The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies
“The Greatest Classic Screwball Comedies” highlighted 30 zany gems from Hollywood’s Studio Era. Here, we’re going to trace how the screwball spirit has survived—and even thrived—in the modern era. Of course, these latter-day variations wander into areas their forbears never would have considered exploring. But that basic sense that anything can happen, and probably will, continues to define the genre almost 90 years on.
What’s Up, Doc?
Barbra Streisand, the great actress and film persona (and filmmaker) that she is, uses all her comedy skills, unique beauty, and talents in this revisit to the screwball comedy. Because she can be glamorous and funny (not crass or vulgar), she appears to be at ease fulfilling the classic 1930s role of the sexy girl who makes big trouble for everyone else. Ryan O’Neal is at his Cary Grant best. Madeline Kahn makes her screen debut with her brilliantly funny performance as O’Neal’s rejected fiancée. Indeed, the entire cast (Austin Pendleton, Kenneth Mars, and, in a surprise comic tour de force, Liam Dunn as the night court judge) reigns supreme and the result is a true screwball comedy—and it might just be the best one ever. It has all
the comedic perfection of mix-ups and ridiculous coincidences, but with an added chase scene. By 1971, this could be done realistically full-scale. It’s as thrilling as the car chase in Bullitt (also set in San Fran), but the results are a laugh a second. What’s Up, Doc? was a critical and box-office bonanza and created a whole new generation of screwball comedies. —Gerard Alessandrini
Woody Allen, the great film historian as well as great writer/director, certainly knew what screwball comedy was, and when the genre became big box office again, he jumped right on the bandwagon with this semi-science-fiction farce that brought back the zaniness of the Marx Brothers. Diane Keaton is his Myrna Loy/Claudette Colbert, and she is as wonderful and crazy as any 1930s movie queen. Although many Woody Allen films contain elements of screwball, Sleeper is his purest one. —G.A.
Mel Brooks, one of the great kings of satirical comedy,
crosses the border here directly into the center of screwball-comedy territory. While his Young Frankenstein, The Producers, High Anxiety, and Silent Movie are superbly entertaining, they are parodies of film genres. Yes, Blazing Saddles is a spoof of westerns but it transcends parody with its zaniness and non-sequitur plot. Cleavon Little is Cary Grant to Gene Wilder’s Carole Lombard here (although Harvey Korman is the one named Hedley Lamarr). Inspired Madeline Kahn is the Dietrich-like Blonde Bombshell (who’s a bit “tired”). Near the end when the actors cross from western soundstages into a Dom DeLuise musical, the film really goes screwball. Bravo, Mel! —G.A.
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With the multiple revivals of screwball comedy films, it was inevitable a blonde star should take on the reign of Queen of the 1970s screwballs. Goldie Hawn had already won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her special brand of comedy. In Private Benjamin, she proved she was a formidable comedy force.
But with Colin Higgins’ screenplay and Chevy Chase as her 1970s Cary Grant, she became the Queen of Screwball Comedy for the next decade. And any film that has the Pope in it has to be considered a screwball comedy. —G.A.
Seems Like Old Times
Neil Simon, who certainly knew his comedic genres and classic films, wrote this second screwball for Goldie & Chevy. Simon pays tribute to screwball comedies by putting in a lot of surprise entrances and crazy exits and irrational mix-ups. The result has a good amount of decent belly laughs, even if the film doesn’t add up to be a brilliant work. At the time, critics were only moderately to nonchalantly impressed. But it’s fun all the way, and now that we have some distance from it, we can appreciate this charming film and enjoy the genius of Neil, Chevy, and, as always, Goldie. —G.A. A / C / G / I / V / Y
The breezy and fun-loving 1980s continued to surprise and delight with this box-office surprise. The wonderfully different story about a lovable alcoholic is a perfect fit for the talents of the late, great Dudley Moore. Liza gets one of her few good roles after Sally Bowles in Cabaret as the object of his affection. The music is also appealing and includes
Where to See Some Screwball
Of the 20 films here, only Sleeper, Foul Play, and To Be or Not to Be are currently unavailable on non-subscription streaming. Kaleidescape has gathered 15 of the titles into a “Modern Screwball Comedies” collection. And Crackle offers Seems Like Old Times, Clue, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles for free. (The boldface alphabet soup after each movie description indicates who’s got what.)
