What Screwball Comedy Redefines

1132 words | 4 page(s)

Having become popular during America’s harshest economic climate in history, the screwball comedy evolved as one of the prominent movie genres of the 1930s. This romantic comedy subgenre was unique not only for its wit and jokes, but also for its view of relationships between men and women. Rather than focusing on the man’s role and his dominance in the romantic relationship, the screwball comedy started to treat sexes as equals. Whereas it is true that the dominant motif in director Howard Hawks’ screwball comedies is that of sex-antagonism (Leach 77-78), this antagonism revolves around a new role for women when in reality the gender issue was rather complicated. It also focused on a new type of union and interaction between a man and a woman. Howard Hawks’ screwball comedies redefine the role of a woman in a male-dominated society as a mistress of her own destiny and they also redefine the concept of marriage as an earned union between two equal partners.

American society had been male-dominated for centuries, but the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century ushered in a time when women’s status in society began to emerge. Women’s suffrage and increased opportunities for taking part in a public life, however, had not yet fully brought about the equality in gender relations. American culture remained traditionally male-dominated and the great changes in favor of women’s status were yet to happen. In this setting, Hawks’ screwball comedies emerged as the first indication of the changing status of women in both society and in family. His movies showed women as strong-willed with sharp-minded personalities who were mistresses of their own destinies. This helped establish women as being on equal footing with men. This powerful, capable female was best illustrated in Hawks’ 1940 comedy, His Girl Friday. It offered an image of a strong, determined, and energetic woman who was able to achieve social and sexual equality due to her inner qualities or achievements including intelligence, economic freedom, and vitality.

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The plot evolves thusly: a woman reporter, Hildy, is measured against masculine rather than feminine standards. In many respects, Hildy’s personality is stereotypically more masculine than feminine. This is further confirmed by her achievements in the traditionally masculine career of a reporter. Hildy’s unique position in this traditional men’s world is evidenced by the film’s characters when Walter Burns (Grant) addresses Hildy with the words, “You’re a newspaperman,” and Hildy echoes these words somewhat later in the movie when she declares, “I’m no suburban bridge player – I’m a newspaperman.” Her fellow reporters even acknowledge that Hildy is the antithesis of the traditional mother figure. In one scene, they discuss her by asking, “Can you picture Hildy’s singing lullabies and hanging out diapers?” They do not see her as the typical gossiping housewife when they question whether they could ever see her as a person who would swap “lies over the back fence” These quotes have been used to show that the characters know that Hildy is a femal anomaly in American society. She is successful in a man’s world as a master of her own destiny, and she possesses all of the necessary qualities to be a good reporter.

Hawks also underlines Hildy’s masculinity by her use of physical force. For example, in one scene, the audience watches while Hildy kicks Walter under the dinner table; in another scene, she threatens physical violence when she tells Walter,“I’m going to walk right up to you and hammer on that monkey skull of yours until it rings like a Chinese gong.” These examples show how Hawks redefined the image of a woman as a physically strong and even violent personality (contrary to the accepted vision of a female as a weak and powerless human who had to rely on her man for protection). Similarly, in the 1934 film Twentieth Century, Hawks focused on the strong female character of Lily Garland, an actress who becomes a major Hollywood star due to her focus on her skills and her desire to achieve. Moreover, Lily has an intimate relationship with Oscar, a theater director who promoted her as a young actress and taught her how to act.

Oscar helps her climb the career ladder to the point where she no longer needs him. In the character of Lily, Hawks shows how a woman can operate her life using her wit and her willpower. He also shows how a woman can operate without emotions while aiming at achieving her long-term goal. Even though the main heroine ends up on the stage of the theater where Lily started as an actress (a result of Oscar’s sly tricks), Hawks manages to show his audience the scope of Lily’s personality and her masculine qualities. These observations of the new role of a woman as a male-like, powerful, and extraordinary personality are supported by the evidence from critical sources. For example, Gerald Mast characterizes Lily Garland as a character acting with “energy, power, and passion” (Mast 206). These are adjectives not normally attributed to females of that era.

Finally, a prominent point that Hawks’ comedies make is redefining the meaning of a marriage as a unit. He portrays marriage as being two equal partners. It seems the best support for this statement can be found in Hawks’s 1938 comedy Bringing Up Baby. In this film, the union of an absolutely rationalistic scientist, Dr. David Huxley, and a screwy lady, Susan Vance, is the result of both characters’ internal changes that help them become emotionally closer to each other. For example, Dr. David Huxley learns to be more open to physical pleasures of sexual desire and various funny surprises. Susan Vance, on the other hand, learns to become more responsible socially. In this way, the union of the two characters comes about as a result of their willingness to accept each other and make efforts to understand and change. In this sense, the union demonstrates the equality of partnership. In this focus, the audience can see the director’s emphasis on “human wholeness, spiritual vitality, and sexual energy” as the underlying basis of successful man-woman relationships (Mast 311).

In summary, through his early films, Hawks managed to redefine the role of a woman in American society which had been traditionally dominated by men. His movies portrayed a strong confident woman who is able to take care of herself and is not dependent on a man for her well being and livelihood. He also managed to redefine the meaning of marriage as a union of equal partners who earn their happiness given they both are willing to change and to understand each other. Howard Hawks was ahead of his time with regards to women’s rights..

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