You are hereMagazines 1980-1989 / Comedy on the Rocks

Comedy on the Rocks


My friend Michele is a screwball. She's beautiful, bright and befuddled, and talks in paragraphs, not sentences, with barely a breath between words. You ask her one thing, she answers a dozen-usually going off on tangents you never knew existed. Conversations with her sometimes remind me of one Carole Lombard has with William Powell in 1936's My Man Godfrey: "You're more than a butler. You're the first protege I ever had ... Like Carlo ... He's mother's protege. It's awfully nice Carlo having a sponsor because he doesn't have to work and he gets time for his practicing but then he never does and that makes a difference ... Do you play anything, Godfrey? Oh, I don't mean games or things like that, I mean the piano and things like that. .. Oh, it doesn't really make any difference. I just thought I'd ask. It's funny how some things make you think of other things. " 


Other times, I feel like Cary Grant in 1938's Bringing Up Baby, when he tells  Katharine Hepburn, "Now, it isn't that I don't like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I'm strangely drawn toward you, but-well, there haven't been any quiet moments." 


Yes, Michele would fit right into a screwball comedy. 


Screwball films are known for their beautiful, batty women whose fast speech and zany actions conceal a brainy purpose (usually to ensnare a man). They are also known for their outlandish yet strangely down-to-earth plots, their sentimental cynicism and, as critic Otto Ferguson put it, "their frequency of absurd surprises that combine sight, sound, motion and recognition into something like music." 


The genre was a product of a particular period. In the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s, crisis and change in American life left people feeling as dizzy (from the Depression and World War) as the onscreen heroes listening to the screwball girls. 


The masters of the form included a handful of directors who did nothing else quite as well-Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, Gregory La Cava-and others, like Howard Hawks and W.S. Van Dyke, who moved with ease among comedies, adventures and dramas. The screwball film began inauspiciously enough with Capra's low-budget it Happened One Night (1934) and Hawks' Twentieth Century (1934). The former, a sleeper hit, was a change of pace for Capra, who had been known for action pictures and melodramas like Dirigible (1931) and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). No one had much faith in it, either: Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, forced into the movie by their studios, badmouthed it. Hollywood insiders predicted disaster.





Its surprising success, however-Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress Os cars-led to a rash of screwballs and a new career for Capra, who went on to shoot such likeminded populist comedies as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). The genre blossomed with Van Dyke's The Thin Man (1934), La Cava's My Man Godfrey (1936), Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938) and the lunatic body of work by Preston Sturges


Sturges is the king of the screwball. The European-educated inventor and songwriter began writing Hollywood screenplays in the 1930s (including a supposed forerunner to Citizen Kane called The Power and the Glory, and an excellent comedy with Claudette Colbert, Midnight). But he was unhappy with the interpretations of his scripts and, in 1940, negotiated a then unusual writer-as-director deal. Over the following four years he turned out a string of brilliant, manic hits: The Great McGinty (1940), Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). But the enfant terrible was a briefly burning light; he seemed to run out of gas after that. "Sturges is a fascinating director," wrote critic David Thomson, "deeply rooted in a merry, corrupt but absurd America, as wayward and frequently misled as an inventor but, at his best, the organizer of a convincingly cheerful comedy of the ridiculous that is rare in American cinema." 



Although each individual director perfected and expanded the form in some way, screwball comedies-as established by Hawks, Capra, et al.-invariably follow a formula. Usually there's a heroine who's either smarter than the guy, daffier than the guy or colder than the guy. In the course of the movie, she will sequentially despise him (but still get entangled in his affairs), come to admire him (even as she fights with him) and finally realize she loves him. In the process, she will also change from spoiled or cold or daffy to concerned or warm or slightly less daffy. 




