July 5 - August 1
From July 5 to August 1, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents Screwball!, a series of eight key films in the Hollywood comedy genre that subverted conventional notions of screen romance for the sake of wringing laughs out of the breakdown of gender and class divisions.
Setting itself apart from the traditional romantic comedy, the screwball comedy came to be defined not only by its lightning-fast pacing and often ludicrous narrative exaggerations but also by its dedication to conflict, featuring romantic relationships sparked by adversarial gibing and combative flirting. Within these pairings, female characters were usually granted a degree of agency not afforded to their male counterparts, acting as pursuers of hapless men who are given no choice but to submit to their paramours' unusual charms. In the utopia of screwball, the quickest route to gender parity and conflict resolution is simply to fall in love.
Beginning roughly in 1934, just before enforcement of the Hays Code would begin to restrict screen content, and tapering off once the United States became involved in World War II, screwball comedy stands alongside film noir as one of the preeminent genres native to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Building on Frank Capra's critical and commercial hit IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, Hollywood quickly saw the innate potential of the screwball formula, roping in some of the surest studio hands to direct dialogue dripping with innuendo, often penned by the best comedy writers swiped from Broadway but also frequently improvised on set by a game cast of charismatic contract performers.
While the results didn’t always connect with the public (BRINGING UP BABY earned star Katharine Hepburn the label “box-office poison”), the genre remained a popular mainstay on American screens throughout the Great Depression, often engaging with class in a way that would become increasingly rare in postwar comedies. Despite their often outrageous plot machinations, films like MY MAN GODFREY, EASY LIVING, and THE PALM BEACH STORY were grounded in very real considerations about the strain that money placed on relationships. Screwball audiences were just as likely to see a romance enacted in a hobo encampment or the back of a Greyhound bus as they were in the drawing rooms of high society.
This series showcases the work of major screwball figures like performers Cary Grant, Claudette Colbert, and Carole Lombard; writer Preston Sturges (who penned three of the films in the series, two of which he directed); and directors Gregory La Cava, Leo McCarey, and Mitchell Leisen. We end with the series with two films directed by Howard Hawks, one of the genre’s indisputable masters, including his unjustly overlooked neo-screwball MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT?, which falls outside the genre's classic time-frame but shines a light on its myriad subversive pleasures.
—Cameron Worden, Assistant to Programming
SATURDAY DOUBLE-BILL DISCOUNT! Buy a ticket at our regular prices for the first Screwball! film on any Saturday in July, and get a ticket for the second Screwball! film that day at the discounted rate with proof of your original purchase: General Admission $7; Students $5; Members $4. (This discount rate applies to the second feature only. Discount available in person at the box office only.)
It Happened One Night
1934, Frank Capra, USA, 105 min.
With Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert
"It’s every goddamn romantic comedy you’ve ever seen. They can all be traced back here, virtually without exception...Something so perfectly structured can support nearly endless variations. It’s timeless."—Mike D'Angelo, The A.V. Club
Often identified as the film where the screwball genre begins, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT changed the face of American screen comedy, bringing a sense of zippy wordplay, ever-escalating absurdity, and Depression-era class consciousness to the Hollywood romance. Colbert and Gable make an iconic pairing as Ellie, a wealthy heiress caught up in a scandalous marriage, and Peter, an out-of-work newspaperman who sees Ellie’s plight as just the story to revive his career—both travelling via Greyhound bus to New York City. Famously the first film to win all five major Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), it blessed the world with a fount of enduring gags and paved the way for legions of Hollywood romantic comedies to follow. DCP digital. (CW)
My Man Godfrey
1936, Gregory La Cava, USA, 96 min.
With William Powell, Carole Lombard
"Hugely popular in its day, this is witty romantic comedy with barbed social commentary."—Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle
Discovered by a pair of upper-crust sisters on a scavenger hunt for a “forgotten man,” the oddly erudite vagrant Godfrey Smith (Powell) thinks he has it made, charming his way into the type of steady work that eludes his homeless peers, only to find himself a butler for perhaps the nuttiest family in high society. Their adult daughter Irene (Lombard, playing unhinged with aplomb) nurses a crush on the monkish Godfrey, making a series of bizarrely childish overtures to her servant that against all odds bring him out of his romantic shell. A critical and commercial hit from undervalued director Gregory La Cava, MY MAN GODFREY turned the increasingly stale society comedy on its head, replacing genteel innuendo with rampant, gleeful chaos. 35mm. (CW)
The Awful Truth
1937, Leo McCarey, USA, 91 min.
