In the late 1930's and early 1940's, comedy in American movies was dominated by what came to be called screwball comedy. In Britain, the genre was known as crazy comedy, which British writer Leslie Halliwell defines as "seemingly adult people behaving in what society at the time thought was a completely irresponsible way" (Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion). My own conception of American screwball comedy is more specific than this.
For me screwball comedy has a classic trajectory. A character is forced to choose between two opposing alternatives. On the one hand is safety, conformity, and predictability; on the other is risk, idiosyncrasy, and unpredictability. Most often this choice is presented in romantic terms: a man or woman must choose between two possible love interests, each of whom represents one of these alternative ways of seeing the world and behaving. Typically, the main character initially chooses the safer, more conventional alternative. The movie, then, details how this person comes to change his or her mind and instead opts for the more adventurous alternative. This is invariably the resolution of the conflict, for Americans prize individuality (on the notional level at any rate) above all other character traits.
This basic situation is in truth not all that innovative. It is essentially an Americanized updating of the classic romantic dilemma created by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice, whose heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, must choose between the sanctimonious, asexual Mr. Collins and the rich, handsome, and intelligent Mr. Darcy. What transforms this traditional romantic dilemma into screwball comedy is the addition of the element of conformity versus nonconformity to the choices confronting the main character.
The first American screwball comedy is generally, and I believe rightly, considered to be Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934). So completely did this new kind of movie captivate audiences and the industry that the movie received all four major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, and Director), the first time this had ever happened and an accomplishment not to be repeated for more than forty years, by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). In Capra's movie, heiress Claudette Colbert runs away from her overprotective father to marry a fortune-hunter she has become infatuated with. Pursued by the kind of fast-talking, get-the-story-at-any-cost newspaper reporter (Clark Gable) who populated city rooms in the movies of the 1930's, the initially hostile Colbert is finally and reluctantly won over by Gable's working-class, no-nonsense, down-to-earth masculinity and bravado. He, in turn, comes to see her as more than just a spoiled, self-centered heiress out of touch with the realities of the world. In the end, she finally sees the unsuitability of her fortune-hunter and exchanges him for another man whom she at first found just as unsuitable, but finally comes to realize is actually just the right choice for her.
Capra is sometimes considered the King of Screwball Comedy, but except for You Can't Take It With You (and that movie is based on a popular play), he never really repeated anything approximating this formula again. Instead, he veered into making comedies with a social conscience and a more sentimental undertone, movies like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe. His attempt at black comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace (also based on a popular play), is a movie I find labored, overly frenetic, and at times almost tedious. (How many times can one watch Uncle Teddy race up the stairs yelling "Charge!" before the charm wears off?)
His last great work, It's a Wonderful Life, admittedly both a popular and artistic masterpiece, is a very melancholic movie that isn't really a comedy at all. A few Christmases ago, I watched a severely truncated version of this film on a Spanish-language TV channel. Running less than an hour in its entirety, it consisted mostly of the mid-section of the unedited film, the parts describing George Bailey's vision of what life would be like if he had indeed never been born and his horrified reactions when everyone he encounters really does treat him as though he had never existed. Everything before this was reduced to a couple of scenes, as was everything after. The effect was unnervingly like watching an especially macabre episode of The Twilight Zone.
A good example of the typical screwball comedy is the second version of Holiday (1938), directed by George Cukor. Here, when Cary Grant comes to meet the family of his rich, conventional, and dull fiancée, he unexpectedly encounters her alcoholic brother (Lew Ayres) and her rebellious sister (Katharine Hepburn). Both are suffering from an obvious case of inadequate parental affection and consciously chosen arrested development. (Much of the movie takes place in their childhood nursery, a place of refuge for these sibling misfits). By the end of the movie, they (especially Hepburn) have persuaded Grant to reject their sister and a life of comfortable but unexciting wealth as a drone in the family corporation. He opts instead to see the world and exchanges his original fiancée for the adventurous and unconventional Hepburn. One unsuitable mate is swapped for another who at first seemed unsuitable herself but turns out to be exactly right for Grant's newfound values and his newly acquired craving for excitement and unpredictability in life.
