As you all probably know, I finally joined Twitter earlier this month, and almost as soon as I created an account and began following classic film bloggers, I found out that apparently #ScrewballSeptember has been the theme of the entire month! I looked on as others discussed their favorite screwball comedy films and stars, wanting to jump in but deciding not to because the month was nearly over. That was before I realized that at the beginning of September, I was tapped by Movierob to contribute a piece about my favorite screwball comedies for his monthly Genre Grandeur series! I felt glad that I would be able to make some kind of contribution to these wonderful conversations about the genre after all, and while there was no official limit to how much or how little I could write, I thought a hearty top ten would do the trick. Many thanks to Movierob for giving me this opportunity, and to Movie Movie Blog Blog for choosing this month’s theme. Keep reading for my picks!
10. We’re Not Married! (1952)
We’re Not Married! (1952) is one of the rare examples of screwball comedy pulled off perfectly with an ensemble, all-star cast. Normally the genre would highlight one man and woman who battled it out in a series of ridiculous comedic situations, like in Nothing Sacred (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). In this film, however, Mr. Bush (Victor Moore) is a Justice of the Peace who mistakenly performed marriages for six couples in the week before his appointment became official and legal, and the entirety of the movie documents each of the couple’s reactions to the news that they aren’t actually married told in a series of separate tales. Some of the couples whose stories we see include Steve and Ramona Gladwyn (Fred Allen and Ginger Rogers), a husband-and-wife radio team who lives a lie as their program, “Breakfast with the Glad Gladwyns”, depicts a perfect marriage when in reality they can hardly be around one another without bickering, as well as Jeff Norris (David Wayne), who hopes that he’ll reunite with his wife Annabel (played by Marilyn Monroe in an earlier role), a pageant queen who spends more time competing than she does with her family. My personal favorite of the vignettes shown in this movie exhibits millionaire Freddie Melrose (Louis Calhern), a kind individual who desires a relationship with his beautiful wife Eve (Zsa Zsa Gabor). She seems to want the same thing, but little do we know that Eve intends to frame Freddie for infidelity so she can divorce him and take him for everything that he’s worth. The entirety of We’re Not Married! (1952) is well worth watching, but Zsa Zsa’s reaction when she finds out that her plan is foiled is absolutely priceless.
9. Love Crazy (1941)
Clark Gable might have been considered the King of Hollywood, but to me the King of Screwball was without a doubt William Powell. Any of his delightful comedies could have easily earned a spot on my list (and three of them did), but I had to include one of my favorites of his romps with Myrna Loy. Steve and Susan Ireland (portrayed by Powell and Loy, of course) appear to be the happiest married couple in the world at the start of the film, but the appearance of Steve’s ex-girlfriend Isobel (Gail Patrick) and Susan’s mother (Florence Bates) on the evening of their fourth wedding anniversary proves to be fatal to their marriage. After Susan wrongfully suspects Steve of cheating, she files for divorce. Steve is determined to clear his name and win back his wife throughout the entire process, and after his lawyer lets it slip that the divorce proceedings could be stalled if he was proven to be clincally insane, he pulls off every eccentric feat that he can think of until he’s sent to a real sanitarium. While there, he finds out that proving his sanity is a lot more difficult! I really have to admire William Powell for his performance in this picture. Despite his refined appearance and manner of speaking, he really was willing to do just about anything for a laugh, and Love Crazy (1941) is the perfect example of how far he could stretch his talent and physicality in the name of comedy. My only gripes about this movie are the wildly inaccurate depictions of mental illness and the fact that I’ve never been much of a Myrna Loy fan, but Love Crazy (1941) provides hilarious escapism, and Powell is so captivating in his role that it’s easy to forget everything else.
8. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
I’ve only seen Christmas in Connecticut (1945) once, and though I’m eagerly looking forward to bringing it back out during the holiday season, one viewing is all I need for it to earn a spot on my list. The movie is all about Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a columnist for a Good Housekeeping-esque magazine who tells her vast collection of devoted readers all about her lovely farmhouse in Connecticut, her beautiful husband and child, and the delectable recipes that she whips up daily. The catch, however, is that it’s all a lie. In reality, she’s a single woman who lives in a tiny flat in New York who can’t make a dinner like the ones she writes about to save her life. Thus far she’s been successful for the magazine despite her dishonesty, but she has to continue the deception when her boss Mr. Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) and Jeff Jones (Dennis Morgan), a returning war hero and fan of her column, wish to stay with Elizabeth in her Connecticut home for Christmas. Christmas in Connecticut (1945) is perhaps one of the tenderest films on this list. Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan are perfectly cast, and Jeff’s backstory and desire to have a traditional Christmas with a welcoming family is incredibly heartwarming. It could easily be taken at face value as a breathtakingly beautiful holiday film, but if you read between the lines you’ll undoubtedly find many humorous gags that cement it in my mind as a fantastic screwball comedy as well. Pretty much all of S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall’s scenes as Elizabeth’s friend and secret chef Felix would be considered standard screwball of the period, and the classic scene in which Elizabeth attempts to flip flapjacks easily takes the (pan)cake as the most amusing part of the film.
7. The Lady Eve (1941)
Here we have Barbara Stanwyck once again, though this is a picture that’s among the most frequently viewed in my collection. In it Stanwyck plays yet another fibber, this time as Jean Harrington, the daughter of card sharp and con artist “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) who has taken up the family trade. While aboard a luxury liner, the two set their sights on the bashful and naive Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) and intend to separate him from his fortune as heir of Pike’s Ale. At first Charles falls for the duo’s scheme hook, line, and sinker as he finds Jean incredibly alluring. Jean even begins to fall in love with him in return and ends up wanting no part of her father’s plan to cheat him out of his cash, but when Charles and his bodyguard (William Demarest) find out about the Harrington’s reputation, the millionaire leaves Jean for what he thinks is forever. Little does he know, however, that Jean is after revenge, and she takes up a new identity as Lady Eve Sidwich in order to come back into Charles’ life and swindle him for real. Henry Fonda is a standout in one of his earlier roles here; it’s really startling to see how young he was during the production of The Lady Eve (1941), and I dare you to take a drink every time he falls on his face in this picture! While both Fonda and Stanwyck gave memorable performances, I personally attribute much of its success to writer and director Preston Sturges, who ranks easily among my top five filmmakers. He had an astounding knack for screwball (another of his works appears on my list as well), and to me this picture is among his finest achievements. It’s considered one of the best examples of screwball comedy for a reason, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly suggest you remedy that!
6. It Happened One Night (1934)
It Happened One Night (1934) is objectively one of, if not the best of the screwball genre. It’s certainly the one with the most accolades, boasting all five of the major Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director for Frank Capra, Best Actor and Actress for Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, respectively, and Best Writing for Robert Riskin. While other screwball pictures rank higher among my list of personal preferences, I still adore this movie and I must give credit where credit is due. If you haven’t seen it (which is an absolute crime), It Happened One Night (1934) depicts the journey of Ellen Andrews (Colbert), an heiress who’s been kept on a tight leash by her father Alexander (Walter Connolly) all her life. She exhibits some very rebellious behavior because of this, which usually only involves running away and going on hunger strikes, but this time she’s married “King” Westley (Jameson Thomas), a playboy and fortune hunter. While her father intends to stash her with him on his yacht and fetch a hasty annulment, Ellie has other plans as she jumps overboard and escapes his clutches, determined to make it across the country alone and reunite with her husband. During her travels, she catches the eye of Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a recently fired reporter who agrees to assist her and ensure that she escapes her father in exchange for the exclusive scoop that every newspaper in the country would kill for. It Happened One Night (1934) is revered even today for its witty dialogue and acute sense of comedic timing, and for me it’s one of those pictures that I could watch over and over again. Each scene is executed perfectly, but the part when Ellie and Peter feign a couple’s argument when private detectives knock on their hotel room door is always the one that makes me erupt with laughter.
