Like farce, screwball comedies often involve mistaken identities or other circumstances in which a character or characters try to keep some important fact a secret. Sometimes screwball comedies feature male characters cross-dressing, further contributing to the misunderstandings (Bringing Up Baby, I Was a Male War Bride, Some Like It Hot). They also involve a central romantic story, usually in which the couple seem mismatched and even hostile to each other at first, and "meet cute" in some way. Often this mismatch comes about because the man is much further down the economic scale than the woman (Bringing Up Baby, Holiday). The final marriage is often planned by the woman from the beginning, while the man doesn’t know at all. In Bringing Up Baby we find a rare statement on that, when the leading woman says, once speaking to someone other than her future husband: "He’s the man I’m going to marry, he doesn’t know it, but I am."
Class issues are a strong component of screwball comedies: the upper class tend to be shown as idle and pampered, and have difficulty getting around in the real world. The most famous example is It Happened One Night; some critics believe that this portrayal of the upper class was brought about by the Great Depression, and the poor moviegoing public's desire to see the rich upper class brought down a peg. By contrast, when lower-class people attempt to pass themselves off as upper-class, they are able to do so with relative ease (The Lady Eve, My Man Godfrey).
Another common element is fast-talking, witty repartee (You Can't Take it With You, His Girl Friday). This stylistic device did not originate in the screwballs (although it may be argued to have reached its zenith there): it can also be found in many of the old Hollywood cycles including the gangster film, romantic comedies, and others.
Screwball comedies also tend to contain ridiculous, farcical situations, such as in Bringing Up Baby, in which a couple must take care of a pet leopard during much of the film. Slapstick elements are also frequently present (such as the numerous pratfalls Henry Fonda takes in The Lady Eve).
One subgenre of screwball is known as the comedy of remarriage, in which characters divorce and then remarry one another (The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story). Some scholars point to this frequent device as evidence of the shift in the American moral code as it showed freer attitudes about divorce (though the divorce always turns out to have been a mistake).
Other films from this period in other genres incorporate elements of the screwball comedy. For example, Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 thriller The 39 Steps features the gimmick of a young couple who find themselves handcuffed together and who eventually, almost in spite of themselves, fall in love with one another, and Woody Van Dyke's 1934 detective comedy The Thin Man portrays a witty, urbane couple who trade barbs as they solve mysteries together. Many of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930s also feature screwball comedy plots, notably The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Top Hat (1935).
Screwball comedy was tied to a period of transition in American humor that gained momentum by the late 1920s. The dominant comedy character had been the capable cracker-barrel type, such as Will Rogers; it now became an antihero, best exemplified by characters in The New Yorker writings of Robert Benchley (1889–1945) and James Thurber (1894–1961), or Leo McCarey's (1898–1969) silent comedy shorts with Laurel and Hardy. (McCarey would later direct the screwball classic The Awful Truth, 1937). Antiheroic humor is driven by the ritualistic humiliation of the male; screwball comedy merely dresses up the setting and substitutes beautiful people for this farcical battle of the sexes.
The Great Depression fueled the antiheroic nature of the screwball genre. Moviegoers looked to the movies as a means of lighthearted escape from their everyday worries. Coupled with this was the Depression-era fascination with the upper classes, which is still a component of the genre, as in the wealthy backdrop of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Moreover, screwball plotlines sometimes pair couples from different classes, as in Frank Capra's watershed work, It Happened One Night (1934), in which a blue-collar reporter (Clark Gable) and a runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) squabble but eventually fall in love. This romance becomes a metaphor for various forms of reconciliation, be it romantic or generational. Garry Marshall updated many of these components in his 1999 salute to the genre, Runaway Bride (1999), which featured both a reporter (Richard Gere) and a woman with commitment issues (Julia Roberts). Similarly, writer and director Steve Gordon brilliantly focuses on the genre's occasional union of classes in Arthur (1981), with a billionaire (Dudley Moore) falling for a waitress (Liza Minnelli).
Hollywood's implementation of the Production Code in 1934 also affected screwball comedy. This same year saw the release of such pioneering examples of the genre as Howard Hawks's Twentieth Century and It Happened One Night. Since American censorship has always been more concerned with sexuality than with violence, it hardly seems a coincidence that a genre sometimes referred to as "the sex comedy without sex" should blossom at the same time the code appeared.
A fourth period factor was the film industry's then recent embrace of sound technology. Whereas silent comedy keyed upon the solo-hero status of personality comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, talking pictures were geared toward the verbal interaction of doubled heroes, such as the screwball couple. Even the early sound personality comedian films had a multiple-hero interaction, with the 1930s being the heyday of comedy teams from the celebrated Marx Brothers to period favorites such as Wheeler and Woolsey and the Ritz Brothers. The extension of these manic comedy teams also influenced screwball comedy. A defining trait of the screwball couple was having them act more like broad comedians. They were sophisticates gone silly. Pioneering examples of the sexy but clowning screwball couple include John Barrymore (1882–1942) and Carole Lombard (1908–1942), interacting in zany slapstick situations in Hawks's benchmark Twentieth Century, and Gable and Colbert, pretending to be an argumentative married couple in It Happened One Night.
Born in the early 1930s, during the bleakest years of the Depression, the screwball comedy became a very popular variation of the romantic comedy film. Although the leading characters were usually reconciled to the basic values of polite society by the story's end, most screwball comedies, up until that final reel, were irreverent toward the rich, big business, small town life, government, and assorted other sacred cows, not the least of which was the institution of marriage. Among the unorthodox notions that these movies advocated were the ones that marriage could be fun, that women and men were created equal, and that being bright and articulate was not necessarily a handicap for a woman.
There were, from the early 1930s to the mid-1940s, well over 200 screwball films, almost all of them dedicated to the celebration of eccentric, unconventional behavior and attitudes and the proposition that life could be a lot of fun in spite of war and a fouled-up economy. These movies frequently offered smart, savvy reinterpretations of such classic folk tale plots as Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, and, most especially, Cinderella. Although the plots always dealt with romance, the focal couple might also find themselves involved, while trying to pursue the path of true love, with kidnapping, election campaigns, scandals, runaway leopards, shipwreck, amnesia, divorce, murder, seeming adultery, and all sorts of impersonations.
Of the considerable number of actors and actresses who tried their hands at the screwball category there were several who displayed a true knack for the genre and appeared in quite a few successful titles. Among the women were Rosalind Russell, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, and Irene Dunne. Top men included Cary Grant, Joel McCrea, Melvyn Douglas, Fred MacMurray, and William Powell. It was not just the madcap heiresses, masquerading shop girls, and disinherited playboys who behaved in wild and eccentric ways. A majority of the films were peopled with a wide variety of odd and outrageous minor characters. Anybody from a rural judge to a Park Avenue cabdriver to a nightclub torch singer might turn out to be a world class screwball. Frequently falling into this category were Alice Brady, Charlie Ruggles, Eugene Pallette, Eve Arden, Mischa Auer, Una Merkel, Robert Benchley, William Demerest, Franklin Pangborn, Billie Burke, and Luis Alberni. Many of these gifted character actors appeared so frequently in this sort of film that they give the impression they must have been permanent residents of a special screwball world. Ralph Bellamy was the ablest portrayer of an essential screwball movie type: the attractive but flawed suitor who is never going to win the leading lady.
