Many things happened during the 1930s. The first FIFA World Cup ever was held in Uruguay and won by its host. The Nazi Party won the German federal elections, an event which would eventually lead to World War II. The Prohibition in the US ended. In 1932, the first live-action film with Technicolor sequences, The Cat and the Fiddle, was released, and the Empire State Building opened its gates. And in 1934, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night started a golden age for a whole new genre: the screwball comedy.
It would become the first movie to win all five major Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Actor for Clark Gable, Actress for Claudette Colbert and Screenplay) and the new-born genre would dominate the comedy scene for an entire decade.
The term “screwball” was borrowed from baseball terminology, where it describes the action in which the pitcher throws the ball in a very fast and unpredictable way, confusing the batter, who ends up restless and dumbfounded. The word became a synonym of “eccentric” or “insane”. Well, in screwball comedy, the pitcher is the woman and the batter is the man.
The screwball comedy is, at its core, a mixture of witty dialogue and borrowings from farce and slapstick. The main subject of these movies is the battle of the sexes, where the main couple is constantly trying to mock each other and fight to see who delivers the best line. They are, by rule, very light-hearted movies and the characters belong to a medium-high social class. The dialogue goes incredibly fast and the scenes rely heavily on visual gags.
The genre quickly became popular, and it is no surprise, because it gave moviegoers the opportunity to see some of their favourite stars in a relaxed environment where they seemed to be feeling quite at ease.
Frank Capra himself, who after winning the Oscar directed other successful screwball comedies (with Arsenic and Old Lace being the most notable) was one of the directors who specialised in the genre and became experts. Alongside Capra, the likes of George Cukor, Howard Hawks or Garson Kanin would make a name for themselves with these films.
As for the actors, not everyone could carry out funny and powerful performances. Obviously, what the films needed were vivacious and naturally funny actors who were capable of acting with their bodies without looking extravagant. Luckily, there were a few who managed to do it quite well. The most outstanding actresses were, apart from Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne and Carole Lombard. As for the men, these comedies were lucky enough to have stars like Clark Gable, James Stewart, William Powell and Cary Grant, whose acting style would become the quintessential definition of screwball performance.
Truth is that what made Grant so perfect for these movies was his background as a vaudeville performer. In The Awful Truth, where he shared top billing with Irene Dunne for the first time, director Leo McCarey made him put his skills to use and exploit the visual gags to the point where it looked like slapstick comedy. The tricked worked, the Cary Grant persona became widely popular and it set a precedent in regard to the way an actor was supposed to perform in a screwball comedy, a task not accessible to all. It wasn’t something you could learn: either you had it, or you didn’t.
As Cukor pointed out: “I don’t think you can teach people how to be funny. You can make suggestions about how to speak a line or get a laugh, but it has to be in them.” And he knew what he was talking about. After all, he directed a trio of aces (Hepburn, Grant and Stewart) in what is not only one of the best screwballs, but one of the best comedies of all time, The Philadelphia Story. It won Oscars for Screenplay and for Best Actor to Stewart, and it also has one of the most memorable opening scenes, in which recently-divorced Hepburn and Grant have a part ways without saying a word. A remarkable sequence that pays homage to the greatest comedies of the silent film era. And it ends with Grant pushing Hepburn to the floor.
Technically speaking, the genre “ended” in 1942, but elements of it have persisted and we can see later films paying tribute to it. As it happens, the acclaimed director Billy Wilder would resurrect screwball comedies in the 1950s with masterpieces like Some Like It Hot or One, Two, Three, and actors Rock Hudson and Doris Day became quite successful with the comedies they made together. Closer to the 21st century, we can see elements of screwball comedy in films by the Coen Brothers: if you watch Arizona Baby after reading this, you will realise that it has a lot in common with these movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Some comedies, even if they are not properly described as screwball, contain many elements from it, like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or You’ve Got Mail.
80 years have passed now since It Happened One Night changed the world of comedy, but it has left a lasting legacy for generations to come. We could watch any of those movies and none of them seems to have aged at all, and that is what defines good filmmaking.