Screwball comedies grew out of the Great Depression, when the need for laughs and escapism was high. They generally see a charismatic leading man and leading lady involved in ridiculous or farcical situations, surrounded by a assortment of madcap characters. The usually feature witty rapid-fire dialogue (sometimes so fast that it needs a second or third viewing to catch it all) and elements of physical or slapstick comedy. The heyday of the screwball comedy was the 1930s and 1940s, although the formula has continued to this day.
Something that stands out even today is the strong female presence in these films; the women are feisty, confident and empowered. Sadly, to a Depression-era audience the prospect of seeing an 'uppity' person cut down to size was very appealing, so the films often end with the woman embracing her softer side to agree to marriage. I'd like to think of this as a quirky historical anachronism, but really, is this very different to many modern Hollywood movies?
This little quibble aside, the movies remain hugely entertaining - the dialogue still crackles, and the glamour of the period shines through. They provide a wonderful chance to view some of Old Hollywood finest actors at their sparkling best. Here are a few of the classic screwballs.
It Happened One Night (1934): often recognised as the first screwball comedy, it features Claudette Colbert as a runaway hieress, shadowed by Clark Gable's streetwise journalist; sales of under-shirts plummeted overnight when he took off his shirt to reveal a bare chest.
Fun fact: this was the first movie to win the big five Oscars: best actor, actress, director, screenplay and film.
My Man Godfrey (1936): William Powell plays a down-on-his-luck man who becomes the butler to the wealthy family of spoiled socialite Carole Lombard. Lombard was a leading comedian of her day. She had married and divorced William Powell before they made this film together. She later married Clark Gable, and died in a plane crash while on a tour selling War Bonds, at the tragically young age of 36.
Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936): Gary Cooper inherits a fortune, and all the problems that come with it. The charming, crack-voiced Jean Arthur plays the journalist who is trying to worm her way into his confidence.
Topper (1937): Cary Grant and Constance Bennett play a fun-loving couple who, after a car accident, return as ghosts to help Topper find some fun and freedom in his life.
Bringing Up Baby (1938): features Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and a leopard (that's Baby). Legend has it that filming ran overtime due to the frequent uncontrollable laughter of Grant and Hepburn.
Ninotchka (1939): 'Garbo Laughs!' proclaimed the posters. Greta Garbo plays a stern Russian envoy who is seduced by Paris and Melvyn Douglas.
You Can't Take it With You (1938): The wonderfully lanky and laconic James Stewart plays the heir-apparent to a banking empire, whose life is transformed when he meets the eccentric, fun-loving family of Jean Arthur.
His Girl Friday (1940): Cary Grant is a scheming newspaper editor and Rosalind Russell is his star reporter and ex-wife. Russell and Grant were allowed to ad-lib some of the lines; look out for the Archie Leach joke (Grant's real name)
The Philadelphia Story (1940): It is probably a stretch to call this screwball, but it is a great comedy of the era, as well as chance to see three great screwball stars play off each other: James Stewart, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.
It was later turned into a musical, High Society, with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
The Lady Eve (1941): Aboard an ocean liner, beautiful con artist Barbara Stanwyk sets out to fleece the rich but shy Henry Fonda.
Woman of the Year (1942): The real-life romance between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy was legendary; not surprisingly, their on-screen chemistry is compelling.
To Be or Not To Be (1942): A hammy theatre troupe in Poland outwit the Nazis. It was Carole Lombard's last film, and has since been recognised as one of the best comedies of the time (although its Nazi references drew a mixed reaction on its wartime release.) A remake starring Mel Brooks was produced in 1983.
Some Like it Hot (1959): After witnessing a murder, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis don women's clothing to hide in an all-girl band. Naturally, complications ensue. Marilyn Monroe is luminous as their bandmate Sugar Kane.
Any of your favourites that I've missed?