Movies with most of the essential screwball ingredients started to show up on the screen in 1932, notably Trouble in Paradise. Set in Venice, it dealt with a pair of thieves, played by Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall, who set out to fleece wealthy Kay Francis. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch from a script by Samson Raphaelson, it also made use of several actors who would become part of the screwball stock company throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s - Charles Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, and Robert Greig (who specialized in grouchy butler parts and worked with everybody from the Marx Brothers to Veronica Lake). The following year saw such films as Bombshell, which featured Jean Harlow, aided by the energetic Lee Tracy, in a very funny burlesque version of what looked a lot like her own life as a movie star. Things picked up even more in 1934. The most important screwball comedy was Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, scripted by Robert Riskin. Claudette Colbert was the runaway heiress who ends up taking a very strenuous cross country bus trip with salty reporter Clark Gable. Backing them up were portly Walter Connolly, an expert at irascibility, and Roscoe Karns. The film swept the Oscars and put Columbia Pictures firmly in the screwball business for the rest of the decade. Also released in 1934 was The Thin Man, adapted from the Dashiell Hammett novel and briskly directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Extremely appealing as the wisecracking husband-and-wife detective team, Myrna Loy and William Powell, went on to make five more movies about Nick and Nora Charles as well as several very good non-mystery comedies, including I Love You Again and Libeled Lady.
A moderately successful Broadway playwright before going to Hollywood, Preston Sturges started writing comedy screenplays in the mid-1930s. His adaptation of The Good Fairy changed the Ferenc Molnar play completely, turning it into an effective screwball comedy set in Vienna. William Wyler directed, and Margaret Sullavan and Herbert Marshall starred in this variation of the Cinderella story that has orphan Sullavan instrumental in changing the fortunes of struggling attorney Marshall; character actors included Frank Morgan and Reginald Owen. Sturges' Easy Living came out in 1937, with Mitchell Leisen directing. Another cockeyed Cinderella story, it has working girl Jean Arthur being mistaken for the mistress of wall street tycoon Edward Arnold. Ray Milland is the young man who falls in love with the transformed Arthur. Demerest and Pangborn are in the cast and Alberni gives a bravura performance as the English-mangling, hyperactive manager of a faltering ritzy hotel who offers Arthur a luxury suite because he thinks it will influence Arnold.
Finally in 1940, Paramount Pictures offered Sturges the opportunity to direct and he proceeded to turn out an impressive string of successful comedies at a rapid rate. They included The Great McGinty, with Brian Donlevy, The Lady Eve, with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, The Palm Beach Story, with McCrea and Colbert, Sullivan's Travels, with McCrea and Lake, and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, with Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton. Sturges' comedies had a headlong pace, bright dialogue, social satire, enough eccentrics, curmudgeons, and fatheads to populate a small city, and generous helpings of broad slapstick. He gathered around him a group of gifted comedy actors who appeared in nearly every one of his films. These included Greig, Demerest, Pangborn, Raymond Walburn, Al Bridge, and Eric Blore.
Leisen, working with various writers, provided a string of other screwball comedies. Among them were Hands Across the Table, with Lombard, MacMurray, and Bellamy - as the fellow who does not get the girl - and Take a Letter, Darling, with MacMurray as a very reluctant male secretary to Rosalind Russell. He also directed, with a script by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, the quintessential screwball Cinderella movie of the period, Midnight. Colbert is a gold digging chorus girl stranded in Paris and she ends up impersonating a countess. Don Ameche is a cab driver who falls in love with her, and John Barrymore and Mary Astor are also on hand.
The performer several critics and historians consider perhaps the best comedienne of these years always thought of herself as a serious actress and a singer. Irene Dunne had to be coerced into taking the starring role in the 1936 comedy Theodora Goes Wild at Columbia Pictures. Cast opposite Melvyn Douglas, she plays a quiet small-town young woman who writes a racy bestseller under a pen name. The transformation she undergoes after meeting and falling in love with Douglas, and then realizing that he is even less liberated than she is, forms the basis for the story. Dunne had, in the words of historian James Harvey, "the acutest kind of self-awareness. Where Lombard seems driven and distrait, Dunne seems intoxicated, magical, high-flying. Dunne does not just see the joke - she is radiant with it, possessed by it and glowing with it. Nobody does this so completely or to quite the same degree." The next year Dunne appeared in Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth, which has been called "the definitive screwball comedy." It is about infidelity, love, trust, and the inevitability of some relationships. Cary Grant, who did not want to, plays opposite her and establishes the characterization he used for much of his subsequent career. Ralph Bellamy does one of his most memorable turns as the loser of the girl and, for good measure, the dog who played Asta in The Thin Man movies appears as the pet over whom the divorcing Dunne and Grant get into a custody battle. As in Theodora, Dunne gets to cause considerable embarrassment for the object of her affection by impersonating a different sort of woman, this time Grant's vulgar, and fictitious, sister. She made a few more comedies, including the equally successful My Favorite Wife, again with Grant, in 1940.
On the long list of other screwball comedies many others stand out. They include Nothing Sacred, with Lombard, Connolly, and Fredric March; My Man Godfrey, with Lombard and William Powell; Bringing Up Baby, with Katharine Hepburn and Grant; Bachelor Mother, with Ginger Rogers and David Niven; Ninotchka, with Melvyn Douglas and, of all people, Greta Garbo; His Girl Friday, with Grant and Russell; The Major and the Minor, with Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland - the first film directed by Billy Wilder; and The More the Merrier, with Arthur, McCrea and Charles Coburn. While attempts have been made in most subsequent decades to revive the genre, for the most part the best screwball comedies remain the ones made more than 60 years ago.
By 1934, people in America had been living with the Depression for several years. Despite this, movies were still affordable for many people, who went to the cinema to be entertained and to try and forget their cares and woes for a while. Despite the Depression, there was an optimism emerging from the mid 1930s, and a feeling that the Depression was coming to an end, although it was still hard for people to get a job.
"Life for much of the original audience of these films was undeniably hard. The screwball fantasy offered to them on the screen implied that life should be fun, echoing the playtime standard of childhood. Jobs that made one a slave to a time schedule or mates who put happiness secondary to wealth and social position were scorned by the screwball ethic. The "real world" depicted in the fantasy was ultimately nonsensical. Yet it was a more appealing world than the one outside the theater's doors, for the pretend world's threats could be anarchically overcome by cheeky misbehavior, besting oppression by regression. There was but scant acknowledgment of a continuing economic crisis or approaching war in screwball comedy, and the traditional bridges to achievement and happiness were only temporarily blocked. Passage and liberation were still possible. When the screwball hero and heroine took on the world, they did so not in a crusade of reform, but in a delirious spirit of selfsurvival, in some measure creating in the process a new and private world of their own devising. What admiration they commanded from the typical audience member was due in part to the marvelous independence they displayed in regard to their surroundings." 
