Lent’s article focuses on the change in the depiction of relationships between men and women in films in the 1930s. According to Lent, the screwball comedy which developed in the 1930s, focused on a contemporary relationship between men and women, referred to as “love-companionship,” thus altering and redefining relations between the genders. At a time when Americans were focusing more upon marriage due to the conditions of the Depression, screwball comedy directly addressed love and marriage through sexual and ideological tensions between its two main characters. Lent argues that this divergence from the traditional depiction of love and marriage stems from three major elements: “a redefined image of woman, a redefined view of marriage, and a redefined idea of cinematic comedy” (316).
Lent attributes the development of the new woman to the flappers of the 1920s who shared many similar characteristics with classic screwball heroines. Flappers redefined freedom, social behavior, and the role of women in society, all of which were reflected onscreen by actresses. Screwball heroines became characteristically more free and independent, oftentimes dominating their male counterparts. The sexual liberation and power of the flappers were not directly translated to the screwball heroines due to Production Code measures, but as a result, the role of the male was changed as well, to one of “playful companionship” to provide a greater sense of equality between the two genders. This can be seen in Bringing Up Baby, for the film’s heroine, Susan Vance, actually has the power to control the male character and ultimately, get her way.
The idea of marriage changed in the 1920s from a social and economic institution to more of a union based on sexual attraction. Lent argues that screwball comedies are essentially stories of courtship that develop from friendship to love and that the fast verbal exchanges and physical comedy act as courting rituals that demonstrate such sexual attraction. In Bringing Up Baby, the many adventures of Susan and Huxley mask the obvious sexual attraction between the two, which in the end, results in their mutual love for each other. Throughout the film, there are also many references to the idea of marriage. Huxley’s engagement to Miss Swallow, a stern coworker more interested in the future marriage for career reasons, is contrasted with his many fun adventures with Susan. In essence, the two relationships contrast the traditional idea of marriage with the new, contemporary idea of marriage of the time, which was based more on friendship and fun.
Lastly, Lent states that the appearance of screwball comedy in the 1930s redefined film comedy as well by merging romantic and slapstick comedy into one. This allowed for more sexual innuendo that would have normally not been allowed in romantic movies, but with this merger of comedies, would eventually become known as a comedic element that eventually defined screwball comedy. The physical comedy in screwball also allowed for more intimate touching between characters, reaffirming the sexual and playful nature underlying the relationship between the two leads. The instance when Huxley has to stand closely behind Susan because the back of her dress has torn off, demonstrates this new cinematic gender relationship that eventually helped to redefine intimacy and social ideology as well.
Stanley Cavell’s essay provides an in-depth analysis of various aspects of Bringing Up Baby, ranging from the significance of the repetitive dialogue to the meaning of the embrace at the end of the film. The first part of Cavell’s work focuses mainly on this repetition of dialogue and action throughout the film. Cavell argues that the repetition of these two elements results in double entendres that remain unnoticed by the characters but are comedic for the audience. Citing such examples of the repetition of the word “bone,” for example, Cavell believes that the film’s events can be read as is or as a sexual allegory. This resulting ambiguity can seemingly be attributed to the strict standards of the Production Code of the time, which required the development of a new cinematic language to express sexuality or “inappropriateness.”
The second part of Cavell’s analysis focuses on the ending embrace between Dr. Huxley and Susan. Cavell argues that the embrace must symbolize something as it is noticeably awkward: “one cannot determine whether the pair’s lips are touching” (282), and it takes place in the museum where the film originally began. Interestingly, Cavell believes that this final embrace is a reenactment of Rodin’s The Kiss, and thus questions whether or not Huxley has really changed from the beginning scene. With this in mind, Cavell also discusses the validation of marriage within the context of the film, stating that the repetition of certain elements within the film seems to indicate that marriage cannot be validated from the “outside,” and thus, the characters work to “move directly to the state of reaffirmation” (288), which is ultimately a source of comedy.
The last part of Cavell’s essay examines Bringing Up Baby as a farce. Cavell argues that although the film exhibits many farcical elements such as allusions to other films and has its origins in vaudeville, it is still, oddly, a very self-conscious film.
This article, though full of great commentary on Bringing Up Baby is a bit difficult to read without first reading Cavell’s article titled “Pursuits of Happiness: A Reading of the Lady Eve,” found in Vol 10, No. 3 of New Literary History pp.581-601.
Shumway’s article discusses the function of romance in screwball comedy as a way of “mystifying marriage.” The author uses writer Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness, an analysis of screwball comedy, as a basis and then refutes his argument that screwball comedy enlightens audiences about marriage. Shumway argues that romance essentially contains an element of illusion in itself and this thus translates in screwball comedy, to an illusive view of marriage as well. The idea of illusion also stems from the relationship between romance and desire, which Shumway states is another reason why screwball comedies often involve the rich, for this wealthy world is almost like a false promise that results from romance and love, and functions to heighten desire.
