Screwball Continued

[A continuation of my exploration of Hollywood screwball comedies of the thirties and early forties in the BFI’s season. See part one here.]
And so the BFI’s Screwball season continues, and I’ve seen a few more films.
A couple of weeks ago there was an illustrated introduction to the season from Peter Swaab. He’s the curator of the season, and his talk was illustrated by clips from many of the films. A very worthwhile session.
The BFI’s poster for the season reads “Pacy, racy comedies from Hollywood’s golden age” and that’s a much better summary of what Screwball films are about than my previous effort. Swaab talked about the various elements of Screwball films.
They tend to be love stories, have relatively few locations (perhaps just two main ones), a depression era setting, and have lots of animals, but very few children. And despite being in the early days of sound, dialogue was immensely important.
One thing I must admit I hadn’t realised, was the genesis of the word “screwball” itself. I suppose it has become so ingrained into the language that discovering its etymology is something of a surprise. In fact in comes from baseball and a particular type of throw, perhaps analogous to the googly in cricket. There was a key proponent of it named Carl Hubbell who rose to fame for his screwball pitch in the thirties, and it was his fame that meant the term was adopted to describe a new type of comedy.
Anyway – on with the films!
My Man Godfrey (1936)
This was a real discovery for me during this season. Swaab had nicely teed up the film in his talk earlier that same evening when he showed us the opening scene. It’s a remarkable sequence shot in rubbish tip in Brooklyn where down and outs try to scrape a living looking for salvage.
Into this world arrive Alice Brady and Carole Lombard as Angelica and Cornelia Bullock, a pair of socialite sisters who are taking part in a “scavenger hunt” which includes on its list a “forgotten man.” In this instance a smart talking William Powell as Godfrey.
Godfrey reluctantly enters the sisters’ world and takes on the position of butler in their household. Of course all is not straightforward, and Godfrey has a background that catches up with him. In the meantime, the younger sister Cornelia begins to fall for Godfrey (cue great lines about her not being allowed in his room), while the elder sister becomes jealous and when some jewels disappear, the net of suspicion is cast close.
I think that perhaps my favourite supporting character in the film is Jean Dixon’s Molly the maid. She gets all the best lines, delivered in a thick devil-may-care New York accent.
It’s a wonderful piece, and has some really sharp comedy, at the same time being a really relevant social piece. Yes, like many a romantic comedy, there has to be a happy ending, and broadly speaking you can see it coming from way out. But that shouldn’t deter anyone from enjoying this film.
The film was directed by Gregory La Cava, someone I wasn’t familiar with, and who seems to have been fairly prolific in the silent era. It was written by Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch (upon whose novel it was based) although others were also involved in its writing if IMDB is to be believed.
As I was watching it, the thought occurred to me that it could easily be remade today (there was a 1957 remake with David Niven taking the Powell role as Godfrey). And then I remembered just how dismal 21st century “rom-coms” are and immediately threw the idea away. It would take a very smart writer to do this film justice today, and frankly you’re better off sticking with the original.
The film’s available on DVD, although you really need to be careful which version you pick up. After much review reading, I ended up ordering an import copy of the R1 Criterion Collection edition.
Nothing Sacred (1937)
Written by Ben Hecht who based it on a short story, Nothing Sacred is a tour de force for Carole Lombard. A small town girl named Hazel Flagg, she’s told that she has radium poisoning and thus only has a short time to live. Her doctor (Charles Winninger) is something of a quack and he’s got it wrong. He tells Flagg that she’s fine.
However by this point Frederic March’s newspaper journalist, Wally Cook, has tracked her down and is looking to save his reputation by giving his newspaper something to support. Fancying a trip to New York, the paper whisks her off and generates lots of support from the good citizens for this poor dying girl.
It’s all beginning to get a bit awkward, and all the more so when an additional doctor is brought in. In screwball films, doctors are always heavily accented Europeans with names beginning with E. In this instance, Dr Eggelhoffer (Sig Rumen).
Given that the story could be seen to have no sympathetic characters, Lombard does well to keep us rooting for Flagg, despite her taking both the newspaper and people of New York for a ride. There are the usual moments of farce, but it’s a smart and fun film that gets away with it.