After President Roosevelt's inauguration the mood of the country had changed and people wanted to believe that the good times were back. Thus they were ready for movies that were essentially optimistic in nature. Having lived with the Depression for so long, Hollywood started to make fun of it - mostly from the viewpoint of the problems money can bring, and the ridiculousness of rich families. Whereas the sin and sex melodramas of previous years showed the misery of poverty and the shame of fallen women, screwball comedies often told that a poor man or woman could become rich, and his or her noble nature could change for the better the snobbish and money oriented natures of the rich with whom they came into contact. The ordinary man or woman could triumph, and frequently did, was the message.
The Production Code
During the late 1920s various Church groups started to show their outrage at the movies being made, protesting that they were promoting and encouraging immorality. In 1933 the Catholic bishops of America formed the National Legion of Decency. The Legion's intention was to review all new movies before they were released and classify them as 'Passed', 'Objectionable in parts' or 'Condemned'. The Catholic Church was so involved with this that churchgoers were told from pulpits across the country to stay away from films classified as partly objectionable, and that going to see a movie classified 'Condemned' would constitute a venial sin. Due to the changes in the life of the country at the time, moviegoers were receptive to the Legion's ideas. They wanted to believe in goodness and a return to happiness again.
The time was ripe for change and the big Hollywood movie men were afraid that a boycott of movies as encouraged by the Legion would decrease their profits. In addition, they were worried that increasing pressure might result in official government censorship. They therefore arranged for an old Production Code from the late 1920s to be rewritten. A branch of the Hays Office, called the Production Code Administration, was set up in 1934 under the supervision of Joseph Breen.
Producers would submit the scripts of their movies for pre-censorship. The Office read 1000 screenplays a year and watched up to three movies a day (what an ideal job!). The Code banned lingering or too lustful kisses and also covered murders, bedroom scenes, lewd language and mental illness. If a couple went near a bed, each of them had to keep one foot on the floor! Censored words included "alleycat" and "broad". One of the most well-known lines in movie history nearly never happened. Joseph Breen objected to the word "damn" in Gone With the Wind. But for a special dispensation "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn" would have become, at Joseph Breen's suggestion "Frankly my dear, I just don't care". Somehow, it just doesn't have the same ring about it!
One of the provisions of the Code stated that:
"No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown on the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin"
And another that:
"The sanctity of the institute of marriage and the home should be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing"
"The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy."
All producers had to abide by the rulings of the Administration. If they didn't, they would be subject to a fine of $25,000. Any movies which did not receive a seal of purity were unlikely to be shown in many movie theatres.
For the next three decades, the Code was enforced, but also evaded. Directors and writers found ways of getting round the most troublesome provisions of the Code. However, there is a marked difference between pre- and post-Code movies. Movies such as Three on A Match, which told of a fallen woman who leaves her husband for another man, and eventually becomes a drug addict, are very shocking when compared to post-Code movies. Screwball was a reaction to the repression of the Code. Lovers couldn't be sexy so they became screwy. As comedies got crazier, they also got cleaner. Since the movies couldn't admit that sex even existed - even married couple had separate beds - exaggerated comic violence was used as an outlet for passions instead.
Language too changed. Gone were the salacious drawling of actresses like Mae West. "Goodness, what lovely diamonds!" "Goodness had nothing to do with it, honey" and in came the fast and furious smart and witty talk of screwball. While the Code itself carried on into the 1950s, the golden years of screwball comedy essentially ended in the early 1940s. With the entry of the US into World War II and its themes and problems, comedy took a different turn and pure screwball comedies tailed off after about 1942. There are, however, good examples of screwball comedies after that date such as Unfaithfully Yours in 1948 and Monkey Business in 1952. Other movies had screwball elements , such as Some Like It Hot. However, traditional screwball comedies had had their day. The screwball family was no longer relevant as men and women went off to war and women worked in munitions plants and factories.
Romantic vs. Screwball: Differences
Screwball comedy is often confused with romantic comedy, but while the two genres share some elements, screwball comedy is a parody of romantic comedy. Romantic comedy's earnestness regarding love, as found in the impassioned conclusions of When Harry Met Sally … (1989) and As Good As It Gets (1997), is entirely absent from screwball comedy. Such sentiments would immediately be subject to satirical rebuke. For example, in the screwball What's Up, Doc?, the traditional love interest (Madeline Kahn) observes, "As the years go by, romance fades, and something else takes its place. Do you know what that is?" The devastatingly funny put-down from her fiancé (Ryan O'Neal, star of the earlier Love Story (1970), no less), is "Senility." The screwball genre always accents the silly over the sentimental. For instance, in the noteworthy My Man Godfrey (1936), the first period film to rate the screwball label, Carole Lombard decides that William Powell's having put her in the shower fully dressed is the height of romance, and she next proceeds to jump up and down on her bed, joyfully spraying water everywhere.
Avoiding serious and/or melodramatic overtones (such as in Love Affair (1939) and Sleepless in Seattle ), screwball comedy instead shows irreverence for love and an assortment of other topics, including itself. The Awful Truth and Nothing Scared both burlesque scenes from Capra's populist romance Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), which is sometimes wrongly labeled a screwball comedy. In Twentieth Century John Barrymore spoofs his "Great Profile" with a putty nose, while Cary Grant mocks his real name (Archie Leach) in His Girl Friday. And at the close of What's Up, Doc? Ryan O'Neal ridicules the romantic drivel, "Love means never having to say you're sorry," the tag line from Love Story.
Coupled with this affectionate parody are occasional patches of more biting satire, such as Ben Hecht's frequent comic diatribes against journalism in his Nothing Sacred script, or onetime lawyer McCarey derailing the courtroom in both The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife (1940). Joining journalism and law as an especially popular screwball satirical target, is academia and intellectual pretension; the "dean" of this approach is Howard Hawks, with his winning trilogy Bringing Up Baby (1938), Ball of Fire (1941), and Monkey Business (1952). Other skewered subjects include the upper class, in My Man Godfrey; Las Vegas and the mob, in Honeymoon in Vegas (1992); gay stereotypes, in In & Out (1997); and the makeover mentality in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001).
The crazy characters of screwball comedies contrast sharply with their realistic romantic counterparts. For example, James Stewart's clerk in The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and Tom Hanks's businessman in the loose remake, You've Got Mail (1998), are earnest, while Irene Dunne's title character is decidedly wild in Theodora Goes Wild (1936). Other memorable screwball characters include Katharine Hepburn's socialite in Bringing Up Baby, Barbra Streisand's kook in What's Up, Doc?, Cary Grant on youth serum in Monkey Business, the skydiving Elvises in Honeymoon in Vegas, and Hugh Grant's flatmate (Rhys Ifans) in Notting Hill (1999).
When naturally zany plays thin, screwball comedy often reinvents itself by introducing a catalyst for "crazy." Topper (1937) ushered in a fantasy cause for eccentricity, as Cary Grant and Constance Bennett play "ectoplasmic screwballs" (ghosts) come to loosen up Roland Young's staid title character. This was followed by two sequels and numerous future fantasy variations, from I Married a Witch (1942) to All of Me (1984). More recently, the genre has used celebrity as a trigger for screwball behavior, such as in Runaway Bride, Notting Hill, and America's Sweethearts (2001).
