Top 10 Screwball Comedies of the Silver Screen

Posted on September 12, 2016

by April S

My favorite type of film has to be the Screwball Comedy. This subgenre originated during the Great Depression and provided much needed comic relief to the downtrodden citizenry of the time. Despite the tough economic times, movie theaters were frequently packed and screwball comedies weren’t the only types of film that gained popularity. Movies help people escape, at least for a few hours, and we all need that every now and then. Film historians believe screwball comedies of the 30′s and 40′s portrayed the elite as buffoons, which delighted the multitudes of patrons that were significantly less wealthy. Even though the screwball comedy isn’t as popular as it once was, it has endured over the years, because the films offer that great feeling we all know and love – the belly laugh – it comes out of nowhere and takes your breath away. The term screwball comes from the baseball pitch of the same name, which is known for being thrown with a different spin and is usually unexpected. The slang term screwball usually refers to odd or eccentric behavior.

What Exactly is a Screwball Comedy?

Typically, it’s a film that delivers comedy in unexpected ways and is sometimes referred to as a Farce. Films in this comedy subgenre tend to grab the attention of the viewing audience through quick-witted dialogue and usually build their stories around situations that are ridiculous or absurd in nature. Role reversals between the sexes was a common theme in films like “My Man Godfrey” (1936) and “The Lady Eve” (1941), which was quite empowering for women in the 30′s & 40′s. Antagonistic relationships between the sexes was also a common motif in screwball comedies. In the films “His Girl Friday” (1940) and “It Happened One Night” (1934) the main characters start out with strained relationships to say the least, but inevitably by the end the audience realizes it must be love with such passionate emotions present.

Watch These Great Screwball Comedies of the Silver Screen

1. My Man Godfrey (1936) | 5★


A landmark screwball comedy from Hollywood’s golden age, “My Man Godfrey” follows the madcap antics of a ditzy debutante who stumbles upon a “forgotten man” at the city dump. Determined to help Godfrey out, she offers him work in her household and he soon becomes the perfect butler for her eccentric family. As the family’s antics grow increasingly more absurd, it is only a matter of time before Godfrey’s secret past is revealed. This timeless comedy classic was the first film ever to receive Academy Award nominations in all four acting categories. Based on the novel “My Man Godfrey by Eric Hatch. Directed by Gregory La Cava. Starring Carole Lombard and William Powell.

Also available in digital video: Overdrive

2. It Happened One Night (1934) | 5★

A rich young woman marries an idle playboy against her father’s will. Her father holds her captive on his yacht but she escapes and, while on her way to New York, becomes entangled with an unemployed news reporter. The first movie to win all 5 major Academy Awards in 1934 – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. Based on the plot of the 1933 short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams. Directed by Frank Capra. Starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable.

3. Bringing Up Baby (1938) | 5★


A giddy heiress is determined to win the affections of a serious zoologist, until her dog steals his dinosaur fossil. Based on the short story of the same name by Hagar Wilde. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

4. His Girl Friday (1939) | 5★


A newspaper editor and his ex-wife star reporter exchange verbal insults in his effort to keep her on the job by offering her a prison story scoop. Based on the play “The front page,” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

Also available in digital video: hoopla | OverDrive

5. The Lady Eve (1941) | 5★

A conniving father and daughter meet up with the heir to a brewery fortune — a wealthy but naïve snake enthusiast– and attempt to bamboozle him at a cruise ship card table. Their plan is quickly abandoned when the daughter falls in love with their prey. But when the heir gets wise to her gold-digging ways, she must plot to re-conquer his heart. Based on a story by Monckton Hoffe. Written and directed by Preston Sturges. Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

6. The Philadelphia Story (1940) | 5★

A sophisticated romantic comedy about a rich, spoiled socialite who learns some things about who she is and what she really wants on the eve of her second marriage. Based on the play of the same name by Philip Barry. Directed by George Cukor. Starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart and John Howard.

7. You Can’t Take It With You (1938) | 5★


Comedy about the Sycamores, an eccentric family of free spirits, and the problems that arises when Alice, the one stable member, falls for her boss’s son. Based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director in 1938. Directed by Frank Capra. Starring Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore and James Stewart.

8. Harvey (1950) | 5★

Comedy about a good-natured fellow whose constant companion is a six-foot tall invisible rabbit. His sister is determined to marry her daughter off and decides to commit her brother to a mental hospital to get him out of the way. Due to a mix-up the sister is committed instead, and it is up to the kindly brother and his imaginary friend to straighten things out! Based on the play of the same name by Mary Chase. Directed by Henry Koster. Starring James Stewart, Josephine Hull and Charles Drake.

Also available in digital video: hoopla

9. The Man Who Came To Dinner (1941) | 4.5★

Famed author Sheridan Whiteside possesses a tongue dipped in venom and a brain that can crack The New York Times crossword in four minutes. On a lecture tour in Ohio, he slips on the ice and is confined to the home of a bourgeois couple. He proceeds to plunge the household into chaos, ruling the place like a czar and meddling in everyone’s love life. Based on the play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Directed by William Keighley. Starring Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan and Monty Woolley.

10. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) | 4★


An easy going drama critic discovers that his kind and gentle Aunts Abby and Martha have a bizarre habit of poisoning gentlemen callers and burying them in the cellar. Based on the play of the same name by Joseph Kesselring. Directed by Frank Capra. Starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane and Raymond Massey.

Notable B-Movie Selections from the Silver Screen

Icons of Screwball Comedy (Volume one)

“If You Could Only Cook” (1935) – A down-on-her-luck cook charms a millionaire into playing along as her husband so they can get work. Directed by William A. Seiter. Starring Herbert Marshall and Jean Arthur.

“Too Many Husbands” (1940) – A woman finds herself legally wed to two men. Based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham. Directed by Wesley Ruggles. Starring Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas.

My Sister Eileen (1942) – A writer, who has a pretty, younger sister, brings a host of eccentrics through their Greenwich Village apartment. Based upon the play by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov ; adapted from the stories by Ruth McKenney and produced on the stage by Max Gordon. Directed by Alexander Hall. Starring Rosalind Russell and Brian Aherne.

“She Wouldn’t Say Yes” (1945) – A button-down psychiatrist battles her patient’s impulses while suppressing her own. Directed by Alexander Hall. Starring Rosalind Russell, Lee Bowman and Adele Jergens.

Icons of Screwball Comedy (Volume two)

“Theodora Goes Wild” (1936) – A small-time author whose racy bestsellers, written under a pseudonym, bring her notoriety when a New Yorker discovers her secret. Based on the original story by Mary McCarthy. Directed by Richard Boleslawski. Starring Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas.

“Together Again” (1944) – The mayor’s widow falls for a sculptor as he works on a statue of her late husband. Directed by Charles Vidor. Starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.

“The Doctor Takes a Wife” (1940) – A feminist writer is forced to pretend she’s married to a man whom she loathes. Directed by Alexander Hall. Starring Loretta Young and Ray Milland.

“A Night to Remember” (1942) – A woman and her mystery writer husband take an apartment in Greenwich Village and almost immediately find themselves in the middle of a genuine murder case. Directed by Richard Wallace. Starring Loretta Young and Brian Aherne.

Learn More About Screwball Comedies


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