Definition of Screwball Comedy

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Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by drednm » Fri Feb 16, 2018 8:53 am

This has probably been discussed before, but.....

I watched It's a Wonderful World (1939) last night. It's described as a screwball comedy. OK. Maybe it is. But what are the main elements that make a comedy screwball? It's kind of like "I know one when I see one," but are there major criteria a screwball comedy must have concerning characters, plot, etc.?
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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by boblipton » Fri Feb 16, 2018 9:37 am

Wikipedia offers a good one. I quote:
Screwball comedy is a genre of comedy film that became popular during the Great Depression, originating in the early 1930s and thriving until the early 1940s. Many secondary characteristics of this genre are similar to film noir, but it distinguishes itself for being characterized by a female that dominates the relationship with the male central character, whose masculinity is challenged.[1]
I would use that as a basis and essay my own definition:

Screwball Comedy is a sub-genre of romantic comedy film that arose in the 1930s with the shutting down of overt sexuality by, in the United States, strict imposition of the Production Code, and elsewhere, by equivalent national standards. It is characterized by characters that challenge then-standard relational boundaries, not only between the sexes, but between classes, showing them behaving in ways contrary to the "ordered" and "proper" way, until, at the end, order is typically restored by marriage or a romantic relation. Thus, in My Man Godfrey, the rich Bullock household is turned upside down, when the bum picked up off an ash heap becomes the romantic fixation of the younger daughter and saves the family from financial ruin; the situation is set aright when he turns out to be a Boston Brahmin. Other screwball comedies like Holiday make the point that in order to continue, society must accommodate creative outsiders.

That's too long-winded, but as Mark Twain remarked, I've only had a few minutes to work on it. Now, I must get back to work and see if the market's movement offers any opportunity.

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by R Michael Pyle » Fri Feb 16, 2018 12:03 pm

boblipton wrote:Now, I must get back to work and see if the market's movement offers any opportunity.Bob
Speaking of screwball comedy. Hopefully the movement isn't through the anal system today. Last week's "corrections" are more like receiving back a test that's solid red with professor's remarks. Those aren't necessarily romantic remarks; not even comical usually; but in the sense of a divine comedy they end up making everything ducky. As Emerson said, "Compensation". Right?

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by earlytalkiebuffRob » Sat Feb 17, 2018 1:39 pm

And does anyone know the first film to be described as such on initial release? And would any earlier films be up for nomination? Thinking on the subject, the writing element of such films seems important, and due in part to the hiring of name writers from the early thirties onwards...

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by drednm » Sat Feb 17, 2018 2:38 pm

earlytalkiebuffRob wrote:And does anyone know the first film to be described as such on initial release? And would any earlier films be up for nomination? Thinking on the subject, the writing element of such films seems important, and due in part to the hiring of name writers from the early thirties onwards...
My guess is it's a term that was used long after the fact.....
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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by Jim Roots » Sat Feb 17, 2018 2:43 pm

Aren't all these definitions leaving out both the "screwball" and the "comedy" aspects of "screwball comedy"?

Jim

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by drednm » Sat Feb 17, 2018 2:47 pm

n.

"eccentric person," 1933, U.S. slang, earlier as a type of erratic baseball pitch (1928), from a still earlier name for a type of delivery in cricket (1866), from screw (n.) + ball (n.1). Screwball comedy is attested from 1938, in reference to Carole Lombard.

This source lists 1938 as possibly first use of the term in film. Other than a sports context, it was 1933 for early use of screwball as a nutty person.
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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by boblipton » Sat Feb 17, 2018 3:21 pm

Jim Roots wrote:Aren't all these definitions leaving out both the "screwball" and the "comedy" aspects of "screwball comedy"?

Jim
I think, Jim, you’re referring not to comedy, but what’s funny. Funny is what makes you laugh. Comedy is a story in the lively arts where things turn out well for the humans involved.

Perhaps you thinking of ‘farce’ or it’s adjectival form, ‘farcical.’

