Screwball Comedies: A Guide to Some Classics

I had a friend ask for some recommendations on good old screwball comedies. At the time, I didn’t have the chance to really give a complete answer, and I thought this might be something other people would be interested in, too–so here goes. An overview to some great screwball comedies. These aren’t the more obscure ones–these are bread and butter essentials of the genre. Not sure if it’ll help my friend out (I don’t know how many she’s already seen), but they’ll help YOU out, if you’re a newcomer to the genre. Ready?

First of all, what is a screwball comedy? As Wikipedia puts it,

The screwball comedy is a principally American genre of comedy film that became popular during the Great Depression, originating in the early 1930s and thriving until the early 1940s. It is characterized by fast-paced repartee, farcical situations, escapist themes, and plot lines involving courtship and marriage. Screwball comedies often depict social classes in conflict, as in It Happened One Night (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936). Some comic plays are also described as screwball comedies.

 So we’re not talking about modern comedies here. Bill Murray movies or National Lampoons don’t count–they’re a different beast. I happen to love this genre, and there are so many many great comedies to choose from.

  • It Happened One Night–This is a classic Frank Capra movie starring Clark Gable, a reporter looking for a story, who falls in with an heiress looking to run away from her family. It won best picture, actor, actress, director, and screenplay. If you haven’t seen this movie, I think there might be something wrong with you. I’m pretty sure all human beings are supposed to have seen this.
  • My Man Godfrey–A hobo (William Powell) gets hired to be the butler to a wealthy family. Sometimes the premises of these movies alone is enough to demand seeing it. It also earned Oscar noms for actor, supporting actor, actress, supporting actress, director, and screenplay.
  • The Awful Truth–Cary Grant was so convinced this movie wasn’t working that he asked to be let out of his contract. It ended up catapulting him to stardom. A husband and wife are on the outs and try to sabotage each other during their divorce. (Possibly would have been better if they’d hired a hobo to be their butler.)
  • Bringing Up Baby–Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and a pet leopard. What could go wrong? Plenty. The movie bombed at the box office and it threatened the careers of Hepburn and director Howard Hawks. Today, it’s been named by EW as the 24th best picture of all time and is part of the National Film Registry.
  • You Can’t Take It with You–A Frank Capra classic. (Incidentally, I was in a production of this in junior high. I played the uptight father.) A rich man gets engaged to a girl from an eccentric family. Hilarity ensures. Won best picture and director.
  • His Girl Friday–Howard Hawks, Cary Grant, and the world of newspapers. Based on a Broadway play and remade many times, this version is still my favorite. It brings snappy dialogue to a whole new level of Zen.
  • The Philadelphia Story–George Cukor directing Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart. If that doesn’t make you want to see this movie, you have no soul. One of my all time favorite movies.
  • To Be or Not to Be–Ernst Lubitsch directing Jack Benny in a movie about a Polish acting troupe trying to take down the Nazi. Remade later by Mel Brooks–this is still a fun film.
  • Arsenic and Old Lace–Cary Grant and Frank Capra, plus serial killing aunts. I’m telling you, these movies just make themselves, folks. I wish I could have been in some of the pitch sessions.
Really, when you get down to it, look for a few key directors: Cukor, Capra, Lubistch, Hawks, Sturges, and later on Billy Wilder (I love the lesser-known One, Two, Three–James Cagney in a comedy all about Coca Cola and Communism).

7 thoughts on “Screwball Comedies: A Guide to Some Classics”

  1. You had to go there, didn’t you? 🙂 The list wasn’t intended to be complete–I’m on lunch break here at work, Dan. (You know–work? That place where some people have to go every day and put in 8 hours of labor?) Some Like It Hot was an oversight–but I also no doubt left out a ton of other great ones. What’s Up Doc is too new for me to consider it for this list. Love it, though.

    Do you have any other favorites you’d like to add? Had you seen all of mine?

  2. LOVE this!! Thank you so much. And I’ve only seen a couple, so I think your list might mean we’re set for evening entertainment all winter long. I’m excited!

  3. Your list is great, and this is one of my favorite genres as well. On the extremely farcical end of the scale, have you see Noises Off? Too modern for this list, but awesome (though stage productions are almost invariably funnier than the movie).

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