Screwball comedies have their origins in the silent films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but they really didn’t come to prominence until the 1930s when depression-era moviegoers went to the movies looking for a laugh. The screwball classics presented us with a world in which anything can happen and usually plays with variations on four archetypes: the hero, the straight man, the villain and the dizzy dame.
I have always been a huge fan of the genre, but it wasn’t until I married my very own dizzy dame, Ray Pilates’ Julie Michaels, that my affection for movies like Bringing Up Baby, Arsenic and Old Lace and Monkey Business fully took shape. Prior to meeting Julie, I’d gone through life playing the dizzy counterpart to all my grounded and artistically disinclined friends, but Julie has easily supplanted me in our marriage relegating me to the role of the (occasionally heroic) straight man. Ironically, this is the role Cary Grant played in many of the best and most iconic films in the genre – not that I’m comparing myself to him.
In Bringing Up Baby, he plays a bookish Paleontologist who is engaged to marry a prim colleague, but finds himself falling for Katherine Hepburn through a series of misadventures including: an accident on a golf course, two escaped leopards and a missing dinosaur bone.
In Arsenic and Old Lace, he plays a newly married playboy who brings his new bride home to meet his aunts and ends up at the centre of a zany murder investigation, after inadvertently harboring an escaped fugitive.
In Monkey Business, he plays a scientist who, together with Ginger Rogers, accidentally creates a youth serum that brings them both into contact with the primitive version of themselves.
Grant was one of the most elegant and charismatic leading men in history, if not the most elegant, and some critics have speculated that the directors of these films enjoyed breaking down this persona and watching him squirm. Casting against type certainly worked and revealed another more slapstick side to his persona. It’s no coincidence that he also starred in Holiday, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, Houseboat, Indiscreet and many other comedy classics, opposite equally brilliant leading ladies such as Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Ingrid Bergman and Sophia Loren.
The great screwball comedies remain relevant because of their characters. No matter how far-fetched the stories were, the writers of yesteryear figured out a way to reveal universal truths about human nature. The events weren’t plausible, but the people reacting to them were. All of these films are worth seeing and they’re due for a reappraisal. In times of economic or political distress, the trend repeats itself. Audiences today, recovering from the dip in the economy, will doubtless find many of the same rewards in the mirth and insanity of these older pictures.
The genre continues to be represented in more contemporary movies such as: What’s Up Doc, Flirting with Disaster, There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents and pretty much anything directed by Wes Anderson.