Unusually, the film is in colour – despite having been made in 1937 (Becky Sharp in 1935 was actually the first feature film to be made using the three strip Technicolor process, but colour was still very much a rarity at this time). This made it incredibly expensive, and the addition of colour really isn’t necessary. Like film noir, the fact that screwball films are black and white is part of their defining features.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Now here’s another classic. You really simply can’t go wrong pairing Cary Grant with Katherine Hepburn. Directed with gusto by Howard Hawks and written by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde (based on the latter’s novel), it’s the story of a poor innocent paleontologist, Dr David Huxley (Grant), who gets mixed up with a rich young socialite Susan Vance (Hepburn).
The film famously opens with Grant sitting atop a platform near the neck of a brontosaurus skeleton. He’s just missing the “intercostal clavicle” (a bone which obviously doesn’t exist). He has a very straight-laced fiancée (a demure as you like Virginia Walker) who is clear that his work must come before anything – absolutely anything – even though they’re getting married the next day.
Sent out to play a round of golf with a potential museum benefactor’s advisor, Huxley gets entangled with Susan on a golf course. The dialogue sparkles and as Huxley becomes more frustrated, Susan takes a more carefree attitude to what he’s saying. By the end of the scene he’s being driven off by her in his car, as he stands on the running board.
Into this mix must be added a leopard named “Baby” who loves the song “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, necessitating it to be sung on several occasions, a psychiatrist (European, of course), a dog who takes a liking to a certain bone and buries it, a big game hunter who can do animal impressions, a very mischievous Susan and another leopard – this one not tame and escaped from a zoo where it has given its keeper a mauling.
Grant is at his vulnerable best. Not the assured editor of His Girl Friday, but the slightly put upon academic with few things on his mind beyond work.
Hepburn is simply glorious. Early on there’s a wonderful scene at a bar where she’s being taught a trick with olives by the bar tender. And then her marvellous jailhouse scene later in the film. She’s trying to talk her way out by taking on the guise of a moll – Swingin’ Door Susie. It’s said that she wasn’t sure how to do comedy at first until she was told to play it straight. The laughs just come.
Hawks said later that the problem with the film was that nobody in it was normal and that they were all mad. This really isn’t a problem. You simply don’t care as you go with the flow. The film also massively overran its production schedule, although it does seem that everyone was thoroughly enjoying themselves on set – look at the barely containable smiles of Grant and Hepburn when the farce really gets going.. It’s also got to be said that there are double entendres a plenty. You don’t have to look too far to find them!
The dialogue is rat-a-tat fast, and the jokes are laugh out loud funny. It really is wonderful to be able to see a film like this in a full cinema of others enjoying it. And it’s completely re-watchable. Peter Swaab introduced the film at the screening I attended and has written the BFI guide to the film. He admitted that he’s seen it well over twenty times, but he still loves to see it again. The sign of a masterpiece.
Holiday (1938)
You’re not going to go too far wrong with a Grant/Hepburn film as Bringing Up Baby, and this is perhaps a lesser known example of their films together. It was made in the same year as Bringing Up Baby, although given the production turnaround speeds of the day, it was probably only shot after Bringing Up Baby had already opened.
The film, based on a play, was written by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchanan, and was itself a remake of a 1930 version.
Cary Grant is Johnny Case who has run into the woman he believes is the girl of his dreams on his travels – Doris Nolan as Julia Seaton. Then he discovers that he’s about to wed into a very wealthy family who live in a mansion so big it is has its own elevator! The flighty Julia has a younger sister Linda (Katherine Hepburn) who is much more free-spirited. She doesn’t really do things the proper way that a family of her standing is expected to do, and to her family’s consternation – although perhaps not her permanently inebriated brother Ned (Lew Ayres) – she prefers to do things she wants.
Edward Everett Horton plays Professor Nick Potter, a role he was reprising from the 1930 version of the film. He’s abetted by Jean Dixon as his wife susan, the pair playing confidentes to Johnny.
Horton is one of those faces that pops up again and again in screwballs. He’s also to be found in Trouble in Paradise, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, and Arsenic and Old Lace as well as many other films of the era from Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee to Lost Horizon.
I think his performance here is the best of his screwballs. He doesn’t just have to pull faces, but go with things and become natural friends with Hepburn’s Linda.
Upstairs in the mansion, Linda keeps a more normal room with trinkets from their childhoods. The scenes with Hepburn, Grant, Horton, Ayres and Dixon in that room are the best, and Grant gets to show off some of his acrobatic skills.
A fine film, and although you think you know how it’s all going to turn out, you’re never quite sure.
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938)
Possibly the worst named film in this season, yet it’s quite a cracker, and one of my favourite “discoveries” of this season.
Based on a French play, it’s directed by Ernst Lubitsch and has a Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder script.
The film takes place in the south of France, and Gary Cooper’s Michael Brandon is trying to buy half a pair of pyjamas. He just wants the top and is offering 50% of the price to do so. This causes a palaver, until Claudette Colbert’s Nicole de Loiselle agrees to buy the bottoms.
However she plans to give them not to a husband, but her lover, Albert De Regnier (David Niven).
When the wealthy Brandon buys a Louix XIV bathtub from de Loiselle’s father, their paths cross again, and in due course she becomes his eighth wife (only one of the previous seven is now dead). We then get a to and fro between them, with De Regnier resolutely hanging on until all ends well.
The film doesn’t seem to have a great reputation with Wilder not being very fond of it, and others seeing it as an inferior example of screwball. But I don’t agree. I think it’s a rather smart little film. Yes, the plot is wafer thin and it perhaps doesn’t have make comments on society that some of the best screwballs manage. But it’s good fun, and Colbert is, as ever, just terrific.
It Happened One Night (1934)
This Capra film is considered one of the key films that started the whole screwball genre of films off when it came out in 1934. But oddly, in spite of season curator Peter Swaab using a couple of clips of it during his talk, it doesn’t actually appear in this BFI season. Perhaps it has outings so frequently it didn’t need another.
However, I did see it on the big screen this month at a very good friend’s wedding where we saw it in a lovely Edinburgh hotel’s screening room!
It stars Claudette Colbert as heiress Ellie Andrews, and Clark Gable as newspaper reporter Peter Warne. She’s on the run from her new aviator husband and her father – swimming to escape from his yacht. With barely any money, she ends up on a bus traveling up from Miami to New York. Gable’s reporter ends up giving her help which she has to accept, and they find themselves on the run from her wealthy father with his seemingly unlimited resources to track down his daughter.
The nature of the film’s plot means that it varies from the standard screwball set-up, usually with just a handful of locations. Here we get a series of bus-stops, cheap motels as well as the mansions and offices of those chasing the pair down.
Swaab rightly pointed us to a lovely scene in one of those motels when Ellie has to go out to the shower block. In a long tracking shot she passes a very ordinary group of Americans staying there, and for a moment we feel as though we’re watching an altogether different picture. She reaches the queue and “naturally” jumps it before the other women put her in her place. That simple scene really humanises her and becomes almost a turning point.
The film feels like it’s come only very soon after the Hays Code has been introduced as it gets quite close to the line at times. In particular Gable erects what he calls “The Walls of Jericho” in their motel rooms by virtue of hanging a sheet between their twin beds. The manner in which those walls come down by the film’s end is very entertaining.
If you’ve not seen it recently, do yourself a favour and get hold of it. I couldn’t help noticing a stack of them in HMV Oxford Street very reasonably priced. They could probably do with your business right now!
His Girl Friday (1940)
As far as I’m concerned, this is Howard Hawks’ masterpiece, and I’ve now managed to catch it few times on the big screen.
I remember first discovering one Sunday night in 1990 when Channel 4 showed the film at 9pm (yes – that’s the sort of thing Channel 4 broadcast in peaktime back then). I’ve been enamoured of it ever since. I’d just urge you to seek it out on a the excellent Columbia DVD rather than the vastly inferior public domain prints that litter Amazon and eBay.
When I saw it in the BFI, I’d completely forgotten about the opening caption card at the film’s start that seems strangely resonant post-Leveson:
It all happened in the “Dark Ages” of the newspaper game — when to a reporter “getting that story” justified anything short of murder. Incidentally, you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press today.
Ready?
Well, once upon a time–

Where do I begin with this? It has Cary Grant in one of his best roles ever as Walter Burns, newspaper editor who’s trying to win back his ex-wife Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell). It’s based on the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur stage play The Front Page, and it had already been made into a film, although Charles Lederer wrote the script for this film, and it seems to have been director Howard Hawks’ idea to change the sex of Hildy and make her Burns’ ex-wife.
