HARDCORE: THE SCREWBALL COMEDY, OR THE CLASS THAT TAUGHT US HOW CUKOR, HAWKS AND STURGES MAKE DIVORCE FUN AGAIN!

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HARDCORETHE SCREWBALL COMEDY        Instructor:  Steven Schardt

NWFF PRESENTS THE CLASS TO TAKE ON ALL THINGS EXTREMELY WITTY.  IT TOOK PLACE ON SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 8TH FROM 10AM TO 7PM, WITH AN ADDED UNEXPECTED (BUT I’M SURE DELIGHTFUL) BONUS OF GROUP DISCUSSION AFTER AT A LOCAL RESTAURANT.

Having been a film instructor for 3 years (who has a deep love of Screwball Comedy), and (like everyone out there) having been a student, I was thrilled to be asked to go to this class and review it.  We saw 4 films that day that were chosen on the theme of divorce (something else I know about too, unfortunately), and the written material that was chosen to guide the discussions came from STANLEY CAVELL’S  PURSUITS OF HAPPINESSTHE HOLLYWOOD COMEDY OF REMARRIAGE.

THE LADY EVE (1941)   D:  PRESTON STURGES: I had seen this film before (well, I’ve seen them all multiple times, you have to to get all dialogue, for one thing, and they are such works of genius they deserve to be seen as much as possible anyway.)  Basic plot:  the wonderful Barbara Stanwyck and her father, the talented Charles Coburn, fleece their naive, wealthy victims of their cash.  All goes well until they meet up with Henry Fonda, a sheep ripe for fleecing as he’s an heir to a fortune and is also a scientist who just spent 1 year up the Amazon. (While watching this film I once again was reminded what talent he had for comedy, the slapstick he did for this film (along with his character, who is the straight man), is just delicious!).  Naturally they fall in love, he finds out who they are, so everything falls apart.  Being a woman, she can’t let it go at that, and schemes to marry him as a different person.  (Talk about taking stalking to a new level!)  Being the naive sucker he is he falls for it, but it all falls apart again, and a divorce is sought.  And then…………………………

The Philadelphia Story (1940)  D:  George Cukor: This, and the following film, are probably the two most recognizable Screwball Comedies of all time for most people.  Justifiably so.  They are probably two of the most outstanding comedies about divorce ever made. Period. Katherine Hepburn is directed by G. Cukor, who was known as a “Women’s Director” for his ability to get the best performance out of the better sex, and he and Hepburn teamed up and made some of the best films ever.  Watch ANY of them.  You’ll see.  Just like this one–honestly I feel silly even relating the plotline as who hasnt seen this film?!!  But, OK, Kate was married to Cary who drank.  They divorced.  She hooks up with a self-made man and is about to marry him. Jimmy and Ruth, reporters for a sensational rag they hate working for, are forced by their editor to cover this Society wedding, as their editor has the goods on Kate’s daddy’s affair.  And Cary is sober and wants his wife back. And then……………………………

His Girl Friday (1940)    D:  Howard Hawks:  Glenn Gordon Caron, before he even allowed the writers of Moonlighting to put pen to paper, had them watch this film the most so they could understand how he wanted the show to be written, the cross talk especially.  I’ve seen it 7, maybe 8 times, and get something new in every viewing.  Again, it feels stupid to even relate the plot of this all time classic, but here we go..Ace reporter Rosalind was married to Cary, her boss in the newspaper game.   They drove each other crazy and divorced, as she decided she wanted to live a “normal” life with a house, hubby and babies.  She needs Cary to sign the divorce papers, so she stops by the paper with her fiance Ralph.  They are marrying the next day.  A major story is breaking, and Cary convinces Rosalind to help cover it.  And then…………..(It has one joke that changed Hollywood history–breaking down the third wall.  I’ll give ya a hint, Cary says it and it has an R in it.)

Adam’s Rib (1949)  D:  George Cukor: Another Hepburn/Cukor collaboration, this time adding Spencer Tracy to the mix.  During the class I thought of at least 7 other films they starred in together–what a team!  In this one, one of my all time favorite actresses Judy Holliday, shoots philandering hubby Tom Ewell. Tracy and Hepburn are the A.D.A. and defense attorney, respectively.  Naturally this wreaks havoc in their own marriage, leading to them talking divorce, and a touching scene of them dividing up their assets in their lawyer’s office.  And then………………………..

(There was also a clip from Bringing Up Baby (1938)  D:  Howard Hawks. I don’t know who to thank for the choice of films, but, on behalf of the entire class, I thank you!)

The Pursuits of Happiness book that our many discussions were based on brought out a lot of points I had never really thought about, which is lovely for those of us who have spent countless days in Screwball Comedy Festivals, or glued to TCM (and think we know so much!).  The idea that most of them are set in the backgrounds of the wealthy made sense to those Depression-era film goers, (who these films were made for), as ONLY the truly rich had the leisure time to spend on the pursuit of romance, was a new one to me.  (Evidently eroticism is always expensive, one way or other!).  Also the metaphysics of innocence, the role of the father as educator and protector of virginity, the philosophy of remarriage, and Milton and his defense of divorce (esp. due to his own situation), yes, all these points and more were included, very insightfully, by Instructor Steven Schardt.  Who, if he ever wants to quit his day job, would be an excellent professor, knowledgeable yet approachable.

AND the class was VERY well attended, which gives ALL us instructors hope!

So, as this is my field of expertise, I always think there are 3 ways to judge if a class is successful or not-

1)  Material chosen–Was it relevant to the theme?  Did it keep the student’s interest?  Does it enrich the knowledge one had on the subject?

2)  Instructor–Again, did they hold the student’s interest? Were they warm and welcoming, encouraging students to express themselves?  Did they disseminate the information in an entertaining way?  (We’ve all been in classes where the teacher has a profound knowledge of his subject matter, but no clue how to get it across.  No one likes to pay to have that experience!).  How do they handle problems when they come up, i.e. can they think on their feet?

3)  Student Satisfaction–Did they feel the instructor felt their opinions were important?  Did they feel encouraged to express them?  Did they feel the class taught them something new, along with having satisfied their expectations of what they thought the class would be?  Did they meet new people who could be potential friends, based on this mutual interest?

So, what else can I do but issue a Report Card:

MATERIALS:                      A

INSTRUCTOR:                    A

STUDENT SATISFACTION: A

I’m sorry if you missed it, but the good news is that soon you may be able to transcend that problem.

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