Mark Winokur’s American Laughter is a detailed discussion about immigrants and ethnicity in film comedies of the 1930s. Chapter 4, entitled “Unlikely Ethnic Heroes” argues that in the classical Hollywood era, there were both conscious and unconscious desires ranging from immigrant studio heads to writers to expose the tension between “Americanization” and ethnicity and its later movement towards “Anglophilia”.
The chapter begins with an inventory of studio heads who made efforts to produce films in their own “image.” The films portray the abovementioned tension between ethic backgrounds and the movement towards “Americanization” by choosing leading actors who were previously cast as “villains, ethnics, or eccentric character actors.”
The chapter then moves towards framing this argument in the context of William Powell, the lead actor portraying Godfrey in My Man Godfrey. He is categorized as one actor who played largely character roles (an ethnic villain, in particular) and then made a transition towards becoming a lead actor. Winokur examines the character of Godfrey Smith (née Parkes) and his unrealistic origins and actions. However, his manner and speech convinces the audience that “he must be a gentleman in some way the film conceals from us.”
The chapter continues to describe the ethnicity of many involved in the creation of Godfrey, from La Cava (Italian) to Universal’s studio head Carl Laemmle (German). It is argued that Myron and David Selznick, Powell’s agent and producer, were responsible for Powell’s character transition. Winokur argues that it is this fantasy character that creates the sense that upward mobility can only be attained by denying origin or social/ethical structures.
Sound is also credited for character transition. Powell played many roles in silent films and when sound was introduced, it allowed Powell’s Mid-Atlantic accent to convince audience members of such metamorphosis. This was a successful transition for Powell despite that he didn’t “sound the way he looked.”
Gerald Weales’ Canned Goods as Caviar devotes an entire chapter to My Man Godfrey. The chapter provides in-depth analysis of major scenes. It also devotes a significant amount of time and research towards the background and relevant works of Gregory La Cava, the director, Morrie Ryskind, one of the screenwriters, as well as numerous actors (William Powell, Carole Lombard, Mischa Auer, etc.) who played major roles in the film.
The chapter first describes the film as fulfilling certain storylines that were indigenous to the “screwball comedy genre.” Weales makes the case that the film is a “Batty Family Story,” a “Depression Film,” as well as a “Mysterious Stranger Story.” Each section delineates how and why My Man Godfrey qualifies as one of the aforementioned characteristics.
Weales next describes how Morrie Ryskind developed the characters and plot. Weales does so by illustrates Ryskind’s career. He first started as a writer for various sources as well as taking “odd-jobs.” Over time he transformed his writings from revues and Broadway shows to satire. From there it is assumed that Ryskind became more interested in politics, writing for the Nation and then Godfrey.
The chapter then moves to discuss La Cava’s incorporation of politics to his film. La Cava stated he was less interested in politics, but more in character development. However, Ryskind coupled with La Cava, the film incorporated both political and character prerogatives.
The chapter then moves to discuss La Cava’s unique improvisational style of scripting as well as directing. La Cava is a simple and unpresumptuous director, but technically astute. La Cava is more interested not in “the strength of the personality but the usable elements in it that counted.” Many examples are given how the Godfrey character, although totally unrealistic, provided the audience with a presence and movements that seemed highly possible.
William Powell is then discussed. It is described that Powell moved through several stages in his film career, from being a celebrated villain to a gentleman with a suave persona. Powell is said to have “leaped” to play Godfrey as it best connected with a previous role as a detective in Libeled Lady.
The chapter then moves to discussing the major scenes in the film. Weales does so by piecing apart the scene and incorporating the rationale behind the scene from other films by La Cava, Ryskind, and many of the major actors. This part of the chapter provides a character analysis of the players in the film and how their character arc changes as the film continues.
Christopher Beach’s Class, Language, and American Film Comedy examines the changes that occurred in American film comedy through the portrayal of social class as well as linguistic development. Chapter 2 entitled “Working Ladies and Forgotten Men: Class Divisions in Romantic Comedy, 1934-1937” charts the change from openly satirical screwball comedies originating in the early 1930s to those of the latter part of the decade. It is these comedies that Beach describes as “equal in its subversive potential…yet ends with an unexpected and rather sudden reversal of its underlying social critique.”
The chapter begins with a plot summary and assessment of My Man Godfrey. Beach describes la Cava’s satire as being continuously directed towards the “screwball antics of the conspicuously pampered upper classes.” The sensitivity or lack thereof, is witnesses and is done so often. Beach then describes what he perceives as a “radical reversal” of the sociopolitical message of the film as its ending praises the “utopian celebration of private enterprise during the Depression” rather than a more leftist approach stemming from the New Deal. This is seen as Godfrey saves the Bullocks as well as his homeless friends through two different private investments. Beach does state that La Cava still used the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty to create a spectacle for the film audience that was typical of screwball comedies at the time.
