Screwball Comedy: 1931-1956 Definitive List of Early Films

by FilmCuckoo | created - 06 Mar 2017 | updated - 8 months ago | Public

Regarding the subject of debate, which films could be considered as "Screwball Comedy", the problem is much the same as with Film Noir, where the results are greatly depending on criteria used to define each film.

-It is worth noting in this context, that both Screwball comedy and Film Noir share striking similarities, even up to a point they are actually overlapping each other. A good example is "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944) - which could easily be considered as a Screwball Comedy, with film noir thematics and style. The difference is of course that while film noir is both a genre and a style, Screwball Comedy is just a style, making it relatively easy to apply to any genre, such as Western, which itself is also both style and a genre.

Also, it is worth noting that there is hardly any chance of ever finding two film scholars, who would ever be able to agree, which themes and plot devices would qualify any comedy as a Screwball Comedy, besides the established obvious ones.

Here is a list of my own, rather "loose" interpretation guide lines of the standard themes and plot devices for Screwball Comedy. However, in order for any comedy to "qualify" as a screwball comedy, at least four of the conditions below, must be filled.

  • General set-up is within upper class or upper middle-class.
  • The film is utilizing any variation of the "opposites attract" -theme, which often means verbal jousting between people from completely different social classes and/or backgrounds, or when seemingly totally incompatible couple find attraction towards each other, which then works as the main theme for the film. This also includes a very common theme for screwball comedy, "Battle of Sexes", where verbal jousting between male and female characters, forms the backbone to the entire plot.
  • The events in the film occur right around Christmas time.
  • Gender-roles reversed/challenged
  • Authority or age status reversed/challenged (such as a child is presumed, or takes a role as an adult or an adult is presumed as a child or is placed in similar situation)
  • Drag (straight) skits
  • Divorce/Remarrying
  • Multiple love interests competing (courting)
  • Comedy created from "Force majeure" -lies/cheats
  • Elements of screwy slapstick/pantomime/gag routines in situations, where in regular comedy they would be deemed inappropriate or unrealistic.
  • Mistaken/false identity portrayed in comedic style, followed by comedy drawn from the rising issues as a result.
  • Alcohol, drugs or medicine congested has a significant role with comedy/farcical issues following as a result, and usually would have a profound effect regarding the main plot or the story-line.
  • Plus in addition, as a loose rule of thumb: If a romantic comedy involves New York or Connecticut as a location, plus there are any three or more of the themes mentioned above included.

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1. After the Thin Man (1936)

Passed | 112 min | Comedy, Crime, Mystery

Nick investigates the case of a missing man and later a murder that is connected to Nora's family.

Director: W.S. Van Dyke | Stars: William Powell, Myrna Loy, James Stewart, Elissa Landi

Votes: 8,873

2. A Night to Remember (1942)

Approved | 91 min | Comedy, Mystery, Romance

A mystery writer and his newlywed wife move into a Greenwich Village apartment and find themselves with a corpse and a half dozen red herrings.

Director: Richard Wallace | Stars: Loretta Young, Brian Aherne, Jeff Donnell, William Wright

Votes: 911

3. A Girl, a Guy, and a Gob (1941)

Approved | 90 min | Comedy, Romance

Steve is a shy quiet man who is an executive for a shipping firm. He meets Dot at the Opera where she had his seats and the next day she shows up as his temporary secretary. Then Coffee Cup... See full summary »

Director: Richard Wallace | Stars: George Murphy, Lucille Ball, Edmond O'Brien, Henry Travers

Votes: 318

4. A Lady Takes a Chance (1943)

Passed | 86 min | Comedy, Romance, Western

A city girl on a bus tour of the West encounters a handsome rodeo cowboy who helps her forget her simpy city suitors.

Director: William A. Seiter | Stars: Jean Arthur, John Wayne, Charles Winninger, Phil Silvers

Votes: 984

5. A Millionaire for Christy (1951)

Approved | 91 min | Comedy, Romance

This hilarious comedy gave MacMurray a chance to show his comedic chops as Peter, a radio personality who is told he's just inherited two million dollars by a gold-digging secretary.