Then there's the guy. He's either cynically sentimental, using a wisecrack to cover his feelings (Claudette Colbert to Clark Gable in It Happened One Night: "Your ego is absolutely colossal." Gable: "Yeah, not bad. How's yours?"), or else hopelessly repressed and befuddled. In the first instance, the heroine brings out the romantic in the hero, as he comes to realize that there's more to her than he thought. In the second case, the hero realizes there is. more to life than being straitlaced, as Roland Young does in Topper (1937), the story of a spiritually "dead" banker who is brought to life by two carefree ghosts (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett): "I want to dance! I want to drink! I want to sing! I want to have fun!" 


That's the other classic key ingredient: the almost childlike nature of the heroine, who constantly defies convention and thereby helps unstuff the hero's shirt. There's a child inside all of us, say the best realizations of this genre, repressed by the constraints of society. To be slightly crazy is to be imaginatively free. And, notes critic Gerald Weales, "if the craziness is seen as a function of wealth in the 1930s, it is because irresponsibility in that decade was most easily identified in terms of the cushion that money put under it." 


Besides the girl, the guy and the crazy antics, there are the Pursuit and the Misunderstanding. In The Awful Truth (1937), husband Cary Grant suspects wife Irene Dunne of philandering. They have a childish fight which ends in divorce-even though everyone knows they really love each other. (The battle is another element of the screwball, for as Hepburn puts it in Bringing Up Baby: "The love impulse in a man frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict. ") The movie is the tale of their pursuit of each other, as each tries to break up the other's intended remarriage to someone else. 


On the way, there is slapstick (another typical screwball device), fast dialogue and much cynicism. Says Grant with tongue in cheek, "There can't be any doubts in marriage. Marriage is based on faith. And if you've lost that, you've lost everything." Yet underneath lies the rich vein of sentimentality which once prompted Sturges to remark, "Fish and guests stink after three days, they say, but your wife isn't a guest but definitely a part of you-your other half for better or for worse ... and you die without her." 


On the surface, the screwballs project a dark world where, as a character in Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) notes, "everyone suspects the worst of everyone else." In that film, for instance, misunderstandings pile on top of each other so fast and so brilliantly that you're left breathless. It's the story of Trudy Kockenlocker, a small-town gal who gets herself into a pile of trouble when she goes out dancing with soldiers against her father's orders. She ends up married and pregnant but doesn't know who the father is. The movie deals hilariously with her attempts to untangle the mess and her discovery that she loves the hero, a schnook named Orville Jones. 




There are many witty moments, among them Constable Kockenlocker's speech about daughters. "They're a mess no matter how you look at 'em, a headache till they get married-if they get married-and, after that, they get worse ... Either they leave their husbands and come back with four children and move into your guest room or their husband loses his job and the whole caboodle comes back. Or else th~y're so homely you can't get rid of them at all and they hang around the house like Spanish moss and shame you into an early grave." 


Kockenlocker, a far cry from Frank Capra's patented sentimental dads, is another screwball staple: the eccentric secondary figures, who are often funnier than the leads. The trend began in It Happened One Night, when Gable and Colbert are picked up by a farmer who likes to sing. When he learns they're not hungry, he improvises a song called "Young People in Love Are Very Seldom Hunnn-gry." 


On the long list of great supporting players, one of the best is gruff, thickheaded William Demarest. He plays Billdocker in Christmas inJuly (1940), Kockenlocker in Miracle and the Amazon explorer Muggsy in The Lady Eve (1941) who, disgusted by the effete eating habits of the rich people he is with, requests "a spoonful of milk, a raw pigeon's egg and four house flies. If you can't catch any, I'll settle for a cockroach." There's also the suave cardsharp  father (Charles Coburn) in The Lady Eve, and Wienie King (played by Robert Dudley) from The Palm Beach Story (1942). He doesn't hear well, but. speaks to the point: "I'm the Texas Wienie King. I invented the Texas Wienie. Layoff them-you'll live longer ... It's a good business, if you know where to get the meat cheap. That's my secret and I'm not telling." 


