TCM Spotlight: Screwball Comedies

January 19, 2023
Tcm Spotlight: Screwball Comedies

Tuesdays in February | 20 films

“All You Need to Start an Asylum is an Empty Room and the Right Kind of People”

What are we talking about when we talk about screwball comedy?

Perhaps it is best defined by the ecstatic moment in Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936) when dizzy socialite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) exclaims to her mother, “Godfrey loves me; he put me in the shower.”

Or maybe it’s the scene in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) when Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne) sabotages her ex-husband’s (Cary Grant) new romance by showing up unannounced at his prospective in-laws’ posh digs posing as his uncouth sister.

Then again, it could be the breakneck pace. The fast and furious credit sequence in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942) packs more into its roughly three minutes than most comedies do in 90, while setting up one of the most uproarious climactic payoffs in screen history.

Or perhaps it’s best exemplified by one of the few quiet moments in Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938), when dizzy socialite Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) explains to David (Cary Grant, again), the staid paleontologist whose life she has completely upended, “All that happened, happened, because I was trying to keep you near me, and I just did anything that came into my head.”

And, oh, the things that come into her head. In a more characteristically chaotic scene from earlier in that film, David and Susan are jailed (don’t ask) and the overwhelmed sheriff tries to get to the bottom of things. Suddenly, Susan barks at him like a moll out of a 1930s Warner Bros. gangster epic. A stunned David pleads, “Susan, it won’t work; whatever it is, it won’t work.”

But you can see the slightest hint of a smile on his face. He’s completely at sixes and sevens, but it will later dawn on him that he loves it…and her.

Tricky thing, screwball comedy. It’s elusive to define, but to quote former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.”

It’s not farce, but it’s farce-adjacent. It is romantic comedy, but with a, well, screwball twist on the conventional boy-meets-girl mush. For example, in Billy Wilder’s directorial debut, The Major and the Minor (1942), Ginger Rogers poses as a 12-year-old (it can happen) and is taken under the wing of a military school commandant (Ray Milland).  In William Wellman’s Nothing Sacred (1937), a disgraced newspaper man (Fredric March) believes he’s found the story of a lifetime in Hazel Flagg (Lombard), a small-town girl he brings to New York for one last fling after she is diagnosed with radiation poisoning. Except….

Tuesdays in February, TCM is offering a crash course in screwball comedy with 20 sparkling genre-defining gems. Bringing Up Baby, often cited as the quintessential screwball comedy, kicks things off on Feb.7.

Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) is credited as the proto-screwball comedy. But compared to the films that followed, it is the Road to Singapore (1940) of the genre. Hear me out on this one: The first Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movie introduced many touchstones of the franchise, but it is a more conventional comedy than the later, sillier films that awaited down the Road.

My Man Godfrey, which kicks off a prime time Valentine’s Day screwball binge, takes the genre elements introduced in It Happened One Night and jacks them up way past 11.

For example, Depression-era screwball comedies got much of their comic juice from taking the very wealthy down a peg or two. Audiences applauded when Clark Gable’s cynical newspaper man tells off Claudette Colbert’s runaway poor little rich girl: “You’re all a lot of hooey to me.”

In My Man Godfrey, William Powell’s Godfrey, a “forgotten man,” goes from living in a city dump packing box to buttling in the home of the madcap Bullock family, but not before he takes the opportunity to witness the heartless scavenger hunt proceedings at a swank hotel. “I was curious to see how a bunch of empty-headed nitwits conducted themselves,” he dryly informs the society swells. “I assure you it will be a pleasure for me to go back to a society of really important people.”

One bystander is heard to say, “The man’s perfect. I’ve been wanting to say that all night, but I didn’t have the nerve.”

Another touchstone of the screwball comedy is the irresistible force who triumphs over proponents of sanity and reason. “You love me, and you know it,” Irene tells Godfrey. “There’s no sense in struggling against a thing when it's got you. It’s got you and that's all there is to it; it’s got you.” In Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), it’s newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant; you’ll be seeing a lot of him over these four nights). He initially has but two hours to stop Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), his star reporter and ex-wife, from leaving town to get re-married. Like Susan Vance, he does anything that comes into his head to disrupt her plans: having her fiancé arrested for “mashing,” shanghaiing the poor man’s mother and planting counterfeit money on him. In the realm of screwball comedy, that’s how one says, “I love you.”  In Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941), wealthy but socially awkward snake enthusiast Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) hasn’t got a chance against con woman Jean (Barbara Stanwyck), who needs him “like the axe needs the turkey,” especially after he ends their blossoming romance when he learns of her past. What’s a girl in love to do but pose as a posh English lady and sweep him off his feet?  George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Holiday (1938) are comparatively more sedate affairs. In the former, C. K. Dexter Haven (you guessed it; Cary Grant) schemes to win back his ex-wife (Katharine Hep…oh, you know) on the eve of her wedding. In the latter, self-made man Johnny Case finds himself to be a kindred free-spirit with his wealthy fiancée’s black sheep sister. These are much more deliberately paced and less eccentric than their predecessors, with a dramatic heft that packs a wallop. But both mine rich comedy from the consideration of class divisions. Two films included on TCM’s Valentine’s Day screwball marathon feature couples at opposite ends of the screwball romance spectrum. Lloyd Bacon’s Cain and Mabel (1936), starring Marion Davies and Clark Gable, stands the “opposites attract” trope on its head. She’s a Broadway star, he’s a championship boxer. They are reluctantly paired by their publicist who hypes the “nation’s sweetest romance,” which is anything but. “You’re a punching bag with ears,” she tells him. “If she’s a lady, then Diamond Lil could get by as Whistler’s Mother,” he ripostes.  But they instantly bond when he learns she was a former waitress, and romance blossoms over a home-cooked pork chop dinner. If this were your standard romantic comedy, that would be the end of the story. But in the land of screwball, we’re just getting warmed up, as the publicist and his team plot to thwart the couple’s marriage plans to save their cushy jobs. Mitchell Leisen’s Hands Across the Table (1935), starring Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard, deals with a couple of self-confessed heels. She’s a manicurist determined to marry a millionaire. He’s the son of a wealthy family gone bust (“Do you remember that thing called the Crash? That was us.”) also set on marrying for money. “We’re exactly alike,” he proclaims. This film is textbook screwball in that love is wildly unpredictable, and good man Ralph Bellamy will ultimately play the sap (see also: His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth). 

The indiscreet charms of the classic screwball comedy are many, from the snappy banter to scene-stealing supporting players. Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941), a Manhattan fairy tale that tips its hat to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, boasts a deep bench of delightful character actors, including Richard Haydn, Henry Travers, S. Z. Sakall and Leonid Kinskey as the staid colleagues to hopelessly grammarian (Gary Cooper), who learns about slang and “yum yum” from an on the lam showgirl (Barbara Stanwyck).

But at the heart of their enduring appeal is that no matter how many bizarre and absurd twists, love emerges triumphant. Or as Fred MacMurray succinctly proclaims in Hands Across the Table: “Everything was pretty mixed up, but it’s all straightened up now.”