New article by alumni- Nolan Crawford ‘19 published in Film Matters

October 27, 2021

“He’s Fictional, But You Can’t Have Everything”: Screwball Comedy and the Viewer’s Reality
By Nolan Crawford
The Depression era was a difficult time for Americans, but Hollywood studios were undeterred, seeing an opportunity to capitalize. The idea was to distract average citizens from their everyday challenges through comic portrayals of the wealthy in their lavish playgrounds: screwball comedies. These films became more than diversions; they mediated Americans’ relationships both with urban elites and also with their own hardship. Top Hat (1935) draws the viewer away from America to the exotic and monied shores of aristocratic Europe, allowing the viewer to be a voyeur in Hollywood matchmaking abroad. Easy Living (1937) goes a step further, as the working-class protagonist is drawn into a world of wealth through happenstance, inspiring hope in the viewer that they too may have such luck. Both these films and their respective devices of provoking vicarious emotions in audiences inspired Woody Allen’s 1930s nostalgia film The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Cecilia, its main character, is the 1930s viewer, and she falls in love with a character who surreally walks straight out of a screwball comedy. While this genre could both draw viewers away from their bleak realities, as in Top Hat, or draw viewers into the world of the wealthy, as in Easy Living, Cecilia’s reality fully melds with a fantasy. In that melding, she loses the voyeur status essential to escapism, creating chaos until she redraws the boundaries, exposing Hollywood’s Depression-era predation on working-class aspirations. The Great Depression changed the American social and financial landscape in a crippling fashion. The effect was on a scale far beyond what the American economy had previously experienced, as the decadence of the early twentieth century came to a head. According to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, between the years 1929 and 1933, 10,951 banks failed. Along with these bank closures, the rise in unemployment was precipitous, going from 8.7 percent up to 23.6 percent between 1931 and 1932 and then reaching its apex in 1933
Nolan Crawford
at 24.9 percent (“Statistics: The Impact of the Depression”). These are staggering numbers; it was a crisis that left many destitute. One only need look at the photographs from the time to see Americans struggling as the banks fell apart. Given that many were out of work and dealing with a seemingly hopeless world, Hollywood studios exploited this free time with films that were lavish confections. Thus was born the screwball comedy, which Cele C. Otnes and Elizabeth Pleck describe as “films in which the main characters confronted the problems of life with ‘cheerful impudence and occasionally a wide streak of lunacy’” (168). These characters are afforded “cheerful impudence” and the ability to address problems zanily thanks to wealth and status. To further clarify, the success of these screwball comedies hinged on the idea of escapism. In the context of this essay, an escapist story is one that takes the viewer out of their harsh reality and draws them into a luxurious imagined world. Wes D. Gehring and Steve Bell write that “more than any other genre, including romantic comedy, the screwball variety focuses on the leisure life, often in ‘high-society’ style.” And they additionally quote historian Richard Schickel, who observed that “screwballism was purely a disease of the wealthy” (29). The concept of “leisure life” was foreign to working-class citizens, whose search for the day’s meal, a job, or care for their children was a full-time occupation. And “‘high-society’ style” was, for all intents and purposes, a mythical idea. To see a film that hinged on these aspects would transport the viewer far from their reality, both in place and attitude. Schickel’s use of language, calling “screwballism” a “disease of the wealthy,” points to how the genre’s traits and its farcical premises are not an enhancement of the human condition. They are pathologies reserved for the wealthy, who can afford such inefficient and contrived
Figure 1: Cecilia must choose between the film character Tom Baxter and his creator, actor Gil Shepherd. The Purple Rose of Cairo (Orion Pictures, 1985).
circumstances, which are foreclosed to a vast majority of Americans. Christopher Beach writes that these screwball comedies “exerted a powerful influence on the way Americans perceived their place within an increasingly divided society” (17). In the Depression’s crisis, the chasm between those with wealth and those without it widened. Screwball stories were a bridge for the working class to escape their realities and, for however briefly, to inhabit these other worlds.
In the Depression’s crisis, the chasm between those with wealth and those without it widened. Screwball stories were a bridge for the working class to escape their realities and, for however briefly, to inhabit these other worlds.
A device successfully used to transport viewers out of their realities in the screwball comedy was to imply a physical escape, through settings in foreign lands like Europe. RKO Radio Pictures was particularly successful with this trope, and some of their screwball musical comedies, especially those featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, were box office hits in the height of the Depression. The crowning example in the Astaire–Rogers partnership was Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat from 1935. Adding to the already farcical nature of the humor and the Hollywood romance were the partnership’s signature dance numbers, mesmerizing as the protagonists glide across the floor. The story follows Astaire’s Jerry Travers, who is an American dancer in London to helm a new West End production. And, while in his hotel, he meets Rogers’s Dale Tremont, an American galivanting around Europe. The viewer identifies with the Americans, and Europe becomes their dream world where the chains of their reality could be broken. Almost certainly knowing very little about Europe, most Americans could construct the continent in their preferred image while paying Hollywood studios for the opportunity. Top Hat’s production helps guide viewers, as the hotel suites where the two main characters stay are decorated with  no expense spared and are practically palatial. And, as the two chase each  other around London, and eventually to Italy, aristocratic pastimes like  horseback riding and gondola rides become the currency of viewers’ enjoyment. If the Depression-era United States was a harsh world that cannot be remedied in the moment, perhaps the only recourse was to take the audience on a  transatlantic trip. Top Hat’s far-flung travels provide a liberation to the viewer, and the screwball elements show wealthy people to be flawed in such a way that anyone could relate to the characters’ imperfection. At the film’s beginning, when Jerry is told he should consider marriage soon, he responds, “No thanks, Horace. In me, you see a youth who is completely on the loose. No yens. No yearnings. No strings. No connections.” In this line, made even more cavalier with Astaire’s breezy delivery, is quite possibly the ethos of the screwball comedy: much like Jerry, the viewer is supposed to float off on a cloud into their fantasies, with “No strings. No connections.” This is a freedom that practically none of the viewers had, but the film gave them a chance to imagine it through the character. Then, later, in the culminating romantic dance duet between Jerry and Dale, the audience is told “Heaven, I’m in Heaven” in song. Dale is in an elaborate gown with thousands of feathers; Jerry is in white tie and tails; and their dance, somewhere between a foxtrot and a Charleston, is ethereal. This is one visualization of what might be a fantasy, overwhelming the viewer with cues for a lavish world that is unfamiliar. This point, and this very scene, will be important later in this article,
Nolan Crawford
Figure 2: Jerry Travers woos Dale Tremont with song in an opulent gazebo while it rains. Top Hat (RKO Radio Pictures, 1935)

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