Criterion put out a little interview / explainer on screwball comedy that’s absolutely fantastic: Patton Oswalt on Screwball Comedy
Here’s what Oswalt has to say:
One of the things I love about screwball comedy is that it is endlessly watchable.
It embraces the fact that it is cinema.
It’s almost anti-realism.
The makers of screwball comedy were like, “We’re gonna give people a warped version of reality that they will relate to, sometimes even better than the reality that they’re living in.”
Well, screwball comedies are great for me to have at hand because I like to be reminded of the absurdity of life and comedic insanity, almost as a defense against the darkness and seriousness of the world.
I mean, screwball comedies came out of the Great Depression.
There was a lot of escapism in films at the time – the Busby Berkeley musicals, you know…
The screwball comedies were the actual psychological reaction, making fun of class differences, showing how kind of out-of-touch the rich are.
And I also feel like it was a coping mechanism for the creators themselves…
Perceiving all of the inequalities and injustices that were going on.
The way to show that to people, you can’t lecture people about that.
“I’m already living it; give me some absurdity that I can use as a weapon against it.”
And especially, you see that in stuff like ‘My Man Godfrey,’ which, you know, is a radical call to arms, even though it’s a really fun, goofy comedy.
It was almost like an instruction manual for how America was gonna have to psychologically get through the Great Depression and the psychic trauma of the lead up to World War II and then its actual explosion.
It reaches its peak with Lubitsch’s ‘To Be or Not to Be’…
Where they are literally doing ratatat, goofy dialogue in the face of Adolph Hitler.
The dialogue is the featured player.
The dialogue itself is the shoot-out, is the car chase, it’s watching human beings who are at the mercy of these emotions that are so vast that they come out as this avalanche of words.
It’s cosmic levels of cynicism.
It’s galactic levels of idealism.
Just to see the gymnastics that these actors and actresses go through to deliver these lines…
You really realize that there is a martial arts-level of breathing control and discipline in order to deliver these jokes.
Jokes are not something you can just plug in and make work; you’ve got to have skill in order to make them actually land.
So beyond being quotable, it’s endlessly rewatchable, just to see how it’s done.
The acknowledged first screwball comedy is Capra’s ‘It Happened One Night.’
But you can watch ‘The Front Page,’ ‘Twentieth Century,’ you can see the ramp up.
And ‘The Front Page’ is basically a play being filmed, but it’s just the fastest, most-ratatat dialogue.
And then ‘Twentieth Century,’ you know, gets into divorce and sexual dysfunction.
And then, ‘It Happened One Night’ is where they really start combining a lot of that.
The key directors in screwball comedy, you go to your Sturges, your Lubitsch, your Capra, and Leo McCarey – and obviously Howard Hawks, but that guy so straddled not just screwball comedy, but slapstick and crime drama. He’s his own category.
Capra has that touch of real kind of humanity and almost a little bit of outrage at what is happening in the class divide.
Preston Sturges really enjoyed taking down the elite or showing that they’re kind of foolish and silly.
And then also showing that the so-called lower classes are foolish and silly for trying to aspire to be the rich and the monied, because it’s nothing to aspire to.
And then McCarey, his are the most defiantly silly films of all of them.
And there’s something really zen and cool about that – that he’s like, “Oh, no, no, I’m going for the laugh here.”
But the one that really stays with me is Lubitsch – you know that phrase “the Lubitsch touch.” It feels almost supernatural the way that he’s able to ease audiences and walk them toward the edge of some really dark stuff…
And echo a laugh back out of that abyss.
That’s incredible; he can do that over and over again.
There are some key actors you’ll see pop up over and over and over again in these movies: obviously Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne.
Cary Grant is in that category where it’s like, “Oh, so you’re really, really good looking, and you’re also funny?”
It’s almost offensive how talented and confident that guy was.
Same with Jimmy Stewart, same with Clark Gable.
They just had this kind of heartbroken-but-hopeful view of the world, and it’s amazing to see.
And they just had these great women that could give as well as they take.
That’s another thing about screwball comedies is a lot of the female characters are way stronger, smarter, more on-the-ball than a lot of the male characters and are, a lot of times, leading the men around by their nose, which is really fun to watch, especially Barbara Stanwyck in ‘The Lady Eve.’
There’s a scene in ‘The Lady Eve’ where she’s just playing with Henry Fonda’s hair…
And it’s one of the most sexual things I’ve ever seen on camera, and they’re not really doing anything nude or sexual, and it’s just absolute sizzle.
I think that any great artist flourishes in the face of restrictions.
So a lot of the screwball directors back then were really rubbing their hands together at what they’re getting away with.
Despite everything I’ve said, do not watch these movies as an academic or as a historian. Have a couple of drinks, eat some snacks, let your mind relax, and let the verbal pyrotechnics just singe your skin off.
These movies were designed to be frenetic and fast and silly.
And the more open-minded and sillier you approach them, the more fun you will have.