screwball comedies Tag

Screwball Odds & Ends

When writing up the best classic screwball comedies and their modern counterparts, I knew I was likely overlooking some films that arguably belonged on the list. But how could I forget . . .

Screwball Odds & Ends
10

(1979)

This is the ultimate Blake Edwards screwball comedy. Most of Edwards’ comedies contain elements of classic screwball, certainly always slapstick. Films like The Pink Panther, The Great Race, and even Victor/Victoria qualify as terrific films that use the best of all comedy elements. Edwards even has a later film entitled Blind Date that is an over-the-top and dark screwball comedy. But 10 is a small masterpiece of insane comedy and slapstick.

Here, the beautiful girl causing all the trouble (by just being mindblowingly sexy with a corn-row hairstyle) is Bo Derek. And the slapstick prize goes to the film’s star Dudley Moore. By 1979, he certainly was an expert at this genre. (Let’s not forget the original Bedazzled!) And speaking of “Julie Andrews! Julie Andrews!,” Andrews herself is on hand, providing fine support. She also adds excellent contrast to Derek and some much-

needed rationality for Moore. This film also doubles as a classic sex comedy, but since sex doesn’t change much from generation to generation, this film holds up marvelously!

 

When listing the best recent screwball comedies, it’s easy to overlook a great favorite, so my apologies to Blake Edwards and Dudley Moore.

 

In fact, since Peter Bogdanovich’s re-introduction of the screwball comedy with What’s Up, Doc?, the last 50 years of cinema have been laced with all kinds of related comedies. Some are screwball-like, some are “drug comedies” or contemporary 

“sex comedies.” Some are great “genre spoof” comedies like Spaceballs, High Anxiety, or 21 Jump Street.

 

Here’s a comprehensive list of the many other truly wonderful screwball-comedy-like films that also deserve a mention:

 

Animal House

American Pie

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Blast from the Past

Caddyshack

Clueless

50 First Dates

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Groundhog Day

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days

In and Out

Isn’t It Romantic

Legally Blonde

Liar Liar

Napoleon Dynamite

Meatballs

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Splash

Tootsie

Trainwreck

27 Dresses

Weekend at Bernie’s

Wild Child

Zoolander

All of the Mel Brooks genre spoofs like Young FrankensteinSilent Movie, and High Anxiety.

 

Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor I & IIComing to America, and Bowfinger.

 

Will Ferrell movies like Talladega Nights, Anchorman, and Blades of Glory.

 

Chevy Chase movies like Funny Farm and the “Vacation” series.

 

And last but certainly not least . . .

 

Any of Tyler Perry’s “Medea” movies. They are all outrageously inventive and wonderful.

 

So, grab a “screwball” and a highball drink, and look at the world in a whole new and topsy-turvy way. Between all the great comedies from Hollywood’s Golden Age and the contemporary comedies of the last 50 years, you’ll have months and months of laughter at your disposal, so live, love, and laugh with the best!

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.

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

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. 

The 1970s

What’s Up, Doc?

(1972)

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 Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

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

A / G / I / K / VY     

 

Sleeper

(1973)

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.

 

Blazing Saddles

(1973)

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.
A / G / I / K / V / Y     

 

Foul Play

(1978)

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.

The 1980s

Seems Like Old Times

(1980)

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 / CGIV / Y     

 

Arthur

(1981)

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 Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

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.     AGI / KV / Y    

 

To Be or Not to Be

(1983)

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 

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

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.

 

Trading Places

(1983)

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

 

Clue

(1985)

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

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

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 / CG / I / K / V / Y     

 

Overboard

(1987)

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.     AI / KV    

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

(1987)

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

Automobiles all takes place in a 24-hour period, and the unity of time adds excellent momentum to this “Traveling Home for the Holidays“ roller-coaster ride.    G.A.