While romantic comedy follows a more traditional dating ritual, with the male taking the lead (usually after some maturing), as with Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally... (1989) and John Cusack in High Fidelity, 2000), screwball comedy is female driven, with an eccentric heroine saving an antiheroic leading man from a rigid (read "dead") lifestyle. Classic examples include Hepburn rescuing Grant from a double dose of dead (a bloodless career and an equally sterile fiancée) in Bringing Up Baby, Liza Minnelli freeing Dudley Moore from the same dual dilemma in Arthur, and Lily Tomlin helping Steve Martin evade yet another domineering fiancée and dead-end job (lawyer) in All of Me. This free-spirited emancipator is usually a force to be reckoned with, be it Goldie Hawn's pathological liar in HouseSitter (1992), first cousin to Lombard's master fibber in True Confession (1937), or more recently, Queen Latifah, who awakens Steve Martin's "wild and crazy" past in Bringing Down the House (2003). The inevitability of the screwball heroine's victory is nicely summarized by Streisand at the close of What's Up, Doc?: "You can't fight a tidal wave." Still, the genre also has room for the antiheroic screwball heroine who wins despite herself, such as Renée Zellweger's title character in Bridget Jones's Diary. Eventually, she both loosens up the classically rigid male (Colin Firth) and frees him from a domineering, deadening fiancée.
Pace also plays a major role in screwball comedy. While the romantic story slows to narrative apoplexy at the close as the audience agonizes over whether the couple will ultimately get together, as in Tom Hanks's drawn-out orchestration of love at the end of You've Got Mail, or Billy Crystal's finally reconnecting with Meg Ryan at the conclusion of When Harry Met Sally … , screwball comedy's normally quick pacing escalates even more near the finale, as the title of Theodora Goes Wild suggests. This pell-mell speed is often coupled with genre-defining action, such as Hepburn knocking down Grant's bronotosaurus skeleton (symbolically the last vestiges of his academic rigidity) in Bringing Up Baby, and Martin and Tomlin concluding All of Me with an out-of-control jazz dance number, designating the death of his law career to become a musician.
The screwball formula has not changed markedly since the 1930s. Today's take on the genre might actually have gay characters, as in In & Out and My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), whereas a pioneering screwball comedy only teases about it—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. New catalysts for craziness, such as celebrity, have evolved, as in the comic chaos Hugh Grant creates by bringing a movie star (Julia Roberts) to his grown sister's birthday party in Notting Hill. But these developments are merely concessions to evolving tastes, not major change. A greater issue is that the screwball heroine has lost some of her allure. For instance, both My Best Friend's Wedding (1997) and Forces of Nature (1999) start off as traditional examples of the genre. In the 1930s the leading ladies of these pictures (Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, respectively) would have broken up the weddings and saved the men from lives of boring rigidity, but in these two films the guys opt for the less flashy and eccentric fiancées. In áe as a life-sucking drone, these pictures portray her as safe and comfortable. Ultimately, both movies break with the screwball mold and essentially embrace romantic comedy. In today's truly life-on-the-edge existence, with new dangers from terrorist acts to AIDS, unpredictability is less appealing.
Finally, the term screwball merits some closing clarification. Too often people wrongly pigeonhole as screwball any comedy with zany components, from films with personality comedians such as the Marx Brothers to the dark comedy of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Along related lines, just because a manic clown has a girlfriend does not make a picture a screwball comedy - all movie funny men have romantic interests. For instance, calling the dark comedy collaboration between Paul Thomas Anderson and Adam Sandler Punch Drunk Love (2002) a screwball comedy would be like labeling Casablanca (1942) a musical because Dooley Wilson sings As Time Goes By. Screwball comedy simply uses a strong eccentric heroine to parody the traditional romance.
Actors and actresses frequently featured in or associated with screwball comedy:
- Jean Arthur
- Ralph Bellamy
- Claudette Colbert
- Gary Cooper
- Melvyn Douglas
- Irene Dunne
- Clark Gable
- Cary Grant
- Jean Harlow
- Katharine Hepburn
- Carole Lombard
- Myrna Loy
- Fred MacMurray
- William Powell
- Rosalind Russell
- Barbara Stanwyck
- James Stewart
"By the end of its Depression-era run, the screwball comedy cycle had played host to quite a few of the American film industry's star performers. Some, like Bette Davis, Fredric March, Robert Montgomery, Jean Harlow, James Cagney, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, or Gary Cooper, appeared in screwball only once or twice during their illustrious careers. Others, such as Katharine Hepburn, Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Constance Bennett, or William Powell, appeared two or three times and even to high acclaim, but are primarily remembered for their long string of successes in different, or related genres. But there are certain stars who returned to the screwball fold again and again, firmly entwining their names and images with the overall historic impression of this remarkable group of motion pictures. The actors and actresses who appeared most frequently and to the greatest and most lasting effect in screwball comedy often did so only after achieving stardom in more conventional fare. The cycle's eight-year run generated few new stars from the ranks of the unknown, but it did rejuvenate several careers and assist in extending the length of others." 
The actress who to many is the epitome of screwball spirit and style had a brief career due to premature death. "Carole Lombard toiled for several years in films of various genres before reaching top-rank status in screwball comedy. A hard-working and ambitious actress from her early teens, Lombard was a thorough professional, having "paid her dues" in a wide variety of pictures by the time of her screwball breakthrough in one of the founding films of the genre, Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century (1934).
Numerous biographical accounts depict her as Hollywood's beautiful tomboy, a tough-talking but vivacious charmer, adored by virtually all of her coworkers on both sides of the camera. The practical-joking, impulsively outspoken aspects of her personality had been confined to her offscreen life until Hawks merged them into her role of the hot-tempered actress who verbally battles her flamboyant ex-directorllover (John Barrymore) in the successful filming of Hecht and MacArthur's rowdy stage play. The winning combination of attractiveness and eccentricity which gave screwball comedy its fresh appeal has been repeatedly tracked back to Lombard's delightfully enraged performance as stage star Lily Garland, but it was not until five films later, in Mitchell Leisen's Hands Across the Table (1935) that another screwball opportunity, and a more restrained one at that, beckoned.
Lombard's portrayal of a money-minded manicurist who finds love in a garret was more screwball in its approach to gold digging than in her performance per se, but her polished skill at romantic comedy in general blended well with the story and proved a stepping stone to the triple triumphs of My Man Godfrey (1936), True Confession (1937), and Nothing Sacred (1937), which established her as the female embodiment of the screwball sensibility in movies. In fact, it was a critic's borrowing of a baseball term, in reviewing the first of these, which coined the "screwball comedy" designation responding to Lombard's portrayal of a spoiled heiress' screamingly funny, albeit dizzy, bratty, and thoughtless behavior when she brings home a supposed "bum" and installs him as the new butler in the family mansion. The second film scored with audiences in large measure due to her memorable performance as an endearingly compulsive liar, whose phony murder confession wreaks havoc with the justice system. The third picture gave Lombard a wide berth in which to shine as another truthless and wide-eyed "innocent," this time allowing a crass newspaperman to exploit ruthlessly the mistaken story of her impending death from radium poisoning.
