Screwball Comedy

Sometimes it’s best not to get involved

VIRTUAL REPERTORY SERIES

Friday, April 24 – Thursday, April 30, 2020

Defined by madcap plots, speedy dialogue, and combative romantic conflicts, the Screwball Comedy stands alongside the gangster film and the film noir as a definitive American genre. The fast-talking, powerful women and oft-befuddled men in these films, with their inverted power dynamics, turned the traditional romantic comedy inside-out and spiced it up with antics typically reserved for the Marx Brothers and other clowns. Surfacing in the mid-1930s as the restrictive, self-censoring Hays Code began to take effect in Hollywood, the Screwball Comedy substitutes whip-smart, rapid-fire verbal sparring for the sexual suggestiveness and outright bawdiness that was possible in the pre-code days. The result is some of the flat-out funniest and most subversive films in history. The selections in this series highlight some of the best examples that are currently available for streaming plus a few later titles that draw a clear line of inspiration back to these hugely entertaining movies.


Friday, April 24 • Double Feature

HIS GIRL FRIDAY

Streaming on AmazonPrime, Kanopy, and Criterion Channel; Tubi for free; for rent elsewhere

1940 • dir Howard Hawks w/Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart • 92 min

Of all the fast-talking screwball comedies, there are few as witty or enduring as the newsroom classic HIS GIRL FRIDAY, starring Rosalind Russell as reporter Hildy Johnson and Cary Grant as her editor and ex-husband Walter Burns. When Burns hears that Johnson is giving up a career in journalism to marry a dull insurance man (Bellamy), he lays a juicy scoop on her plate as a ploy to prevent the union. In this second on-screen adaption of the hit play The Front Page, director Howard Hawks had the inspired idea to make the character Hildy a woman, turning it into a hilarious battle of the sexes, and one of the most quotable movies of all time. – AD

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THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING

Streaming on AmazonPrime; for rent elsewhere

1941 • dir Ernst Lubitsch w/Merle Oberon, Melvyn Douglas, Burgess Meredith, Alan Mowbray, Eve Arden • 84 min

While it doesn’t quite move at the same clip as HIS GIRL FRIDAY, THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING is still a charming example of the divorce-and-remarriage story so common to the Screwball Comedy. Jill Baker (Oberon), a beautiful but bored housewife, is plagued by hiccups when she becomes annoyed – and she can’t seem to shake them when looking at her sleeping husband. One day in her therapist’s waiting room, she meets a man she finds fascinating, Alexander Sebastian (Meredith). Sebastian is a self-proclaimed individualist and a great solo pianist – that is to say that he is only great when playing for one person but can’t perform in front of a full audience. Eventually, Jill leaves her husband for Sebastian but she finds that he isn’t that easy to forget. Under the direction of the great Ernst Lubitsch, Oberon gives a sparkling performance and Meredith, not usually a romantic foil, is surprisingly effective as the brooding yet alluring artsy type. – NH

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Saturday, April 25 • Double Feature

MY MAN GODFREY

Streaming on AmazonPrime; free on Tubi; for rent elsewhere

1936 • dir Gregory La Cava w/William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette • 94 min

Hands down one of the most entertaining and effervescent films of the 1930s, MY MAN GODFREY features a charming William Powell as Godfrey, a former socialite who has joined the ‘forgotten men’ of the Great Depression. When he is selected as part of a scavenger hunt by wealthy airhead Irene Bullock (Lombard), Godfrey decides to stick around as the family’s butler. Godfrey winds up teaching the spoiled members of the household a thing or two about loyalty and compassion – and wins the heart of the beautiful Irene in the process. One of the miracles of the film is how absurdly funny it is while simultaneously telling a heartfelt story of renewal and hope amongst the despair of the era.

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NOTHING SACRED

Streaming on AmazonPrime and Kanopy; free on Tubi; for rent elsewhere

1937 • dir William A. Wellman w/Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Charles Winninger, Walter Connolly • 77 min

Frederic March plays Wally Cook, a disgraced newspaperman who travels to Vermont to cover a woman named Hazel Flagg (Lombard) who is supposedly dying of radium poisoning. Hazel has just gotten word, however, that she isn’t dying after all but, in a desperate bid to escape her small town life, she tries to keep up the illusion for the hot shot Wally – and the adoring crowds that support her. This sweet-but-cynical Technicolor Screwball is buoyed by a screenplay from Ben Hecht – with uncredited polish from heavy-hitters Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Ring Lardner Jr., Dorothy Parker, and Budd Schulberg, among others.