A / CGI / KV / Y    

 

A Fish Called Wanda

(1988)

A Fish Called Wanda stars John Cleese (who also wrote the 

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.     AGI / KV / Y     

The 1990s

Soapdish

(1991)

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

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

terrific and matches perfectly the outrageous tone. “The Look” is a great time capsule of life in glamorous 1991 New York City. Those were the candy-colored days!    G.A.     AGIV / Y    

 

Housesitter

(1992)

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.     AGI / KV / Y     

There’s Something About Mary

(1998)

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.

AGI / KV / Y     

 

Runaway Bride

(1999)

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.     AGI / KV / Y    

The 2000s

Superbad

(2007)

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.     AGI / K / V / Y 

 

The Hangover

(2009)

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

doesn’t hurt! This is the movie that catapulted Bradley Cooper to stardom. Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, and, yes, Mike Tyson and a friendly but man-eating tiger (shades of Bringing Up Baby?) add toothy support.   —G.A.     AGI / KV / Y     

The 2010s

Bridesmaids

(2011)

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.   

AGI / KV / Y     

 

 

Walk of Shame

(2014)

Although this isn’t a film that’s on everyone’s most-famous list, it nonetheless is an undiscovered gem of screwball comedy. Like 

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

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.     AGI / KV / 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.

The Greatest Classic Screwball Comedies

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

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.

The 1930s

Duck Soup

(1933, pre-Code)

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 

Crackers, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, and on and on . . . G I / K / V / Y

 

Bombshell

(1933, pre-Code)

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

(1934, pre-Code)

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

 

Twentieth Century

(1934, pre-Code)

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

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

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 Centurythe 1978 Broadway musical that starred Madeline Kahn.  A / I  V 

My Man Godfrey

(1936)

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 Academy Awards. A / G / I / K / T / V / Y  (be warned: it’s colorized on Google Play, iTunes, and Tubi)

 

Libeled Lady

(1936)

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.
A / G / K / I
V / Y

 

Theodora Goes Wild

(1936)

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).

 

Easy Living

(1937)

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!

 

Topper

(1937)

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

(1937)

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

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

 

Nothing Sacred

(1937)

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 

in three-strip Technicolor!  A / K / T  (free on Tubi)

 

Bringing Up Baby

(1938)

This is perhaps the ultimate screwball comedy. Katherine Hepburn proves that Irene Dunne and Carole Lombard have nothing on her in the comedy department, and she is at ease yet over-the-top with her frequent co-

star Cary Grant and a sweet leopard called “Baby.” This is the film to start with if you’re just entering the arena of screwball comedy.  A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

Merrily We Live

(1938)

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

(1938)

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

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

his first foray into the genre very successfully. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1938, coinciding with the peak of screwball comedy in Hollywood.  A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

Midnight

(1939)

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.

The 1940s

His Girl Friday

(1940)

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

pictures of the pre-war era and it must be seen to be believed.  A / G / I / K / T / V / Y  (free on Tubi & Vudu)

 

Christmas in July

(1940)

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

(1941)

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

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 1
Love Crazy

(1941)

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

(1941)

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”!

 

Sullivan’s Travels 

(1941)

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

(1942)

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

(1942)

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

(1942)

Again, Preston Sturges hits the

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

To Be or Not to Be

bullseye with comedy diva Claudette Colbert. Here, romance warms the proceedings a bit more than usual, but it never shortchanges us on laughs, wit, or improbable circumstance. Its conclusion is a wonderful inevitable surprise—“. . . but that’s another story!”  A / G / I / K / V / Y

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

(1944)

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
. . .  A / G / I / V / Y

Hail the Conquering Hero

(1944)

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

(1947)

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

The 1950s

Monkey Business

(1952)

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 

be a musical: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, also starring Marilyn Monroe.
A / G / I / V / Y

 

 

Some Like It Hot

(1959)

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

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

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.
G / I K / V / Y

Gerard Alessandrini

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.

What Makes a Comedy Screwball?

