Production Code Gives Birth to Screwball Comedy

Romantic Hollywood comedies featuring bickering lovers flourished with the release of such films as It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby. Filmmakers had to be creative in their presentation of sexual themes, which were heavily regulated.

Summary of Event

When films learned to talk, they also learned to be naughty. Many American films of the early 1930’s, especially those starring Mae West and Jean Harlow and the sophisticated comedies directed by Ernst Lubitsch, featured strong sexual innuendoes. Fear of government censorship led in 1934 to the implementation of a production code that severely restricted the amount of sex and violence in American films. One of the sillier results of the code, ferociously enforced by Joseph L. Breen Breen, Joseph L. of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, was that two people of the opposite sex could not appear on a bed together unless one had at least one foot on the floor. The production code remained in effect, with only slight modifications, until 1966. The screwball comedy evolved in part as a response to the limitations of the code. The inability of filmmakers to spell out the sexual attraction of their films’ protagonists resulted in the production of films in which the romantic leads battled both verbally and physically for much of the running time. [kw]Production Code Gives Birth to Screwball Comedy (1934-1938)
[kw]Code Gives Birth to Screwball Comedy, Production (1934-1938)
[kw]Screwball Comedy, Production Code Gives Birth to (1934-1938)
[kw]Comedy, Production Code Gives Birth to Screwball (1934-1938)
Motion pictures;screwball comedies
Screwball comedy
[g]United States;1934-1938: Production Code Gives Birth to Screwball Comedy[08560]
[c]Motion pictures;1934-1938: Production Code Gives Birth to Screwball Comedy[08560]
[c]Entertainment;1934-1938: Production Code Gives Birth to Screwball Comedy[08560]
Capra, Frank
Colbert, Claudette
Gable, Clark
Hawks, Howard
Grant, Cary
Hepburn, Katharine
Lombard, Carole
Connolly, Walter

Quarreling lovers on the stage go back at least as far as William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1593-1594). By the 1930’s, they had become prominent in such Noël Coward plays as Private Lives (1930). One of the main precursors of the screwball comedy is Lubitsch’s Americanized 1933 version of Coward’s Design for Living, in which two young Americans in Paris, Tommy Chambers (Fredric March) and George Curtis (Gary Cooper), fall in love with the same woman, Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins). Despite discreet fadeouts, Lubitsch clearly implies that Gilda has sex with both George and Tommy. After the implementation of the production code, sexual innuendo became more subtle and was often hidden behind a veil of slapstick.

Most experts consider It Happened One Night (1934) It Happened One Night (film) to be the first screwball comedy. Directed by Frank Capra and written by Robert Riskin Riskin, Robert (based on two short stories by Samuel Hopkins Adams), It Happened One Night presents the efforts of spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) to escape her father, Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly), and marry playboy King Westley (Jameson Thomas). On a bus from Florida to New York, Ellie meets newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who eventually offers to help her in exchange for her story. After numerous adventures, she finds herself in the middle of an elaborate wedding ceremony only to forsake Westley for Peter.

Although the film’s studio, Columbia, had no such expectations, It Happened One Night was an enormous success and had a tremendous influence on Hollywood. According to legend, the film popularized bus travel, saving the Greyhound Bus Company from bankruptcy, and a scene in which Gable undressed to reveal he wore no undershirt drastically affected the sales of men’s underwear. The film won Academy Awards for best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, and best adapted screenplay.

It Happened One Night introduced several plot features that would become familiar as the screwball genre flourished through the early 1940’s. The most significant element was the constant bickering that occurred between the film’s protagonists. When Ellie and Peter meet, they argue over the last remaining bus seat, and Peter forces Ellie, who is used to sharing nothing, to give him enough room to sit. Throughout the trip, they argue over money, food, and sleeping arrangements. When they are compelled to share a motor-camp cabin after roads are flooded, Peter erects a blanket between their beds to ensure, he says, his privacy. Peter calls the blanket, suspended on a rope, “the walls of Jericho.” The blanket represents the sexual tension between Peter and Ellie. Ellie is drawn to a man who stands up to her peevishness, and Peter is drawn to her spunk. The film ends with Capra’s camera outside another motel cabin, and a trumpet is heard inside as the walls of Jericho come down at last.

