Friday, March 18, 2011

Screwball or Not

"Screwball Comedy:  A Genre of Madcap Romance" by Wes D. Gehring has been a useful starter/foundation/guide toward studying Screwball, but it's time for this study to extrapolate and run some of its own theories up the flagpole.

As noted in an earlier post, Gehring's key elements of screwball are:  a male antihero, the leisure class, pursuit of the "right" romantic partner (not the one that is expected or will maintain an image, please the family or keep a business flourishing), an urban setting, a premium placed on (and rewards doled out for) a child-like perspective, little interest in politics (though moral stands are taken), and a baseline dissatisfaction with the status-quo.

The thing is, there are films that don't hit all of those marks and feel more screwball than comedy, but aren't worthy of the screwball label.  Screwball is something special.  It's a genre, but it's also an honorary title.  For example 20TH CENTURY is fully screwy, but the characters are more childish than child-like, class doesn't play much of a role (if any), and there isn't any discernible dissatisfaction with the status quo.

So, either that definition of screwball is too rigid, or not all movies considered screwball are fully screwball.  For now let's stick with the possibly rigid definition, and sort screwball films into four sub-categories:  classic screwball (Gehring), screwball (20TH CENTURY), romantic comedy and comedy.

Don't get me wrong, they're all still screwball.  I'm not going to start a campaign to pressure Netflix and/or AFI into updating their taxonomy. You don't need to talk me down and coax me to step-back from the ledge reserved for Sci-Fi nerds.  It's just that it feels like sorting all the screwballs out this way might reveal why some of these films are super strong while others are just kind of amusing.

So, of the films viewed so far...

CLASSIC SCREWBALL
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT
PLATINUM BLONDE
MY MAN GODFREY
MIDNIGHT

These four titles are paragons of screwball, plus each contains all of the elements noted in Gehring's book.

SCREWBALL
20TH CENTURY
TO BE OR NOT TO BE

These are definitely screwy, but are missing some of the elements noted in Gehring's book (and it seems he's onto something because films that don't hit all those marks just don't seem to work as well as the ones that do).  Quality-wise, "20th Century" belongs with the paragons, but it doesn't quite fit the current requirements for Classic Screwball. "To Be or Not To Be" is like a B-side to "20th Century," it's strong but not paragon strong, and it misses Classic Screwball on a few points.

ROMANTIC COMEDY
I MET HIM IN PARIS
THE PALM BEACH STORY

Neither contains any of the elements identified by Gehring, both are simple, inoffensive, and a bit sluggish dialog-wise.

COMEDY
HOWARD HAWKS' MONKEY BUSINESS
This film has more in common with THE SHAGGY D.A. than MY MAN GODFREY it's unclear how it ever got slotted in with screwball.