The busy actress surrounded these screwball masterpieces with several other fine performances in standard romantic comedy and drama of the late 1930s and the turn of the decade. Then she made what became her last screwball appearance, in a film surprisingly directed by thrill-master Alfred Hitchcock, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). While not on the dizzying plane of zany and impulsive behavior which typified the cycle at its height, Lombard's performance was nevertheless very effective in this sharp-edged Norman Krasna story of a couple's troubled re-courtship after learning their "perfect" marriage is not legal.
Lombard's subsequent and final performance, before losing her life in a plane crash the following year, was for the screen's master of sophisticated comedies of manners, Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942), while primarily a mixture of political satire (a troupe of Polish actors trick the Nazis) and the director's unique style of clever sexual innuendo, benefited greatly from Lombard's screwball-honed sense of comic timing and line delivery. The grim realities of later war news, plus the picture's posthumous release following her tragic accident, cast an undeserved pall over the film which faded only with its widely applauded revival several years later. Lombard perished on a return flight to Hollywood from a successful war-bond sales tour, and her disappearance from the screen closely and symbolically presaged the departure of the very comedy style which, despite her success in other genres, she had come to represent. It has been nearly impossible for latter-day writers to invoke the memory of screwball comedy without mentioning her name, and anyone who takes the opportunity to view her best work, despite the passage of a half-century, will immediately see why." 
Irene Dunne's dual success in musical comedy and sentimental drama pre-dated her standout performances in the screwball cycle, and even without that third phase of her career, her place in Hollywood history would still be secure. The marvelous extension of her acting range began with Theodora Goes Wild (1936), which led to her non-exclusive pact with Columbia. Up to that point Dunne had impressed the public essentially by means of her superbly trained voice and resolutely cheerful dignity under dramatic stress. She had played conventional musical comedy on stage since her late teens, and her early sound-film years had also given her the chance to emote effectively in some highly popular "weepies," the best known of which are Back Street (1932) and Magnificent Obsession (1935). It was only at age 32, when she was approaching the end of a long line of trilling ingenues and forced-to-grow up heroines, that she pleasingly startled moviegoers as a small-town author/spinster who "goes wild" on a New York trip originally intended for a business meeting with the publisher of her secretly written, scandalous romance novels. In the picture's Mary McCarthy story, under Stanislavsky method director Richard Boleslawsky, Dunne revealed a new level of self-satirical, infectious good humor in mildly absurd situations. She beautifully matched the comparable playing of Melvyn Douglas as her commercial artist "liberator," and Theodora Goes Wild became a big hit.
Columbia tried to repeat that accomplishment the following year, with Dunne as the female lead in Leo McCarey's chaotically improvised but hugely successful The Awful Truth. Paired with Cary Grant as an estranged couple on the eve of their divorce, she delivered another astonishingly funny performance, particularly in the prized sequence in which she drops her good-natured dignity to crash a family gathering at the home of her spouse's intended new wife. Dunne's characterization of a well-bred woman's satirical impersonation of a naIvely lewd cabaret chanteuse even topped Dunne's hilarious Theodora role as a proper lady author who pretends to assume the egregious lifestyle of her novel's sexually adventurous heroine.
A less boisterous screwball project at RKO in 1938, Joy of Living, gave Dunne a fine battle-of-the-sexes romance onscreen with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., tinged with some pointed satire of the backstage Broadway musical milieu in which she had thrived prior to heading west in 1930. In 1939, still at RKO but once again under the genially informal direction of McCarey, Dunne gave a stellar performance in an extraordinary picture which combined the tearjerking, heavy sentiment of her early films with a few leavening touches of screwball sensibility in the early scenes of attempted seduction by a world-class playboy (Charles Boyer). Although the film has been out of authorized circulation for a half-century, Love Affair remains, to those fortunate enough to have seen it, the peak of Dunne's non-screwball career.
Dunne's fortuitous relationship with McCarey continued, despite his convalescence following a car crash, in his subsequent and wholly screwball production (directed by McCarey associate Garson Kanin) of My Favorite Wife (1940), in which a new comic marital triangle is structured around a flustered husband (Cary Grant) whose remarriage plans are interrupted by the reappearance of the wife he thought was lost at sea. Dunne's gift for insinuating playful chinks in her armor of sensible behavior comes to the fore as she earnestly informsltorments her spouse with maddeningly incomplete details of her being marooned on an island with a handsome "Adam" (Randolph Scott) to her "Eve."
Her final contributions to the screwball era at last united her with another of its masters, director Gregory La Cava, but at Universal they turned out a pair ofless successful comic romances, Unfinished Business (1941) and Lady in a Jam (1942). Hampered dually by the waning of the screwball cycle and by La Cava's growing reliance upon improvisation to the neglect of plot construction and audience response, the first project mixed serious, even psychological concerns with what might have been a top-rank screwball triangle involving the leading lady and two disparate brothers. The second film had Dunne's character consulting an analyst - who disdains her madcap behavior." 
"If Carole Lombard was the epitome of daffiness on the screwball screen and Irene Dunne cornered the market on temporary abandonment of dignity, Claudette Colbert took the honors for cleverness and determination. Like Lombard and Dunne, Colbert had been playing leads in major studio pictures for half a decade before joining the screwball parade. Her transition to the genre actually put her at the procession's auspicious beginning, winning a 1934 Academy Award for her runaway heiress in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night. Impetuous, stubborn, self-impressed and hopelessly spoiled, her character, in romantic conflict with the down-to-earth reporter (Clark Gable) who befriends and exploits her, helped set the style for both the battle-of-the-sexes and the cross-class conflict variations of screwball comedy for the rest of the decade.
Colbert's second appearance in a screwball comedy, The Gilded Lily (1935), featured her in a much more docile part than the feisty one she had undertaken for Capra. Her working-girl character's obedient assumption of manufactured celebrity status (woven by her reporter boyfriend out of her erstwhile and fleeting romance with a nobleman) marked the last time for many years that Colbert would play the passive role in comedy of any stripe. Her personal secretary character in She Married Her Boss (1935) successfully takes over both the family and business fortunes of Melvyn Douglas' compliant executive, and her shopgirl on holiday in I Met Him in Paris (1937) coyly plays the attentions of two determined suitors against each other in a protractedly funny game of romantic rivalry with an Alpine resort setting. Even in the primarily non-screwball The Bride Comes Home (1935), released between the two previous titles, Colbert's character remains in control - as an ex-heiress (now impoverished) still fending off the attentive men.
