14. The Great American Screenplays Part I: Fast-Witted Masterpieces in the Golden Age of American Talkies

Over the course of the last several months, I have tackled the monumental task of reviewing, analyzing, and documenting Citizen Kane, the movie that I consider to be the greatest film ever made.  This multi-month endeavor resulted in six essays totaling over 25,000 words; which, when converted to a Word document, translates to 46 pages at size 12 Times New Roman font.  What resulted, I think, was a very good examination of the movie’s place in the pantheon of world cinema.

But, sometimes, taking large, sweeping views at a topic is not as good as taking a good close look at a smaller chunk.  Citizen Kane‘s role as a masterpiece alongside David Lean’s epics, Federico Fellini’s grotesqueries, and Ingmar Bergman’s psychological dramas is an important one to study and consider if you want to be a competent film-connoisseur.  But, sometimes, you need to think of its role on its home court: its own time, its own country, and its own genre.  It is far more beneficial for a student of sport to study John Stockton in the context of the flex offense he ran alongside Karl Malone and Jeff Hornacek than it is to ponder his comparative value against such anachronistic counterparts as Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy, and Chris Paul.  Sometimes, you have to look at a film as a product of its time.

When it comes to its time, Citizen Kane acted as a capstone, a zenith, a peak, a climax.  It was the candle on top the birthday cake of American screenplays that propelled Hollywood to the forefront of the movie industry.  It was the ultimate culmination of a decade’s worth of perfect scripts made into highly-successful, immortal masterpieces.  It was the important link in the chain between that decade and the decade that would follow it.  These two decades in the United States—the 1930s and the 1940s—were undeniably the greatest in American film history.  (The 1950s, while it certainly can be considered the finest of all cinematic decades, owes itself to a collaborative, multi-nation effort as opposed to the ethnocentric dominance of the pre-war United States).  America was securing itself as the world power in international politics, a position that would be cemented for good after World War II.  Likewise, as a cinematic world power, the United States was flexing its capitalistic muscles by producing floods of great films at a mass level, creating such huge stars as Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable, and Bette Davis.

It is an interesting coincidence, then, that the original title for Kane was supposed to be, simply, American.

This chapter in my blog will start a three part essay series focusing on these two power-decades, focusing, in turn, on the three signature genres that these decades produced.  The three genres in question are 1) screw-ball comedy, 2) film noir, and 3) the Western—perhaps the most characteristically American of all the genres in cinema.  What propelled these genres, and what made them so decidedly American, was the delicate wit and sardonic wordplay of their screenplays, screenplays that were written by the finest writers in Hollywood history.  While such brilliance in scripts has been survived in the works of people like Woody Allen, Richard Linklater, and Charlie Kaufmann, it has never been diluted to such a degree as it was in the 30s and 40s.  Such names as Herman J. Manckiewicz, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Ben Hecht, Robert Riskin, John Huston, Julius Epstein, Joseph Manckiewicz, Leo McCarey, and Morrie Ryksind teamed up to adapt films from already deftly-managed literary works by masters of their own respective crafts, people like George Bernard Shaw, George S. Kaufman, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.  These scripts were so perfect, they provided frameworks for their directors to frame their characters, giving us long shots of fast-paced dialogue that remind us fondly of the theater, while giving us all the privilege of the cinematic experience.  They acted as ideal platforms for the sardonic (Groucho Marx), the uplifting (Jimmy Stewart), the charming (Cary Grant), the sinister (James Cagney), the dominant (Humphrey Bogart), the sexy (Barbara Stanwyck), the elegant (Bette Davis), the sweet (Jean Arthur), the authoritative (Katharine Hepburn), and the confident (Lauren Bacall).  This small list only names a few of the significant personalities behind the pen and in front of the camera that this era produced.  Such stars as these (and countless others—it was the era of Hollywood superstars), owed their careers to the masterful wit and taste of the men and women who wrote their lines.

