8 Underrated Screwball Comedies

theodora goes wild

Screwball comedies, like film noir, have a fairly devoted following and although they were very much of their time, they still have descendants and influences on the movies coming out today.

Many of the heavy hitters from the 30s and 40s are household names, but I thought it would be fun to highlight a few titles that fewer people might think about in conversations surrounding screwball comedies. Let me know what you think!

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Irene Dunne is a great person to start this list off with because I always enjoy her films and yet she oftentimes feels woefully forgotten. In this zany vehicle, she is the eponymous title character who, while living a life of propriety in a small town, actually moonlights as quite the titillating author. Her life gets flipped upside down when one of the city slickers (Mervyn Douglas) finds out her secret.

Easy Living (1937)

It’s true a whole movie can be born out of a fur coat dropping from the sky, and it builds into a wonderfully raucous narrative thanks to the wonky scripting of Preston Sturges. Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold make a fine pair and send the town into a tizzy when rumors start circulating about the extent of their relationship. Ray Milland also proves why he was a much sought after rom-com lead.

It’s Love I’m After (1937)

It’s a dream cast with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland in a dream scenario: a love triangle dressed up with Shakespearean theatricality. What better bedfellow for screwball comedy as Howard puts on a performance to rebuff a starstruck fan girl and earn back his jealous co-star. Eric Blore is stupendous as per usual.

True Confession (1937)

It’s courtroom drama meets screwball romance with Carole Lombard giving one of her most frenzied performances as a serial fibber who pleads guilty to an egregious crime so she can drum up some publicity for her husband (Fred MacMurray), a struggling lawyer in need of a big case. Una Merkel and John Barrymore show up to supply some added character.

Merrily We Live (1938)

Here is a movie that’s good-naturedly built out of the mode of My Man Godfrey. It’s about a family of idle rich: Constance Bennett, Billie Burke, Clarence Kolb, and Bonita Granville, of all people! They’re a constant whirlwind of ditzy entertainment around the breakfast table, and they quite unwittingly pull a passerby (Brian Aherne) into their comic vortex. Chaos ensues.

Vivacious Lady (1938)

Ginger Rogers and Jimmy Stewart have a glowing chemistry. However, their recent marriage has a wrench thrown into it when they head home to meet the parents. The word never got to them, and Charles Coburn, in one of his most obstinate performances, will never approve. Ginger uses all her tricks to woo her husband’s family over and fight off any rivals with her unparalleled catfighting skills. It’s as delightful as it sounds.

The Rage of Paris (1938)

Spunky Danielle Darrieux and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. spar across social lines with your typical screwball romance riddled with conflict transplanted to Paris and the French countryside. What Henry Koster brings is his usual heart-warming tone, and with support from the likes of Helen Broderick and Misca Auer, the material receives a dose of extra comedic oomph.

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Here is the original uncover boss with the always cantankerous Charles Coburn slinking around his own department store. Not only does he come to understand his employees’ dissatisfaction with their work, through the eyes of Jean Arthur and Robert Cummings, he also learns what real friendship is. The movie is blessed with that wonderful one-two combo of uproarious antics and genuine heart.

Let me know what screwball comedies you would include!

I Love You Again (1940)

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The film’s plotline can be summed up by amnesia. A no-fun businessman named Larry Wilson who drinks nothing harder than grape juice is conked on the head while saving a drunk who went overboard. Poof! Just like that Larry is no longer and he becomes his presumed former self — the suave alter ego — George Carey. If you’re willing to buy into the premise and not ask too many clarifying questions, it’s quite easy to enjoy the inevitable wacky ride ahead of us.

I even got the inkling that it was going to be a funnier version of Random Harvest (1942). Really it’s part of that esteemed screwball subset — the comedy of remarriage. Carey heads back home with his newfound pal and fellow grifter Doc (Frank McHugh) to scope out his past life and do his best to be the man he is supposed to be with humorous complications. You see they don’t realize he’s a married man until his wife comes to meet them at the gangplank. Well, actually he’s a soon to be a divorced man. Hence the marital conflict perfectly positioned for ensuing comedic fodder.