So successful a comedienne was Colbert by the time of her second picture with the great Lubitsch, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), that even the master of sophisticated screen suggestiveness was motivated to direct a screwball vehicle for her. Darker in emotional tone than previous entries in the genre, the narrative presents Colbert as not just an amusingly determined young woman, but as a dollar driven doll whose new marriage to a possibly Landru-like millionaire nearly founders from what appears to be her connivance to drive him insane. The golddigger inclination of Colbert's character in that picture was softened, but still present the next year in the superbly screwball Midnight, scripted by the same team as Bluebeard (Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett) but directed instead by romanticist Mitchell Leisen. Colbert's French birth and bilingual/cultural identity (she emigrated to the U.S. at age five) had received indirect reference in the settings and dialogue of several of her previous films, and Midnight continued the practice in a Cinderella inspired story of an American showgirl stranded in France.
It's a Wonderful World (1940), a rare Colbert performance for MGM, does reveal some definite couple-on-the-run inspiration from It Happened One Night, but the anarchic tilt of the screwball vision is secondary to the emphasis on adventure. It was not until 1942, at the close of the cycle, that Colbert made her next, and final, appearance in the genre - closing out the era just as magnificently, if not influentially, as she had helped initiate it eight years earlier. In The Palm Beach Story she again portrays a money-minded female, but this time her character is already married. In the perverse logic of screwball, she resolves benignly to divorce him and go fortune hunting for a millionaire backer, using her shapely self as bait.
Colbert's forthright, bright and determined style of performance, even when delivering the tortuously funny dialogue of writer-director Preston Sturges, was the direct opposite of the scatterbrained Lombard or the proper versus wild Dunne at either of her modal extremes. The Colbert character functioned most often in screwball with obvious and extroverted intelligence, just as she did in drama or romantic comedy. In a Colbert screwball comedy, it was the setting, the situation, or the subsidiary players who provided the eccentricities. Like Irene Dunne (and probably Carole Lombard, if she had lived), Claudette Colbert moved on to patriotic schmaltz of a high order, during wartime, and met the screen challenge of middle age with postwar domestic roles." 
"Screwball's grandest success story is that of Cary Grant, a former child acrobat from Britain, who left his troupe's tour of America to act and sing in stage musicals. From 1932 to 1936 he was a Paramount-contracted leading man in various genres, seemingly cast more for his looks than his charm. A determination to pick his own parts motivated him to negotiate a non-exclusive arrangement with RKO and Columbia thereafter, and in 1937 he had the good fortune to appear in a pair of consecutive screwball hits: Topper (free-lancing for Hal Roach as a cocktail-sipping ghost) and Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth (as an errant husband determined to reclaim his nearly divorced wife). This style of comedy brilliantly matched Grant's ability to deliver witty lines with a unique mixture of angst, amusement and elan, and he was soon in great demand to repeat that performance style in similar films.
Director Howard Hawks, in pursuing his Twentieth Century vision of having attractive leading players do the kind of physical humor once reserved for eccentric comics, then found Grant ideal for the part of a flustered dinosaur-researcher in Bringing Up Baby (1938). Although Katharine Hepburn's uninhibitedly aggressive, female prankster-pursuer proved to be too extreme in its liberated looniness for contemporary tastes, Grant's endearingly passive - but flustered male won him still greater industry recognition as the movies' new farceur of choice. Director George Cukor, who had unsuccessfully paired Grant with Hepburn two years earlier in the disastrous Sylvia Scarlett, then gave the pair another try in the mildly screwball Holiday (1938), resulting in an appealingly enthusiastic performance from the actor as a young Wall-Street success who switches fiancees en route to escaping the Gotham rat race.
Hawks pushed a willing Grant over the edge of customary cinematic restraint in the verbally explosive His Girl Friday (1940), to the effect that his driving and devious editor character becomes a Vesuvius of screwball invective, imperiousness and petty' intrigue. His romantic motivation-to win back his former wife/star reporter - not only justifies the editor's crazed behavior, but is in turn itself justified by the Hollywood logic implicit in Grant's romantic countenance and presence. That same year Grant excelled in an Awful Truth reworking called My Favorite Wife, yet another screwball classic about a disrupted marriage comically reconstructed to the mutual delight of its fictional participants and real-life viewers.
Before the cycle waned, Grant managed to score one more time - in Cukor's elegant Philadelphia Story (1940), as the perplexed ex-husband of an "ice goddess" (Katharine Hepburn as an overly cultured, socially perfect, Main-Line heiress). He wins her back from an impending remarriage after a revealing, pre-nuptial encounter with the working press. Subsequently Grant lent his by-then practiced comic expertise to a pair of quasi-screwball gems, the fervently sentimental Penny Serenade (1941) and the Capra-like social comedy The Talk of the Town (1942), both under the guidance of the director who had elicited Grant's memorable Cockney-soldier performance in Gunga Din, George Stevens." 
"Just as the rise of screwball greatly boosted the career of Cary Grant, it also elevated the screen status of the ever-urbane Melvyn Douglas, whose early years in Hollywood as a Goldwyn contractee had been spent almost exclusively on loan-out with meager success. A seasoned stage performer, Douglas might have returned permanently to Broadway had he not scored a genuine hit as the repressed title character liberated by Claudette Colbert's dutiful secretary in Columbia's She Married Her Boss (1935). Douglas' assured gift for sly sophistication mixed with an impish sense of amusement won him the same sort of non-exclusive arrangement with that studio that Grant would also parlay to continuing screwball success, only in Douglas' case he split his Columbia time for the next seven years with other assignments primarily at MGM instead of RKO.
The performance which led Metro executives to offer so much work to one of their non-exclusives was the actor's second screwball smash for Columbia, Theodora Goes Wild (1936), in which his portrayal of Irene Dunne's chagrined commercial-artist/liberator matched her own clever star-turn exceedingly well. Nevertheless, much of Douglas' frequent screen work in the latter half of the decade was in either conventional romantic drama or in Thin Man-style mysteries. However, his ego-inflated suitor in Paramount's I Met Him in Paris (1937) was another hilarious contribution to the screwball cycle, then at its peak.
The comedy classic for which Douglas is best remembered was less screwball than political satire overlaid with the comedy of manners, but his mastery of the "battle of the sexes" banter with Greta Garbo in the Ernst Lubitsch-MGM Ninotchka (1939) is clearly of an extended piece with Douglas' finest efforts in the cycle under study here. That same year he also did the solidly screwball Good Girls Go to Paris for Alexander Hall at Columbia and excelled as a bemused British professor, pursued in America by Joan Blondell's social climbing ex-waitress. Douglas' next screwball picture was Too Many Husbands (1940), part of that group of multiple variations on the comic love triangle of The Awful Truth in which a spare spouse or accidental case of bigamy spurs the plot. In this case the unexpectedly flatteredand-courted wife (Jean Arthur) gets to choose (and just barely does) between worldly Douglas and homespun Fred MacMurray.
Although Lubitsch's first authentically screwball effort, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), had misfired from the miscasting of non-sophisticate Gary Cooper as the male lead, the director's success with Douglas the following year did at least inspire the master to approach the borders of the genre again in 1941. The result was the psychologically bizarre That Uncertain Feeling, in which polished farceur Douglas dithers and schemes while playing an upper-class husband (to chic Merle Oberon) with growing misgivings about how to react to his neglected wife's blossoming affair with a flamboyant, possibly psychotic, concert pianist (Burgess Meredith).
