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"

THE HEIRESS

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

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday"

THE TOUGH COOKIE

The liberated woman who can talk, drink, and wisecrack just as quickly as any of the men in her company, and look great doing it. A proto-feminist type, in sharp contrast to the shrinking violets that populated romantic dramas and more typical romantic comedies — then and now.

Examples: Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Claudette Colbert in No Time for Love, Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, Barbara Stanwyk (out of character) in The Lady Eve

Sample dialogue: “Now, get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee: There ain’t going to be any interview and there ain’t going to be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. If I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I’m gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkeyed skull of yours ’til it rings like a Chinese gong!” –His Girl Friday

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby"

THE DIZZY DAME

An enviously free spirit and total knockout, the dizzy dame creates sparks when paired with the Neutered Man-Child (see next page), whom she frees from the shackles of his uptight existence, primarily to enjoy the pleasures of her company. (Repurposed by modern filmmakers into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.)

Examples: Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, Ginger Rogers in Vivacious Lady

Sample dialogue: “There is a leopard on your roof and it’s my leopard and I have to get it and to get it I have to sing.” –Bringing Up Baby

Barbara Stanwyk and Henry Fonda in "The Lady Eve"

THE NEUTERED MAN-CHILD

Meek and often bespectacled, these men lead sheltered lives of introspection and book-reading until they’re knocked off their feet by the tornado of a dizzy dame. Those who can adjust get the girl; those who don’t lose her to The Cad or The Cynical Newspaperman.

Examples: Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth, James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story and Vivacious Lady, Eddie Bracken in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero

Sample dialogue: “You’re certainly a funny girl for anybody to meet who’s just been up the Amazon for a year.” –The Lady Eve

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in "It Happened One Night"

THE CYNICAL NEWSPAPERMAN

Clark Gable makes his first appearance in It Happened One Night on a pay phone, slurring his words and telling his editor exactly where to stick it. This was one of the most durable types of the screwball era — a boozy daily-man whose deification was owed, in no small part, to the fact that so many of the screenwriters who wrote him were, in fact, hard-drinking newspapermen themselves.

Examples: Gable in It Happened One Night and Too Hot to Handle, Cary Grant in His Girl Friday and Wedding Present, Robert Williams in Platinum Blonde, Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year

Sample dialogue: “I never did like the idea of sitting on newspapers. I did it once, and all the headlines came off on my white pants. On the level! It actually happened. Nobody bought a paper that day. They just followed me around over town and read the news on the seat of my pants.” –It Happened One Night

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story"

THE CAD

The slick ladies’ man, totally irresponsible yet totally irresistible. In some films he’s the hero (The Philadelphia Story); in some films he’s the villain (It Happened One Night). But either way, don’t take your eye off him — and don’t leave him alone with the heroine.

Examples: Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story and The Awful Truth, Jameson Thomas in It Happened One Night

Sample dialogue: “In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to what he’s been thinking about all winter.” –The Awful Truth

Claudette Colbert and Walter Connolly in "It Happened One Night"

THE RICH FATHER

The patriarch in charge of our spoiled heiress or man-child heir, the rich father spends much of the picture either shaking his head disapprovingly or roaring at his child disapprovingly, only to soften at the end and show the true goodness in his heart. Oh, and he is usually smoking a cigar.

Examples: Walter Connolly in It Happened One Night, Eugene Pallette in The Lady Eve and My Man Godfrey

Sample dialogue: “I don’t mind giving the government 60% of what I make. But I can’t do it when my family spends 50%!” –My Man Godfrey

Franklin Pangborn in "The Palm Beach Story"

THE FUSSBUDGET

The high-strung would-be authority figure, in charge of some secondary bit of business, who is invariable stymied by our protagonists’ total lack of respect and good manners.

Examples: Franklin Pangborn, in pretty much everything.

Sample dialogue: “Wherever there’s smoke, there must be… somebody smoking.” –Easy Living