Combine outrageous scenarios with slapstick humor, then add witty, fast-paced dialogue and light romantic situations and you have that wonderful cinematic treasure called the screwball comedy — or as film critic Andrew Sarris describes it, “a sex comedy without the sex.” The basic elements of the screwball comedy were not particularly new; director Ernst Lubitsch had made sophisticated comedies such as Trouble in Paradise and slapstick was integral to the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, while Hollywood already had tough-talking blondes like Mae West and Broadway had light comedies by Noel Coward.
What made screwballs a completely new genre was the combination of these elements against the backdrop of three events in Hollywood history: the transition to sound in film, stricter enforcement of the Production Code and the Great Depression.
Though the Production Code (sometimes called the Hays Code) was adopted in 1930, it wasn’t rigorously enforced until 1933. The transition to sound in the movies made language-based comedy a natural, but the stricter application of the Code meant the language of sex and sexuality had to be more subtle; writers and directors that understood dialogue and comedic pacing were key. But to describe these movies only in terms of sex misses the point of their enormous audience appeal. During the Great Depression people went to the movies to escape. The portrayal of class in screwballs, often with a rich versus poor theme and usually with the rich receiving their comeuppance, had a particular appeal to audiences that went to the movies to laugh and to feel better about their own economic circumstances.
Considering these three events it’s no coincidence that the birth of the screwball comedy came shortly thereafter in 1934 with what most consider the first of the genre: Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. MGM and Paramount execs loaned Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert to “poverty row” studio Columbia as punishment, but the picture earned both stars an Oscar. It is the classic model of a screwball comedy: the physical expression of romance comes not from kisses and clinches, but the outrageous situation the hero and heroine find themselves in and the physical comedy that follows. Romantic tension comes from watching characters exchange witty dialogue and verbal darts; we know how the story will end, but the tension comes from wondering when the hero and heroine will finally realize that they are in love.
It Happened One Night, The Awful Truth, and Bringing up Baby are classic screwball comedies, but there are lesser-known screwballs which represent the early efforts of some of Hollywood’s great writers and directors. We suggest the following quartet of screwball comedies.
Easy Living (1937)
When working girl Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) receives a sable coat from investment banker J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold), gossip and mistaken identities make her the hottest socialite in New York. But when she befriends a waiter who turns out to be J.B. Ball Jr. (Ray Milland), the mix-ups and misunderstandings set off a stock market crash to rival the one in 1929. Jean Arthur’s squeaky voice and uncomplicated looks have a girl-next-door quality that gives Preston Sturges’ script a delightful, “it could happen to you!” feeling. Arthur was riding high at this point in her career, having just finished hits like The Whole Town’s Talking and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
Ray Milland was well on his way to stardom; because he usually played suave and sophisticated roles, it’s extremely funny to see him stuck in a bathtub (Milland was truly unable to climb out of the huge, magnificent bathtub and director Mitchell Leisen kept the cameras rolling). This is the fourth of six films Milland would eventually make with Leisen. Easy Living also features one of the most luxurious art deco hotel suites you will ever see, as well as a delightful glimpse of a Horn & Hardart Automat.
Showgirl Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) wants money and social standing, and she knows she won’t get it from cab driver Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche). When she finds herself falling in love with him, she runs away and poses as “Baroness Czerny.” But how long can Eve keep up the charade when “Baron Czerny” starts looking for his “wife?” Eve knows that “every Cinderella has her Midnight,” and this script written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett has the intrigue getting more convoluted and hilarious by turns.
Colbert’s performance in It Happened One Night may be better known, but her performance in Midnight is no less delightful. When Eve gets off the train in Paris she has nothing but a lovely lamé gown and her wits, and it is precisely this kind of sophisticated woman confident in her own resources that Colbert portrays so well. While not a romantic lead in the typical Hollywood sense, Don Ameche brings an honesty and earnestness well-suited to Czerny’s democratic appeal.
Midnight is a movie that suffered a number of problems while filming — Barrymore’s difficulties with alcoholism meant cue cards had to be on hand, Mary Astor was several months pregnant and scenes had to be rewritten around her condition, and Colbert refused to be photographed from the right because she believed her nose was crooked (but only on the right side). Nevertheless, the onscreen result is pure fun.
The Major and the Minor (1942)
The Major and the Minor is also from the writing team of Wilder and Brackett. Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) disguises herself as a twelve-year-old in order to purchase a half-fare train ticket, but ends up having to hide her age from Major Phillip Kirby (Ray Milland) and 300 “junior wolf” cadets at a military academy. Ginger Rogers may be better remembered as Fred Astaire’s dance partner, but she was truly an actress in her own right, winning an Oscar for Best Actress in Kitty Foyle and becoming one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars.
