By Meaghan Walsh Gerard
By the 1930s, studios had figured out how to record sound. Along with a slew of decadent musicals (think Busby Berkeley or Fred and Ginger) came a slate of fast-talking, raucous comedies. Divorce-remarriage plots, fish out of water stories, and fierce, funny women all figure in the genre. These silly comedies of errors have heart, and they are still just as biting and edgy today.
A dry, nerdy paleontologist (Cary Grant) gets mixed up with a daffy socialite (Katherine Hepburn) when one of his prized dinosaur bones goes missing. The two step on one another’s toes in the hunt while trading quick one-liners. You almost have to watch it twice to catch all the jokes. Oh, and there is a pet leopard, played by an actual leopard.
Frank Capra is best known for his heavy, heartening dramas like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life, but this comedy with an unlikely ensemble cast is delightfully weird. Greedy corporate interests threaten to make the wacky Kirby family move, but an aww-shucks James Stewart, crazy inventor Lionel Barrymore, happy-go-lucky Jean Arthur and some impromptu living room dance parties prove to be too much for the money-hungry businessmen.
I’m embarrassed to say I only recently found this gem. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are getting a divorce but they have shared custody of their dog, Mr. Smith (who you might recognize as Asta from The Thin Man and as George in Bringing Up Baby – the dog had a good agent). The imposed visits allow the two to both drive one another crazy and drive away would-be suitors. Apparently Grant was uncomfortable with director Leo McCarey’s loose style, but it proved he could do improvisational comedy incredibly well and would rocket him to stardom.
The struggle of the average American during the Great Depression is on display in this comedy of manners. William Powell, living in a shantytown, is pressed into helping Carole Lombard with a scavenger hunt. He’s brought back to the mansion for the win, but Lombard is the only person who realizes what a rotten inequity it is that they are playing a game with his misfortune. She gives him a job as a butler but he becomes much more than that. Powell and Lombard had been married but divorced a couple of years before they filmed this movie, and their chemistry is still evident.
Believe it or not, William Powell and Myrna Loy had already starred in four smash hit films together when the made Libeled Lady (they made 14 altogether). Loy is accused of breaking up a marriage, which she denies and sues the newspaper for libel. Anxious to save their reputation, the newspaper hires Powell to trick Loy into a compromising meeting and embarrass her in to dropping the suit. It has the star-crossed, missed-connection sense of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as a hilarious performance from Jean Harlow, Powell’s wife at the time.
Released in 1940, though shot in 1939, no screwball comedy list is complete without His Girl Friday. Howard Hawks adapted the popular play The Front Page and put it in the capable hands of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Sparring over a newspaper scoop and their own love-hate relationship, Russell shines as a no-nonsense, whip-smart writer. Legend has it that His Girl Friday has twice as many words per minute of film than an average movie. Based on the pace of the flying barbs, it’s probably true.
Meaghan Walsh Gerard has been writing about films (especially classic ones) and books (especially gothic ones) for more than ten years on her site. She is obsessed with the art of storytelling and holds a master’s degree in cinema studies. Meaghan has been a DVD Netflix member since 2003. Follow Meaghan at mwgerard.com, on Twitter @mwgerard, or Facebook and Instagram.