The great screwball comedies are just the thing for a valentine

February 13, 1992|By Richard Fuller | Richard Fuller,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Instead of sending your sweetie the usual Valentine's Day card, consider a surprise video rental from that evergreen genre about being crazy in love -- the screwball comedy.

Falling in love which suggests a sudden instability. Screwball comedy goes further. Its very name says that being in love is a form of temporary insanity. Giddy, goofy and a perpetual high, but nuts.

In the usual romantic comedy, the lead couple plays it straight, leaving the funny stuff to a supporting couple. Screwball comedy combines the straight and the wacky in one couple, and the plot and most of the characters are off-center, too.

Consider the most extreme example of the genre, director Howard Hawks' decidedly deranged "Bringing Up Baby" (1938). In the more conventional romantic comedy, the writer and director figure out a way for their main gal and guy to "meet cute," as the movie expression goes. In "Baby," Susan (Katharine Hepburn) and David (Cary Grant) meet on a golf course. Absent-minded zoologist David, wearing Harold Lloyd glasses and a constant air of confusion, sees Susan playing his ball. For golfing obsessives, this is a crime worthy of tar and feathers on the 19th hole.

David sputters, protests, runs after her like a goony bird.

And lofty Susan? She gazes at him as if he were an escapee from Bedlam.

Then she mistakenly gets into his car, firmly convinced it's hers, and bangs up the fenders while he insists it is his car.

She calmly replies: Your ball? Your car? Is there anything that isn't yours?

Yes, he allows. "You," thank goodness.

Well! She decides, as women often do in screwball comedy, that she will indeed be his. Those who consider "Baby" (Baby is a leopard, by the way) the definitive screwball comedy may be surprised to learn that it was not well-received by critics or the public when first released. Even now its effect on viewers is decidedly not uniform.

Fortunately for the genre, the first acknowledged screwball comedy was a huge hit with the public and won the five major Academy Awards. That would, of course, be "It Happened One Night" (1934). Among the many ironies of the film's success is that director Frank Capra is about the last person you'd associate with this genre. Also, MGM's Clark Gable didn't want to appear in the Columbia Pictures flick: Columbia was then known as Poverty Row, and Gable's studio was "punishing" him by making him do the role. Claudette Colbert didn't want to be in it either, but her career at Paramount Pictures was apparently on hold.

No matter -- they make charismatic sparks on screen. He's an out-of-work reporter, she's a runaway heiress. They meet unfriendly on a bus after he clears a seat by throwing some newspapers out the rear window (a symbolic touch?) and she swipes the seat. But they share something -- both have almost no money. So they improvise on their mutual poverty -- hitchhiking, sleeping outdoors, eating carrots -- and wisecrack their way to love as the unlikely plot unfolds.

The special charm of the genre is that the lead couple "carries" both the romance as well as the comedy, the latter often physical to the point of slapstick as in "Baby" and Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve" (1941).

While Americans may have been collectively depressed in 1934 because of the Depression, it was some kind of year for the screwball comedy. Hawks finally got Carole Lombard and John Barrymore onto that famous train, the "Twentieth Century," where the former gave the latter probably the screen's most famous series of kicks. The script was by the prolific team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur of "The Front Page," who adapted their 1932 play about improbable goings-on in the theater biz.

That rich year also gave us two "crossover" classics of the genre.

MGM figured its little mystery/screwball comedy based on Dashiell Hammett's "The Thin Man" might do modest box office but no one was holding his breath: The careers of the two MGM contract stars were going nowhere. When the movie opened, however, everyone came to share in the screen magic of Willian Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles.

The "Thin Man" may be unique in the genre because it's not about romantic pursuit that ends in marriage just before the final credits. Nick and Nora turn their marriage into a perpetual party. The movie is also a mystery as well as delightfully screwy.

James Harvey, in his splendid book "Romantic Comedy" (Knopf), argues that censorship had much to do with screwball comedy: Because filmmakers could not be overt about matters sexual, the romantic comedy got progressively crazier, letting off deranged steam, as it were.

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