As another signature of old Hollywood, the screwball comedy genre is a cinematic treasure. Based on the wacky inner-psyches of legendary comediennes and comics, screwball comedies allow for a very absurd combination of events.
Featuring some of the most genius writing in film history, this genre borders on almost absurd. The typical screwball comedy formula features an eccentric female lead, who stumbles and falls into the life and arms of a stern and baffled leading man. The satirical methods in which the two meet, interact, and eventually fall in love illustrate the foundation of the genre.
Study of screwball comedy should begin with the realization that the genre parodies the traditional love story. The more eccentric partner, invariably the woman, usually manages a victory over the less assertive, easily frustrated male. The heroine often is assisted by the fact that only she knows that a ‘courtship’ is going on. By the time the male becomes aware of the courtship (such as Cary Grant’s absent-minded professor, end-of-movie resignation to the fact in the pivotal Bringing Up Baby) the final buzzer has sounded, signaling an end to his comfortably rigid bachelor lifestyle (Gehring, 106).
As Gehring identifies, the male lead finds himself at the end tricked into an unlikely pair. Audiences are aware of the flirtation, and even the outcome, due to the predictability of the genre.
Screwball comedies gained popularity in the 1930s with the arrival of sound film. One can easily identify such films simply by the dialogue. There are recognizable voices like Katharine Hepburn rapidly confessing her love for her leading man (typically Cary Grant) in a shrill and almost psychotic manner. Carole Lombard falls all over William Powell in My Man Godfrey, but her charm is intoxicating. These characters exist firmly in film history due to their over-zealous expression of love and comedy.
Screwball comedies didn’t survive, however. As the sense of humor of the audience shifted through time, this genre was almost too chaotic for the typical movie goer. In the history of comedy, the only comparable sub-category would be the rambling antics of Woody Allen and his female leads.
Screwball comedies used language to produce a barrage of verbal gibes and vocal retorts that reflected the animosity of the combative couple while revealing their individual wit and acumen. As Haskell says, ‘Conversation was an index not only of intelligence, but of confidence, of self-possession.’ Language showed the sparring power of the two lovers and symbolized the ability of the two sexes to compete equally with each other (Renzi, 93).
Renzi’s point is vital in explaining the significance of the screwball comedy. Despite the borderline insanity of the charming female protagonists, it provided actresses with a voice in a man’s industry. This empowering moment for women in art set the tone for leading ladies. Thanks to the screwball comedy, actresses could experiment with wit, humor, and unforgettable charm.
THE GREATEST SCREWBALL COMEDIES