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The Screwball Comedy

November 9, 2011

The Screwball Comedy

            Romantic films have always been highly significant as a genre, and it is clear to see why.  In theory, romantic films are great because they are relatively easy to film and consistently bring in a decent audience.  It is a widespread genre, though.  Today, there is no doubt that romantic comedies are a staple of the film industry, the comedic moments appealing to those who might not normally sit through a romantic film.  However, before the romantic comedies popular today were around, there was another, somewhat similar genre – the screwball comedy.  The screwball comedy period occurred relatively early in filmmaking history, starting around the 1930s and continuing for only about ten years, and it is interesting to look at the films made during that time and how they started, shifted, and adapted.

            It Happened One Night and The Lady Eve, created on opposite ends of this initial timeframe, are both considered classic screwball comedies.  Yet these two films, both on the cusp of the screwball comedy age, are also vastly different from other films made during the era.  Both films show definite characteristics of a screwball comedy, but are those characteristics enough to definitively place the films into the genre?

There are a number of different ways to define what makes a film a screwball comedy, the main two being how it uses romance and how it uses comedy.  It should be a romantic film, but it is key that these characters are not looking for love.  In fact, there is usually something preventing a relationship from occurring, such as an outside marriage.  The characters who are the romantic leads will not immediately get along; in fact, their conflicting personalities are one of the most definitive aspects of a screwball comedy.  They should seem mismatched in nearly every aspect of their nature, which is part of what creates the comedy.  The comedy is usually a mixture of euphemisms and innuendos to work around censorship, but also quirky, farcical humor.  Slapstick, wordplay, and bizarre circumstances are common in these films.  In effect, screwball comedy is all about mixing a reluctant romance storyline with zany, sometimes nonsensical humor.

It Happened One Night was one of the earliest screwball comedies and, as such, earns a little leeway, as it would be one of the films that help define the genre.  This film features down on his luck reporter Peter and runaway heiress Ellie whose paths happen to cross as Ellie tries to escape from her father’s thumb and meet up with her husband, King Westley.  To be fair, the film does showcase many of the well-known aspects of a screwball comedy.  The two leads are from different walks of life and despise each other almost instantly, as Ellie accidently takes the seat Peter just fought for.  The introduction alone highlights the initial relationship of Peter and Ellie.  In fact, the very first words he says to her are, “That upon which you sit is mine,” a double entendre of course, which she responds to with polite bewilderedness, and then tells her to scram.  She holds her own, calling out to the driver who Peter has already managed to anger, and the two end up sitting together in anger.  Throughout their comedic misadventures, including a zany moment where they pretend to be an arguing married couple, the two realize that they work well together and actually appreciate each other to the point where Ellie leaves King Westley at the altar and runs after Peter for a happy ending.

It does represent many of the well-known aspects of the screwball comedies.  Typically, one of the leads is already involved, but it is not a good union and the audience hopes for its end.  In this case, Ellie is already involved when Peter meets her, but it is revealed that she is with King Westley because he is literally the first person she met who wasn’t controlled by her father and is, in fact, a gold digger of sorts.  The films also have leads who fight a lot but also work well together, showing that they have passion but are complimentary.  Peter and Ellie are constantly fighting but, on several occasions, work in tandem, such as when Peter plays the angry husband to Ellie’s crying wife to put the authorities of their trail.  There are even several instances where they contribute some skill to prolog there adventure, such as Ellie’s hitchhiking method or Peter’s general survival skills.  This part is a little uneven because Peter does seem to contribute to their survival a lot more and is constantly acting as Ellie’s babysitter.  Actually, this is where it seems to deviate a little from the screwball genre.

Generally, many of the screwball comedies show a screwball character – screwball here referring to the zany, impractical, and often female – who is basically unleashed upon the poor, unsuspecting sane character, who is usually male.  Wes D. Gehring describes it as “the eccentric, female-dominated courtship of the American rich, with the male target seldom being informed that open season had arrived” (178).  Usually, this interplay is where much of the over-the-top farcical humor comes from, and it is suspiciously lacking in It Happened One Night.

