With the possible exception of the Western movie and Film Noir, the American screwball comedy, that hilarious, often chaotic and highly witty style of making excellent and funny entertainment, probably is the third best liked or popular genre associated with movies made in 1940s US. It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934) is very likely the first production in a long line of films associated with that genre.
French author Grégoire Halbout, Emeritus Associate Professor of English and Cinema at the University of Tours, France in 2013 completed his Film Studies degree with La comédie screwball hollywoodienne 1934-1945: Sexe, amour et idéaux démocratiques. Nine yeas later, there finally was an English translation of that work. The book at hand is the first paperback edition. Inspired by the writings of Stanley Cavell on the topic, Halbout unfolds, criticizes and celebrates the genre that at first sight may be simply good entertainment and another example of the battle of the sexes. Naturally, his point of view is not just one of a movie fan, as he dissects the various plots of the roughly 140 movies mentioned here in terms of philosophical and political approaches.
For example, several (often highly twisted and complicated) approaches of the protagonists to realize their individual ‘pursuits of happiness.’ Be they out to win his or her heart, conquer back an old flame, marry or marry again, plots further complicated by funny and epic consequences of mistaken identities, roles and so forth. All of that is usually most realistic, but the individuals we encounter on the screen on their way to reach a state of happiness not only have our sympathies while we suffer and laugh with them. We also insist that they have every right to do so (in the strict sense of the promise to pursue it as American citizens) and besides, we agree mostly that strict public codes or role models are not necessarily to be obeyed.
“Screwball comedy prospered in a time of economic crisis and social upheaval [the 1930s], marked by a loss of confidence in the elites and in the system. … If prosperity, now in peril, was the guarantor of the individual’s well-being, those hopes were slim, and the solution might be found through withdrawal into the private space of the conjugal unit …” As a matter of fact, the great majority of themes and characters take place within the limits of the urban housing community, with the protagonists as married/engaged couple. That couple would fight, love, marry, divorce, marry again and whose lives and actions were centered around the other person, the match which would not or almost not realize that getting together meant happiness, at least on a personal level.
But why would the success of the genre continue for more than a decade? Halbout suggests that the comedies, and the huge popularity with audiences were “part of the reaffirmation of an American democracy based on ideals. … Through the romantic ideals, we can grasp the symbolic power of these films for audiences of the 1930s – 1940s, observing their quest for an improvable world to conform with their vision of an exemplary democracy. Filmmakers and audiences were united in this idea that the world was improvable through film.”
Besides from being very entertaining, the films also offer an endless repertoire of slapstick, practical jokes, and street language of the period.
They, furthermore, inform about every (private) detail of family life, expectations of future husband and wife, and how, on the other hand, such a couple would perform in public, at work or anywhere outside the coziness of the urban apartment. There were things that simply would not be tolerated by the public. Couples were expected to obey an unwritten code, in a way.
We must not forget that cinema in the 1930s already replaced radio as the most popular form of mass entertainment. In this respect, movies were the most important media to transport ideas, criticism or anything the studios deemed either important or worth cashing in on. And the genre functioned as a “… communal vision of utopian ideals and, with screwball comedy, in particular, to a dream of the individual’s emancipation from the collective.”
Additionally, American movies as early as 1930 had to deal with massive censorship of what was shown, said or communicated. That code, the Hays Code, was very real and strict regulations made open mention of several topics such as infidelity, police corruption, sex, certain political beliefs and more almost impossible. To avoid censorship, a strong shift to allusions, wordplay, and use of popular slang of the 1930s and 1940s was employed. In general, there was a war of sorts going on. As almost all movies under consideration here are set on American soil, portray (private) dealings, arrangements, as well as common discussions and events that took place between engaged or married couples; however, actors representing them were not permitted to voice half of what they actually wanted to say to get the story going. Hence, rapid dialogue soaked with wordplay – one of the trademarks of the genre – in a way substituted certain screen action.
“….Hollywood and … the middle class were on the same wavelength when it came to the depiction of their aspirations in the realm of private life, beyond the wall erected by conservative elements. The conflict was between two opposing views of the role of the elites and of cinema’s cultural and social responsibilities: on one side, conservative ideological and religious currents, embodied by the Hayes Office, on the other side, the studios and their artists, conscious of being charged with a social and political mission and a responsibility to deliver a message within the American democratic arena.”
As the screwball comedies covered different important stages of American 20th century history and social change, both the Depression years, the war years, and more or less the better part of the Roosevelt era, the films also preserved and illustrate several other details. While American society changed, so did the movies and their emphasis. Like the respective (and highly specified) characteristics of female and male identity, sexuality, mindsets and typical male-female relationships; and the countless ways to test them, which ended in new encounters, quarrels, dates, engagements, marriage, divorces and anything in between. Besides mentioning the many similarities, canonical features as well as differences to other US film genres, Halbout approaches two decades of American public life and major political, democratic, economic and social questions in great detail.
The almost 140 movies he lists to make his many points (all listed in the eight-page filmography of the annex) are approached by inter textual, structural and functional methods, that inform the three main chapters of his book. (Among them such masterpieces as Bringing Up Baby, The Palm Beach Story, Love Is News, When Harry Met Sally, Too Many Husbands, No Time For Love, Bluebeard’s Eight Wife, My Favorite Wife, The Mad Miss Manton, My Man Godfrey, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, His Girl Friday, and Second Honeymoon.)
A large number of other positions related to the comedies, such as marriage in the 1930s, democratic spaces as identified in the movie plots, censorship and purified language on the screen, and origins of the genre are discussed along the way. Halbout’s points are illustrated by more than 40 b/w movie stills.
It turns out that the screwball comedy is also readable as highly liberating and American enterprise to reestablish personal autonomy and have the nucleus of a free society, the couple, or husband and wife, negotiate democratic bonds as such. “In this way, Hollywood cinema officially recognized the primacy of the private over the public sphere. Innovative and eminently American, this discourse anticipated questions about the perception and practice of democracy in Western societies.”
Hollywood Screwball Comedy 1934-1945: Sex, Love, and Democratic Ideals is a very dense and detailed study of this film genre of the 1930s and 1940s. Highly recommended for movie fans and scholars of American Studies. And as an extra, you will want to watch all of those lovely, lovely movies again. Get ready to watch and follow Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, Cary Grant and many other first-rate actors from the Golden Age negotiate democratic ideas, break down private life and public spheres.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2023
Grégoire Halbout. Hollywood Screwball Comedy 1934-1945: Sex, Love, and Democratic Ideals. Bloomsbury Academic, 2023, 352 p.