A Brief History Of The Screwball Comedy, A Micro-Genre Hollywood Spun Out Of Control

From "Bringing Up Baby" to "Game Night," the classic screwball has somehow transformed into a chaos comedy of epic proportions.

Who knew one pet leopard would forever change Hollywood?

In 1938, at the height of the screwball comedy’s popularity, Katharine Hepburn palled around with a colossal cat in “Bringing Up Baby.” She needed to deliver the leopard to her aunt in the Connecticut countryside, so she dragged a docile paleontologist with her, thinking he was a zoologist (and hoping to bang him, because he was portrayed by Cary Grant). A cycle of mishaps and ludicrous misunderstandings followed: The pair landed in jail, fended off a second leopard, chased after a troublemaking terrier, dismantled a collection of dinosaur fossils and broke up the paleontologist’s engagement so they could be together ― all in less than two hours’ runtime.

We tend to think of the screwball as a relic of Hollywood’s Golden Age, specifically the Depression-era ’30s and ’40s, when romantic comedies blended the silent era’s slapstick bombast with breakneck repartee and ever-escalating plots that would be at home in action movies.

But screwball sensibilities haven’t gone anywhere; they’ve simply morphed into chaos comedies like “Game Night,” which opens this weekend on a gargantuan 3,500 screens.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby."
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby."

You’ll recognize “Game Night” because its concept has been transposed onto a smattering of recent studio films: what starts as a routine evening in the company of lovers or colleagues or old friends or siblings results in a mix-up that yields car chases, people falling through ceilings, misplaced cellphones, arrests, strippers inadvertently dying, overwhelmingly potent drugs, henchmen, trickery, animals stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time, and any number of riotous happenstances not mentioned here.

I’m talking about “Date Night,” “The Night Before,” “Office Christmas Party,” “Rough Night,” “Sisters,” “Snatched.” In a way, these are the 2010s’ screwball larks, perhaps better described as comedies of errors. They twist the courtship device of classic screwballs, building on a different sort of romance: Two or more characters who’ve hit a roadblock in their (sometimes platonic) relationship get wrapped up in craaazy-wild frolics, forcing them to work together to escape the scenario. No matter the nature of their connection, they are seeking to reaffirm their value to one another’s lives. Instead of Hepburn wooing Grant away from his fiancée in a battle of the sexes, these characters are wooing one another away from the monotony of adult routines, marital discord or corporate greed.

In the 2010s’ first chaos comedy, “Date Night,” Tina Fey and Steve Carell are fatigued, sexless parents who finally get a fancy dinner out ― except they’ve stolen a reservation that belongs to another couple who happen to be entangled with gangsters who show up at the restaurant with guns and demands. Similar entanglements — guns and demands, that is — recur in “Rough Night” and “Game Night.” So many nights!

Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage in "Raising Arizona."
Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage in "Raising Arizona."

At its zenith, the screwball adhered to Hollywood’s self-regulated morality rulebook by cloaking tame sexual tension in rapid-fire antics. But when the industry laid its so-called Production Code ― a rubric that ensured movies were “wholesome” ― to rest in the late ’60s, the genre’s romance ploy became less limiting. Things got louder, bawdier. Still, certain Golden Age hallmarks remained, namely mistaken identities of the Shakespearean variety and quirky action sequences that bordered on the absurd. Both are tropes that define chaos comedies like “Game Night” and its predecessors.

“What’s Up, Doc?,” the 1972 caper starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, revolves around four identical bags of luggage ― one of which contains classified government documents and another that’s carrying coveted jewels ― getting jumbled up at a hotel, leading to a frenzied car chase through the streets of San Francisco. Fast forward to 1987, and we get the Coen brothers’ “Raising Arizona,” a madcap escapade in which Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter play newly married Reagan-era bumpkins who steal a baby and wind up squaring off with a grenade-toting bounty hunter. Veering away from the matchmaking concept, 1988′s lively “Big Business” featured Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin as two pairs of identical twins ― one wealthy, one poor ― who were mismatched at birth. By 2008, George Clooney gave us “Screwball: Sports Edition,” better known as “Leatherheads,” co-starring Renée Zellweger.  

In the case of “Game Night,” an amusing farce whose second half grows more convoluted by the minute, it’s an intimate murder mystery party among friends that leads to mistaken identities ... and a car chase ... and a jewel heist ... and an FBI hunt ... and a shootout on an airport runway ... and a lot of fast-tongued dialogue in which characters misinterpret one another’s words. If “Bringing Up Baby” coasts on brisk banter, so does “Game Night” ― but in a contemporary style, with endless pop-culture references that span Marilyn Manson, the Baldwin brothers, “Pulp Fiction” and “Murder She Wrote.”

All this from one suburban night in, as a group of 30-somethings contend with quotidian circumstances like dating, fertility, marriage and sibling rivalry ― the same topics that fueled “Bringing Up Baby,” “It Happened One Night,” “His Girl Friday,” “The Palm Beach Story” and “The More the Merrier.”

Kylie Bunbury, Lamorne Morris, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in "Game Night."
Kylie Bunbury, Lamorne Morris, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in "Game Night."

“Game Night” starts with a meet-cute between cutthroat trivia hounds (Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman), then skips ahead to their domestic bustle (they’re struggling to get pregnant) and regular competitive social gatherings ― including the night’s murder mystery proceedings. Once the central clique has mistaken a real murder for a component of the game they’re playing, the events that ensue form a gallery of unfortunate decisions and kinetic confusions.

There’s even a class critique ― a screwball-comedy staple ― at play: Bateman’s character feels inferior compared to his wealthier older brother (Kyle Chandler), who drives a slicker car and owns a house that’s four times as large. And it’s just as political as the housing-shortage crisis in “The More the Merrier” and the stolen federal paperwork in “What’s Up, Doc?” Wait till you see McAdams begrudgingly use an alt-right militia website to learn how to remove a bullet from Bateman’s arm. (No, really. It’s uproarious.) 

Aside from Depression-era clichés about why screwballs were fashionable to begin with ― one theory: middle-class Americans enjoyed laughing at pratfalls involving the rich ― part of why these comedies of errors abandoned their simpler roots is obvious: production budgets have ballooned, and romantic comedies are no longer trendy. Instead, today’s visual effects encourage directors to stuff projects with the more, more, more-ness that concludes “Game Night.” Production-code sexcapades are refracted into any number of shenanigans, and movies front-loaded with enticing ensembles and voluminous sight gags ostensibly provide more bang for your ticket-buying buck.

After the crushingly daft “Sisters” and “Snatched,” it’s encouraging that “Game Night” ― written by Mark Perez (“The Country Bears”) and co-directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (“Vacation”) ― is among the decade’s better chaos comedies. The gags, however preposterous, inspire sequences almost as delightful as Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant weaseling their way out of prison. See, for instance, an unbroken scene that snakes through a mansion where the cast is chasing after a Fabergé egg that could be a ticket out of their situation. See, also, MVP Jesse Plemons, who plays the weirdo loner next door with a dryness that gives his character’s raw emotions a touch of irony. At last, these aren’t just antics for antics’ sake.

Now all we need is a leopard, and the screwball circle will be complete.