This is why I have decided to call this essay series “The Great American Screenplays”.  It is, in essence, a tribute to the screenplays that inspired some of the finest American cinema.  Within the context of these screenplays, the United States was able to triumph as the super-power of the cinematic world.  While France will always hold a place in a movie-lover’s heart (they invented the medium, after all), and India makes more movies, it seems, than all other nations put together, it is the United States that owns the title of #1 movie-making nation, mixing quantity with quality.  This tradition began in the 1930s, and it was all due to the skill of writers.

Why were there so many great writers in that era?  After all, talent doesn’t pool into singular eras, does it?  I’ve never believed in this idea of watershedding biology (a term I have made up to denote the tendency we have to believe that talent—something inherent—only crops up in certain generations).  Science, nature, religion, and sheer logic all point to the conclusion that talent is evenly spread between eras.  It can’t, therefore, be an issue of talent.  It has to be something external: an influence from the time.

That external issue was the newspaper.  Where the great writers of the 1910s and 1920s found inspiration as a generation “lost” in Paris, the great American writers of the 1930s migrated to the newspaper capitals of New York and San Francisco.  I covered this briefly in my second and third essays on Citizen Kane.  The great writers had been hired on for the decades leading up to 1930 by the great newspaper conglomerates led by power-players William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.  Their job: sensationalize a story with satire and aggression by midnight, every day, seven days a week.  Political cartoonists rose to power, and the ability to scream a whole story in one line (bold and extra-large on a front page) became a necessary skill for any editor.  These writers learned how best to tell a quick story and keep an audience.  They learned how to find the best possible image to include on the page in order to make that story stick and thrive.  And they learned how to do it at a pace and quality that absolutely had to be better than the pace and quality of their competitors.

This volatile, fast-paced, and sensationalized arena led to the growth of the “Yellow Press”, a movement in the newspaper industry characterized by truth-stretching (and outright lying) to smear, laud, or convince in order to make waves and win the ever-burgeoning “circulation war.”  This was the era of Newsies and robber barons, and they rode on the waves made by writers whose skill was perpetually honed by an appeal to good old Capitalistic competition.  The result: a brand new style of writing that focused on pace over imagery, and far more approachable to the simple consumer than the wordy literature that preceded it.  This style of writing took over where Ernest Hemingway left off: short sentences led to short paragraphs.

As this new population of great writers rose to preeminence in the booming economy of the late twenties, and were quickly made aware of the need to make a buck after the stock market crash of 1929 , they began to immigrate westward and southward to Hollywood, where the movies were working through the Great Depression.  Sure, cinema—like every industry—struggled through the Depression, but a few things kept it afloat much higher than other struggling financial sectors.  The reasons for Hollywood’s survival make up a different topic for a different day, but one reason stands supreme: sound.  Through the use of sound (an innovation only two years in the making), Hollywood was able to produce a product that appealed to the American people; a product they could sell for cheap, a product the public loved to have because it offered them a Slice of Cake when the slices of life outside were so bitter.

What put America ahead of other nations following the advent of sound was the realization that, through sound, these great newspaper beat-writers could bring their singular talents to Hollywood and pack a new generation of films full of wit, grace, comedy, and vitality.  And pack it they did.

In no other genre is this more evident than in the screwball comedy, a form of comedy that rose to greatness starting in 1931 with Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page.  It is no coincidence that the era began with a comedy based on newspapers, it was an historical inevitability.  This comedy, one of the truly great films of the era, was loaded to the brim with witty repartee and an intimate view into the industry it satirized.  It offered the American people a look into the industry that served as their ultimate source of information (remember, there was no CNN or FoxNews back then).  However, it provided something else most of all: it offered them a retribution, a reconciliation, between the common man and the “boss”—or the rich man, the man they couldn’t become in this perilous economic time.  They could laugh at the relationship between the writer and the editor (the worker and the boss), and feel a little escape from the unfairness of laugh outside the theater.

