Putting the Screws on Screwball

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1948’s Hazard starts out dramatically enough, with compulsive gambler Paulette Goddard losing a bet to casino owner Fred Clark, to whom she owes mucho bucks, as to whether or not she’ll have to marry him (the stakes they were playing for). That’s already implausible—it’s against the law to coerce someone into marriage—and why does Clark want to marry the flighty Goddard in the first place? She’d be a bad bet (punny punny) as a wife. My hunch is that marriage is code for straight screwing, a means of bedding a dame who won’t give him an eyelash off her eye. No doubt fear of the Production Code turned the situation into matrimonial euphemism. Goddard hightails it, of course, and Clark sends detective Macdonald Carey after her (who thinks it’s only about money, not realizing the marital angle). It’s here that the story takes a screeching turn into comedy, basically squeezing a screwball rom-com out of a noir plot: she escapes, he follows, she again bolts, he catches up and hauls her back. They bicker and snipe and eventually fall in love. When Clark finds out, a big fight ensues; then dick and dame run off with the dough and it’s the end.

The film’s last two-thirds, with Goddard constantly eluding Carey and he always popping up like a stubborn boil, are meant to be fun and disarming—she schemes to get him arrested for kidnapping, he bribes hotel clerks and taxi drivers to identify her, how cute! But the plot is too nasty overall, what with the forced marriage attempt and entrapment by the detective, who, as the above poster notes, resorts to socking the woman in the kisser at one point (she was asking for it, say the other men in the film). Plus there’s the woman’s gambling obsession, a sickness that doesn’t play easily for charm. Goddard’s way of indicating when the compulsion hits her is to open her eyes very wide and stare; although she does look quite fetching when tossing dice, rolling them with a pro’s relish. Even worse is when the detective indulges in amateur analyzing of Goddard’s mania, in standard 1940s-Freudian fashion—everything’s here, down to the bad dad and low self-esteem; all we needed was the penis-envy trauma caused by a rolled-up tip sheet. At least the Production Code saved us from that.

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I get a sense that Hollywood by the 1940s was getting desperate in its romantic comedies. So much seems invested in putting down the woman; it’s The Taming of the Shrew without Shakespearean back-up. You see it in The Philadelphia Story, all about the ‘taming’ of haughty Tracy Lord. I know many classic-era film fans adore this film, but I’ve always found it peculiarly unpleasant, the way so many of its male characters, including Tracy’s own father, gang up on her to set her in her place. Only the very considerable charms of its lead cast keeps this film, leastaways for me, a few degrees above a horror flick. But not even James Cagney’s charms could save for me 1941’s The Bride Came C.O.D., whose idea of fun is to throw Bette Davis into a jail and then onto a cactus; nor could Rosalind Russell save 1945’s She Couldn’t Say Yes, in which her character is actually tricked into marriage by Lee Bowman, an actor whose charm eludes me as much as Goddard eludes Carey. In each case you have an independent, “uppity” woman needing to be taken down a peg or two and a man willing to do what a man’s gotta do to accomplish the same. My gut reaction is always to root for the woman, even though the plot is stacked against her. It’s more than feminine empathy; it’s how no one will leave this poor lady alone and just let her get on with her life her way. Is that so much to ask?

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There’s something a little nasty in romantic/screwball comedy anyway, with its underlying currents of power games and one-upmanship between the sexes. Theodora Goes Wild is a very funny film, but I find its first half, when Melvyn Douglas attempts to ‘liberate’ repressed Irene Dunne, borderline cruel; he basically keeps jerking her chain until she submits to his whims. Which is why the film’s second half, when she turns the tables, is so delicious for me; she runs gloriously amuck and has a grand old time doing so as she brings her man to heel. But Dunne can make you laugh here without also wincing. That was her great comedic screwball gift: her characters could indulge in naked power plays with a genuine warmth, even joy, in their antics (unlike Douglas, whose onscreen persona had a real streak of coldness). Which is why in The Awful Truth, when she shows up at Cary Grant’s fiancée’s home and performs her crazy-lewd musical number to embarrass the hell out of him, you don’t feel sorry for Grant; you envy him (while also laughing your head off). Only real love would be willing to pull out such stops.

