Make ‘em Laugh: An Ovation for Screwball Comedies

Make ‘em Laugh: An Ovation for Screwball Comedies

Jackie Jerkins, Literary Editor

“Laughter gives us distance,” once observed Bob Newhart, renowned comedian. “It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it, and then move on.” Such is comedy—a relief, a vacation, a safeness we cannot otherwise harvest on our own.

We as humans are drawn to laughter and to those who make us laugh. Comedy plays doctor to the everyday despairs we have a habit of collecting, like dust beneath a bed. What we owe to even the quietest chuckle we owe to the roots of comedy itself: ancient Greeks, English court jesters, Italian zanni, American vaudevillians, and, perhaps most of all, the comedy of 1930s film.

It’s here that I announce how I would like to spare a little applause for comedians and comediennes of old. In the 1930s that the modern comedy we all know and split ribs to the tune of hung up its hat. An evolution of sorts transpired between the physical comedy of silent films (innovated masterfully by the likes of Buster Keaton, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin) and the dawn of a new, talking decade.

We can see the prenatal contemporary comedy in brief scenes of witty dialogue of romance and drama films made between 1930 and 1934, most notably in the bickering film of remarriage Private Lives from 1931. This theme was kindled greatly with the elevated influence of women as actresses in roles. Couples would exchange feelings of adoration with clever puns and exaggerations just as readily as they could hatred. The women were fiery, bold, quick as a whip; the gentlemen were bitter, gruff, arrogant, and smart (and yet, oftentimes they were bumbling idiots).

But it was in 1934 that a new kind of comedy came to town with a bucket of red paint. The solid description of romantic comedy in film took a seat among the giants of genres like Romance, Crime, Drama, Horror, War, Musical, etc. Films of this material, unique to this period in time, are now referred to as “screwball comedies,” or simply “screwballs.”

Screwballs, featuring fast-talking wordplay, absurd situations, social classes in conflict, and plotlines centric to love and marriage, found a wildly accepting audience in an American population weary and burdened from the Great Depression. They were glamorous, carefree, silly, and beautiful. And, most importantly to its viewers, the characters in screwballs had always had everything turn out all right for them, no matter the issue—be it an escaped leopard or a girl named Hazel Flagg feigning radium poisoning before the eyes of an entire nation. An essential storyline to screwballs, which highlights their optimistic nature, is the element of remarriage—that is, a warring couple previously divorced at the beginning of the film comes to reunite by the end (a clever way of portraying rifts in romances without upsetting the Code censors). The introduction of screwball comedy saw citizens who were plunged in destitution scrounging and saving, forgoing food in favor of attending the movies. The hunger for food paled beside the hunger to escape from reality for an hour or two.

The “birth” of the screwball is often credited to the 1934 film It Happened One Night, directed by comedic mastermind Frank Capra and starring Claudette Colbert and then little-appreciated Clark Gable. The iconic movie tells the story of Ellie Andrews, spoiled heiress, who tries to escape her wealthy father’s control, and on a bus from Palm Beach to New York falls in love with newspaperman Peter Warne. The film—in a rare twist, as comedies of the time found little fortune in the Awards—in fact swept the Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), and Best Writing. (This is known as “The Big Five,” and has only been achieved two other times in history to date.)

Some of the greatest comedies of all time (many of them generally considered some of the greatest films of all time) were made during the reign of the screwball, which lasted from 1934 to roughly 1941. They include Bringing Up Baby from 1938, My Man Godfrey from 1936, The Awful Truth from 1937, His Girl Friday from 1940, and The Philadelphia Story from 1940, among dozens more. Every single one of these is cited as part of the upper crust of comedies—the best of the best. The dialogue is clever, quick, and witty—the plots wry and scintillating—the actors divine and larger than life.

Screwballs became a crucial genre for studios when the Hays Production Code of 1930 was firmly enforced in 1934. The Production Code, aiming to “purify” some of the “filth” in films, greatly limited the content filmmakers could convey. Adultery was banned, obscenity—whether directly spoken, sung, or implied—of any kind was barred, murder nearly done away with, and “[e]xcessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures” were “not to be shown.” In general, the Production Code attitude toward “scenes of passion” was that “they should not be introduced when not essential to the plot.” There was even a limitation on how many seconds a kiss could last (three seconds maximum).

With such a Code in full force by mid-1934, conventional—ahem—routes of romance were obviously blacklisted. Thus, screwball writers took it upon themselves to express love and affection between two characters through means of—you guessed it—comedy.

Verbal jousting between the two leading love interests substituted physical intimacy almost altogether. Take, for instance, one of the earliest scenes in Bringing Up Baby: Katharine Hepburn as the terrifically naïve Susan Vance is unwittingly driving off from a golf course in a car that belongs to Cary Grant as David Huxley.

SUSAN VANCE: Now, don’t lose your temper.
DAVID HUXLEY: My dear young lady, I’m not losing my temper. I’m merely trying to
play some golf!
SUSAN VANCE: You choose the funniest places; this is a parking lot.

Their relationship is foreshadowed as frustrating, ridiculous—but rife with affection. The wilder and more farfetched the situation, the more exasperated the leading lovers, and thus the more tangible their connection and romance.

The quality of comedy has more or less equally suffered its lows and rejoiced in its highs in years since, but I regret to say that the magic of comedy as a whole has seen better times. There was no time to laugh like the 1930s, despite even (and, strangely, perhaps largely because of) the turmoil of the Depression. There is simply no comparison to the glitter, the glamour, the gaiety, the balm of a giggle when one’s entire world lies in shambles around them.

Watching these films today, we can only imagine the joy they brought, the comfort they catered. They were ready-made happiness, parceled up for the nation’s most tired, most hungry, and most weary. We take for granted the easiness of laughter and the exquisitely ineffable feeling of being delivered from our worlds when we put ourselves in the hands of a comedy. We forget how important it is, how essential it is. And in the process we as a generation have forgotten to what and whom we owe that gratification.

Thus, I direct a well-earned, long-overdue round of applause for the pinnacles of comedy, which will live on when even The Hangover and Step Brothers are things of obscurity.