The BFI’s Screwball! season has been running throughout January, and continues to the end of the month. Our writers have picked some gems from the genre for your enjoyment.
The Awful Truth (1937)
by Phil Concannon
When Leo McCarey won the Best Director Oscar in 1938 he argued that he had been awarded it for the wrong film, having also made Make Way for Tomorrow in the previous 12 months. While it’s true that his heartbreaking family drama deserved more acclaim (it remained largely overlooked up until a few years ago), that statement shouldn’t be taken as a slight against film McCarey did win for, The Awful Truth, which still stands as one of the great American comedies. Not many of those involved thought that would be the case as it was being made – Cary Grant frequently took issue with McCarey’s reliance on improvisation and even tried to leave the production – but the finished product works like a charm.
The Awful Truth is a comedy of remarriage, a sub-genre identified by Stanley Cavell in which a couple separated and embarked upon affairs but were safely reunited before the end of the film, thereby avoiding any breach of the Production Code. The film begins with the divorce of Lucy and Jerry Warriner, both suspecting the other of infidelity, and over the 90 days that it takes for their divorce to become official, we see them slowly realising that they can’t live without each other. Lucy (Irene Dunne) starts making wedding plans with Oklahoma farm boy Ralph Bellamy, while Jerry takes up with an exotic dancer (“I guess it was easier to her to change her name than for her whole family to change theirs,” Lucy tartly observes) but the Warriners come to life when they’re together. The Awful Truth is a film built around a series of hilarious comic set-pieces – in particular, Lucy’s attempt to hide a tell-tale hat, which is complicated by her enthusiastic dog – but the real magic in the film comes from the rich chemistry and wonderful knowing looks that occur between the two perfectly matched leads. Grant once said that Irene Dunne had the best comic timing of anyone he ever worked with, and it is fully evident in this brilliant picture.
The Lady Eve (1941)
by Emma Street
Film critic Andrew Sarris defined a Screwball Comedy as a sex comedy without the sex. The Lady Eve has sex woven through it from the snake in the opening credits to its closing frame.
Jean Harrington, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is a card sharp working a cruise liner which also hosts Charles Pike, just back from studying snakes in the Amazon. Charles, played by Henry Fonda, is stonkingly rich and more than a little naive. It is clear that every woman on board is out to snare the eligible heir. Jean catches his eye by tripping him up, verbally attacking him and engaging him in some sexy, sexy shoe action. Cruise ships are pretty sexy places apparently where people nip into each other’s cabins in a way they wouldn’t with one another’s bedrooms at home.
When Jean cradles Charles’s head against hers and comforts him with soothing wisecracks, the intimacy between them crackles. She discovers she’s “in love with the poor fish” and calls off the scam just as Charles finds out about Jean’s day job and rebuffs her. “You don’t know very much about girls,” she tells him. “The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.”
Jean avenges her broken heart by pretending to be English aristocrat, Lady Eve, and seducing Charles again on dry land. On their wedding night, ‘Eve’ reveals to her new husband a long and complicated list of former partners. Charles initially tries to deal with his bride’s slutty past before being beaten down by the sheer headcount and despondently exiting the train in his pyjamas.
Expectations are turned on their heads. The lady is a tramp. The bad girl’s the good girl. People aren’t always who they seem. When our two heroes finally get together (for real this time) at the end of the film, Charles quits being the victim and becomes the boss. He literally drags the very willing Jean to his cabin. The door closes and sex, it seems, is no longer just the subtext.
A Cary Grant Trilogy
by Ron Swanson
Here at MostlyFilm, we recently ran an article about comfort cinema. That for me is encapsulated by one actor, in one specific genre: Cary Grant in a screwball comedy, and three films in particular – Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story. While Grant is often considered to have been slightly lacking in range – an opinion formed, I assume, by people who couldn’t see past his enormous charisma, the three films see him play wildly different characters.
Bringing Up Baby, directed by Howard Hawks, sees him play a bookish palaeontologist, whose life is thrown into terminal chaos by the mere presence of Katharine Hepburn’s flighty heiress, whose free-spirit is in immediate and strictly defined contrast to his stuffiness. Of course, they have enormous chemistry, and any audience that has ever seen a film before will know that they’re destined to end up together – it’s the journey there that counts.
Put simply, Bringing Up Baby is one of the funniest films of all time. Hepburn and Grant are each at their finest, while Hawks manages a seemingly endless sequence of set-pieces with great aplomb. My personal favourite may be a scene towards the beginning of the film, where first Grant, then Hepburn rip their clothes, leading to a beautifully played scene that chooses to be both farce and slapstick.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk Bringing Up Baby without acknowledging the elephant in the room. Or, rather, the leopard in the room, for much of the film’s momentum comes from the electric tension caused by the fact that Baby is a ‘tame’ Brazilian leopard. On seeing the film with an audience, it strikes you that there is no greater reward than seeing a film with 300 other people laughing hysterically at the same scenes that bring you to tears. What could be more comforting than that?
His Girl Friday is one of the spectacular triumphs of the great Howard Hawks’ splendid career. Taking MacArthur and Hecht’s hit stage comedy, The Front Page (filmed in 1931 by Lewis Milestone) and turning on its head, Hawks created something that would help to define screwball comedy, while simultaneously reaching beyond it to showcase a venality and cynicism that is still breathtaking today.