In most screwball comedies, the protagonists battle on almost equal terms. Ellie’s audacity allows her to escape her father’s yacht by jumping into water fully clothed. When detectives confront them at the first motor camp, Peter begins a mock argument to divert suspicion, and Ellie is quick-witted enough to assume immediately the persona of a crying southern belle. In the film’s most famous sequence, Peter attempts to show Ellie his foolproof hitchhiking techniques and fails miserably; Ellie then raises her skirt to stop the next passing car, proving to Peter that she has resources he does not have.


It Happened One Night conveyed a notably sympathetic attitude toward the rich that was evident in many screwball comedies. Ellie is condemned more for being spoiled than for being privileged, and her father, far from being a capitalist ogre, immediately perceives that the earthy Peter will make a much better son-in-law than the oily Westley. This attitude was taken to further extremes in Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936) My Man Godfrey (film) and Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living (1937). Easy Living (film) In the former, a homeless man turned butler (William Powell) is really a Boston Brahmin who has chosen poverty after an unhappy love affair. When the family employing him faces financial disaster, Godfrey uses his understanding of the stock market to rescue them, essentially rewarding them for their selfishness, eccentricity, and incompetence. Easy Living, written by Preston Sturges, Sturges, Preston pokes fun at the pompous banker J. B. Ball (Edward Arnold) by having his servants and secretary make sneering remarks, but the film ends with another narrow escape from ruin, thereby justifying Ball’s way of life.

It Happened One Night initiated the tradition of spoiled heiresses and cynical reporters at the center of screwball comedies, including Carole Lombard’s exceedingly empty-headed rich girl in My Man Godfrey and Fredric March’s tough newspaperman in William Wellman’s Nothing Sacred (1937). Nothing Sacred (film) March’s character falls in love with a young woman (Lombard again) who is supposedly dying of radium poisoning. Hostilities between heiresses and reporters that dissolve into romance appear in several screwball comedies, most notably with Myrna Loy and William Powell in Jack Conway’s Libeled Lady (1936) Libeled Lady (film) and Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in Leigh Jason’s The Mad Miss Manton (1938). Mad Miss Manton, The (film)

The most important influence of It Happened One Night is the tradition of bickering it engendered. Among the many variations on the Ellie-Peter model are the married couple (Irene Dunne and Cary Grant) who cannot stop their altercations even after divorcing in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) Awful Truth, The (film) and the multiple battling couples of Libeled Lady: Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy, Loy and Powell, and Harlow and Powell.

Before the genre reached its apex with Bringing Up Baby (1938), Bringing Up Baby (film) several more essential screwball elements had to be introduced, the most significant of which was slapstick. Slapstick comedy Because the production code prohibited suggestive physical contact between the battling lovers, pratfalls were substituted as a means of releasing pent-up sexual energy. In William A. Seiter’s The Moon’s Our Home (1936), Moon’s Our Home, The (film)[Moons Our Home] an heiress (Margaret Sullavan) and an explorer (Henry Fonda) take spills off a sled, a sleigh, and skis. They are thrown from their sleigh when their horse, a mare, takes off in romantic pursuit of another horse. In Nothing Sacred, Lombard and March knock each other out, and in Alfred Santell’s Breakfast for Two (1937), Breakfast for Two (film) an heiress (Barbara Stanwyck) conceals a doorknob in a boxing glove to give a black eye to a playboy (Herbert Marshall).

