Insanity doesn’t run in these pictures, it gallops! (To steal and alter a line from Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace.)
For the uninitiated, a screwball comedy was more than just a standard laugher. It was named for the notoriously unpredictable pitch in baseball and is a manic, fast-paced, self-referencing and ever-evolving load of madcap fun. It might have a romance or other plotline, but, first and foremost, it was designed to get laughs nearly every other line. Gags were often built on each other over the course of the film.
For a great example of nearly every line being a joke and building on the next line: When Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dress up as dames to join an all-girl jazz band and avoid the mob in Some Like It Hot (1959), they try to pass themselves off as society girls who attended the Sheboygan Conservatory of Music, a silly-sounding institute they made up on the spot. A few scenes later, Curtis is now dressed as a millionaire trying to win over Marilyn Monroe, who doesn’t recognize him from their band. Monroe’s character tries to impress him by stealing his earlier line about attending the SCM. It is a funny moment topped by Curtis coolly acknowledging, “Good school.”
The art of the screwball comedy flourished in the mid-1930s and into the mid-’40s. That decade was the convergence of all the right factors. Socially, America needed a laugh. It was the Great Depression followed immediately by the staggering tragedies of World War II. A quarter could buy you 90 minutes of escape from the outside world. Plus, the rising intellectual and creative classes during the Roaring Twenties craved more than just slapstick antics. Rapid-fire wit was an asset in the newly citified world growing out of the nation’s more agrarian past.
Another factor was the technology. It was both highly advanced and extremely limited. The advancements came with the advent of sound in motion pictures. A popular novelty in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, sound was not easily synced with film for several more years. Poor sound quality also made the blazing dialog difficult for audiences to follow before the mid-1930s. Yet, by the middle of the decade the sound and film quality were vastly improved.
The limiting factors of the technology were that the cameras and soundstages were extremely cumbersome. Most scenes were limited to specially designed sets. There was very little filming on location or in the unpredictable great outdoors. Thus, films were limited to a half dozen to a dozen sets per movie. This confinement helped to force the directors and screenwriters to find a way to keep the film moving quickly without having to physically move it around a lot. And so rose the stock of comedy writers, whom Hollywood quickly stole from vaudeville and magazines across the country.
Of course, the people went for the stars and the laughs. The Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, and Barbara Stanwyck were probably some of the fastest dialogue spinners in Hollywood. Russell’s staccato delivery enlivened any film—even if it wasn’t a screwball comedy. Grant’s expressions and timing are nearly impossible to match. The joyful lunacy of the Marx Brothers or of the Hope/Crosby “Road” movies should be their own stand-alone subjects for another post.
It could be well argued that the Marx Brothers invented screwball comedy in vaudeville. Their raucous routines grew into a Broadway smash named The Cocoanuts, which was quickly and easily translated to film in 1929. Talkies were still new, and movies were just throwing everything at the screen to see what would stick.
And so, the Marxes provided even doses of pathos on film in the tradition of slapstick, witty dialog and a few musical interludes for good measure. While most screwball comedies would ditch the musical numbers, Harpo’s antics with a harp and Chico’s key-shooting shenanigans on piano delivered lots of laughs well into the 1940s. My personal favorite Marx Brothers’ flick is 1932’s Horse Feathers, with Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo running a university and its football program. Most people reasonably argue that Duck Soup (1933) is their best. Yet, even their final film together as a team, A Night in Casablanca (1946), remains a high-flying rollercoaster of laughs as the guys take on escaped Nazis.
Cary Grant might be best known as a romantic lead, but he was truly one of the best screwball comics of the era. Handsome, urbane, debonair and self-deprecating, Grant could play a line straight and deliver a punchline. It didn’t seem to matter who he got paired with, he seemed to have great chemistry with all of Hollywood’s leading ladies.
Often overlooked is his 1937 hit with Irene Dunne, The Awful Truth. In it they are a perfectly matched couple who love each other deeply but are also a little too smart for their own good, backing each other into a divorce neither really wants but is too proud to back down from. Their antics really start flying as they set out to break-up one another’s post-divorce romances. In 1938, Grant played more of the straight man to Katharine Hepburn’s eccentric heiress in Bringing Up Baby. Baby is Hepburn’s tamed pet leopard who gets loose the same time a deadly leopard goes missing. The movie will have you rolling in the aisles as a battle of the sexes–who are trying to avoid being eaten–ensues.
In 1940, Grant matches wits and hearts with the rapid-fire Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, adapted from on the hit play The Front Page. Comic equals, Cary and Roz play a fighting ex-husband and wife who are also an editor and reporter trying to scoop a powerful story about a innocent man sentenced to die. It all transpires on the eve of Russell’s pending wedding to a non-newspaper man. Grant loves her too much to let her marry a well-intended insurance salesman, played by Ralph Bellamy…who also happened to be the man Grant chased away from Dunne in The Awful Truth (at one point Grant even describes his rival by saying “he looks like that fellow in the movies, Ralph Bellamy”). The original The Front Page has been brought to the screen twice–with Pat O’Brien and Adolphe Menjou in 1931 and in 1974 with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau–each time minus the romance angle, which I think makes stronger interpersonal bonds and motivations in His Girl Friday.