While the film is certainly not lacking in innuendo and witticisms, much of the humor is low-key.  The audience certainly laughs when Ellie almost sits on Peter’s hand or when Peter begins to strip in front of the naïve Ellie, but it is usually an understated, implied humor than the fantastic, exaggerated humor in other films.  There is also very little slapstick in the film, with only a few moments such as Oscar Shapeley’s mad run in the woods.  Mostly though, the reason this film is somewhat hard to categorize as screwball because it is quite dramatic in nature.  Misunderstandings, like Peter leaving to get money and Ellie waking up to find him gone, do not lead to crazy misadventures, but rather tears, anger, and a near-wedding spurred on by deep feelings of betrayal.  At times, the film just seems too serious to be any sort of comedy, much less a screwball comedy.  The most farcical character actually seems to be Kind Westley, who arrives at his wedding in an autogyro, but he is just portrayed as a smug snake.  Ellie, at times, shows hints of comedy, especially when she acts in childish glee, like when she is learning to dunk her donuts or complaining about Peter’s piggyback method, but she is normally shot down in those moments.  While It Happened One Night might be an example of a technical screwball comedy, it certainly is a fringe example that seems to lacks the comedic spirit of the genre.

The Lady Eve, on the other hand, appears to be much screwier in nature.  The characters are more exaggerated and comedic, with Charlie as a rather dim prince charming and Jean as the wicked seductress.  Unlike It Happened One Night, this film is obviously a comedy with many hilarious gags, such as when Jean finds out that Charlie was being literal when he mentioned his snake (and this comedy does include dirty innuendos) and ran screaming all the way back to her room.  There are also a number of physical comedy that was lacking in the other film, one noticeable scene when the audience sees the reintroduction of Jean as Eve and Charlie spends the dinner tripping over objects and himself while managing to need to change clothes three times.  He cannot even get through a proposal without a horse shoving at his face every two seconds.  Comedy is not the issue in this movie.  What is the issue is the lack of a screwball romance.

On paper, the romance between Jean and Charlie should work out like most screwball comedies, but it just does not have that end effect.  For one thing, part of a screwball romance is the situational aspect of it, as the meeting and the following actions could not occur every day and only happen because of some random happenstance.  In this film, though, Jean manufactures the romance.  They scour the passenger lists to see who is coming on with the big money and then manipulate Charlie into falling in love.  Not only is it something that could happen every more than once, but it is something she has done many times in the past.  When Jean, in the guise of Eve, is listing all of her past lovers, she could have just as easily been naming all the men she had targeted and tricked into loving her in the past.  More than that, it does happen again at the end of the film as they see each other again on trip.

Another issue that marks The Lady Eve against screwball comedies is the nature and equality of the characters.  It is not a strict rule that the characters have to be completely equal; in fact, the nature of these films works against that.  Yet, their differences should work for them not against them.  The slapstick, over-the-top humor in these films are important, but more so is the verbal repertoire between the characters.  The stuffy, absentminded professor might not be able to completely understand the quirky female who just jumped into his life, he might not even be able to hold his own, but he needs to be able to at least try, to at least stand his ground a little.  But in this film, he never even knows he is supposed to be standing.  Charlie is not like Peter Warne or Ellie Andrews or even King Westley, but more closely relates to the bus driver who could only respond, “Oh, yeah?”

Jean is not exactly the model female character, either.  It is not that she starts out with wicked intentions; after all, the same could loosely be said about Peter Warne.  But part of the nature of screwball comedies is that they are couples that appear mismatched but ending up helping each other and growing, at least in theory.  Jean strings Charlie along through most, if not all, of the film, and the only thing she does for his benefit is preventing him from being fleeced – which is really just undoing her own job.  Even then, because she feels betrayed that he does not believe she turned a new leaf, she ends up fleecing him again.  Unlike others in this genre, she is not pulling him away from becoming to stuffy and serious or introducing some new spark to his life, but rather just joining him in it and becoming a kept woman.  She is not even pulling him away from a bad pairing, as the closest thing he has to one is with her alter-ego.  Kelli Marshall says that both leads must be active and passive subjects at some point, and, unfortunately, The Lady Eve, just does not accomplish that with its characters (13).  The Lady Eve, then, seems to hit all the right comedic notes, but falls flat on romance portion, which is really the most important part.