This kind of revealing disconnection is another key to the screwball, perhaps even more so than the sometimes overly complicated plots. Writer/director Sturges underlined that with his wonderful twist ending in The Palm Beach Story, a manic farce in which stolid Joel McCrea pursues runaway wife Claudette Colbert. She loves him but can't live with him because of his lack of money (she also thinks he'll be more successful without her). She meets millionaire lover John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), a man who gives 10 cent tips because "tipping is un-American" and says things like, "Chivalry is not only dead, it's decomposed. " His sister is zany Mary Astor who has a yen for McCrea. Suffice it to say, Sturges manages to get all four of them happily married in one of the neatest comic deus ex machinas ever put in a script. 


Sturges once concocted a list he called his "11 rules for box office appeal, " which is as revealing about screwball genius as anything any critic could write: 


A pretty girl is better than an ugly one. 

A leg is better than an arm. 

A bedroom is better than a living 


An arrival is better than a departure. 

A birth is better than a death. 

A chase is better than a chat. 

A dog is better than a landscape. 

A kitten is better than a dog. 

A baby is better than a kitten. 

A kiss is better than a baby. 

A pratfall is better than anything. 




Sturges' work was among the last wave, however. There were variations on the form – the Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy had already married it with mystery, and the fast-paced dialogue had been carried into such films noirs as Double Indemnity (1944) – but by 1945 the screwball era was over. As critic Pauline Kael adroitly observed: "By the end of the '30s, the jokes had soured. The comedies of the' 40s were heavy and pushy, straining for humor, and the comic impulse was misplaced or lost. The comic spirit of the '30s had been happily self-critical about America, the happiness born of the knowledge that in no other country were movies so free to be self-critical. It was the comedy of a country that didn't yet hate itself." 



There have been sporadic attempts to revive the genre, including Madonna's recent fling as a Marilyn Monroe/Judy Holliday type in Who's That Girl? The 1973 What's Up Doc?, an equally hollow film, has Ryan O'Neal playing the Cary Grant part from Bringing Up Baby and contains all the necessary elements-pursuit, misunderstandings, zany comedy-but none of the soul or imagination. 


Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, also with Madonna), Something Wild (1986) and After Hours (1986) stake a much better claim to being the screwballs' successors. Although lacking the crisp repartee, Susan took the form of the '30s comedies and gently updated it to the '80s, with sentiment, cynicism and even jabs at the idle wealthy. Jonathan Demme's Something Wild goes even further, cleverly elaborating on what has gone before. In it, a conservative banker meets a zany stranger who helps release the "real man" inside. There is also a misunderstanding, a separation and a reconciliation. But unlike the prewar films, this picture veers off into brutal, deadly madness. The heroine's husband is an ex-con who drags the protagonists into a horribly violent climax, as gripping and appropriate to these times as the zaniness of the original screwballs was to theirs. 


The 1980s screwball has fallen off into psychosis. Nowhere is this more evident than in After Hours. The bored protagonist, New York word processer Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) heads downtown for a blind date. What he finds is as insane as the best 1930s screwball adventure, beginning with a wild cab ride in which he loses all his money. The movie soon becomes a pursuit-not of a woman, but of an idea: getting home in one piece. 


There is a logic in After Hours, the logic of a nightmare, yet there is no romance and no transformation for the protagonist. In the 1930s, the screwballs offered audiences an escape, as well as hope for the future. A character in My Man Godfrey could look at the world with amusement, noting, "All you need for an (insane) asylum is a room and the right kind of people." In the 1980s, zaniness has become dangerous and the characters cry out, "Why do I deserve this? What have I done?" 


That's why people like Michele enchant me. Because they make me think of that wonderful moment in The Lady Eve when love is triumphant and Barbara Stanwyck asks her lover (Henry Fonda): "Why didn't you take me in your arms that day on the boat? Why did you let me go? Why did we have to go through all this nonsense? Don't you know you're the only man I ever loved, you big fathead? Don't you know I couldn't look at another man if I wanted to? Don't you know I've waited all my life for you, you big mug?"


VIDEO, November 1988