Living the Screwball Comedy

I’ve often said that if life were a movie, I would want to live in a screwball comedy. The reason? In a screwball comedy you can fall in love with a madcap heiress, live in a lavish apartment, have a group of glamorous friends to drink cocktails with, and you get to have crazy adventures with the likes of Cary Grant, Carole Lombard and Katharine Hepburn. Why wouldn’t I want to live like that?There are a few constants with screwball comedy. Children almost never exist,  the “baby” in Bringing Up Baby is, of course, a leopard. The film’s setting is urban (usually New York) with the closest thing to the countryside being a weekend home in Connecticut. If any scenes take place at the office it’s either on Wall Street if you’re wealthy, or a newsroom if you’re not.The story usually revolves around a romance of sorts that begins with either a one-sided infatuation or a mutual loathing. Yet, as in most films, love conquers all in the end. The dialogue, besides being hilarious, is clever and fast paced. The final screenplay for His Girl Friday was 191 pages long, yet the film only runs for 92 minutes. Contradicting the traditional screenplay rule that a page of dialogue usually runs between one to one and a half minutes on film.
But if there’s one factor that elevates screwball comedy above all other genres it’s the presence of a plethora of incredibly gifted leading ladies, with a variety of trick voices, quirky mannerisms, and unearthly beauty. There was Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur and Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck and Rosalind Russell. By contrast, Gary Grant was the undisputed, indispensable screwball leading man.The genre’s death and subsequent resurrection has been bemoaned and celebrated many times since its screwball heyday. Peter Bogdanovich had a big success with What’s Up Doc? (1972), in which Barbra Streisand was the Katharine Hepburn-like freeloader blundering into the life of Ryan’s O’Neal prissy academic. Michael Hoffman’s One Fine Day (1996), pitted single mother Michelle Pfeiffer and hot-shot journo George Clooney against one another, in an obvious, battle of the sexes screwball homage.Addicted to Love (1997) had a different kind of styling, straight through the previous decade’s screwball comedies After Hours and Something Wild, to a bygone age when zany rich girls played by Claudette Colbert or Carole Lombard strutted the streets of Manhattan. It’s a rich legacy and Meg Ryan revelled in it. With her quickfire speech patterns, the charming physicality, that gorgeous tie-dye dress, Maggie is a fine encapsulation of Ryan in her prime. In preparation for next week’s screwball smorgasbord I’m about to mix a martini, fire up the DVD player, and prepare to laugh myself silly at Hepburn’s Susan Vance and Meg Ryan’s Maggie. The rapture is imminent, so don’t be surprised if I spend Sunday night dreaming of life in a screwball comedy.

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