When Indiewire sat down with Greta Gerwig last week to discuss her new comedy, “Mistress America,” she made no attempt to hide her screwball intentions on her second film with Noah Baumbach. “We were very much looking at screwball comedies — Howard Hawks and George Cukor and Ernst Lubitsch,” Gerwig said. “Part of the pleasure of having a screwball sensibility was that you get to have all these fully formed crazy characters that just — you’re suddenly existing with all of them at once.”
The wacky supporting players to which Gerwig references are one of the film’s strongest screwball threads, but so is the actress and Baumbach’s whiplash of a script and verbal dexterity that makes the finished product a shining example of the genre’s sensibilities. The film’s climactic Connecticut set piece, in particular, is a screwball lover’s dream. With characters popping in and out of the frame with zany quips left and right, plus different subplots contorting and colliding into one another at hyper-speed, the sequence is a 25-minute screwball road race and one of the funniest of the year.
But while the film’s big climax has garnered the most attention for embracing the genre, the entire narrative of “Mistress America” is a subversive and radical entry in the screwball canon. If Gerwig and Baumbach intentionally created their project in the screwball tradition, then the finished result plays like a daring contemporary rewrite of screwball’s place in cinematic history. In this way, “Mistress America” has joined the more mainstream comedy “Trainwreck” this summer in modifying one of Hollywood’s most classic genres and rewriting it with an unquestionable feminist edge.
The 1940’s Screwball and the Domestication of Femininity
The dominant genre of the early sound era (1930-1940), screwball comedies introduced some of the most magnetic and profitable leading ladies of all time — Barbara Stanwyck (“The Lady Eve”), Rosalind Russell (“His Girl Friday”), Claudette Colbert (“It Happened One Night”), Carole Lombard (“My Man Godfrey”) — but the arcs of their female characters were firmly set in the early-mid 20th century patriarchy. The witty repartee, zany supporting characters and slapstick storylines were all staples of the screwball era, but the narrative heft of the genre was provided by conflicts of social class as manifested in battles of the sexes.
On one side was the screwball male — humble, well intentioned, hard working and almost always middle class. On the other the screwball heroine, often a “spoiled heiress” from a high society lifestyle who may be charmingly inept or admirably cunning. When the sexes stepped into the arena, the results were unanimously the same: The woman learned to embrace the man’s values and was seemingly domesticated from her upper class existence. She learned to lighten up and embrace a middle class mentality, all while getting her elbows greasy and falling madly in love after a series of farcical adventures led to the grand prize: The final embrace and Production Code-friendly kiss.
These screwball heroines are not damsels in distress — in fact many are confident, crafty and unafraid to speak their minds — but their arcs were constructed in a way so that all life lessons and paths to happiness could only be acquired through their courtship with a man. The dated mentality makes sense considering the era in which these films were wildly popular in, but in the hands of contemporary female writer-actors, the screwball story is no longer staying true to its Hollywood origins.
“Trainwreck” and the Self-Destructive Screwball
The first of the year’s major screwball revisions came in Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer’s R-rated comedy, “Trainwreck.” Similar to what Preston Sturgess might have done in the 1940s, Schumer tones down some of the traditional screwball elements (the wacky supporting players are intact, but the dialogue is more naturally integrated than quick-witted) while still adhering to the overall narrative trademarks of the genre. However, her willingness to subvert the constructs of the screwball story in tandem with her feminist voice makes the film as refreshing as it is humorous.
Various writers and viewers have criticized Apatow and Schumer for the film’s “heteronormative” ending, in which Schumer’s anti-mynogomist beliefs are put to rest after she finds love with Bill Hader’s Aaron Connors. While such arguments about Schumer’s script adhering to societal and patriarchal norms are noted, they seem to reject the consideration that “Trainwreck” is first and foremost a screwball comedy, something Schumer is well aware of (it doesn’t get more screwball than her slapstick finale). More obvious, the entire central relationship harkens back to the screwball formula — a social conflict in the form of a battle of the sexes (Amy is the inverse spoiled heiress, a reckless and boozy mess, while Aaron is the hard-working and humble societal norm).
