6. The Philadelphia Story (1940, George Cukor)
Adapted from a smash 1939 theater production, The Philadelphia Story was the vehicle for the recovery of Katharine Hepburn’s film career after being dubbed “box office poison” in 1938. Working with producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Hepburn assembled a “dream team” of creative talent, including director George Cukor, screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, and co-stars James Stewart and Cary Grant.
The Philadelphia Story in many ways transcends the screwball genre, playing out the remarriage romance with class, wit, and sophistication brought by the exceptional script and nearly flawless performances of the entire cast. The film would go on to earn six Oscar nominations, winning for Best Screenplay and Best Actor (James Stewart, the only Best Actor Oscar he would win in his now-legendary career).
Once again emphasizing the disconnection of the upper classes from the simple pleasures of life, the film opens with the wordless but hysterical split of husband and wife (Grant and Hepburn), including the now-classic “face push.” Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a self-righteous and arrogant heiress poised to marry a second husband when her first beau, C.K. Dexter Haven (grant) crashes the wedding party, much to the chagrin of his former in-laws (save little sister Dinah, played perfectly by child actress Virginia Weidler).
Enter two tabloid journalists posing as wedding guests (James Stewart and Ruth Hussey) and the makings for a pitch-perfect farce are set. As the ceremony draws nearer, the heiress’s love, loyalty, honor, and virtue are questioned, challenged, and finally brought into focus. From start to finish, The Philadelphia Story is the exemplary ensemble comedy and one of the most beloved screwball comedies of the era.
7. The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)
Screwball dynamo Preston Sturges was known throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s as a consummate American filmmaker, writing and directing smart, literate, and daring romantic comedies which smoldered and wisecracked their way to box-office and critical success. While 1942’s Sullivan’s Travels may be his most profound and insightful film, The Lady Eve is his most well-remembered and beloved.
Starring Barbara Stanwyck in the “titular” role opposite Henry Fonda, this marked Sturges’ first major commercial hit, also garnering major critical acclaim for its expert execution and intelligent script. Speaking to the film’s singular charm, Roger Ebert claimed, “if I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve.”
Unlike most other screwball romances, the battle-of-the-sexes between Stanwyck (in her first major comedic role) and Fonda (in a pratfall-laden tour de force of slapstick) is a mostly one-sided struggle with the fairer sex having the upper hand. A father-daughter con team preys upon a naïve and dense heir to a brewery fortune upon a transatlantic ocean liner, seeking to fleece him at the card table. Seducing the innocent nerd, the daughter eventually falls for her quarry but loses him when her deceptions are revealed. Her compounding intrigues, first to extract the vengeance of a scorned woman but finally to win back her beau, make for a continuously charming and compelling film, flouting traditional gender roles both in the broader culture and in the genre specifically.
8. The Palm Beach Story (1942, Preston Sturges)
The last of Preston Sturges’ screwball comedies and considered by some to be the last pure film of the genre, The Palm Beach Story brings together Joel McCrea with the genre’s first leading lady, Claudette Colbert, to tell a wacky and witty film around the farcical traditions of mistaken identity and the folly of the rich entwined with the satirical analysis of the power of sex in the male-female dynamic.
While less critically lauded than other of Sturges’ romantic comedies (earning no Academy Award nominations), The Palm Beach Story pays off massive comedic dividends with an array of powerful and memorable character acting performances (including the scene-stealing Robert Dudley as the hard-of-hearing Wienie King with a heart of gold), engaging lead performances, and well-integrated musical numbers provided by Rudy Vallee.
The film begins with a comical but confusing prologue of a man and woman rushing to a wedding while simultaneously being prevented from attending said event. As the narrative unfurls, we learn that the couple, now wed for a few years, are struggling financially as well as personally, with the fortune-seeking wife believing that an amicable split would be best.
The husband, an inventor seeking funding for his newest idea (a system of cables suspended over cities upon which planes can land), vehemently opposes the split, which the wife claims will benefit him in the long run, as she plans to marry a rich second husband who can finance her first husband’s idea. She flees to Palm Beach, Florida, to obtain the divorce, on the way meeting eccentric millionaire Hackensacker (played by Vallee). Her husband arrives in pursuit, and what unfolds is a hysterical farce of deceptions, mistaken identities, and sexual tensions which culminate into a wholly implausible but entirely fitting finale which bookends the prologue.
9. To Be or Not to Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch)
One of the great appeals of the screwball comedy during the 1930’s and the 1940’s was its escapist quality, drawing the audience’s attentions safely yet comically towards the issues of the day, including the ravaging effects of the Great Depression on the working and lower classes and the growing war across the Atlantic.
While Chaplin had already used comedy to address the growing Nazi threat in 1940’s The Great Dictator, Ernest Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be tackled the topic at the outset of America’s involvement, a very risky endeavor made by a German-born director working in Hollywood. However, known for his sensitive directorial style, vivacious humor, and careful scripting (all dubbed part of “the Lubitsch touch”), Lubitsch was able to assemble a powerhouse cast and produce a gusty and farcical lampoon of the Third Reich.
Starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (who would die tragically in a plane crash before the film’s release), the film follows a Warsaw theater company from before the 1939 invasion of Poland into Nazi occupation, including a husband-and-wife team (Benny and Lombard) whose marriage gets tested by jealous pangs and a handsome young pilot, an actor convinced he can play Hitler, and a Jewish actor who gets to deliver the perfect Shakespearean speech to the Nazis (played by Lubitsch favorite Felix Bressart). The pilot’s return pulls the troupe into espionage and intrigue, blending black comedy and palpable suspense into a critically-adored masterwork of the highest political satire.
10. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, Frank Capra)
By the time this 1939 play adaptation was released in 1944 (although the film was shot in 1941 based on Cary Grant’s availability and was delayed in release until the stage play’s Broadway run had expired), the screwball comedy was generally considered to be on the decline with the Great Depression ending gradually with the American advent into World War II. This did not mark that audiences had lost all interest in the conventions of the genre, however, and many films during the WWII era and after would incorporate elements of the screwball comedy quite successfully.
Arsenic and Old Lace brought together screwball maestro Frank Capra and versatile leading man Cary Grant to make for a riotous madcap black comedy. Grant, having already proven himself adept to zany screwball comedy, delivers an unforgettably wacky leading performance, replete with over-the-top slapstick and perfectly executed double-takes.
Co-starring Josephine Hull and Jean Adair as the incredibly sweet aunts of Grant’s Mortimer Brewster, the film’s premise is a macabre one. A writer of “anti-marriage” diatribes finally falls in love and marries a preacher’s daughter on Halloween, bringing her home to meet his eccentric family, including the two elderly aunts who raised him and a brother who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt (played by John Alexander, who steals nearly every scene in which he appears).
Mortimer discovers a body in the window seat of the parlor, which his aunts explain is one of their “charities,” murdering old and lonely bachelors and burying them in the basement. When Mortimer’s “black sheep” brother arrives with his plastic surgeon (played by character actors Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre), the danger and farce crescendo into a hilariously dark comedy, all the time maintaining the wacky undercurrents of the screwball genre.
Author Bio: Christopher Peterson is a writer and musician with a masters in literature from Northwestern University. He has studied and written about film since his philosophy and english undergraduate studies at Roosevelt University. He currently lives outside of Chicago, where he writes both film analysis and fiction, including a film blog and a collection of 100-word flash fiction.