By about 1940, the screwball approach to comedy had become so ubiquitous, and had produced so many mediocre movies, that it was in real danger of running its course. The choice confronting the main characters in romantic comedies was becoming less and less one between freedom and conformity and was instead beginning to revert to the conventional romantic choice based on temperament and sexual attraction. (Of course, sex had always been an implicit element of the classic screwball comedy: Cary Grant is sexy, exciting, and slightly dangerous; Ralph Bellamy most definitely isn't.)
Filmmakers looking for ways to prolong the life of the genre, however, came up with inventive variations of the basic situation. In My Favorite Wife (1940) Cary Grant's first wife (Irene Dunne), missing at sea for several years and just declared legally dead, turns up right after his wedding to his second wife. This situation provokes many farcical complications, including an unanticipated attack of jealousy on the part of Grant when he meets the hunky athlete (Randolph Scott) Dunne was stranded on the island with, before Grant finally acknowledges that he is still in love with her. The deus ex machina of his second marriage being ruled invalid in court saves the day, and the couple (it was always apparent to the audience that temperamentally, Dunne is more suited to Grant than his second wife) are at last reunited.
In The Lady Eve (1941) the intrepid Preston Sturges gave Barbara Stanwyck a most unusual dual role. In this film she plays both potential love interests for nerdy herpetologist Henry Fonda—gold-digging conwoman Jean Harrington, who is rejected by the rich Fonda, and the fictitious British aristocrat Lady Eve, whom she creates and impersonates to ensnare him for revenge. Sturges took even more audacious liberties with the genre in his 1942 masterpiece The Palm Beach Story. Here Claudette Colbert leaves inventor Joel McCrea not only for personal reasons—his disbelieving jealousy when she accepts money from the "Wienie King" with no strings so that he can build his bizarre invention, an airport suspended over a city on a net—but for practical reasons as well: she wants to marry a millionaire to finance the invention. She becomes engaged to an effete, hare-brained millionaire (Rudy Vallee) while his sex-crazed sister (a hilarious Mary Astor) pursues McCrea when he follows Colbert to Florida. In an outrageously surreal denouement, everybody gets their cake and eats it too when it turns out that McCrea and Colbert are both identical twins (thus explaining the enigmatic prologue to the movie, which apparently shows Colbert pushing herself into a closet and locking the door before rushing off to marry McCrea). McCrea and Colbert re-marry while Vallee and Astor marry the twins, in a triple wedding.
By the early 1940's the worsening situation in Europe, the entry of the U.S. into WW II, and the end of the Depression (class distinctions and the conflict between the rich and the poor had from the beginning often been important issues in the genre) made the screwball approach to comedy seem frivolous and irrelevant. But for nearly ten years, beginning with It Happened One Night, screwball dominated the comedic output of the Hollywood studios with absolute authority.
My favorite screwball comedies (in alphabetical order):
The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey (1937)
Bringing Up Baby, Howard Hawks (1938)
His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks (1940)
It Happened One Night, Frank Capra (1934)
Midnight, Mitchell Leisen (1939)
My Man Godfrey, Gregory LaCava (1936)
The Palm Beach Story, Preston Sturges (1942)
The Philadelphia Story, George Cukor (1940)
Twentieth Century, Howard Hawks (1934)
Bachelor Mother, Garson Kanin (1939)
Holiday, George Cukor (1938)
The Lady Eve, Preston Sturges (1941)
The More the Merrier, George Stevens (1943)
My Favorite Wife, Garson Kanin (1940)
Theodora Goes Wild, Richard Boleslawski (1936)
You Can't Take It With You, Frank Capra (1938)
American-style screwball comedy never seemed to catch on in Britain, but one outstanding British example ranks with the best of the American films:
I Know Where I'm Going, Michael Powell (1945)