10 Screwball Comedies You Have to Watch

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10 Screwball Comedies You Have to Watch

whats up doc 2

The screwball comedy is mostly a time-limited genre. For 15 years or so in the 30s and 40s, frenetic romances with fast-talking, (temporarily) divorced couples, racy dialogue, strong women, and Cary Grant were all the rage. Then the genre mostly petered out—though not entirely. It’s harder to shut up the screwball comedy than it looks.  The list below includes some of the gems from the classic period, with some surprises ducking out from under the bed decades later. It’s in chronological order.

Image Credit: Warner Bros. 

The Awful Truth (1937)

the awful truth

Leon McCarey’s The Awful Truth is a brilliant demonstration of how Hollywood screwballs got around the fact that censors of the time didn’t allow them to show any awful truths. Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne) suspect each other though neither actually does anything. Or do they? Infidelity is on everyone’s lips, but those lips never meet, unless maybe behind one of those doors where Lucy hides her music teacher from her ex-husband and her fiancée and whatever other men she’s got about.

The final sneaky scene, in which Jerry and Lucy in their pajamas contemplate sleeping together as the clock ticks down to finalize their divorce, is a joyfully jaded tease. They have sex while they’re married—or maybe while they’re no longer married. McCarey presents impropriety as gleefully arbitrary. He shows nothing so you can turn your mind to the most glorious worst.

Image Credit: Columbia Pictures. 

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Bringing Up Baby

Howard Hawks’ masterpiece was a bomb on release. But now we can see it’s the best screwball. And the best rom-com.  And maybe just the best movie of all time.

Ditzy socialite Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn) takes off in hot pursuit at first sight of mild-mannered paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant), undeterred by his fiancé, improbable identical leopards, the local constabulary, and dresses with the butt embarrassingly torn out.

The movie was inspired by Shakespeare’s comedies, but even the Bard might find himself diving into the duck pond to escape so many whirling words. “There is a leopard on your roof and it's my leopard and I have to get it and to get it I have to sing!” It isn't that I don't like you, Susan, because after all, in moments of quiet, I'm strangely drawn toward you; but, well, there haven't been any quiet moments!” What more is there to say? Bringing Up Baby says it all and keeps going.

Image Credit: RKO Radio Pictures.  

His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday

Another stupendous Howard Hawks screwball, though this time Cary Grant is the pursuer rather than the pursued. Newspaper owner Walter Burns (Grant) is determined to recapture his ex-wife and star reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell).

To that end, he unleashes a supervillain lairful of underhanded secret schemes to part Hildy from her hapless cornfed fiancée Bruce Baldwin, who, Burns notes, looks like Ralph Bellamy (probably because he’s played by Ralph Bellamy.) Unscrupulous newspapermen, inept officers of the law, an escaped murderer, and an irate mother-in-law to race back and forth amidst the quips in a brilliantly blundering ballet of bluster.

Image Credit: Columbia Pictures. 

The Lady Eve (1941)

The Lady Eve

Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve features one of the great romantic lead performances in all of cinema. Jean Harrington (the amazing Barbara Stanwyck) is a con artist who is so openly mercenary she attains a kind of transcendent honesty. Not to mention a transcendent sensuality; the scene in which she lets wealthy heir Charles (Henry Fonda) slide on her shoe is so sexy you expect the cruise ship they’re on to founder right there.

Charles himself founders, falling in love with Jean not once but twice. First, he is infatuated with her as herself. And then, when he is disillusioned with her gold-digging, he immediately falls in love with her again when she fools him into thinking she’s her own noble sister, the Lady Eve. Charles is such an easy mark it’s hard to see what Jean sees in him (other than the fact that he looks like Henry Fonda.) But no matter. She’s got enough charm for him, and herself, and herself, all three.

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

Kiss Me Stupid

Kiss Me, Stupid is Billy Wilder’s horniest film, which is really saying something. Big-time singer Dino (Dean Martin) has a car breakdown in Climax, NV. Aspiring songwriter Orville Spooner (Ray Walston) wants Dino to sing one of his tunes. So he hires the town sex worker Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) to pretend to be his wife and seduce Dino so the singer will be grateful.  But Polly isn’t much of a Dino fan, while Orville’s actual wife, Zelda (Felicia Farr) is. And Orville is too jealous for his own good—though sometimes he forgets which wife he’s supposed to be jealous of.

