Screwball Comedy and the Hawksian Woman
In 1934, in the dark days of the Great Depression, Howard Hawks’ film Twentieth Century literally coined the term “screwball” with the performance of his second cousin, Carol Lombard. Critics were so amazed by the wild and dominate performance of Lombard as a famous actress hellbent on driving her ex-husband, washed-up director John Barrymore, crazy. Lombard had existed in the humdrum world of forgettable dramas until Hawks finally gave her the chance to cut loose, giving birth to Lomard’s beloved ‘hoosier tornado’ persona, a beauty with a dirty mouth and irrepressible personality that would make Lomard one of the most beloved actresses of her time.
But it was also an important first time for Hawks. Hawks was already known for his abilities as a director, particularly with action and gangster films. But his work in screwball comedy didn’t simply show his comic sensibilities, but a different view of the sexes. While men were often as macho and tough as could be in his action (westerns, crime, and war films), Hawks’s men in screwball were domesticated to the point of ridiculous. And while women were often just there to appease and sexualize the tough men in his action films, women were the dominate force in the Hawks’s screwball films.
Hawks made what can be described as six key examples of screwball comedy in his long, varied career: Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire, Monkey Business, and Man’s Favorite Sport. Hawks of course wasn’t the only director to play in the screwball genre, but there is a noticeable difference in his female characters in screwball comedies and the gender politics on display. In films such as It Happened One Night or My Man Godfrey, there is a tendency to want wild women to be tamed by their straight-arrow love interests. But Hawks women were fully formed when they arrived on screen, and the conflict was to find men who could accept them.
Twentieth Century featured Lombard playing her character as a spirited but talented actress whose energy (often materializing in the form of a childish temper) could not be tamed. But Barrymore as the ex-husband, as frustrated as he would become with her, was also charmed and very much in love. And more importantly, while Lombard had left Barrymore to become a success, without Lombard by his side, Barrymore had become a pathetic drunk who was unable to work (a big character trait for Hawks, who often made profession a character trait). It was a sad image of the loss of identity in men in the midst of the Depression, and the comic honesty was an impressive alternative offered to audiences, compared to the macho fantasies Hawks offered in his action and crime films.
There are few films which represent the definition of screwball comedies better than Bringing Up Baby. Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant were two of the greatest screwball actors, already appearing in a few examples of the genre themselves. Yet Hepburn’s dithery heroine is perhaps the loopiest ever printed to film, and Grant’s professor the most emasculated image of modern manhood. Gail Patrick’s character, as the jilted fiance, would become a character she would become known for, and one she would even parody as the girl men always leave. But the wild, loopy performance by Hepburn would be one of the only times we would see Hepburn in such an off the wall performance. She would become a leading lady of screwball comedy, but Bringing Up Baby is the only film in which the usually composed and modern actress would be so childish.
There was a bravery to the performance by Hepburn, but for audiences who loved the self-reliant Hepburn were turned off by her performance in Bringing Up Baby, and the same year she would be declared box-office poison in the press (one newspaper in fact). Despite the two films which earned her this title costarring Cary Grant, only Hepburn suffered for the failure of Bringing Up Baby and the more traditional screwball comedy Holiday.
Hepburn left Hollywood to do theater, but Grant remained on top and two years later, Grant would star in His Girl Friday. Compared to the wild, childish performances by Lombard and Hepburn, the feminist appeal of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday was part of the reason that the film was a hit upon it’s 1940 release. Connecting Hawk’s obsession for careers being a part of a protagonist’s personality, to turn the male character from The Front Page into a female, one-of-the-boys, and the professional relationship between editor and reporter a romantic one, shows an equality and modernity which was rare in any film. A decade before Hepburn and Tracy would make this common in their films Pat and Mike, Adam’s Rib, or Desk Set, Hawks made one of the most provocative and feminist screwball comedies in history.
If His Girl Friday was feminist for depicting how a man and a woman could be equal in the work place, Ball of Fire showed a liberated woman in a very different aspect of society…sex. Barbara Stanwyck, playing the comic version of the femme fatale she would play a few years later in Double Indemnity, is a sexual dynamite and there is little hinting of this fact. Even her name, Sugarpuss, leaves little to the imagination. And when she arrives to hide out with Gary Cooper and his Lexicographer professors who seem void of sex, she teaches them the ways of the world. Even the film’s tagline “I loved him because he didn’t know how to kiss” suggests that just as women drove narratives in Hawk’s previous screwball comedies, Stanwyck would also be sexually dominate to Cooper. It is unsurprising that in just three years, Lauren Bacall would be seducing Humphrey Bogart with the line “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together…and blow” in Hawks’s To Have and Have Not.
Screwball Comedies tend to reflect the social, economic situations even more than romantic comedy. Understandably therefore, the masculine crisis of the Depression would create emasculated men and loopy women, compared to the more capable men and equal women of Hawk’s war era His Girl Friday and Ball of Fire. But by the 1950s, Hawks would almost parody himself with the film Monkey Business. And while screwball veterans Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers play characters like throwbacks to the 30s, Marilyn Monroe’s extremely sexual secretary is as sexual as Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss, although more childish.
But 1950s was not a time for screwball, when traditional domestic relationships were being re-established postwar. It is the reason Monkey Business, despite being a sex-comedy is as tame a film as it is…perhaps Hawks’s tamest ever. But 1964’s Man’s Favorite Sport, on the verge of modern Hollywood, would have so pointed a commentary on traditional and modern relationships. Rock Hudson, one of the last classical movie stars played a domesticated author on sports topics although he has never done any of what he writes about, forced to prove his masculinity to modern female reporter Paula Prentiss. While a parody of some classic screwball comedy, including a very direct recreation of William Powell’s fishing scene in Libeled Lady, the movie also makes it very clear that Hudson’s traditional man was in his last years, and women like Prentiss were on the rise.
The movies would have to adapt to the rise of youthful filmmakers and feminism, and with that the playful war of the sexes in screwball comedy would be replaced. But screwball comedies were important for starting the dialogue and showing alternatives to romantic relationships. Hawks’s contributions to screwball comedy weren’t just vital for establishing the key aspects of the genre, but also creating female characters who were a big and individual as any men.