The Screwball Comedy Is The Original Rom-Com

            Before we had sprawling, romantic films like The Notebook and Titanic, Hollywood was rolling out what is known today as the screwball comedy. These films dominated the industry from the early 1930s to the early 1940s, a decade most often referred to as the rise of Hollywood studios and “talkies.”

            The screwball comedy distinguished itself by having a female character that dominated the relationship between themself and the central male character. This dominance causes the male character to question their own masculinity through the duo engaging in humorous hijinks and a “battle of the sexes.” Throughout the film, the female is the first to realize their feelings for the other, while the male is oblivious and unaware. Typically, the female and male characters are also of different social classes, which adds another layer of conflict and humour.

            A major characteristic of the screwball comedy is fast-paced, overlapping dialogue. A perfect example of this is in Bringing Up Baby when Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn’s characters, David and Susan, first meet. The two are constantly talking over each other and even represent this nature through their physicality. They are frequently walking right on each other’s heels, imitating the way they talk to one another.

            Of course, when talking about romance in a film of this time period, one must also bring up the marriage plotlines. Marriage, and oftentimes even remarriage, is constant throughout these films. In It Happened One Night, which is credited as being the first screwball comedy, Claudette Colbert’s Ellie Andrews has just eloped with a man her father disapproves of. She then runs away and meets Clark Gable’s Peter Warne, a news reporter who just lost his job. By the end of the film, they realize they love each other so Ellie annuls her marriage and goes off with Peter.

            Although screwball comedies seem to have fizzled out by the 1940s, there are still modern reincarnations. As mentioned, this genre is the basic footprint for recent romantic comedies, so films such as She’s Funny That Way and Death at a Funeral follow in the shadow left by the classics that started it all.


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