The term “screwball comedy” is rumored to come from the baseball term “screwball,” describing either an oddball player or any pitched ball that moved in an unusual way—an apt name for a genre that embraces the absurd with zany, free-spirited characters, broad physical comedy and ludicrous events all relayed in a highly farcical nature.
Emerging in the 1930s, a decade defined by the Depression and plagued by a staggering divorce rate, screwballs proved a profitable solution for getting love-wary and cash-strapped audiences back into the theaters.
Unlike conventional romantic comedies, where the focus remains first and foremost on love, screwballs adopted a more relaxed attitude toward romantic couplings that, in some but not all entries, afforded the heroines more agency in their romantic fate. Suddenly romantic love was not a mere means to marriage and baby-making but a thrilling, impassioned adventure that served as its own reward. These films also incorporated physical comedy with fast-paced, bawdy repartee, outrageous antics, and comically volatile clashes of class and gender—in short, a rollicking good time.
Many also featured feisty, independent female protagonists driving the story, a positive step forward indeed. But for all their good, screwballs have their bad elements too, and some are downright ugly. Let’s have a look at each:
The Screwball Heroine: This memorable lady was a major boon for feminism. She could be anything from a runaway heiress, to a crack newspaper reporter, to a con woman or, in one case, a factory worker who believes she’s dying of radium poisoning. She’s fast-talking, impulsive and not afraid to go after what she wants—which in no example that comes to mind ever includes motherhood. Granted, Nora Charles of the THIN MAN series does give birth in the third of six films. However, the kid serves as little more than the occasional set piece, overshadowed by the couple’s enthusiasm for each other, ample booze and their beloved dog, Asta.
Equitable Romance: Author Leger Grindon makes an apt point in his book “Romantic Comedy” when he says, “The screwball romances recognized the equality of men and women in love rather than relegating them to separate spheres.” While the screwball romance is born of adversarial flirtation, it is less a battle of the sexes than a titillating game of cat and mouse, where both players assume both roles. This immediacy not only allows the characters, and thus the audience, to live in the moment rather than pining for an endgame goal –i.e. marriage—but it also evens the playing field both on and off the screen, which brings us to one of the best qualities of the screwball film.
Broader Audience Appeal: While many, though not all, screwballs are female-driven, the playful balance of power between the sexes prevents them from being labeled “chick flicks.” These films weren’t designed to appeal exclusively to men or to women, creating a less polarizing effect in audience response.
Typical Hollywood Endings: Alas, too many screwballs drop the gender enlightenment ball by the film’s end, when the feisty, independent heroine is restored to her proper submissive state, if not in deference to her mate, then to the patriarchy in general. One of the most egregious examples of this trend can be found in WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942). In it, an unimaginably successful, award-winning, multi-lingual political affairs columnist willingly relinquishes her identity to become a full-time wife to her insecure husband who takes great joy in belittling her as she humiliates herself in failed attempts to cook him a simple breakfast. Shudder.
Violence as a means to subdue women: Screwballs have violent tendencies in a vein not unlike the slapstick of The Three Stooges. And while it’s one thing to see a woman slap a man and a man slap her back in in the context of a union of equals where such behavior is not only accepted but expected, it’s another thing entirely to have a man backhand a woman to put her in her place, demean her with corporal punishment as if she’s a child, or as we see in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940), thrown to the ground for acting out. Similarly, in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) Clark Gable’s character Peter Warne, the man our heroine chooses to marry, convinces her father he’s the man for her by saying, “What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not.” The fact that such things are made light of because it’s a “comedy” only adds to the deleterious effect.
Insulting Depictions of Race and the Lower Classes: This one’s more a symptom of the era than the specific genre, but it still bears mentioning that screwballs, despite their raised awareness regarding gender equality and arguments for social justice, often depict characters from lower economic classes—especially domestic staff, and most particularly Black domestic staff—as simple-minded, clumsy buffoons. Likewise, there is no shortage of horribly racist language amidst the lightning-fast dialogue which can seriously impair one’s enjoyment of some otherwise delightful films, most notably (and painfully, because these films boast so many other wonderful qualities) are YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938) and HIS GIRL FRIDAY.
A Trend Toward Increasing Power Struggles Between the Sexes:
As disturbed as I was by WOMAN OF THE YEAR, I think I was even more perturbed by
I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE (1949), a remarkably unfunny film where the admittedly sexist pig male love interest is so relentlessly belittled and humiliated by his female mate, it felt more like a revenge flick against the patriarchy than a romantic comedy—which foreshadows trends we’ll see next time when we delve into the ultra-polarizing Romantic Comedies of the 50s and 60s. Though historians dub these as “Battle of the Sexes” films, based on many I’ve watched thus far (and several I’ve found too painful to finish), I’d be quicker to dub them as horror films. So, brace yourself. Next up from me— “Attack of the Playboys, Virgins & Golddiggers from the (mostly) Terrifying 50s & 60s.”
© 2018 BeyondTheBechdel. All Rights Reserved.