Five essential screwball comedies

Tom Wilkinson, director, “Screwball” takes us through the cast’s five favourite Screwball Comedies 

The easiest way to get an argument going among film fans is to get them to pick five screwball comedies. As we found researching our new show, the genre is loaded with the best dialogue, most beautiful stars, greatest romance in film history (sometimes with great songs, too) so choosing a top five is a game of leaving classics off the list and offending people. Still, who doesn’t love an argument: here’s our five. Fight us!

  1. The Lady Eve (1941)

If ever someone tells you a black and white film can’t be contemporary; that an old film can’t be sexy, or if they tell you that a film made for audiences eight decades ago will be slow – this movie will silence them in its opening minutes. By its closing reel, your sceptical friend will usually be ready to open a cinema and dedicate their life to film. 

Barbara Stanwyck plays a card sharp who seduces, falls for, loses, and re-seduces a hapless millionaire (Henry Fonda), in a movie that balances sex, slapstick, and razor wit so brilliantly it makes the whole thing look as easy as breathing.  If you watch one screwball comedy – hell, if you watch just one more film in your life  – make it this one. The only problem is that it spoils you for all other movies. Why can’t they all be as good as this?

  1. Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Probably the most “Screwball” of the films  –beautiful stars doing stupid things at breakneck speed, and occasionally singing: in this case, in order to tame a leopard. 

Cary Grant plays an improbably beautiful paleontologist (a model for Clark Kent) trying to secure a million dollars for his museum – if only Katherine Hepburn wouldn’t insist on inflicting chaos on his life and periodically near-kidnapping him in fits of apparent absent-mindedness. Action moves to the countryside, where Hepburn’s leopard (the Baby of the piece) starts to cause serious trouble, and things accelerate to their breathless, barmy conclusion. A frantic gem.

  1. The Palm Beach Story (1942)

If you’re hankering after another Preston Sturges film after the Lady Eve, this makes a perfect pair: the writer-director’s next-but-one feature dials up the farce and the chaos, staying just within what the censors of the day would allow. Claudette Colbert plays the wife of a struggling architect, who decides to divorce him and marry a millionaire to fund his ideas. He sets off in pursuit, a millionaire turns up on the same train, and things accelerate from there.

If a happy tale of wise-cracking New Yorkers wooing Florida millionaires in disguise sounds familiar, it might be because this is an alleged model for Some Like It Hot – but this is more madcap in its situations and more grown-up in its dialogue than that later classic. It also might be the best-dressed screwball comedy, which is saying a lot in a glamorously crowded field.

  1. To Be Or Not to Be (1942)

No, not the Mel Brooks remake (good though that is): Imagine a comedy about the Nazis in Poland, made when they still might win the war.  Jack Benny and Carole Lombard are bickering married members of an acting troupe, who find they need to use their thespian skills to avoid a list of resistance members being handed to the Nazis.

A screwball film is often a few things at once, but this takes that layering to another level – as well as the sophisticated romance and the farce you’d expect, it’s also a genuinely tense thriller and a lopsided tribute to the acting profession. You’ll be charmed, shocked, maybe a little scandalised – but never bored. 

  1. The Awful Truth (1937)

This divided the cast when we watched it, but as the author I’m getting to choose, and anyway this is Cary Grant’s first screwball comedy and we should salute a Bristol hero. 

Grant and Irene Dunne are getting divorced; in meeting each others’ new partners they realise they were in love all along.  Like The Palm Beach story, this is a comedy of remarriage, a feature of several screwball comedies  designed to get round censors (“but you see officer, these are married people fooling around”). More than the other films in the list, this revels in tiny moments, little looks and reactions, building little by little into jewel-box farce. 

Or if you prefer…

If you’d like to see a new screwball story conjured from thin air before your eyes, with a drink in your hand and live music to boot, then come to our show, 30 Sep-2 Oct, at the Bristol Improv Theatre. Then argue with us afterwards about why our choices were all wrong.

Book tickets for Screwball: An Improvised Misadventure