Flirting with screwball

The zany spirit of Hollywood’s screwball comedies is alive and well in the films of Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell and the Coen brothers, argues Paul O’Callaghan.

Paul O’Callaghan
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Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

This month BFI Southbank celebrates one of the best loved sub-genres of classic American cinema: the screwball comedy. Throughout the 1930s and early 40s, Hollywood luminaries such as Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges delivered a succession of whip-smart romantic comedies which served as welcome distraction from the Great Depression and the onset of war, but which nevertheless engaged with those grim realities.

Screwball classics, such as My Man Godfrey (1936) and Bringing Up Baby (1938), typically revolve around a mismatched romantic couple – often from contrasting socio-economic backgrounds – whose everyday lives are thrown into chaos upon meeting.

Their elaborate courtship invariably takes the form of an antagonistic battle of wits, in which the eccentric and free-spirited half of the couple (usually the woman) maintains the upper hand over his or her more grounded counterpart. Plots take unexpected turns, often involving road trips, chase sequences and cases of mistaken identity.

While many of these elements have been absorbed into subsequent incarnations of the Hollywood romcom, later films that strictly adhere to the screwball formula are few and far between. Yet screwball continues to exert its influence on some of America’s most cine-literate filmmakers.

Joel and Ethan Coen

An irreverent, absurdist streak runs through much of the Coens’ output, but their straight-up comedies – Raising Arizona (1987), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), The Ladykillers (2004) and Burn after Reading (2008) – are frequently described as ‘neo-screwball’. Perhaps only Intolerable Cruelty truly warrants the tag, as it reconfigures screwball for the 21st century with a real clarity of purpose.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

The film takes a satirical swipe, in the manner of Preston Sturges, at the rampant consumerism and grotesque litigation culture of contemporary America. George Clooney, making an all-out bid to become Cary Grant’s heir apparent, plays Miles Massey, a Beverly Hills lawyer suffering from a very modern malaise.

Despite his disgust at the excesses of society – witness him driven to apoplexy at the sight of some berry spoons – he is nevertheless smitten by Catherine Zeta-Jones’s Marilyn, a woman who has made more money than him via her Machiavellian approach to marriage. Marilyn is a true descendant of Barbara Stanwyck’s gold-digger Jean in The Lady Eve (1941) – a shrewd negotiator, a formidable actress, and acutely aware of the power of her own sexuality.

The Lady Eve (1941)

The Lady Eve (1941)

Intolerable Cruelty is the Coens at their most unashamedly mainstream. The film enthusiastically capitalises on the raw star power of its leads and embraces the glamour and allure of Hollywood even as it condemns it.

Quentin Tarantino

You’d be hard-pressed to find a genre that the magpie-like auteur hasn’t pilfered from, but Tarantino’s debt to screwball is striking. On the first page of his screenplay for Pulp Fiction (1994) he describes two characters talking “in a rapid pace ‘His Girl Friday’ fashion”.

It’s a direction that could be applied to so much of Tarantino’s work as a writer: beyond the speed at which his characters talk, there is an arch, conversational quality to his dialogue that owes much to Howard Hawks. Indeed Tarantino has repeatedly declared His Girl Friday (1939) one of his favourite films of all time.

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

His Second World War revenge caper Inglourious Basterds (2009) has a direct screwball antecedent in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942). Both films present an alternate history in which top-ranking Nazis are outsmarted by a group of resourceful arts professionals.

In both instances the opportunity to get one up on the Third Reich comes about as a direct consequence of a young soldier romantically pursuing a woman from a different stratum of society. Both are deeply concerned with notions of performance, role play and concealed identity, and both explore the ways in which the power of popular art can be harnessed as a cure for society’s ills.

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

As screwball evolved out of a desire to explore the most troubling social issues of the day, so Tarantino has of late employed comedy to tackle the darkest episodes of human history. His latest, Django Unchained (2012), an incendiary spaghetti western set in the era of American slavery, has been stirring up controversy since its recent US release.

Perhaps the most subversive scene in the film is a brilliant slapstick set piece imagining an early incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which Tarantino – referencing the silent-era director whose notorious epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) celebrated the Klan – has called his “fuck you to D.W. Griffith”. The way in which he here deftly renders the sinister iconography of this hateful organisation utterly ridiculous is both very funny and quite profoundly moving.

David O. Russell

“[Screwball is] not a genre much in vogue at the moment – instead we’ve got the hots for romcoms that are either all kook or flat-out naff”, lamented Catherine Shoard in the Guardian’s countdown of the best films of 2012. “But the BFI’s programme just got topical, because along came Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s new screwball masterpiece. With an emphasis on the screwy.”

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

In an alarmingly literal-sounding move, Russell’s latest uses screwball tropes to tell the story of a bipolar man (Bradley Cooper) attempting to reintegrate back into society after being sectioned, and finding redemption in the form of a younger woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who also has a history of mental health issues.

It’s an admittedly dubious premise, but thanks to the compassion with which Russell treats his characters, and wonderful lead performances from Cooper and Lawrence, it somehow works brilliantly.

Russell’s Flirting with Disaster (1996) offers a no less inventive modern twist on classic screwball fare. The film follows Ben Stiller’s entomologist Mel on a road trip to find his birth parents, accompanied by both his downtrodden wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette) and his case worker Tina (Téa Leoni).

Flirting with Disaster (1996)

Flirting with Disaster (1996)

Mel and Nancy’s marriage seems dead in the water even before the kooky, alluring Tina turns their world upside-down. The chemistry between Mel and Tina is palpable from the outset, and when Nancy encounters old flame Tony (an inspired turn by Josh Brolin), the outcome seems inevitable. But Russell delights in wrong-footing us at every turn, moving the action along at a relentless pace, and mining its increasingly outlandish scenarios for every ounce of comic potential.

Mel’s fear of emasculation is a quality he shares with many of his screwball forefathers. He refuses to commit to naming his four-month old son, concerned that Nancy’s preferred Ethan is too feminine. On meeting the first of his potential birth fathers he’s accused of being “pussy-whipped” and a “bitch boy”. And in Tony he encounters a formidable love rival – athletic, handsome and paternal, but also impeccably hygienic and deeply attuned to a woman’s needs.

Flirting with Disaster is one of the most consistently enjoyable comedies of recent times, and one of few films that truly warrants the neo-screwball label.

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