A = Amazon Prime / C = Crackle
G = Google Play / I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / Y = YouTube
the Oscar winner “Between the Moon and New York City.” But the best surprise is the stunt casting of the superb Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud as Arthur’s stalwart butler. His dry performance in this marvelous film did not go unnoticed as Gielgud won an Academy Award for his subversively witty turn here. —G.A. A / G / I / K / V / Y
To Be or Not to Be
Mel Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft finally get to star in a film together in this color remake of the Jack Benny/Carole Lombard gem from 1942. This version is at least as funny as the original, but it also expands (and arguably improves) on
most of the absurd situations. Brooks wrote one or two of his special brand of “Nazi songs,” and they give the proceedings a Producers-type lift. Charles Durning as the befuddled S.S. Col. Erhardt is off-the-charts funny. Tim Matheson as Bancroft’s young paramour has the looks, the tongue-in-cheek delivery, and perfect Cary Grant lightness to give the film a romantic layer. And not to detract from the classic original, it’s fair to say that the arrival of Mel Brooks as Hitler at an English Pub is a terrific addition and a hilarious surprise. (Well, I guess I just spoiled that surprise!) It should be noted that Brooks didn’t direct this jewel of comedy, Alan Johnson did. Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham re-wrote the screenplay of the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch version, so Mel gets to relax and fly to uninhibited heights. It’s particularly wonderful to see Ms. Bancroft sing, dance, do comedy-drama, and use so many of her God given talents. —G.A.
Directed by John Landis and starring Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy, this is the story of an upper-class commodities broker and a homeless street hustler whose lives cross paths and switch places when they are unknowingly made part of an elaborate bet. It’s a classic
screwball comedy setup worthy of Preston Sturges from 40 years earlier. Murphy and Ackroyd are both at the top of their comedic game. And most appropriately they are joined by Jamie Lee Curtis, herself an expert screwball comedienne. The production values are wonderful. Elmer Bernstein’s Academy Award-nominated music score is perfectly period. And Landis certainly knew he was making a 1940s-type comedy by casting true Hollywood screwball veterans Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy in the senior roles. —G.A. A / G / I / K / V / Y
This comedy mystery film based on the popular board game by Parker Brothers initially did poor business at the box office but has since gained cult status. In a similar vein as the 1976 film Murder by Death, it is an all-star-ensemble whodunit where a
bevy of guests is invited to a big mansion, a murder occurs, and the suspects have to figure out which among them committed the crime. Where Clue and Murder by Death differ however is that the former is filled with much more slapstick and silliness, albeit with a less witty screenplay, catapulting it into the screwball comedy genre. With a tour de force performance by Tim Curry
as the butler Wadsworth and brilliant comedic turns by Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren, this film is notably quotable, with my personal favorite being Kahn’s line “Flames, on the sides of my face!” To add to the fun, there are three different endings! —Glenn Bassett A / C / G / I / K / V / Y
Starring real-life power couple Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Overboard was neither a critical or commercial success, but has become a cult classic screwball comedy. Hawn, the queen of ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s comedy films, seems to be having a ball here playing Joanna, a rich, uptight snob who gets amnesia and is tricked by her carpenter, Dean (Kurt Russell), into believing she is his wife and mother of his four boys. The down-and-out Dean does this as payback for her refusal to pay him for work done and for throwing his tools into the ocean. The premise is ludicrous but in the hands of the charming and sexy Goldie and Kurt, as well as director Garry Marshall, the film manages to be heart-warming and witty amidst a very silly plot. —G.B. A / I / K / V
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Steve Martin has his own niche in the modern screwball comedy. Roxanne, The Jerk, and L.A. Story are just a few. But Planes, Trains and Automobiles has a special place in the hearts of screwball-comedy lovers. Of course, adding the genius of John Candy doesn’t hurt this wild road-trip romp. Here, Candy‘s obnoxious but lovable behavior comes across so effectively that it adds a certain dramatic layer to the film. John Hughes (Home Alone), at one of his peaks, wrote, produced, and directed this perennial holiday favorite. It has been noted that Hughes wrote his films quickly, and perhaps in doing so he gave them a driving urgency. Of course, this is always good for any film but even better for a comedy. Planes, Trains, and
screenplay), Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin. I remember first seeing this movie when it had just come out, not knowing anything about it or expecting anything special. Well, what a surprise. Cleese’s screenplay is comic gold, as are his and all of the performances. It’s hard to pick a favorite among the leads as they are all doing their very best onscreen work here. And although this is a heist comedy, the hilarious situations, endless slapstick, and a trouble-making femme fatale (Curtis) at its center make it a screwball comedy classic. Deservedly nominated for three Academy Awards including Director (Charles Crichton) and Original Screenplay (John Cleese), Kevin Kline won for Supporting Actor in perhaps his funniest role to date. —G.B. A / G / I / K / V / Y
What a screwball brilliant cast this film has. Sally Field, who is always at ease in improbable screenplays, and modern comedy masters Kevin Kline and Whoopi Goldberg are just the headliners. Add in Elisabeth Shue, Carrie Fisher, Robert
Downey Jr., and Cathy Moriarty in exquisitely broad comic performances, and it’s a star-studded screwball treat. The screenplay by Robert Harling and Andrew Bergman is as wild and improbable as it gets (but then again aren’t TV soap operas, too?) It’s exceptionally well directed by Michael Hoffman with just the right amount of frantic abandon. Also, the “look” of the whole film is
This is one of my personal favorite screwball comedies. It pairs the incredible comic talents of Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin, with Martin hysterical as Newton, an architect who has built a dream house in his small hometown for his girlfriend Becky (Dana Delaney) as a wedding-proposal gift, only to be turned down by her when he pops the question. He leaves the house abandoned and ends up having a one-night stand with a supposedly Hungarian waitress, Gwen (Hawn), to whom he tells the story of the house. An artful opportunist and a compulsive liar, Gwen hunts down the house, moves right in, and soon has Newton’s parents and the whole town convinced she is Newton’s new wife. Screwball comedy heaven ensues when Newton returns to his hometown and realizes this unorthodox arrangement may be the only way of winning Becky back. This is an absolute must-see Goldie Hawn performance! —G.B. A / G / I / K / V / Y
There’s Something About Mary
Everything about this escapade into romantic obsession screams “True Screwball!” With Cameron Diaz as Mary, the carefree and unaware blonde center of attention, and her three crazy suitors (Ben Stiller, Matt Dillon, and Lee Evans), every bizarre plot
twist and slapstick ballet is a set up for provoking laughter, just like the broadest and best of the 1930s screwballs. But the big difference here is that now a comedy like this can use sexual situations, crude language, and politically incorrect setups. The result may be a bit crude, but it’s always hilarious. It’s all so well directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly. And you’re sure to notice this film has a small, very drugged-up but indestructible cute little dog in it, so very Awful Truth-like! —G.A.
