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Fall in Love with the Screwball Comedies of Classic Hollywood

Forget 90s rom-coms. The screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s combined rapid-fire dialogue, slapstick goofs, and surprisingly sharp social commentary.
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For a brief, glorious period in Hollywood history, the screwball comedy ruled the box office. These early 20th-century rom-coms feature fast-talking women–the richer the better–and the exasperated men who love them. From the iconic pairings of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, these classic pictures are still as funny today as they were over 80 years ago.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Largely considered by film historians as the first screwball comedy, this picture starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert is a must-see. Directed by Frank Capra, It Happened One Night tells the story of a headstrong socialite (Colbert) who elopes with a playboy. After her father drags her home, she runs away to find her husband–but instead, she meets a down-on-his-luck journalist (Gable) who agrees to help her in exchange for an exclusive story.

Pretty much every screwball comedy can be described as “hijinks ensue,” and It Happened One Night is no different. Cobert and Gable get into all sorts of scrapes and misunderstandings as they travel across the country, including the infamous hitchhiking scene that sees Colbert hiking up her skirt to reveal her legs. Shocking! Of course, the film ends with Colbert and Gable’s characters falling in love and living happily ever after. This is a comedy, after all.

Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby wasn’t the first time Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant paired up onscreen, nor would it be the last. In 1938, they starred in one of the screwiest of screwball comedies–and it nearly ended Hepburn’s career. The film was originally such a flop that it earned her the nickname “box office poison.” Ironically, the movie that reversed her downward trajectory was another collaboration with Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story.

This movie leans hard into the slapstick element of screwball comedies. Grant plays paleontologist David Huxley who meets free-spirited Susan Vance (Hepburn) on the eve of his wedding. He gets mixed up in her quest to deliver a tame leopard named baby to her family’s farm in Connecticut. Spoiler: hijinks ensue.

Fun fact: it’s also the first time a character uses the word “gay” in a feature film. After having his clothes stolen, Cary Grant’s character is forced to wear a frilly bathrobe. When asked why he’s dressed like that, he ad-libbed the line, “Because I just went gay all of a sudden.”

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Many screwball comedies explored the clash between the upper and lower classes–and the upper classes rarely fared well. My Man Godfrey takes that idea to the extreme. Carole Lombard is a bored socialite during the Great Depression who has to find a “forgotten man” as part of a scavenger hunt with her friends.

William Powell is the forgotten man in question, and he is less than amused by being a prop in their games. Irene (Lombard) ends up hiring Godfrey (Powell) as her family’s butler in an attempt to make amends, but he teaches the family more about their privilege than they do about social graces. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice to say that not everything is as it seems.

William Powell and Carole Lombard played lovebirds in My Man Godfrey, but they were actually divorced in real life at the time! They split amicably after two years of marriage in 1933. Powell was with Jean Harlow at the time, and Lombard would soon meet her future husband Clarke Gable.

The Thin Man (1934)

Like several other screwballs, The Thin Man straddles the line between comedy and a second genre. Based on a Dashiell Hammett novel, the film stars fast-talking, hard-drinking lovebirds Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) as they get mixed up in a murder mystery. It combines elements of romantic comedy with film noir–a mash-up that shouldn’t work, and yet The Thin Man is a triumph.

Nick Charles was a hard-boiled PI who married a wealthy heiress (always with the wealthy heiresses!) and retires from the life of a gumshoe. They’re in New York for Christmas when the daughter of a former client reaches out to Nick because her father is missing. No matter how hard he resists getting involved in the case, it won’t leave him alone.

The Thin Man was a massive box office smash. Multiple sequels followed, and William Powell and Myrna Loy would be so popular that they’d make a total of 14 films together.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Cary Grant is at his zaniest in this Halloween romantic comedy. Screwball comedies had been on the decline since about 1942, and some film critics argue that Arsenic and Old Lace shouldn’t count. However, the screenplay was actually written in 1941, with a planned release date of the following year, but the producers of the stage play the film is based on would not allow it to premiere until after the show closed on Broadway. In other words, Arsenic and Old Lace had to wait over three years on the shelf. It has many of the hallmarks of the screwball genre, including slapstick humor, a farcical plot, and fast-talking dialogue.

Mortimer Brewster (Grant) an advice columnist who hates marriage, falls in love with the girl next door (Priscilla Lane). After their courthouse wedding on Halloween, the couple prepares to slip away for their secret honeymoon. There’s just one problem: Brewster’s aunts and his brother are stone-cold crazy. And it looks like they might be murderers, too.

Mortimer’s world unravels further when his long-lost brother (played by Raymond Massey) arrives with a sinister accomplice (Peter Lorre). As he desperately tries to prevent his new bride from finding out exactly how many bodies are buried in the cellar of his childhood home, Mortimer becomes increasingly unhinged. Nobody does “ordinary man pushed to the brink of madness” quite like Cary Grant.

His Girl Friday (1940)

Hey look, it’s Cary Grant again! As one of the biggest stars of the 30s and 40s, as well as one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood history, he made a lot of very popular screwball comedies. I didn’t even include The Awful Truth or Topper on this list, valiantly limiting myself to just four of my favorites.

His Girl Friday is a rapid-fire comedy masterpiece wrapped around a serious story about journalism and the labor movement in America. Like several other films in the genre, this is a “comedy of remarriage” that reunites newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) with his ex-wife and star reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell).

Director Howard Hawks encouraged Grant and Russell to ad-lib their lines while speaking as quickly as possible. Even though Hawks was frustrated by the limitations of the camera and sound recording equipment at the time, he created a much more naturalistic film than the more “stage-like” pictures of the era. The result is something truly special. And because the copyright lapsed on the film, you can legally watch the whole thing right now on YouTube.

Carefree (1938)

Many of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ films together had elements of screwball comedy, but I’d argue that Carefree is the only one that truly deserves a spot on this list. In this picture, Astaire is a psychiatrist named Tony whose best friend (played by Ralph Bellamy) asks him to talk to his fiancee Amanda (Rogers) because she can’t make up her mind about whether to get married. Naturally, they fall in love. However, Tony uses hypnosis to convince Amanda that she doesn’t love him–and, in fact, that “men like him should be shot down like dogs.”

Clearly, the moral here is that you should never ask your best friend to psychoanalyze your fiancee. Especially if you are Ralph Bellamy, who was frequently cast as the man who gets left by the heroine for her real true love. The famous hypnotism dance sequence in the clip above is one of Astaire and Rogers’ best routines. Despite her elegance while dancing, Ginger Rogers was the more gifted comedian of the two. She gets to go wild in Carefree as she menaces Astaire with a shotgun in the finale of the film.

Holiday (1938)

And here, at last, we have one of my favorite films ever made. Holiday isn’t as well known as The Philadelphia Story or Bringing Up Baby, but I think it’s the finest collaboration between Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Grant stars as Johnny, a bright young man with a ton of hustle who is determined to make his way in the world. He falls in love with a girl named Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) only to discover that she’s a New York heiress–and shallow, too.

While visiting Julia’s family over the holidays, he meets her older sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn). The two of them are clearly soulmates, with both Johnny and Linda embracing the idea that life is about more than hard work, making money, and rubbing elbows with high society.

What I love about this film is its joie de vivre. While many screwball comedies lampooned the upper classes, few offered such an optimistic worldview as Holiday. The film’s message resonates even more strongly now, during the anti-work movement dubbed “The Great Recession.” Ironically, moviegoers during the Great Depression were less charmed by the idea of running away from a decent job, and the picture was a flop. Audiences today would likely relate much more to the idea of prioritizing happiness and freedom over a stifling career.