Bringing Up Baby (1938) is a screwball comedy from the genre's classic period.

Screwball comedy is a film subgenre of the romantic comedy genre that became popular during the Great Depression, beginning in the early 1930s and thriving until the early 1950s, that satirizes the traditional love story. It has secondary characteristics similar to film noir, distinguished by a female character who dominates the relationship with the male central character, whose masculinity is challenged,[1] and the two engage in a humorous battle of the sexes.[2]

The genre also featured romantic attachments between members of different social classes,[3] as in It Happened One Night (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936).[2]

What sets the screwball comedy apart from the generic romantic comedy is that "screwball comedy puts the emphasis on a funny spoofing of love, while the more traditional romantic comedy ultimately accents love."[4] Other elements of the screwball comedy include fast-paced, overlapping repartee, farcical situations, escapist themes, physical battle of the sexes, disguise and masquerade, and plot lines involving courtship and marriage.[2] Some comic plays are also described as screwball comedies.


Screwball comedy gets its name from the screwball, a type of breaking pitch in baseball and fastpitch softball which moves in the opposite direction from all other breaking pitches.[5] These features of the screwball pitch also describe the dynamics between the lead characters in screwball comedy films. According to Gehring (2008):[6]

Still, screwball comedy probably drew its name from the term's entertainingly unorthodox use in the national pastime. Before the term's application in 1930s film criticism, "screwball" had been used in baseball to describe both an oddball player and "any pitched ball that moves in an unusual or unexpected way." Obviously, these characteristics also describe performers in screwball comedy films, from oddball Carole Lombard to the unusual or unexpected movement of Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938). As with the crazy period antics in baseball, screwball comedy uses nutty behavior as a prism through which to view a topsy-turvy period in American history.


Screwball comedy has proved to be a popular and enduring film genre.[7] Three-Cornered Moon (1933) starring Claudette Colbert, is often credited as the first true screwball,[8] though Bombshell starring Jean Harlow followed it in the same year. Although many film scholars agree that its classic period had effectively ended by 1942,[9] elements of the genre have persisted or have been paid homage to in later films. Other film scholars argue that the screwball comedy lives on.

During the Great Depression, there was a general demand for films with a strong social class critique and hopeful, escapist-oriented themes. The screwball format arose largely due to the major film studios' desire to avoid censorship by the increasingly enforced Hays Code. Filmmakers resorted to handling these elements covertly to incorporate prohibited risqué elements into their plots. The verbal sparring between the sexes served as a stand-in for physical and sexual tension.[10] Though some film scholars, such as William K. Everson, argue that "screwball comedies were not so much rebelling against the Production Code as they were attacking – and ridiculing – the dull, lifeless respectability that the Code insisted on for family viewing."[11]

The screwball comedy has close links with the theatrical genre of farce,[4] and some comic plays are also described as screwball comedies. Other genres with which screwball comedy is associated include slapstick, situation comedy, romantic comedy and bedroom farce.


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A still from a trailer for It Happened One Night

Films that are definitive of the genre usually feature farcical situations, a combination of slapstick and fast-paced repartee, and show the struggle between economic classes. They also generally feature a self-confident and often stubborn central female protagonist and a plot involving courtship, marriage, or remarriage. These traits can be seen in both It Happened One Night (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936). The film critic Andrew Sarris has defined the screwball comedy as "a sex comedy without the sex."[12]

Like farce, screwball comedies often involve masquerades and disguises in which a character or characters resort to secrecy. Sometimes screwball comedies feature male characters cross-dressing, further contributing to elements of masquerade (Bringing Up Baby (1938), Love Crazy (1941), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and Some Like It Hot (1959)). At first, the couple seems mismatched and even hostile to each other, but eventually overcome their differences amusingly or entertainingly, leading to romance. Often, this mismatch comes about when the man is of a lower social class than the woman (Bringing Up Baby and Holiday, both 1938). The woman often plans the final romantic union from the outset, and the man is seemingly oblivious to this. In Bringing Up Baby, the woman tells a third party: "He's the man I'm going to marry. He doesn't know it, but I am."

In The Lady Eve, Jean (center, played by Barbara Stanwyck) passes herself off as an upper-class woman.

