Screwball Comedy: A classic definition of the great genre

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There’s a pitch in baseball called a screwball, which was perfected by a pitcher named Carl Hubbell back in the 1930s. It’s a pitch with a particular spin that sort of flutters and drops, goes in different directions, and behaves in very unexpected ways… Screwball comedy was unconventional, went in different directions, and behaved in unexpected ways… ”Andrew Bergman,“We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films”
The Thin Man

The film critic James Agee described the essence of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy as the scene in which the two are moving a piano across a narrow suspension bridge in the Alps, and halfway across they meet a gorilla. This may be more than the essence of Laurel and Hardy. It may be the essence of all American Comedy. It’s nuts, it’s illogical, it’s impossible, and it’s hilarious. It’s also abundant with endless comic variations, opened to unexpected solutions, and primarily grounded in danger.

Screwball?

(Screw-ball [skrue’bol] Noun, Slang, meaning unbalanced, erratic, irrational, unconventional), became a popular slang word in the 1930s. It was applied to films where everything was a juxtaposition: educated and uneducated, rich and poor, intelligent and stupid, honest and dishonest, and most of all male and female. When two people fell in love, they did not simply surrender to their feelings, they battled it out. They lied to one another, often assuming indifferent personas toward each other. They often employed hideous tricks on each other, until finally after running out of inventions, fall into each others arms. It was fossilized comedy, physical and often painful, but mixed with the highest level of wit and sophistication, depending wholly on elegant and inventive writing.

Some characteristics of Screwball Comedy

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Reverse class snobbery, to be poor is somehow to be more noble. What’s more, to be rich is to be castigated, passions befitting theater patrons, during the Great Depression. A very skillful blend of sophistication and slapstick. Although screwball characters move in an elegant world, where even a simple bathroom appears to be the center of their universe, they may still whack one another over the head, but while The Three Stooges use sledgehammers, screwball characters use silver chafing dishes, and the like—weapons of the upper class.

A well written script, laced with barbed dialog. An overlapping style of delivery, with lines tossed off in rapid fire. An emphases on elegant clothes, cars, and furniture. The use of exotic locals, even the dump site in “My Man Godfrey”, (see below). The hero or the heroine living by his or her wits alone, though this is often balanced by a reliable gainfully employed love interest.

Last and probably most important, supporting casts of first-rate character actors playing eccentric types as well as a stable of familiar faces in leading roles (Cary Grant, William Powell, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn)

My Man Godfrey

Carole Lombard

One of the most unusual screwball comedies was “My Man Godfrey (1936)", a Universal production directed by Gregory La Cava. It begins at a garbage dump along New York’s East River. People in evening clothes, taking part in a scavenger hunt for a charity event, step out of a roadster to look for a “forgotten man”, a 1930s term for the unemployed and homeless. A derelict, after pushing one woman into an ash heap, agrees to go along with her sister. His dignity and sardonic humor impress her, and she hires him as butler for the family’s Fifth Avenue mansion. The wealthy family turn out to be spoiled, selfish, and inane—“empty-headed nitwits,” as the derelict-turned-butler calls them.

He, it turns Out, is also from a rich family; he landed in the dump through despondency over a broken love affair, Through his butler work he pulls his life together and in the end opens a posh nightclub, the Dump, on the dump site to provide employment, food, and shelter to “forget men” The film’s predominant point, however, is not that the poor are redeemable, but that the wealthy are.

Screwball comedy crested in the late 1930s. And with the increasing hostilities brewing in Europe, the glib, and at times genteel barbs between two highly disillusioned participants seemed docile, and trivial. Certainly Romantic comedy had it’s place during the war years. Films such as, “Mr. Lucky (1943)”, used the urbane characters of the Screwball genre, augmenting them with a win the war at all costs purpose. By wars end the less sophisticated, but more utilitarian comedy of Preston Sturges had come into fashion.

The Result

Pillow Talk

The invasion of television, and the dismantling of the Hollywood studio system put an end to the classic Romantic comedy. There was, however a brief revival in the postwar years with such forgettable films as the sophomoric, “The Mating of Millie (1948)” another insufferable pearl, “Please Believe Me (1950)”, and the equally obnoxious, “Confidentially Connie (1953)”.

What is typical American comedy? There are many things that Hollywood makes comedy about. Actually any subject is fair game. But there seems to be a single subject that persists—the battle of the sexes as presented in the Hollywood Romantic comedy. Only in America can you find the male-female relationship depicted as a vicious though delightful clash in which the man and women resist their feelings for one another by battling each other with a particularly desperate passion. And only in America can the story of destructive sexual passion be cultivated as a freewheeling slapstick event laced with acid wit. A subject that in most cultures would be recounted as stark tragedy, in the hands of Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Howard Hawks, or Frank Capra, is perfect material for comedy and romance.