Although the premise of Our Wife (1941), with its masquerade, for business reasons, of a non-existent marriage would seem most appropriately screwball even without Douglas in the cast, the goings-on lack the requisite social bite and credible sexual tension, veering off instead into conventional farce. The actor did, however, participate one more time in the screwball cycle before it faded with the arrival of the war. The picture was titled Two-Faced Woman (1942), and it re-teamed him with Garbo, his Ninotchka costar. Douglas was in splendid form as a "possibly" deceived husband attempting to seduce his own wife - while she pretends to be her non-existent, more liberated sister. MGM's re-editing of the finished film, to placate angry censors who saw Douglas' character as remorselessly attempting adultery, only succeeded in raising the narrative's confusion level. In any case, the leading lady's radical departure from her more exotic screen image so distressed her fans that dissatisfaction with the production was even more widespread. Its boxoffice failure helped ring down the curtain on screwball." 
"While each of the previously examined performers were already established as leading players before their excursions into screwball comedy, Fred MacMurray stands out as an exception to this pattern. A dance-band saxophonist whose vocalizing with Gus Arnheim's orchestra in the late 1920s led to featured parts in a few Broadway musicals, MacMurray was only a fresh recruit to Paramount's stable of talent when Claudette Colbert saw his screen test and requested him as her costar in The Gilded Lily (1935). So appealing were his tall good looks and unpretentious Midwestern manner that he was soon
partnering several more of Hollywood's top draw actresses in a veritable stream of romantic comedies and adventures. Most of these mainstream productions were, of course, non-screwball. The Gilded Lily most definitely was screwball, however, with its clever barbs against both the upper class and the media. MacMurray was quite effective as the scheming reporter and publicity maven who crafts Colbert's character into the personification of a public non-event - a talentless "entertainer" made famous via her much touted "rejection" of a nobleman (Ray Milland, also cast in his first big Paramount part).
Four films later, and still that same year, MacMurray was back in screwball and once more playing the no-nonsense Midwesterner who turns the head of a working girl (this time Carole Lombard) away from a rich but unsuitable suitor. The film was Hands Across the Table, and its success confirmed MacMurray's: His surprising charm seems to have stemmed from the assuredness with which he could portray the "average guy." Two years (and ten more films) down the road, his character's restrained panic attacks in the face of Lombard's fine-tuned displays of frenzy made him an excellent foil for her again, when she scored as the chronic liar and alleged murderess his character naIvely defends in the boisterously cynical True Confession (1937).
At this point in his career MacMurray branched out into his first movie musicals and even played sentimental drama, but he returned to screwball at its second home - Columbia - for the comic/romantic triangle of Too Many Husbands (1940). Jean Arthur was the enjoyably flattered spouse, busily setting up roadblocks to the boudoir destinations of rivals MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas, who by this point in the screwball cycle had, with MacMurray, become the only serious competition to Cary Grant as the genre's premiere actors. Their onscreen rivalry to impress the wife they (accidentally, of course) share is one of the most overt displays of screwball comedy's couching the romantic pursuits of the economically comfortable in the rowdy but good natured, push-turns-to-shove antics of children. The contrast inherent in Douglas' polished urbanity versus MacMurray's practiced inanity not only heightens the humor, but also displays the range of personality types which the screwball vision could comfortably accommodate.
MacMurray's final screwball showcase came in the same year that most of the other recurrent participants bowed out of the cycle, 1942. Take a Letter, Darling cast him as a male secretary to Rosalind Russell's high powered lady boss. The actor's accomplished ability to register alternate moods of comic frustration, warm insincerity, and blundering determination served him very well in what was his seventh collaboration with director Mitchell Leisen. The comic twist in the film is the character's discomfort at sex role reversal, coupled with the effects of his seeming disinterest in his attractive employer." 
Directors frequently associated with screwball comedy:
- Frank Capra
- George Cukor
- Howard Hawks
- Garson Kanin
- Gregory La Cava
- Mitchell Leisen
- Preston Sturges
- Billy Wilder
- Ernst Lubitsch
- W. S. Van Dyke
"Crediting a breakthrough to one man is always risky business for the cinema historian, but the status of screwball landmark film can be confidently conferred on a 1934 picture directed by silent comedy veteran Frank Capra, who dared to cross genre boundaries, class lines, and audience expectations. His multi-Oscar-winning It Happened One Night glorified the common sense of the working man, warmly mocked the sheltered rich, and did so both visually and verbally, escaping the drawing rooms of the mansion to roam rural America on a cross-country bus trip with the common people." 
Frank Capra's status within screwball is central, but equivocal. Capra had also directed some important precursors, such as the witty newspaperman-marries-heiress comedy Platinum Blonde of 1931. After the enormous success of It Happened One Night, Capra, usually working in tandem with screenwriter Robert Riskin, changed direction and embarked on a series of highly successful, still-potent commentaries on American life in the prewar crisis years: notably the trilogy of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1935), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). While all of these films have screwball elements (wisecracking reporters, wacky humor, strong females like Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck who could play comedy), and build on screwball scenarios (as in Deeds, in which a greeting card writer becomes a multimillionaire overnight), they're not screwball comedies - they're screwball melodramas.
"Even Capra's most overtly screwball picture, released in 1938 when the cycle was in full swing (You Can't Take It with You) carries a socio-political message which overshadows the anarchic romp through screwball territory. Capra's wartime production of Arsenic and Old Lace, a very close filming of a rapid fire Broadway farce about elderly, insane mercy killers, has the sound and fury of screwball, but not the content. His last directorial assignments, ranging from Christmas fantasy and political expose to science documentaries and star vehicles for pop vocalists, while sometimes rising to screwball heights of enthusiasm, were all postwar in the most pro-social sense and devoid of screwball's pesky but pleasing obeisance to anarchy." 
In Germany, Ernst Lubitsch had become internationally famous for such epic films as Madame DuBarry, which he balanced with eccentric, stylized comedies like The Oyster Princess and Romeo and Juliet in the Snow. Brought to the U.S. in 1923 to direct Mary Pickford in the drama Rosita, he seemed stalled until, influenced by Charles Chaplin's light handling of adultery in his 1923 drama A Woman of Paris, Lubitsch began creating a series of light comedies on the same themes of infidelity, husbands' (and wives') wandering eyes, and mix-ups between wives and mistresses in The Marriage Circle (1924), Lady Windermere's Fan (1925), and So This is Paris (1926). These comedies' light touch inspired the ambiance of many screwballs a decade later, and the phrase "the Lubitsch touch" is still referred to by film critics.
With the coming of sound, Lubitsch made a series of musicals with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald (from 1929's The Love Parade through 1934's The Merry Widow), rehearsing variations on a theme of the reform of a sexually promiscuous rake at the hands of a virginal but equally randy female partner. Beginning with 1932's Trouble in Paradise, a wonderful romance of two jewel thieves (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins), Lubitsch brought the continental sophistication and lyrical dialogue of his musicals (sans music) to two follow-ups, Design for Living (1933) and Angel (1937). None of these are "screwball" as the term was being contemporaneously defined, but share with screwball romance an interest in adult sexual behavior mixed with a gently mocking melancholy that was peculiarly Lubitsch's own.
