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A guide to screwball comedies

BY James Oliver

31st Jul 2021 Film & TV

A guide to screwball comedies
We take a look at the wildly popular sub-genre of the 1930s that satirised the traditional rom-com 
They had things tough in the 1930s, what with the Great Depression and its attendant hardships. With things so bad, audiences needed extra-strength entertainment to lift their spirits and Hollywood was happy to help. These were the years when the Marx Brothers were in their prime, when WC Fields was at the top of his game and Charlie Chaplin was at his most popular.
But another sort of comedy also thrived—upmarket, sharp-witted romantic comedies with fast-talking guys and dames who gave as good as they got: the Screwball Comedy. One of the very best of them, Bringing Up Baby, has just got  a release from those estimable cinephiles at The Criterion Collection, and that's all the excuse we need to take a look at this most glorious style, which yielded some of the funniest films ever made.
And it's a good time to do so: it might not be as bad as the Depression but these past 18 months have been tough. If you're in need of some cheering up then here is the perfect medicine...
Romantic comedies get a bad rap but when they're done right, they're unbeatable. And It Happened One Night is done very right indeed. Clark Gable is a tough no-nonsense reporter on the trail of flighty socialite Claudette Colbert who's absconded on the eve of her marriage. Naturally, he finds her and you win no prizes for guessing how their relationship develops but it's achieved with near-transcendent skill by director Frank Capra. It won Oscars for almost everyone involved and there's not many Rom-Coms that can say that.
People went to the movies to get away from their problems, or so it was always said. Yet here's a film that shows a little more reality than you might expect. The Bullock family hire a new butler, played by the great William Powell, formerly a “bum” from the streets and he opens their eyes to the plight of those less fortunate than themselves. More incisive than most “socially conscious” films and far, far funnier.
Before he planted himself in the director's chair, Billy Wilder wrote scripts for other people and was usually very rude about the results, especially those—like Midnight—that were directed by Mitchell Leisen. You have to wonder why, since Midnight is basically perfect: Claudette Colbert—her again—plays a would-be gold-digger who's far too grand for cabbie Don Ameche. Or so she thinks at first.
Wilder's script (written with Charles Bracket) is a thing of beauty but Leisen only enhances it, directing with a sure and sensitive touch. The results are actually better than many of the films that Wilder himself directed: maybe the sour grapes were because he was jealous?
There are those who'll tell you that Bringing Up Baby is the quintessential Screwball Comedy and they might well be right. Certainly everything is in place—Cary Grant is the quiet, bookish Palaeontologist whose life is upended by Katharine Hepburn, chaos in human form. It's got wayward dogs, inappropriate clothing and a leopard. No opportunity to humiliate Grant is missed; the path of true love never did run smooth...
A daring film for its time; gal about town Ginger Rogers finds herself in charge of an abandoned baby—long story—and everyone thinks... brace yourself now: they think she has born the child outside the sanctity of wedlock. But if you can adjust to the social attitudes (#DifferentTimes) this is a wonderful little movie as Ginger begins a romance with the playboy son of her boss, played by David Niven and both of them realise they don't give a stuff for puritanical convention.
Not everyone thinks Bringing Up Baby is the quintessential screwball comedy: His Girl Friday has its partisans too. It's another Cary Grant picture—here he's a hardboiled newspaper editor determined to stop his best reporter (who's also his ex-wife) from marrying some boring chump by playing on her newshound's instincts to keep her in the fold. Directed by Howard Hawks—he also made Bringing Up Baby, not to mention a dozen other classics—it's one of the fastest films ever made, travelling at about 150 miles an hour and dropping fresh jokes even before you've finished laughing at the last one(s). Screwball was rarely so screwy.
As we saw with Bachelor Mother, Screwball Comedies emerged out of a censorious time in the US and part of their fun is seeing how filmmakers evaded the prohibitions on what they could—The Lady Eve is a classic example of that. As with Bringing Up Baby, it's the story of a scholar (Henry Fonda here) struck by lightning (well, at least by Barbara Stanwyck who plays a con-woman). But it's also a masterpiece of Hollywood erotica, with writer/ director Preston Sturges bringing in some very loaded symbolism (a snake plays an important role) and cranking up the heat in the scenes between his stars. It's only rated PG in today's money but it's a good deal saucier than many more explicit films.
The Screwball cycle was born in the Depression and continued, more or less, until the US entered the Second World War and new concerns emerged: even a few months after The Devil and Miss Jones was first released, its ribbing of the rich and implicit appeal for workers’ rights wouldn't resonate so well. Still, that doesn't stop it being a great film, especially since it gives a major role to Charles Coburn. He was a late bloomer by Hollywood standards, making his first film in his sixties, but he quickly established himself as a jowly adornment to every film he appeared in—he stole scenes in a couple of other films on our list (Bachelor Mother, The Lady Eve) and became so popular that he was given bigger and bigger parts: Jean Arthur takes top-billing but Coburn is co-lead, perfectly cast as an amoral plutocrat.
If the Screwball cycle did nothing except make Charles Coburn a near-star then it would all have been worthwhile. Happily, it did so much more than that.
Bringing Up Baby is out now, released by The Criterion Collection
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