One of the most interesting arguments that Shumway makes in this article is that screwball comedies tend to hint that complete desire and complete satisfaction are attainable and that this specific state is known as marriage. Shumway uses examples from It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story to demonstrate that in screwball comedies, even women become objects of desire for the men. What is essential in creating this mystified notion of marriage is ultimately dependent on how the audience views the relationship between the characters. Shumway argues that the classic generic elements of screwball, such as the fast-paced dialogue, functions as a sort of electrical attraction that can be sensed by the audience and hints at the blissful ending of marriage.
The second half of this article consists of a contrasting analysis of Desperately Seeking Susan which reverses a lot of the generic elements of screwball. Beginning with marriage, and ending in divorce, the film presents an alternative to marriage, which in this case is adultery. In this film, marriage is not shown as the culmination of desire, but rather, the failure of romance.
It is interesting however, that Shumway’s analysis does not seem to fit Bringing Up Baby exactly. Despite the implied marriage at the end, which is in a way, mystified by the romance between the two characters, there is also a very realistic view of marriage in the beginning of the film when Huxley is engaged to be married to Miss Swallow, a marriage that would definitely not be one of romance. This could probably be explained by Shumway as a contrast of a “failed” marriage and a successful marriage, to perhaps heighten the illusion of the successful marriage.
The seventh article in the novel, titled Classical Hollywood Comedy, this article (p.123-146), analyzes the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. Karnick argues that although the plots for these comedies were inherently similar, the humoristic elements in these films helped to distinguish themselves. Along with the similar plotlines, these films have common narrative structures that are further complicated by humor. Humor, according to the author, is the result of incongruity between what is expected and what is actually seen onscreen, and is eventually followed by resolution. This relationship of incongruity and resolution is thus a way to break up the narrative and lessen the predictability of the film.
Karnick also utilizes Vladimir Propp’s methodology of the establishment of genres to analyze screwball comedies. Propp’s work, which compared the themes of 150 Russian folktales by separating parts of tales into “functions,” “spheres of action,” and “moves,” showed that while characters’ names changed between the stories, their functions and actions within the actual narrative did not. Karnick thus uses this theory and applies it to the screwball comedy to explain the recurring plots, but different elements of humor. Karnick is thus able to categorize screwball comedies into two general groups, “Comedies of Commitment” and “Comedies of Reaffirmation.” Commitment comedies, such as Bringing Up Baby, tend to focus on the establishment a central couple, whereas reaffirmation comedies concern the reestablishment of a couple (131). According to Karnick, commitment comedies actually have multiple plotlines. In the case of Bringing Up Baby, Dr. Huxley is concerned about obtaining financing for his museum, but also about searching for the last bone to complete his dinosaur fossil. Commitment comedies also tend to exhibit the clashing of social classes—Dr. Huxley is a highly-educated man who is paired with Susan, a wealthy young woman with no need for a career. The promise of marriage at the end of the film is another characteristic of commitment comedies. In addition to these common themes, Karnick argues that this particular category shares character roles as well. There is a “first partner” (Huxley), an “initial partner” (Miss Swallow), a “second partner” (Susan), a “conscience figure” (Sarah, Nick, Ned), and a “blocking figure” (Mr. Seton). (133).
In the last part of the article, Karnick addresses the reaffirmation comedies, which she argues are essentially continuations of commitment comedies. Thus, like commitment comedies, this particular category also shares common themes, plotlines, and character roles as well.
tagged love romantic_comedy screwball_comedy by aknopp ...on 29-NOV-05
Howard Hawks, Storyteller is an interesting biography that takes a look at the life and work of Howard Hawks, the director of Bringing Up Baby. Hawks was born on May 30, 1896 in Indiana and later moved with his family to Pasadena, California. Growing up, Hawks loved reading stories and building machines—the latter interest eventually led to a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University. Yet his love for stories and story-telling eventually won out and in 1917 Hawks began his film career as a prop boy for Adolph Zukor‘s merged distribution company, Famous Players-Lasky. His film career spanned forty years and in the process, Hawks earned directing credits for such notable films as His Girl Friday (1940), The Big Sleep (1946), and Red River (1948), and also various other producing and writing credits, all of which amounted to an incredible body of work that reflected his extremely versatile talent.
