Saturday, October 10, 2009

The roots of screwball comedy

The origins of screwball comedy started almost as surely as the first motion picture cameras began to roll. Depending on which film critic/historian you believe, the definition may vary, but there seems to be some agreement on some of its characteristics.

According to author/professor Wes D. Gehring, there is a distinct difference between screwball and romantic comedy. In screwball comedy, the emphasis is on the comedy not the romance, although there is often always romance involved. Accordingly, the romantic comedy emphasizes, what else? romance.

These distinctions may seem like splitting hairs to some, but most, I think, can notice the differences between a romantic comedy like The Philadelphia Story and a screwball comedy like My Man Godfrey, for example. There is obviously comedy in the former, but the romance or romantic entanglements of Tracey Lord is where the focus lies. In the latter, there is obviously romance, but it is the comedic actions of Irene Bullock and family, in particular, that is the primary focus.

Where the label “screwball comedy” came from seems to be in dispute. Some say the labeling of the genre coincided with the release and early reviews of the film My Man Godfrey. Supposedly, a New York critic said Miss Lombard plays a real screwball and thus the labeling began. Surely there were films before Godfrey that qualified as screwball comedies, going all the way back to the silent film days, as already stated. When the genre was identified and codified is another mystery altogether.

According to Maria DiBattista in Fast Talking Dames, the screwball comedy took shape in the early thirties right after the Production Code was introduced. The new self-censorship that Hollywood imposed on itself created a new type of sex comedy, if you will. Sex comedies without sex, but filled with sharp, rapid-fire dialogue that was loaded with innuendo and double entendres. The veiled “sex talk” may have gone over the heads of the censor boards, but not over those of the audience, which were delighted by fast-talking dames like Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, and Carole Lombard.

Whatever the origins, the genre has delighted audiences for generations and produced some of the most enduring films of all time.
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