The ‘golden age’ of screwball comedy films, from the early 1930s to 1940s, coincided with the Great Depression. While unemployment was high and money was sparse, a trip to the cinema was a relatively inexpensive way to escape. The shadow of the depression falls on these films; a man wants to spend an unwanted fortune on farms for dispossessed men (Mr Deeds Goes to Town), a woman faints on a bus having chosen transport to a job over food (It Happened One Night), a group of rich party-goers collect poor people as part of a scavenger hunt (My Man Godfrey). Despite this, the plots are almost unrelentingly cheerful.
This is in part due to the Hays Code which was actively enforced from 1934, a series of censorship rules that limited what was morally acceptable to show in films. Some of these rules now seem quaint; worries about showing a man and woman in the same bed led to the strange phenomenon of seeing married couples occupying twin singles. Some are archaic, such as no romantic relationships between black and white people. They all left contemporary filmmakers with limited options which taxed their creativity. It was impossible to show a couple having extramarital
affairs, which led to the development of the comedy of remarriage. The Awful Truth and The Philadelphia Story both portray a divorced couple re-realising what they liked about each other in the first place. Screwball films also helped popularise the ‘meet cute’, when the eventual couple meet in unusual or comic circumstances, like Gene Kelly jumping into Debbie Reynolds’ open top car in Singin’ in the Rain.
One of the most interesting aspects of these films is that everything is a battle; rich and poor, male and female, intelligent and dim-witted, normal and crazy collide. Lies, dirty tactics and disguise are used with gay abandon. Everyone talks over each other, throwing around one-liners so fast that blink and you miss them. Yet no one really loses. The poor characters are the ones who know how to survive and understand the real world. Nonetheless, when they marry into wealth, inherit or earn their way up, the rich are all-the-happier for it. Even the most ardent unromantic
straight-man finds ‘the one’ in the end. It’s a simple message of hope, that everyone is ultimately human, which explains screwball’s enduring popularity. Yes, the plots are silly and unbelievable. No, you definitely aren’t going to find anything deep or philosophical in them. But these are films designed to cheer you up, make you laugh and leave you with the warm fuzzies.
Five to watch:
It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934):
The most famous of the lot rightfully deserves its place. A broke reporter strikes a deal with a runaway socialite. He will help her evade her father and reach her husband if she will give him an exclusive. He teaches her to dunk a doughnut correctly; she shows him the quickest way to flag down a car. They’re both incredibly stubborn, but that’s why they’re perfect for each other. It may also have inspired the creation of Bugs Bunny.
My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936):
A film which begins and ends in a dump was always going to be a little more serious, but there’s certainly enough to lighten the mood. A rich family hire a theoretically homeless man to be their butler despite the obvious disrespect he treats them with. You know that it’s true love when one hoses down the other in a shower and a wedding begins with the line ‘It’ll all be over in a minute’.
Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938):
This film gets bonus points for the presence of Cary Grant. Despite being born in Bristol as Archibald Leach and having an incredibly unconvincing accent, he is still a quintessential American star. It also may have one of the first uses of ‘gay’ in fiction to mean homosexual. The match is between a befuddled palaeontologist and a frankly insane socialite. There are two leopards, one dinosaur bone, a negligee and a night in prison. He might run, but from the moment Katherine Hepburn decides she’s going to marry him, you know he won’t get far.
The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941):
It’s rare in a movie for someone to marry the same person twice. It’s rarer for the first time to be for revenge. It’s an old story; a beautiful con artist falls for the man she was supposed to be screwing over. Yet when he finds out her past and dumps her, she takes the longer, meaner route to winning him back. Further evidence that bare-faced lies said with enough conviction can get you anywhere and that snakes are really quite endearing.
Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra, 1944):
Capra is one of the few directors who could make a string of murders so rib-tickling. Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane play a newly-married couple trying to go on their honeymoon. It takes them the whole film to manage it, having to deal with his kindly aunts who just so happen to have a murderous streak, an uncle who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt and his psychotic brother who plastic surgery has left with the face of Frankenstein. Most of the main cast end up in prison or an asylum, but it’s really all for the best.