With Cary Grant, Irene Dunne
"One of the funniest of the screwball comedies, and also one of the most serious at heart...The issues deepen in a subtle, natural way: the film begins as a trifle and ends as something beautiful and affirmative. A classic."—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
Perhaps the definitive remarriage romance of the screwball era, THE AWFUL TRUTH stars Grant and Dunne as husband and wife Jerry and Lucy Warriner, who separate after he accuses her of having an affair. While waiting a requisite 90 days for their divorce to be finalized, both pursue other romantic partners: Lucy finds herself quickly engaged to a sweet-but-indelicate Oklahoma oilman (Ralph Bellamy), and Jerry pairs off with a snobbish society girl (Molly Lamont). A master class in pressure-cooker romance, THE AWFUL TRUTH ramps up the comic misunderstandings and expertly deployed slapstick set-pieces as the Warriners find themselves falling deeper in love with every pratfall and public humiliation. DCP digital. (CW)
1937, Mitchell Leisen, USA, 89 min.
With Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Ray Milland
"Chic enchantment...Preston Sturges provides the choleric treatment, Mitchell Leisen wraps it in velvet."—Fernando P. Croce, CinePassion
After a fur coat, tossed out the window by irate plutocrat J.B. Ball (Arnold), lands in the lap of Mary Smith (Arthur), further happenstance pushes her first into unemployment and then further up the social ladder. Ensconced in a luxury hotel with only ten cents to her name, Mary meets Ball’s ne’er-do-well son (Milland) in an automat, falls in love, instigates perhaps the greatest food-fight ever put on screen, and somewhere along the line sets the stock market reeling. Scripted by screwball stalwart Preston Sturges, EASY LIVING is one of Hollywood's great comedies of class mobility, packed to the gills with the sort of chronic miscommunications, inexplicable coincidences, and affably resolved conflicts that mark the best films in the genre. 35mm. (CW)
The Lady Eve
1941, Preston Sturges, USA, 94 min.
With Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda
"If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in THE LADY EVE."—Roger Ebert
One of Hollywood’s most gifted comedy screenwriters, Preston Sturges transitioned to directing with aplomb, refining the screwball genre he had helped to codify. His third directorial effort, THE LADY EVE was his first major triumph in the romantic comedy form—a riotous shell game of false identities, shady motives, and good-natured chicanery conducted in the name of love. Stanwyck stars as sultry confidence woman Jean, who sets out to scam mild-mannered beer heir Charles (Fonda), only to fall in love with him and abandon her larcenous plans. When Charles dumps her after learning of her criminal past, Jean decides to get her revenge, posing as “Eve,” a British noblewoman. 35mm. (CW)
The Palm Beach Story
1942, Preston Sturges, USA, 88 min.
With Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert, Rudy Vallée
"Wholly original and totally screwball...For many viewers, the sequence with the Ale and Quail club is among the funniest in movie history."—Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant
While poverty-stricken inventor Tom Jeffers (McCrea) tries unsuccessfully to sell investors on a radical new idea in aviation, his loving wife Gerry (Colbert) begins formulating her own plan to leave her husband for somebody richer who will agree to invest in him. On her way to Florida to file for divorce, Gerry meets J.D. Hackensacker III (Vallée), a shy multimillionaire who falls for Gerry just in time for Tom to show up to make a mess of things. Featuring a psychotically rowdy group of old men known as the “Ale and Quail Hunting Club," THE PALM BEACH STORY finds Sturges pushing his comedy to the outer reaches of absurdity, grounded by Tom and Gerry’s genuinely affecting relationship. 35mm. (CW)
Bringing Up Baby
1938, Howard Hawks, USA, 102 min.
With Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn
"Though it's almost impossible, try to sit back sometime and enjoy this 1938 Howard Hawks masterpiece not only for its gags, but for the grace of its construction, the assurance of its style, and the richness of its themes."—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
A classic screwball set-up: an ineffectual paleontologist (Grant) with a dour, sexless fiancée is wooed by an outgoing adventuress (Hepburn) who cajoles him into escorting her pet leopard through New England on the eve of his wedding. BRINGING UP BABY took the romantic comedy template and ramped up the speed and absurdity to a level never before seen, folding in subplots galore concerning a missing dinosaur bone, cross-dressing, and escaped circus animals. Generously employing improvisation and utilizing a rangy ensemble in which nearly every character is given a chance at snatching a laugh, director Hawks crafted what could be the greatest screwball comedy ever produced. 35mm. (CW)
Man's Favorite Sport?
1964, Howard Hawks, USA, 121 min.
With Rock Hudson, Paula Prentiss
"In many ways the quintessential Hollywood auteur movie...a marvelous film."—Phil Hardy, Time Out London
Nearly a quarter of a century after delivering perhaps the definitive screwball comedy, Hawks returned with this stealth Technicolor remake of BRINGING UP BABY. Hudson and Prentiss star as Roger, author of a celebrated fishing handbook, and Abigail, head of PR for a wilderness lodge. When Abigail ropes Roger into entering in her lodge’s fishing tournament, she finds out that he’s never fished in his life. Meanwhile, Roger hilariously tries to keep up the facade of an outdoorsman amidst woodland incursions and Abigail’s increasingly aggressive romantic overtures. Regarded as a late-career misfire when released, Hawks’s final comedy can now be seen as the last word from screwball’s vanguard, a nearly Brechtian farce reflecting on the genre's history and mechanics. 35mm. (CW)