#18 Golden Age of Hollywood Series
Part III: Screwin’ Around
Thus far, I’ve painted the Hollywood censors as the villains of our piece. I’m justified, I think, in mocking their obsession with showing women’s hemlines, violence, and sex.
When the censors finally got their way in 1934, we didn’t just lose Jane’s loincloth, or steamy kisses, or gangsters riddling each other’s cars with bullets.
We lost—at least for a time—a depth in storytelling. In making all movies suitable for everyone, producers had to put more mature themes on the shelf. Gone were the movies questioning the nobility of war (Hell’s Angels), the double standard between men and women (The Divorcée, Anna Christie), or the limited ways in which a poor uneducated woman has to make her way in the world (Baby Face).
Movies got sillier, filled with treacle and drained of substance.
In the end, the great tragedy of the production code is that it forced movies to show the world the way it ought to be, rather than the way it is.
The challenge of telling good stories within the constraints of the code unleashed a whirlwind of creative energy in the writers, directors, and producers of Hollywood.
The best, most enduring product of that creativity is the screwball comedy.
The screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s continue to be some of the most beloved, and most rewatched classic movies. Most people who find their way into classic movies are hooked by a screwball. Almost every legendary actor, actress, and director has made a screwball.
And they would’ve never happened without censorship.
The screwball comedy is the biggest, brightest silver lining of the production code.
See, a screwball comedy is a romantic comedy that tells a love story without breaking the rules of the code—no steamy kisses, no couples shown in the same bed, no frank foreplay.
The screwballs are sex comedies without the sex.
In lieu of sex, they manipulate each other, pull each other into harebrained schemes, and almost always someone falls down or gets wet.
But most of all, they bicker.
And drive one another insane.
And thus, prove their love.
It’s the perfect mix of physical comedy and romance.
They range from wry to out-and-out and slapstick.
And today, we’re going to cover two of the most outrageous examples, with heroines who are practically deranged and the men who have the misfortune to fall in love with them.
Bringing Up Baby is the story of David Huxley (Cary Grant), a scientist trying to secure a million dollar grant for his museum, and the chance encounter with Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) that will change his life. The flighty Susan soon charms and exasperates David into a series of misadventures revolving around her quest to deliver a pet leopard to her aunt.
David is to be married to someone else the day that Susan whisks him away, and fortunately he discovers he loves Susan before it’s too late.
Screwballs are best when the leads are playing off one another, a rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of words ping-ponging between the two.
Bringing Up Baby is a beloved screwball comedy today, but it was a flop back in it’s day. It was one of the movies that would label Katharine Hepburn as “box office poison” and send her temporarily back east before her triumphant comeback.
Katharine Hepburn had such a persona of a strong woman both on and offscreen that audiences just couldn’t quite buy her as a ditz. And while her Susan successfully irritated David, she also irritated the audience.
Bringing Up Baby was the first classic film I ever watched, and I remember loving it. I was probably nine or ten at the time, and I’d never seen anything like it. I was mesmerized by the black and white film, by Hepburn’s crazy accent, by Cary Grant’s charm. I fell in love with old movies right then.
But I have to admit that rewatching it, I can understand why audiences turned away from it. Katharine Hepburn will never be flighty, and she is irritating. The shenanigans go on for a bit too long and at times the film is just too crazy. There are so many truly outstanding screwballs that I regret to say that I can’t really recommend you start with this one.
My Man Godfrey is a much better deranged dame screwball (the dames aren’t always deranged, as we’ll see in future posts). Carole Lombard plays Irene Bullock, a spoiled rich girl who employs William Powell’s Godfrey when she discovers he is a down-on-his-luck man living in the town dump during the Depression.
Godfrey watches the hysterics of the Bullock family with a detached amusement. He wants to keep his job and his face straight.
Lombard and Powell are marvelous in the film. Lombard was born to play screwball dames, the crazier, the better, and Irene Bullock was the craziest she ever played. Powell is a screwball comedy fixture as the straight man, and he is wonderful as Godfrey.
Audiences and critics alike loved the film. It was nominated for six Oscars, including director and screenplay. It was the first movie to ever receive nominations in all four acting categories. Sadly, neither Powell nor Lombard would ever win an Oscar.
We’re going to spend the next few posts exploring more films from this fascinating subgenre.
There can hardly be a better way to spend our time than screwing around with Hollywood’s greatest stars.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.