My Favorite Screwball Comedies

The Palm Beach Story (1942, directed by Preston Sturges)

From my review: This is the ur-text of screwball comedies, every core element boiled down to its purest essence. There are pratfalls galore, windows getting smashed, and people confusing each other for others. It exists as both an ode to the comedies of mixed-up identities from Shakespeare and commentary on the late stages of the Great Depression. This film will inspire future pictures like Some Like It Hot and Intolerable Cruelty, but it doesn’t put on airs of being profound or world-changing. This is a pure character-centered comedy that understands how important it is to have a diverse variety of roles.

Some Like It Hot (1959, directed by Billy Wilder)

From my review: Some Like It Hot holds no pretense about being a farce. This is the same vein of comedy found in sitcoms like Laverne & Shirley or Three’s Company, where characters get in a situation and only further complicate it by refusing to be upfront and honest. It’s a very classic structure that, when done competently, is a fun comedic puzzle, the audience trying to figure out how they will get out of this situation […] The intensely sexual nature of the film challenged the notions of the Hays Code, the censorship system in place at the time. Wilder didn’t care and released the movie without their approval, and as a result, this movie was one of the pictures responsible for invalidated the whole censoring system.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963, directed by Stanley Kramer)

This was one of the earliest comedies I remember seeing back when my parents would rent a VCR for the weekend from our local video store. It’s so bold, loud, and over the top, ultimately devolving into a complete and total mess of a story, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. A just-released convict crashes his car on a California state route, and five motorists stop to help him. The dying gangster tells them about $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park under “a big W.” This sets off a madcap race to the money as these five motorists let their secret slip, and the crowd of people searching for the cash grows. The cast is a collection of movie and television stars of the time, both veterans and up and coming: Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Spencer Tracy, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers, the list goes on. The movie may go on longer than it needs to, clocking in at 3 and ½ hours, but that first half and the final chase in the park are comedy gold.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966, directed by Richard Lester)

From my review: Pseudolus (Zero Mostel) is a slave in ancient Rome who enjoys gambling and disobeying his masters of the House of Senex. His son of his masters, Hero (Michael Crawford), is in love with a woman he has spied only from his bedroom window at the brothel next door. Pseudolus sees this as an opportunity to gain his freedom and makes this the reward if he can get Hero’s dream girl for him. What follows is a farce of class and society filtered through the lens of the satires of Roman playwright Plautus and the vaudeville schtick of Jewish comedians. The whole production is directed by English filmmaker Richard Lester who was hot off of The Beatles’ Help! and British sex farce The Knack…and How to Get It. All of this makes for some very wild cinema.

Raising Arizona (1987, directed by Ethan & Joel Coen)

Two filmmakers carrying on the tradition of the screwball comedy are the Coen Brothers who have been injecting elements of Preston Sturges into their comedies since this, their second feature film. Raising Arizona manages to be an original by injecting atmospheric bits of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor into the script. The result is one of the highest energy comedies of the 1980s, helped by the fantastic cinematography of Barry Sonnenfeld. The central protagonist of HI (Nicolas Cage) is a revolving door convict who develops a romance with the officer who takes his mugshots, Ed (Holly Hunter). They decide to kidnap one of the “Arizona Quints,” babies born to a famous local furniture salesman. The baby’s abduction sets off a series of wild episodes that involve two escape inmate pals of HI’s and a motorcycle-riding bounty hunter.

Flirting With Disaster (1996, directed by David O. Russell)

I am never sure if I am a fan of director David O. Russell. He seems like a remarkably unpleasant man, but every once in a while, he makes a movie that I love. Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller) was adopted as a child and has just had his first one with wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette). This spurs on a desire to find his biological parents and aided by Tina (Tea Leoni), an incompetent adoption agency employee he sets off on a cross country journey pursuing false leads before finally meeting his birth parents. They are played by Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin, who end up being much more than they seem. More supporting characters are brought into the story only to complicate circumstances, and it all culminates into a hilariously chaotic finale.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003, directed by Joel Coen)

If ever there was a reincarnation of Preston Sturges’s movies, it would be Intolerable Cruelty. It didn’t start as an ode to the classic screwball comedy but was the Coen brothers’ first work for hire gig. The film was always intended to be a big-budget movie star vehicle with Hugh Grant, and Julia Roberts attached. The Coens weren’t planning on directing, but after a project fell through, their schedule opened up. When all was said and done, George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones were the leads, and they are perfect in the roles. The reality of Intolerable Cruelty is heightened with the sort of supporting characters you would expect to see if this film had been made in the 1930s/40s. My personal favorite is Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadary), who steals the show during the courtroom sequence near the middle of the picture.

The Baxter (2005, directed by Michael Showalter)

The State’s Michael Showalter wrote, directed, and stars in this film, which is a deconstruction of the screwball genre. The term “baxter” is defined within the movie as the nice but dull guy in a romantic comedy who gets dumped. Elliot Sherman (Showalter) is a tax accountant in Brooklyn who has been left at the altar three times by women who rekindled romances with ex-boyfriends whom they were meant to be with. His current fiancee (Elizabeth Banks) has just been reunited with her ex (Justin Theroux), and it looks like Elliot may be about to experience it all over again. However, a temp secretary Cecil (Michelle Williams), comes into Elliot’s life, and the plot he’s followed begins to look like it will change. The Baxter is a cleverly written film that never devolves into outright parody but remains playful with the genre tropes.

One thought on “My Favorite Screwball Comedies”

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