What’s The Most Forgotten Movie Genre?
In the hunt for imaginatively funny romantic films we must perforce turn away from Richard Curtis (ahem) and look at a category that lasted for just a decade and a half, then utterly vanished. Where did the screwball comedy go? What was it, and why was it so uniquely American? And why did no-one else ever manage to recreate its sexy wit and charm? I’m saddened that so many of OYP (Our Young People) have never seen one.
Screwball was born in the after-effects of the Great Depression. Cinema had been about fantasy and wish fulfilment, but the introduction of censorship in the form of the ‘improving’ Hays Code meant that movies could no longer be a mere parade of action and half-clad girls. Oddly, censorship had a lot to do with the screwball’s popularity, for the writers needed to find a new approach to the subject of sex. The films they wrote (and this was very much a writers’ genre) were still ostensibly about wish fulfilment, but once the genre was established it grew sharper and more sophisticated.
‘You know, you don’t have to get mad just because you’re so stupid,’ says Jean Arthur to the millionaire who has just dropped a $50,000 mink coat on her head in ‘Easy Living’, thereby summing up the appeal of the headstrong women who manage to have such peculiar thought processes that they drive their men insane. Arthur’s mink becomes a symbol of infidelity and therefore outrage, and she loses her job but eventually gets her man.
The films were writers’ dreams, and were mostly written by emigre Europeans freshly arrived in Hollywood, who brought with them a sexual frankness. But here lies the real paradox with screwball comedies; while they represent male and female thought processes in often shocking honesty, they look like glamorous art deco fantasies – how better to sugar-coat the pill about why we don’t understand each other?
The films weren’t hobbled by the prudish Hays code; they outwitted it. A lot of the plots involve love and cold, hard cash. In these times, a woman’s fate was closely tied to her choice of partner. So we get rich old men, heiresses on the run, broke girls, down-on-their-luck guys, all prepared to string each other along if there’s dough at the end of it. It often seems as if a collective lunacy has descended on everyone else for the duration of each film. ‘Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?’ says Myrna Loy in ‘The Thin Man’.
The screwballs reached a zenith with two films, ‘Bringing Up Baby’ and ‘His Girl Friday’, a comedy with some of the fastest dialogue ever recorded. ‘The Palm Beach Story’ begins at such a furious pace that it virtually slides off the screen, fast-forwarding through a romance to a kidnapping, a wedding and ‘The End’ even before the film has started and sexy Claudette Colbert has slipped out of her boring marriage to have fun with the Sausage King and the shotgun-toting Ale & Quail Club on a train heading south. It’s amoral, saucy, utterly madcap, and makes most modern movies look as if they’re moving underwater.
There’s a sense of barely controlled hysteria through these films, usually summed up by camp character actor Franklin Pangborn, playing a flustered hysteric in most of them. By the time we get to ‘The Twentieth Century’, on board the cross-country train where failed producer John Barrymore and his ex-lover, now an A-list movie star played by Jean Harlow lie, cheat, steal and fight each other to a standstill and an embrace, the genre is rocketing at its peak.
In ‘The Lady Eve’, a befuddled and demoralised Henry Fonda is forced to admit he loves Barbara Stanwyck, despite the fact that she’s spent the entire film conning, torturing and ruining him. In ‘Libelled Lady’ there’s this exchange on the dance floor;
‘Your eyes are like – ‘
‘I know, I know – limpid moonlit pools.’
‘I was going to say angry marbles.’
In ‘His Girl Friday’, Rosalind Russell’s hardboiled reporter Hildy Johnson has changed sex from its original Hecht & MacArthur version version without needing much of a dialogue trim at all, so tough is she. But it’s in ‘Bringing Up Baby’ that we reach the peak, with Katherine Hepburn firing olives into her mouth in a bar and casually destroying Cary Grant’s life, jackets and sanity. It was loosely remade with Ryan I’Neal and Barbra Streisand in ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ decades later, but there was no revival of the genre
Why are screwballs so different from modern rom-coms? There’s a bluntness about relationships in them that has been replaced by sexual forthrightness. While the films were about sex, they weren’t about the sexual act. Rather, they explored attitudes, and the fact that men and women can’t fully understand each other.
‘I’d only fall in love with a man I didn’t know,’ Margaret Sullavan points out in ‘The Moon’s Our Home’. But men fall for these tough women, even though William Powell has to get himself diagnosed as insane to get his wife back. In ‘Nothing Sacred’ Walter Connolly is described as ‘a cross between a ferris wheel and a werewolf, but with a loveable streak if you care to blast for it.’ That’s the kind of guy you have to be to get your girl. ‘Nothing Sacred’ is interesting because it also explores the rising awareness of corporate cynicism, as a supposedly dying girl is exploited by the press. In ‘His Girl Friday’, the newspaper looks at two mocked-up headlines; ‘Ditch the earthquake, run the penguins, they’re human interest.’
There are around two dozen screwballs worth seeing, with maybe ten at the very top. There’s also a very sharp book about them called ‘Screwball’ by Ed Sikov. Now, here’s the snag. Should you decide the explore the genre, most of the films are only available on NTSC and many are hard to find, although the company Rarewaves is a help here. Also, quite a few now exist in HD versions on Youtube.
After seeing them, going back to new Hollywood comedies peppered with Seth Rogan dick jokes seems a tad, well, inadequate.