What Is a Screwball Comedy?

The History of the Popular Comedy Film Genre

His Girl Friday (1940). Columbia Pictures 

Comedy is not only one of the oldest cinema genres, but it is also one of the most versatile. From the silent era slapstick comedies to the gross-out comedies of the 1990s, comedies have evolved in style and tone with both cultural changes and changes in cinematic technology with genres falling in and out of style over the decades.

Few genres of comedy are specifically tied to a particular era of cinema as the screwball comedy, a genre that was wildly popular from the mid-1930s to the early-1940s before virtually disappearing from movie theaters overnight. However, the screwball comedy has maintained lasting influence and its themes can still be seen in today's movies.

The Development of the Screwball Comedy

In 1934, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA, now known today as the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA) began strictly enforcing the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code, popularly known as the “Hays Code” after MPPDA president Will H. Hays. The Hays Code dictated content standards for the industry’s movies. Many characteristics of Pre-Code romance films — such as suggested nudity, adultery, or any indication of sexual activity outside of a marriage — could no longer be shown in Hollywood films.

With “racy” subject matter off the table, Hollywood screenwriters explored other ways to depict romance on screen in an entertaining way, including clever dialogue between men and women, slapstick comedy, and imaginative plots involving economic class differences and mistaken identities. In fact, Great Depression-era audiences appeared to appreciate seeing movies involving men and women from different walks of life — usually a young woman from a rich family and a man from a lower economic standing — overcoming societal differences, battling wits, and falling in love. The combination of these humorous factors often resulted in on-screen chaos, and that later gave the new genre its name — the screwball comedy, after a then-popular term to describe an unpredictable pitch by a baseball pitcher.

In addition, by the mid-1930s most theaters had been updated to exhibit sound films, allowing dialogue to become a more important aspect of film. Screwball film comedies also drew influence from theater, such as the farcical elements in William Shakespeare's comedies like "The Comedy of Errors," "Much Ado About Nothing," and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." In fact, at the time theater was experiencing something of a revival of farcical comedies with hits on Broadway like 1928's "The Front Page" and the plays of Noël Coward.

What Is a Screwball Comedy?

Though earlier films with screwball comedy elements can be pinpointed, such as the 1931 film adaptation of "The Front Page," the movie that put the genre on the map was 1934’s "It Happened One Night." Directed by industry great Frank Capra, "It Happened One Night" stars Claudette Colbert as Ellie, a runaway socialite who crosses paths with Peter (Clark Gable), a reporter who threatens to expose her whereabouts to her disapproving father. The pair go through a series of misadventures that brings them closer together, and the once-feuding pair soon fall in love.

The result was a box office hit and a critical favorite. "It Happened One Night" was one of the top-grossing films of the year and won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. In 2000, the American Film Institute named "It Happened One Night" as the eighth greatest American comedy film. After success like that, similar movies were quick to follow.

Notable Screwball Comedies

"Twentieth Century" (1934)

After a Broadway writer (John Barrymore) worked for several years to turn a lingerie model (Carole Lombard) into a stage star, the pair have a falling out and the writer faces financial ruin. He attempts to sneak away from debtors by taking a Chicago train named the "20th Century Limited" to New York City. Naturally, his former protege is on the same train with her boyfriend. Acclaimed director Howard Hawks' film, which was based on a Broadway play produced in 1932, uses the train journey as a perfect setting for a zany comedy between two people who can't stand each other but can't escape each other in the tight spaces of the train cars. Decades later, the film was adapted into a successful stage musical, "On the Twentieth Century."

"The Gay Divorcee" (1934)

The musical film "The Gay Divorcee" is the first lead role pairing of dancing partners Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers (the duo previously appeared together in supporting roles in the previous year's "Flying Down to Rio"). Though mainly remembered for its songs (particularly Cole Porter's "Night and Day"), the storyline involves Rogers as the titular divorcee who falls in love with the charming Guy (Astaire) in a case of mistaken identity. The duo's next film, the screwball comedy musical "Top Hat," is often considered their best and is known for the song "Cheek to Cheek."

"The Thin Man" (1934)

This mystery film based on a Dashiell Hammett novel, but it mixes the mystery elements with domestic comedy. William Powell and Myrna Loy star as Nick and Nora Charles, a married couple who investigate the disappearance of one of Nick's former acquaintances. The humorous interplay between the husband and wife proved to be so popular that "The Thin Man" was followed by five sequels.

"My Man Godfrey" (1936)

Be careful when hiring a butler because you might just fall in love with him. That's what happens in My Man Godfrey, which features Carole Lombard as a New York City socialite who hires a kindhearted but assertive homeless man, Godfrey (William Powell), to serve as her family's butler. Much of the humor of the movie derives from the class differences and the love-hate relationship between the two leads.

"The Awful Truth" (1937)

In "The Awful Truth," a divorcing couple (played by Irene Dunne and Cary Grant) not only want to separate, but attempt to ruin each other's rebound relationships before realizing that they're still in love with one another. The movie established Grant's standard affable character that he would best be known for. Director Leo McCarey won the Best Director Oscar for this movie.

"Bringing Up Baby" (1938)

Screwball comedy standouts Cary Grant and Howard Hawks united on this film, with Grant starring opposite fellow Hollywood legend Katharine Hepburn. Grant stars as David, a paleontologist, and Hepburn as a free-spirited woman named Susan. They meet the day before Grant's character's wedding to another woman and end up babysitting a leopard (the titular Baby) together before unleashing total chaos at a frenetic pace, which includes both of them landing in prison at one point!

"His Girl Friday" (1940)

Director Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday" is a remake of 1931's "The Front Page" starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as news reporters and ex-spouses whose romance rekindles when they work together on a major story. The film is famous for its rapid-fire dialogue and over-the-top plot twists.

Decline and Later Influence

By 1943, the screwball comedy had fallen out of fashion. With the United States now fully engaged in World War II, many Hollywood films at that point instead focused on themes and stories related to the war.

Nonetheless, the genre has remained incredibly influential and classic elements of screwball comedies can be seen in virtually any relationship comedy movie released since, including the "romantic comedy" genre that peaked in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s (particularly movies that include elements like "meet cute" scenes) and domestic sitcoms on television.

Some notable later films that include elements of the screwball comedy are "The Seven Year Itch" (1955), "Some Like It Hot" (1959), "A Fish Called Wanda" (1988), "Flirting with Disaster" (1996), and "Intolerable Cruelty" (2003).