It was all because of Carole Lombard.
So beautiful it hurt, and very talented, actress Carole Lombard1 was the queen of the screwball comedy movies, and back in the days she was the highest paid star in Hollywood.
I think I first got struck by Lombard when I first saw Ernst Lubitsch‘s To Be or Not to Be, and afterwards I tried to track as many of her movies as possible.
I like her very much2.
It was by reading up on Lombard that I got deeper into screwball comedies, the so called sex comedies without sex that Hollywood developed to counter the Hays Code.
What fascinates me to this day is the fact that screwball comedy is sort of the mirror opposite of the noir genre.
Sexual tension, gender politics and the roles of man and woman in society, class struggle and social critique are all there, as is the idea of the male lead being somewhat dazed and confused, and a victim of his own role – it was all there in both genres, played for thrills in noir, and for laughs in screwball comedy.
Screwball comedies were born, according to the general wisdom, in 1934, with Howard Hawks‘ Twentieth Century. Lombard was Hawks’ cousin, and that movie put her in the spotlight.
And of course, director Howard Hawks – that with Joseph von Sternberg is often mentioned here in Karavansara – was a director of both noir and what was to become the Hawksian comedy, his own special brand of screwball comedy.
According to Wikipedia
The Hawksian woman is up-front in speaking her mind and keeping up with her male counterparts in witty banter as well as taking action to get what she wants personally as well as sexually. She can be seen as the fast-talking, frank, and can beat a man in verbal conflict.
So, while the femme fatale uses her traditional seductive weapons to dominate her male counterpart3, the Hawksian woman sort of faces him on his own turf, and beats him at his own game. She is practical instead of languid, spunky instead of cruel, and she’s more often than not a professional success in her own field. She’s competent and world-wise, intelligent and independent4. Lauren Bacall would become the epitome of the Hawksian woman.
The Hawksian woman is fundamental in Hawksian and screwball comedy – because so much of the comedy’s structure is supported by the quick banter between the leads, and by the witty, often sexy and tongue in cheek repartee that characterizes the dialogue.
Mind you, nothing tha Bill Shakespeare did not do in his own time – Much Ado about Nothing, by all means is a screwball comedy (and it has sometimes been staged as such in recent times).
But it’s nice noting there’s been a certain continuity, from the Elizabethans to the 1930s.
Right now, I’m trying to trace some examples of Hawksian women in pulp stories – which leads me to think I’ll have to check out the infamous Spicy pulps… or maybe not.
Any suggestion or pointer is welcome, by the way.
For sure, I realized long ago that in general not only I love Hawksian comedies, but indeed I tend to default to that style when writing light genres.
I like playing with dialogue, I like women that can be tough and in control without being necessarily vamps.
Apparently, the end of World War Two spelled the end of screwball comedies and the disappearance of Hawksian women.
Director John Carpenter – a fan of Hawks – somehow kept the character alive in his genre movies.
But the current model for strong female characters seem to be somewhat different – not woman that can face a man as an equal, but women that basically act like men.
But there’s space for variety.
- incidentally, Carole Lombard was born on October the 6th, so this post is a nice way to remember her on her anniversary. ↩
- I might point out that one of the characters in my novel The Ministry of Thunder is, in my mind’s eye, played by Carole Lombard. You guess who. ↩
- admittedly, often exasperated or turned up to eleven. ↩
- we could argue that for all her guiles and her cruelty, the femme fatale still needs a male counterpart as a tool. The Hawksian woman does not need her man as a form of legitimation. ↩