The Children of Screwballs

the-thin-manMy Man Godfrey, Theodora Goes Wild. Bringing up Baby, His Girl Friday. Ask someone to identify the best of screwball comedy, or even screwballs themselves, and those are the answers you’re most likely to receive. Screwball comedy was born of unlikely parents: The Great Depression, and Joseph Breen and the Code, of which enforcement began in 1934, as Breen gleefully red-lined film after film, line after line. He believed American adults should be sheltered, protected from themselves, and that he, and only he, could define “suitable” entertainment. He nearly emasculated American film, and it became something of a sport to see what the writers could slip past his hyper-vigilant eye and sharp pencil.

Twentieth Century is generally considered the first real screwball comedy, which was defined by physical comedy, exaggeratedly zany characters, always focusing on the female lead, and situations that bordered on insanity. As the genre name indicates, one never knew where a screwball would go (except that it would have the code-mandated happy ending, and there would be no “relations” between consenting adults, a meaningless term if ever there was one during Breen’s reign). Twentieth Century starred Carole Lombard and John Barrymore, and its tone was set from the opening scene, escalating with every shot, every situation, until it was barely controlled chaos. Penned by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, directed by Howard Hawks, it slid the relationship between “Lily” and “Oscar” right past Breen, through skilled writing and brilliant acting. Were Lily and Oscar married? Breen must have thought so, but careful attention to the film reveals that they were not, and, like most screwballs, the verbal pace was such that the censors were surely dizzy by the end of the film, trying to decide if that was really said, if that character was truly blasphemous, and so forth. While Twentieth Century was not a commercial success, it launched the career of Carole Lombard, her first step toward the throne as Queen of the Screwball Comedy.

My Man Godfrey is perhaps the epitome of the screwball comedy – as Eugene Pallette, in character as Alexander Bullock, grumbles early in the film, “All you need to start an asylum is a room and the right kind of people”. Godfrey is perhaps the funniest film ever made – and it plopped Carole Lombard firmly on that throne, with her portrayal of Irene Bullock. Her straight man was William Powell, whose sanity is a wonderful contrast to the Bullock family. It has plenty of physical comedy, as did Twentieth Century – as well as subtle innuendo and writing that zips along like a son of a gun. The audience doesn’t have a chance to catch its breath between laughs. Lombard’s casting, at Powell’s insistence, was brilliant – this wonderfully intelligent woman plays a ditz as if ditzyness was a second skin.

Consider His Girl Friday, another MacArthur-Hecht play, but done with a twist, converting the part of the reporter (desperate to escape Walter, the boss, and get married) into a woman, Hildy, played by Rosalind Russell. It rivals My Man Godfrey for the funniest film made, with dialogue that was clocked at an unbelievable 400 words a minute at times, which was highly effective when it came to sneaking a few things past Breen and company. Take, for example, the exchange between Walter (Cary Grant) and Hildy, near the end of the film, when they are reflecting back on their past; they’d gone after a story, shortly before their marriage, and Hildy says “Remember the first time we…” and Walter walks over her line, replying “We could have gone to jail for that, too”. The physicality of the action rivals Twentieth Century, from Hildy throwing her purse at Walter to Hildy tackling the shady sheriff in the middle of a busy sidewalk as the condemned killer has escaped.

It was essential that the actresses who aspired to the heights of the screwball genre be willing to do anything from fall flat on their faces to executing a flying tackle – just try imagining Greta Garbo executing a flying tackle, for example. How many times in her screwball career was Carole Lombard drenched, kicked, and sent flying? Even Myrna Loy got into it, although The Thin Man is not considered a screwball comedy, it still has elements of it; merely consider Loy’s entrance at the beginning of the movie, when, loaded with Christmas toys packages, she’s hauled into a bar by Asta and falls flat on her face. The pace of the dialogue was equally essential. A screwball moved with the speed of a pitch, and just as uncertainly reached its destination, the American funny bone. It was a given that the situations be absurd – the sedate New England proper girl who writes near pornographic (by the standards of the time) novels in Theodora Goes Wild, or Hildy trying to keep her fiancé out of Walter’s clutches and thus jail in His Girl Friday, or Hazel Flagg trying to pull off a dying routine in Nothing Sacred so she could see New York City. It was truly a kingdom ruled by women; the leading men were led around by the nose by these wonderful women, who lived in the absurd as naturally as we live in our world. Very few actors seemed comfortable with their roles in screwball comedies, Cary Grant and William Powell being the outstanding exceptions, the rest did their best as straight men but could not shine in the glorious light of these marvelous comediennes. It was a kingdom that did not last long – it ended, with a few last gasps, in 1942, with the death of its queen and the Second World War. But it re-emerged with the advent of television, and it shone as brightly there against the rest of the network programming as its original did in the thirties and early forties.

It’s not surprising that Lucille Ball brought screwball comedy to the small screen, and with such high standards, maintaining the integrity of the original form. She and Carole Lombard were good friends; Lucille Ball often commented that when she was considering doing I Love Lucy, Carole would appear in her dreams and encourage her. I Love Lucy is without a doubt the daughter of screwball comedy, an extension, and like any child, while bearing marked similarities to its parents, it has its own personality. The handful of shows that were the offspring of screwball comedy all bear the essential marks – physical comedy, rapid dialogue, absurdity as normality, and strong women playing the leads. They differ vastly from “situational comedy”, which always featured a strong male lead, conventional domestic situations, and order in the house. Another daughter of the screwball genre was Laverne and Shirley, which showcased two strong women against a backdrop of males whose function was to be the straight men (even Lenny and Squiggy were “straight men” against the main backdrop of Laverne and Shirley’s world). These few shows were the last we were to see of a brilliant genre, and they made an effort to be true to their family history.

Screwball comedy gave us a “Bizarro” world, where everything was the same yet completely different, backward even, from reality as we assumed it to be. It gave Depression audiences laughter at the expense of the rich (for screwball characters were either rich or comfortable), allowed them to feel they were participating with the writers and cast in circumventing Breen’s efforts to swaddle them from reality as if they were small children needing to be sheltered, it gave them a glimpse of the wealthy (clothes, houses, social activities) and allowed them to feel a little better, even if subconsciously, about their own lives. Television, when recreating that screwball world, gave its audience the laughter, the strong women, and above all, the joy of the absurd, of life. That is the essence of screwball comedy – joy – the sheer joy of living, of laughing, loving, chasing dreams, the joy of an inner resourcefulness that enabled these women to get out of any predicament, and one is left with the nagging sense that they might not necessarily have chosen the men in their lives if the code hadn’t dictated an HEA – happily ever after – but might have continued on, wreaking joyous chaos wherever they went and leaving laughter and love in their wake. Created by social conditions, it will never truly come around again, but think of the joy it would bring once again to a world that is all too serious. It is missed, and who knows, perhaps if it’s needed once more, those lovely ditzes will ride out of the sunset and back into our lives, once again ordering things to fit their screwball vision of how life can be.