Classic Screwball Comedies: Rx for Our Fraught Times

Carla Seaquist
12 min readDec 20, 2019

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 crises 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…

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Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.