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Howard Hawks’ 1934 film Twentieth Century featured American stage actor John Barrymore as Oscar Jaffee and a breakout comic performance by Carole Lombard as Lily Garland. Many historians identify this film as the first example of “screwball comedy,” a genre of escapist entertainment popular during the Great Depression and through the 1940s. Some of the most famous screwball titles include Frank Capra’s Academy Award® winner, It Happened One Night (1934), Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941).

In 1930, Hollywood came under the scrutiny of the Hays Code, which imposed firm moral guidelines and restricted how movies could portray sex, crime, drugs, and religion. Screwball emerged as a creative response to the Code, and directors like Hawks, Capra, and Sturges made increased use of innuendo and subtext to create sexual tension. Screwball employed physical comedy, like slapstick and farce, but also featured witty dialogue and sophisticated, upper-class characters. Depression-era audiences welcomed the opportunity to watch the wealthy and privileged behaving with comic lunacy.

Screwball storylines drew upon comedic conventions such as mistaken identity, improbable plot twists, and a battle-of- the-sexes between a mismatched romantic couple. Typically, the male hero lived an ordinary life before meeting a strong woman, often from a higher socioeconomic status, who disrupted his status quo. Hero and heroine were thrown together into a series of comedic adventures, frequently travelling by train, boat, or car. Despite their differences

and conflicts, the couple usually fell in love and married in the final scene. Though many of these elements are still seen in contemporary romantic comedies, the term “screwball” denotes a specific group of films produced in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Twentieth Century established Carole Lombard as one of the great comedy stars of her time. Other popular stars who performed in screwball comedies include Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant, and two of Lombard’s off-screen husbands, William Powell and Clark Gable. These links offer peaks at some classic screwball moments.•


Scenes from the 1934 film Twentieth Century Century/videos.html

It Happened One Night (1934)

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

The Lady Eve (1941)


The character of the fanatical millionaire in On the Twentieth Century, Letitia Primrose, originated by Imogene Coca, was adapted for the musical from the play and film versions, where the character is a man named Matthew J. Wright, played by Etienne Giradot. Giradot, a small, birdlike character actor of Anglo- French parentage, was the only cast member of the original Twentieth Century stage production to appear in the film. Howard Hawks had to be careful with this character and religious jokes, as the Hays Code forbid the ridicule of religion. Joseph Breen, who ran the Hays Office, was most concerned about how audiences would respond to the comic use of Jaffee’s Passion Play, but with the exception of one line, he allowed Hawks to use most of the script. To see Etienne Giradot and the religious jokes that made it past the Hays Office, watch this clip: Twentieth-Century-Movie-Clip-I-Am-a-Baptist-.html


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