The screwball comedy is a principally American genre of comedy film that became popular during the Great Depression, originating in the early 1930s and thriving until the early 1940s. The elements of Screwball encompass the following:

  • Has secondary characteristics similar to the film noir, but distinguishes itself for being characterized by a female that dominates the relationship with the male central character, whose masculinity is challenged.
  • generally feature a self-confident and often stubborn central female protagonist
  • The male and female engage in a humorous battle of the sexes
  • Slapstick
  • Fast-paced repartee
  • Farcical situations
  • Escapist themes
  • Plot lines involving courtship and marriage
  • Often depict social classes in conflict
  • Can be described as “a sex comedy without the sex.”
  • Often involve mistaken identities or other circumstances in which character(s) try to keep some important fact a secret.

Like farce, screwball comedies often involve mistaken identities or other circumstances in which a character or characters try to keep some important fact a secret. Sometimes screwball comedies feature male characters cross-dressing, further contributing to the misunderstandings (Bringing Up Baby (1938) I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and Some Like It Hot (1959)). They also involve a central romantic story, usually in which the couple seem mismatched and even hostile to each other at first, but eventually overcome their differences in an amusing or entertaining way that leads to romance. Often this mismatch comes about because the man is much further down the economic scale than the woman (Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, both 1938). The final romantic union is often planned by the woman from the outset, while the man doesn’t know at all. Bringing Up Baby contains a rare statement on that, when the leading woman says, once speaking to someone other than her future husband: “He’s the man I’m going to marry, he doesn’t know it, but I am.”

These pictures also offered a kind of cultural escape valve: a safe battleground on which to explore serious issues like class under a comedic (and non-threatening) framework. Class issues are a strong component of screwball comedies: the upper class tend to be shown as idle and pampered, and have difficulty getting around in the real world. The most famous example is It Happened One Night; some critics believe that this portrayal of the upper class was brought about by the Great Depression, and the poor moviegoing public’s desire to see the rich upper class taught a lesson in humanity. By contrast, when lower-class people attempt to pass themselves off as upper-class, they are able to do so with relative ease (The Lady Eve, 1941).

Another common element is fast-talking, witty repartee (You Can’t Take It With You (1937) and His Girl Friday (1940)). This stylistic device did not originate in the screwballs (although it may be argued to have reached its zenith there): it can also be found in many of the old Hollywood cycles including the gangster film, romantic comedies, and others.

Screwball comedies also tend to contain ridiculous, farcical situations, such as in Bringing Up Baby, in which a couple must take care of a pet leopard during much of the film. Slapstick elements are also frequently present such as the numerous pratfalls Henry Fonda takes in The Lady Eve (1941).

One subgenre of screwball is known as the comedy of remarriage, in which characters divorce and then remarry one another (The Awful Truth (1937), The Philadelphia Story (1940)). Some scholars point to this frequent device as evidence of the shift in the American moral code as it showed freer attitudes about divorce (though the divorce always turns out to have been a mistake).

The philosopher Stanley Cavell has noted that many classic screwball comedies turn on an interlude in the state of Connecticut (Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth).