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5 Great Screwball Comedies

From Frank Capra to Preston Sturges

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Born during the Great Depression, the screwball comedy had a brief, but dynamic life during the 1930s and 1940s.

Featuring fast-paced dialogue, clashes between the sexes and social classes, and ludicrous situations involving romance, the genre gave such directors as Preston Sturges and Frank Capra the chance to direct some of their greatest films, while allowing actors and actresses to stand toe-to-toe trading one pointed barb after another.

Though it fell out of favor by the mid-1940s, the screwball comedy was a popular genre that produced some all-time classic movies.

1. ‘It Happened One Night’ – 1934

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Of all the films on this list, not one has come to define the genre of screwball comedy more than Frank Capra’s classic It Happened One Night. The film starred Claudette Colbert as a selfish heiress who escapes her tycoon father trying to marry her off to a playboy. While on a bus heading for New York, she meets an out of work reporter who makes her for the missing heiress and senses he’s got the story of the year. As they suffer one mishap after another, Gable and Colbert bicker and jab and eventually fall in love. Sturges’ classic crackled with energy, wit and sharp dialogue, and even managed to push the boundaries when Gable removed his shirt and Colbert showed some leg to stop a passing car. It Happened One Night made a clean sweep of the Oscars in 1934, becoming the first of three movies to win the Big Five Academy Awards.
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2. ‘Bringing Up Baby’ – 1938

Turner Home Entertainment
Though more associated with Westerns and film noir, Howard Hawks found success with several screwball comedies, including this first of five pictures the director made with Cary Grant. Here Grant played a stuffy museum paleontologist whose life turns upside down after meeting a free-spirited heiress (Katharine Hepburn) and losing a valuable dinosaur bone to her dog. A series of increasingly hilarious mishaps ensue, culminating in the two falling in love. While George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story allowed for Grant and Hepburn to trade more barbed dialogue, Bringing Up Baby was a fun, fast-paced romp that became one of the definitive examples of the genre.
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3. ‘The Philadelphia Story’ – 1940

MGM Home Entertainment
Katharine Hepburn launched her comeback after being tagged as box office poison and George Cukor received his second Oscar nomination for directing this energetic screwball comedy that was chock full of snappy dialogue while oozing chemistry between Hepburn and her two male leads, Cary Grant and James Stewart. Hepburn played a brassy socialite torn between her carefree ex-husband (Grant) and an intrepid reporter (Stewart) looking to write an exposé on her wealthy father on the eve of her second marriage. A brilliant sophisticated comedy, The Philadelphia Story showcased all three actors at the top of their game trading one witty barb after another.
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4. ‘The Lady Eve’ – 1941

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Directed by the master of the screwball comedy Preston Sturges, this high-brow battle of the sexes starred Henry Fonda as a shy snake expert and a seeming pushover lured into a card game by trio of con artists who take him for a cool $32,000 while aboard a ship bound for New York. One of the crooks on the ocean liner is the sultry Barbara Stanwyck, who finds herself falling in love with the poor sap despite being in on the con with her father (Charles Coburn) and his partner (Melville Cooper). Meanwhile, the seemingly put-upon Fonda happens to be a bit wiser than originally thought and turns the tables on Stanwyck, breaking her heart in the process. One of the classics of the genre, The Lady Eve features extraordinary chemistry between its two leads.
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5. ‘The Palm Beach Story’ – 1942

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Another from Preston Sturges, this classic starred Joel McCrea as a struggling inventor whose wife (Claudette Colbert) thinks that the only way to help him receive financial backing for his work is to marry someone wealthy. Her rash decision lead to a train trip to Palm Beach, Florida, where she meets a motley assortment of strange characters, while her husband follows and falls for the forlorn sister (Mary Astor) of a rich man who just might be the ticket he need. A satirical masterpiece that poked fun of the idle rich – a popular element in comedies from the 1930s and 1940s - The Palm Beach Story featured Sturges’ typically fast-paced dialogue and pacing, and showcased Colbert in one of her greatest performances.
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