It is surprising, then, that a film created thirty years later could understand what it means to be a screwball comedy.  What’s Up, Doc was created as a clear homage to the screwball genre, so it is no wonder that it is a perfect representation.  The two leads are each wacky in their own way, whether it is Howard and his love of musical rocks or Judy and her general zaniness, but they work together and play off each other in a funny but natural way.  Their adventure occurs through incredibly unlikely circumstances, in this case four identical suitcases carrying varying degrees of important items, and the search for money.  When Judy barges into his life, Howard reacts not with the gentle ease of Charlie, with whom he does share some similarities, but with a bewildered hostility.  As he slowly learns of the sort of chaos she brings with her, he tries harder and harder to push her away, which creates some hysterical physical and visual jokes.  While the entire chase scene through San Francesco delves deeper and deeper into its own craziness, to the point where Howard cleans his glasses to see what is going on and then immediately chucks them out the window, even just sitting at a table becomes hilarious as the entire table ducks underneath for a quick chat.

While their initial meeting begins with conflict and hilarity, Howard gradually learns more about Judy and she begins to help him for his sake rather than hers.  Somewhere between him shoving her out a window and his hotel room burning up, they start to honestly appreciate each other and the audience can actually start to see Howard begin to pull away from Eunice, Howard’s boring, nagging fiancée.  Somewhere between destroying hotels, stealing important bags, and destroying a city, Howard and Judy really do fall in love with each other, complete with plane ride kiss.  And, in typical screwball comedy fashion, everybody even remotely sympathetic ends up with a happy ending.

When an audience views a film, it may not always be apparent how to categorize the film.  It is hard to measure certain attributes, like how far-fetched the situation or physical the comedy should be.  On a whole, it seems important for a screwball comedy to be somewhat nonsensical and, well, screwy, but it is rather hard to quantify or measure that in a film.  It Happened One Night is certainly on the more serious, dramatic end of the screwball spectrum, but, though a little loose, it does fit in there.  And a film like What’s Up, Doc, though made many years later, is a perfect addition.  But a film like The Lady Eve, that shows the slapstick and the innuendos typical for screwball comedy, just does not work on a romantic level.  A screwball needs both fantastic comedy and the mismatched but true love, and The Lady Eve only has one.

It is important that each character is able to stand on their own, that each one brings something to the relationship on an emotional level, that the relationship stands the test of honesty.  During The Lady Eve, a greater comparison can be made between Jean and King Westley or Jean and Eunice than the other leading ladies.  It is not because Jean is worldly and Charlie is naïve, as Peter and Ellie overcame that.  Or that Jean starts off with less than honorable, because Peter overcame that as well.  They could even pull through the mismatched nature of Charlie’s love of snakes and Jean’s love of money, because Howard spoke stone and Judy also pulled a few cons.  Unlike the other films where the two leads fought against their connection the entire film, only to pull together at the end, Jean and Charlie were together right off the bat and kept being pulled a part.  Where circumstances pushed the others together, it continually pulled those two apart.  Jean and Charlie only connected honestly once in the entire film, after Charlie first discovered the truth about Jean in the form of the photographs, and, in this one moment of truth, they separated.  It was only through lies and treachery that they came back together, and the audience does not know how the relationship truly ends.  Unlike It Happened One Night and What’s Up, Doc, where honesty, passion, and an unlikely complimentary nature leads to a happy ending; The Lady Eve uses manipulation, power, and the promise of a dull but safe future to create a film that uses comedic moments of screwball antics, but is not a screwball comedy.

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