Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Classic Hollywood Archetypes: The Screwball

“Stand still, Godfrey. It'll all be over in a minute.”

 ~Irene (played by Carole Lombard, as she is poised to marry William Powell’s character Godfrey): My Man Godfrey (1936)

During the Great Depression, audiences longed for films with both strong social class critiques and hopeful, fantasy-oriented themes. At the same time the 1930 Hayes Code, designed to clean up Hollywood, was increasingly enforced: prohibiting and/or limiting depiction of profanity, men and women in bed, inference of sex or nudity, firearms, drugs, kissing, etc., including cautions about how the institution of marriage was depicted. 

Desperately trying to produce films that people would still want to see, Hollywood created a genre that exploited the war of the sexes (and usually; the war of the classes) in such zany and madcap ways, the films were able to incorporate some of the forbidden risqué elements into their plots through sheer silliness, without fear of censorship: The Screwball Comedy.

These unlikely, ludicrous plots became a favorite format of audiences at the same time that American baseball was perfecting the screwball pitch: a pitch thrown with heavy spin that’s hard for the batter to follow.

Soon, “screwball” also became a slang term for an eccentric person. 

While a screwball comedy can have an unpredictable path (or narrative), as in the pitch, the defining characteristic of a Screwball Comedy is a story about an individual or individuals who themselves are screwballs; outsiders, rule-breakers and unpredictable, larger-than-life characters (often underdogs one-upping the elite).

The dominant archetype of the genre was the atypical, empowered woman. She was a female lead who refused to play the role that society has set up for her; spoiled socialites shunning their father’s money, stubborn and insistent women of means falling in love with and pursuing lower class, even (as in My Man Godfrey) homeless, men, illustrating their nonconformity and allowing the little man to come out on top.

In addition to farcical situations, elements present in a screwball include a combination of slapstick with fast-paced repartee and struggles between economic classes (with the common man romanticized).

The screwball comedy also has close links with the theatrical genre of farce, and some comic plays are also described as screwball comedies. Many elements of the screwball genre can be traced back to such stage plays as Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest

Barbara Stanwyck appeared in The Lady Eve (1941) and
Ball of Fire (1941)
Irene Dunne appeared in The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940)

Myrna Loy appeared in all of the screwballish Thin Man Mystery-Comedies

Carole Lombard appeared in
Twentieth Century (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936)

Claudette Colbert appeared in It Happened One Night (1934) and The Palm Beach Story (1942)

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