The golden age of Hollywood’s Screwball Comedies was during the 10-year run-up to World War II. Since that time many popular feature films have imitated the style of those battle-of-the-sexes comedies — a few quite effectively — but the best of this genre used the humor that was found in the class warfare that was in the air in the 1930s, in the midst of The Depression.
They were farces. The screenplays were well written. Usually static cameras focused on witty, attractive stars delivering their sarcastic lines. In the best of these wordy comedies traditional roles were stylishly mocked and the dignity of the common man was lauded. No doubt, audiences in that era enjoyed seeing rich people portrayed on the screen as foppish and unequipped to deal with problems everyday folks coped with all the time.
Then WWII’s stark headlines and the swelling of nationalism changed popular culture forever. Laughing at class warfare went out of style with real war being waged. Postwar movies that borrowed from the Screwball Comedy formula steadily became more explicit in their cuteness and sexual tension, but they usually lacked the fresh spirit of the classics.
Perhaps some of the fanciful Screwball Comedies of yesteryear still have a worthwhile message for today’s viewers, who may be struggling with the current economy’s impositions on their once more comfortable lifestyles.
As with previous columns, my five favorites aren’t offered as anything more than that, just favorites, as of today. Tomorrow I might drop one title in favor of another. If readers think a particular favorite of theirs should be considered, they are encouraged to comment. In spite of today’s hard times, commenting is still free at the James River Film Journal.
“His Girl Friday” (1940): Directed by Howard Hawks; Cast: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy
“My Man Godfrey” (1936): Directed by Gregory La Cava; Cast: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Eugene Pallette
“The Philadelphia Story” (1940): Directed by George Cukor; Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart
“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941): Directed by Preston Sturges; Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick
“You Can’t Take It With You” (1938): Directed by Frank Capra; Cast: Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart