In contrast to the female driven relationships in a screwball comedy, the romantic comedy heroines are considerably less eccentric, as seen by the soon-to-be-married Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. The heroines are often decidedly serious, unlike the screwball heroine, though, they are not subject to such zany events as having a net thrown over them. For instance, My Best Friend’s Wedding starts off as traditional examples of the genre. In the 1930s the leading ladies of this picture would have broken up the wedding and saved her man from a life of boring rigidity, but in this film the man opts for the less flashy and eccentric fianci??es.
Instead of depicting her as a life-sucking drone, as a screwball comedy would have, these pictures portray her as safe and comfortable. Ultimately, the movie breaks with the screwball mold and essentially embraces romantic comedy. In today’s truly life-on-the-edge existence, with new dangers from terrorist acts to AIDS, unpredictability is less appealing. Along related lines, just because a manic clown has a girlfriend does not make a picture a screwball comedy. All modern funny men have romantic interests.
For instance, calling the modern comedy such as Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmore a screwball comedy would be like labeling Casablanca a musical because it has a lot of singing in it. Screwball comedy simply uses a strong eccentric heroine to parody the traditional romance genre, while a romantic comedy has a more typical male pursuing female feel to it. There is a last question to be answered when determining if a movie is a screwball or romantic comedy. Screwball comedies are not slow movies; on the contrary, they are fast-paced and unrelenting. They go straight to the silly, taking no side roads or meandering digressions.
In The Awful Truth, Jerry and Lucy’s marriage is over almost before the movie begins because Jerry accuses Lucy of sleeping with her French singing instructor and she accuses him of participating in less-than-wholesome activities in California and they are in the divorce court before the audience ever even gets to see them as a couple. They take no time in getting to the silly antics. For instance, My Man Godfrey begins with the rich sisters Irene and Cornelia taking part in a scavenger hunt in a Hooverville and the physical comedy starts right away when Cornelia is pushed into a pile of ashes by Godfrey.
The antics don’t stop; their mother’s beau does an impression of a gorilla just to satisfy her need for amusement. His Girl Friday doesn’t tart with physical humor, but the entire first scene of the film is fast-paced. Hildy walks into Walter’s newspaper print to tell her ex-husband, Walter, that she is getting re-married. The dialogue is fast-paced and humorous, and Walter and Hildy’s argument once she reaches his office and tells him her news is comical and speedy. Romantic comedies are, by comparison, slow.
In all three movies, the characters are well-established and the movies don’t speed up just because the audience wants to know the ending. In Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, the lovers don’t even meet until the very end of the movie, and in My Best Friend’s Wedding, the movie builds until Julianne’s confession of love to Michael near the end of the film. The movies develop slowly, building characters and relationships and explaining the reasons behind each character’s actions. The viewer isn’t thrown into a story with no explanation; indeed, the viewer knows almost everything about the characters.
In Sleepless in Seattle, we know Sam’s wife has died of cancer, his profession (architect), his son’s name, his lifestyle, and his emotional state even before his son makes the call to the radio station that begins the action of the film. This slower pace is a true digression from the fast-paced world of the screwball comedy. While screwball comedies are often confused with romantic comedies, there is another genre of film that is often wrongly labeled screwball comedy: the populist film.
Though there are many differences between the screwball film and the populist film, the main difference is the view of the rich and the common man in each genre. In a screwball comedy, though the rich are reckless and wild, they are typically portrayed as fairly harmless. They don’t truly hurt people, and are often benevolent. For instance, the Weenie King, a rich man, gives one of our heroines seven-hundred dollars in exchange for nothing but wholesome company. The screwball comedies poke fun at the average man and the cracker-barrel philosopher.
For instance, in My Man Godfrey, which some may argue is a populist film, the home-town ordinary man can’t tame the well-to-do women. In fact, Irene saves him from himself through a screwball marriage indicated by Godfrey ignorance of the situation (Creese). The average man is shown as bumbling and unaware of his surrounding. No sort of whole-some values or virtues prevail; instead, Godfrey just accepts this all-pervasive craziness and our zany story ends on that silly note. However, populist films view the common man in a much different light.
Screwball has a primarily elitist overtone, in which the spoiled brats of the upper class mocked the populist cracker-barrel philosopher, went crazy and got away with everything and the populist genre which quickly became a clear off-shoot from the screwball where the populist cracker-barrel philosopher won out over the city, the rich, and authority. Jim Leach would say screwball comedy directors like Frank Capra’s shift their focus from the sexual to the social implications of the comedy and formed a new genre that would much better be described as populist.
These populist films no longer focused on the zaniness and sexuality of the upper class, but on the goodness of the common man. In It Happened One Night we see glimpses of real American values, such as on the bus when everyone on the bus sings together and a spoiled brat is show to the light, ultimately learning the joys of being ordinary down-home folk. It is through moments of learning “the proper way to dunk a doughnut” and “how to properly hitchhike” that it becomes obvious that It Happen One Night is a populist movie because it holds out to real people as opposed to screwball comedies where it’s just all about having fun.
Though these scenes are poking fun at the cracker-barrel philosopher because we know that there is no polite way to dunk a doughnut and nothing Peter does works because there is no real guide to hitchhiking, we see that they are examples of a good, honest, down-home working class lifestyle, which leads to Ellie losing her cynical attitude and falling in love with Peter and the idea of the working class lifestyle rather than going back to her old affluent life before.
As Jim Leach put, “the only positive strategy in screwball comedy is to accept the all-pervasive craziness, the populist comedy argues that what society regards as crazy is really a manifestation of the normal human values with which society has lost touch. ” In It Happened One Night Peter claims to be an expert on hitchhiking [cracker-barrel philosopher] but nothing he tries works, eventually out of frustration he ends up thumbing his nose at passing cars. Yet the sheltered Ellie then shows him how it’s done. She stops the next car dead in its tracks by lifting up her skirt and showing off a shapely leg.
This glorification of the ordinary is a key component in any populist film. The screwball formula has changed markedly since the 1930s, the stories are slow to start and possess provocative conversation about morality and direct social commentary on political and societal issues. Today’s take on the genre might actually have gay characters, as in My Best Friend’s Wedding, whereas a pioneering screwball comedy only teases about it, such as when a frilly night-gowned Cary Grant jumps in the air and yells, “I just went gay all of a sudden!
” in Bringing Up Baby. However, whether screwball or romantic comedy, love invariably triumphs on the silver screen. Conventional marriage may be called into question or the role of men and women may be redefined, but the common motif that has seemed to always reign supreme among all others is love. The undeniable message in screwball, romantic and even populist films is that love will endure, that love will triumph over class, money, desire and any societal bounds.
The genres will always be in a state of flux because American culture is forever changing, but the message as reflected by the past has and will probably always be the same.
Work Cited Byrge, Duane, and Robert Milton Miller. The Screwball Comedy Films: A History and Filmography, 1934-1942. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991. Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. Creese, Richard.
“English Composition 3 Lectures on Screwball Comedy” UCLA College of Letters and Sciences Gehring, Wes D. Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002. Leach, Jim. The Screwball Comedy. London: Wallflower Press, 2002. Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. Shumway, David. Modern Love. New York University Press. 2003. Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America. Vintage, Rev Sub edition, 1994.