I’ve already discussed the three films that kick off the reign of the screwball in 1934 in my previous post on early screwballs and the films of Ernest Lubitsch. Here, I’m going to look at the rest of the 1930s, when the genre becomes firmly implanted in Hollywood and we see the release of such classics as My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, and You Can’t Take It with You.
Of course, for every screwball classic, there are many forgotten films, some of which show up on TCM or at classic film festivals in large cities, but are hard to catch otherwise. I was able to watch many of the more obscure films discussed below because I have the “Icons of Screwball Comedy” collection (Volume I and Volume II each include four rarities) on DVD, but I would have loved to have seen more.*
One of these more obscure films is one of my favorites. If You Could Only Cook (1935) is a classic comedy of mistaken identity. It stars Herbert Marshall, who we last saw in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, and Jean Arthur, who would go on to be a favorite of Frank Capra and whose final film is a sentimental favorite of mine, Shane (“Shane, come back!”). In Cook, directed by William Seiter, Marshall plays a dissatisfied automobile executive on the eve of his wedding and Arthur is an out-of-work woman who meets him in a park and talks him into posing as her husband so they can land jobs as a butler and cook with what turns out to be a wealthy bootlegger. The gangster element is a nice twist, although there is a plotline with the fiancée that could have been developed a bit more.
1936 would see the release of three critical and popular successes that might be categorized as screwball: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, My Man Godfrey, and Libeled Lady. However, while often found on lists of screwballs, I personally wouldn’t categorize Mr. Deeds Goes to Town that way. It is another one of those films where the plot description (small-town boy inherits millions in the big city and falls in love with undercover reporter) is far more screwball than the actual film. Instead, we see the outlines of what will become Capra’s strong tendency toward sentimental, or even dark, Americana worship. It’s a film I would recommend (I for one happen to love darkly sentimental Americana), but it’s not screwball.
On the other hand, Libeled Lady, directed by Jack Conway and starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, and Spencer Tracy, most definitely is. Given that it stars one of my favorite screen couples, Powell and Loy, I can’t quite believe I had never seen this one—oddly enough, Libeled Lady was nominated for Best Picture in 1936 but lost out on the Oscar to The Great Ziegfeld, also starring Powell and Loy. In fact, Libeled Lady proved so popular that it was later remade in 1946 as Easy to Wed, with Esther Williams as the lady in question and Lucille Ball in the Jean Harlow role.
This film was utterly delightful. Again, I’m not the biggest Harlow fan, but she’s perfect here as a newspaperman’s frustrated fiancée who gets involved in a scheme to save his newspaper from a libel suit instigated by heiress Myrna Loy. In an unusual twist, the “libel man” (William Powell) who gets put on the case ingratiates himself with Loy’s father by pretending to be writing a book on fly fishing. Naturally, our hero is eventually called upon to demonstrate his mad fishing skillz and hilarity ensues. Who knew that being a natural at the underhanded cast could prove so valuable? I’m really quite sorry I never was able to share this with my father, who was an avid fisherman himself.
My Man Godfrey, also starring William Powell, this time opposite Carole Lombard, ranks right up there as one of my favorite screwballs of all time and one of the purest examples of the genre. The plot is as screwy as they come: Powell is living in a Hooverville on the city dump when he is picked up by Lombard for a citywide scavenger hunt and ends up becoming a butler for her crazy family. Of course, Powell is not exactly your average homeless man and lessons are learned all around. If you like P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, you will certainly like this.
My Man Godfrey went on to become the first film nominated by the Academy in all four acting categories. Of the fourteen films** that eventually achieved this feat, including this past year’s Silver Linings Playbook, it is the only one that did not also receive a nomination for Best Picture. (And this was back in the day when anywhere from eight to twelve pictures might be nominated so there was really no excuse. Bad Academy, no biscuit.) Incidentally, Godfrey lost out in the acting categories to performances in the following “Where are they now?” films: Anthony Adverse, Come and Get It, The Great Ziegfeld, and The Story of Louis Pasteur. Its director, Gregory La Cava, lost out on the Directing award to Frank Capra of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.
