Screwballs went with the studio system. They came into their own 1933-1934, peaked late 30’s to early 40’s, but after the war and the end of the decade, lost their mojo. Most of the films I’ve profiled over this summer were made between 1934-1943, a decade long period when contract stars still did what they were told (with of course a few notable exceptions). Post-war, society had changed radically in a way those of us living through today’s wars on terrorist groups cannot understand. Not having lived through a full-scale world war, we cannot understand the level of involvement, and the aftermath. The time was vastly different, but we can understand that society and its needs and wants had fundamentally shifted. They were still shifting, in the direction we see today, but the 50’s and 60’s had no time for what was popular in the 30’s and 40’s. The 30’s slid into the 40’s, and screwballs with movie kings and queens were still popular, but post-war audiences were looking for different fare – that’s another post for another time (coming soon).
Screwballs still managed to exist within movie’s new rules in the 50’s and 60’s: evolving with tastes and limits. Monkey Business, made in 1952, featured Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, beloed 30’s stars, as a middle-aged married couple. Grant is a scientist working on a youth serum. His boss is Charles Coburn, and Coburn’s secretary is Marilyn Monroe. One of Grant’s lab monkeys inadvertently mixes a serum that works – in the water cooler in the lab. Grant drinks it at the same time as he drinks his mixture of the serum, and becomes 20 years old again. He gets a new haircut, a loud suit, and a sports car. He takes Marilyn roller skating. He thinks that his serum has worked, and Rogers, his devoted wife refuses to let him test it on himself again, so she takes Grant’s serum, along with a cup of water from the water cooler. Her first act as a younger version of herself is to put a goldfish down Coburn’s pants.
Rogers and Grant acting like children, alternately together or one or the other is where the screwball comedy comes in. The two take a trip to the hotel where they honeymooned – while Rogers is young and Grant is not. She wants to dance all night, but when he makes a frustrated remark, she, thinking like a young bride, tosses him out, crying. In the morning, she is level-headed once more, but the damage she causes is pretty funny while it lasts. When the two accidentally take the serum (by adding water cooler water to their coffee) – they revert to 10-year-olds instead of 20-year-olds – chasing each other around and fighting with paint. Grant joins a group of kids playing cowboys and Indians and proposes scalping Rogers’ lawyer and former beau.
This film is distinct from its predecessors not so much in subject matter (which I will discuss in a minute), but in its self-awareness. Rogers’ heyday was in the 1930′s with Fred and solo in the 1940′s. By 1952, she was a “mature” actress (she was 41). Grant was similarly successful in the screwball era, often co-starring with Katharine Hepburn. Grant had been making movies steadily (more than one per year) since 1932, and in 1952, was about to attempt his first retirement (Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock lured him out of it for 1955′s To Catch a Thief). Casting these two screwball stars as a middle-aged couple, and Grant as a scientist searching for a serum for eternal youth is something so very meta. It refers to itself, aware of the tradition it comes from, but is no longer a part of. Monkey Business became the tenth highest-grossing film of 1952. The Greatest Show on Earth and The Bad and the Beautiful topped that list. Let me tell you something about those two films. They are depressing. The Greatest Show on Earth (refer to earlier post for FULL details) suddenly derails, literally, into a violent train crash full of life-threatening injuries. The Bad and the Beautiful explores corruption and greed in Hollywood. Not exactly screwball material. Both Rogers and Grant had been off the top-grossing list themselves for a few years. Uniting these two in a self-referential tale was fit for the 1950′s – they knew where they’d come from, and they sort of missed it.
1959’s Some Like It Hot, directed by Billy Wilder, pushed screwball into somewhat risqué places – with the addition of cross-dressing men. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis (a comedy team worthy of Abbott and Costello status if I ever saw one) are down-on-their-luck musicians who witness the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, and go on the road with a band in order to hide from the gangsters who intend to wipe out the witnesses. The band is headed to sunny Florida – unfortunately, it’s a women’s band. But “Daphne” and “Josephine” are desperate to escape the gangsters. They meet Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s lead eye candy – er, singer – and both men fall for her. Sugar, though, declares she’s looking for a millionaire in Florida. In Florida, Joe ditches his Josephine disguise for one as Shell, Jr. – the heir of Shell Oil, who Sugar takes it upon herself to teach how to love. Jerry (Lemmon) as Daphne takes the opposite approach, unwittingly attracting Osgood (Joe E. Brown), an older millionaire with a habit for marrying and divorcing showgirls. He allows himself to be courted by Osgood – planning to live on the alimony from their divorce. Both plans are foiled when the gangsters show up for their annual “convention,” and recognize Joe and Jerry.
Besides the antics of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis attempting to pour themselves into dresses and wigs, the gender-switching comedy is great. Nothing Wilder could have gotten away with in 1939, but in 1959 – audiences were ready. Wilder does throw in a disclaimer line that Joe says to Jerry: “But, you’re *not* a girl! You’re a *guy*, and, why would a guy wanna marry a guy?” Other than that, the movie is surprisingly progressive. It otherwise skirts transvestites and homosexuality – which here would be out of place. This isn’t The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which reveled in it. This was still 1959, and by skirting those issues, still taboo, Wilder was able to make a screwball, cross-dressing comedy. Wilder’s dialogue (written with frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond) and direction lay the basis for a smash – but Lemmon and Curtis’ timing put the topper on it. Both are deadpan deliverers and bring similar comedy styles, but play off of each other well. Unfortunately, I can’t quote you the best scene – it’s at the end – I know, I know, usually I don’t care about spoilers, but this scene is one you’ve got to see for yourself.
Sex and the Single Girl is a 1964 screwball, also starring Tony Curtis. It co-stars Natalie Wood as a psychiatrist who writes a book about how single women should “deal with men.” Curtis, a reporter, sets out to prove that Wood doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of the topic she’s writing about. He pretends to be his married neighbor Frank (played by Henry Fonda), and starts seeing Wood as a psychiatrist. He tries (as Frank) to seduce her, but she knows he is married. She insists on meeting his wife, and Curtis produces two women, and then real Frank’s real wife, Sylvia (Lauren Bacall!) shows up. Curtis has his dirt, but has fallen in love with Wood instead.
Bacall and Fonda are the “older” settled couple in this comedy, but they are amazing, appearing good-naturedly (knowing that their hey-day in Hollywood was 15 years ago) and their jokes almost steal the show. CLICK the image below for one example of their back-and-forth. (And go Lauren! She is so awesome in this movie.)
The boundaries of comedy loosened – no more crossed skis here. But what was still making screwballs funny was the snappy dialogue and good screen teams.
If you haven’t had enough of screwball, here’s a few more of the classics to check out:
Twentieth Century (1934) Carole Lombard & John Barrymore, directed by Howard Hawks
Wife vs. Secretary (1936) Clark Gable, Jean Harlow & Myrna Loy
Nothing Sacred (1937) Carole Lombard & Frederic March
Bringing Up Baby (1938) Katherine Hepburn & Cary Grant, directed by Howard Hawks
Holiday (1938) Katherine Hepburn & Cary Grant, directed by George Cukor
I Love You Again (1940) Myrna Loy & William Powell
Ball of Fire (1941) Barbara Stanwyck & Gary Cooper, directed by Howard Hawks, screenplay by Billy Wilder