Representations of the Rich in Screwball Comedy

The Great Depression of 1929 had tremendous consequences upon aspects of American society throughout the 1930s. American cinema was one area affected. It reacted to America’s social turmoil by depicting the Great Depression in various ways, whether it be tragic or humorous. One genre within American cinema to emerge from the Great Depression was Screwball Comedy, which usually contained farcical situations along with romantic or confrontational aspects between characters.

Screwball Comedies were socially conscious of the Great Depression. A motif of Screwball Comedy regarding the Great Depression was representing rich characters humorously at their expense. This motif has been referred to as an “anarchistic disdain for traditional institution and conventions” [1]. The rich characters being conveyed and ridiculed through their ridiculous, bizarre or antagonistic behavior caused delight for American movie-goers who had suffered harsh setbacks. Screwball Comedy according to Nicholas Laham was “designed to provide depression-weary audiences a welcome diversion from the harsh economic realities” [2]. Those who wrote and directed Screwball Comedies which dealt with the Great Depression understood American movie-goers’ plight. Therefore American movie-goers had the chance to enjoy Screwball Comedies as they criticised and ridiculed the rich characters’ wealth and power.

My Man Godfrey (1936)

The Bullocks having a regularly chaotic episode. Mrs Bullock's protegé in the foreground acts as the family clown.
The Bullocks having a regular chaotic episode. Mrs Bullock’s protegé in the foreground acts as the family clown.

My Man Godfrey is regarded as an important Screwball Comedy film in terms of American social context. Anne Burke states it reflects a theme where “to be poor was to be better, to be rich was to be out of touch” [3]. My Man Godfrey, being recognised as criticising the rich, underlines the Screwball Comedy motif of rich characters as people to despise and laugh at. Godfrey the “forgotten man” becomes the Bullocks family butler after he is found by sisters Irene and Cornelia during a scavenger hunt. The scavenger hunt contained maximum points for finding a “forgotten man”. The “forgotten man” referred to men who were unemployed and had no financial stability during the Great Depression. Godfrey agrees to be Irene’s “forgotten man” to address the scavenger hunt’s rich participants as a “bunch of empty-headed nitwits”. This is a direct criticism of the rich characters’ attitudes towards the poor which American movie-goers would have appreciated, siding with Godfrey at his disgust for those who saw the poor as objects.

Godfrey’s main problem as the Bullocks family butler is Cornelia’s antagonism. Cornelia as a spoiled rich woman thought herself superior to Godfrey, resulting in witty exchanges between the two. When Cornelia asks Godfrey on his day off will they be friends, Godfrey replies “on my day off I should have the privilege of choosing my friends”. This personifies the humorous exchanges between Godfrey and Cornelia. Although Cornelia has the upper hand regarding her social position, Godfrey is capable of outwitting her. This continues the motif of letting American movie-goers vicariously live through Screwball Comedy narratives, reveling in Godfrey’s witty comebacks at the expense of snobbish Cornelia.

My Man Godfrey as a Screwball Comedy also ridicules its rich characters for their eccentricities with humor. Mrs Bullock suffering from a hangover whilst thinking she sees pixies, Irene’s whimsical behavior when she wants Godfrey’s attention and Mrs Bullock’s bizarre protegé who is simply the family clown to amuse them accumulates a hectic household. Their eccentricities are always seen from Godfrey’s perspective, therefore these eccentricities are mocked as American movie-goers sympathised with Godfrey as they related to the “forgotten man”.

Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936)

Wealthy Antagonist attempting to influence Longfellow Deeds for his inheritance. This showed Deeds' gradual disgust for the rich's sheer greed and indifference.
Wealthy Antagonist attempting to influence Longfellow Deeds for his inheritance. This showed Deeds’ gradual disgust for the rich’s sheer greed and indifference.

Mr Deeds Goes To Town in a social context denies its characters “a place of retreat from the world” [4]. This reflects Mr Deeds Goes To Town as evoking its characters’ conflicts with the Great Depressions’ consequences upon American society. These consequences transcended into Screwball Comedy’s motif of challenging conventions of the rich, which Mr Deeds Goes To Town personifies through Longfellow Deeds’ actions. He is a modest rural man who enters a large inheritance following the death of a distant Uncle. Deeds joins New York’s wealthy social elite, who greatly appall him with their indulgent parties. Deeds as a result decides to give away his inheritance to those who need it. Deeds’ realisation of New York’s wealthy social elite being amoral also came through his encounter with a distraught farmer, who calls Deeds a “money grabbing hick”. Deeds responds by offering the farmer money, which begins Deeds’ plan to give away his fortune. This scene emphasises Screwball Comedies’ serious tone in representing the farmer’s distraught behavior as a result of the rich’s sheer greed and indifference.

