By David Raether, veteran TV writer and essayist
First of all, what is a screwball comedy?
While there is some debate among film critics as to whether the screwball comedy is an actual genre of comedy, most agree that it has the following features:
A battle of the sexes
The female lead is dominant and the male lead has his masculinity challenged
Fast-paced dialogue and farcical situations
Courtship and marriage are predominant themes
Dark undertones and some social commentary
They are completely fabulous
Okay, that last feature is one I added myself. I love, love, love screwball comedies, and if you’ve never seen one, you’re in for a treat. Screwball comedies were mainly produced in the 1930s and early ‘40s. Here are what I consider masterpieces of the screwball variety.
Only three films have won all “the big five” Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. This movie is one of them. (Extra credit to you if you knew that the other two are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs.) This is arguably one of the greatest American films of all time. Claudette Colbert plays a spoiled heiress fleeing her father’s opposition to her secret marriage to a playboy pilot. While on the run, she meets a street-smart tabloid reporter (Clark Gable) who helps her on an incident-filled road trip from her father’s luxurious yacht in Miami back to New York to reunite with her husband. Of course, along the way, the heiress and the reporter fall in love. Directed by Frank Capra, with a screenplay by his frequent screenwriting associate, Robert Riskin.
Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play a divorcing couple who are hell-bent on starting new lives apart… except for the fact that they keep interfering with each other’s new romantic entanglements. They can’t even agree on custody arrangements for their dog, Mr. Smith. The awful truth is that, of course, they really belong together. The screenplay is by one of the first woman screenwriters, Viña Delmar, who was nominated for an Academy Award for this brilliant script. Delmar was quite a controversial figure in her time. Primarily a novelist, she published a series of racy and gritty novels that honestly portrayed the lives of American urban women in the 1920s and early ‘30s. Leo McCarey won Best Director for his work on this snappy and utterly charming piece of beguiling fluff.
Pure joy as Katharine Hepburn plays a ditzy heiress (yes, another heiress!) with a pet leopard named Baby, while Cary Grant plays a stuffy paleontologist trying to assemble a dinosaur skeleton. Hepburn may have been the most beautiful woman ever in the movies; she’s breathtaking in this film. She was also the first woman to ever wear a pantsuit on-screen, thanks to this film. The great Howard Hawks directed, and the movie reportedly came in late and over budget because Hepburn and Grant kept bursting into uncontrollable fits of laughter during filming. The American Film Institute has ranked it as the 88th greatest American film of all time.
Not a lot of people know this movie, but it’s a real gem. First of all, it’s a comedy and stars Greta Garbo—not an actress whose name leaps to mind as a great screen comedienne. And yet she’s wonderful in this movie as a Russian spy who has been sent to Paris to retrieve three jewel thieves. Directed by the elegant German-American director Ernst Lubitsch off a script by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Walter Reisch, the movie was originally promoted with one of the best taglines ever used in cinema: “Garbo laughs.” You will too.
Director Peter Bogdanovich loved screwball comedies so much he decided to finally make his own. It’s a beauty to behold. Four matching plaid travel cases get mixed up at the Hotel Bristol in San Francisco. (“It’s the Hotel Bristol, ma’am, not the Hotel Crystal!”) A wild farce ensues that ends with a crazy car/bicycle/Chinese dragon parade costume chase through the streets of the city, with everyone ending up in San Francisco Bay. To quote Cole Porter, this movie “is the top, it’s the Louvre Museum, it’s the top, it’s the Coliseum.” Barbra Streisand is completely charming, Madeline Kahn is perfect, Kenneth Mars is laugh-out-loud funny, and Ryan O’Neal isn’t awful. What more could you ask for? How about a young Randy Quaid as a musicologist? It’s got that too!
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times is awaiting publication.