Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Film History Lesson, by Way of Etymology


Today I watched one of the hundreds (thousands?) of classic Hollywood films that I haven't seen, Harvey, starring Jimmie Stewart. It reminded me of a distinction that a professor of mine always harped on, an important distinction representing the bifurcation of American comedy in the 30s and 40s. I don't know how many of you will have seen any or many of these films, but this little primer should make sense of them.

The distinction that my professor always harped on was the term "screwball comedy." It enraged him that everyone invariably called the movies of the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields screwball comedies. They aren't screwball comedies at all. People who call them screwball comedies do so (and they frequently did so, according to Dr. Streible, on his final exam) by misunderstanding the etymology of screwball. This false etymology of screwball comedy is a film that is screwy or screwbally - a film that is zany, off-the-wall, crazy, etc. But a screwball comedy isn't "screwy" - it's a comedy about "screwballs," which is an entirely different matter.

Even if you have seen Harvey, or my other favorite example of this term, The Day the Earth Stood Still, you probably don't remember the word "screwball" in those films, but it's there. In Harvey, Stewart's niece tells her mother that she won't be able to enter society since everyone knows that she's "the biggest screwball in town." In The Day the Earth Stood Still, a young boy tells Klaatu the undercover alien, after Klaatu repeatedly is confused about how and why Americans do things, "boy, you sure are a screwball, aren't ya?"

A screwball comedy, as created by Frank Capra in the 1934 film It Happened One Night, is a film about screwballs. It's not "screwy" or "slapsticky" like a Marx Brothers film (although it could be) , but it's about people on the outside of society. People who don't quite fit in. People who have a screw loose. The screwball in screwball comedy represents not the nature of the film or its characters' actions, but its characters' status in society as outsiders. And since Capra invented the screwball comedy, its characters are almost always a little kinder, a little gentler, a little more welcoming and understanding than the rest of society. At the worst, even if they're not so kind or gentle, they aspire to something higher or better than regular society has to offer.

What happens in the screwball comedy is that Capra, et al. ask us to reorient ourselves so that these screwballs become the norm. In It Happened One Night, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable are a pair of screwballs - Colbert wants to be free of her rich father's world of wealth and privilege, and Gable imagines a world outside of American society where he can meet a girl who can share his dream of adventure. They clash repeatedly over their different dreams, but their repartee is constantly witty and enjoyable. At one point, while on their journey, they have to pretend to be married in front of the police, and they put on a show of a completely different type: they yell at each other incomprehensibly without any kind of mutual understanding until the cops leave. The motel worker who opened their room for the police says: "See, a perfectly normal married couple." That's what marriage looks like in mainstream society; the screwballs are ostracized for wanting something different.

Along the way, screwball comedies are often full of witty dialogue, ridiculous sight gags, and slapstick comedy, particularly in Bringing up Baby and any film made by Preston Sturges. But what makes a screwball comedy a "screwball" is that its characters don't fit into mainstream society, but want to create a new world, better than the mainstream one. The screwball comedy is the comedy of the creation of a new society, from the fringes of that society.

Now, The Marx Brothers and WC Fields movies are the exact opposite of screwball comedies. Sure, Fields and the Brothers might seem like screwballs, in that they don't fit into mainstream society, but they're not the right kind of screwball. Fields repeatedly makes it clear that he hates dogs, women, politics, America, and people. The Marx Brothers, particularly Groucho, hate governments, fair play, truth, honesty, justice, society, and yeah, again, women. In other words, if a screwball comedy is a movie where the asylum inmates imagine creating a whole new, kinder, gentler world, these other movies have been labeled by Andrew Bergman "anarcho-nihilistic laff riots." They have no desire to fix society; they want to tear it down, rip it to pieces, dance on its grave and, above all, be left alone by it so that they can have a drink and throw things at respectable people in peace ( this is how Duck Soup ends...and the person having things thrown at them is of course Margaret Dumont, the women who is hoodwinked and mocked by Groucho in nearly every Marx Brothers movie).

So, the anarcho-nihilistic laff riots and the screwball comedies do have some things in common. Sight gags and physical comedy are staples of the laff riots, but they do often show up in screwball comedies. Both genres usually feature witty and rapid-fire dialogue, and both of them empathize with those outside of the mainstream of society. But the screwball comedies imagine a better world that can be built out of the often quaint values that mainstream society has discarded, while the laff riots heap nothing but scorn on those exact same ideals.

Harvey makes this distinction incredibly clear. Harvey has no rapid-fire dialogue, virtually no slapstick, no zany characters, nothing that in any way resembles a Marx Brothers picture. But it's about a man, Elwood P. Dowd, who believes he can see a 6-foot tall rabbit, and who believes that the world is a nice place, and that everyone should be happy, and that you should invite bums to dinner and that you should marry whoever you want, regardless of social station. Since it's a comedy about him, and one that empathizes with him, that makes Harvey a screwball comedy.


Frank Capra: The Inventor
  • It Happened One Night
  • You Can't Take it With You
  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

George Cukor: The Refiner
  • The Holiday
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • Adam's Rib

Preston Sturges: The Master of Physical Comedy
  • The Lady Eve
  • Sullivan's Travels
  • Palm Beach Story

Leo McCarey:The Marx Bros Director
  • The Awful Truth

Howard Hawks: The Cynic
  • Bringing up Baby
  • His Girl Friday (probably an anti-screwball comedy)

The Coen Brothers: The Updaters
  • The Hudsucker Proxy (retro-screwball)
  • The Big Lebowski (the quintessential 90s screwball)
  • Intolerable Cruelty (retro-screwball)

Also, I'm working on a post about the 20 greatest American directors of all time, and all of those I just mentioned besides McCarey are locks to be on the list, so you could say I recommend their films. Happy watching!

If you're interested in watching the other kind of film in this post, they're easy to find - pretty much any movie made by Fields or the Marx Brothers. I recommend:
  • Duck Soup
  • A Night at the Opera
  • Horse Feathers
  • The Bank Dick
  • Never Give a Sucker an Even Break
  • The Fatal Glass of Beer (short)


hilizzle said...

Is The Holiday the one we watched with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn on my birthday? When you were describing what a screwball comedy technically is (which I never knew), that's the first one that lept to my mind.

Cibbuano said...

It's a good point... it's so easy just to apply the label 'screwball' to those zany comedies from the Golden Age.

I'll try to be a little more conscious of the usage of the word!