Director: George Marshall | Stars: Fred MacMurray, Eleanor Parker, Richard Carlson, Una Merkel

Votes: 383

6. A Slight Case of Murder (1938)

Approved | 85 min | Comedy, Crime

Former bootlegger Remy Marco has a slight problem with forclosing bankers, a prospective son-in-law, and four hard-to-explain corpses.

Director: Lloyd Bacon | Stars: Edward G. Robinson, Jane Bryan, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly

Votes: 1,746

7. Adam's Rib (1949)

Not Rated | 101 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance

Domestic and professional tensions mount when a husband and wife work as opposing lawyers in a case involving a woman who shot her husband.

Director: George Cukor | Stars: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell

Votes: 18,360

8. Annabel Takes a Tour (1938)

Passed | 67 min | Adventure, Comedy, Romance

Movie star Annabel Allison has further comic adventures with her wacky publicity agent.

Director: Lew Landers | Stars: Jack Oakie, Lucille Ball, Ruth Donnelly, Bradley Page

Votes: 210

9. Another Thin Man (1939)

Passed | 103 min | Comedy, Crime, Mystery

An explosives manufacturer suspects a young man is out to kill him. He calls in new parents Nick and Nora to sort things out.

Director: W.S. Van Dyke | Stars: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Virginia Grey, Otto Kruger

Votes: 6,048

10. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Not Rated | 118 min | Comedy, Crime, Thriller

A drama critic learns on his wedding day that his beloved maiden aunts are homicidal maniacs, and that insanity runs in his family.

Director: Frank Capra | Stars: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Jack Carson

Votes: 62,828

11. Bachelor Mother (1939)

Approved | 82 min | Comedy, Romance

An unemployed woman discovers an abandoned baby on the steps of an orphanage, and accepts an offer to take responsibility for the child in return for a job.

Director: Garson Kanin | Stars: Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Charles Coburn, Frank Albertson

Votes: 3,407

12. Ball of Fire (1941)

Approved | 111 min | Comedy, Romance

A group of professors working on a new encyclopedia encounter a mouthy nightclub singer who is wanted by the police to help bring down her mob boss lover.

Director: Howard Hawks | Stars: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers

Votes: 9,912

13. Bedtime Story (1941)

Passed | 85 min | Comedy, Romance

A playwright attempts to stop his wife from retiring so she can star in his next play.

Director: Alexander Hall | Stars: Fredric March, Loretta Young, Robert Benchley, Allyn Joslyn

Votes: 483

14. Blithe Spirit (1945)

Not Rated | 96 min | Comedy, Fantasy

Charles (Sir Rex Harrison) and his second wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings), are haunted by the spirit of his first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond). Medium Madame Arcati (Dame Margaret Rutherford) tries to help things out by contacting the ghost.

Director: David Lean | Stars: Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond, Margaret Rutherford

Votes: 5,082

15. Blond Cheat (1938)

Approved | 62 min | Comedy, Music, Romance

Socially prominent Michael Ashburn, is the chief assistant to Rufus Trent, wealthy London loan broker. He has allowed himself to become engaged to the Rufus' daughter, Roberta, the match ... See full summary »

Director: Joseph Santley | Stars: Joan Fontaine, Derrick De Marney, Cecil Kellaway, Cecil Cunningham

Votes: 206

16. Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938)

Passed | 85 min | Comedy, Romance

After learning her multi-millionaire fiancé has already been married seven times, the daughter of a penniless marquis decides to tame him.

Director: Ernst Lubitsch | Stars: Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Edward Everett Horton, David Niven

Votes: 2,982

17. Bombshell (1933)

Passed | 96 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance

Sexpot film star Lola Burns seeks a new image and tries marrying a marquis and adopting a baby - all sorts of schemes which go awry.

Director: Victor Fleming | Stars: Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Frank Morgan, Franchot Tone

Votes: 2,128

18. Boy Meets Girl (1938)

Approved | 86 min | Comedy

Two screenwriters in a rut come up with a story idea starring a bankable cowboy and the baby of the studio's waitress.

