night” (photo at top) became a surprise hit and won Oscars for best picture, actor, actress, director, and screenplay. In it, Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), a socialite engaged to a wealthy twit her father cannot abide, escapes her father’s strictures and yacht by diving into a Florida bay (in a lounging gown, no less), fetching up at a bus station wearing a chic traveling outfit, complete with beret (costume changes don’t get explained in screwball). By happy coincidence, Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a reporter, boards the same bus as Ellie and takes the seat next to her, after insisting she make room for him. When in the course of the bus journey northward, Peter learns who she is, his conflict becomes ethical — does he cash in on this breaking scandal? — and personal: While attracted to Ellie, he’s put off by her snootiness (he calls her “Brat”) and aims to teach her a thing or two. For her part, Ellie falls for Peter, while clinging to the idea of her fiancée.

Colbert and Gable are scintillating together, and Walter Connolly playing her father is both funny and endearing, especially in the final scenes with Gable and then Colbert. The film is chock full of wonderful scenes, with the hitchhiking scene the classic, when Ellie famously flags down a car, using a “system all my own.” (Trailer here.)

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“The Awful Truth” (1937; dir. Leo McCarey)

In this charming comedy, a married couple, Lucy and Jerry Warriner, has to file for divorce and start seeing others before they realize “the awful truth” — they still love each other. Played by Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, their mutual attraction is clear to the viewer, not necessarily to them. It’s fun to watch the suave Grant gate-crash Lucy’s date with an Oklahoma oil man (a game Ralph Bellamy), and later, sure that she’s also seeing her handsome singing coach (who’s French and always in a tux), he crashes her song recital; when he tries to recover himself after falling off a chair, she works a “ha-ha-ha” into her aria. (These two fight well.) It’s also fun to watch lady-like Dunne spoof the risqué singing style of a showgirl Jerry saw briefly, performing it for his new interest’s stuffy family. As the minutes tick toward midnight on the day their divorce is final, the comedy modulates and real feeling comes to the fore.

But until then, everything is contended, even custody of their dog. In divorce court, when the judge says he’ll take the custody matter “under advisement,” Jerry says, “Yes, but when will you know?” Out of screwball, truth about the legal system. (Clip here.)

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“Bringing Up Baby” (1938; dir. Howard Hawks)

When a paleontologist meets a specimen of the human race he’s never encountered before — a hare-brained socialite — hilarity ensues, as well as a sentimental education for both. The encounter is initiated when, on the golf course, David Huxley, played by Cary Grant, sees his ball being played by Susan Vance, acted to fine ditziness by the normally grounded Katharine Hepburn. Because this encounter pulled David away from the financier he was wooing to fund the assembling of a pre-historic behemoth, and because Susan knows said financier, the rest of the film, and mayhem, flows from Susan “just wanting to help” David get his heart’s desire. By film’s end David realizes his heart’s desire is….Susan? But not before they jump down the rabbit-hole together, led by Susan, who’s been given custody by her brother of a leopard named Baby, a development explained perfectly by screwball “logic.”

My favorite sequence is early, when Susan pursues David at the country club, pulls at his coat, and tears it: “Oh, you tore your coat.” He then steps on her dress, and it tears. Bound together, tighter than they could know, they two-step their way out. (Trailer here.)

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“Holiday” (1938; dir. George Cukor)

When regular guy Johnny Case meets a rich girl and becomes engaged to her, the tension between high status and regular people becomes an issue, indeed the main issue in this lesser-known comedy. That tension begins to resolve when Johnny becomes acquainted, then falls truly in love, with his fiancee’s less snobby, more real sister, Linda. In a wonderful scene, Linda quizzes Johnny about his idea that, rather than joining her family’s bank, he take time off from his job in finance to determine if the field really is for him — the “holiday” of the title. With Johnny played by the ubiquitous Cary Grant, this time with not every hair in place, and Linda played by Katharine Hepburn, who touchingly conveys the loneliness of the lesser-loved sister, the viewer starts pulling for these two early on. Lew Ayres plays Linda’s brother Ned, whose failure in their father’s eyes has made him a lush.

