“That girl’s got it!”
The unruly woman, romantic comedy, and sexual modernity

by Claire Graman

What happened before It Happened One Night (1934)? Contemporary scholars of the romantic comedy genre start their histories in the 1930s,[1] [open endnotes in new window] but the comic representation of love and sexuality in film can be found as early as Thomas Edison’s Vitascope film, The May Irwin Kiss (1896).

Love and laughter in The May Irwin Kiss (1896), featuring actors reenacting a scene from a popular stage comedy, The Widow Jones.

Film scholars generally explain the screwball comedy genre as cinema’s answer to rising divorce rates and changing gender roles in the wake of modernization and women’s suffrage (Mizejewski 34)[2], but why was screwball the answer? And why does the genre, which reached its height during the Great Depression, allow its heroines greater power to fulfill their desires than many of today’s rom-coms?

Compare Bringing Up Baby (1938), in which an unconventional woman convinces a serious man to have more fun, to the more recent Trainwreck(2015), in which a serious man convinces an unconventional woman to have less fun.  

In the final scene of Bringing Up Baby, Susan (Katherine Hepburn, left) and paleontologist David (Cary Grant, right) reconcile when she apologizes for past conflict. In the process, she destroys his fossil, illustrating that she hasn’t changed, but he forgives her anyway, proving he has.

In the final scene of Trainwreck, Amy (Amy Schumer, center) and Aaron (Bill Hader, not pictured) reconcile when she apologizes for past conflict and performs as a cheerleader (a profession she previously denigrated) to prove she’s changed.

Trainwreck challenges gender roles by placing Amy Schumer in a role usually filled by a male “Brat Pack” character in a Judd Apatow film—that of the hedonistic 20-something whose path to love is paved with a growth in maturity. Showing that women can also enjoy casual sex and marijuana in a media landscape where even the most lauded television shows contain nagging wife tropes,[2] is certainly useful, but the film ends by containing this unruliness. Screwball comedies, by contrast, not only feature unruly women as a key element of the genre, but also uses their unruliness to fuel the jokes, the narratives, and the romantic relationships of these films. Though not entirely radical—happiness still must equal marriage—screwball creates a world driven by female desire and agency, safely couched but undeniably present in its zany humor.

The representation of female subjectivity in regards to love and sexuality in 1930s film is particularly significant in the wake of major historical shifts pertaining to gender, including suffrage, birth control, a shift from courtship to dating, and the entry of women in the workplace and public. If, as Miriam Hansen argues, classical Hollywood cinema can be read as vernacular modernism (mass culture’s response to modernization),[3] then I argue that by studying the unruly woman in romantic comedies, we can better understand how society reconciled women’s desire with sexual modernity, and how female actors and writers used performance, comedy, and genre to challenge gender roles.

To explore how the unruly woman shapes the evolution of the screwball comedy, I’ll compare two films made a decade apart, but sharing many narrative and thematic similarities. The first is one of the best-known flapper comedies of the silent era, It (1927), starring Clara Bow and Antonio Moreno, based on a story by Elinor Glyn, an English writer known for her racy works during the Progressive Era. While Clara Bow’s star text has led to rich scholarly analysis, this, her most famous film, is often dismissed for its unoriginal plot and overall silliness, particularly the writers’ eagerness to reference to the film’s title as often as possible. Yet this playful tone is precisely what allows for the heroine’s radical desire and agency, while the shopgirl-marries- wealthy-boss plot taps into important cultural beliefs about gender and class. The second film, the screwball comedy Theodora Goes Wild (1936), is less well-known today, but it was well-received at its time, according to exhibitor reports[4] (“Theodora Goes Wild,” “Theodora Goes Wild with…”), and starred two actors associated with the genre, Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas. Both films center on the way in which the unruly woman drives the comedy and romance of her film to critique gender, class, and propriety.

While there were many important comediennes of the 1920s,[5] Clara Bow and Colleen Moore confronted movie-goers with the new, vivacious womanhood of their flapper comedies. Both stars humorously performed the paradox of being simultaneously sexy and innocent, making modern femininity alluring but less threatening (Ross)[6]. Still, in their unruly performances and their characters’ clearly articulated desires, they laid the foundation for the give-and-take gender wars of Depression-era romantic comedies.  

In It, Bow plays a working-class department store employee with an almost-magical sex appeal (coyly called ‘it’) who falls in love with the wealthy young owner of the store. It uses many elements that will later characterize screwball comedy, including the most obvious: witty, zany dialogue. We often don’t remember intertitles for their wit, but as Laura Frost explains in her article on screenwriter, Anita Loos, written jokes in films became more common in the mid-1920s.[7] In It, intertitles with dialogue not only play with language for humorous effect, but also for characterization. For example, when Bow’s character, Betty Lou, first sees the male lead Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), she says, “Sweet Santa Claus, give me him!”