It’s clearly this relationship that makes the film fly, and the dialogue fly with it. Hawks had Lederer write an overlapping script such that the bits that overlapped weren’t important, and the key parts were contained mid-sentence.
And has Rosalind Russell every been better? She’s got the sharpest of sharp dialogue – you really believe that she’s the main “man” in the press room. The other journalists bow down before her. She commands the screen and drags you along with her.
The repartee between her and Grant is a joy to behold. In one scene in the press room later in the film, you can just see on hers and Grant’s faces that they’re having a blast making the film.
Ralph Bellamy is beautifully cast as Bruce Baldwin, the harmless insurance salesman that Hildy is due to marry the very next day.
The film pokes and prods and the inequities of local politics with a corrupt mayor and his lackeys essentially trying to execute a prisoner to win favour just before an election. While Burns seems to have no morals with regard to getting his way and selling papers, there’s an underlying morality at work in this film.
The sequences that take place in the press room of the prison are sometimes technically marvellous. Reporters from rival papers snap their lines down the phones in brilliantly timed turns. This was technically hard to do given the state of audio-recording technology of the time.
And there are loads of in jokes – you can read them on IMDB or Wikipedia – but my favourites are when Burns is describing what Bruce Baldwin looks like: “”He looks like that fellow in the movies, you know… Ralph Bellamy!”
And later Burns says that the last man who crossed him was Archie Leach (Cary Grant’s real name from his Bristolian upbringing before he departed for America).
Overall it’s a film that just keeps on giving. Just writing this makes me want to go back and watch it again.
Bachelor Mother
This was the first in Ginger Rogers double bill shown in the BFI season, and in neither film did she do a great deal of dancing. Only recently the BBC has been showing the Astaire/Rogers RKO films, and they are indeed timeless classics.
But there was more to Rogers than those films, and we see that in two very different roles in these films. In Bachelor Mother, she plays a young shop assistant, Polly Parrish, who works in Merlin’s department store. It’s Christmas Eve, and after a tannoyed message of thanks from Merlin Snr., she discovers she’s being laid off from her job at in the toy department. She’s only been there a few week’s but it’s not a great Christmas present.
During her lunch break, she heads out to an employment agency and on the way back interrupts a woman who’s abandoning a baby on the steps of a nursery. Polly immediately picks up the baby to ensure it doesn’t fall down the steps, yet inevitably the nursery suspect the baby to be hers. Despite running off, they track down her department store employers.
Enter David Niven as Merlin Jnr – something of a playboy – who is charged with giving Polly her job back, along with a raise, and returning the baby itself. And so, she becomes a “Bachelor[ette] Mother”.
I said that Rogers doesn’t do a great deal of dancing in these films, but there is a very funny dance competition sequence that takes place in the Pink Slipper nightclub. Was that a pun based around the “pink slip” that Polly has been given?
Rogers’ character is strong-headed, but still uncertain enough to back down and adopt the baby. And Niven is perfectly cast as the young man who, inevitably, falls for her. It’s all fluffy silliness and not at all bad for that.
Roxie Hart (1942)
I’m not a great fan of musicals and have never seen the stage musical Chicago, nor the film version of it. So it was only when I started watching this film that the name suddenly clicked somewhere in my head and I realised that this film, like the more recent musical, was based on an earlier stage play – Chicago.
To say that this is a light film doesn’t really do the word “light” justice. It’s practically filled with helium. The film opens with an hilarious series of newspaper headlines showing the injustice of a Chicago legal system that seemed to be routinely freeing women who’d murdered men, but locking up men doing the same.
The film uses a framing device of a then contemporary newspaper reporter detailing proceedings from years earlier when all of this was happening
We get a very different Rogers in this film – she’s a gum-chewing, stockings wearing wild-child full of sassiness – Roxie. She practically runs the prison that’s she’s been thrown into for murdering her husband, and has everyone eating out of her hand.
There’s a fine supporting cast in the film – notably including Phil Silvers as a press photographer who leads his pack of cohorts to capture everything salient in the case.
And of course Rogers gets to a bit of dancing, with a lovely short tap routine on the metal staircase of the prison.
The film ends in the centrepiece courtroom scene where Roxie is being coached by her lawyer Billy Flynn (Adolphe Menjou), and she constantly ensures she shows the jury plenty of leg. The live courtroom radio commentary is entertaining, sponsored by a patent remedy for all known ailments. And every time something dramatic happens, Silvers’ photographic team leap forward to capture that moment.
