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Screwball Comedy Films: Its Time for a Comeback

Thankfully (having just returned from an exhausting roadtrip to Amelia Island, Florida), I had a rather restful New Year’s Eve celebration, one which entailed watching CNN’s countdown with Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin. They have been doing this now for over five years and what keeps people watching is the witty, frequently off-color banter between Anderson and Kathy where more often than not, she will engage in shenanigans that border on the obscene and he will show great discomfort.  In a way, they are bringing screwball comedies back and boy do I love that film genre!

The screwball comedy, which saw its heyday in the 1940s, is an enduring American film genre. Part of the reason I am so driven to it is because it distinguishes itself for being characterized by a female that dominates the relationship with the male central character. For me it exemplified a warped sense of female power.  The screwball comedy often also had hilarious takes on class division and often involves mistaken identities or other circumstances in which a character or characters try to keep some important fact a secret. They also involve a central romantic story, usually in which the couple seem mismatched and even hostile to each other at first, but eventually overcome their differences in an amusing or entertaining way that leads to romance.

And it was a shared love of screwball comedy that formed a common bond between me and my mentor, the great Dennis de Leon – a tireless advocate for the disenfranchised who brought an enduring sense of social justice to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  We were both Hispanics-well actually I was Hispanic and he was Latino- that came from very marginalized communities-he from east LA and me from the South Bronx-who went on to reach a level of success that often eludes members of our childhood communities.  We both lived abroad and we both even worked at the US Department of Justice at one point.  It was almost like he was my long-lost father, brother or kooky uncle.  I was completely new to the field when I went to work for him.  I was highly educated with a PhD, but I had much to learn about the actual workings of an organization and in particular an organization that is tied to the community and advocates on its behalf.  We would sit and discuss theory: he had been a social psychologist in training for a year before going to law school (another point in common and I had actually gotten into law school and then decided to become a social psychologist).   We would discuss books. One of our favorites to talk about was Rodriguez’s “Hunger of Memory” which I related to on many levels. But we also spent hours talking about film. He knew and understood that feeling that film brings to the disenfranchised looking for a way out. It was our window onto the world, giving us a new and very different perspective.

In a way, screwball comedies are very Hispanic in nature in that there is a sense of physical humor and the class misunderstandings illuminate what many Hispanics often go through when they move up the ladder.  Sometimes screwball comedies feature male characters cross-dressing which made Dennis and I laugh for hours because it made cross-dressing acceptable in the ‘40s.  One such screwball comedy that was a favorite of both of ours is Bringing Up Baby, which offered a safe context in which to explore serious issues like class under a comedic (and non-threatening) framework while we watched a film with a silly premise: in which a couple (who were not at first a romantic couple) must take care of a pet leopard during much of the film. Specifically, the movie tells the story of a paleontologist winding up in various predicaments involving a woman with a unique sense of logic and a leopard named “Baby” whose favorite song in the movie was  I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.

Gee, but it’s tough to be broke, kid.
It’s not a joke, kid–it’s a curse.
My luck is changing–it’s gotten
from simply rotten to something worse.
Who knows someday I will win too
I’ll begin to reach my prime.
Now that I see what our end is
All I can spend is just my time.

A great aspect of screwball comedies are the instances of double entendre and sexual references, such as Cary Grant saying that he “went gay” or Katherine Hepburn making a reference to Grant’s character urinating. The witty repartee, the double entendre and the pratfall were all endearing aspects of screwball comedies. Dennis and I joked about filming a 21st century version of screwball comedies embedded within the HIV/AIDS field and how it could bring a bit of levity to it.

Nowadays I reflect back on that film fondly and somehow think of my own baby son and how he likes the play the role of villain (proudly says that he was one of the bad guys in the game on the playground), and I also am reminded of what a great person, human being Dennis de Leon was.  The third year anniversary of his death just passed, his passion and commitment is still with us. I hope he is still getting his Netflix subscription up there in the sky and is enjoying the screwball classics. As to Kathy and Anderson, I could totally see them doing an updated version of Bringing up Baby. Might I recommend that they do a riff on it next New Year’s Eve?

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