—Eugene Pallette as Alexander Bullock in My Man Godfrey
Theodora Goes Wild (1936), directed by Richard Boleslawski, has a very promising title but is probably my second-least favorite film on this list. The film, which tells the story of a prim and proper Connecticut woman who is the secret author of a racy bestseller, is poorly paced and none of the various plotlines make much sense. Neither Irene Dunne nor Melvyn Douglas is very convincing, although there is one moment in her hometown when Douglas simply smolders that made me sit up and reconsider my assessment. Worth watching as part of the collection listed above, but I wouldn’t seek it out.
Sadly, things don’t get much better with I Met Him in Paris (1937), directed by Wesley Ruggles. The plot is rather odd and everyone just seems a bit uncomfortable. Kay Denham (Claudette Colbert) leaves her boring fiancé to take a dream vacation to Paris. While there, she meets friends Gene Anders (Robert Young) and George Potter (Melvyn Douglas). It is clear that both friends are interested in Kay, but George is a bit wary of Gene’s pursuit and takes on the role of chaperone, which seems odd until you learn that Gene is married. Unsurprisingly, at a later point in the film, both the fiancé and wife show up. Perhaps if the same subject had been done earlier during the pre-code era, something might have been made out of it, but the whole thing just seemed exceedingly awkward and the ambiguous finale rather unsatisfying. At this point, I’m starting to view Melvyn Douglas as the kiss of death; he was my least favorite thing about Ninotchka as well.
Easy Living (1937), directed by Mitchell Leisen, is right up there with Libeled Lady as one of the great discoveries of this screwball voyage. This hilarious film, written by Preston Sturges (who I will be looking at more closely in my next post), stars Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, and a young Ray Milland. The action is set in motion when Arnold, a Wall Street 1-percenter, gets mad at his wife’s extravagant ways and throws her new sable coat off their penthouse roof. It lands on Arthur as she is going to work on a double-decker bus and ruins her hat. When she gets off the bus to return it, he gives her the coat and a ride to work, stopping to buy her a new hat. While this makes her late and gets her fired, it leads a chain of people into believing she is his mistress and hoping to curry favor and insider information through her, with both positive and negative consequences. Of course, this film would win points from me just for having a major scene in an automat.
While not a particularly interesting or amusing screwball, Nothing Sacred (1937), directed by William Wellman, occupies a unique place as the only Technicolor film in this group. Released just one month before the color explosion that was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, this film is worth watching for its many views of a 1930s New York in living color. The plot is rather maudlin: Carole Lombard plays a Vermont woman who is supposedly dying of radium poisoning who the Morning Star wants to bring to New York to increase their circulation. Even though she has just learned she is not really sick, she goes along with the story to get the trip. Although she feels guilty, she doesn’t really do anything about it until the newspaper’s specialist, Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer (which only made me think of Dr. Emil Schaffhausen from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), declares she is not sick. I feel like this could have been so much better than it was.
Double Wedding (1937), directed by Richard Thorpe, is the exception that proves the rule: a Powell-Loy film that doesn’t shine. This is perhaps due to the fact that it was during this production that Jean Harlow, William Powell’s girlfriend of many years, died after an illness of several weeks. However, in addition, the script is really not that interesting or creative and neither Powell nor Loy seem particularly suited to their characters, a bohemian film director and humorless fashion designer respectively. For die-hard Powell-Loy fans only.
—Irene Dunne to Cary Grant in The Awful Truth
At the beginning of this odyssey, I would have said The Awful Truth (1937) is one of my favorite screwballs. However, while it contains a number of classic lines and great scenes, I’m not sure it will make my top ten. Even though its director, Leo McCarey, would go on to win the Oscar for Best Director that year, I just don’t think it works as well as some other screwballs, and it definitely has pacing problems. Still, I would certainly recommend it if you’ve never seen it. Not only is this is the first pairing of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, who would go to make both My Favorite Wife and Penny Serenade together, but it is also the origin of what will become known as the “Ralph Bellamy Character,” that is, the naive boyfriend futilely competing with the male lead. This film is one of the first in a long line of comedies of remarriage, a subgenre that emerged during this era of the Production Code to avoid censorship based on adultery or illicit sex.
—What’s the matter?
—Are you sure you don’t like that fella?
—Like him? You saw the way I treated him, didn’t you?
—That’s what I mean.
