What Makes a Comedy Screwball?
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
“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
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 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.