This dynamic of struggle between classes is probably the most important aspect of the general definition of screwball comedy (other than, of course, the style of comedy itself).  As screwball comedy evolved, the relationship between two main characters representing different classes never disappeared.  Films like My Man Godfrey and Trouble in Paradise perpetuated this tradition of class struggle.  But, one “class” struggle emerged as the signature one.  While social class and wealth remained important, it was sex that caused the greatest of rifts in screwball.  The ultimate “battle of the sexes” genre remains, to this day, the American screwball comedy.

These two struggles—social class and gender—merged in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night in 1934.  Many consider It Happened One Night to be the first true screwball comedy.  Watching Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable play a rich girl and a poor boy (a newspaper boy, mind you) touched the public, giving it clout enough to award it Most Outstanding Picture by the Academy.  What truly stood out in movies like It Happened One Night was the dynamic of sex played out farcically.  Scenes like Colbert and Gable teasing each other as they undress on opposite sides of a makeshift curtain bent the rules regarding sex in movies enforced by the Hays Code—the chief censorship regulation established by Will Hays in 1930 that would last until 1968.

Many people will argue that the Hays Code was the reason why screwball comedies were, as famously stated by Andrew Sarris, “sex comedies without the sex.”  While the need to dodge the sensors certainly played its role, I submit that it was, instead, the appeal to script that dictated the “sex sans sex” style.  A film loses wit when wit is thrown aside for explicitness.  One reason why these movies have aged so well is because they are not funny in the Will Ferrell sense, but in the sense of their cleverness.  Cleverness lasts.  The approach to sex in screwball comedy was a manifestation of the cleverness of its writers.

Perhaps the most well-known usage of the “sex sans sex” style came in the form of the double entendre, a literary device that permeated the screwball comedy (and film noir, but that’s for my next essay).  The double entendre is the line with the double meaning, saying one thing, but meaning another.  When the topic of double entendre in movies comes up, the first name that comes to mind is Mae West.

In Sam J. Turrell’s celebrated 1965 documentary, The Love Goddesses, Carl King provided the following narration: “Of all the love goddesses of comedy, one was to dominate.  She was a goddess molded by two opposing forces; one, the demand for an ever-increasing frankness about sex, the other, a traditional reluctance to face it openly.  The result had to be satire.  Even today, Mae West is remembered by people who never saw her as the sexiest of the love goddesses.  In actual fact, it was not so much that she was sexy, but that she was funny about sex.”

Such lines as “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me? … Come on up, I’ll tell your fortune” in 1933’s She Done Him Wrong and “It’s not the men in your life that matters, it’s the life in your men” in the same year’s I’m No Angel work as perfect examples Ms. West’s “funniness” about sex.  The ability to talk around the censors became an art form in Hollywood, and one that has a special poignancy today.  We don’t often get to enjoy innuendo anymore…we have to hear explicit remarks that dumb everything down and make the movie accessible only to a more exclusive audience.

Mae West also credited herself for discovering a young talent in the aforementioned She Done Him Wrong.  And, it was to this young talent that she said the ever famous “come up sometime and see me” line.  In I’m No Angel, he was the one to whom she said “when I’m good, I’m very good.  When I’m bad, I’m better.”  This young man was named Cary Grant.

Grant would come to hold a special place in the pantheon of screwball actors.  He was the charm that allowed screwball comedy to survive.  He and Mae West brought a new way around the censors to Hollywood comedies, a sort of pent-up sexuality that haunted every line, while being so good at comedic delivery they seemed to distract you from it.  Grant will be remembered forever as one of the greatest film comedians because, he, above all others, brought a grace to his comedy that almost negated the “screwball” in screwball comedy.

