Ninety years ago, Columbia Pictures released a film that transformed the trajectory of American screen comedy.
Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night tells the story of spoiled Park Avenue heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), who meets newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) on a Greyhound bus in Miami. Ellie has just run away from her overbearing father, who disapproves of her recent elopement. Peter recognizes Ellie from the headlines and makes her an offer: He’ll help her return to New York to reunite with her husband if she gives him an exclusive scoop he can sell to his editor. Ellie accepts, and along the way home, they fall madly in love.
The movie, a tale of romantic yearning within a battle of the sexes dynamic, became one of the first screwball comedies, a genre born out of evolving socioeconomic and industrial strife that shaped Hollywood filmmaking in the 1930s and early 1940s. Screwball comedy depicted a world full of fast-talking dames, madcap antics, and romance, all set against the backdrop of economic upheaval. During its heyday, it drew in audiences who loved the genre’s unique blend of escapist romance and pointed social commentary. Today, it functions as a kind of time capsule, holding up a mirror to its era’s socioeconomic woes, capturing the bubbling cynicism that pervaded the American psyche in the mid-1930s. It also, paradoxically, continues to demonstrate a timeless appeal, having influenced generations of romantic comedies from 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? to 1999’s Notting Hill all the way up to recent releases like Anyone But You and Rye Lane. That’s because though the characters and settings may have evolved, the relationships featured in these screwy stories still have much to teach us about the universality of the human experience.
Screwball comedy emerged as the United States grappled with the Great Depression. In 1934, when It Happened One Night premiered, unemployment was still hovering at over 20%, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program could not help the populace fast enough. Hollywood wasn’t spared. America’s film industry had enjoyed some 20 years of unencumbered prosperity, capped by a late-1920s attendance boom fueled by the novelty of sound film technology. But during the Depression, dwindling audiences and falling ticket prices forced some major studios into receivership and others to sell valuable assets, like their theaters, to stay afloat. With the industry reporting a collective loss of nearly $250 million between 1930 and 1933, it’s no surprise that uneasiness took hold in the cultural zeitgeist.
The Depression rears its ugly head throughout the screwball genre, thematically puncturing some of its most jubilant moments. In a scene from It Happened One Night, Peter, Ellie, and the other bus passengers break out into a chorus of “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Capra captures class solidarity with immense warmth and grace, but that joyful camaraderie falls back down to Earth with the fearful scream of a young boy whose mother has fainted from hunger. In Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living (1937), protagonist Mary Smith grudgingly breaks her piggy bank to scrimp together enough money to cover her $7 per week rent. And in Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936)—perhaps the most socially engaged film of the classical screwball era—forgotten men become collectible objects in a scavenger hunt for Manhattan’s upper class.
In spite of the genre’s political grounding, screwball comedy didn’t aim to offer practical solutions to socioeconomic precarity. Philosopher Stanley Cavell once mused that screwball comedies were “fairytales for the Depression”—where else but screwball could a $58,000 sable fur coat fall on a working-class woman’s head and turn her life upside down? In the screwball fairyland, the Depression’s omnipresence is counterbalanced with kookiness and absurdity.
Screwball’s proclivity for the fantastic is also reflected in the genre’s approach to romance, which it navigated amid the constraints of the 1934 Motion Picture Production Code, informally known as the Hays Code. To stave off the looming threat of federal censorship laws, in July 1934, Hollywood studios uniformly implemented this series of guidelines. The Hays Code regulated everything from how scripts could approach topics such as crime, adultery, and sex. And it dictated that all movies must communicate redeeming social mores.
Cavell later dubbed screwball comedy the “re-marriage” genre because it included so many storylines about couples that reconcile after a period of separation. This recurring narrative arc was a direct response to the Code’s moral mandate; the head of its enforcement body, Joseph Breen, a staunch Catholic, believed that marriage was the foundation of a healthy society, and that American films should uphold traditional family values.
One of the genre’s most popular movies—Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937)—begins with duplicitous shenanigans that lead Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne) to divorce. The couple realize their undeniable compatibility only after they date other people, and, as in a fairytale, reunite—just before the stroke of midnight, on the eve before their divorce is finalized. In the screwball world, divorce inspires metamorphosis and growth: Characters learn about themselves and their capacity for love. “For better or for worse” is the ultimate awful truth, and Jerry and Lucy’s separation reminds them why they fell in love with each other in the first place.
The classical screwball era lasted until the onset of World War II, when the spread of fascism and the horrors of war made the genre’s domestic politics quaint. Despite its brief window of production, the genre made an outsized impact on the film industry. Nearly a century has passed now since the birth of the genre, and it continues to prove timeless in what it can say about life and love, especially amid hard times. Screwball comedy celebrates silliness, even as it magnifies the razor-sharp line between luck and misfortune. It indulges our childlike impulses and celebrates the joy and whimsy of fun, particularly in moments of grief and uncertainty. In defiance of reality, it imagines up worlds of charming romantic entanglements, pratfalls, and play, where leopards roam free, bears ride motorcycles, and an anti-aging elixir opens up the wealth spring of youth. Most importantly, it speaks to camaraderie and the resilience of the human spirit.
Near the end of My Man Godfrey, the titular Godfrey Parke—a former upper-class playboy who’s disguised himself for much of the film as a forgotten man—returns to the garbage dump he had called home with a friend from his socialite days. After Godfrey introduces him to the people living there, he says triumphantly, “the only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.” Godfrey’s observation is fundamentally that we are stronger when we come together. And regardless of our circumstances, we all strive for love, compassion, and community.
This sentiment is why the screwball comedy and their rom-com successors are often considered comforting “feel-good” movies. Whether they’re screened at a Depression-era movie theater or viewed at home alone with a pint of ice cream, we love to watch them because, at their best, they tap into the universal ideas that bind us.