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Athenaeum’s Flicks On The Bricks Returns With Screwball Comedy

Clark Gable plays a newspaper reporter and Claudette Colbert is a runaway heiress in Frank Capra's screwball comedy "It Happened One Night." (1934)
Columbia Pictures
Clark Gable plays a newspaper reporter and Claudette Colbert is a runaway heiress in Frank Capra's screwball comedy "It Happened One Night." (1934)

Outdoor cinema series starts Thursday with 'His Girl Friday'

The Athenaeum’s Flicks on the Bricks returns this month for its 15th year with the best Screwball Sparring Matches. The outdoor film series is hosted KPBS film critic Beth Accomando.

The Athenaeum’s Flicks on the Bricks returns this month for its 15th year with the best Screwball Sparring Matches.

Once again La Jolla's Athenaeum has asked me to curate and host its Flicks of the Bricks outdoor film series. It is always tough to decide what to screen because there are so many movies that I love but after more than a year of cinemas being closed, and dealing with COVID and divisive politics, I just felt we needed to treat ourselves to something delightful and entertaining and distracting. And screwball comedy delivers just that.

Defining screwball

Screwball comedy is a distinctly American style of romantic comedy that emerged from a combination of a need for escape during the Depression; a reaction to the restrictive Motion Picture Production Code that Hollywood put into effect in 1934 in the hopes that self-censorship would prevent government censorship; and the rise of sound technology.

The term screwball fittingly comes from the American sport of baseball. A screwball is a deliberately erratic pitch designed to confuse the batter who doesn't know what to expect. And that perfectly describes these films. Screwball comedies are fueled the lunacy of farce, punched up with the violent action of slapstick, and then topped off with witty dialogue that tickles your senses like champagne bubbles. And everything is delivered at break-neck speed. And for me a true screwball comedy has to be from Hollywood in the 1930s or '40s.

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell square off in Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday." (1940)
Columbia Pictures
Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell square off in Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday." (1940)

Best sparring matches

Narrowing down the catalogue of screwball comedies to just three films (screening on the next three Thursday nights) was an agonizingly difficult task. But one thing that is distinctive about screwball comedies is that they are often a battle of the sexes with surprisingly equal and well-matched combatants. So for this series I decided to focus on a trio of sparring matches featuring the best players of the screwball realm.

The series kicks off this Thursday with Howard Hawks' 1940 film "His Girl Friday," starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

Grant and Russell are just spectacular under the direction of Hawks, who has given us so many strong, smart female characters in his career. "His Girl Friday" is a remake of the play "The Front Page" but instead of two men as the leads it transform the newspaper editor and his reporter into a man and his ex-wife and then lets the sparks fly. IMDB notes that someone estimated the normal rate of dialogue in a typical films at about 90 words a minute. "His Girl Friday" has a delivery rate that clocks in at 240 words a minute.

Then on Thursday, Aug. 19, it will be another Hawks outing, "Twentieth Century" starring Carole Lombard and John Barrymore. It is almost impossible to talk about screwball without mentioning Lombard who just seemed built for this style of comedy. In "Twentieth Century," Hawks pairs Lombard with the great Barrymore who revels in the histrionics of his down-on-his-luck Broadway impresario trying to get Lombard to star in his comeback play. This is a take the gloves off battle where no blow is too low.

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The series closes on Aug. 26 with Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning "It Happened One Night" from 1934.

"It Happened One Night" is a perfect example of screwball comedy. It has a crazy heiress, it’s a sex comedy without sex, it has the Depression in its periphery yet it delivers wonderful escapism. And it has Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert at their finest. I adore Capra, a director known for what he called Capracorn. Unlike the unsentimental Hawks in "Twentieth Century," Capra invests all his characters in "It Happened One Night" with real humanity. When curating screwball comedies I am often torn between showing a lesser known screwballs like "Easy Living" or "True Confessions" and showing something that is just a classic. But "It Happened One Night" is a joy every time I see it that I decided it needed to be included.

For more on screwball comedy check out my Cinema Junkie Episode 191 about it.