Director: Lloyd Bacon | Stars: James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Marie Wilson, Ralph Bellamy

Votes: 526

19. Breakfast for Two (1937)

Approved | 67 min | Comedy, Romance

Texan debutante Valentine Ransome tries to reform a bankrupt playboy.

Director: Alfred Santell | Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Herbert Marshall, Glenda Farrell, Eric Blore

Votes: 764

20. Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Not Rated | 102 min | Comedy, Family, Romance

91 Metascore

While trying to secure a $1 million donation for his museum, a befuddled paleontologist is pursued by a flighty and often irritating heiress and her pet leopard, Baby.

Director: Howard Hawks | Stars: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett

Votes: 52,241

21. Brother Rat and a Baby (1940)

Passed | 87 min | Comedy

Three comrades graduate from Viriginia Military Institute. Bing has a chance to return to VMI as a football coach.

Director: Ray Enright | Stars: Priscilla Lane, Wayne Morris, Jane Bryan, Eddie Albert

Votes: 218 | Gross: $0.12M

22. By Candlelight (1933)

Passed | 70 min | Comedy, Music, Romance

Beautiful woman mistakes a prince's butler for the prince.

Director: James Whale | Stars: Elissa Landi, Paul Lukas, Nils Asther, Dorothy Revier

Votes: 88

23. Cafe Society (1939)

83 min | Comedy, Romance

A wealthy young lady marries a reporter on a bet, but things might not work out so well when he finds out the truth.

Director: Edward H. Griffith | Stars: Madeleine Carroll, Fred MacMurray, Shirley Ross, Jessie Ralph

Votes: 68

24. Call It a Day (1937)

Approved | 90 min | Comedy

The first day of spring has a profound affect on the Hilton family. The father, an accountant, finds himself unable to work, and when he tries to work, he is wooed by an actress whose taxes... See full summary »

Director: Archie Mayo | Stars: Olivia de Havilland, Ian Hunter, Anita Louise, Alice Brady

Votes: 186

25. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Not Rated | 101 min | Comedy, Romance

A food writer who has lied about being the perfect housewife must try to cover her deception when her boss and a returning war hero invite themselves to her home for a traditional family Christmas.

Director: Peter Godfrey | Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, Reginald Gardiner

Votes: 7,298

26. Christmas in July (1940)

Passed | 67 min | Comedy, Romance

When the co-workers of an ambitious clerk trick him into thinking he has won $25,000 in a slogan contest, he begins to use the money to fulfill his dreams. What will happen when the ruse is discovered?

Director: Preston Sturges | Stars: Dick Powell, Ellen Drew, Raymond Walburn, Alexander Carr

Votes: 3,066

27. Cinderella Jones (1946)

Passed | 90 min | Comedy, Music, Romance

Judy Jones, sings with a band and also works at an aircraft plant. She takes part in a "missing heirs" radio program and is discovered to be an heiress to a fortune. But the will provides ... See full summary »

Director: Busby Berkeley | Stars: Joan Leslie, Robert Alda, Julie Bishop, William Prince

Votes: 191

28. Curtain Call (1940)

Approved | 63 min | Comedy, Romance

A naive playwright sells her awful play, "The End of Everything," to two Broadway producers who want to get even with an ungrateful star.

Director: Frank Woodruff | Stars: Barbara Read, Alan Mowbray, Helen Vinson, Donald MacBride

Votes: 150

29. Danger - Love at Work (1937)

Passed | 84 min | Comedy, Romance

A young lawyer is unable to get the Pembertons to sign a land sale contract until their daughter falls in love with him.

Director: Otto Preminger | Stars: Ann Sothern, Jack Haley, Mary Boland, Edward Everett Horton

Votes: 196

30. Day-Time Wife (1939)

Passed | 72 min | Comedy, Romance

When a young wife discovers her husband of two years is involved with his beautiful secretary, she applies for a job as secretary to a business rival.

Director: Gregory Ratoff | Stars: Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Warren William, Binnie Barnes

Votes: 518

31. Design for Living (1933)

Not Rated | 91 min | Comedy, Romance

A woman cannot decide between two men who love her, and the trio agree to try living together in a platonic friendly relationship.

