Funny Business

Funny Business

The “screwball comedies” of the 1930s and ’40s threw audiences a curve. They veered away from the original romantic comedy genre with witty dialogue, physical sight gags, role reversals, social critique and “wacky male/female relationships,” says film buff Mark Schenker. But Schenker himself plays it straight when he illuminates some of these classic films for his ninth How to Read a Film series at Best Video Film and Cultural Center in Hamden.

Last Sunday, Schenker presented It Happened One Night for an audience of a dozen moviegoers who’d paid $7 apiece. Following the plot, characters and themes of this 1934 classic directed by Frank Capra and starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert is just part of enjoying the film. Schenker shared a multitude of other observations related to historical context, camera shots, continuity issues, censorship rules, symbolism, trivia and more.

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Reading a film is, in many ways, like reading a novel, says Schenker, a longtime literature professor and self-trained film expert, who also happens to be the dean of academic affairs at Yale. “If you think of as a work of art, you ask certain kinds of questions about its form: why does a chapter end here, why does it have chapters? And if you think about it as a representation of reality, you ask completely different kinds of questions.” Just like a good reader, a good viewer will be able to ask both types, Schenker says.

For example, an audience watching It Happened One Night for the first time would get the basic premise: a spoiled heiress escapes her controlling father, who has annulled her brand new marriage, hops on a bus en route to her husband, runs afoul of a newspaper reporter following her story and ends up falling in love with him instead—and he with her. The audience might talk about the behavior of the characters, the plot twists and so on. But those same viewers might not notice that when reporter Peter (Gable) carries heiress Ellie (Colbert) across a river, he’s carrying her over a “threshold.” Or that when a suitcase is stolen late in the film, it’s mirroring a suitcase stolen earlier. The first one is lost, but the second is retrieved. “There’s a repetition with a difference,” Schenker says, “which you could say is the hallmark of comedy. The first time it goes wrong, the next time it goes right.”

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Screwball comedies emerged during the Great Depression as “escapist fare,” Schenker says. Romantic comedies had been around for a long time already, but in the 1930s, they “started taking a sort of social critique… and especially an awareness and sometimes a criticism of the class system.” In the screwballs, comedic elements stand in for sexual tension. “The notion is that instead of being sexual or romantic too baldly, or being too saccharine and sentimental in another way, we’re going to have an edge,” Schenker notes. In It Happened One Night—the bulk of which actually takes place over four nights—Peter and Ellie twice find themselves sharing a roadside motel room and keep their distance by hanging a blanket between their single beds. The flimsy contraption is dubbed the Wall of Jericho for the Biblical wall that was eventually toppled by a blast from Joshua’s trumpet. The first sign that the blanket wall might come down, too, follows a staged argument between the would-be lovers that’s meant to convince the authorities they’re actually a married couple.

Schenker grew up watching old movies on TV—westerns, war films, thrillers and film noir as well as screwball comedies—and later, as a student at Columbia University, he watched them in movie revival houses. A decade ago, the Fairfield Public Library was the venue for his first film lecture, a four-part series involving a thriller, a western and a screwball comedy, ending with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), which Schenker calls “a thriller/western/screwball comedy posing as a World War II movie.” His first lecture at Best Video touched on his area of literary expertise—the late 19th and early 20th centuries—and provided viewers context for the popular British television series Downton Abbey. Known up and down the shoreline as a facilitator of book club discussions, Schenker now takes on more than 120 gigs per year to talk about books and movies.

Three more screwball comedies are on this fall’s How to Read a Film series at BVFCC: The Awful Truth (1937) on November 17, Ball of Fire (1941) on December 1 and Some Like It Hot (1959) on December 8, all at 2 p.m. It Happened One Night was the genre’s first big success, sweeping the five major Academy Awards—a feat not repeated, Schenker says, until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975.

Watching a film with Schenker is much like watching a DVD with the director’s commentary—except it’s live, so audience members occasionally toss out questions in this casual setting. In order to keep How to Read a Film presentations to an hour and a quarter, Schenker fast-forwards through portions of each film, giving a quick synopsis of what the audience is missing. If you’ve never seen the film before, you won’t miss a beat; if you have, you’ll leave with a more nuanced understanding.

“I think what people love about Mark’s series is the way that he opens up the art of filmmaking to people, makes it understandable,” says Hank Hoffman, president of BVFCC. “t informs your viewing going forward.” It’s also entertaining.

Of course, some things require no explanation. It doesn’t take an expert to get what happens at the end of It Happened One Night, even though it happens offscreen. A couple that owns yet another roadside motel hears a trumpet blow, and in the final shot, a blanket falls to the floor. Apparently, there’s room in screwball comedy for a little bit of sex and romance after all.

How to Read a Film: Screwball Comedies
Best Video Film & Cultural Center – 1842 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
(203) 287-9286 |
Next Session:…

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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