This makes him the perfect actor to highlight one of the key elements of good screwball.  The element in question is the element of farce.  Like the farcical situations of The Tempest or Much Ado About Nothing, screwball comedy was often rooted in one character’s attempt to keep a secret, right a misunderstanding, or deal with a mistaken identity.  Just the other day, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days was on TV, and I told my wife that the reason that it is one of the best romantic comedies of the last decade or so is because it is so much like a screwball comedy.  Here are Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson trying to hold up their own respective ruse while they ultimately work toward a difficult climax.  Lies and subterfuge are not a good basis for a loving relationship, but screwball comedy screws with relationships like that.

In the case of Grant, his charm required the screwball to reach new extremes in order to compensate for his grace.  Consequently, the farcical elements were to reach new extremes, bordering, even on slapstick.  It did not take long before he was to be seen in a negligee in a strange house searching for a lost leopard in Bringing Up Baby.  These farcical elements of gender mischaracterization and absurd situations became common place in screwball comedy.  Grant would continue this sort of gender confusion in movies like I Was a Male War Bride.  The theme would reach its peak in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, where Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon fight to maintain their cover as girls in an all-girl band while trying to win the heart of Marilyn Monroe.

Playing with gender roles was also subtle, and double entendres took on a whole new light in these moments.  Returning to Grant’s role in Bringing Up Baby, we see how he is constantly” under the thumb” of his female counterparts—Virgina Walker’s Alice and Katharine Hepburn’s Susan.  These woman constantly wear the pants (literally and figuratively) and don’t fall down nearly as often as Grant, whose character is an unwilling victim to the women’s decision-making.  The ultimate goal for these characters is a reconciliation and union, which, of course, could only be eluded to because of the restrictions of the Hays Code. But, “getting together” is the ultimate end to the female machinations in most screwball comedies, which is a playful twist on gender roles in and of itself.  How does this apply to double endendres?  The two characters in Bringing Up Baby are constantly in search of two things, a bone and a leopard.  These are the goals, but they are MacGuffins in the actual plot: the true goal is “getting together”.  References to these MacGuffins help to propel this sexual need.  The next time you watch the movie, that will help you get more of the comedy.  The role of the woman as master of this sexual dynamic is central to this.  She is the instigator, and the man is subject to her.  Maybe it’s just me, but I find this to be way more fun and way more funny than anything in today’s explicit romantic comedies.

This idea of female superiority is manifest best in Katharine Hepburn’s line in Bringing Up Baby, when she says, “I know that I’m gonna marry him. He doesn’t know it but I am.”  This is a subtle but powerful demonstration of the reversal of stereotypical gender roles in the films of that era.

Grant was able to play the part of a victimized male quite well, but he was also able to play the mastermind himself.  In such movies as The Philadephia Story, The Awful Truth, and His Girl Friday, Grant played the role of the man who had to convince the woman that he was right all along.  And, he ultimately does.  However, in these roles, he takes an almost supporting role, handing over the reins of lead to the female counterpart, whose “comeuppance” brings about the most change in a single character.  Perhaps the best example of this is in His Girl Friday, a remake of The Front Page.  The movie is almost exactly like The Front Page, only instead of highlighting the dynamic between boss and employee, it highlighted the dynamic between ex-husband and ex-wife who also happened to be boss and employee.

His Girl Friday is likely the fastest of all the witty masterpieces of the 1930s and ’40s.  This is partly due to Cary Grant, but has more to do with Rosalind Russell’s profound confidence and mastery of words.  The wit and back-and-forth practically characterizes the entire generation.  Such scripts as those provided by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Morrie Ryksind for the Marx Brothers also characterized these back-and-forths.  Perhaps the wittiest lines ever put in movies were delivered by the Marx Brothers in films like Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, and Horse Feathers.  