Beach then argues that romantic comedies of the mid-1930s to early 1940s were less open in their subversion; they were still highly ambivalent in “their exploration of social class, social conformism, and the establishment of social order.” These films adopted a conservative cinematic style (including La Cava) to defuse hostility towards screwball comedy’s “potential subversive form.” It is argued that any type of naively positive portrayal of the wealthy during this time period would have been rejected by a large portion of the filmgoing audience.
Beach further continues to discuss the ideological contradictions in 1930s films. He believes that they are indicative of the contradiction in American society, where there was a growth in “consumer ethos” and a heavy reliance upon it despite the increase in poverty. Furthermore, this disparity in wealth and class and the emergence of consumer culture that created the premise of “cross-class interaction.” Thus, the bread-and-butter premise of screwballs—the involvement of one wealthy character seducing one from a lower class—can be explained. Much of this desire and demand for this framework is credited to individual writers and directors of such films.
Beach then explains the role and involvement of language to depict the differences in societal classes. It is through linguistic differences that best engage the audience in a more subtle analysis of class relations. The Production Code is credited for screwball comedy’s clever composition of language to further disguise the topic of sex.
The rest of the chapter is devoted to the analysis of two films: The Girl from Missouri and Easy Living.
Chapter 3 entitled “Love in Hard Times” in Ted Sennett’s Laughing in the Dark presents a pseudo-psychological profile of moviegoers in the 1930s. It is stated that the Depression led a desire and emphasis for films to be more escapist in nature. Sennett described that in the Depression era, love was an interesting topic to pursue and examine. It was desirable as it tended to be escapist in nature. Filmmakers were able to distinguish love from romance. Sennett believes that society still embraced the topic of love, more so especially during difficult times. He continued as stating that the audience wanted this type of sentiment, but more fanciful and thus romance followed.
Moreover, Sennett describes that in the earlier years of film, filmmakers brought opulence, grandeur and wealth to the characters in movies. However, it became apparent that the audience felt isolated from this sect, more so than usual during the Depression. As such, romantic comedies started to incorporate reassuring messages using various themes. One of these particular themes was that of commoner’s triumph over the wealthy. In film, now described “screwballs,” gave hope to the audience that there was expectation to rebound, wealth isn’t materially satisfying, and/or loving a commoner might be better than a staid affair with the wealthy.
Many of these messages are well incorporated in My Man Godfrey. Sennett analyzes the film and presents it as a film “deeply rooted in its time.” He describes My Man Godfrey as a film that loved to abuse the image of the wealthy. Gregory La Cava, the director, pushed the envelope of the abuse with the piece of dialogue where Godfrey, as a “forgotten man,” calls the entire room of socialites as “empty-headed nitwits.”
Sennett’s treatment of the topic of wealth and hope are clearly defined and are well argued. His extended analysis of My Man Godfrey, especially on the topic of social commentary is cogent and suitable.
Tom Sennett’s Lunatics and Lovers is devoted to the genre of “screwball” comedies. Chapter 6, “Bats in their Belfry” discusses the concept of family in the 1930s. Sennett opens with the argument that a family was able to become closer and more cohesive when confronted with adversarial living conditions. As such, films grew to incorporate this optimistic model. However, this concept of cohesion became closely linked with wealth. It is said that unity was possible when the family was poor and struggled, but wealthier families lacked such turmoil and as a result the members became frivolous and lacked charm.
Sennett also expounded that the worlds of the wealthy and that of the lower classes often collided in films of the 1930s. He describes this popular film premise as a “double illusion.” This is where the charming, lucky, childish innocence of the poor taught the rich, who were described as lacking charm and in need of no luck or a lesson. However, he does continue to describe the fall of such a premise due to the “common cause,” also known as World War II.
Later in the chapter, Sennett presents My Man Godfrey as a film that dealt with the “antics of upper-class families.” The double illusion can be best seen when Sennett describes and comments on the scene in the film involving Godfrey berating Cornelia, calling her “a spoiled child who has grown up in ease and luxury, who has always had her own way and whose misdirected energies are so childish that they hardly deserve the comment even of a butler—on his off Thursday.” Sennett continues to piece apart various pieces of the film and inject his own commentary and successfully points out the significance of the scenes.
Bernard Drew’s essay entitled “High Comedy in the Thirties” in The National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy serves as an excellent overview on the transition to such comedies in the 1930s and its fading towards the start of WWII. Drew begins with a description of how sound comedies started. He associates this change with the advent and incorporation of sound. Thus, it is argued that many silent comedians were unfit for screen as they had “Pitkin Avenue souls and speech.” Thus, there was increased demand for actors with proper speech patterns and accents; much new talent stemming from Broadway and London theaters. William Powell and Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey are the exceptions, with Powell being a silent screen star whose accent was Mid-Atlantic and Lombard simply having the appropriate screen presence and aura of class.