Lubitsch paid homage to the new "screwball" style in the rather frantic Bluebeard's Eighth Wife of 1938, which involved womanizer Gary Cooper being so traumatized by a willful Colbert that he winds up in a straitjacket. It was co-scripted by fellow German émigré Billy Wilder, who followed Lubitsch to MGM in 1939 to co-script the extremely successful satirical romance Ninotchka. Its mockery of both capitalism and communism, the latter personified by icy commissar Greta Garbo and dethawed by the decadent West in the person of frequent screwball leading man Melvyn Douglas, showcases the suitably defiant attitude period comedy could have for politics, responding to the rigidities of totalitarianism with a child's raspberry (or, in Ninotchka, with Garbo's laugh).
Freelancing for the rest of his career, Lubitsch directed at least one more "screwball" comedy of infidelity, 1941's That Uncertain Feeling (a remake of The Marriage Circle), as well as the classic romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner (1940; remade in 1949 as the musical In the Good Old Summertime and in 1998 as You've Got Mail). His wartime work includes two of his best, the brilliantly "bad taste" anti-Nazi comedy To Be or Not to Be (1942; Carole Lombard's last film, remade by Mel Brooks in 1983), and the nostalgic romance Heaven Can Wait (1943; not remade at all by Warren Beatty, whose 1978 Heaven Can Wait - are you writing this down? - is a remake of 1941's non-Lubitsch Here Comes Mr. Jordan instead). When Lubitsch died of a heart attack in 1948, Billy Wilder made a famous retort to a graveside postmortem: "No more Lubitsch"; "Worse, no more Lubitsch films." Of his final works, 1946's Cluny Brown has a little of the old screwball flavor, particularly when Jennifer Jones' plumber tells Charles Boyer how she solves drain blockages: "Bang, bang, bang!"
"Preston Sturges sat out the 1930s in the writer's chair, not gaining studio authorization to direct one of his own scripts until just before the turn of the decade. Preston Sturges did, however, make a major contribution to the genre at its height - by authoring the screenplay of Easy Living (1937), the story of a shopgirl whose accidental retrieval of a millionaire's discarded mink coat sets off a chain of events in which suspicions of her being his mistress lead her to the good fortune of marrying his son. Like Bringing Up Baby, Easy Living was not widely recognized as an alltime screwball classic until well after the cycle had ended.
Although he had specialized in dialogue-rich, romantic comedy since his early career as a Broadway playwright, of the 15 other films Sturges worked on during his first ten years in movies only Thirty Day Princess (1934), a satire on publicity stunts and Hotel Haywire (1937), a dizzying farce about a crooked astrologer, could be said to contain any of the elements of screwball comedy in their finished versions. It was not until Sturges finally convinced the Paramount executives to let him direct, that his expertise in employing the screwball outlook became fully apparent. He had been a devoted student of other people's movies since the 1920s, taking notes on whatever aspects of a film impressed him and worked well with an audience. When Sturges began directing he not only made liberal use of such events in his stories, but did so in the self-satirical style of a movie insider, following a consistent policy of casting nis secondary roles almost exclusively with a select group of eccentric character actors whose work he had admired in 1930s comedies. This cadre of performers soon came to be known as the "Sturges stock company."
Sturges' first films as director were actually updatings of original, unsold scripts he had written several years earlier, when the screwball cycle was just beginning. His directorial debut, The Great McGinty (1940), was a political satire. That same year Sturges also brought to the screen Christmas in July, another of his unfilmed, early-1930s projects, previously titled A Cup of Coffee. Sturges' penchant for satire was directed this time at radio slogan contests, in a story of a lowly clerk tricked into believing he has won a fortune in consumer-goods prizes. Both low budgeted films were as fast paced and as filled with verbal fireworks and doses of slapstick as the best of the screwball cycle which preceded them to the screen, but their topically satirical aspects did set them apart from the more general, fun-and-games pursuits of romance and pleasure by the upper classes, which typified screwball screen material. Sturges next turned to adapting a Paramount literary property for his first 'A' picture, and the results were finally in the screwball mainstream. The Lady Eve (1941), while it does move away from the luxury life of the big city during its first half, opts for a pratfall-prone, shipboard romance between first-class passengers on a luxury liner. Sturges relies heavily on the screwball staple of the aggressive woman (Barbara Stanwyck) versus the timid man (Henry Fonda), but doubles the comic frenzy by staging an encore of their disastrous courtship when, after her venal purpose has been revealed, she re-enters the hapless fellow's life under a second, and more exotic, false identity and wins his affections anew. Despite Eve's critical and commercial success, Sturges found he had attracted no imitators, with the possible, half-hearted example of a conventional romantic comedy called Rings on Her Fingers (1942), obviously modeled on Sturges' triumph but devoid of its humor
Sturges returned to making, rather than defending, screwball comedy for his second 1941 release, and it was as wackily brilliant as anything from the cycle at its zenith. The Palm Beach Story's exercise in separation and reunion (an inventor's wife leaves him, cavorts with the idle rich, and all ends incredibly happily) deserts Manhattan early on for a wild train ride to the southeastern playground of the moneyed and much married, leisure class. Sturges' love of sudden, direction reversing plot twists, given vent in the extreme by the picture's last reel introduction of identical twins for the central characters, then manifested itself in life, in regard to his new Hollywood career." 
Early Screwball Comedies
- It Pays to Advertise (1931)
- Platinum Blonde (1931)
- Private Lives (1931)
- The Front Page (1931)
- Blessed Event (1932)
- Impatient Maiden (1932)
- Million Dollar Legs (1932)
- The Half Naked Truth (1932)
- Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Late Screwball Comedies
Various later films are considered by some critics to have revived elements of the classic era screwball comedies. A partial list might include such films as:
- The Mating Season (1951)
- How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
- The Seven Year Itch (1955)
- Bell, Book and Candle (1958)
- Pillow Talk (1959)
- Some Like It Hot (1959)
- The Grass Is Greener (1960)
- One, Two, Three (1961)
- Man's Favorite Sport? (1964)
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)
- The Party (1968)
Modern Screwball Comedies
Elements of classic screwball comedy often found in more recent films which might otherwise simply be classified as romantic comedies include the "battle of the sexes" (Down with Love, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), witty repartee (Down with Love), and the contrast between the wealthy and the middle class (You've Got Mail, Two Weeks Notice). Modern updates on screwball comedy may also sometimes be categorized as black comedy (Intolerable Cruelty, which also features a twist on the classic screwball element of divorce and re-marriage). The Coen Brothers often include screwball elements in a film which may not as a whole be considered screwball or even a comedy.
- What's Up, Doc? (1972)
- A Touch of Class (1973)
- Mr. Mom (1983)
- To Be or Not to Be (1983)
- A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
- The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
- Forces of Nature (1999)
- State and Main (2000)
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
- Down with Love (2003)
- Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
- Leatherheads (2008)
- Burn After Reading (2008)
- Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)
- The Brothers Bloom (2009)
Filmography from A to Z