The tension between high status and regular guy, in any other film, would resolve in high drama, but with screwball, it is resolved more gently — making fun of the stuffed shirts, recognizing where true (human) value lies. As she leaves home to join Johnny, Linda vows to come back for her brother, and he vows to hold on.

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“Midnight” (1939; dir. Mitchel Leisen)

This little-known gem, set in Paris, features another unlike couple: an out-of-work showgirl, played by Claudette Colbert, and a hard-working taxi-driver, played by Don Ameche. Their attraction is instant and mutual, but the showgirl, Eve Peabody, is bent on her project: to find a sugar daddy (though she would not put it that way, not exactly). Eve exits Tibor’s taxi and somehow finds her way into a posh soiree, then into the back room where a card game is in progress, with Georges and Helene Flammarion, played by John Barrymore and Mary Astor, and Helene’s swain Jacques (Francis Lederer). Turns out Eve is great at cards, and soon enough she is ensconced in the Flammarion household, with Jacques in attendance. When Tibor learns of this development, he drives his taxi to the Flammarion mansion and, stepping out in a tux, crashes the party and takes control. Eve resists, but, love must triumph.

It’s all frothy stuff, but Colbert and Ameche bring real feeling to it. Watch for the director’s special touch: Early on for Tibor, and midway for Eve, both characters get very still for a moment: In their eyes is registered the seriousness beneath the froth. (Trailer here.)

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“Idiot’s Delight” (1939; dir. Clarence Brown)

This film is more cynical than most screwball: Its antiwar heart is squeezed between two world wars. Harry Van (Clark Gable), veteran of World War I, hopes to return to Broadway vaudeville, but times have changed and he bounces around until he lands in Omaha, faking it as a mentalist. There he meets an acrobat, Irene (Norma Shearer). They spark, but part, he feeling he’s a “bust,” she insisting he is great (he calls her a “dreamer”). Years pass, it is 1939, and their paths cross again in Europe: He now heads an act called “Harry Van and ‘Les Blondes,’” with six showgirls; she now sports a blonde wig, a thick Russian accent, and the company of arms manufacturer Achille Weber (Edward Arnold). Stuck together in a mountain-top hotel in an unnamed country, the borders now closed, Harry insists on going on. Told war is about to break out, Harry’s response is classic: “What, another one?” While Harry and troupe entertain with a song-and-dance number, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” — not to be missed — he tries to puzzle out if this Irene is the Omaha Irene.

Giving the film its edge is firebrand Quillery (Burgess Meredith), railing against the international arms trade; in the end he is executed. A cancer researcher declares he will stop his research: “Why should I save people who don’t want to be saved?” But love prevails: An air attack forces Harry and Irene to declare themselves — “I loved you all along.” Turner Classic Movies shows two endings: the one for Europe ending with a hymn, the one for the U.S. with razzle-dazzle. Maybe we need the hymn now? (Trailer here. This film is based on Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.)

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“The Philadelphia Story” (1940; dir. George Cukor)

A favorite of many, “The Philadelphia Story” is another tale about formerly marrieds rediscovering that Fate means for them to be together. To do so, though, Main Line socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) must evolve from snob to human being, a metamorphosis enabled by ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), who disrupts Tracy’s pending marriage to George “Man of the People” Kittredge, by his own subtle questioning, also by bringing reporter McCauley “Mike” Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to cover the event for “Spy” magazine, exposure that’s anathema to a Main Line family. Unexpectedly — or did the Champagne help? — Connor, initially contemptuous of the wealthy, falls in love with Tracy, causing Liz, his intended, pain. Tracy’s metamorphosis to human being is complete when she sees the world, and her ex-husband, with new eyes.

My favorite scene is where Connor, full of Champagne, pays a midnight visit to C.K. Dexter Haven. Hepburn, after being dubbed “box office poison,” made a hit of this play on Broadway, then used it to engineer her Hollywood comeback. Cheers! (Trailer here.)

