The 8 People You Meet in a Screwball Comedy

This week, the Criterion Collection released a sparkling new Blu-ray and DVD edition of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, best known as one of only three movies (along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs) to win all of the Big Five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay. And it swept those awards for good reason: it’s a zippy, fast-talking, sexy gem. But the 1934 smash is also widely acknowledged as the first true “screwball comedy,” a subgenre that would dominate studio comedy for the better part of a decade. And it features an assortment of colorful characters that would be replicated, repurposed, and supplemented throughout the genre’s dominance, and in scores of subsequent homages and tributes. Here’s a brief introduction.

Carole Lombard in "My Man Godfrey"


Claudette Colbert’s Ellie, the heroine of It Happened One Night, is a young rich woman who stubbornly refuses to follow the rules set forth by her family; when the film begins, she’s just married a slick talking society man, against her father’s express wishes, and when he insists she annul the union, Ellie instead sneaks off to New York on a night bus. The headstrong rich girl would become a familiar character in screwball, with her tenacity either softened by her male counterpart (if he’s a Cynical Newspaperman, like Night’s Clark Gable), or toughening up a man in need of it (see “The Neutered Man-Child”).

Examples: Colbert, Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story and Holiday, Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey, Barbara Stanwyk (in character as the title character) in The Lady Eve

Sample dialogue: “I just had the unpleasant sensation of hearing you referred to as my husband.” –It Happened One Night