Five Classic Screwball Comedies

Scott Wallace
10th Feb 2016

There’s a breed of movie that they just don’t make anymore. The screwball comedy dominated the box office from the early 30’s (when it provided some light-hearted relief from the effects of the Great Depression) until the mid 40’s. Full of rapid-fire dialogue, irreverent humour, absurd characters and tightly wound plots full of confusion and coincidence, nothing beats classic screwball.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Not the first screwball picture, but the first to be a roaring success, It Happened One Night won all five major Academy Awards (Best Actress, Actor, Screenplay, Director and Picture), which has only been done by two other films. Frank Capra, who would go on to make movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, directed this sexy and fun battle-of-the-sexes. The film stars Claudette Colbert as spoiled socialite Ellie Andrews, and Clark Gable as the charming newspaperman Peter Warne with whom she falls in love while trying to escape her controlling father and be reunited with her fiancé. Fast-paced and risqué (for the time), It Happened One Night hits like a bolt of lightning.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Not a box office success when it first came out, Howard Hawks’ classic screwball is now revered as one of the greatest films ever made. Katharine Hepburn has remarkable comic timing as Susan Vance, a free-spirited, but somewhat ditzy young woman who meets uptight palaeontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) on a golf course and proceeds to make his life difficult. When she calls him the day after offering him the ownership of a leopard called Baby, a chain of events is set in motion that brings the pair closer than either of them ever wanted. Grant and Hepburn’s performances make this one of the most dazzling movies on this list, with sparkling dialogue filling every single scene and the laughs coming hard and fast.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Hepburn and Grant were reunited for this more demure (but no less fun) George Cukor picture, based on the play of the same name by Philip Barry. Beginning with heiress Tracy Lord (Hepburn) kicking now ex-husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Grant) out of her house, the film goes on to tell the story of the few days leading up to Tracy’s re-marriage to the wealthy George Kittredge (John Howard). Of course, Dexter has plans of his own, and gets newspaper reporter Mike Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) involved undercover and all hell breaks loose. The Philadelphia Story is among the smartest and most delicate screwball movies. The performances, particularly Stewart and Hussey are top notch, and you will find something new to love each time you watch it.

The Lady Eve (1941)

Boats, trains and scheming dames abound in The Lady Eve. Director Preston Sturges’ distinctive take on comedy is at once both sentimental and silly – a romantic comedy with fire in its belly. Bad gal Barbara Stanwyck stars as Jean Harrington, who, along with her father (Charles Coburn), plots to swindle wealthy and accident-prone brewer’s son Charlie Pike (Henry Fonda) while they are on a cruise ship together. What Jean didn’t count on, though, was falling in love. After Charlie finds out her identity, her solution is to take on a new one, and the “Lady Eve” swindles him all over again – or so it seems. From its great animated title sequence down to its smart and playful Biblical allusions, The Lady Eve is a clever and original Hollywood classic.

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

A screwball comedy about Nazis; Yes, that happened. Carole Lombard (in her last role) and Jack Benny star in this classic Ernst Lubitsch film about a Polish theatre troupe that find themselves embroiled in a plot to fight back against the occupying Nazi forces. To Be or Not to Be is hard to sum up, so much mistaken identity, wilful deception, double crossing and poignant soliloquising happen in it. Legend is that Carole Lombard was the first person to whom “screwball” was used to refer in the cinema, and she more than earns the title here as Maria, the bold and bright actress. The whole cast is superb, and manage to wring a huge amount of pathos out of the film – which casts then-recent horrifying events in a brighter light – while still making the audience laugh at every turn. A masterpiece.