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“The Lady Eve” (1941; dir. Preston Sturges)

Talk about opposites attracting. When a professional card sharp, played by Barbara Stanwyck, falls in love with her mark, a shy biologist who’s the son of a famous brewer, played by Henry Fonda, high amusement ensues. This meeting takes place on a cruise ship, which Charles boards after a year up the Amazon and where Jean and her father (Charles Coburn) ply their nefarious trade. The scene where Jean works her magic on Charles, fingers in his hair, he who’s been up the Amazon for a year, is classic. But when he learns of her trade, he cuts off the budding relationship. Jean plots revenge, venturing into his orbit as a member of the English peerage, “the Lady Eve.” Charles is sure he’s met her before, but can’t quite place where, which leads to the only slapstick I have ever enjoyed (this one involving, serially, a sofa, a roast beef, and a curtain). In this film, it is Jean/Eve who changes most, becoming a feeling human being, while Charles remains befuddled.

Fonda does befuddled so well; Stanwyck is terrific in both roles. Familiar character actors appear: Englishman Eric Blore, who steps in as Eve’s English cousin; Eugene Pallette, who, as Charles’ father, acts as Eve’s emissary to his son; and William Demarest, Charles’ associate, who insists Eve is Jean — “I tell ya, it’s the same dame.” (Clip here.)

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“The More the Merrier” (1943; dir. George Stevens)

This comedy is not often cited as screwball, but the set-up certainly is: Housing is short in wartime Washington, D.C., and rooms in apartments and homes must be shared (the “more” part). When new boarder Mr. Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) takes a liking to a young man looking for a room for a few days before he heads to war (Joe Carter, played by Joel McCrea) and he takes him in — without informing the holder of the lease, Miss Connie Milligan (played by Jean Arthur) — the “merrier” part kicks in. The attraction between Connie and Joe is instant, but there is a complication: She is engaged to Charles J. Pendergast, a very important bureaucrat. More merriment ensues as Mr. Dingle promotes Joe to Connie as a “fine, high-type young man” and as Joe woos Connie as if Pendergast did not exist: His trying to make out with Connie as they walk home after a night out is priceless.

Coburn, who usually played sober-sided characters, is a hoot playing Cupid. Jean Arthur was never my favorite, but here she is perfect. So is McCrea, whose physique and natural acting style made him the prototypical American man, who here is soon going off to war. War tempers everything: When Joe and Connie finally confess their love, through a wall diving their rooms, merriment turns deeply moving. (Trailer here.)

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“Dinner at Eight” (1933; dir. George Cukor)

Chronologically, with “Dinner at Eight” we step back in time, to the Great Depression again; and technically, this film is more comic drama than screwball, but with Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, and the sublime Billie Burke in the cast, it has its moments. Apart from being one of my all-time favorites, I include it because of its resonance to the present economic picture: Businessman Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore) faces the bankruptcy of his shipping line, which crisis along with his heart trouble he keeps from wife Millicent (Burke), who is focused on organizing a grand dinner with English royalty as special guests. Compounding Oliver’s crisis, former diva and old flame Carlotta Vance (Dressler) informs him she wishes to sell her shares in his company’s stock. Harlow’s Kitty, carrying on an affair with a society doctor while married to a nouveau-riche financier (Wallace Beery), emerges as the main protagonist — by bringing her husband and Jordan together, to save the Jordan line.

Other crises play out: The Jordans’ daughter Paula (Madge Evans), engaged to young Ernest, is smitten by the has-been actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore), a futile affair Carlotta movingly sorts out. Equally moving is when Millicent learns how ill Oliver is; and when she learns they are now broke, her reaction is priceless: “Everybody’s broke, Darling. We’ll economize.” For a comic drama, in the end all is put basically aright, apart from a suicide. Harlow’s laughter, though, is pure screwball. (Trailer here.)

Finally, as a bonus film:

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“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1935; dirs. William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt)

Harking back to early film history, and reaching even further back to William Shakespeare for story and poetic language, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with the throes of Love being its entire focus, may be the original screwball comedy. This film is a gauzy moonbeam, with Felix Mendelssohn’s sublime symphony as score. The cast features Dick Powell and Olivia de Havilland, with — brace for it — James Cagney as Bottom (who metamorphoses from human to donkey) and a young Mickey Rooney as Puck. Every major character in this romp is pixilated by love’s magic — everyone, that is, but Puck. Which distance allows Puck to make the immortal observation — and the emblematic expression of screwball comedy — “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (Trailer here.)

For my other commentary on film, see here, here, here, here, and here.

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.

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