These pictures also offered a cultural escape valve: a safe battleground to explore serious issues such as class under a comedic and non-threatening framework.[13] Class issues are a strong component of screwball comedies: the upper class is represented as idle, pampered, and having difficulty coping with the real world. By contrast, when lower-class people attempt to pass themselves off as upper class or otherwise insinuate themselves into high society, they can do so with relative ease (The Lady Eve, 1941; My Man Godfrey, 1936). Some critics believe that the portrayal of the upper class in It Happened One Night was brought about by the Great Depression, and the financially struggling moviegoing public's desire to see the upper class taught a lesson in humanity.[14]

Another common element of the screwball comedy is fast-talking, witty repartee, such as in You Can't Take It with You (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). This stylistic device did not originate in the genre: it is also found in many of the old Hollywood cycles, including gangster films and traditional romantic comedies.

Screwball comedies also tend to contain ridiculous, farcical situations, such as in Bringing Up Baby, where a couple must take care of a pet leopard during much of the film. Slapstick elements are also frequently present, such as the numerous pratfalls Henry Fonda takes in The Lady Eve (1941).[15]

One subgenre of screwball is known as the comedy of remarriage, in which characters divorce and then remarry one another (The Awful Truth (1937), The Philadelphia Story (1940)).[16] Some scholars point to this frequent device as evidence of the shift in the American moral code, as it showed freer attitudes toward divorce (though the divorce always turns out to have been a mistake: "You've got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, 'til death do us part.' Why divorce doesn't mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.")

Another subgenre of screwball comedy is the woman chasing a man who is oblivious to or uninterested in her. Examples include Barbara Stanwyck chasing Henry Fonda (The Lady Eve, 1941); Sonja Henie chasing John Payne (Sun Valley Serenade, 1941, and Iceland, 1942); Marion Davies chasing Antonio Moreno (The Cardboard Lover, 1928); Marion Davies chasing Bing Crosby (Going Hollywood, 1933); and Carole Lombard chasing William Powell (My Man Godfrey, 1936).

The philosopher Stanley Cavell has noted that many classic screwball comedies turn on an interlude in the state of Connecticut (Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth).[17] In Christmas in Connecticut (1945), the action moves to Connecticut and remains there for the duration of the film. New York City is also featured in a lot of screwball comedies, which critics have noted may be because of the economic diversity of the city and the ability to contrast different social classes during the Great Depression.[14] The screwball comedies It Happened One Night (1934) and The Palm Beach Story (1942) also feature characters traveling to and from Florida by train. Trains, another staple of screwball comedies and romantic comedies from the era, are also featured prominently in Design for Living (1934),Twentieth Century (1934) and Vivacious Lady (1938).

Examples from the classic period

A promotional photo for the 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday

Other films from this period in other genres incorporate elements of the screwball comedy. For example, Alfred Hitchcock's thriller The 39 Steps (1935) features the gimmick of a young couple who finds themselves handcuffed together and who eventually, almost despite themselves, fall in love with one another, and Woody Van Dyke's detective comedy The Thin Man (1934), which portrays a witty, urbane couple who trade barbs as they solve mysteries together. Some of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930s also feature screwball comedy plots, such as The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Carefree (1938), which costars Ralph Bellamy. The Eddie Cantor musicals Whoopee! (1930) and Roman Scandals (1933), and slapstick road movies such as Six of a Kind (1934) include screwball elements. Screwball comedies such as The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Ball of Fire (1941) also received musical remakes, High Society (1956) and A Song is Born (1948). Some of the Joe E. Brown comedies also fall into this category, particularly Broadminded (1931) and Earthworm Tractors (1936).

Actors and actresses featured in or associated with screwball comedy:

Directors of screwball comedies:

Later examples

A screenshot from a trailer for How to Marry a Millionaire
One, Two, Three (1961)

Later films thought to have revived elements of the classic era screwball comedies include:

Elements of classic screwball comedy often found in more recent films which might otherwise be classified as romantic comedies include the "battle of the sexes" (Down with Love, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), witty repartee (Down with Love), and the contrast between the wealthy and the middle class (You've Got Mail, Two Weeks Notice). Many of Elvis Presley's films from the 1960s had drawn, consciously or unconsciously, the many characteristics of the screwball comedy genre. Some examples are Double Trouble, Tickle Me, Girl Happy and Live a Little, Love a Little. Modern updates on screwball comedy are also sometimes categorized as black comedy (Intolerable Cruelty, which also features a twist on the classic screwball element of divorce and remarriage). The Coen Brothers often include screwball elements in a film which may not otherwise be considered screwball or even a comedy.

