The American Love Story through the Ages
Too often people wrongly pigeonhole screwball as any comedy with zany components, from films with personality comedians such as the Marx Brothers to the wacky modern comedy styling’s of Jim Carrey. Wes Gehring says, “To clarify the nature and role of screwball comedy, the films of the genre can be examined for five key characteristics of the aforementioned comic antihero: abundant leisure time, childlike nature, basic male frustration (especially in relationship to women), a general propensity for physical comedy, and a proclivity for parody and satire,” (Gehring, p.29). In addition to Gehring’s assertions, the screwball comedy genre can be characterized by a questioning of conventional marriage, mockery of authority and the rich, and lack of rational discourse through our comic antihero protagonist. However, screwball comedies are often confused with populist and romantic comedies. While this confusion is understandable, the genres are, in truth, very different. For example, romantic comedy’s earnestness regarding love, as found in the slow establishment of characters and story to build a strong audience/character connection and provocative adult conversation concerning impassioned conclusions about right and wrong are entirely absent from screwball comedy, and if they were, such sentiments would immediately be subject to satirical rebuke in a screwball comedy. The romantic comedy and the screwball comedy split over four essential questions: “Should the sentimental or the silly be emphasized?”, “Is childishness or adult behavior more acceptable?”, “Who should be the dominating force in a relationship?”, and “How quickly should the story progress?”, while the populist film and the screwball comedy main rupture is over whether the rich or the common man should be presented in a positive light.
The screwball comedy adores the silly. The characters in a screwball comedy frequently act in outlandish and zany ways. They are bored and complacent and are not tied to demanding careers, which is recipe for craziness. With nothing to do, the characters become eccentric and their world becomes crazy. This is truly exemplified in the elevator scene in “Love Crazy” where Isobel steps all over Steve’s face in order to get out of a stuck elevator. Then, Steve suddenly finds his head lodged in the elevator doors and the situation gets out of control. Steve returns to his wife Susan, knowing himself to be in a problematic situation as Isobel is his ex-lover. Such antics and silliness are a hallmark of the genre. Sentimentalism is near-well unheard of; the silly takes over and makes sentiment seem completely wrong in the context of the films. For instance, the scene in My Man Godfrey when William Powell decides to put Carole Lombard into the shower fully dressed and she decides that this act is the height of romance, and she then proceeds to jump up and down on her bed, joyfully spraying water everywhere, accentuates the zany over true emotion. She is portrayed as a rich spoiled brat who has no conception of the real world or maturity. Because she is immature, she cannot truly understand sentiment or true emotion or love and must fill the gap with her crazy conceptions about love and romance. However, romantic comedies paint a very different picture.
In a romantic comedy, romance is one of the most important elements. That being said, sentiment becomes the main focus of a romantic comedy. Indeed, a movie such as Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally could not be called a romantic comedy if love and emotion did not win out in the end. For instance, in the movie You’ve Got Mail, though there are funny moments, sentiment becomes much more important than silliness. The main characters, Kathleen and Joe, are in stable, but not passionate or entirely loving relationships. As such, they look outside of their relationships for emotional fulfillment and find each other. They exchange e-mails, becoming each other’s true emotional outlet and leading to a true understanding of the other person and a deep, sentimental caring. They meet several times during the course of the movie, as rivals in the bookstore business, but they don’t know that the other person is their e-mail pen pal and the person that they were truly looking for until the end of the movie. By that point however, there is no childish silliness to their relationship; instead, there is a deep connection that would be unheard of in a screwball comedy. Another romantic comedy that epitomizes this sentimentalism is Sleepless in Seattle. In the movie, Sam has just lost his wife to cancer and, while deeply upset, has decided that it is time to start dating again. His son can tell that he has no emotional connection to any of the women that he has been dating and calls a radio station to talk about his father’s troubles and how much he wants his dad to find a new wife that he can love. One woman, Annie, is so affected by his story that she instantly wants to meet him. In the end, despite some zany twists and turns, sentiment conquers silliness and Annie and Sam come together at the top of the Empire State Building in an emotional and beautifully sentimental conclusion. Just like in You’ve Got Mail, though the characters only meet at the very end, they instantly make a deep emotional connection. In the last romantic comedy, My Best Friend’s Wedding, the main characters are not star-crossed strangers, but old friends. Julia Robert’s character, Julianne, is a successful, independent woman whose old friend, and ex-lover, Michael, informs her near the beginning of the movie that he is getting married. However, Julianne then realizes that she is truly in love with Michael and devises various, very screwball-esque means of winning him back. However, in a twist that would never occur in a screwball comedy, the heroine and the hero do not end up together. Instead, in a very adult manner, Michael upholds his commitment to his fiancé and marries her because he is truly in love with her and Julianne is left to deal with her emotions on her own. Though the ending is not entirely happy, it is rife with emotion. Michael and his fiancé are truly in love and follow their love, despite Julianne’s attempts to sabotage the wedding. Julianne confesses her love, but realizes that Michael doesn’t love her and that she must accept his feelings. Sentiments abound, and the ending is anything but silly. This focus on sentiment is a defining feature of a romantic comedy.