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They put the words in the mouths of some screwballs

The screenwriters of old-time comedies are honored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

September 12, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

It's the dialogue, stupid.

Sure, the directors and actors in the classic screwball comedies were terrific, but without some fantastic scripts all that talent would have gone to waste.

UCLA Film and Television Archive's latest program, which opens Friday, gives these legendary scribes the respect they deserve. "Nothing Sacred: Hollywood Comedy's Writers in the Age of Screwball, 1933-1944" examines the major contributions made by former journalists and playwrights who came to Hollywood and created the wacky characters and snappy dialogue in such classic comedies as "It Happened One Night," "Nothing Sacred," "Easy Living" and "Theodora Goes Wild," all of which screen during the festival.

Among the writers represented in the 14-film series are Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Robert Riskin, Jo Swerling, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Preston Sturges, Sidney Buchman, Claude Binyon, Norman Krasna, Jules Furthman and John Lee Mahin. Several of the writers, including Sturges and Wilder, went on to more acclaim as directors.

"The series began as a challenge, in a way," says UCLA programmer David Pendleton. "Screwball comedy is so often talked about as a director's genre or as a genre that showcased performers. But we felt that a lot of these films draw their energy from the dialogue."

The frenetic, romantic, crazy and sophisticated screwball genre was born in 1934 when the Production Code put an end to sex and innuendo. With the bedroom farce history, Hollywood created the screwball comedy.

"One reason why some of the behavior and characters seem a little shrill in screwball comedies," says Pendleton, "is because there is a certain amount of romantic energy that gets amped up to replace some of the sexual energy in pre-Code films. Because there are a lot of things you can't show or imply, you have much more colorful dialogue, which makes for more memorable characters."

Perhaps the greatest collaboration between a writer and director during the screwball era was Riskin and director Frank Capra. Their 1934 romantic comedy "It Happened One Night," which swept the Oscars, is considered the first screwball comedy. The film stars Claudette Colbert as a spoiled rich girl and runaway bride and Clark Gable as the hungry reporter who meets her on a bus and smells a big story. Though the Code meant eroticism was taboo, there were many sexy scenes in "Night," including Gable's famous demonstration of the order in which he takes off his clothes before going to bed. Colbert stops him after he reveals he's not wearing an undershirt. "One Night" screens Sunday with 1935's "The Whole Town's Talking," a comedy Riskin wrote with Swerling for director John Ford.

Riskin and Capra, who worked at Columbia for studio head Harry Cohn, collaborated on several more films, including 1936's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," 1937's fantasy "Lost Horizon," the 1938 Oscar winner "You Can't Take It With You" and the 1941 political fable "Meet John Doe."

"They had a remarkable partnership," says his daughter, screenwriter Victoria Riskin. "They enhanced each other's strengths. I think Capra had a wonderful cinematic sense, and my father had an extraordinary sense of humor and story. . . . He was above all a great humanitarian. He loves people, and it comes through in his writing because his characters, even the small characters, had wonderful idiosyncratic qualities that he liked to emphasize in his pictures. He was a great observer of human foibles, but with a human eye."

Riskin says Cohn went out of his way to hire playwrights and journalists. "He knew his success depended on having very strong writers," she says. "The way my dad came to Hollywood is a play he had written was optioned [by Columbia]. He was truly penniless. I think he probably had a nickel in his pocket when the agent representing the studio said, 'We'll give you $3,000 for that project.' He said, 'Really?' But he didn't say 'thank you.' So they said, 'We'll give you $5,000.' And he said 'hmmmm.' They said, '$10,000, but that's tops.' So he went from having a nickel to having $10,000 overnight."



'Nothing Sacred: Hollywood's Comedy Writers in the Age of Screwball, 1933-1944'

Where: Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Friday to Oct. 11

Price: $7 to $9

Contact: (310) 206-8013 or go to


7:30 p.m. Friday: "Midnight" and "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife"

7 p.m. Sunday: "It Happened One Night" and "The Whole Town's Talking"

7:30 p.m. Sept. 21: "Nothing Sacred" and "Twentieth Century"

7 p.m. Sept. 23: "Easy Living" and "Hail the Conquering Hero"

7:30 p.m. Sept. 26: "Theodora Goes Wild" and "Here Comes Mr. Jordan"

7:30 p.m. Sept. 28: "Take a Letter, Darling" and "Bachelor Mother"

7:30 p.m. Oct. 11: "Woman Chases Man" and "Bombshell"

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