Screwball, the most American subgenre of comedy, is satirical but gentle-satirical. It pulls its punches.
Not about its leads, whom it skewers mercilessly, but about bigger social questions. There is no political consciousness to be found in a screwball comedy, or at least not one with the edge of a critique. Even the Depression-era ribbing of the indolent upper classes in It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey is innocuous, big yucks for the hardhats in the audience who wanted to see their bosses and the big shots on Wall Street who caused The Crash brought down a peg or two. The audience hooted at candy floss socialites and bumbling billionaires and delighted in torn dresses, ruined banquets, and expensive foul-ups but they didn’t want to change anything. To get into a screwball comedy and get along with it, you have to buy into the serene apolitical view of America buzzing around in the background.
For those of us who love America – and I am the subject of restraining orders from the stars, the stripes, and the bald eagle – this is an added appeal of the screwball comedy. It reaffirms our belief in the basic goodness and justness of American life while never quite managing to alienate the cynics. Screwball is the genre anti-Americans can enjoy without self-disgust.
I saw Bringing up Baby on the big screen over the weekend, the first time I’d watched the Howard Hawks picture where movies are made to be seen or at least where they were made to be seen when Bringing up Baby was made in 1938. Sitting behind me in the small arthouse cinema was a middle-aged couple – the husband dyspeptic, the wife just unpleasant – who sniped at every commercial and trailer before the main feature. A cute little ad describing an android phone from the perspective of a child drew the snark, “Typical Americans. They can’t just let their children be children. They have to make them be so… American”. The husband took a particular dislike to a faux indie-short that ended with the proud parents presenting their daughter with a new car on the day she leaves home for university. “Commercialist bullshit. I hope she crashes.”
The wife, instead of squirming at her husband’s nasty prejudices, outdid him. “It would’ve been worse if we’d gone to see Jaws,” he had observed, referring to the other classic movie being screened at the cinema that day. “Then it would’ve been all that sugar-coated American propaganda.” His wife said coolly, “What do you expect? Spielberg’s a Zionist.” (Anti-Americanism and antisemitism are distinct but co-dependent prejudices. I’ve never met an America-hater who didn’t also have a hang up about Jews or Israel.)
Then the movie started and – nothing. All of a sudden, laughter, hoots, cackles, and approving noises for the absurdist set-ups and their irresistible pay-offs. These cynics of the American experience, on guard for anything that smelled of glamorisation or co-option, showed no resistance to a movie that says life is all country getaways and million-dollar cheques. They loved Cary Grant as the affable palaeontologist, Katharine Hepburn as the flirty-forceful spoiled heiress, and her redoubtable maiden aunt (May Robson) forever rebuking unbecoming behaviour. Even the stereotypical Irish drunk – ethnic typing is a sin of the highest order for liberal European audiences – had the couple trilling with laughter.
American pop culture at its most appealing can sway the mind of even the sternest ideologue. Because anti-Americans frequently confuse Americans with America they can be taken in by movies that seem to be mocking the American Dream but which are in fact merely poking fun at American character types (many of which, in fact, come from the movies). Screwball comedies like Bringing up Baby and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House might jab at the petit bourgeois neuroses of their on-the-up New Yorker archetypes but they have nothing to say about the capitalist system in which those characters live and work and build extravagant houses. Even Frank Capra’s output, the closest screwball came to a social conscience, was reluctant to pin the blame for its protagonists’ failings and disillusionments on America. The system was flawed and sometimes good men were done down but this was America, where hard work and decency could propel any man to the top.
Given that screwball coincided with and to some extent sprang from the Great Depression, the genre can seem perversely escapist but in many ways that is the point. Screwball comedies show America not as it was but as it wanted to be: secure, prosperous, and at ease with itself. The cinema of improvement was always a European affectation, imported only by Stanley Kramer and other wearisome Hollywood moralisers, whereas screwball said things were bad but let’s have a drink, a dance, and laugh our troubles away.
Bringing up Baby is as light and fluffy as a cheesecake but with a tart aftertaste of intelligence. It achieves a pitch-perfect interplay between the humour of misunderstanding and the frustration at being misunderstood. Screwball mocks logic because it earns its laughs through wit, sentiment, and absurdity, an aesthetic of the ridiculous that confounds attempts at deconstruction and the imposition of higher meaning. That acerbic overeducated couple behind me might have taken Bringing up Baby for a satire of America but it is nothing of the sort. It’s a love letter to the American way of life; a love letter with laughs.