The main wrinkle and ultimately what makes it so different is that Powell and Loy are at separate poles in this film by necessity. All throughout The Thin Man pictures, they’re in perfect cadence and that’s what makes their chemistry and the onscreen marriage work.

Here Powell is a charming man with a twinkle in his eye like always — but his wife is expecting the same boring schmuck she married all those years before. She’s coming at this man from a different point of view and boy is she surprised with what she gets. In one way, annoyed because he makes it infinitely more difficult for her to let him go but then thankful because he is the precise man she always dreamed was right in front of her.

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In this way, I Love You Again is actually a fairly personable romance beyond its simple roots in screwball comedy. There’s almost a bit of depth there if we dare admit it but of course, that doesn’t take away from the underlining laughs most especially offered up by Powell.

He’s not opposed to making a fool of himself by dancing all by his lonesome until his wife saves his self-respect. And he plants a kiss on her that all but broke the world record in the sleepy town of Haversville. But she’s not going to go down without a fight and in one particular squabble he gets scrambled eggs all over his face (and on top of his head). Her current beau is an idiotically annoying bloke in his own right who is made for antagonizing. They always are.

If William Powell fly fishing in Libeled Lady (1936) was one of the defining comic images of his career than perhaps its equal is found in the confines of this film where he dons a boy scout uniform from his past life. Because he’s a woodsman of some repute who has quite the following with newspaper articles being penned about him and little tykes (AKA Alfalfa) being discouraged by how difficult he is to track. I feel that I saw some of these images years later in another intrepid yet bumbling outdoorsman, Barney Fife.

The moments exuding entertainment appeal outpace the rest including Powell’s constant cooing impression of a lovebird but nevertheless, it does drag in segments after a fairly interesting setup. Extended boy scouting sequences and spying out the old stomping grounds aren’t all bad though.

One could say that it’s even necessary as we watch the malleable relationship between Powell and Loy morph into something new. Everything else serves this singular purpose. It’s really what you wait for in a comedy of remarriage as the wistful regrets and longings seep in only to get replaced by happy expectancy of what is yet to come. The future is made sweet and those truths remain in I Love You Again.

3.5/5 Stars

It Happened One Night (1934)

Gable_ithapponepm_posterStarring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert with director Frank Capra, this light romance pits a sunk newspaper man with a dissatisfied socialite. Colbert feels stuck in her life with a domineering father who does not approve of her marriage, and so she runs off to get away. While on a bus she meets the recently fired Peter (Gable) and there is immediate friction between them. However, realizing she is inexperienced, Peter watches out for her and they travel together. Finding out who she is, he is even more driven to get a story and stay with her. Along the way Colbert begins to fall in love but he does not immediately react. When he finally realizes his true feelings, the situation becomes complicated when Colbert returns to her father and fiancee. In the midst of the wedding she hears of Peter’s true love and runs off to him. By that evening they are married and the “walls of Jericho” come tumbling down. Gable and Colbert both do well in this film and Capra gives us another light classic.

5/5 Stars

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

73432-troubleinparadise1932Starring Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, and Miriam Hopkins with director Ernst Lubitsch, this film is a funny pre-code era romantic comedy. A man and a woman crook meet each other in Venice and after wreaking some havoc they fall in love and get married. The two of them move to Paris in order to pull a big heist on the elegant Collete perfume tycoon. Things get complicated when the male crook begins to fall in love with her. Furthermore, her two other suitors get jealous and eventually realize where they have seen him before! Then his wife learns what is going on and she is jealous. He sadly breaks off his relationship with the lady he meant to rob. But once a pick pocket always a pick pocket and he and his wife make up. For being an early 1930s film, I particularly enjoyed this one. Lubitsch did a fine job directing and there is a lot of wit.

4.5/5 Stars

Screwball Comedies

The Screwball Comedy came into existence in the 1930s probably with the release of It Happened One Night (1934). They are a unique type of romantic comedy prevalent in the 30s and early 1940s. Often the plot revolved around bizarre, crazy, or extravagant scenarios having to do with the love interests. Often the male character is challenged or humor can be found in class conflict. They are seen as escapist films that allowed Great Depression and World War II audiences to get away from their difficult lives in order to have some laughs and enjoy some fantastical situation. A number of directors including Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor, and Frank Capra all had successes in this genre.