However it is not a straight forward task as Deeds’ Uncle’s widow employs the executive of his estate to declare Deeds insane. Like the eccentric Bullocks of My Man Godfrey, the Uncle’s widow is a character to be laughed at. She is depicted as a complete air-head incapable of attempting to claim the inheritance on her own conveyed through her lack of knowledge on anything other than sheer greed. Her bizarre characteristics of an annoyingly high-toned voice and simple-mindedness as she tries to comprehend her plan with fellow antagonist Cedar makes her laughable. This transcends upon representations of the rich in Screwball Comedy as humorous for the sake of American movie-goers.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Peter and Ellie engaged in conflicts of class. These conflicts underlined the divide between America's rich and poor during the Great Depression.
Peter and Ellie engaged in conflicts of class. These conflicts underlined the divide between America’s rich and poor during the Great Depression.

It Happened One Night has been described as a mixture of “social realism and generational, sexual and economic conflict resolved in terms confronting conventional authority” [5]. The mixture of social realism and economic conflict (relevant to It Happened One Night) makes light of the rich’s self-worth. This is underlined when spoiled socialite Ellie escapes from the controlling grasp of her Father Alexander, who uses his wealth not only to control Ellie but to instigate a national media campaign to find her. In her escape Ellie meets Peter, who confronts her spoiled attitude. Peter watches amusingly at Ellie asking a bus driver to wait for her as she will not be back in time for its departure. American movie-goers were meant to be amused like Peter when he witnesses Ellie’s shock reaction in realising the bus has left, Ellie’s spoiled upbringing backfires on her for comic amusement. Ellie’s behavior being her undoing was not only for the amusement of Peter and American movie-goers. It also established It Happened One Night as a Screwball Comedy which challenges conventions of the rich who enjoy everything their way.

This is emphasised when Peter takes Ellie under his guidance which reflects criticism of her upbringing, telling her “you’re on a budget from now on”. Peter’s stance on Ellie’s finances underlines his disgust at her behavior, similar to Deeds’ disgust at New York’s wealthy social elite because financial self-indulgence had caused divisions between America’s rich and poor. It Happened One Night was continuing its challenge of conventions relating to the rich, helping American movie-goers in their vicarious experience. Despite Peter’s stern teaching Ellie still shows effects of her spoiled upbringing, shocked by having to use outdoor facilities before automatically walking straight to the front of the shower queue. Ellie is rightly laughed at by others as she disturbs a woman showering and walks embarrassingly to the back of the queue. Once again It Happened One Night turns Ellie into an amusing figure whose attitudes of self-worth are rightly ridiculed. The same can be said for Alexander whose use of wealth is simply to control Ellie and others for his own gain. He bosses around other people to make sure his message of Ellie’s return is presented throughout America. Like the antagonists in Mr Deeds Goes To Town, Alexander’s characterisation was to disgust American movie-goers at rich people’s selfish attitudes.

She Married Her Boss (1935)

Julia instilling moral lessons to a spoilt Annabel. She Married Her Boss conveyed Julia as justified in her actions, personifying her as a defiant American majority insulted by the rich's attitudes.
Julia instilling moral lessons to a spoiled Annabel. She Married Her Boss conveyed Julia as justified in her actions, personifying her as a defiant American majority insulted by the rich’s attitudes.

The conflict between Julia and Annabel is primarily the representation of the rich in She Married Her Boss. Bernard F. Dick states this conflict was conveyed as “contempt for privilege” [6], emphasising She Married Her Boss as targeting the rich’s self-worth. Julia becomes Annabel’s step-mother following her marriage to her boss Richard Barclay. Julia enters the Barclay household as a working class woman, coming under scrutiny from Annabel because she is a horribly behaved child and also feels superior over Julia. Annabel acts out when she does not receive the toy she wants or determined not to go to bed when told. Annabel receives her comeuppance when Julia spanks her. The spanking scene is conveyed with hilarity as Richard shows his satisfaction through facial expressions that his “problem child” is finally being punished. The spanking scene is not only conveyed with hilarity but also a sense of relief felt by American movie-goers to see a spoiled brat punished for her selfish attitude, whereas millions of Americans could not afford the luxuries Annabel complains about. Richard’s behavior on a smaller scale is also mocked. Richard is conveyed as living a pampered lifestyle where his main worries are his cook’s poor qualities or how his servants should be running the Barclay household. Richard can be seen as an arrogant nuisance whose attitudes have come from his riches, a criticism on the same level as Ellie’s arrogance, New York’s wealthy social elite and the Bullocks’ indulgent lifestyles.