But just because Schumer ends her comedy with a traditional final embrace doesn’t mean she’s playing by screwball’s heteronormative rules. On the outside it may appear this way — Amy is “domesticated” from her free-spirited lifestyle after falling in love with a man — but in context of screwball formalities, it’s precisely how she’s domesticated that makes the film so subversive. Unlike the parade of screwball males before him, Aaron is not the domesticator in this battle of the sexes — Amy is. Amy’s acceptance of Aaron’s values happens because she realizes on her own accord that her life must change, not because of a man or for a man but because change is needed for her to be happy and healthy. She comes to this decision not just because she enjoys her time with Aaron, but also because of her self-abusive troubles at work and in her relationships with her sister and father.
Self-destructive and open to change, Amy is a self-realizing screwball heroine, which in the constructs of the genre make her something of a revolutionary. Similar to her sketch comedy show, Schumer’s “Trainwreck” is a statement on the genre and the place of the female voice within said construct. Women can have their final embrace, she implies, but it happens on their time, not their man’s. Her film may have a heteronormative ending, but what it takes to reach that point is anything but traditional for the genre. By allowing her character to grow in this way, Schumer’s able to reinvent the screwball plot trajectory.
“Mistress America” and the 21st Century Screwball
Even more radical to the screwball legacy is “Mistress America.” Where Schumer redefines the traditional screwball arc, Gerwig and Baumbach give it an entire 21st century makeover. Whereas all of the whipsmart dialogue and supporting characters fit the screwball prototype, the central relationship between soon-to-be-stepsisters Tracy (Lola Kirke) and Brooke (Gerwig) picks apart the screwball formula in more astute ways than just by being a relationship defined by female friendship.
In context, Tracy is the screwball male of the story — a slightly nervous new college freshman who means well and is a hard-working writer with aspirations of joining her school’s heralded literary club. Brooke, on the other hand, is a contemporary spoiled heiress for the social media age, a DIY millennial who dreams big and never stops. Brooke wants to be cut from the same cloth as the great screwball heroines, but her success and high society schmoozing are mere self-delusions. With her hyper-verbal banter and plethora of self start ups that haven’t actually started up, Brooke is a young adult who needs more help than she would ever want to admit. She’s a screwball heiress only in her own image.
Enter Tracy, who ends up writing a story for her literature club by using Brooke as an unknowing muse and exposing the self-delusions of the screwball heroine. Tracy’s entire story, which we constantly here in narration, deconstructs the sad truth of Brooke’s personality and her self-made “it” girl status. While the tradtional screwball would find Brooke domesticating her ways, “Mistress America” flips the switch entirely, for it’s Tracy who ends up transforming, not by becoming domesticated but by stepping out of her nervous shell and becoming more radical and conniving in the presence of Brooke. If the female arc of 1940’s screwball comedies spoke to an era of patriarchal female domestication, than Tracy and Brooke’s arc in “Mistress America” defines a neo-screwball mentality by speaking to an era of self-involvement.
Tracy doesn’t fully become a Brooke-type in this story, but she becomes a more selfish person in using Brooke’s transparencies for her own literary advantages. And Brooke never stops being Brooke, and it seems part of her attraction to Tracy is the sheer fact that someone younger is looking up to her and further fueling her disillusion. These characters don’t fall in love and become domesticated, they capitalize on their own self-interests by using whomever they can to succeed. In this way, “Mistress America” depicts a social conflict as manifested in a battle of the egos, not the sexes.
All of these themes come to a comical boiling point at the Connecticut set piece, which is another reason it’s so hilariously involving, and fortunately Baumbach and Greta like these characters enough not to judge them for how they act but to understand why they act the way they do. Tracy and Brooke are fully realized individuals, with a piece of every millennial viewer inside of them. After a slight falling out, Tracy and Brooke are able to have their final embrace in the form of a Thanksgiving dinner, but the joy of “Mistress America’s” take on the screwball comedy is that neither has fully conformed. Both characters have taken something from the other — Tracy is more extroverted, Brooke more understanding of her own reality — and now the possibility for future change is wide open.
Thanks to Schumer and Gerwig, it seems we can now say the same about the genre as well.