The Golmaal movies, a series of Hindi-language Indian films, has been described as a screwball comedy franchise.[50][51]

Screwball comedy elements in other media and genres

The screwball film tradition influenced television sitcom and comedy drama genres. Notable screwball couples in television have included Sam and Diane in Cheers, Maddie and David in Moonlighting, and Joel and Maggie in Northern Exposure.[52][53]

In his 2008 production of the classic Beaumarchais comedy The Marriage of Figaro, author William James Royce trimmed the five-act play down to three acts and labeled it a "classic screwball comedy". The playwright made Suzanne the central character, endowing her with all the feisty comedic strengths of her classic film counterparts. In his adaptation, entitled One Mad Day! (a play on Beaumarchais' original French title), Royce underscored all of the elements of the classic screwball comedy, suggesting that Beaumarchais may have had a hand in the origins of the genre.

The plot of Corrupting Dr. Nice, a science fiction novel by John Kessel involving time travel, is modeled on films such as The Lady Eve and Bringing Up Baby.[54]

Further reading

See also


  1. ^ Dancyger, Ken; Rush, Jeff (2006). Alternative Scriptwriting (Fourth ed.). Focal Press. p. 85. ISBN 978-0240808499. The screwball comedy is funny film noir that has a happy ending... The premise of the film is about the struggle in their relationship. During the course of the struggle, which is highly sexually charged, the maleness of the central character is challenged. The female is the dominant character in the relationship. This role reversion is central to the screwball comedy.
  2. ^ a b c Cele Otnes; Elizabeth Hafkin PleckCele Otnes, Elizabeth Hafkin Pleck (2003) Cinderella dreams: the allure of the lavish wedding University of California Press, p. 168. ISBN 0-520-24008-1.
  3. ^ Beach, Christopher. Class, Language, and American Film Comedy. Cambridge University Press (February 11, 2002). p. 125.
  4. ^ a b Gehring, Wes D. (2008). Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference. Lanham: Scarecrow Press Inc. p. 186.
  5. ^ "Screwball (SC)". Retrieved 2023-11-05.
  6. ^ Gehring, Wes D. (2008). Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference. Lanham: Scarecrow Press Inc. p. 9.
  7. ^ Sarris, Andrew (March 1, 1978). "THE SEX COMEDY WITHOUT SEX". American Film. Vol. 3, no. 5. New York. pp. 8–15. ProQuest 964099959. Retrieved December 19, 2022.
  8. ^ Three-Cornered Moon AllMovie review by Craig Butler, accessed October 28, 2023
  9. ^ Byrge, Duane; Miller, Robert Milton (1991). The Screwball Comedy Films: A History and Filmography, 1934–1942. McFarland. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-89950-539-8. With the explosive exception of His Girl Friday, screwball comedy had calmed considerably by 1940 from its peak of zaniness in 1937–38.
  10. ^ "Under the Radar: The Hays Code and the Birth of Screwball". University of Virginia. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  11. ^ Everson, William K. (1994). Hollywood Bedlam: Classic Screwball Comedies. New York: Carol Publishing Group.
  12. ^ Citation Sarris, Andrew. You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film, History & Memory, 1927–1949, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998
  13. ^ [1] The Screwball and Its Audience - University of Virginia
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i Pronovost, Virginie (2020). "Screwball": A Genre for the People : Representing Social Classes in Depression Screwball Comedy (1934-1938): Representing Social Classes in Depression Screwball Comedy (1934-1938) (PDF). Stockholm University. Retrieved 27 February 2024.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "10 great screwball comedy films". British Film Institute.
  16. ^ Cavell, Stanley (2003). Pursuits of happiness: the Hollywood comedy of remarriage (10. print ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0-674-73906-2.
  17. ^ Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1981
  18. ^ a b Tim Dirks. "Comedy films: Screwball comedy".
  19. ^ White, Armond. "Trouble in Paradise: Lovers, On the Money". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 2022-12-03.
  20. ^ Alberti, John (2014). Screen Ages: A Survey of American Cinema. Taylor & Francis. p. 111. ISBN 9781317650287.
  21. ^ Halbout, Grégoire (2022). Hollywood Screwball Comedy 1934-1945. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781501347627.