Although Hawks proved that he could direct almost any type of film, one of his specialties was the screwball comedy. The sixth chapter of this novel, titled “Comedies of Youth and Age: Bringing Up Baby and Monkey Business” (pp.133-187) offers an interesting comparison between two of Hawks’s most famous screwball comedies resulting in an in-depth analysis of Hawks’s approach to this particular genre. Author Gerald Mast first mentions Hawks’s creation of his characters in his screwball comedies. Unlike other films of the genre that have characters that eventually come to a turning point and reject their screwball ways, Hawks’s characters have a tendency to adhere to their original screwball manner throughout. In Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn’s character maintains her screwball nature even to the last frame of the film in which she accidentally knocks Dr. Huxley’s complicated dinosaur fossil into pieces on the ground. As Mast describes it, Hawks’s films have a “perfect lunacy [that] redefines ‘normality’ and remakes the world in its own image: the lunatic world itself becomes perfectly normal for those who are perfectly lunatic” (137).
Mast then breaks down the film into a five-act structure, where he notes that the ending of the film is usually similar to the beginning—in this case, both scenes take place at the museum. Each act focuses on a slightly different theme or motif to tie together the action and dialogue. One of the most interesting arguments Mast presents is his discussion of symmetry that adds another element of structure to the film. Mast argues that almost the entire film is symmetrical ranging from the characters’ actions to the characters themselves. For example, Dr. Huxley’s life of scientific order is paralleled with Susan Vance’s life of disorder, virtually dividing the beginning of the film into halves. Also, Huxley’s museum is a direct contrast to Vance’s lavish apartment. Many things appear in pairs throughout the film as well—Susan steals two cars, there are eventually two leopards roaming Connecticut, there are two cages, one for humans and the other for animals, etc. This symmetrical patterning, Mast argues, adds to the “wildness” of the film in order to challenge conventional narrative logic—another specialty of Hawks’s.
The second chapter (pp. 29-66) of Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy presents an analysis of the genre of screwball comedy. Gehring argues that the main characters in this particular genre tend to exhibit five key characteristics: “abundant leisure time, childlike nature, basic male frustration (especially in relationship to women), a general propensity for physical comedy, and a proclivity for parody and satire” (29). Gehring cites various films from different time periods ranging from George Cukor’s Holiday (1938) to the comedies of today, noting that each film’s “comic antihero” shares these common characteristics.
Gehring also uses Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938) as a classic example of this particular genre. In Hawks’s film, Dr. David Huxley, played by Cary Grant, is the epitome of the comic antihero. As an absentminded professor (often a recurring character in such genre films), Huxley is essentially a member of “high-society.” He is a relatively wealthy man, despite his need for a million-dollar research grant, and has time to socialize with other members of high society, whether on a golf course, at a dinner party, etc. Yet his high education, paired with his seemingly paradoxical absentmindedness and bumbling personality, also serves as comic relief throughout the film. Referred to as “comic rigidity,” a term used in Henri Bergson’s theory of comic superiority, which Gehring cites, these comedic elements stem from this “inversion” of what is generally the norm for a professional such as Huxley.
Huxley also has a childlike nature, according to Gehring, which is reflected through the dominance of the female character, Susan. Throughout the film it is clear that Susan, played by Katharine Hepburn, is in command—she has the power to alter Huxley’s plans and eventually, his entire future. It is through this dominance that the element of basic male frustration is exhibited as well. Huxley is basically powerless as Susan drags him to Connecticut in hopes of delivering a tamed leopard named Baby. As a source of frustration for Huxley, Susan also draws out Huxley’s displays of physical comedy in various scenes. For example, Huxley often retaliates to Susan’s dominance with physical actions, not words. In a scene where Huxley is simply annoyed with Susan, he pretends to strangle her instead of saying something. Gehring also argues that the presence of physical comedy in screwball comedies is due to the fact that the genre was born out of slapstick comedy from the silent film era. In fact, Gehring mentions that Grant’s character was based on silent film star Harold Lloyd as well as Buster Keaton.
The last part of Gehring’s discussion focuses on the satiric elements of screwball comedies, which the author states was Howard Hawks’s specialty. This proclivity for parody and satire is evidenced in many instances, and is a running theme throughout the film. Like other screwball comedies, Bringing Up Baby, has a tendency to make fun of romance and the characters themselves. For example, Huxley’s engagement of convenience to Miss Swallow in the beginning of the film is a direct comment on marriage and the film’s jail scenes as well as the lavish party scenes poke fun at rich society.Gehring concludes his argument by noting that these five characteristics, though not limited only to screwball comedy, serve to help define the complex genre.
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.
tagged Depression_films Gregory_La_Cava class_differences_in_film film_linguistics movie_comedy my_man_godfrey screwball screwball_comedy by lande ...on 29-NOV-05
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.
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.
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.
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.