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Have You Seen…? Episode 2

Cary Grant and Rosilind Russell in His Girl Friday
CC0 Public Domain
Cary Grant and Rosilind Russell in His Girl Friday

On this episode of Have You Seen…? David Hast talks with WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf about Screwball Comedies and classic Romantic Comedies…

Have You Seen…? takes a look at classic Hollywood movies from the silent era through today’s cinema…

David Hast: Scott, have you seen His Girl Friday?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen it. I've seen it many times. Howard Hawks, one of my favorite screwball comedies.

DH: What do you like about it?

SVW: Well, you know, it's the it's the remake of Front Page, right, which was made not that long before His Girl Friday, maybe within a decade or so…

DH: no, just 4 or 5 years.

SVW: Okay. Well, the thing that is really amazing about that movie is that it was my introduction to Cary Grant but also Rosalind Russell. She's wonderful in that film.

DH: Yeah, she didn't do a whole lot else. That's the movie she's known for. If you look up Rosalind Russell on imdb or online they're going to lead with His Girl Friday.

SVW: Which is a newspaper film and Rosalind Russell plays a newspaper reporter and she's the sole woman and this huge group of men and it really just it empowers her.

DH: Yeah. It was a bold choice by Howard Hawks. Hawks is known for having powerful women characters and yeah, the original is…it's a male reporter who the male editor is trying to get back on to the paper to work for him do this important story. But this case it's a woman and she's the ex-wife not long ago divorced from the editor. So, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell recently divorced. You know, from the formula romantic comedies just watching it, right away, you can figure out they're probably gonna get back together. But like in the great Shakespeare tradition of comedy, in its opening scene they kind of hate each other, right? You know, they just gotten divorced:

[Clip from His Girl Friday]

SVW: Yeah. That, you know, goes to the whole history of some of screwball comedies. It happened one night by Frank Capra is frequently cited as being the first screwball comedy in 1934 although Bombshell with Jean Harlow was in 1933, the year before, directed by Victor Fleming and lot of people think that might have been the first screwball comedy - and the genre tends to be…when they look at it…it's like the classic period, it’s not that long.

DH: No, it's not. I mean, I mean, obviously romantic comedies and screwball comedies really continue to this day but they're a very different thing now than they were then. So I guess the classic period is really in the 30's and 40's.

SVW: So you've got The Philadelphia Story 1940, Bringing Up Baby 1938, and again, His Girl Friday 1940. And then there's other films like Lady Eve from 1941 with Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, which was directed by Preston Sturges and also The Miracle of Morgan's Creek- also Preston Sturges with Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton. And that was in 1944.

[Clip from Miracle of Morgan’s Creek]

DH: Sturges is one of the icons of screwball comedies. In fact, Sturges is really one of the very first if not the first writer director in Hollywood. So Sturges was a writer in the 30's - He wrote about 40 screenplays, a lot of them in the 30's and then he got tired of some of the screenplays not being done the way he thought they should be and he got permission direct and they couldn't really turned him down because he was writing, he was very valuable to the studios. So he directed 6 or 7 movies within a 4 or 5 year period, many of which are some of the greatest screwball comedies. We just named two.

SVW: And he was a director that immersed himself in the entire film. He would he would play each character when he was writing the films, he would pretend that he was both the male and female cast of characters, he would act things out for the actors, he would make sure that they actually did all the manners and that he wanted them to do. So, he was completely hands on but also the atmosphere that he had on the set was like a circus-like atmosphere. And as such that in the Lady Eve which takes place on a luxury a line or a ship in the ocean, instead of cast members are going back to their, you know, the dressing rooms they would hang out and talk with the director.

DH: Yeah, yeah. And his movies or memorable for their minor characters. Every character Preston Sturges film, even if they just have a few lines, is interesting, you remember them all.

SVW: And he had stock actors that were in most of his films.

DH: Right, he used a few of them over and over again, like William Demarest is the most famous one, who to a later generation, was known as the old uncle or whatever on My Three Sons.

SVW: Yes. Well, we were talking about the earlier about how romantic comedies today, if they're not pure screwball comedies or pure romantic comedies from the golden era of Hollywood. They still have elements from the older films.

