The turn of the screwball

There was a time when the word ‘screwball’ conjured up a plastic cone of cheap ice cream with a ball of chewing gum at the bottom.  Mine were served to me by Anita, the young woman who once got bollocked by our headmaster for exploiting us kids by parking her ice cream van at the school gates every lunch time. He didn’t know we wanted to be exploited by Anita… and that it was more about her hotpants and pigtails than her ice cream.

It was all there: the taste of the forbidden, incipient sexual attraction in denial and the chasm between, sprinkled with the hundreds and thousands of absurdity. I was an 11 year-old boy and Anita was a really old woman (possibly in her 20s!) – it was not to be.

It was only later, when I was as ancient as Anita, that I discovered a different kind of screwball: a bunch of romantic comedy satires mainly made in the 1930s. Films like His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth, Nothing Sacred, My Man Godfrey, The Shop Around The Corner and It Happened One Night.

These are ‘sex comedies without the sex’, of course, but they do several very specific things: they are always about a couple who sublimate loving for fighting, there’s always some kind of social barrier to them being together, they are always about a kooky, chaotic woman who destroys the well-ordered, logical world of an uptight man and makes him more human in the process. And the dialogue is always razor sharp, ultra-witty and delivered at high speed.

Screwball is often confused with romantic comedy, but the two are quite distinct. Screwball is a parody of romcom. Screwball characters fall in love, of course, but they don’t make a big deal out of it: no big speeches, no earnest entreaties, no passionate climaxes. They just admit they’re in love and carry on arguing. Screwball satiriseslove. (Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked it).

This is why When Harry Met Sally is a romcom, not a screwball. It dances around in Screwball’s shoes for a long time, but in the end it kicks them off and goes for the great big earnest climax (I love that film, but I hate that ending). As Wes D. Gehring puts it, ‘The screwball genre always accents the silly over the sentimental.’

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day tries damned hard to dance in Screwball’s shoes. Amy Adams takes her charmingly deluded princess character from Enchanted and turns it all the way up to 11 as Delysia Lafosse, an airhead socialite It Girl stringing three guys along and dreaming of making it big on the stage. Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell would approve.  She is a scat-brained force of nature.

But whereas in a proper screwball, she would be the catalyst for change in others, in this film she is the one who needs to make a fateful decision: to choose true love over career advancement. Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell would definitely not approve.

In fact, while Miss Pettigrew looks like a classic 30s Screwball comedy, it’s not really about a man and a woman fighting in love at all: it’s about two women coming together to change each other’s lives on a single fateful day.

The fact that it veers from the screwball template doesn’t mean it is somehow wrong, or an indication of bad screenwriting. It isn’t. Genres change and adapt and merge. I’m more interested in looking at how it differs from the classic screwball it appears to be at first glance in order to understand the process a bit more.

Blake Snyder‘s Story Types are useful here. All screwballs, along with all romcoms and a great many more genres fall into the Buddy Love story type. But Miss Pettigrew seems to be more of a Fool Triumphant story, with Frances McDormand playing the gauche outsider who accidentally finds herself in a highly superficial world and becomes its master through her natural talent for honesty.

By placing so much emphasis on this strand, the screwball element is diluted. Plus, Miss Pettigrew is anything but satirical about love, even though it likes to dress up in Screwball’s clothes.

This is most obvious in the show-stopping central duet, If I Didn’t Care. Ignoring the fact that no singer in 1939 would have sung it like that without being kicked out of the door and their performance seems to have somehow been beamed in from 20 or 30 years in the future,   this is the moment where the kookiness gives way to heartfelt emotion.

It seems that the only thing up for satire in this film is false love, not true love.

What I said last week about an audience’s need to feel certain emotions is relevant here.      Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day works because, despite all its uncertainty with genre and its atrocious  anachronistic murdering of the music I love, it delivers emotions that an audience wants to feel.

Would it be over-stating things to draw parallels between its Depression-era rags to riches tale of hope and the Credit Crunched market in which it finds itself?

Maybe not.

It’s definitely no Screwball, but it’s fun, sweet and  a pleasant enough diversion.   A bit like the ones Anita used to serve up.

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