The stars of His Girl Friday are a motor-mouthed Grant and Rosalind Russell, who play managing editor and star reporter at a newspaper, whose professional relationship has been severed by their recent divorce. When she comes to tell him of her impending marriage to Ralph Bellamy’s decent, if boring, average-Joe, Grant sees the opportunity to win back his wife, and his best writer in one fell swoop.
What follows is a film whose vertiginous plotting and precipitous dialogue (there’s barely a scene where the conversation doesn’t seem to have been sped-up to the imminent danger of the actors) is a constant, giddy delight. Grant is a past-master of the genre, of course, but Russell’s performance more than matches his – her eventual submission to him is particularly deftly played. Bellamy also deserves praise. He spends his scenes much like us, carried away by the bravado and brilliance of the characters whose world he’s had the misfortune to enter – we at least are spared the frequent trips to jail, courtesy of Grant’s neverending onslaught of con-men, crooks and manipulation.
There’s a romance, somewhere in His Girl Friday, but it’s one doomed to repeat its abject failure, while its protagonists tear each other to pieces, arguing about the ethics and omnipresence of a predatory media. No matter what genre you want to fit His Girl Friday into, it sits proudly as one of the finest, most daring films of all time.
If Bringing Up Baby brings the laughs and if His Girl Friday is acidic and bitter, The Philadelphia Story, also adapted from a stage play, is a far sweeter concoction, although one with plenty of targets in mind. Like Hawks’ film, it targets a venal, personality-obsessed media (something timeless about that).
Representing said media is Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart), a reluctant hack sent to cover the society wedding of socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and upcoming union leader George Kittredge (John Howard), accompanied by the bride’s first husband CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), the circumstances of which are explained briefly and explicitly, and Connor’s photographer/occasional girlfriend Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey).
It seems odd that Grant should have played former husbands embroiled in plots to win back his wives in two separate films released in the same year, but there’s no doubt that the roguishness inherent in these characters brings out his considerable best. In The Philadelphia Story, he’s matched by both Hepburn and Stewart, the latter never again managed to be as effective a romantic lead as he is, here – charming, a little bit dangerous and undeniably handsome.
He and Hepburn share real chemistry, as of course she does with Grant (reuniting after Bringing Up Baby), and there’s a real sense that both men are worthy suitors, which gives the film a resounding air of anarchic unpredictability.
Extravagantly more romantic and optimistic than His Girl Friday; here Grant has changed to become worthy of his former wife’s love, while still being more than willing to find fault with her, The Philadelphia Story is a timeless, heart-warming classic, with arguably the starriest lead cast ever assembled. It also features one of my favourite ever scenes, in which a drunken Connor arrives at Haven’s house to confront him over Tracy, which you can see below.
What the three films show, in fact, are the breadth of Grant’s rage. Whether playing a nerd, to all intents and purposes, a master manipulator whose motives are less than sympathetic, or an equally manipulative, but lovestruck former husband whose true intentions are impossible to hide, he displays more star power than just about anyone else ever has.
One last note, if you love these films like I do and you haven’t seen Peter Bogdanovich’s sublime What’s Up Doc?, please remedy that as soon as you possibly can.
To Be Or Not To Be (1942)
by Niall Anderson
Nazis are funny. The fussy uniforms, the robotic ranting, and above all the pathological aversion to humour: Nazis are funny and there’s no getting round it. Even Schindler’s List is funny. Nothing with Ralph Fiennes mechanically repeating the words “I pardon you” in a cod-German accent could help but be.
Still, we seemed to lose sight of the funniness of Nazis for a while in the 90s. There was a generalised panic about violence in cinema at the time, which seemed to feed into a broader unease about authenticity when dealing with historical events. So from now on, the Nazis were going to be played straight. They’d still be funny (because Nazis are funny); you just weren’t allowed to laugh.
Filmmakers of the 30s and 40s knew better. In America in particular, where overt political films about Nazism were strongly discouraged even after Pearl Harbor, all you could really do was laugh and poke fun. Which is something the German-American Ernst Lubitsch was really good at, and why his 1942 Nazi farce To Be Or Not To Be is one of the most audacious films of the era.
Set in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939, To Be Or Not To Be is about a troupe of actors who infiltrate, impersonate and gradually take over the local Gestapo network. Some of the jokes are fantastically near the knuckle (“In London, they call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.” “Well, we do the concentrating. The Poles do the camping.”), the action set pieces manage to be both funny and exciting, and the whole thing is anchored by great performances from Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as the warring stage couple, Josef and Maria Tura. It all builds to a sublimely silly and strangely moving finale.
But is it a screwball comedy? The BFI think it is, enough for them to schedule it as the closing film of their Screwball season. But surely a genre founded on such self-conscious artifice needs to be artificial from top to toe: it can’t be expected to bear the weight of real history. All I can say is that there are moments in To Be Or Not To Be where the silly and the serious collide with such brilliance as to make you believe it’s possible.
For those who can’t make the BFI screening. To Be Or Not To Be can be watched legally and for free here.