The screwball comedy is a genre of comedy which is unconventional, goes in different directions, and behaves in unexpected ways.
It has proven to be one of the most popular and enduring film genres. It first gained prominence in 1934 with It Happened One Night, and, although many film scholars would agree that its classic period ended sometime in the early 1940s, elements of the genre have persisted, or have been paid homage, in contemporary film.
While there is no authoritative list of the defining characteristics of the screwball comedy genre, films considered to be definitive of the genre usually feature farcical situations, a combination of slapstick with fast-paced repartee, and a plot involving courtship and marriage or remarriage. The film critic Andrew Sarris has defined the screwball comedy as “a sex comedy without the sex.”
Like farce, screwball comedies often involve mistaken identities or other circumstances in which a character or characters try to keep some important fact a secret. They also involve a central romantic story, usually in which the couple seem mismatched and even hostile to each other at first, and “meet cute” in some way. Often this mismatch comes about because the man is much further down the economic scale than the woman. The final marriage is often planned by the woman from the beginning, while the man doesn’t know at all.
Accordingly, these pictures also offered a kind of cultural escape valve: a safe battleground on which to explore serious issues like class under a comedic (and non-threatening) framework. Class issues are a strong component of screwball comedies: the upper class tend to be shown as idle and pampered, and have difficulty getting around in the real world. By contrast, when lower-class people attempt to pass themselves off as upper-class, they are able to do so with relative ease.
With this mini-season we present six screwball comedies showcasing the talents of six different actresses: Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyk and Ginger Rogers.
Hands Across the Table
Mitchell Leisen | USA | 1935 |80 minutes
Hotel manicurist Regi Allen (Carole Lombard) is a cynical golddigger who meets her match in Theodore ‘Ted’ Drew III. After a date with Ted, she lets him sleep on her couch when he’s too drunk to go further; but what is she to think when he wants to extend the arrangement?
Theodora Goes Wild
Richard Boleslawski | USA | 1936 | 94 minutes
The small-town prudes of Lynnfield are up in arms over ‘The Sinner,’ a sexy best-seller. They little suspect that author ‘Caroline Adams’ is really Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunn), scion of the town’s leading family. Michael Grant, devil-may-care book jacket illustrator, penetrates Theodora’s incognito and sets out to ‘free her’ from Lynnfield against her will. But Michael has a secret too, and gets a taste of his own medicine.
Mitchell Leisen | USA | 1937 | 88 minutes
J.B. Ball, a rich financier, gets fed up with his free-spending family. He takes his wife’s just-bought (very expensive) sable coat and throws it out the window, it lands on poor hard-working girl Mary Smith (Jean Arthur). But it isn’t so easy to just give away something so valuable, as he soon learns.
Mitchell Leisen | USA | 1939 |94 minutes
Showgirl Eve (Claudette Colbert), stranded in Paris without a sou, befriends taxi driver Tibor Czerny, then gives him the slip to crash a party. There she meets Helene Flammarion and her gigolo Picot, who’s attracted to Eve. Helene’s scheming husband Georges enlists Eve’s aid in taking Picot away from his wife. It works well… at first. Meanwhile, lovestruck Tibor searches for Eve. But then he learns she’s calling herself Baroness Czerny!
Ball of Fire
Howard Hawks | USA | 1941 | 111 minutes
Sexy, wisecracking nightclub singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) is a hot tomato who needs to be kept on ice: mobster boyfriend Joe Lilac is suspected of murder and Sugarpuss’ testimony could put him away. Naive Professor Bertram Potts meets Miss O’Shea while researching an article on slang and in true romantic comedy fashion the two worlds collide. When Miss O’Shea hides out with Potts and his fellow professors, everyone learns something new: the professors how to cha-cha and Potts the meaning of “yum-yum”!
William A Wellman | USA | 1942 | 75 minutes
To try and kick-start her show-business career, our titular heroine (Ginger Rogers) admits to a Chicago murder. But although Cook County don’t seem to let dames swing, and even with top slippery lawyer Billy Flynn, it’s all something of a gamble.