Many screwball comedies offered satirical elements: My Man Godfrey made fun of the trivialities of the Park Avenue rich, Nothing Sacred punctured the excesses of the sensationalist press, and The Moon’s Our Home attacked the inflated egos of celebrities. The most penetrating satire came in Richard Boleslawski’s Theodora Goes Wild (1936), Theodora Goes Wild (film) which is based on a story by Mary McCarthy. In the film, a young woman (Irene Dunne) writes a best seller whose sexual suggestiveness is condemned by her puritanical hometown. The film constantly ridicules the smug hypocrisy of small-town America, especially when Theodora delights in making the community think she has given birth to an illegitimate child.

Bringing Up Baby, although it lacks a satiric edge, is the culmination of these screwball elements. Directed by Howard Hawks and written by Dudley Nichols Nichols, Dudley and Hagar Wilde, Wilde, Hagar it presents the dizziest of dizzy heiresses, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), who hopes for a million-dollar bequest from her Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson). Paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) wants the same million for his museum. Susan soon falls in love with David and wants him to get the money, but all of her assistance leads to disaster. Susan’s brother has sent a domesticated leopard from South America as a present for Aunt Elizabeth. Susan tricks David into helping her take the leopard, called Baby, to her aunt’s Connecticut farm so that he will miss his wedding to the stuffy Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker). Aunt Elizabeth’s fox terrier steals and buries the bone David has just received to complete the dinosaur skeleton he has been working on for years, Baby escapes, Susan releases a dangerous leopard she thinks is Baby from a circus van, and all the protagonists end up in jail suspected of a variety of offenses.

Aunt Elizabeth becomes convinced of David’s instability and gives her money to Susan. Alice is also shocked by his behavior and decides not to marry him. Bringing Up Baby ends with Susan giving the million to David, who has spent the entire film resisting her aggressive advances. As Susan climbs onto his dinosaur skeleton to express her love, causing the skeleton to collapse, David finally accepts the inevitable.

The collapsing dinosaur is a fitting conclusion to a film filled with slapstick. David and Susan are constantly falling down. Aunt Elizabeth’s explorer friend, Major Horace Applegate (Charles Ruggles), and her drunken servant Gogarty (Barry Fitzgerald) chase and are chased by the leopards. Viewers and reviewers of 1938 apparently felt that the physical humor was excessive; the film was a commercial and critical flop. However, audiences and film historians in the years since have embraced the silliness, which includes Grant’s dressing up in a woman’s fluffy dressing gown, as essential to the genre. The romance at the center of the film is notable for the extroverted antics of Susan, who is willing to try anything that might lead to fun. David, stiff and humorless at the beginning of the film, learns from Susan to accept the unpredictability of life and becomes more human.

Physicality was important in Bringing Up Baby and other screwball comedies, and the preeminent performers of the genre were Grant, who displayed his debonair athleticism also in The Awful Truth and in Norman Z. McLeod’s Topper (1937), and Lombard, who showcased her combination of beauty, vulnerability, physical vitality, and buffoonery in Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century (1934), My Man Godfrey, Wesley Ruggles’s True Confession (1937), and Nothing Sacred.

As important as the stars of screwball comedies were the contributions of the supporting performers. More notable character actors appeared in Hollywood films during the 1930’s and early 1940’s than at any other time, and many received their best parts in screwball comedies. In addition to Robson, Ruggles, and Fitzgerald, Bringing Up Baby offered Walter Catlett as a hot-tempered, easily confused sheriff and Fritz Feld as a stodgy psychiatrist. The most significant supporting performer in these films may be Walter Connolly, who played the father in It Happened One Night, the assistant constantly being fired by theatrical producer John Barrymore in Twentieth Century, Myrna Loy’s fishing-obsessed father in Libeled Lady, and the easily angered editor in Nothing Sacred.

Other notable supporting performers in screwball comedies included Luis Alberni and Franklin Pangborn (Easy Living); Mischa Auer, Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, and Gail Patrick (My Man Godfrey); Eric Blore and Donald Meek (Breakfast for Two); Charles Butterworth and Margaret Hamilton (The Moon’s Our Home); Spring Byington (Theodora Goes Wild); Roscoe Karns (It Happened One Night and Twentieth Century); Edgar Kennedy and Una Merkel (True Confession); and Maxie Rosenbloom and Charles Winninger (Nothing Sacred).