Director Billy Wilder does pay a sort of homage to Rogers’ dancing roots; during the tap dance scene at the switchboard, Rogers may be playing twelve-years-old, but she hoofs it like a pro. In the five years since Easy Living, Ray Milland polished his understated comedic touch, but it wasn’t until another film with Wilder that Hollywood recognized the full range of his abilities; The Lost Weekend garnered four Oscars: Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. While unusual that Wilder had his directorial debut with such A-list actors, both Rogers and Milland signed on to the project because they believed Wilder had what it took to be a director. With this film they were proven right.
After seeing her in so many glamorous roles it’s quite a shock to see Rogers without makeup. Wilder himself admitted the idea of a thirty-year-old playing a twelve-year-old was preposterous. However, she made it work, and in “Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography” by Charlotte Chandler, Rogers explained, “Mother and I often didn’t have enough money when we traveled, so I carried my stuffed doll named Freakus, which made me look younger, especially when I hugged it and talked with it, and then, at night, I could just use it as a pillow. Just like Sue-Sue, I often pretended I was younger than I was, so I could travel half-fare. I was Sue-Sue!” The role of Mrs. Applegate in the movie was in fact played by Rogers’ mother, Lela Rogers.
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
After five years of marriage, Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) are broke, and Gerry believes Tom would be better able to pursue his business ventures without her. She flees to Palm Beach, where she hopes to get a quick divorce, but instead she finds one of the richest men in the world, John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) to finance Tom’s invention.
When Preston Sturges directs his own scripts, it isn’t just the hero and heroine who are screwy; everyone is, from the Wienie King (Robert Dudley) tasting the toothpaste in the Jeffers’ bathroom to the drunken millionaires with their hunting dogs tracking Gerry on the train. Stripped to their essence, the story elements are not humorous: Gerry, more of a calculated gold digger than Eve Peabody ever was, suggests divorce purely for financial reasons; the hunt club destroys a train car completely detached from the consequences of their excesses. The only reason the film comes off as funny is because the lies become broader and wilder and reality never intrudes, and no one else but Sturges could have made this work.
Certain stars came to be associated with the genre: Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard both vied for the title of “Queen of the Screwballs;” Cary Grant must certainly be considered King. Audiences loved watching the chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell (The Thin Man) and Irene Dunne and Cary Grant (The Awful Truth). Depression-era audiences wanted glamour and an insider’s-view of the society pages, and Hollywood offered up its most popular stars displaying the latest fashions and lavish sets of posh art deco nightclubs populated by playboys driving sleek cars.
Screwball comedies made stars, but the genre also made directors and writers. Both Easy Living and Midnight were directed by Mitchell Leisen, who began his Hollywood career designing costumes for Cecil B. De Mille and became a director with an eye toward visual styling, as evidenced by both Easy Living and Midnight. Easy Living represents one of the first on-screen writing credits for Sturges, who would go on to write and direct such screwball comedies as The Lady Eve and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Midnight was co-written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett; the two would go on to do more serious films together, such as Sunset Blvd. and The Lost Weekend as a director / producer team, but Wilder himself also directed comedies such as The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot.
In later years both Sturges and Wilder complained about changes Mitchell Leisen made to their scripts, which may in part have cemented the perception of Leisen as an aesthete focused more on inconsequential details than how plot moves. Nevertheless, Easy Living and Midnight are both stylish comedies with the witty, sometimes sharp observations about the values of the rich that Depression-era audiences loved.
Screwball comedies gave writers and directors the opportunity to explore subjects that would never get through the Production Code as drama. Gerry Jeffers is a woman using beauty and charm to obtain material comfort, but because the Wienie King and John D. Hackensacker III have a fairy-godmother’s generosity, never for a moment do we think of her as a prostitute. Screwballs dealt often with class distinctions and money, but current news and world events seldom intruded into the reality of the picture. Major Kirby wants to be sent to a war where nobody seems to die, and Tibor Czerny drives his cab through a Paris blithely unaware of encroaching Fascism. Screwball comedies allowed Americans to laugh at the turbulence of the stock market and forget that “midnight” was fast approaching for an Old World Europe on the eve of World War II.
Audiences in the 1930s got plenty of reality from newsreels; they didn’t always want it in their pictures. For their hard-earned dime they wanted to sit for a few hours in comforting darkness lit only by the flickering silver screen. Perhaps the greatest legacy of these films is that they allow us to see how Depression-era moviegoers came to terms with the frustrations of the modern world by laughing at their limitations or escaping reality altogether. Even across time, we too can join in their laughter at these wonderful films.
And now, you can enjoy Colbert in action with Joel McCrea in this trailer from The Palm Beach Story:
Victoria Balloon is a writer, classic film enthusiast and pop-culture pundit. In addition to knitting small appliances, Victoria is currently involved in helping to bring back the Matinee At The Bijou TV series in an HD sequel to be hosted by Debbie Reynolds.