Whatever Happened to Comedy? (Pt. 2)

Okay, yesterday, I may have been a bit harsh about contemporary comedy. But I’m going to try to make a good case for classical Hollywood and the screwball comedy today.

Identify a Screwball Comedy 101:

  • Was the film made during the Great Depression?

Most screwball comedies were made between 1934 and 1940. The genre is outmoded during the war years due to new attitudes and situations occurring in the United States(though some were still made as late as 1949). Film noir surfaced from World War II. A personal favourite of mine is It Happened One Night (1934). This film was the first to sweep the Academy Awards for the “big five”. Clark Gable’s character inspired the creators of Bugs Bunny (yes, he eats a carrot!).

  • Does the film mock the upper class and glorify lower classes?

The reason for the screwball genre’s success was due to the pocketbooks of most moviegoers in the Great Depression. Film palaces were designed extravagantly while the movie ticket was cheap — this allowed all classes to gather for entertainment. The screwball films often made the upper classes into a joke. For instance, My Man Godfrey (1936) is a film that follows the upper class Bullock family. The daughter hires a homeless man or “forgotten man” to be her protegé. Godfrey (and the quippy maid) is usually the biggest voice or reason and/or intellect in the film. This theme encouraged escapism for lower classes.

  • Is there a situation of farce?

This is the characteristic that makes audiences either laugh their head off or roll their eyes. I think the best example is Bringing Up Baby (1938). Some would say this is the quintessential screwball comedy. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn are the perfect acting pair as they try to wrangle Hepburn’s leopard, Baby, throughout the film. The big cat is most responsive to the song “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (Baby)” and the situations Grant and Hepburn face are beyond believability. But that’s what makes the film so great!

  • Are the comedic elements a blend of witty lines and slapstick?

This is my favourite aspect of the screwball: the writing. The scripts of a screwball comedy are saturated with witty dialogue that takes a few seconds to process before fully understanding the magnitude of the joke. I would almost say the writing in these films top my lists and the genius of the film is the quickness — they’re re-watchable! I guarantee you’ll miss at least a few jokes the first time through. The Philadelphia Story (1940) (also starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant) is probably my favourite screwball for its writing, alone. To quote Katharine Hepburn’s character Tracy: “The time to make up your mind about people is never.”

Another common feature is gender role reversals and there’s even a subgenre of screwball called “the comedy of remarriage” in which the couples divorce and remarry… though I won’t give you an example because that would be a spoiler!! I hope you feel the desire to search for a screwball comedy after reading this post. I really can’t do the genre justice; so you need to watch one! One final word of advice: anything involving Katharine Hepburn and a comedy is the best choice.


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