Bringing Up Baby is especially praiseworthy for the speed and surety of its comic timing. Screwball comedies are generally fast-paced, but those directed by Hawks are the fastest of all. The director made films in this genre longer than anyone, continuing into the 1940’s with His Girl Friday (1940), with Grant and Rosalind Russell; Ball of Fire (1942), with Stanwyck and Cooper; I Was a Male War Bride (1949), with Grant and Ann Sheridan; and Monkey Business (1952), with Grant and Ginger Rogers.

Other important screwball comedies made after Bringing Up Baby included Leisen’s Midnight (1939), with Colbert and Don Ameche; Garson Kanin’s My Favorite Wife (1940), with Dunne and Grant; Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), with Lombard and Robert Montgomery; Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941), with Stanwyck and Fonda, and The Palm Beach Story (1942), with Colbert and Joel McCrea; Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor (1942), with Rogers and Ray Milland; and George Stevens’s The More the Merrier (1943), with McCrea and Jean Arthur. The last of these is perhaps the most romantic screwball comedy, as the sexual longing of the protagonists is made as explicit as the production code allowed.

Screwball elements continued to appear in varying degrees after the genre’s heyday, resurfacing, for example, in Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959). In 1972, Peter Bogdanovich attempted a contemporary version of Bringing Up Baby with his What’s Up, Doc? with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. Although the film was a popular success, most reviewers condemned it as heavy-handed, cartoonish, and mean-spirited. Many critics have claimed that the classic screwball comedy is extinct, largely because attaining the appropriate combination of versatile performers, sophisticated writing, and perfect timing is so difficult. Of recent works, perhaps Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie (1982), with Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange, comes closest to the classic formula. Motion pictures;screwball comedies
Screwball comedy

Further Reading

  • Byrge, Duane, and Robert Milton Miller. The Screwball Comedy Films: A History and Filmography, 1934-1942. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. An informative, informed, and relatively complete survey of the genre.
  • Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. Examines seven comedies of the 1930’s and 1940’s, including It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, and The Awful Truth, to show how they create a comic genre of remarriage. Shows how the genre grows out of Shakespearean comedy. Photographs and index.
  • Everson, William K. “Screwball Comedy: A Reappraisal.” Films in Review 34 (December, 1983): 578-584. Thought-provoking but unconvincing argument that screwball comedies are period pieces of little interest to modern audiences.
  • Gehring, Wes D. Romantic Versus Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002. Discusses the differences between the two genres and places them in their social and political contexts. Includes sixteen photo stills.
  • Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Analyzes comic style of the 1930’s and 1940’s, with particular attention to the films of Lubitsch and Sturges. Also discusses such directors as Capra and Hawks and such performers as Colbert, Grant, and Lombard. Includes photographs, index, and an interview with Dunne.
  • Kendall, Elizabeth. The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930’s. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. Traces the device of the runaway bride and its variations through several films of the 1930’s and early 1940’s, including It Happened One Night, My Man Godfrey, and The Awful Truth. Provides considerable background about the stars and directors. Excellent study includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • Sarris, Andrew. “The Sex Comedy Without Sex.” American Film 3 (March, 1978): 8-15. Discusses the difficulty of defining the genre and of determining what films are truly “screwball.” Argues that female comedians are the most crucial ingredient. Excellent brief introduction to the genre.
  • Sikov, Ed. Screwball: Hollywood’s Madcap Romantic Comedies. New York: Crown, 1989. The most thorough examination of the genre. Analyzes the major examples and divides screwball comedies into clearly defined categories. Extensively and beautifully illustrated. With excellent filmography and bibliography. Index.
  • Weales, Gerald. Canned Goods as Caviar: American Film Comedy of the 1930s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Attempts to place twelve 1930’s comedies in the context of the social and political life of the decade. Analyzes Bringing Up Baby, My Man Godfrey, Libeled Lady, and Nothing Sacred. Photographs and index.

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