Clowning glories: Hollywood's screwball women

Kasia Boddy
13 March 2008

As part of the London-based Bird's Eye View film festival, the British Film Institute's Screwball Women season (until 27th March) provides a welcome introduction to a wide variety of talented "comediennes in classical Hollywood", both on and behind the screen. It's great to see Mae West performing her own dialogue in She Done Him Wrong (1933), and to be reminded of Anita Loos's 1925 novel, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, while watching Marilyn Monroe take on the role of Lorelei Lee in Howard Hawks's 1953 movie. But I'm not sure if all these women are really screwballs.

A Hollywood jewel

A narrower view of screwball would confine the term (adapted from baseball, and referring to a type of throw by the pitcher) to a group of comedies made in the 1930s and early forties, films which, as Kevin Jackson has put it, "crackled with Gatling-gun dialogue, sexual electricity, giddy action, florid eccentricity and startling moments of bleakness". For Jackson, the screwball phenomenon was short-lived, "never quite-rivaled" and "one of the jewels" of classical Hollywood (see Kevin Jackson "The Technical Term is ... Screwball Comedy", the Independent, 14 April 2000).

Some of the best screwballs were directed by Howard Hawks. In Bringing Up Baby (1938), co-written by Hagar Wilde, an heiress called Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn) is bemused at the behaviour of a paleontologist called David Huxley (Cary Grant). Why, she asks a passing psychiatrist, does David follow her around and then fight with her? "Well," says Dr. Lehman, "the love impulse in men very frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict". This was a theory that suited post-1934 Hollywood very well, as it coped with the enforcement of the Hays Production Code instituted four years. Although screwball comedy adhered to the letter of the law - "scenes of passion", adultery, and other "low , disgusting, unpleasant subjects" were banned - quite a lot of innuendo slipped past the censors, as it does in another Hawks comedy, His Girl Friday (1940):

Hildy (Rosalind Russell): Remember the time we stole Old Lady Haggerty's stomach off the coroner's physician ... We had to hide out for a week. Do you remember that? That's where, I mean, how . . .
Walter (Cary Grant): We could have gone to jail for that too, you know that.
Hildy: I guess so.

In these films, men and women express the ‘love impulse' by kicking, punching and, most of all, arguing at a furious pace. (Today characters exchange roughly 100 words a minute; in His Girl Friday, Grant and Russell average 240.) Cinema was in love with its new capacity to speak, but it's the quality as well as the quantity in these talkies that continues to impress. Screwball comedy had a refreshingly high estimate of its audience's intelligence.
This article is part of our coverage of the Bird's Eye View film festival, London 6-14 March 2008.

Also in openDemocracy on Bird's Eye View:

Kanishk Tharoor, "Getting close to Musharraf"

Grace Davies, "Persepolis: jasmine blossoms, bombs and Bruce Lee"
What is love?

Love, screwball says, is better if you're clever, cosmopolitan, physically dexterous, and perhaps a little childish. Although class difference often adds frisson to these Depression-era films, screwball tends toward a kind of meritocracy that cuts across social boundaries. Sometimes the woman leads the way, sometimes the man - literally, as well as metaphorically - and they always match each other drink for drink. When, in The Thin Man (1934), Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) discovers that her husband Nick (William Powell) is on his sixth martini, she asks the waiter to bring her another five. Screwball couples like to work together (solving crimes, reporting them, facing each other across the law court); they don't have children, although sometimes, they have a dog (The Thin Man; The Awful Truth) or a leopard (Bringing up Baby).