With this shift in talent and style, film comedies became “artificial comedies of manners.” The association of manners stemmed from society’s perceptions of the wealthy. Moreover, the Depression had created a mystifying effect towards the upper-class as a great majority of the population was suffering or whose lifestyle was impaired. Such an audience couldn’t relate to such a small portion of the population. Drew argues that the wealthy could be portrayed as anything on screen because most filmgoers had no idea regarding the upper-classes societal norms. Thus, as Drew states, allowed for movie heiresses to be “always dizzy, madcap, charming, and irresponsible.” He further draws an example from My Man Godfrey; the scene where Irene discovers Godfrey in a landfill to take back as an object on a scavenger hunt in which she and her socialite friends take part.
Drew describes that the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ subsequently entry into war resulted in the dissipation of screwball comedy. He states that those individuals not at war were working in factories and defense plants, making “more money than they ever had.” Thus, the wealthy weren’t as remote as the majority of the population once felt. Thus, comedy became more reality based and as a result, talent from screwball comedy, such as Godfrey’s Carole Lombard shifted to drama or wartime themed films.
Chapter 1 in Wes D. Gehring’s Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy presents a clear and well delineated introduction to the five main differences between both genres. Moreover, the chapter outlines the historical circumstances that shaped the two genres. It ends with a description of the post-Depression developments of both genres.
The first main difference that Gehring describes is the emphasis on love vs. comedy. Screwball comedies place its emphasis on “funny” as opposed to romantic comedy which “accents love.” This represents the America’s “take on farce,” with its desire to see physical comedy and absurd events. This is in contrast to romantic comedy which grounds itself in reality. The second difference is the depiction of the love process. Screwball spoofs such romance, while romantic comedy keeps the process visible, consciously highlighting it. The third difference Gehring describes involves basic character development. Screwball comedy uses an eccentric main cast, with an equally satiric support cast. Romantic comedy uses a less controlling and more serious heroine and the supporting characters tend to be “more funny than flaky.” The fourth difference is the “dating ritual.” In screwball, the heroine often finds herself in a “triangle” with her desire and his fiancée and the heroine’s role is to separate the serious (and boring) fiancée and to then capture his heart. In romantic comedy, the tension often lies in character differences, as opposed to another character itself. The fifth difference is plot pacing. Screwballs escalate near the end, while romantic comedy drags the tension throughout the end.
Next, Gehring discusses “Depression-Era Developments.” The first point Gehring presents the emergence of the “anti-hero” in 1920’s film. The second point is the fascination of the population with the upper classes. The third development is the implementation of the Production Code in 1934. The fourth “period factor” was the film industry’s growing use of sound technology. The fifth discussion point was the influence of “manic comedy of teams.”
The chapter then discusses key pictures. My Man Godfrey is described and analyzed throughout this part of the chapter. Analysis of the connection between Marx Brother’s comeback film’s (A Night at the Opera) success and that of Godfrey. It is described as “a surreal lead-in.” Gehring argues that Morrie Ryskind aided in this success as he was the co-writer of both films.
The chapter ends with a presentation of “Post-Depression Developments of Both Genres.” There is focus on WWII as a reason for the dwindling demand for screwball comedy. Moreover, a slew of poor remakes is argued as tainting the screwball genre. Gehring then charts screwballs re-emergence in the 1960s and then a “mini re-emergence” in the 1980s.
David R. Shumway’s article in the 1991 summer issue of Cinema Journal discusses how screwball comedies provide a skewed concept of marriage. It is his argument that the screwball genre is the “affirmation of marriage in the face of the threat of a growing divorce rate and liberalized divorce laws.” Shumway then presents the historical trend towards an increasing population in the United States with a disproportionately high increase in divorces by the end of the 1920s. Hollywood is argued to be partly responsible as movies started to portray the home not as an institution of self-sacrifice and communality but rather “geared” towards self-containment and personal satisfaction. From this argument, Shumway continues to construct that screwball comedy depicts that one can have “complete desire and complete satisfaction” and that such attainment is named “marriage.”
Shumway also discusses the triadic pattern seen in many screwballs, where the significance lies in “its figuring of the structure of desire.” Furthermore, the subject of the film is heterosexual, but not necessarily male in gender. Screwball comedy presents women as the desiring subject and not simply an object between two males. This positioning parallels the increasing atmosphere of feminism and independence found in the screwball comedy era (1930s). Shumway also discusses that casting serves to reaffirm and heighten “desire” created by the triadic pattern found in screwball films.