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Sunday, April 26

BORN YESTERDAY

Streaming for free w/ ads on Sony Crackle; for rent elsewhere

1950 • dir George Cukor w/Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford, William Holden • 103 min

In BORN YESTERDAY, Harry Brock (Crawford), a loud-mouthed tycoon, comes to Washington D.C. to buy himself a congressman or two, bringing with him his mistress, ex-showgirl Billie Dawn (the fabulous Holliday). Hoping to make her more presentable in capital society, Brock hires newspaperman Paul Verrall (Holden) to see if he can coach her and soften her rough edges. But Brock gets more than he bargained for when Billie improves her education and realizes that he is nothing more than a cheap, corrupt crook. Blossoming under Paul’s encouragement and her own hard work, she begins to think for herself and to inflict revenge in amusing ways, and in the process falls in love with her handsome tutor. Holliday won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Billie – and rightfully so. She is a revelation in the role. – KB

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BALL OF FIRE

Streaming on Criterion; for rent elsewhere

1941 • dir Howard Hawks w/Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Oskar Homolka • 112 min

A witty screwball influenced by Snow White, BALL OF FIRE stars Gary Cooper as Professor Potts, an encyclopedia writer who is hoping to update his chapter on modern slang, and Barbara Stanwyck as “Sugarpuss” O’Shea, a wisecracking burlesque queen who needs to lay low while her gangster boyfriend is wanted by the police. When they meet one night in a nightclub, fascinated by her command of popular jargon and colorful vocabulary, Potts invites Sugarpuss to stay with him and seven other grammarian professors. Sparks fly as their worlds collide and a showdown of brains vs. brawn with the mob ensues. Directed by Howard Hawks, written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, BALL OF FIRE is a sensational and splendidly funny comedy, sure to have you quoting “yum-yum” for quite a while. – KB

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Monday, April 27

THE MORE THE MERRIER

Streaming on Criterion; for rent elsewhere

1943 • dir George Stevens w/Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn • 104 min

Set during the housing crisis that plagued Washington D.C. during World War II, THE MORE THE MERRIER is a charmingly romantic Screwball with Jean Arthur as a woman who decides to rent her spare room to an endearing older gent (Coburn). She gets more than she bargained for, however, when he, in turn, sublets half his room to a young and handsome soldier (McCrea) about to ship out. A romance blossoms between the soldier and the woman despite her outrage at the situation but hilarious complications ensue – including being falsely accused of espionage. – NH


Tuesday, April 28 • Double Feature

WHAT’S UP, DOC?

Streaming on Criterion; for rent elsewhere

1972 • dir Peter Bogdanovich w/Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, Michael Murphy • 94 min

A wild and unpredictable movie featuring a wild and unpredictable performance from Barbra Streisand as Judy Maxwell, a walking chaos storm that causes hilarious trouble wherever she goes. When four identical suitcases are mixed up at a San Francisco hotel, uptight musicologist Howard Bannister (O’Neal) finds himself thrown together with Judy as they try to figure out just what the heck is going on. A daffy and hilarious homage to Screwball Comedy with a dash of Looney Tunes thrown in for good measure, WHAT’S UP, DOC? stands as one of Peter Bogdanovich’s most fun films. – NH

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Don’t wait to watch this one! It’s only available on Criterion until the end of April.

THE HUDSUCKER PROXY

Streaming on HBO; for rent elsewhere

1994 • dir Joel Coen w/Tim Robbins, Paul Newman, Jennifer Jason Leigh • 113 min

There are few filmmakers working today who are more inspired by classic Hollywood genres than the Coen Brothers and this is their express homage to His Girl Friday – mashed up with a little It’s A Wonderful Life style fantasy. Jennifer Jason Leigh is spot-on as Amy Archer, a Hildy Johnson-esque reporter chasing a story at Hudsucker Industries. There she meets Norville Barnes (Robbins), a mailroom clerk with big ideas, and quickly falls for his earnest charm. When Norville achieves some success, however, it all goes to his head and he buys into the obnoxious corporate culture unaware that he is being plotted against by his ruthless boss. – NH

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Wednesday, April 29 • Double Feature

SOME LIKE IT HOT

Streaming on AmazonPrime and Criterion Channel; for rent elsewhere

1959 • dir Billy Wilder w/Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon • 132 min

“Nobody’s Perfect!” But this Screwball Comedy from legendary director Billy Wilder comes pretty close. After accidentally witnessing a murder by notorious mobster Spats Colombo, two musicians (Curtis and Lemmon) are forced to flee the scene and go undercover. Disguising themselves as women, they join an all-female jazz band on its way to Florida. The pair find themselves dealing with unexpected complications as one falls for the band’s sexy singer, Sugar (Monroe), and the other must fend off the affections of a smitten millionaire (Brown). – AD

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TOOTSIE

Streaming on Netflix; for rent elsewhere

1982 • dir Sydney Pollack w/Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman • 109 min

Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) is a talented but unsuccessful actor who alienates everyone he works with. When he has the chance to land a role on a soap opera, he jumps at the opportunity. There’s just one catch: he must pass as a woman to play the part. Misunderstandings and mishaps ensue as Michael must contend with growing feelings for his co-star (Lange), while his character becomes a national sensation. Featuring an all-star cast that includes Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Bill Murray, and Geena Davis, director Sydney Pollack’s classic film raised the bar for high-concept comedy. – AD

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Thursday, April 30

SOMETHING WILD

Streaming on HBO; for rent elsewhere

1986 • dir Jonathan Demme w/Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith, Ray Liotta, Margaret Colin • 114 min

The great Jonathan Demme skillfully creates a film that begins as a Screwball romp but ends with a darker, more contemporary sensibility. An apparently straightlaced banker (Daniels) looking for a shakeup after his wife has left him, hits the road with freewheeling beauty Audrey (Griffith). Everything seems like fun and games – until Audrey’s abusive ex-husband Ray (Liotta) shows up and the escapade takes a sinister turn. – NH

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Writing Credits:

NH – Ned Hinkle
AD – Alissa Darsa
KB – Kim Baillargeon
RL – Rachel Lanza