Bob
Last edited by boblipton on Sat Feb 17, 2018 6:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by bobfells » Sat Feb 17, 2018 6:08 pm

My two cents: Screwball comedy is related to farce comedy but the action is somewhat more exaggerated. Basically, both forms require the characters to be serious while dealing with ridiculous circumstances. Such comedies fail when the actors try to be funny. Nope, everyone should behave like they're performing HAMLET.
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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by boblipton » Sat Feb 17, 2018 6:11 pm

Here's the Google Ngram chart for "Screwball Comedy" from 1920-1950:



https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?c ... dy%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" target="_blank

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by boblipton » Sat Feb 17, 2018 6:18 pm

While I understand the interest in what makes a good comedy, or a funny comedy, such issues have nothing to do with what makes something a screwball comedy. They merely ("merely" for the purpose of definition of "screwball comedy") differentiate between a good screwball comedy and a bad screwball comedy.

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by MaryGH » Sat Feb 17, 2018 8:57 pm

"Talk of the Town" (1942) is a screwball comedy. I finally added it to my DVD collection because Tom Tyler has a minor supporting role, and this is his third movie with Jean Arthur (first two were "Born to Battle" 1925 and "The Cowboy Cop" 1926)
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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by Brooksie » Sat Feb 17, 2018 10:46 pm

Back when I studied film at university, we were given to understand screwball comedy as a quintessentially post-Code genre - comedies about sex rather than sex comedies. I don't know where that leaves It Happened One Night (1934), given it was a pre-Code, but there you go. I guess the writing was already on the Wall of Jericho by that point.

Back in the day, it seems that the term was used more loosely to describe any kind of comedy where the humour derives from the zaniness of the characters. I've seen everyone from George Formby to the Three Stooges to Joe E. Brown described as 'screwball' comedians, for example - probably not the descriptor that leaps to mind today. In an editorial of 1938, the Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin describes it as slapstick whose twist is the dignity with which it is delivered. In short - the joke is that you're not watching Billy Bevan do pratfalls, you're watching Cary Grant or William Powell. Interesting how these concepts drift.

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by boblipton » Sun Feb 18, 2018 7:49 am

I suppose some people might think I am tromping on subject drift by insisting, as I have above, that the question of what makes a good screwball comedy is distinct from what makes a screwball comedy (or comedie bal-de-fis; I would include Jean Boyer's Circonstances atténuantes (1939), starring the incomparable Michel Simon in the genre, even though it's not about sex, but about justice and the law) I just think the central question is interesting.

Perhaps we can produce a working definition by listing screwball comedies themselves, although there will inevitably be titles that some people will contest. The IMDb lists over 200 titles under the keywords "screwball comedy" and another two under "neoscrewball comedy." Or perhaps some one will offer a formal definition that differs significantly from mine.

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by drednm » Sun Feb 18, 2018 8:38 am

boblipton wrote:I suppose some people might think I am tromping on subject drift by insisting, as I have above, that the question of what makes a good screwball comedy is distinct from what makes a screwball comedy (or comedie bal-de-fis; I would include Jean Boyer's Circonstances atténuantes (1939), starring the incomparable Michel Simon in the genre, even though it's not about sex, but about justice and the law) I just think the central question is interesting.

Perhaps we can produce a working definition by listing screwball comedies themselves, although there will inevitably be titles that some people will contest. The IMDb lists over 200 titles under the keywords "screwball comedy" and another two under "neoscrewball comedy." Or perhaps some one will offer a formal definition that differs significantly from mine.

Bob
I was looking for criteria for the genre, not an assessment of "goodness."

* zany character(s) and plot
* subversion of an institution (marriage, society, etc.)
* role reversal (woman chases man, cross dressing, disguises)
* fast pacing
*
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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by boblipton » Sun Feb 18, 2018 12:16 pm

drednm wrote:
boblipton wrote:I suppose some people might think I am tromping on subject drift by insisting, as I have above, that the question of what makes a good screwball comedy is distinct from what makes a screwball comedy (or comedie bal-de-fis; I would include Jean Boyer's Circonstances atténuantes (1939), starring the incomparable Michel Simon in the genre, even though it's not about sex, but about justice and the law) I just think the central question is interesting.

