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Screwball comedy

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Screwball comedy

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The screwball comedy has proven to be one of the most popular and enduring film genres. It first gained prominence in 1934 with It Happened One Night, and although many film scholars would agree that its classic period ended sometime in the early 1940s, elements of the genre have persisted, or have been paid homage to, in contemporary film.

While there is no authoritative list of defining characteristics that comprise the screwball comedy genre, several qualities can be enumerated that tend to frequently appear in films considered to be definitive of the genre (see below). One proposed definition is "a sex comedy without the sex." [1]

Other genres with which screwball comedy is associated include slapstick, situation comedy, and romantic comedy.

Characteristics of classic screwball

  • Comedies produced by the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s and early 1940s that contain certain story or stylistic elements (mentioned below). Most acknowledge that the screwball comedy had stragglers through the late 1940s and 1950s, but the onset of World War II and the end of the Great Depression undermined some of the themes so necessary to the genre.
  • Reverse class snobbery by implying (or the belief that) common folk had better common sense than the wealthy, and were therefore superior to them. Associated with this was the belief that even the wealthy had the potential to exhibit the nobility of ordinary folk.
  • Romantic elements depicting a couple who were at once opposites but destined to complement each other. This element provided the dramatic tension to the audience who knew that the pair would eventually admit that the two of them were meant for one another, but wondered how this would come about and under what circumstances.
  • The stories almost always revolved around an idle rich socialite who comes into conflict with the guy who has to work for a living (Bringing Up Baby), or has to overcome her family's insistence that the man in her life is unacceptable because of his circumstances (Holiday). While the lifestyles of the wealthy characters are depicted as sumptuous, they often find themselves in less than comfortable situations and are forced to adapt (It Happened One Night).
  • Divorce and remarriage (The Awful Truth). Some scholars point to this frequent device as evidence of the shift in the American moral code by showing that despite freer attitudes about divorce, marriage wins out because it is ultimately a superior way of life.
  • Fast-talking, witty repartee (You Can't Take it With You, His Girl Friday). This stylistic device did not originate in the screwballs (although it may be argued to have reached its zenith in screwball comedy), but can be found in many of the old Hollywood Cycles including the gangster film, journalism, romantic comedies, and others.
  • Ridiculous, farcical situations, such as in Bringing Up Baby, in which a socialite (Katharine Hepburn) ensnares an unsuspecting man (Cary Grant) into helping her keep tabs on her brother's pet leopard. Slapstick elements are also frequently present (witness the numerous pratfalls Henry Fonda takes in The Lady Eve).
  • Mistaken identity or circumstances in which a simple explanation could clear up matters but the parties involved seem either unable or unwilling to do so (My Favorite Wife and its remake, Move Over, Darling). Sometimes screwball comedies feature male characters cross-dressing, further contributing to the misunderstanding between characters (Bringing Up Baby, I Was a Male War Bride).
  • Gender power reversal. Women are often the ones who have power over men in these films. Although the male lead may eventually be the one who resolves the plot's crisis, he is usually still dominated in some part by the female lead at the end of the film (The Lady Eve).

Examples of the genre from its classic period

It Happened One Night (1934) d. Frank Capra
Twentieth Century (1934), d. Howard Hawks
My Man Godfrey (1936), d. Gregory LaCava
The Awful Truth (1937), d. Leo McCarey
Nothing Sacred (1937), d. William A. Wellman
Bringing Up Baby (1938), d. Howard Hawks
Holiday (1938), d. George Cukor
His Girl Friday (1940), d. Howard Hawks
The Philadelphia Story (1940), d. George Cukor
The Lady Eve (1941), d. Preston Sturges
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), d. Alfred Hitchcock
The Palm Beach Story (1942), d. Preston Sturges
To Be or Not to Be (1942), d. Ernst Lubitsch
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), d. Frank Capra

Other films from this period in other genres incorporate elements of the screwball comedy. For example, Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 thriller The 39 Steps features the gimmick of a young couple who find themselves handcuffed together and who eventually, almost in spite of themselves, fall in love with one another, and Woody Van Dyke's 1934 detective comedy The Thin Man portrays a witty, urbane couple who trade barbs as they solve mysteries together.

Actors and actresses frequently featured in or associated with screwball comedy:

Jean Arthur
Claudette Colbert
Melvyn Douglas
Irene Dunne
Clark Gable
Cary Grant
Katharine Hepburn
Carole Lombard
Myrna Loy
William Powell
Barbara Stanwyck

Some notable directors of screwball comedies include:

Frank Capra
Howard Hawks
Garson Kanin
Preston Sturges
Billy Wilder
George Cukor

More recent screwball comedies

Various later films are considered by some critics and fans to have revived elements of the classic era screwball comedies. A partial list might include such films as:

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), d. Jean Negulesco
Bell, Book and Candle (1958), d. Richard Quine
Some Like It Hot (1959), d. Billy Wilder
The Grass is Greener (1960), d. Stanley Donen
What's Up, Doc? (1972), d. Peter Bogdanovich
To Be or Not to Be (1983), d. Alan Johnson (remake of 1942 movie of the same title)
A Fish Called Wanda (1988), d. Charles Crichton
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), d. Joel and Ethan Coen
You've Got Mail (1998), d. Nora Ephron
Two Weeks Notice (2002), d. Marc Lawrence
Down with Love (2003), d. Peyton Reed
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), d. Donald Petrie
Intolerable Cruelty (2003), d. Joel and Ethan Coen
I ♥ Huckabees (2004), d. David O. Russel

Elements of classic screwball comedy often found in more recent films which might otherwise simply be classified as romantic comedies include the "battle of the sexes" (Down with Love, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), witty repartee (Down with Love), and the contrast between the wealthy and the middle class (You've Got Mail, Two Weeks Notice). Modern updates on screwball comedy may also sometimes be categorized as black comedy (Intolerable Cruelty, which also features a twist on the classic screwball element of divorce and re-marriage).

The television series Moonlighting (19851989) and Gilmore Girls (2000) have also adapted elements of the screwball comedy genre for the small screen.


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Movies, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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