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American Film Comedy . Screwball Comedies of the 1930s. Themes. Comic integration of outsiders (immigrants, other classes) and desire for assimilation. Exposing divisions in society through exaggeration but also working to heal those divisions.

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american film comedy

American Film Comedy

Screwball Comedies of the 1930s

  • Comic integration of outsiders (immigrants, other classes) and desire for assimilation.
  • Exposing divisions in society through exaggeration but also working to heal those divisions.
  • Theme of integration (or reintegration) into society of those who have become alienated.
themes continued
Themes, continued
  • Comic disruption of the forces of social order through chaos and disorder.
  • Desire for upward mobility and cross-class relationships.
  • Often ending with a marriage that signifies the formation of the new community out of the old.
silent era
Silent Era
  • Charlie Chaplin: “Little Tramp” character at odds with machines, authority.
  • Buster Keaton: deadpan features and inventive response to change.
  • Harold Lloyd: the middle-class striver who never gives up; anxiety about fitting in.
screwball comedy
Screwball Comedy
  • Screwball comedy: eccentrically comic battle of the sexes, with the male generally losing.
  • Hero of screwball comedy is an antihero forever frustrated by his attempts to create order.
  • Thomas Sobchack and Vivian C. Sobchack: “the predatory female who stalks the protagonist” is a basic genre convention.
screwball comedy continued
Screwball Comedy, continued
  • Goal: to free the man from stuffy social conventions and allow the couple to learn the meaning of love and “natural” ways of behaving.
  • Andrew Bergman: comedies bridged class differences but were essentially politically conservative because they sought to “patch up” differences rather than expose them.
  • Carole Lombard and William Powell in My Man Godfrey, 1936
screwball comedy continued7
Screwball Comedy, Continued
  • Screwball comedy parodies the traditional love story. The more eccentric partner, invariably the woman, usually manages a victory over the less assertive, easily frustrated man.
  • Role reversal (aggressive woman, passive man) reflects anxieties about Depression-induced unemployment and instability of gender roles.
conventions of screwball comedy
Conventions of Screwball Comedy
  • Post-Production Code.
  • Screwball comedy had to find substitutes for the frank sexuality of Pre-Code films.
  • Slapstick violence
  • Witty dialogue.
  • Scenes with comic sexual tension or predicaments (a couple trapped in a room or forced to pretend they are married, for example)
  • Contemporary, often settings of wealth: ocean liners, country clubs, luxurious homes
  • Often a movement from urban setting to the country (like Shakespeare’s “green world” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  • Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, The Lady Eve (1941)
settings continued
Settings, Continued
  • Often a movement from the world of one protagonist to the other, which causes a movement between classes as well.
  • Stanley Cavell: screwball comedies often are set in Connecticut.
  • Settings sometimes incorporate the innocence of childhood: a playroom, a toy store, an attic with children’s toys.
other conventions
Other Conventions
  • Cross-dressing, disguises, or gender confusion; mistaken identity.
  • Comic repetitions of scenes, phrases, and incidents, sometimes with elements reversed.
  • Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, 1938
other conventions continued
Other Conventions, continued
  • Comic misunderstandings, often over words; fast-paced, “hyperactive” dialogue.
  • Screwball comedy places importance on the meanings of words, alerting audiences to double meanings.
  • To signal this importance, characters are often writers or newspaper reporters.
  • Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, 1934
other coventions continued
Other Coventions, continued
  • A common plot: the “comedy of remarriage” (Stanley Cavell), in which warring or divorced partners reunite, as in The Awful Truth, 1937
  • Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, 1940