Screwball comedy – it’s not what I thought

I’ve been thinking of my current project as kind of a screwball comedy, modeled roughly after Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. The key features I had in mind were:

  • Things spiral out of control in a crazy way. Ordinary events, like mislaid keys or misunderstood messages, pile on each other, leading to worst-case but wacky consequences.
  • The heroines are likable and capable though quirky, the supporting characters are even quirkier, and the antagonists are straitlaced and controlling.
  • Even though the stakes are high, like the end of the world as we know it, the reader doesn’t feel unduly anxious or stressed, because the whole situation is so absurd.

Through the wonders of Interlibrary Loan, I got my hands on Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference by Wes D. Gehring, who teaches film at Ball State University. He’s talking about movies, not books, and that’s an important distinction, since some of the features of screwball comedies only apply to movies.

As it turns out, screwball comedies have some features that never occurred to me. Some of them are irrelevant to my book, but others sparked new ideas for me, like these:

  • The central character is an antihero, a “little man” who’s always going to be thwarted, because he’s trying to create order in a world where order is impossible.
  • The plots often have couples from different classes coming together, a metaphor for reconciliation between classes, generations, genders, and attitudes (anxiety vs happy-go-lucky optimism).
  • The movies use nutty behavior as a prism through which to view a topsy-turvy period in history.

Other features of classic screwball comedies are more tied up in gender roles and romance. There’s typically a childlike man who has lots of leisure time and is frustrated in his relationships with women, and a zany eccentric woman rescues him from a domineering mother-like wife or fiancee. The movies involve ritualistic humiliation of the male, and Dr. Gehring says the vanquishing of male rigidity is the goal of all good screwball comedies.

Screwball comedies often parody more serious movies, usually romance (there’s a great sendup of Love Story’s most famous line in What’s Up, Doc?) but not always, as in Analyze This and others that spoof gangster movies. There’s usually a lot of physical comedy in screwball, unlike in romantic comedy, where attempted slapstick can be really awkward (I’m looking at you, Woman of the Year kitchen scene).

Dr. Gehring’s discussion of how the Great Depression and the transition from silent pictures to talkies influenced the development of the screwball genre is fascinating. For example, he talks about how screwball was intrigued with the wealthy classes but had a softer take on class differences than the class warfare and anarchy of some other comedies at the time, like some Marx Brother and W.C. Fields films. In screwball comedy, the idle rich are “entertainingly odd.” Talking pictures brought writers in from all over to produce the witty conversation.

Even though I was off base in my ideas about screwball comedy, I enjoyed reading the book, and I’ve assigned myself some movie watching homework. If you’re interested in experiencing some screwball comedy yourself, here are a few movies you might start with:

  • My Man Godfrey (1936), based on a novel by Eric Hatch
  • Topper (1937), based on a novel by Thorne Smith
  • Some Like it Hot (1959)
  • What’s Up, Doc? (1974)
  • All of Me (1984), based on the novel Me Two by Ed Davis
  • A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

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