A unique product of cultural, historical, and artistic conditions, the screwball comedy film was the quintessential genre of the mid-1930’s to the 1940’s and has proven to be both popular and enduring over the years. With roots in the classical farces seen on the theater stage, the screwball comedy is typified by a courtship-related plot centered around a strong female character and including elements of slapstick, class mobility, sexual innuendo, blurred gender roles, and witty banter.
Actors and actresses from Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn to Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert found wild success in the genre, and many consider their works in the screwball comedies of the era to be their finest. The genre also helped to immortalize the directorial accomplishments of Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, and Frank Capra, whose names would become synonymous with the screwball comedy. Here are the ten must-see screwball comedy films:
1. It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra)
It’s hard to imagine a more influential screwball comedy than Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, released by Columbia Pictures in 1934 and starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. While Colbert was sure that the film would flop, it went on to become the first film to win the “Big Five” Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Writing) at the 7th Annual Academy Awards.
A false start at the box office turned into the studio’s biggest success to date, becoming an immeasurably impactful film throughout popular culture. Elements of the film were clearly inspiration for Bugs Bunny, a character created six years after the film’s release, and Hollywood legend has it that Gable’s shirtless scene tanked undershirt sales across the country. Frank Capra’s status as a popular and in-demand filmmaker, particularly in the screwball comedy genre, was cemented by this perennial classic.
The plot is the prototype for the screwball comedy: a spoiled heiress runs away from his disapproving father after eloping with a fortune-hunter. While on the lam, she meets an out-of-work reporter who promises to bring her to her new husband if she gives him an exclusive story. During the ensuing misadventures of their road trip, the two fall in love.
Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression and poking fun at rich and poor alike, It Happened One Night is best remembered today for the “Walls of Jericho” scene in a motel room – the physical embodiment of the flimsy barriers between Gable’s and Colbert’s attraction – and the iconic “hitchhiking” scene, in which Colbert catches a ride with a risqué glimpse of her leg. Equal parts clever, endearing, provocative, and silly, It Happened One Night retains its freshness and lovability for audiences of every age.
2. The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)
The same year that Capra directed the archetypal screwball comedy, W.S. Van Dyke adapted a Dashiell Hammett murder mystery into a comedy that would help to strengthen and diversify the genre. William Powell and Myrna Loy, playing sophisticated and soused husband-and-wife sleuth team Nick and Nora Charles, established a magnetic onscreen rapport that would become one of Hollywood’s most successful and prolific pairings, including 14 total films and five Thin Man sequels. Replete with quick-witted banter, playful romance, and a touch of suspense, The Thin Man would lose out at the Academy Awards to the powerhouse It Happened One Night but remains a well-loved achievement inspiring many homages and worthy of multiple viewings.
Nick and Nora are trying to settle into retired life with their wire-haired fox terrier Asta when a friend (the film’s title character) disappears after a murder and is suspected of the crime by all but his daughter, who convinces Nick to take the case. Nick, Nora, and Asta build their case between many martinis and clever jibes, culminating in a now-legendary dinner-party reveal (which has since been referenced in both film and television). Despite the sophistication and style of the film production, the entire shoot lasted less than two weeks and was released within five months of the book’s initial publishing. Added to the National Film Registry in 1997, The Thin Man has been lauded for decades by film critics and moviegoers alike for its sleek dialogue, impeccable pacing, and superb acting.
3. My Man Godfrey (1936, Gregory La Cava)
Two years after The Thin Man, William Powell would star in another screwball classic, this time as a man at the other end of the social spectrum. Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey is yet another commentary on the Depression-era American experience, bridging topics like class stratification, family dysfunction, and social conscience. Co-starring Carole Lombard (to whom Powell had earlier been married), My Man Godfrey builds on a powerful cast of character actors (including screwball comedy staple Eugene Pallette) to sculpt a delightful film nominated for six Academy Awards, including the first to be nominated in all four acting categories (although missing the nomination for Best Picture, a dubious peculiarity).
My Man Godfrey is the screwball take on the “upstairs-downstairs” dynamic as an out-of-touch debutante and her sister find a “forgotten man” during a scavenger hunt at the city dump. After bringing him home, the bum astutely condemns the wealthy family for their shabby conduct, which gets him hired as the family butler. In this role, the butler Godfrey uses his streetwise wit and moral rectitude to turn the pampered and out-of-touch family on their heads, teaching them the realities of life and the meaning of true nobility.
Touching on serious issues (suicide, poverty, vindictiveness), the film is romantic without romanticizing the plight of those in need. Powell’s Godfrey is a realist, a shot in the arm to the aloof family who jars them from their comfortable naiveté. My Man Godfrey is an unique but hilarious masterwork of the screwball genre, earning it preservation by the National Film Registry in 1999.
4. Bringing Up Baby (1938, Howard Hawks)
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn appeared in four films together between 1938 and 1940, two of which are undeniable cornerstones of the screwball comedy genre. The first of these films was Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, the madcap tale of a milquetoast paleontologist tossed (Grant) by happenstance into misadventures with the clumsy but well-meaning niece (Hepburn) of his potential benefactor, her precocious terrier George (the same dog who played Asta in The Thin Man), and the film’s titular tame leopard.
Hawks had an immense and diverse portfolio, and Bringing Up Baby proved that he was as adept with comedy as he was with every other genre. Both Grant and Hepburn played against type in this film, with Grant testing his limits as a tame and stuffy nerd while Hepburn caricatured many of her onscreen predilections as a frenetic and absent-minded brat.
Unlike other films in the genre, Bringing Up Baby is all about the comedy and unapologetically zany, utilizing slapstick, pratfalls, wordplay, unabashed farce, and even cross-dressing (including what could be the first use of the term “gay” to refer to homosexual). From the dogged pursuit of the intercostal clavicle to singing Baby to ease to one of the most memorable “wardrobe malfunctions” on the silver screen, Bringing Up Baby is a consistently hilarious cinematic gem. At the time of its release, Bringing Up Baby found mixed reviews and tepid commercial reception at the box office, but found renewed success on television in the 1950’s and has since become an indisputable classic, earning preservation by the National Film Registry in 1990.
5. His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks)
Howard Hawks forsook the all-out bedlam of his previous screwball efforts (having taken the lesson from Bringing Up Baby that you couldn’t only have screwball characters) for a fast-talking, sophisticated, and cutthroat battle-of-the-sexes starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in one of the genre’s conventional dynamics – the remarriage courtship. Grant plays a ruthless newspaper chief using all means necessary to try to win back his adventuresome reporter ex-wife (Russell) from a boring insurance salesman (played to the note by Ralph Bellamy).
What makes His Girl Friday particularly memorable is its fast-paced, overlapping dialogue, with verbal parries and double entendre that played devilishly at the sexual tension between the characters. This style of direction and delivery would influence filmmakers from Woody Allen to Robert Altman.
As remarkable as the chemistry and timing Hawks captures in his cast’s skillful performances is the narrative backdrop upon which the romantic comedy is set. The device by which the kindling romance is set into motion is the escape of a convicted murderer on the eve of his execution and the corrupt city government that ignores his reprieve in order to project competence for an upcoming election.
More interested in the story than in justice, the reporters swarm and scheme about the fugitive in order to uncover the political corruption, all while Grant’s editor resorts to everything from false accusations to kidnapping to prevent his ex-wife’s marriage. Despite all of these seemingly ruthless elements, His Girl Friday remains pure screwball comedy, with farcical characters, surprising plot twists, and scathingly sarcastic repartee. Despite earning no Oscar nominations, His Girl Friday has remained beloved for decades and spawned numerous remakes and homages across genres.