The Greatest Classic Screwball Comedies
In Part 1, I gave my definition of a screwball comedy. In the list below, I describe 30 of the best screwball efforts from Hollywood’s Studio Era, focusing on the wildly fast-paced, slightly illogical and slapstick-laden films that can still make us double over with laughter today. They are listed here in order of their first theatrical release so you can see the progression of the genre and also how the studios were affected by the latest trends and what rival studios were up to.
This is the film where the Marx Brothers solidify their zany comedy style. It barely makes sense but that’s the beauty of it. The success of this movie gave the Depression audiences exactly what they wanted to see, and all the major studios soon followed with their own screwball comedies. Other Marx Brothers films in the same vein include Horse Feathers, Animal
Although this MGM Victor Fleming (director) movie is nearly forgotten as an original screwball comedy, screwball it is! Jean Harlow proved a woman can be at the center of the farce, and the fast pace and surprising turns of the plot make it one of the best comedies of the 1930s. Harlow is the blonde bombshell of this Hollywood satire, but the real troublemaker is Lee Tracey as her press agent. It contains one of moviedom’s funniest lines, as spoken with great depth by Franchot Tone: “I want to run barefoot through your hair.” A / G / K / V / Y
It Happened One Night
This is one of everybody’s favorites. A runaway bride (Claudette Colbert) and a hard-nosed newspaper man (Clark Gable) take a night bus to a zany romance. It proved that this type of comedy can be big box office in the 1930s and was lauded, with awards for Colbert, Gable, and director Frank Capra. A / G / I / K / V / Y
In this film, Carole Lombard creates the ultimate blonde prima donna actress and sets the bar for all leading ladies in screwball comedies for the next decade. Not far behind her for broadness and insanity is John Barrymore. He
Where to See Some Screwball
All but seven of the classic films listed here are readily available for streaming. Kaleidescape has gathered 16 of the best into a Classic Screwball Comedies collection, and Tubi offers His Girl Friday, Merrily We Live (which isn’t available elsewhere), My Man Godfrey, and Nothing Sacred for free. The boldface alphabet soup after each movie description indicates who’s got what.
A = Amazon Prime
G = Google Play / I = iTunes
K = Kaleidescape / T = Tubi
V = Vudu / Y = YouTube
plays a Pygmalion-like creator and Lombard’s nemesis. This is one of the wittiest and earliest of the screwball comedies. If you’re wondering if any of the classic screwballs ever made great Broadway musicals, Twentieth Century became On the Twentieth Century, the 1978 Broadway musical that starred Madeline Kahn. A / I / V
My Man Godfrey
Carole Lombard is back and at her zaniest. William Powell plays her “forgotten man” butler who suffers through an insane asylum of a wealthy family’s home. This is one of the best examples of screwball comedy and in fact one of the best movies ever made. Lombard and Powell were both
Nominated for Best Picture of 1936, Libeled Lady is MGM’s witty answer to the screwball comedy. The star-studded quartet of Myrna Loy, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow topped the charts for sophistication and outright slapstick.
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Theodora Goes Wild
Irene Dunne entered the race as a screwball comedienne with this movie about a hometown girl who writes a novel about her friends and family, thereby creating a near riot. Up to this point, Dunne had done mostly dramas or lovely musicals and had
great trepidation about taking on comedy. She was so successful in this film, not only did she receive an Academy Award nomination, but she was crowned the Queen of Screwball Comedies (though arguably a co-reign with Carole Lombard).
Jean Arthur jumps on the bandwagon as a fun-loving screwball comedy star. This is a very improbable story of a girl who accidentally catches a mink stole that’s thrown out of a window by millionaire Edward Arnold. There’s a Depression-era dream come true if there ever was one!
Talk about unrealistic fun, this is a ghost story meets frantic farce! It features Cary Grant’s first appearance in a screwball comedy; he will remain king of comedy over the next 20 years. Roland Young is the “haunted” leading man and Constance Bennett is the lovely blonde comedy queen. This is a top-notch production from MGM, which at this point certainly was in the forefront of screwball comedies. The “special effects,” which are actually mimed by the actors, are amazing and hysterical.
The Awful Truth
Director Leo McCarey won an Academy Award for this classic screwball comedy starring comedy king and queen Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. It is charming, surprisingly sophisticated, and, thanks to Cary Grant (and a spry little dog), full of slapstick. A / G / I / K / V / Y
Carole Lombard regains her place as the queen with this outrageous story of a girl who pretends she is dying of radiation poisoning in order to be the toast of New York City. It’s far-fetched but fabulous, and David O. Selznick, the producer, filmed it
Merrily We Live
This is a sometimes-overlooked screwball comedy from MGM and a bit of a rip-off of My Man Godfrey. But Merrily We Live holds up in its own right. It’s fun, fresh, and quite lively. Hal Roach, the great comedy producer, cast it beautifully, too.
Most notable is Billie Burke as the scatter-brained mother who has no control over her equally scatter-brained family. It’s an
Art Deco delight to look at, thanks to the MGM budget. It’s terrific from beginning to end and worthy of being listed with the best of screwball comedies. T
You Can’t Take It with You
Although this is based on a sophisticated Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin have virtually turned it into a free-wheeling screwball comedy, accentuating all the wackiness of a poverty-stricken family, headed by Lionel Barrymore. Jean Arthur is the screwball blonde in this one, and James Stewart makes
Claudette Colbert returns to the genre in this delightful and upscale romantic comedy that has most of the elements of screwball comedy to boot. Don Ameche provides a lot of the slapstick and quick-talking dialogue. Directed by Mitchell Leisen, it also features John Barrymore and Mary Astor at their peak.