The screwball man, with whom the screwball woman is destined to end up, is often contrasted with a rival for her attention. The rival is usually kind, attentive and promises a life in the country and kids; a "half-way normal life", as Hildy puts it in His Girl Friday. On the verge of remarriage, Hildy still can't resist one last trip to the newspaper office where she was "one of the boys", working alongside her now ex-husband, Walter Burns. Now Walter insists on meeting the new man, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Accidentally on purpose, he reaches over and shakes his umbrella instead of his hand. 'You always carry an umbrella, Bruce?' he asks. 'Well, it looked a little cloudy this morning.' 'Rubbers too, I hope?' Walter persists, checking Baldwin's feet. 'Atta boy,' he concludes, 'A man ought to be prepared for any emergency.' Walter's comic routine is intended, of course, to reveal to his ex what a poor marital substitute she is getting. Baldwin is 'in the insurance business', a business that, Walter suggests, he takes home. Could Hildy really prefer a man who carries an umbrella and wears rubbers, to Walter, famous for a dimple that we don't see?

How to fake it

Screwball comedies celebrate the sophisticated art of faking it (a forgotten art today, in an era which values soul-bearing above all). Sometimes acting is just for fun - as when Katharine Hepburn decides to become Swinging Door Susie, a gangster's moll in Bringing Up Baby. But often pretence has a purpose, getting your own back. Con-artist Barbara Stanwyck masquerades as an English aristocrat to exact revenge on a snobbish Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve (1941). In The Awful Truth (1937), Irene Dunne tries to shock her soon-to-be ex-husband's prospective new in-laws by pretending to be his boozy sister. Fortunately, he recognises the act as one of love.

Carole Lombard was a particularly charming faker. In Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey (1936), she becomes desolate when she hears (mistakenly) that her new butler has a wife. She walks around the room, striking traditional movie-star languorous attitudes. Finally, her sister comments, "Oh I remember that pose so well. I learned it in dramatic school. It's number eight, isn't it? Am I spoiling your act, dear?" In Hawks's Twentieth Century (1934) Lombard plays an increasingly histrionic actress called Lily Garland (née Mildred Plotka). Her Svengali is Oscar Jaffe, played by John Barrymore. "You little fake," he screams at her at one point, "I taught you everything you know!". Twentieth Century, though, suggests that acting is a useful talent (and not just on the stage). The movie was written by Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur, and they confirmed their belief that a couple who can fake together belong together in Nothing Sacred (1937). Here Lombard plays Hazel Flagg, a Vermont watch factory worker who pretends to be fatally ill with radium poisoning in order to scam a trip to New York. When the reporter (Fredric March) who has been sent to cover her story finds out she's not sick, he thanks God she's a "fraud and a fake" and hopes they can "lie and cheat and swindle" through to their golden anniversary. He arranges a boxing match so that she'll look tired enough to fool the doctors.

Faking is always good for a laugh, but often it's an uneasy one. Acting, and reacting quickly, these movies suggest, are survival strategies which have developed in response to a screwball world. It's a madhouse, says father Bullock, of the family home in Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey (1936), and we see no reason to contradict him. There's a horse in the library, a musician doing a gorilla impression in the drawing room, and while the eldest daughter is alcoholically hallucinating an attack of the Pixies, her sister is prostrate with grief unequalled since the death of her Pomeranian because the new butler refuses to flirt with her. No wonder Mrs. Bullock is "very confused".

By the 1950s, it was all different. The world of George Cukor's Born Yesterday (1950) is as solid and functional as the marble edifices of Washington D.C. that the camera lovingly surveys. And although Billie (Judy Holliday) is a charming and funny heroine, she's no screwball. Apart from a wonderful scene in which she and her millionaire boyfriend, Harry (Broderick Crawford), play gin rummy extremely fast, the film trundles earnestly along. While screwball is all about bending and transcending conventions, Born Yesterday insists on an absolute adherence to rules (governmental, social and grammatical). Billie learns not to use double-negatives, not to live in sin, and that a corrupt Congressman is a very rare beast. She finally gets to talk back to Harry, but only with the help of a very large dictionary. It's pretty poor stuff. On offer is honest hard work, family, and plenty of Tom Paine's Common Sense, but no wit and no leopards.

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