The current Madcap Manhattan series at Film Forum is wall-to-wall screwball. (With a few more mad than madcap—Little Murders and The King of Comedy—thrown in for, good measure?) But what is screwball comedy, exactly? According to Andrew Sarris they are sex comedies without the sex. They’ve also been typified as comedies of inversion and absent-mindedness; the humor works best when the characters strive to be rational in increasingly irrational circumstances. Role-switching is always a central theme, too, and that requires equal roles in these romances.
At their best, screwball comedies are pure rhythm and reaction. They unfold (or twist up) in a pattern of equal interplay, a call-and response between the two main characters. As feminist interest in the genre might attest to, that means the absence of a subject (usually a man) and an object (usually a woman.) Instead both man and woman respond to one another as if in a well—matched verbal racket sport, until a rhythm to their rally is established. It’s this nonstop beat that drives the film, that is the film. This momentum carries the (always unlikely) couple through ridiculous situations, pratfalls and misunderstandings. Plot is secondary, and so, then, is logic.
Instead of plot summaries, it’s best to describe these films by their rhythms. His Girl Friday is a bullet train, 20th Century is a loopy rollercoaster with sudden drops, Bringing Up Baby is verbal somersaults and… To be honest, with this genre criticism often falls flat. (Stanley Cavell’s personal and philosophical approach being the exception.) Jacques Rivette, probably the keenest living film critic, wrote beautifully about Hawks but he wasn’t able to describe the brilliance of Bringing Up Baby accurately until he described it by homage, in his most recent movie Around a Small Mountain. Peter Bogdanovich also made an homage to that classic Hawks with his 1972 film What’s Up Doc?, and though he is probably Bringing Up Baby’s biggest champion, he gives up trying to describe why in his DVD commentary; halfway through it devolves into an audio track of mostly long silences and big laughs.
So how to describe Bachelor Mother, a screwball comedy playing at Film Forum today? I could tell you that it’s the story of a down-and-out shopgirl (Ginger Rogers) who gets a string of unusual Christmas presents: first a pink slip, then a baby, then the bemused affection of her playboy boss (David Niven.) In the film’s upside-down logic, she learns that motherhood is easier than constantly explaining that the baby is not really hers.
The key romantic scene in Bachelor Mother is a New Year’s party in which Ginger speaks to Niven in Swedish-style gibberish—like the Swedish Chef—but he gets her just fine. In fact, they finally bond then because the words themselves have stopped getting in their way, causing misunderstanding and conflict, and they’re instead communicating through pure cadence and tone. The lesson of the genre might be that it doesn’t matter what you say, it’s how you say it, and with whom. So maybe I should give up plot recaps and just describe the slowed-down tempo of their dialogue duet. The director, Garson Kanin, is a writer (It Should Happen to You, Adam’s Rib) who allows space for his lines to be heard, to float a little before they sink in. (It’s the badminton of the genre.) The film is carried along by a loll of a rhythm, with a steady back-and-forth between idle lines of melody, and odd pauses. Better yet, I could tell you it sounds just like this and I recommend it. Or, as better put by one of the commentators on this link, “Absoluetly the cream – check out this riddim..”