Director: Ernst Lubitsch | Stars: Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Edward Everett Horton

Votes: 5,275

32. Destry Rides Again (1939)

Approved | 95 min | Comedy, Western

When a tough western town needs taming, the mild-mannered son of a hard-nosed sheriff gets the job.

Director: George Marshall | Stars: Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger

Votes: 9,440 | Gross: $0.35M

33. Double Wedding (1937)

Passed | 87 min | Comedy, Romance

Two sisters of differing temperaments, the younger's milquetoast fiancé, and a free-spirited artist in an auto trailer are all experiencing romantic complications.

Director: Richard Thorpe | Stars: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Florence Rice, John Beal

Votes: 1,737

34. Down to Their Last Yacht (1934)

Passed | 64 min | Comedy, Musical, Romance

A family loses everything in the crash of 1929 except for their yacht. In order to make money, they rent out the yacht. A couple of guys feel sorry for the young maiden, who has everything ... See full summary »

Director: Paul Sloane | Stars: Mary Boland, Polly Moran, Ned Sparks, Sidney Fox

Votes: 169

35. Easy Living (1937)

Passed | 88 min | Comedy, Romance

A wealthy banker throws his wife's expensive fur coat off the roof of a building; it lands on the head of a stenographer, leading to everyone assuming she is his mistress and has access to his millions.

Director: Mitchell Leisen | Stars: Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Ray Milland, Luis Alberni

Votes: 2,819

36. Eternally Yours (1939)

Approved | 95 min | Comedy, Drama

Anita Halstead, swept off her feet by magician Arturo, finds the results less than magical.

Director: Tay Garnett | Stars: Loretta Young, David Niven, Hugh Herbert, Billie Burke

Votes: 587 | Gross: $0.18M

37. Ever Since Eve (1937)

Approved | 80 min | Comedy, Romance

Lecherous bosses make it difficult for an attractive secretary to keep jobs, so she decides to appear considerably more homely in hopes of holding onto work.

Director: Lloyd Bacon | Stars: Marion Davies, Robert Montgomery, Frank McHugh, Patsy Kelly

Votes: 1,340

38. Family Honeymoon (1948)

Approved | 90 min | Comedy

A bachelor marries a widow and her three kids join the honeymoon.

Director: Claude Binyon | Stars: Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray, Rita Johnson, William H. Daniels

Votes: 170

39. 5th Ave Girl (1939)

Approved | 83 min | Comedy, Romance

Feeling unwanted by his wife and children, a wealthy industrialist hires an unemployed young woman to pose as his mistress.

Director: Gregory La Cava | Stars: Ginger Rogers, Walter Connolly, Verree Teasdale, James Ellison

Votes: 1,178

40. First Love (1939)

Approved | 84 min | Comedy, Musical

An orphaned boarding school graduate secretly attends a prestigious ball, where she falls for the boyfriend of her snobbish cousin.

Director: Henry Koster | Stars: Deanna Durbin, Robert Stack, Eugene Pallette, Helen Parrish

Votes: 567

41. Fools for Scandal (1938)

Approved | 80 min | Comedy, Music, Romance

After meeting her in Paris, a penniless marquis relentlessly pursues a famous actress.

Director: Mervyn LeRoy | Stars: Carole Lombard, Fernand Gravey, Ralph Bellamy, Allen Jenkins

Votes: 372

42. Footsteps in the Dark (1941)

Approved | 96 min | Comedy, Mystery, Crime

A respected investment advisor has a double life as a mystery writer and becomes involved in the real murder of a shady client.

Director: Lloyd Bacon | Stars: Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Ralph Bellamy, Alan Hale

Votes: 986

43. Forsaking All Others (1934)

Passed | 83 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance

Dill leaves Mary standing at the altar in order to marry his old flame, Connie, instead. Knowing that Mary still has feelings for Dill, Jeff keeps quiet about his own love for her.

Director: W.S. Van Dyke | Stars: Robert Montgomery, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Charles Butterworth

Votes: 1,005

44. Four's a Crowd (1938)

Approved | 92 min | Comedy, Romance

Robert will do anything to get the big