—Irene Dunne as Lucy and Ralph Bellamy as the RBC in The Awful Truth
Speaking of the awful truth, here is where I confess that I despise Bringing Up Baby (1938). That’s right, I said it. This much beloved screwball, directed by the great Howard Hawks, and starring screen legends Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, would easily be at the bottom of any classic film list I might come up with. I was hoping that my feelings about this film would have mellowed since I last viewed it, but no, it was all I could do to sit through it one last time. And while it’s true that part of the reason for this is that I don’t have an affinity for Hepburn, mostly I think it is because both actors are playing so against type here that I don’t buy either of them in these roles. What worse, Hepburn’s Susan Vance is annoying, inconsistent, and manipulative. It’s definitely a must-see, because for many people it’s a favorite, just know that if it drives you crazy and you want to slap everyone senseless, there is hope in other screwballs.
In fact, for proof that Grant and Hepburn can make a screwball that I do love, I submit Holiday (1938), directed by George Cukor. A relatively straightforward plot—humble man falls in love with a rich girl who wants to make him over into a version of her father while her quirky sister likes him exactly as is—the key here is the cast of secondary characters. Oh, Edward Everett Horton, how I’ve missed you. Horton forms a great comic sidekick couple with Jean Dixon, last seen as the deadpan maid in My Man Godfrey. I also love the alcoholic brother (you’re shocked, I know).
One of my favorite Frank Capra movies, and the one that earned him his third Oscar, is You Can’t Take It with You (1938), starring Jean Arthur, Jimmy Stewart, Edward Arnold, and Lionel Barrymore. In the film, Alice (Arthur) lives with her eccentric family and assorted hangers-on, who get pitted against the wealthy Anthony Kirby (Arnold) and his plans for their land. Arnold also happens to be the father of Stewart, her boss and boyfriend. In addition to winning the Oscar for Best Picture, You Can’t Take It with You was the highest-grossing picture of the year. It is perhaps best known for this incredible “scream” sequence:
Last, but not least, is Midnight (1939). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this one at first, but at one point I actually laughed out loud (something I rarely do watching at home) and that sealed the deal. Given that Midnight was directed by Mitchell Leisen, who also helmed Easy Living, and co-written by Billy Wilder, I should have had more faith. Midnight stars Claudette Colbert, John Barrymore, and a young Don Ameche in the story of a penniless American who finds herself stranded in a Paris train station, in an evening gown, after losing all her money (a payoff from a wealthy man’s mother) in Monte Carlo. Ameche is a Hungarian taxi driver who agrees to take her around job hunting. With no luck and not wanting to be tied down to a poor man, Colbert runs away and scams her way into a swanky socialite’s home concert. There she meets Barrymore, who soon has her number but enacts the role of mysterious benefactor in order to co-opt her into a plan to lure away his wife’s beau. Meanwhile, Ameche enlists every cabbie in Paris to try to find her. It doesn’t quite have the typical screwball ending, but it’s a fun ride.
In conclusion, while I wouldn’t recommend all these films to the average viewer, there are quite a few good ones I encourage you to seek out.
Screwball Filmography: Part II
If You Could Only Cook (1935)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
My Man Godfrey (1936)
Libeled Lady (1936)
Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
I Met Him in Paris (1937)
Easy Living (1937)
Double Wedding (1937)
The Awful Truth (1937)
Nothing Sacred (1937)
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
You Can’t Take It with You (1938)
For the previous post in this Screwball series, see Early Screwballs and The Lubitsch Touch. For the next, see 1940s Screwballs: Comedies of Remarriage.
*Sadly, the following films weren’t available at the library or on Netflix, but I will keep my eyes out for them: Hands Across the Table (1935), starring Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray; Breakfast for Two (1937), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Herbert Marshall; The Mad Miss Manton (1938), also with Stanwyck, this time with Henry Fonda; and It’s a Wonderful World (1939), another comedy-mystery directed by The Thin Man’s W. S. Van Dyke and starring Claudette Colbert and James Stewart.
**Besides My Man Godfrey, the other films that have been nominated in all four acting categories are Mrs. Miniver, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Johnny Belinda, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, From Here to Eternity, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Network, Coming Home, Reds, and Silver Linings Playbook. No film has won all four awards—A Streetcar Named Desire and Network came the closest with three each. Of these films, only My Man Godfrey went home empty-handed on Oscar night. (While Sunset Boulevard did not win any acting awards, it did win three Oscars, for Writing, Art/Set Direction, and Score.)