Screwball skirts over such power issues with a sense of fantasy and play that’s yet grounded in reality: two people who must finally put aside their differences and get together, since, as Benedick notes in Much Ado About Nothing, “the world must be peopled.” And great screwball comedy makes its women equal to the men. They’re battling over emotional territory, but in a way in which they’re balanced, matched combatants. It’s about staking out shared space, defining feelings for each other, working out a partnership of equals in the give and take of intimacy, dissolving boundaries between individuals to form a couple. It’s why, for instance, The Lady Eve, which really pushes the limits in how its two antagonists try to hurt, deceive, and humiliate each other, can end with the pair tumbling (offscreen) into bed to audience satisfaction; Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda both hold their own, and can come out bruised but smiling.

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But bad screwball has the man dominating the woman, putting her into her place, so that the male both rules and sets the rules. Hence Paulette Goddard getting punched in the face or being subjected to two-dollar Freud. It’s painful and dull to watch, because it’s overtly about power. “Nothing gets as much respect as brute force,” says Carey to Goddard. And their film doesn’t hesitate to hide it, it’s structured as part of the comedy. That kind of power dynamic underlies the unspoken sense of the tenuous in screwball endings, in which the harmony achieved has a taint of the temporary. The couple have reached a truce, but for how long? But Hazard made me wish that Goddard’s character could have shaken off her beau and kept to the open road (she’d at least have avoided a second face smack, right at the finish). She doesn’t so much get her man as get stuck with him.

Goddard the actress also seems stuck here, with a contrived script and character. She has no chemistry with co-star Carey, a placid, unexciting actor who comes across as a trustworthy accountant or baby-sitter. He hasn’t the sexual crackle or speed that screwball demands; and screwball needs that sizzling alchemy between its stars (Gable and Colbert they’re not). Goddard’s also not made up or costumed attractively. In her early scenes her hair is all pulled to one side of her face, with straight, flat bangs that look made of sheet metal. The style is too square and blocky, and Goddard was a mite too old for such severe Art-Decoish lines. She still was a handsome woman, though, with that striking face, its superb bone structure and mischievous eyes highlighted in close-ups. I can see why Charlie Chaplin, Burgess Meredith, and Erich Maria Remarque all fell under her spell.

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As an actress Goddard wasn’t the greatest of talents; her comedy playing is heavy and emphatic, and, like Carey, she lacks lightness and speed (compare her line readings with Russell’s Gatling-gun delivery in The Women). Mainly she’s lively and hard-working, projecting a knowing, throwaway humor that’s also very sexy. She seems down to earth; you sense that she wasn’t taken in by Hollywood’s glitzy madness, but kept some part of herself separate from it. And she has a nice scene in this film, where she’s kind to little Percy Helton, playing a timid hotel clerk who doesn’t like to go outside. Apparently he was once locked up somewhere for many years (not specified whether prison or asylum), so he always stays indoors. He just likes the feeling that he can leave anytime.

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5 Comments

  1. I like your analysis of when screwball works and doesn’t. And in this case, it certainly sounds like it doesn’t. Tracy Lord made have needed to learn some life lessons, but they weren’t the ones everything thought.

    However, I would like to say a word on behalf of Mac Carey. In 1947’s “Suddenly It’s Spring”, a supposed rom-com starring Fred MacMuray and Paulette Goddard, he is the man on the outside and (surprise! surprise!), he brings a deft and fast-on-his-feet comedic strength missing from our apparently bored leads. Movie to movie, you never know what you will find.

    Reply
    • Thanks for letting me know about Macdonald Carey. You’re right on how actors could change from film to film (I find myself reacting differently to Melvyn Douglas in his movies, sometimes put off by him, sometimes admiring his talent).

      From what you indicate, it sounds like “Suddenly It’s Spring” is a screwball that doesn’t work, so now I’m curious to see it–I have something of what might be called an anthropological impulse, to study examples of genre movies and what makes them tick or not. It also seems like Paulette Goddard was not having much luck in her late 1940s rom-com movies, which is too bad. She certainly deserved better.

      Reply
  2. Really insightful post! I agree that the sexual tension between the lead characters and especially how it is portrayed definitely makes or breaks a screwball. I recently wrote a blog post on His Girl Friday if you wish to read at any point. https://charsmoviereviews.wordpress.com/2017/01/13/his-girl-friday-1940/

    Reply
    • Hi and thank you for your comment and also for the link to your post. There’s still so much fertile territory to explore in screwball comedy and how it defines romantic relations. There are still many screwball films that haven’t yet been looked at and written about, to keep us bloggers busy!

      Reply
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