What His Girl Friday and the Marx Brothers movies did was provide a great backdrop for satire.  They packed political commentary and societal criticism into their scripts that rang long and true with the audience for which they were written.  In between world wars, vast shifts in political power, and the hardships of a worldwide Depression, the audience needed satire.  They needed to point their fingers and laugh at those in power, even if those people in power were only reflected on the screen.  Charles Foster Kane standing in place of William Randolph Hearst.  The Little Tramp standing in place of Adolph Hitler.  Rufus T. Firefly standing in place of every leader in Europe.  Walter Burns standing in place of Joseph Pulitzer.  Anthony P. Kirby in place of John D. Rockefeller.

Sometimes, these satires didn’t quite effect the American people as they were intended.  As a matter of fact, the satire sometimes came off negatively.  One reason for the relative failure of Duck Soup in comparison to Horse Feathers is because of the obvious pointedness of its satire.  People weren’t ready for it.  However, it has contributed, undeniably, to these pictures’ immortality.  And despite the acceptance of such pointed satire, the role of such satire in the lives of the people who watched contributed to the escapism that encouraged these movies to continue.

This idea of escapism is a pertinent one.  Escape is one of the driving reasons for cinema, a point that is central to my “A Slice of Cake” theory, and, consequently, a fact that has driven the focus of this website.  Movies are not designed to be slices of life, they are designed to be slices of “cake”, gifts from the minds and imaginations of their makers.  They are windows into the visions of others, an experience that can’t be lived without their help.  For a people living in the Great Depression, being able to laugh at the expense of people who truly came to define celebrity was a special treat.

These movies were especially applicable to Depression-era audiences.  Where families were being constantly threatened by the financial burden of the poor economy, where marriages and loves were disintegrating or slipping away because of the struggles of a harsh modernity, screwball comedies were able to pick up where viewers “left off”, as it were.  In most screwballs, the marriage was already fractured, the relationship was already broken, the money was already lost.  There was no need to show the disintegration of the family—such a movement would show up later, when things were better.  There was no need to show the couple fall out of love.  The audience was already experiencing these difficulties and hardships.  Instead, the audience was given the opportunity in these movies to see the resolution of such issues.

This is why a significant sub-category of the 1930s comedy was the “divorce” comedy.  In such movies as The Philadelphia Story, The Palm Beach Story, The Awful Truth, The Gay Divorcee, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and His Girl Friday the issue of fracturing marriages comes to the forefront.  But, instead of being a slice of life, as it were, these movies gave an escape—even a hope—to struggling families that things could be survived.  In almost every instance (the Gay Divorcee is an exception), the fracturing is resolved and the love rekindled.  Now, I am not trying to submit that these movies acted as couple’s therapy, nor am I trying to generalize the American family during the Great Depression as inherently doomed for marital dissatisfaction.  Instead, I am trying to stress the symbol of divorce in these films, and the symbol of the “re-marriage”.  There was an escape for the tough times all around them.  There was hope.  There was also a lot of fun to be had.

Fun was the entire point of these pictures.  Beyond the satire, beyond the class warfare, beyond the battles of the sexes, beyond all of that was the need to have fun.  This was done by writing practically perfect scripts and trusting the delivery of these lines to well-trained directors and actors with great timing.  Huge stars were made because of these scripts, and, unfortunately, their stardom overshadowed the brilliance of the writers themselves.  I made a pretty good list of some of the more significant writers toward the beginning of this essay.

Now, on a side note, I’d like to bring up one of these writers: Herman J. Manckiewicz.  I’d also like to bring up a couple important themes and tactics that we’ve discussed in this essay: satire, newspapers, politics, divorce, remarriage, class warfare, gender roles, wit, and escapism.  Does this bring us full circle?  It should.  We’re back to Citizen Kane.  Surely, Kane was the defining film of a generation.

Having already reviewed Kane, I would like to use this essay to introduce a few new movies.  After reviewing a few famous comedies of the 1930s and 40s, I will then return to this essay series.  Upon return, we’ll talk all about the Western.  So, stay tuned!

24 thoughts on “14. The Great American Screenplays Part I: Fast-Witted Masterpieces in the Golden Age of American Talkies

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