Perhaps we can produce a working definition by listing screwball comedies themselves, although there will inevitably be titles that some people will contest. The IMDb lists over 200 titles under the keywords "screwball comedy" and another two under "neoscrewball comedy." Or perhaps some one will offer a formal definition that differs significantly from mine.

Bob
I was looking for criteria for the genre, not an assessment of "goodness."

* zany character(s) and plot
* subversion of an institution (marriage, society, etc.)
* role reversal (woman chases man, cross dressing, disguises)
* fast pacing
*

Quite obviously, that’s incomplete, since the Arbuckle short Coney Island (1918) matches all those criteria.

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by Brooksie » Sun Feb 18, 2018 1:17 pm

boblipton wrote:Quite obviously, that’s incomplete, since the Arbuckle short Coney Island (1918) matches all those criteria.

Bob
Then let's add in the matter of dignity. Part of the appeal of screwball comedy is the subversion of dignity - Cary Grant in a frilly dressing gown, Henry Fonda tripped up by Barbara Stanwyck in a fancy nightclub. Fatty doesn't lose much dignity when he falls on his behind or dresses as a lady, because he has none to start off with. It's funny because he's funny. With screwball comedy, it's the opposite.

The distinctive quick-fire dialogue of screwball comedy also has to be included in any definition - a sort of verbal foreplay, if you want to get intellectual - which would exclude silent pictures as a rule.

The main source we studied at university, Tina Olsin Lent's chapter in Classical Hollywood Comedy ('Romantic Love and Friendship: The Redefinition of Gender Relations in Screwball Comedy') contributes a few other factors - the increasing enfranchisement of women (it's almost always the women stripping the men of their dignity), the changing nature of marriage from a Victorian-style duty to a playful 'love-companionship' (think Nick and Nora, or Gable and Colbert in It Happened One Night), and class mobility (think My Man Godfrey, Holiday, etc).

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by drednm » Sun Feb 18, 2018 1:36 pm

That's why I left the hanging asterisk...............
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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by boblipton » Sun Feb 18, 2018 1:38 pm

Is it solely the man who has his dignity stripped away? What about Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, to say of Nothing Sacred? Look at what happens to Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild! That's just among the good ones. In Woman of the Year, Hepburn's whole feminity is cast in doubt because she can't make --- is it waffles?

While usually it's the men who get a kick in the pants, that's because during the sound era anyway, it's assumed they can stand up to them better -- and usually, it's only Hepburn wearing them anyway.

Ultimately, the serious undertones of screwball is that these class distinctions and so forth are pointless when it's (usually) a matter of a man and a woman. Those of us who value farce for its revolutionary quality understand that it's easier to get someone on your side by making him laugh than by making him cry.

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by Lamar » Sun Feb 18, 2018 2:00 pm

earlytalkiebuffRob wrote:And does anyone know the first film to be described as such on initial release? And would any earlier films be up for nomination? Thinking on the subject, the writing element of such films seems important, and due in part to the hiring of name writers from the early thirties onwards...
Just a quick check found this review of Easy Living from September 1937 http://archive.org/stream/silverscreen0 ... 9/mode/2up that uses the term and mentions My Man Godfrey and Theodora Goes Wild. Topper is also reviewed but it's merely "madcap" and "crazy." A 1939 profile of Irene Dunne by Ed Sullivan mentions her starring in "the first of the screwball cycle, The Awful Truth." A 1941 NY Times article mentions that screwball peaked four years ago.