  22. ^ Janes, Samantha Anne (2020-05-26). Girls Will Be Girls: Examining the Adaptation of Female Characters in Screwball Comedy Films and Their Source Texts (PDF). OAKTrust (Thesis). Texas A&M University. Retrieved 27 February 2024.
  23. ^ a b c d e Robbie Collin (23 June 2015). "Who killed the screwball comedy?". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 2022-01-12.
  24. ^ a b Liebenson, Donald. "TCM Spotlight: Screwball Comedies". Retrieved 27 February 2024.
  25. ^ a b c d Halbout, Grégoire (2023). Hollywood Screwball Comedy 1934-1945: sex, love, and democratic ideals (Paperback ed.). New York London Oxford New Delhi Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-1501347610.
  26. ^ "Theodora Goes Wild (1936): Boleslawsky's Screwball Comedy Starring Irene Dunne in Oscar-Nominated Performance | Emanuel Levy". 6 February 2006.
  27. ^ a b c d Kirikou, Olympia (6 January 2022). "Notebook Primer: Screwball Comedy". MUBI. Retrieved 26 February 2024.
  28. ^ Levy, Emanuel (10 November 2007). "Divorce of Lady X: Korda Screwball Comedy, Starring Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson - Emanuel Levy". Emanuel Levy. Retrieved 21 March 2024.
  29. ^ Hunt, Dennis (14 July 1989). "Most Olivier Performances Available on Home Video". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 21 March 2024.
  30. ^ a b c d e f Greene, Jane M. (2011). "A Proper Dash of Spice: Screwball Comedy and the Production Code". Journal of Film and Video. 63 (3): 45–63. doi:10.5406/jfilmvideo.63.3.0045. ISSN 0742-4671. JSTOR 10.5406/jfilmvideo.63.3.0045. Retrieved 26 February 2024.
  31. ^ Berardinelli, James. "You Can't Take it with You". Reelviews Movie Reviews. Retrieved 27 February 2024.
  32. ^ Johnson, Mark (19 May 2023). "95 Years of Oscars: Ranking The Best Picture Winners: #95-76". Awardsdaily. Retrieved 27 February 2024.
  33. ^ Hamada, James T. (Feb 8, 2022). "The Nippu Jiji". Honolulu. Retrieved 27 February 2024.
  34. ^ Beach, Christopher (2004). Class, language, and American film comedy (Transferred to digital print ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 117. ISBN 978-0-521-00209-7.
  35. ^ WILSON, JAKE (2011-02-25). "The lost art of screwball comedy". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2019-01-01.
  36. ^ Gemmill, Allie (9 August 2017). "These 21 Underrated Rom-Coms Should Be Next In Your Netflix Queue". Bustle. Retrieved 2019-01-01.
  37. ^ Haslam, Jason (2013). The Public Intellectual and the Culture of Hope. University of Toronto Press. p. 164. ISBN 9781442641846.
  38. ^ Landay, Lori Ruth (1994). "Madcaps, screwballs, and con-women: The female trickster in American culture". Indiana University: 204. ProQuest 304127781. Retrieved 26 February 2024.
  39. ^ Jaeckle, Jeff, ed. (2015). ReFocus: The Films of Preston Sturges. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 118–120. ISBN 9781474406574.
  40. ^ Siede, Caroline (18 December 2020). "Christmas In Connecticut: Subversive 1940s rom-com turned gender roles on their head". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 26 February 2024.
  41. ^ ", Movies: Classics Revisited: Why Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi is nonstop fun". Retrieved 2023-04-30.
  42. ^ Canby, Vincent (July 17, 1981). "Dudley Moore Stars as a Screwball in 'Arthur'". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 February 2024.
  43. ^ "Ranker Insights".
  44. ^ Described as a screwball comedy in Roger Ebert's contemporary review.
  45. ^ Kael, Pauline (21 February 2015). "The Stacks: 'Something Wild' Is One Great Road Movie". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 8 February 2024.
  46. ^ "Stallone's 'Oscar' Recovers From Bad Start". 26 April 1991. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
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  50. ^ "Golmaal Again Review {3.5/5}: No logic, Only magic. Gags, fights, songs, giggles, ghosts, here is a buffet you can overdose on". The Times of India.
  51. ^ "Golmaal: A wacky winner".
  52. ^ Scodari, Christine (March 1995). "Possession, attraction, and the thrill of the chase: Gendered myth-making in film and television comedy of the sexes". Critical Studies in Mass Communication. 12 (1): 23–39. doi:10.1080/15295039509366917. Retrieved 7 October 2023.
  53. ^ Spencer, Metta (2006). Two aspirins and a comedy: How television can enhance health and society. Paradigm. pp. 207–208. ISBN 9781594511554.
  54. ^ Gevers, Nick (16 October 1999). "Corrupting Dr Nice by John Kessel". infinity plus. Retrieved 29 August 2012.