The statement positions her as both a child (by referencing Santa Claus) and as an adult (by clearly articulating sexual desire). The joke playfully illustrates the cultural paradox that both infantilizes and sexualizes women, while positioning her as the desiring subject and the man as the object of desire. Similarly, in Bringing up Baby, when Katherine Hepburn’s character, Susan, casually explains, in reference to Cary Grant’s character, David: “I’m going to marry him. He doesn’t know it yet, but I am.” In both flapper and screwball comedy, the woman’s desire is clearly articulated and typically propels the narrative.

Another significant element of It, which foreshadows screwball comedy, is role-playing. While this and mistaken identity appear frequently in comedy, as far back as Shakespeare, here Betty Lou pretends to be someone else specifically for the purpose of teasing her love interest. In this instance, she pretends to be an heiress in order to crash his yacht party, after the two have had an argument. This narrative turn not only allows for more jokes, as Betty Lou bluffs her way through class conventions (such as pretending to speak French), but also leads to the couple’s ultimate reconciliation.  

Working-class Betty Lou (Clara Bow) masquerades as a wealthy guest on her love interest’s yacht.

Though this flapper comedy demonstrates several important characteristics of screwball comedy, such as an unruly heroine, zany dialogue, and role-playing, it lacks the crucial sense of partnership. Though the film makes it clear that Waltham returns Betty Lou’s affections, this is never demonstrated through humor or play. Rather than showing a couple adjusting to each other via comedy, Betty Lou her man through her wit and charm. He does not have to work this way to earn her affection. Though Betty Lou fits into the unruly woman trope, and successfully follows her desire, she does not reshape social structures. The character is unique, not the narrative, a fact noted by contemporary reviewers (Hall).[8] We can find unruly women in many genres, but what is unique and important about screwball is that the unruly woman restructures the world of the film, through humor and in accordance to female desire. While flapper comedies, which presented unruly modern women with clear sexual desire, was an important precursor to the genre, the screwball comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s created more equality between the sexes through their zany comedy.

In keeping with the unruly aesthetic, Theodora Goes Wild (1936) has a convoluted plot, but otherwise echoes many elements of It, including a cross-class romance and social critique, humor through role-playing, and zany dialogue. The film follows, Theodora (Irene Dunne), a respectable woman from a small, conservative town called Lynnfield, who secretly writes a scandalous romance novel under the pseudonym, Caroline Adams. When she visits her publisher in the city, she meets Michael (Melvyn Douglas), the illustrator of her book’s cover, who discovers her double life, is intrigued, and attempts to free her true self, the one that writes sexy novels. He follows her to Lynnfield and gets a job as a gardener for her maiden aunts.

In a pivotal scene, Michael and Theodora go berry-picking alone together, where they can both drop their masquerades. He questions her happiness, by asking about her ability to laugh in Lynnfield. Though his demeanor suggests arrogance, Theodora retains power both visually and through dialogue.

Theodora (Irene Dunne) and Michael (Melvyn Douglas) take a break from picking berries to debate the nature of happiness.

For most of this scene, the framing makes her seem taller and more serious than Michael who slouches and is covered in berry juice. She also calls him doctor, playfully undercutting his authority. Michael, however, plays along, pretending to take her pulse, which acknowledges her rebuke, but still asserts his viewpoint, that she is unhappy fitting in with society’s expectations. The light-hearted tone and playfulness of this scene signals to the viewer the development of a companionate relationship between the couple while the dialogue retains the central conflict that will maintain the narrative. 

Though Michael ultimately succeeds in shaking up Theodora’s life, the dynamic switches halfway through the film and she follows him to the city to force him to acknowledge the unhappy aspect of his own life (specifically that he is trapped in a completely estranged marriage, because a divorce would hurt his father’s political career). In the scene this screenshot depicts, Theodora fully embraces and parodies her persona as a flamboyant writer of racy novels, by not only colonizing Michael’s apartment, but holding a press conference there in the most ridiculous of costumes, thus enacting a loving revenge/intervention for his interference in her life. 

Theodora, as the scandalous authoress Caroline Adams, holds a press conference in Michael’s apartment.

By the end of Theodora Goes Wild, our unruly heroine returns to Lynnfield, holding a friend’s baby (through narrative contrivance), and basking in the perceived scandal of being an unmarried mother. Despite her unrepentence, she is greeted with a parade from the town and an apology from Michael.

Theodora returns to her home town, unmarried, with a baby. Unbeknownst to the shocked town, it is her friend’s baby. Through comedy, the character can critique social conventions without actually breaking them, in keeping with the Hays Code.

As in Clara Bow’s film, zany dialogue, role-playing, and an unruly heroine fuel the romance and comedy. But in contrast to It, Theodora Goes Wild provides a give and take between the romantic leads that is ultimately more fruitful in the growth of the characters, the plausibility of their relationship, and the depth of the social critique of gender roles.  

In his broad analysis of comedy, Northup Frye argues that, unlike tragedy, comedy contains “an impulse towards renewal and social transformation” (44).[9] Feminist film critic Kathleen Karlyn expands on this theory to argue that “romantic comedy demands a place for women” (44[10] by giving the genre’s anti-authoritarian tendencies a feminist focus through unruliness. In screwball comedies, we see the realization of a newly shaped world that the unruly woman demands.