Always meant to catch up with movies you missed from the maddeningly prolific Spike Lee? Recently discovered Bong Joon-ho, because of the Oscar love, and curious what he did before “Parasite”? Now’s the perfect time to dive into our best directors and most compelling themes, so we’re presenting a weekly Top 7 to steer you in the right direction — and because my Top 7 in any given category won’t be your Top 7, maybe start an argument, too.
Not much good ever came from censorship or the Great Depression, but at least they gave us screwball comedies. The fizzy genre, which had its heyday from the mid-1930s to the early ’40s, owes its existence to both of those midcentury bummers.
The Hays Code was Hollywood’s self-enforced censorship plan, cooked up when “decency leagues” objected to the violence and sex depicted in movies, which were then unrated and often surprisingly racy (such as Hedy Lamarr skinny-dipping in 1933’s “Ecstasy”).
The code, which essentially forbade sex scenes and unpunished villainy, was adopted in 1930 but not widely enforced until 1934, by which time the hammering Americans took in the Depression sent them to the movies in droves for escapist entertainment. (Sound familiar?)
A lot of that entertainment came from movies such as “Bringing Up Baby” and “Holiday,” comedies in which men and women who didn’t have to worry about money spoke very quickly while falling in and out of love. Divorce, still not commonly accepted then, was about as close as screwball comedies got to pressing social issues, but, in retrospect, those fast-talking comedies had plenty to say, particularly about women.
Female protagonists, played by Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck or Katharine Hepburn, almost always drive the action. They’re usually “tamed” in the end (this is pre-feminism, obviously), but coming in an era when most of the big stars were women, screwball comedies put them to great use. And I like to think their characters only pretended to be tamed, anyway.
You could argue that screwball comedies are a century-later update of Jane Austen’s comedies of manners, in which the quick-witted women whom society has little time for work behind the scenes to hold things together (Austen’s witty novels also appeared during a difficult period).
Since they keep the leads apart until the end, there’s no sex in screwball comedies, but they affirm that in a world that is filled with chaos — whether it’s a wayward leopard in “Bringing Up Baby” or a train crammed with trigger-happy hunters in “The Palm Beach Story” — love is worth staying home for.
If you check libraries and online, you may find these titles for free, but all are streaming on services such as Amazon, iTunes and YouTube.
“The Palm Beach Story” (1942)
“Sex always has something to do with it,” Claudette Colbert says as she explains to puzzled husband Joel McCrea why she’s divorcing him mere minutes after we’ve watched them get married. Writer/director Preston Sturges’ laugh riot has it all: vintage shots of Grand Central Station, the peerless McCrea doing his best good-guy-who-can’t-keep-up act, Rudy Vallee as a millionaire goofball named Hackensacker, those deliriously funny hunters, musical dogs and almost every character actor of the black-and-white era in a supporting role. Movies don’t get more perfect than this one. (Colbert’s “Midnight” is another classic, if you can find it anywhere.)
“Bringing Up Baby” (1938)
The title character is a leopard, Cary Grant is an absent-minded scientist and Hepburn is a charming eccentric whose thoughts often derail halfway through a sentence, and the movie puts the “rom” in “romcom” as we spend its entire running time watching Grant figure out exactly why he needs Hepburn in his life.
“The Lady Eve” (1941)
A con artist (Barbara Stanwyck) and her wily father (Charles Coburn) are on a cruise, where they target a naive millionaire played by Henry Fonda, who was never handsomer or more endearing. Stanwyck finds herself falling in love with her prey — so, as in Austen, love and money get all mixed up. (If you’re in a buying mood, there’s a DVD set of seven Sturges movies that includes “Palm Beach,” “Lady Eve” and five other gems.)
“My Man Godfrey” (1936)
One way screwball comedies assured stressed Americans that the rich didn’t have it so great was by depicting them as dopes. It’s hard to know how to read the class struggle in a comedy where a wealthy woman (Carole Lombard) befriends, hires and falls in love with a homeless man (William Powell), but the banter is so much fun that it doesn’t seem to matter.
“His Girl Friday” (1940)
It doesn’t always get categorized as screwball because, like “It Happened One Night” and “Philadelphia Story,” it also fits other genres. But for fast-talking romantic nonsense, I say the Grant/Rosalind Russell/Ralph Bellamy comedy, set in a newspaper office, fits the bill. (It’s a swell chance to see the thankless work of Bellamy, who never met a screen heroine he wasn’t cuckolded by.)
“The Awful Truth” (1937)
In a movie career that only lasted two decades, Irene Dunne starred in an astonishing number of memorable movies (including “I Remember Mama”), but her unique comic talents are best shown off in “The Awful Truth” and “My Favorite Wife,” both opposite Grant. Here, they’re a divorcing couple who show their enduring affection with ridiculous attempts to head off each others’ new relationships.
“Maggie’s Plan” (2015)
Almost every romcom bears the imprint of the screwball years, and some, such as Peter Bogdanovich’s “What’s Up, Doc?,” are practically remakes. But the recent movie most clearly indebted to screwball is Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan,” which stars “Little Women” writer/director Greta Gerwig as an overconfident academic, Julianne Moore as an artist with an unidentifiably cartoonish accent, and Ethan Hawke as arm candy.