o fully appreciate the genius of the 30s, we need to step back a few years and look at the pre-code landscape of Hollywood circa 1920, which by then had become the film’s epicenter. The possibilities were wide open and the silent filmmakers, especially European filmmakers, were taking full advantage of them. Heartbreak, suicide, murder, revenge and anything else human showed up in these early gems.
But ultimately, it would be sex of course, that prompted the Hays Code.
Certainly sex was no stranger to film in general, but by the early 30s with the rising popularity of movies as a venue, it became suspect. Baby Face is a good example of an early controversial pre-code film. It concerns a 14-year-old girl prostituted by her father who grows up and sleeps her way to wealth and power, destroying men along the way. Reality had caught the fascination of filmmakers and the public was polarized by the results.
The Hays Code came along to supposedly remedy that. For the most part, it was basically of a set of ‘morals’ for filmmakers and the major studios to follow. But writers and filmmakers who had to work within the Hays Code found a secret goldmine in these new restrictions. They found it in the art of comedy.
Comedy was the perfect landscape to unleash the battle of the sexes and sex in general as it could be insinuated in any number of ways. Writers, and naturally directors came up with clever ways to imply sex, but not actually show it. The Hays Code lasted 30 years from the 30s to the 60s, and by then, filmmakers had it down to a science. There’s a great scene in The Grass is Greener where we see all the the places our secret lovers had reservations for — dinner, the theatre, cocktails, etc. The camera pans in on their empty seats at each location and finally to a closed hotel door (where they’ve obviously been doing it the whole time). White hot and very clever. Kids and Grandma see nothing but everyone else gets it completely.
Although the Hays Code isn’t directly involved with the invention of the screwball comedy, it was created under its guidelines. Taking a cue from Vaudeville, the screwball style employed precise timing, lightning-fast dialogue and physical performance, usually at the same time. Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant were well known for doing their own stunts while delivering perfect dialogue. In fact, what fully distinguishes screwball comedy from classic comedy is dialogue. Distributed with fast pacing and always with a bite, the dialogue of the screwball is quite unique in film and worthy of a second look. Not to mention that they are still hilarious and quite timeless.
Here is a great list of classic screwballs to get you started if you’re interested. Although I would have put My Man Godfrey a lot higher on the list, they are all gems. And start with Bringing up Baby. It’s hilarious.