Shumway then presents his view of the depiction of the upper-classes in screwball not as a way to depict overcoming class differences, but rather to further enhance eroticism. He believes that luxury is concurrent with erotica. Moreover, he argues that “prosocial thematics” of reconciliation never occur at the expense of the “power and privilege of the rich.” My Man Godfrey is used as an example as Godfrey is only fit to marriage the heiress Irene until his true, blue-blooded, identity is revealed.
Shumway then goes back to discuss the depiction of women in screwball comedies. It is argued that there is a couple of “reversals” that serve to affirm marriage while considering the social changes occurring. He mentions that the heroine is a strong pursuer while the man is seen as “bumbling.” While not provided in the article, we can see this at the end of Godfrey where Irene provides a priest and pseudo-forces Godfrey into marriage in his office, irregardless of his confused demeanor. Another reversal is the heightened possibility of life and sex outside of marriage. While screwball sets to affirm marriage, it does so by providing an alternative to it.
Wes D. Gehring’s Screwball Comedy presents a thorough analysis of the said genre. Chapter 6, “The Screwball Genre and Comedy Theory,” applies comedy theory to screwball comedy. The first part of the chapter presents a “superiority theory” and applies it to the genre of screwball comedy. The model focuses on three key aspects: “the concept of implosion, genre space and conflict, and the comic tendencies of pivotal directors.”
Screwball makes fun of the status quo—in particular of the wealthy. However, it is done as to “grow fond of these wealthy wackos, in a superior sort of way.” Moreover, Gehring believes that screwball minimizes “socioeconomic differences of the leading duo and key on their initial conflicts concerning eccentric behavior.”
Gehring then reverts back to political implosion and space and conflict. It is argued that the leftist movement of the 1930s was upset that Hollywood focused on the Depression despite the public’s fondness of such topics. Gehring then discusses how screwball doesn’t have “determinate space” and isn’t concerned with “threatened space,” but rather society and attempting to adjust to the “cultural milieu.”
The chapter then moves to discuss Henri Bergson’s Theory of Superiority. There are three components of character development that can be applied to screwball comedy: absentmindedness, inversion, and supporting comedy characters as satellites of the lead performer. It is described that absentmindedness usually comes from the lead male performer. It can be seen through rigidity, as is the case with the slightly aloof Godfrey. Inversion is then described as when “‘certain characters in a certain situations’ pull a switch.” This can appear when the antihero male believes he is in charge of his life, but isn’t. Gehring then describes the incident in Godfrey when Irene (Carole Lombard) tells Godfrey (William Powell) that he “is my responsibility now.”
Gehring then presents three key items that differentiate female “activity” from that of the male. Firstly, the female assumes the eccentricity mainly to win over the male. Despite her zealousness, Irene (Lombard) displays rationality, telling her sister “you can’t rush a man like Godfrey.” Secondly, there is a double standard with respect to the reversal of “stereotype gender activity.” Thus, the female heroine is allowed to be aggressive. Lastly, is the” battle of the sexes.” It is argued that the female eccentricity is not anti-social because of her desire towards marriage—a societal foundation.
The final part of the chapter deals with satellite characters. Gehring describes the supporting characters as antiheroic and sometimes fatherly. This applies to Godfrey as the father character, Alexander Bullet, is indeed the true forgotten man as well as a satellite father figure.
In Chapter 9 of Robert Sklar’s A World History of Film, Sklar discusses the emergence of “classic cinema.” The first part of the chapter focuses on the classical era and the genre developments that emerge.
However, what is most interesting in this chapter is the topic of the Production Code and its effects on filmmaking. Sklar delineates the formation of the National League of Decency, the rewritten and reemergence of the Production Code in 1934, the appointment of Joseph Breen and the PCA, and how it influenced the evolution of the depiction of romance. What is particularly relevant is the section on screwball comedy. Sklar suggests that the Production Code shifted the comedy genre away from vulgar, ethnic films which drew inspiration from vaudeville to a new type of romantic comedy. Sklar describes these films as having certain plot and character features, such as quirky families, most usually of the upper-classes. He further describes how it was these pictures that gave the upper-class “lessons in human values.”
My Man Godfrey is described in this chapter. There is a brief plot summary, describing the opening scene at the garbage dump—the people in formal attire taking part in a scavenger hunt and Godfrey pushing one woman into an ash heap. Sklar describes the love affair Godfrey had which led him to poverty. The chapter also highlights the film’s screwball-esque features, such as the quirky family from Fifth Avenue, the rich having an affair with one (Godfrey) from a (supposed) lower class, and the butler as a figure of wit, commonsense, and prudence.
This chapter is a useful and concise source of information for the topics of the Production Code’s history, enforcement, and its effects; screwball comedy and its derivation; and plot and character summaries of My Man Godfrey.