Under director Frank Capra, Grant plays the only sane person in the darkly uproarious Arsenic and Old Lace in 1944. Here his dear old sweet aunts are really serial killers who poison lonely old men to put them out of their miseries. Meanwhile his brother is also a hunted killer who is back in town while carrying out his spree. And, his other brother is convinced he is Teddy Roosevelt, whom the aunts convince to bury their victims in the basement as victims of yellow fever at the Panama Canal. Grant finds he has to sort it all out before he can go on his honeymoon!
Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite director. He and one of his best friends, Peter Lorre, were big shots on the film scene in Berlin. Yet, as Jews, they were forced to flee for their lives, as Hitler came to power. Wilder had to learn English in a hurry to thrive in Hollywood, and I can’t help but think his script for the 1941 film Ball of Fire might have been how he learned to speak “American.” Gary Cooper is a member of a team of college professors writing the authoritative work of all human knowledge in a special encyclopedia. When he gets assigned the entry for slang, he goes cruising the big city for every colorful person he can find who can teach him his subject. When he meets a brazen nightclub chanteuse (played by Barbara Stanwyck) who speaks more slang than any 10 people combined, he is smitten. She has no interest and is involved with a mobster, but soon she is hiding out with the professors and the laughs don’t stop until the final frame. Two years earlier, Wilder seemed to anchor his screenwriting career in Hollywood with the smash hit 1939 comedy Ninotchka. Greta Garbo is the title character, a no-nonsense Soviet inspector general overseeing three bumbling minions in Paris trying to sell a collection of jewels pillaged from White Russian royalty. A con artist (Melvyn Douglas) living with said White Russian countess is out to get his lover’s jewels back from the less sophisticated Soviets, only to fall for the icy inspector general. The dialog snaps in every Wilder film, and these two are no exceptions.
Comedy teams began to up the ante in screwball comedies in the 1940s. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were all but an accidental pairing in Road to Singapore in 1940. Several pairings of actors had been slated but fell through. When a producer saw Hope and Crosby clowning around together at the studio one day, he thought he’d take a chance on them. It was comic gold, and two had undeniable comic chemistry on screen. The plot was predictable over the course of their seven “Road” films together—two buddies end up on an adventure in an exotic land only to fight over the heart of Dorothy Lamour—but the jokes stayed fresh and spontaneous with each filming. Two of their best are Road to Morocco and Road to Utopia.
Another undeniable screwball comic team was Abbott and Costello. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were actually long-time holdouts to the vaudeville and burlesque circuits. They were seasoned stage comedians and middle-aged by the time they got to Hollywood. Although they relied heavily on slapstick, it was their impeccable wordplay that made them famous. If they had done nothing other than develop the routine for “Who’s on First,” their careers would have been set. That routine made it to a movie in 1945 called The Naughty Nineties. Their starring film career launched with great success in 1941’s Buck Privates. Most people’s favorite film of the duo is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein from 1948. Several years ago, I had the good fortune to speak with Chris Costello, Lou’s youngest daughter, and she said her dad hated that film. He felt as if the studio was putting them out to pasture with it, but it became their biggest hit and is still popular today.
The film industry began to change in the 1950s. Color film was easier to get. Shooting outdoors became easier. Tastes began to change. A handful of great screwball comedies were made, but they were on their way out. You cannot go wrong with Danny Kaye in The Court Jester from 1956. And Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot from 1959 is arguably the greatest screwball comedy ever filmed. Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967) is a brilliant late entry to the genre. A con man Broadway producer, played by Zero Mostel, sleeps with little old ladies to get them to invest in a fraud of a show called “Springtime for Hitler.” I still find new lines in it that make me laugh, and I’ve seen it at least 50 times.
We just don’t seem to get many great screwball comedies in this day and age. Maybe some of Woody Allen’s early films could be borderline screwball comedies. The last attempt at one I can think of was 1992’s Brain Donors. John Turturro, Mel Smith and Bob Nelson create manic delirium in what is essentially a remake of the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. I typically hate remakes, but this movie is so well modernized and updated it stands on its own with fresh gags and dialog. It moves at lightning speed, and nearly every line is a punchline. You have to watch it multiple times to catch it all, and it’s worth it. One of my favorite lines that I missed the first couple times was in a chaotic scene where John is trying to seduce a beautiful blonde when Mel and Bob bust into his home.
John: Don’t you guys ever knock?
Mel: I’m using a better grade of gas.
Before the line has time to land, they’re off to the next gag. Of course, it helps to remember a time when engine knock was a problem in cars, but that is also what makes screwball comedy so much fun. You have to think fast and have a firm grasp on pop culture and history to really appreciate it. For those that do, it is one of the most rewarding experiences in cinema.
Nathaniel Cerf has been writing about movies for nearly a decade with the DirecttoU entertainment distribution company. He was the creator and editor of the now defunct “Movie ‘Tudes” review blog. He has a passion for classic films, comedy, musicals, horror, cult and even modern movies. You can reach him at Nathaniel.Cerf@aent.com.