5. The Rage of Paris (1938)
I follow what’s considered perhaps the most well-known screwball comedy with the least well-known of my list: The Rage of Paris (1938), starring highly underappreciated actors Danielle Darrieux and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I adore unlikely romances (which you could say is the theme of the rest of my list), and this one is as unlikely as ever as it tells the story of Nicole de Cortillon (Darrieux), a French model who struggles to find work during the Great Depression. Desperate for a job, she lies and sneaks her way into a modeling agency, stealing what she believes is the name and address of a nude photographer from an agent’s desk. In reality, it’s that of Jim Trevor (Fairbanks), an advertiser for the company. Nicole strips for Mr. Trevor, their language barrier making her unable to uderstand the mix-up until it’s too late, but once she does, she storms out of his office. Still in need of money, she devises a plan with neighbor Gloria (Helen Broderick) in which they borrow the $3,000 that her friend Mike (Mischa Auer) has saved for his dreams of opening a restaurant, and uses it so they can pass Nicole off as a wealthy lady and marry her to a millionaire. Incredibly, the plan begins to work in no time at all as Nicole attracts the interest of the wealthy Bill Duncan (Louis Hayward), but problems arise when Bill reveals that his best friend is none other than Jim, who threatens to reveal Nicole’s identity and ruin her plan once and for all. The Rage of Paris (1938) is a splendid specimen of both screwball and romantic comedy, and I’m truly amazed that it hasn’t garnered more attention over the years. It still exists in full on YouTube, so if you’re a fan of screwball, I couldn’t recommend it more!
4. Twentieth Century (1934)
This is the first and only film on my list that I’ve written a full review for on my blog as I participated in the Fourth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon earlier this year. If you haven’t read my write-up for it yet or seen the film, it’s all about Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore), the overdramatic maestro of numerous successful Broadway productions. At the beginning of rehearsals for his newest play, he reveals that he will put his brand new discovery, lingerie model Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard), in the leading role and mold her into a star, teaching her everything that she needs to know about acting in the process. Oscar is ruthless towards his ingenue, emotionally and even physically abusing her in order to put her blood, sweat, and tears into her role. Finally, Mildred is transformed into the newly named Lily Garland and she is a resounding success. Lily and her creator collaborate for three more years and three more smash hit shows and become a couple offstage, though he continues to torment her at every turn and eventually she quits. She becomes a highly successful motion picture actress while Jaffe’s shows become failures, but he seizes his opportunity to reunite with Lily both onstage and off when the two of them happen to board the same Twentieth Century Limited train. This is a true masterpiece to behold, a perfect blend of drama and comedy that can only be seen to be believed, and beloved if you give it a chance. It has a perfect beginning echoed with a perfect end, and the film likely would have ranked higher on my list if it weren’t for the weak and boring middle. Still, I’ll always remember Carole Lombard as the terrified and pitiful Mildred Plotka, shedding tears of exasperation as John Barrymore, in all of his genius in the role of Oscar Jaffe, draws lines of chalk across the floor in my favorite scene.
3. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
In Sullivan’s Travels (1941), we see two gifted actors tackle screwball despite the fact that neither of them were necessarily known for the genre. Joel McCrea plays John L. Sullivan, a director known for meaningless comedies who longs to be taken seriously and make a dramatic film about the current struggles of humanity. His bosses loathe the idea as his lighthearted pictures have been extremely lucrative, but John won’t back down, wanting to blend in with the masses so he can fully absorb and understand their experiences before making his next film. This leads to a social experiment in which Sullivan dresses like a homeless man and takes off on foot, but this first attempt at experiencing poverty firsthand fails as his studio and friends follow him and ruin the credibility of the investigation. Starting once again in Hollywood without the assistance of his cronies, he soon meets The Girl (Veronica Lake), a failed actress who is on her way back to her hometown and really believes that John is poor. After he takes her back to his lush mansion and offers to get her a start in the movie business, she of course sees him for who he really is, and despite her agitation after being lied to, she finds herself intrigued by his study and decides to join him along the way. Once again Preston Sturges knocks it out of the park with a compelling story that’s profound and humorous all at once. I adore Veronica Lake, and seeing her in a leading role, especially one as intriguing and challenging as this, is nothing short of amazing, as is of course the incredible acting prowess of Joel McCrea that’s seen here. Sturges successfully finds a way to teach a lesson in Sullivan’s Travels (1941) that we don’t often see in films: that laughter truly is the best medicine.
2. Libeled Lady (1936)
William Powell makes his second of three appearances on my list in this iconic screwball, this time joined by real-life love Jean Harlow. I’d probably adore just about anything that stars both of them as they’re one of my favorite couples, but Libeled Lady (1936) takes things a step further with its unique plot and developed characters. In it, a newspaper called The Morning Star accidentally publishes a false story in which heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) steals another woman’s husband. With the assistance of her father JP Allenbury (Walter Connolly), Connie sues for libel, hoping to earn $5 million and sink the paper in the process. The managing editor of The Star, Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy), who often ditches his personal life for the sake of the newspaper, leaves his bride Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) at the altar in order to fix the situation. Of course Gladys is none too happy about this, but somehow gets tangled up in Warren’s scheme to put womanizer and former employee of the paper Bill Chandler (William Powell) on the case, marry him to Gladys, and have Bill romance Connie in order to turn the artificial story calling Connie a husband-stealer into the real McCoy. When Bill falls in love with Connie for real, however, he begins to secretly play on her team, which puts Warren’s entire plot in jeopardy. To me, this is an example of a flawless screwball comedy, as it boasts not only an incredible roster of comedic stars, but it also seamlessly blends both physical comedy, as was presented similarly in Love Crazy (1941), as well as snappy verbal comedy like what was displayed in Twentieth Century (1934). It’s timeless and has easily earned its place as one of my favorites of the genre.
1. My Man Godfrey (1936)
If William Powell is the King of Screwball, then I consider Carole Lombard to be his Queen, and here they are wonderfully paired together in what I consider to be the finest screwball comedy ever made. In this film, we see Powell yet again as he portrays Godfrey Parke, who originally came from an upper crust family, but began living in a city dump among a group of derelicts after a failed relationship nearly drove him to suicide. Enter Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick), a spoiled and vindictive girl who attempts to use Godfrey in order to win a scavenger hunt. In retaliation to Cornelia’s attempt to humilate him, he pushes her into a pile of ashes. Her sister Irene (Lombard), who’s also playing the game, decides to stop and talk to Godfrey, treating him like a human being and captivating his interest in both her and the game. He offers his services to Irene so he can satisfy his curiosity and see firsthand what a scavenger hunt played by rich people is like, and in return for his kindness Irene hires him as the Bullock family’s new butler. Godfrey faces nearly unbeatable odds as the Bullocks’ insane antics force them to go through nearly as many butlers as they go through dollars, but he overcomes each obstacle with his clever mind and amiable demeanor and captures the hearts of the family, especially the heart of Irene, in the process. What couldn’t I say about My Man Godfrey (1936)? As I’ve mentioned with many of the other films on my list, this picture has expertly written dialogue and fully fleshed-out characters. The Bullocks’ strange behavior makes this one of the wackier screwball comedies out there, but each member of the family has something exceptional to offer the story. I especially adore Godfrey and Irene’s relationship, and their interactions have so many layers and nuances that I always discover something new with each viewing, even if I’ve seen the movie a million times. I implore you to discover My Man Godfrey (1936) too if you haven’t watched this marvelous feature.