Comedy

How to Make a 1930s Screwball Comedy

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Billie Burke (left) asks Constance Bennett not to be so sensible. Image: Constance Bennett

Dear Reader, we’ve made our peace with the fact we’ll never be nominated for a screenwriting Oscar. We’re not too broken up about this, just like we’re OK with not being selected for the NASA Aeronautics Academy. We’ll get by.

But if we were to write a screenplay, we would model it after the 1938 screwball comedy Merrily We Live. This is one of those films about a wacky but endearing rich family who employ ex-cons and drifters as their servants. (Note: One has to pretend this scenario hasn’t been done before, à la My Man Godfrey.)

In our opinion, there are three major elements to this lesser-known film that make it a stellar example in screwball-icity. We had thought of plotting these elements on a graph, but were too lazy – a characteristic, incidentally, frowned upon at the Aeronautics Academy.

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Brian Aherne embraces his new job. Image: Matinee Moustache

#1 Script
At a glance, the plot seems to be standard 1930’s material: A rich family unknowingly hires a famous writer (Brian Aherne) as a chauffeur, because they believe him to be homeless person. Aherne’s character is having so much fun, he doesn’t wish to disabuse the family of this notion.

However, this film’s script is superior to many other comedies due to the sheer volume of jokes. The jokes are so numerous and delivered so quickly, they practically trip over each other.

For instance, the delightfully spinny family matriarch (Billie Burke) is trying to counsel her Very Smart Daughter (Constance Bennett):

Burke (to Bennett): “My mother always told me children are seen and not heard.”
Bennett: “But your mother was smarter than my mother.”
Burke: “Yes, I know she was, darling.”

Another delightful element is the running gags threaded throughout the film. One such gag is the family’s butler (the perfectly-cast Alan Mowbray), who is forever threatening to quit if the family doesn’t stop hiring ex-cons who steal family heirlooms. (This leads to another scene where the patriarch of the family dryly asks the newly-hired Aherne if he has stolen anything yet.)

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“Darling, puffy sleeves are an Investment.” Image: gifsoup.com

#2 Wardrobe & Sets
The best thing about rich people in 1930s screwball comedies is their environment. We love it when art deco sets are nearly overwhelming in their size and shininess. Merrily We Live indulges us in the same way as a chocolate fondue party. Set designer W.L. Stevens has provided a scrumptious buffet filled with lush draperies and highly-collectible furniture; no wonder these people are continually stolen from!

A grand set requires a grand wardrobe. Bennett’s wardrobe (designed by the fab Irene) is chic, elegant, stylish. Burke’s wardrobe, on the other hand, almost competes with her décor – while her clothes are grand and expensive, they’re charmingly out of step with the decade.

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Daily affirmations. Image: Matinee Moustache

#3 Engaging Characters
Screwball comedies have outrageous people who behave outlandishly. In one scene, an annoying, self-absorbed boyfriend (Phillip Reed) drives Bennett home after a date. He leans in to kiss her and she socks him in the jaw.

This film has a wide assortment of charismatic characters, from the no-nonsense Bennett to Mowbray’s disapproving butler to Aherne’s writerly quirkiness.

Oh – and we can’t forget two minor but important players, the family’s two Great Danes named Get Off The Rug, and You Too.

Merrily We Live is an amusing film that is so good, you’ll want to watch it twice in a row. You’ll agree it’s every bit as clever as anything produced by NASA’s Aeronautics Academy.

Merrily We Live: starring Constance Bennett, Brian Aherne, Alan Mowbray. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod. Written by Eddie Moran and Jack Jevene. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1938, B&W, 95 mins.

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21 thoughts on “How to Make a 1930s Screwball Comedy

  1. Thanks for a great review! It made me smile so much. I loved this film! There was no particular point; it was like these people were being wacky for the sheer, exuberant joy of it.You put it perfectly; “every but as clever as anything produced by NASA’s Aeronautic’s Academy.”

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  2. This is a neat review – your descriptions are filled with character. A fun read and a movie that I’m hoping to catch. I really enjoy these older movies.

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  3. Great review. I have never seen it but will endeavour to do so in the very near future even if I have to employ the aeronautics academy in the search for this little treasure.

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  4. This review made me smile! I must re-watch this – although I do remember the abundance of gags, and how wonderfully it’s costumed – I don’t think I fully appreciated its place in 30s screwball!

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  5. Somehow I’ve managed never to see this movie. Now I’ll be on the lookout for it. I loved your tips on making the screwball comedies. This one seems to gave them, plus my favorite actors. Thanks for covering it.

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  6. This is my fave screwball comedy. I watch it 3 or 4 times a year (or 5 or 6…). One day I will write about it, too. Eventually. Maybe. You know, it can be hard writing about things that you like TOO much. But, I loved YOUR review! It’s great.

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  7. Ruth, If you are not going for a screenwriting oscar, then I definitely nominate you for a movie blog oscar! Your reviews are so smart and funny with lots of insight, and this one is no exception. Made me smile all the way through. I would love to see this one!

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