Very silly, but a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Being a Preston Sturges film, this is much more famous than many of the films showing in this season. Oddly, however, it was a title that had somehow previously eluded me.
Joel McCrea plays the eponymous Sullivan, a movie director who’s had enormous success with such films as Ants in Your Plants of 1939 and Hey Hey in the Hayloft. His studio’s execs would quite like him to make Ants in Your Plants of 1941!
There are many things to love about this film. It’s the film that begat “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – the terribly worthy film that Sullivan aspires to make rather than the frivolous fare he’s been making hitherto.
Then there are lots of in jokes about Hollywood – meeting Lubitsch and the fact that nobody in Hollywood has done a real day’s work.
It does feel a little different from many of the films in this season, and were it not for some of the wisecracks that Veronica Lake’s “Girl” comes out with, I think you’d be hard pushed to really call it screwball.
There’s an early chase sequence when a studio land yacht that’s following Sullivan in a boy’s home-built “tank” that has plenty of slapstick.
And there’s the last third of the film, where humour seems to be a distant memory while we appreciate the suffering of prisoners condemned to hard labour in fetid plantations.
The camera loves Lake, and so do we. Early on, when Sullivan is discussing his planned film, the crass executives keep pointing out that his film needs to have sex. Lake very much provides that in this film. The petite Lake was several months pregnant during production, but you wouldn’t have known it, and it’s a shame that beyond some of her film noir work, her personal battles meant she didn’t make more films.
Sullivan’s Travels always feels it’s walking a tightrope between trying to deal with poverty in a humane way, and not producing a Hollywood version of poverty. Sturges had a very clear message that he was trying to convey with this film. And the scene set in a black church where the prisoners are allowed to join the parishioners for a film screening is remarkable in the way it handles race. I can’t think of another mainstream film of the period that has black characters in such a role. The black cook on the aforementioned land yacht, hamming it up in his kitchen galley getting covered in cooking stuffs feels much more usual.
Midnight (1939)
Going to all these films has really opened my eyes to a few actors and actresses. Many of the supporting character actors occur and then recur. But if there’s one actress I’ve really learned to love in these films, it’s Claudette Colbert. I now realise I really need to watch more of her work.
In Midnight, Colbert plays a down at heel dancing girl, Eve Peabody, who’s always on the make. Having stowed away across the Atlantic, we find her as she wakes up in a third class carriage on the Monaco to Paris train. She only has the ballgown she’s wearing, 10c and Monaco pawn ticket to her name.
She’s lucky enough to run into a Hungarian emigrée taxi driver, Tibor Czerny, played by Don Ameche. Despite Czerny’s better judgement he drives her around Paris looking for singing gigs at one of the nightclubs. He’s smitten by the smart talking Peabody and offers her somewhere to stay. But she makes a break for it and manages to crash a society siorée. There she gets involved, at first without her knowledge, in a complicated scheme concocted by John Barrymore’s Georges Flammarion who is trying to win back the affections of his wife who is taken by the suave Jacques (Francis Lederer).
This all involves Eve adopting the name “Baroness Czerny” – it being the first name that pops into her head. There’s a lovely scene where the smooth Jacques insists on accompanying the “Baroness” back to her hotel. Having randomly chanced upon the Ritz, she’s certain she’s going to be found out as she approaches the hotel.
Something of a farce then plays out in Barrymore’s mansion located somewhere near Versailles, as Tibor reappears, having conducted a citywide search for Eve incorporating every Parisian taxi-driver.
The plot is silly, and you wouldn’t want to stop and think about how some of these people are behaving for too long, since it wouldn’t make a great deal of sense. But director Mitchell Leisen ensures that the film has a wonderful joie de vivre, and Colbert is simply breathtaking. Her expressions are lovely, and the film’s writers, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, have given her some killer lines. She has throwaway line after throwaway line which are laugh out loud funny. This truly was a wonderful discovery.
Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have had a UK DVD release, but there is a US edition that got a release and seems to be available.
I’m into the home stretch of my January screwball season now. There are a couple more bookings that I have at the BFI, and then a handful of DVDs to catch up with. I suspect that I could continue watching films for much longer, although tracking them down may become harder. Anyway, this has proved an excellent way to start 2013!