Scorsese Screens - February 2023
This month TCM is doing a spotlight on screwball comedies. There are 20 titles in all, 18 of them made between 1934 and 1942. Cary Grant appears in seven, Carole Lombard in five. Howard Hawks directed five of the pictures, George Cukor and Preston Sturges directed two each (so did Leo McCarey if you count My Favorite Wife—McCarey prepared the film, was forced to turn it over to Garson Kanin after he was incapacitated by an auto accident, and returned to supervise the editing). Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Morrie Ryskind, Norman Krasna, Philip Barry and Donald Ogden Stewart are among the writers, Gregory La Cava, Wilder, Mitchell Leisen, William Wellman, and Alfred Hitchcock are among the directors, and Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, William Powell, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda are among the stars alongside an army of brilliant bit players and character actors.
The general level of artistry in these pictures is extraordinary, and that includes the art directors, the costume designers and the DPs. What brought the genre into being? In some ways, I suppose it was the depression: like film noir, screwball comedy is a response to a specific moment in time. With the exception of La Cava and Ryskind’s My Man Godfrey, one of the greatest films of the 30s and a favorite of mine, most of the films don’t really deal with the hardships people were enduring at the time. They engage with audiences on a level that seems to come from Shakespearean comedies, and the best of them move so deftly and gracefully that they become airborne. Some would call it “escapist,” but that’s as dismissive a word as “zany,” “frivolous” or “snappy.” Those kinds of clichéd descriptions don’t do justice to the richness of the characters and their emotional complications, the inventiveness of the storytelling, or the level of visual beauty. It’s interesting to consider the pictures in light of each other.
The Hawks titles are the most intricate, the sharpest, the fastest, the craziest. I have a special love for Twentieth Century because of the flamboyant egos of the Barrymore and Lombard characters, and for Monkey Business, made much later (that film is visually very plain and stripped down—everything is expressed in the refinement and exactitude of the staging, the blocking, the body language). The Sturges pictures are like Bruegel canvases, teeming with life. The Cukor adaptations of Philip Barry with Grant and Hepburn are urbane, graceful, maybe the most romantic—they’re more like comedies of manners than screwball. McCarey’s pictures are built improvisationally out of little eccentricities and asides and they move at a leisurely pace. In a way, My Man Godfrey synthesizes all of these different moods and themes and textures—it’s a grand, hilarious film and, for me, a deeply moving one. I’m a little curious about why It Happened One Night and something by Lubitsch aren’t included, but the program offers a very good representation of a genre that is one of the high points of American cinema.