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by boblipton » Sun Feb 18, 2018 2:12 pm

Lamar wrote:
earlytalkiebuffRob wrote:And does anyone know the first film to be described as such on initial release? And would any earlier films be up for nomination? Thinking on the subject, the writing element of such films seems important, and due in part to the hiring of name writers from the early thirties onwards...
Just a quick check found this review of Easy Living from September 1937 http://archive.org/stream/silverscreen0 ... 9/mode/2up that uses the term and mentions My Man Godfrey and Theodora Goes Wild. Topper is also reviewed but it's merely "madcap" and "crazy." A 1939 profile of Irene Dunne by Ed Sullivan mentions her starring in "the first of the screwball cycle, The Awful Truth." A 1941 NY Times article mentions that screwball peaked four years ago.
Just as we're having trouble figuring out exactly what it is, we're going to be having trouble figuring out when it began. There are roots in 1926' For Alimony Only, in which first wife Lilyan Tashman is draining ex Clive Brook broke... so second wife Leatrice Joy simply shrugs and goes out and gets a job.

I think the 1930s, as a period of great social disruption * was a time when art wanted to discuss such things.... and the Production Code said you couldn't, so they pretended they were only kidding. Then the 1940s came along and you could make fun of Nazis.

Bob


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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by boblipton » Sun Feb 18, 2018 2:31 pm

Jim Roots wrote:Aren't all these definitions leaving out both the "screwball" and the "comedy" aspects of "screwball comedy"?

Jim
The online etymological dictionary gives a date of 1938 and references Carole Lombard.

Bob
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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Sun Feb 18, 2018 2:36 pm

Is it solely the man who has his dignity stripped away?
I remember a screening where someone was trying to argue that screwball was full of violence toward women and William K. Everson argued that it was an equality of the sexes where either sex could get kicked in the behind and fall into a pool.
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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by boblipton » Sun Feb 18, 2018 2:53 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:
Is it solely the man who has his dignity stripped away?
I remember a screening where someone was trying to argue that screwball was full of violence toward women and William K. Everson argued that it was an equality of the sexes where either sex could get kicked in the behind and fall into a pool.
Sullivan's Travels: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Greig & Eric Blore all wind up in Sully's pool. At least no one gets blown up in a Stanley Steamer onscreen.

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by Brooksie » Sun Feb 18, 2018 5:23 pm

boblipton wrote:
Jim Roots wrote:Aren't all these definitions leaving out both the "screwball" and the "comedy" aspects of "screwball comedy"?

Jim
The online etymological dictionary gives a date of 1938 and references Carole Lombard.

Bob
Interestingly, it would seem that the genre was defined in order to be dismissed, much like Cubism. Several industry sources from late 1938-early 1939 celebrate the imminent end of the screwball cycle. Exhibitors don't seem to have been very fond of them, and it does seem that they were considered an acquired taste. Many years ago I talked to an older lady who had seen Bringing Up Baby during its original run, and recounted the widespread feeling that something was 'off' about it, and it just didn't work.

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by precode » Sun Feb 18, 2018 11:52 pm

My two cents:

https://www.loc.gov/programs/static/nat ... entury.pdf" target="_blank

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by drednm » Mon Feb 19, 2018 5:49 am

precode wrote:My two cents:

https://www.loc.gov/programs/static/nat ... entury.pdf" target="_blank" target="_blank

Mike S.
great article!
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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by Connoisseur » Mon Feb 19, 2018 12:23 pm

The Oxford English dictionary: Screwball: "Used, chiefly attrib. or as adj. (esp. as Screwball comedy) of a kind of fast moving, irreverent comedy film produced in the U.S. in the 1930s, of which eccentric characters were chief feature, or of persons, etc. connected with such films" Forst reference is 1938 in Collier's.

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by precode » Mon Feb 19, 2018 3:35 pm

drednm wrote:
precode wrote:My two cents:

https://www.loc.gov/programs/static/nat ... entury.pdf" target="_blank" target="_blank" target="_blank

Mike S.
great article!
Thank you, kind sir!

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Re: Definition of Screwball Comedy

Unread post by s.w.a.c. » Tue Feb 20, 2018 3:06 pm

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