His Girl Friday
This is a perennial favorite, with comedy king Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell at their fast-talking best. It’s an adaptation/ remake of The Front Page, and in fact improves on the original, which is quite a feat. This is one of the ultimate comedy
Christmas in July
Writer/director Preston Sturges arrives at the top with this 61-minute romp about the common man’s struggle against wealthy corporations, yet it’s also a wild satire on the advertising industry. It might be noted that it has nothing to do with Christmas. Although it’s a joy, it is certainly not a holiday film. It’s fast moving and full of laughs thanks not only to Dick Powell but a supporting cast, including William Demarest, Raymond Walburn, and the lovely Ellen Drew.
The Lady Eve
Preston Sturges marches on to add this great comedy to his long list of triumphs. Here Barbara Stanwyck tries her hand at the screwball genre, and she more than proves herself an expert right from the get-go. The great Charles Coburn is there too, adding his special zing of mature man’s comedic genius. A / G / I / V / Y
Since Libeled Lady, William Powell and Myrna Loy had been busy at MGM making the great detective comedies of “The Thin Man” series, but they return to screwball here with a truly insane and over-the-top “screwballer” that actually includes mental institutions. It’s silly but great fun. It’s the kind of comedy that couldn’t be made after World War II started when life and love had to be taken a bit more seriously. A / G / Y
Ball of Fire
Barbara Stanwyck had already proven her excellence at screwball with The Lady Eve but here she’s with Gary Cooper and directed by Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), so she’s even more effective. She received an Academy
Award nomination for this film that’s a modern allegory of the fairy tale “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”!
Preston Sturges is at his best (again) with this comedy that perhaps has a bit too much social conscience to be considered pure screwball, but it’s full of enough
laughs and wit to make the grade. It also has a great screwball beauty, Veronica Lake, in the lead. Joel McCrae does the soul searching, Sturges provides the fast-paced direction. A / G / K / I / V / Y
The Major and the Minor
Ginger Rogers finally gets her crack at a real screwball as she impersonates a 12-year-old girl in order to buy a cheap train ticket. She keeps up the masquerade to hysterical effect and fascinates Ray Milland and a military school full of young boys to enormous comedic effect. It foreshadows the coming era of the sex comedy. Billy Wilder (of course) wrote and directed. He’ll
hit this high mark again and again.
To Be or Not to Be
Ernst Lubitsch is at his directing best here with this early-World War II screwball farce. Carole Lombard, still one of Hollywood’s reigning queens of comedy, is on hand to bounce off the brilliant Jack Benny (in one of his very few films). You can feel the screwball comedy is changing with this gem, becoming more slyly paced and sophisticated.
The Palm Beach Story
Again, Preston Sturges hits the
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
Well, here is the zaniest, most fast-paced, and unbelievable screwball comedy ever! And who better to bring on the insanity than 1940s crazy lady Betty Hutton. Preston Sturges continues his avalanche of comedic gems. He continues right on with
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Hail the Conquering Hero
Eddie Bracken, the male star of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, takes front and center as the 4F draft reject who lets himself be passed off as a returning war hero. Cantankerous William Demarest gets his share of laughs too. A / G / I / K / V / Y
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer
After the war, the screwball comedy faded or morphed into Danny Kaye or Bob Hope musicals. But Cary Grant and Myrna Loy were still ready, willing, and able to serve up the laughs, albeit with a little more sophistication and class. Here the “out of her mind” trouble-making zany girl is none other than a pubescent Shirley Temple. When her raging hormones get the best of her, it’s nothing but trouble for Cary and Myrna, and side-splitting laughter for us. The original screenplay by Sidney Sheldon won the Academy Award for the best of 1947. Deservedly. A / G / I / K / V / Y
Writer Ben Hecht and director Howard Hawks were still happy to deliver screwball as late as 1952. With old screwball veterans like Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, it’s a charming throwback to ten years earlier when this genre reigned supreme. Hawks knew it needed a sexy airhead blonde, and Marilyn Monroe was cast in her first (but not last) screwball classic. To be sure, this improbable story of a college chemist’s “fountain of youth” may not be the best film comedy ever, but the formula bubbles up just fine, especially with Charles Coburn on hand to add his special fizz. Hawk’s next screwball comedy would
Some Like It Hot
Billy Wilder wrote and directed this all-out screwball comedy in 1959, well after the peak of the genre. But he must have known there was still plenty of juice left in this fruity delight because many have
called this the funniest movie ever made. But notice, like most screwball-type films from the postwar era, it contains a good amount of music. Although it’s not a musical, it exemplifies how songs became important to comedy in this era. Wilder also gives the screwball comedies of the past a sly wink. Even though there is no screwball king like Cary Grant, Billy Wilder has Tony Curtis do a Cary Grant imitation during the high-comedy sex scenes. And talk about the nonsensical element of the screwball: Does Joe E. Brown really end up with Jack Lemmon at the end? Now that’s screwy—or very modern.
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Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.