The Golden Age of Hollywood coincided with one of its most enduring movie genres, the classic screwball comedy. They were designed, along with the lavish Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s, to make moviegoers forget about their cares during the dark heart of The Great Depression. They are distinguished by their witty repartee, staccato pacing and dialogue, and convoluted plots. They are called screwballs because class and sex roles are often overturned. Legends such as Carole Lombard, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Rosalind Russell, and William Powell pratfall and wisecrack their way through these movies. Next time you are at the video store, check out some of the following classics.
The Awful Truth
A vocal coach, a California orange, and a fake tan all add up to divorce for Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in Leo McCarey's 1937 look at marriage and trust. Legal wrangling over custody of their dog, Mr Smith, provides many of the laughs in the film, as do their attempts at rebound relationships. She takes up with an Oklahoma oilman-cum-country bumpkin for whom 'Home on the Range' is the last word in musical genius, while he finds love in the arms of a daffy singer and a wild debutante respectively. However, true love triumphs in the end. After being picked up by the cops for disturbing the peace, Grant and Dunne decide to put their marriage back together.
Bringing Up Baby
Released in 1938, this is the movie credited with putting the nail in the coffin of Katharine Hepburn's screen career. This was one of a string of flops causing her to be known as 'box office poison'. However, modern audiences have embraced this film. Hepburn plays a ditzy heiress in charge of her brother's pet leopard, Baby, who can only be controlled when someone sings 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby'. Cary Grant co-stars as the stereotypical absent-minded professor, a noted paleontologist who reluctantly helps her in and out of various scrapes, including a car heist at a golf course, a night in jail, and an incident of indecent exposure.
His Girl Friday
This was originally a stage play, The Front Page, and had two male lead actors. When it was adapted for the screen for the second time in 1940, the relationship between a newspaper editor and his star reporter was given a new angle when Rosalind Russell was cast as the reporter. Sparks fly when her editor and ex-boyfriend (Cary Grant) begs her to cover a controversial execution and attempts to revive their romance. It's noteworthy because it is one the first films with overlapping dialogue between the actors. The screenwriters kept the fast pace of the stage play, rather than having pauses between each of the characters' lines.
My Man Godfrey
An upper-class twit (Carole Lombard) takes pity on - and eventually falls in love with - the titular hobo, played by William Powell. In order to keep him by her side at all times, she hires him as the family butler. This could only happen in a screwball comedy. Her family tries to make her forget about him by sending her to Europe. Of course, this ploy does not work. Eventually Powell's Godfrey succumbs to her charms and they live happily ever after. This film was the first, in 1936, to garner Oscar nominations in all four acting categories. Interestingly enough the chemistry between Lombard and Powell is natural; they were married from 1931-1933.
The Philadelphia Story
The 1940 movie adaptation of the play of the same name stars Katharine Hepburn as a jaded socialite torn between two men on the eve of her marriage to a third. Hepburn had starred in the role on the stage, and bought the rights to the movie in order to ensure both her role and the integrity of the storyline. The trouble begins when tabloid reporters (Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Massey) show up on her doorstep to get the behind-the-scenes scoop on the upcoming wedding for their readers. A little blackmail leads them to Hepburn's alcoholic ex-husband, played by Cary Grant.
It Happened One Night
One of Frank Capra's best films, Night swept the 1934 Oscars. Claudette Colbert plays an heiress who is on the run from her fiancé and father when she runs into an unscrupulous reporter played by Clark Gable. He threatens to tip off the authorities as to her whereabouts unless he can accompany her on the trip. The film is noted for the sexual chemistry between its stars as well as the infamous moment where Gable removes his shirt to display a bare chest. Until that time, undershirts were standard attire, and this scene caused the undergarment to decline in popularity.
The End of an Era
For decades, fans were only able to see these gems on television late on Friday night or on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Now, with VCRs and DVDs, new generations can enjoy these zany, yet sophisticated, comedies. This is by no means a complete list. There are many other great films, such as The Thin Man, Nothing Sacred, The Lady Eve, and Libeled Lady. Their content reflects their time. Moviegoers during the Great Depression gravitated towards tales of the rich and famous coming down to the level of mere mortals, being blackmailed, marrying the butler, getting arrested, or acting like idiots. The golden era of screwballs only lasted a decade at most. They largely died out during World War II because Hollywood focused on winning the war - at least on Celluloid. Movies and popular culture veered away from what was considered 'fluff'. After the war, film noir, westerns, and extravagant MGM musicals became the preferred genres.
Today, with modern emphasis on bodily functions, casual sex, and obscenity in comedy, screwballs are undergoing a renewed popularity. Many of the silver screen's greatest legends display a flair for comedy in these lighthearted, yet satirical classics that turn America's traditional notions of love, class, and sex on their collective ear.