Wife-swapping as a marital cure would still prompt audience double-takes in a rom-com today; in 1964 it sunk the film almost out of memory. Even today, Kiss Me, Stupid remains a deliriously, cheerfully shocking confection, with ping-ponging screwball schemes and repartee. And Kim Novak out Monroes Monroe as a sweet-tempered walking innuendo who just about melts the celluloid.

Image Credit: The Mirisch Company. 

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

Whats Up Doc

Peter Bogdanovich’s tribute to the classic screwballs is a classic itself at this point. Barbara Streisand plays Judy in the impish amorous Katherine Hepburn part with a devilish twinkle in her blue eye and a quip or twelve on each lip. Ryan O’Neal is Howard, the absent-minded Cary Grant professor. And while there aren’t two identical leopards, there are four identical suitcases, containing secret documents, diamonds, musical igneous rocks, and Judy’s underthings.

Of course, everything gets scrambled, every pane of glass gets shattered, and various hotel rooms get lit on fire. Amidst the chaos, the true stroke of genius may be the glorious miscasting of Madeleine Kahn as Howard’s matronly bossy Iowa fiancé. Every time she’s on-screen she’s on the verge of volcanically erupting out of the part.

Image Credit: Warner Bros. 

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Intolerable Cruelty

The Coen Brothers retro fast-talking screwball is a tribute to the genre’s forthright cynicism. Miles (George Clooney) is a high-priced heartless divorce attorney who foils the gold-digging machinations of curvy heartless seductress Marilyn (Catherine Zeta-Jones.) In retaliation, she sashays into his affections and pocketbook, duping the undupeable…until they both are duped by love.

Clooney rivals Cary Grant’s suavity and Zeta-Jones rivals Stanwyck’s earthy materialism. But there are few rivals in earlier romantic comedies for the erotic intensity with which one character tears up the icon-clad pre-nuptial agreement—leaving various partners scandalously exposed.

Image Credit: Universal Pictures. 

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

.Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s real-life relationship has overwhelmed the movie where they met. But it’s worth returning to see just how clever Mr. and Mrs. Smith is in updating the screwball into a popcorn action thriller. The Smiths’ standard boring suburban marriage is on the rocks until they mutually discover that they’re rival spies and reignite the spark while trying to kill each other. Fight choreography fuses with slapstick in a wonderful dance-floor disarmament sequence, and verbal sparring literally tears the house down.

Screwballs are about deception and switched identities. Spy movies are about deception and switched identities. There’s a kind of genius in having one go undercover as the other, or vice versa.

Image Credit: 20th Century Fox. 

Destination Wedding (2018)

Destination Wedding

Victor Levin’s retro-screwball was almost entirely ignored on its release, despite the fact that it stars Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder and is generally amazing. Morbid Frank and heartbroken Lindsay meet on the way to the wedding of his brother and her ex at a destination wedding in Paso Robles, and never stop complaining darkly the entire time. The camera rarely leaves the pair; no one else has a speaking role. It’s just 85 minutes of Reeves and Ryder exuberantly and flirtatiously bemoaning the meaninglessness of existence and love.

If that isn’t an inducement, then how about a nod to Bringing Up Baby in the form of a cameo by an errant mountain lion? Plus! The single most joyously awkward sex scene ever filmed. This is easily the best rom-com of the 2010s, and one of the few latter-day screwballs that can stand with the genre’s heyday. Watch it immediately.

Image Credit: Regatta.

The Lovebirds (2020)

The Lovebirds

Michael Showalter’s The Lovebirds had a release date right when COVIDhit, and never had a chance to gain traction. So most people never saw this marvelous return to screwballs past.

(Kumail Nanjiani )and Leilani (Issa Rae) are a couple whose relationship has sputtered out. But in the great screwball tradition they’re brought back together again by an escalating series of misadventures, including vehicular homicide, a choice between bacon grease and horse butt, and a masked black-tie orgy. Nanjiani and Rae project escalating exasperation and terror up to the improbable climax, where they are finally worn down into love.

Image Credit: Netflix.

Final Thoughts

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The classic screwball that would be on here if I had one more slot is probably Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story. For latter-day examples, I strongly considered Trading Places and A Fish Called Wanda, though I ultimately decided the romance element wasn’t quite prominent enough in either.  Screwballs are all about negotiation, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

Image Credit: Warner Bros. 

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: Netflix. 

Featured Image Credit: Maggie Lovitt. 

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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.