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Screwball Comedy   

Definition: A sub-genre of romantic comedy most popular from the mid-1930s to mid-1940s whose plot is unpredictable like the path of its namesake, the screwball pitch in baseball. Beginning in 1934, unpredictability was Hollywood’s answer to the Motion Picture Production Code’s prohibition against “overt portrayals and references to sexual behavior.” Emphasis on wackiness, gender-role reversal and class conflict were the primary devices employed to plot a “sex comedy without sex.”

History: The screwball comedy was a product of its times. Those times began with the enforcement of The Motion Picture Production Code, informally known as the Hays Code. This set of censorship rules responded to public complaints about immoral content in Hollywood films. Its prohibitions included any suggestion of premarital sex, which encompassed anything beyond token displays of passion. Directors most associated with the sub-genre include Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges and Frank Capra.

screwball comedyBelow is a discussion of five vintage screwball comedies most popular today:

“It Happened One Night” (1934)

Considered the first true screwball comedy, this film achieved sexual distancing between its protagonists through class conflict. Ellie (Claudette Colbert) is a rich socialite whose sense of superiority makes her hands-off for Peter (Clark Gable), an unemployed newspaper reporter. Peter bonds with Ellie only because she is a runaway whose story could earn him a fat paycheck. The film’s leisure class-working class clash was also a commercial masterstroke because moviegoers found escape from the Great Depression by watching the wealthy portrayed on screen.

“My Man Godfrey” (1936)

We see class conflict again as spoiled rich girl Irene (Carole Lombard) is paired with Godfrey (William Powell), a Hooverville “forgotten man” whom Irene’s family adopts as their butler. However, while Godfrey respects upstairs-downstairs propriety, Irene ignores it to pursue Godfrey romantically. This marks the sub-genre’s first instance of reversing gender roles to defuse sex from romance. Irene’s character also evinces another screwball mainstay for stilling hormones—wackiness. What Irene sees as Godfrey showing a romantic interest in her amounts to inventions of her wackiness—at least until the end of the movie, and even then there is room for doubt.

“Bringing Up Baby” (1938)

Wacky is the word for Susan, this film’s female lead played by Katharine Hepburn. We again see gender role reversal as Susan eyes David, a passive egghead paleontologist played by Cary Grant. Grant would become the sub-genre’s leading leading man, combining heartthrob good looks with a knack for exaggerated expressions and physical comedy that Grant had developed as a vaudevillian. There is no time for sexual passion in this plot, which has Susan leading David from one wacky situation to another. And not until the film’s end is David’s head turned romantically from his hen-pecking fiancé to goofy Susan.

“His Girl Friday” (1940)

In this, another Cary Grant screwball comedy, there are two gender role reversals, one standard and one literal, although neither apply to Grant’s character. The standard reversal is between female lead Rosalind Russell, who plays newspaper reporter Hildy, and her fiancé Bruce, an insurance salesman played by Ralph Bellamy. Hildy dominates Bruce—or, at least, when she is not competing against Bruce’s mother. The literal gender-role reversal ensures against any suggestion of hanky panky between Hildy and her managing editor Walter (Grant), the film’s male lead. Dialogue and action involving the two remains largely as it was in the play “The Front Page” and the play’s first film adaptation “The Front Page” (1931). The gender-role reversal comes with casting: Russell plays a part written for a man. And as wacky as this movie’s plot is, that wackiness is surpassed by rapid-fire and overlapping dialogue that is non-stop.

“The Lady Eve” (1941)

Lead actors Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda reverse the gender roles of the romantic comedy’s plot structure, a.k.a., boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Charles is a woman-shy heir to a brewing empire who has spent months in the Amazon studying snakes when he meets Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) aboard an ocean liner. Jean is a con artist who steers the naïve  Charles into a card game with her crooked father. Charles’ discovery that Jean is a fraud mirrors a plot point of many romantic comedies {e.g., the three Rock Hudson and Doris Day comedies) save that the liar here is the female not male lead. Jean re-enters Charles’ life in Connecticut masquerading as the posh Lady Eve Sidwich and convinces Charles that she resembles Jean because the two are siblings. Charles’ passivity and Jean’s need to maintain aristocratic decorum ensure against sexual impropriety until, after a short courtship, they marry.

Although the screwball comedy was a reaction to the Hays Code, the comedic plot devices that define it—class conflict, gender role reversal and wackiness-- would be the ingredients of successful comedies well past discontinuation of the Code. Today it is ironic that the so-called “sex movie without sex” should bear a label that combines the words screw and ball.