Screwball Comedies in representing the rich always evoked direct challenges against those who used their fortune for self-interest in spite of the Great Depression’s grip on American society. Screwball Comedies ridiculing the rich in their eccentricities or spoiled behavior was to delight American movie-goers, whose experiences with the Great Depression was too harrowing. Therefore to laugh at the rich helped ease their experiences. Since Screwball Comedies occupied a farcical world where madness could ensue, aiming at the rich characters’ wealth and power for criticism and ridicule certainly enhanced American movie-goers living vicariously through these films. It is little wonder Screwball Comedy surged as a genre within American cinema during the Great Depression.

Works Cited

[1] Anonymous., (2014). ‘Hollywood and the Great Depression’. Digital History. [Online]. Available from:   http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/hollywood_great_depression.cfm

[2] Laham., N. (2009). Currents of Comedy on the American Screen: How Film and Television Deliver Different Laughs for Changing Times. McFarland & Company.

[3] Burke., A. 2011. ‘My Man Godfrey’. In: P.C. DiMare, ed. 2011. Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia. Vol 1.

[4] Carney., R. 1986. American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra. Cambridge University Press.

[5] Gianos., P.L. 1998. Politics and Politicians in American Film. Praeger Publishers.

[6] Dick., B.F. 1993. The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. The University Press of Kentucky.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
Contributing writer for The Artifice. I have a deep interest in films, television and the arts.

Want to write about Film or other art forms?

Create writer account

13 Comments

  1. Great post and great genre. One of my all-time favorites is HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE with Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard. MacMurray, often overlooked, excelled in this genre, and was a favorite of Mitchell Leisen.

  2. One thing I always noticed about the “screwball comedies” is that the stars in them like Cary Gran and Katherine Hepburn KNOW they are in a wacko-fest, and therefore push their behavior accordingly: over-reacting, physically contorting and mugging for the camera.

    In IHON, on the other hand, Gable and Colbert – most likely because both stars were not fond of the script and simply wanted to complete filming asap – play their parts very straightforwardly, without exaggeration.

    • Number 8
      0

      ‘It Happened One Night’ is my second best comedy ever, just a hair behind ‘You Can’t Take It With You’. I’ve seen each of them at least a dozen times and I can’t imagine ever getting tired of watching them.

  3. My favorite comprehensive book about this genre is “Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges” by James Harvey, originally published in 1987. It has lots of pictures and it discusses many gems I had never heard of — a great guide to the 1930s and 40s movies shown on Turner Classic Movies.

  4. Kaye Aguirre
    0

    Love screwball comedies – they certainly don’t make them like that anymore. Cary Grant was definitely the King of this genre , Bringing up Baby was a classic in every sense of the word.

  5. McCaggers

    I’m a huge fan of screwball comedies, though I’ve only seen two on this list. Very interesting article, I hadn’t really considered why they were popular in the Great Depression. But it makes perfect sense. I only wish the screwball comedy would make a comeback.

  6. Jane Harkness

    Such an interesting article. It’s really fascinating to see how comedy reflects tough issues in society at the time it was created.

  7. It Happened One Night really symbolizes what that decade was all about:

    -stiff upper lip in adversity

    -laugh at yourself even when facing hardship

    -marriage is a sacred thing(walls of Jericho)

    -always hopeful through tough times(who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf)

    -social cohesion & spirit(bus sing-a-long:man on the flying trapeze)

    -lack of class warfare(witness Today)

    -grit,determination and willpower was the order of the Day(moxie)!

  8. Veta Vigil
    0

    Really enjoyed your post and how you connect the 30s screwball comedies.

  9. Helen Parshall

    Excellent post! I really love how you connected this genre in to American anxieties and contextualized everything.

  10. One of the best screwball comedies is “Once More My Darling” with Robert Montgomery and Ann Blyth. Made in 1949, the picture shows Montgomery’s comedic talents and the beautiful Ann Blyth’s ability to tease and cajole his character. Great writing. This picture has never come out in either VHS or DVD format, and I’ve only seen it once on television.

  11. Giovanni Insignares

    I’ve always loved the idea that going to the movies is a distraction/escape from everyday lie. They give a person the ability to enjoy something they normally wouldn’t experience. Screwball comedies, particularly during times such as the Great Depression, take this escapism to a whole new level, and I love them for it. Very good job on this article.

  12. K. A. Wisniewski

    This is a fine article. And there’s a number of other films that could also be mentioned here. What’s interesting is that while cinema often mocked the rich, lower classes during the 1930s were simultaneously re-enacting the rise to wealth in board games like Life and Monopoly.

Leave a Reply