DH: They do. And I think it would be useful to you know, we talked we kind of lump these together, you know, Romantic comedies and screwball comedies. Well, what's the difference? Because they’re both comedies and they both involve romance and usually romance where that the couple doesn't like each other and then they get together at the end or whatever. I read an interesting definition, it’s really simple: Romantic comedies are primarily about the romance. So they're not too wild and crazy. Whereas screwball comedies emphasize the comedy. While still having the romance.

SVW: And you see that in particular with the miracle of Morgan's Creek with Preston Sturges having all the, you know, having the male lead have all these pratfalls and not just the male lead but the father character, the William Demars characters, constantly doing pratfalls. And so there's a lot of slapstick comedy involved as well.

DH: Yeah. I mean, you know, if you think about a good contrast to be something like…four movies I can think of with Cary Grant to them. Maybe the most famous actor of screwball of romantic comedies. The Philadelphia Story which is very famous, you know, with Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Katharine Hepburn. But then, here's another movie with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant two years earlier, bringing up baby.

Now, the Philadelphia story is the sort of sophisticated story about these people and mostly takes place on her estate, you know, and it's a romantic triangle. Will she fall for the new guy, Jimmy Stewart? or will she get back together with her divorced husband, Cary Grant? And there’s a lot of witty dialogue and all that bringing up babies, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn basically running around the woods at night chasing a leopard. And there isn't as much emphasis on the sweetness of the romance.

[Clip from The Philadelphia Story]

DH: The one we started the show with, His Girl Friday - That is a screwball comedy, right. And one of its features and something that I think we don't see much of anymore is unbelievably fast dialogue.

SCW: That's right. Fast dialogue, physical comedy, man versus woman. It's all wrapped together.

DH: Yes.

SVW: So it's not you. It's like the battle between the sexes is really verbal.

DH: Yeah, very much so. Very witty. And the dialogue is so well written. It's so interesting and we don't see that as much now, partly for good reasons. Right? Now, movies tend to be a little more realistic. We want to see want to feel like these are real people talking, not a script they’re reading really fast.

SVW: But also screwball comedies, it's satirize love story as opposed to romantic love story. Purely romantic love story. There is city versus country, upper versus lower class but also decency versus indecency, which you see in the Miracle of Morgan's Creek and others as well. In terms of playing around with the sexual mores of the day.

DH: Well, yeah, on The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. You know, under the production code, was going into an incredibly taboo area. It's amazing that they managed to do it because the story about a girl who has a one-night fling with a soldier before he goes off to war, doesn't even remember who he was and gets pregnant. Those are all not allowed in the movie and under the production code, she would have to be a bad character if you're gonna honestly portray that and she would have to pay for that.

But she is the heroine in the movie and she ends up marrying the hapless hero by the end of the movie through a huge, you know, complicated set of circumstances. So they managed to do something that really was not allowed to the production code and sort of sneak it in.

SVW: And they also, we should mention, not only is it a one night stand with somebody that she doesn't remember, it’s somebody she married as well and doesn't remember.

So it's not as if she was a single woman and had the one-night stand. She got married to the soldier, who she can't remember who it is, and then gets pregnant.

DH: Yeah, they may have thrown in the married part because maybe the sensors just said, “You can't have or have this one-night stand and then marry the boy next door who she really loves. If she’s going to be pregnant, which they have to show the movie, then you have to say she was married when she got pregnant.” So they just throw that in there and they have find a way to undo it.

[Clip of Miracle of Morgan’s Creek]

SVW: Also there are these elements of the screwball comedy and of course, obviously the romantic comedy, today. Some of the movies in the last like 15 years. The Proposal which was in 2009 with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Uh, Meet the Parents, Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Tory Polo and Blythe Danner.

And you even mention Groundhog Day as being something that would be a kin to a screwball comedy.

DH: It truly is, I mean, right? Groundhog day is really interesting cuz you know, it's a cult classic now. It's a great movie. It has a very interesting idea and in some ways it's kind of science fiction.

But at its core, it follows the basic formula romantic comedy into screwball comedies because so much crazy stuff happens. But, you know, from the start, that Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell are going to fall in love and get married.

SVW: So in closing, what makes the screwball comedy/romantic comedy eternal?

DH: I think because, you know, you see, what you see, what so many of us have dealt with, which is romance is hard. Coming to terms with another person and deciding you want to be together is hard. And we get this kind of make fun of it, play lightly with it but still have it touch our hearts.


David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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