Magazine article The Spectator

Sex and the City Has Nothing on Screwball Comedy

Magazine article The Spectator

Sex and the City Has Nothing on Screwball Comedy

Article excerpt

You can learn a great deal about a culture from its fantasies. If Sex and the City is anything to go by, ours are pretty impoverished. The first film version of the HBO series is going into production and will be released next year, guaranteed to offer its trademark view that femininity today is defined by shoes, shopping and sex. I like all three as much as the next girl -- unless the next girl is a character on Sex and the City -- but my fantasies are rather more ambitious.

They were formed years ago by a passionate devotion to the peerless romantic comedies of the 1930s, known as screwballs. Some 65 years before Sex and the City offered 'groundbreaking' stories about professional women seeking true love in the big city, screwball comedy did the same thing, except that its ideal women were usually minding their own business instead of desperately seeking a husband. Not exactly progress.

Screwball imagined the battle of the sexes as exquisite cosmopolitan fun, a new kind of comedy of manners, chic fairy tales in which sophisticated urban lovers crossed wits, crossed country, and, occasionally, crossdressed. Men in tuxedos and women in satin evening gowns teased, taunted, and tormented each other into submission. Screwball was Jane Austen in Art Deco, Beatrice and Benedick at the Stork Club, with slapstick added to the mix: Cary Grant in a tuxedo slips on an olive at the Ritz in Bringing Up Baby; Myrna Loy in furs does a skidding pratfall across the glossy floor of a bar in The Thin Man. Screwball imagined women who were as smart, stylish, witty, independent and forceful as the men who tangled with them.

From the start, Sex and the City was nostalgic for a different era in Hollywood romance -- the most infantile and repressive era, the late 1950s. The opening words of the first episode were: 'Welcome to the age of un-innocence. No one has breakfast at Tiffany's, and no one has affairs to remember. Instead we have breakfast at 7 a. m. , and affairs we try to forget as quickly as possible. How the hell did we get into this mess?' By watching the wrong movies, apparently. Being nostalgic for Breakfast at Tiffany's and An Affair to Remember means identifying with a version of prelapsarian romantic bliss in which the woman is either a prostitute in all but name or ends up in a wheelchair. It's a revealing choice.

Screwball imagined an altogether more robust world, in which lovers didn't need each other desperately; they were not so insufficient. Nor could man hope to conquer woman; the best he could achieve was détente. In screwball women and men gave as good they got, artists at one-upmanship and masters of the Parthian shot. Neither admitted defeat; neither was in the wrong for long. Except in the sense that love would conquer all, the game was never rigged:

screwball admired both its protagonists equally, and meted out impartial justice that was very nearly irrespective of sex (bar the occasional spanking). If Clark Gable taught Claudette Colbert how to dunk doughnuts properly in one scene in It Happened One Night, she taught him how to hitchhike in the next. If Carole Lombard got punched in the jaw in Nothing Sacred, she socked Fredric March right back. The lovers in screwball were as perfectly matched as their wardrobes, as for a brief period during the Depression Hollywood stopped worrying and learnt to love the bombshell.

Take the following exchange, which opens the incomparable His Girl Friday, in which Rosalind Russell comes to see Cary Grant, her ex-husband, for the first time since their divorce. …

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