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 1

During this difficult time in our national history, it’s important to remember and screen some of the best comedies Hollywood ever made. Here are some recommendations for one of the most beloved movie genres: The screwball comedy.

A successful and truly funny film can endure over many decades. The gems from the silent era by Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd continue to be tremendously entertaining. But comedy is ever-changing, almost to the extent that fashions in clothing can be. To be truly funny, audiences must relate to the situation, and that includes economy, social structure, and politics.

 

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, this was clearly evident. Slapstick was still effective to generate laughs, but a new element was added—dialogue. In the early ‘30s, this slowed most of the comedy of Lloyd and Keaton down too much, thereby ending their careers at the forefront. Chaplin, of course, resisted dialogue in his films till 1940. But along with the sound era came the Marx Brothers. Their dialogue (delivered mostly by Groucho) was as fast and silly as silent slapstick. With Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, and Horse Feathers, they laid the basis for the screwball comedies that were to follow in the next two decades.

 

The absurdity of the plots’ situations and of the banter in their films also played right into the feelings of most 

moviegoers of the 1930s. The hard-knock life and social injustices of the Depression must have made daily struggles seem not only hard but absurd. So, comedy also took on an absurdity.

 

Most all of the zany screwball films that followed the Marx Brothers’ have a nonsensicalness about them. Romantic elements are present, but are never too heartfelt, deep, or sentimental. Most often, the plots are inane, often with holes in the logic.

They are just a fun rollercoaster ride for a movie audience to jump on to, ride with glee, and forget about the harsh demands of life.

 

Beyond the Marx Brothers, there arose several female stars who seemed perfectly suited to the antics of irrational behavior. Their behavior was socially unacceptable yet always charming. People loved seeing vibrant women break through the social and moral constraints of the day. Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Katherine

Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, and, later, Betty Hutton all could pull this off beautifully. Writers and directors sought to create properties especially for them. These beautiful women acted quite crazy—nearly insane! The plots, like life and bank accounts in the 1930s and ‘40s, didn’t quite add up. These comedy queens would drive men to “screwy” distraction. Ergo the

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 1

“screwball comedy” was born. 

 

(The term “screwball” was probably derived from America’s Favorite Pastime of the 20th Century—baseball. A screwball was a spinning wild pitch that was laughed at, ridiculed, and illegal.)

 

Danny Kaye and Bob Hope starred in many screwball-like movies in the ‘40s and ‘50s but they are musical movies. And during those decades, all the best 

comedies are also musicals. For example, the Martin & Lewis movies all had songs like “That’s Amore.” Bob Hope comedies always contained new hit songs written expressly for them like “Buttons and Bows” and “Silver Bells.” All the zany Kaye movies are full-blown musicals. Even the Bing Crosby/Frank Capra comedy classic Here Comes the Groom has six songs, including the Academy Award-winning “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.” Although all the musical moments in these films are excellent, they tend to soften sharp dialogue and smooth out the fast pace of screwball comedies.

 

In my next post, I’ll describe 30 of the best screwball comedies from Hollywood’s Studio Era. It is possible that many of your favorite “regular” film comedies may be absent from this list, maybe because they are either too logical or too witty (like

those that came from Broadway plays, such as The Man Who Came to Dinner or Arsenic and Old Lace) or they are more heartfelt and three-dimensional (like Holiday and The Philadelphia Story).

 

In the 1960s, most of the successfully funny films were “sex comedies.” With TV sitcoms like I Love Lucy filling in for family entertainment, the movies took up the subject of “Who’s sleeping with who?”. Of course, it all starts off 

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 1

rather mildly in 1959 with Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk but by 1967 films like The Graduate brought a whole new realism and rawness to the film comedy. Gone was the innocence of the 1930s screwball comedy.

 

But . . . by the early 1970s comedy changed yet again when What’s Up, Doc? brought back the screwball comedy. In Part 3, I’ll talk about the screwball-comedy revival from that watershed moment to the present.

Gerard Alessandrini

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.