Runaway Bride was a commercially successful re-teaming of director Garry Marshall and his two mega-stars from Pretty Woman (1990), Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. With a similar premise as It Happened One Night (1934), this screwball comedy has New York columnist Ike (Gere) traveling to small-town Maryland to write a factually accurate article about Maggie Carpenter (Roberts), whom the tabloids have dubbed “The Runaway Bride” for leaving numerous men at the altar. A somewhat cliche story, Roberts and Gere manage to rekindle some of the magic that made them box-office gold, and with a supporting cast including Joan Cusack and Héctor Elizondo (also of Pretty Woman), it has enough charm and laughs to entertain and amuse more than 20 years later. —G.B. A / G / I / K / V / Y
After 30 years of screwball-revival films, a new type of “buddy” screwball emerged. In these comedies, the crazy female figure is nearly non-existent and the boys take the irrational behavior lead. There are some elements of the “Drug Comedy” in this
film, although the culprit here is alcohol rather than drugs. The “Drug Comedy” is actually its own sub-genre (Up in Smoke, Dazed and Confused) but in Superbad, the string of outrageous situations comes so fast and furious, it feels screwball throughout—at least till the end, when it very satisfyingly slides into a real and moving friendship story. By the way, this sentimental friendship has been used effectively again and again, and in other Jonah Hill films like 22 Jump Street. —G.A. A / G / I / K / V / Y
You could classify this hysterical adventure as a “Drug Comedy,” however it has a certain layer to it that is rather like a Billy Wilder movie. Rather than sit back and be amused, we are asked to participate in solving a certain mystery. What did happen “the night before”? This quality of “we need to do a little brain work here” is a sure trademark of any Wilder film, comedy or otherwise. It adds a certain wit and wryness to the proceedings, and elevates this bachelor-party flick. Of course, the fabulous and frantic direction by Todd Phillips of the Jon Lucas/Scott Moore screenplay
Not since The Women (1939) has there been an all-female ensemble comedy as hilarious or as much fun to watch from start to finish as Bridesmaids. Directed by Paul Fieg with an Academy Award-nominated screenplay by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, this screwball comedy about a woman named Annie (Wiig) who has lost everything and is about to lose her best friend is not only chock-full of slapstick, the troubled-woman trope, and witty dialogue, it also has enough raunch and ridiculousness to make modern audiences laugh till it hurts. The outstanding cast includes Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi
McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Chris O’Dowd, Jon Hamm, and Melissa McCarthy in a shameless, uproarious Oscar-nominated performance. —G.B.
Walk of Shame
Although this isn’t a film that’s on everyone’s most-famous list, it nonetheless is an undiscovered gem of screwball comedy. Like
many (or most) of the great screwball comedies, it has a beautiful but screwy blonde in the central role. Elizabeth Banks is perfect and superbly comic as a TV news anchorwoman who has a wild night of fun, but through improbable circumstances has a lot of trouble getting home to change her clothes. Improbable is right, but writer/director Steven Brill pulls all the terrific fun off breezily and hysterically. Some critics found the story laced with broad caricatures and broadly drawn stereotypes. But should true screwball comedy do it any other way? This is uproarious fun. —G.A. A / G / I / K / V / Y
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. 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. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas.
Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. He was set designer for
a production of On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Connecticut and
for the Salt Marsh Opera’s production of Pagliacci. He also did the production design for the
independent shorts Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner. Current writing projects include
a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical thriller, Dig a Little Deeper.