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The badass belles of screwball comedy

Berlinale Retrospective“No Angels – Mae West, Rosalind Russell & Carole Lombard” focuses on sharp-witted women

Park Circus / Sony

We caught up with the two curators of the Berlinale Retrospective Annika Haupt and Deutsche Kinemathek boss Rainer Rother to discuss the No Angels, Retrospective, which runs from Feb 11-20 at CinemaxX/Zeughaus Kino

The Retrospective is back with a programme centred around three great 1930s- 1940s female comedians Mae West, Rosalind Russell and Carole Lombard. Why them?

Rainer Rothers: Since last year, we knew we wanted to do something about female actors. Then, it felt that our times were calling for something a little light, a little cheerful, so we ended up with comedies. From the onset, we knew we wanted West and we wanted to present all of her first nine films, so then we thought, who would be a good match or contrast to Mae? The best contrast we could imagine was Carole Lombard, but we needed someone else that would bridge the gap and give another representation of the idea of an independent woman. That’s when Russell came into play.

Annika Haupt: We chose Russell because she represented the self-empowered working girl, career aspect. She’s great at slapstick and comedic timing – the small nuances in her acting are so fascinating to watch. My personal favourite is This Thing Called Love, in which she plays that strong-headed newly wed who imposes a three- month chastity trial on her husband as a preventive measure against divorce. It’s a great example of the topics covered by screwball comedy.

Rosalind Russell (1907-1976)



Although her career spanned from the 1930s through to the 1970s, she broke through with screwball as the onscreen personification of the professional woman. Whether cast as a badass journalist (His Girl Friday, My Sister Eileen and Four’s a Crowd), a tough advertising executive (Take a Letter Darling), or a high-street lawyer imposing a celibacy trial on her newly-wed man (This Thing Called Love), she was the career girl and elegant brunette with a brainy wit of her own and a perfect sense of timing.

Don’t miss

His Girl Friday (dir. Howard Hawks, 1940). Her biggest success, Russell plays quick-witted ace reporter Hildy Johnson seeing eye-to-eye with Cary Grant in a part that was originally written for a man. Dubbed “the fastest- talking comedy ever made”, the “rat-a-tat” style dialogue is genuinely hilarious, although you may have to watch it several times to absorb every gag. The Women (dir. George Cukor, 1939). Her breakthrough role was as the hilarious, bitchy, gossipy Sylvia Fowler (which she played over-the-top on Cukor’s suggestion, so as not to damage her future career). Although the film starred only women – from Joan Crawford, and Joan Fontaine to studio-boss wife Norma Shearer, the film wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test, with off-camera men being the sole focus of the women’s concerns.

How would you define what makes these films “screwball comedies”, when they could have been 1930s rom-coms?

AH: Well, first of all, screwball comedy is a comedic sub-genre, and right in the middle of it, there’s a battle of the sexes, which gave way to the so-called comedies of remarriage – for example, we show the lesser-known Hitchcock film Mr. and Mrs. Smith . It creates the opportunity to reflect on how women see the world, see partnerships, and the topics which are important to them. So it opens up new ways to play with the issues surrounding gender. Then you could say that screwball comedies wouldn’t have been what they became without the studios self-censorship enforced by the 1934 Hays Code.

That’s the irony, right? Can you explain the impact of the Hays Code?

RR: It was an agreement in the film industry to appease the Catholic League [the National Legion of Decency], and avoid boycotts of movies considered “too explicit”. So they came up with a set of rules – for example you couldn’t show a couple in one bed, it had to be two beds. The Hays Code also stipulated that in love scenes, women would keep at least one foot on the floor at all times. People could not be in a horizontal position if they were kissing and you were not allowed to show realistic kisses anyway. For the screwball comedies, it meant that the directors, and especially the writers, had to find creative ways to express what they couldn’t show. That’s why the films are so clever.

Isn’t it ironic then that the implementation of puritan rules by a patriarchal Hollywood was to unleash a decade of snappy rom-coms in which actresses were suddenly given roles of strong empowered women?

RR: Screwball comedies represented a certain kind of offer, not the majority of films of the time. The studios were catering to many different audiences, and all films were made with a specific one in mind. Men had the westerns, the gangster and the war films. Screwball comedies were meant to address a mostly female audience or couples. In a couple someone has to make the choice for the movie, and from what we know, the women usually made that choice.

When you think of ‘chick flicks’ nowadays, you don’t really expect that level of kick-arse wit. It’s high comedic art with jokes designed by masters.

RR: They were targeted at a more educated demographic, people who would get the gags and grasp the hints. It’s so dialogue-based and reliant on the wit you can put into the lines.

AH: We highlight the actresses, but it’s a collective work, with incredibly talented writers, such as Anita Loos and Ben Hecht, and directors who worked on those scripts and clever dialogues. The three actresses you feature were all comedic talents. Would you say that comedy was a vehicle for women to express something different – away from the more passive, sexy, token roles they were usually given?

RR: I think it is a very specific form of storytelling. For the story to work you need two strong characters. That’s why you need strong women to make it work. If the female lead isn’t strong enough, why waste Cary Grant at her side? They need strong counterparts for the gender standoff to work.

Russell’s ground-breaking role as the ace reporter Hildy Johnson standing up to Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday was originally a man, right?

RR: Yes, in the original play The Front Page both lead roles are played by men. That’s again the case in the 1974 Billy Wilder version, where it’s Jack Lemmon who plays Hildy. But in the Hawks version they, and especially Rosalind Russell herself, reworked the dialog and thought it would work better with a woman. After her success with the role, Russell was expected to be that funny professional woman again and again, Stars were typecast. Once you became successful with one role, you’d be expected to fulfill audience expectations with similar roles.

Speaking of typecasting, Lombard has that amazing whacky talent. How would you define her star persona?

RR: What’s interesting about Lombard is the distance she instills in her acting – she is that mondaine, fashionable beauty – she uses that image but doesn’t fulfill it. She plays with it, and manages to pull off the most awkward jokes in that fluid, effortless way, like when she plays the naïve teenager in My Man Godfrey, she’s actually 28 but she makes it credible! Or when in To Be or Not to Be she plays the actress Maria Tura who insists on wearing that fabulous tight-fitting dress for her concentration camp scene – only she could pull off a joke with such elegance. Later she wears the same costume to seduce the German spy. So, this kind of relationship between a role, a costume, and what you do with it is something she was marvelous at.

In real life, Lombard wasn’t the superficial glam diva you’d expect, right?

AH: She was known to be an uncomplicated, nice person. When she married Clark Gable she didn’t want to appear in public anymore. They had a farmhouse in the woods near Hollywood and were happy together with their dogs. It was another life. And then there was the big tragedy – they had found each other and she was killed in a plane crash.

RR: She was also outspoken when it came to politics, she supported Roosevelt, and was well-aware of what was going on in the world.

Carole Lombard (1908–1942)

Deutsche Kinemathek


A gorgeous wide-eyed blonde with an athletic figure tailor-made for those 1930s satin slip gowns, Lombard was one of the biggest style icons of her time. Her marriage to “Hollywood King” Clark Gable catapulted the love pair to eternal celebrity – this and her tragic death in 1942, aged just 33, while on a patriotic tour to sell war bonds. And she was damn funny – with a zany brand of comedic talent. From her breakthrough in Twentieth Century (1934) until her last film To Be or Not to Be (1942), she made some 56 feature films where she steals the show with a unique blend of whacky energy and conventional glamour. In real life the “angel face” cursed like a sailor, and was a down-to-earth, congenial pal who loved costume parties and supported gender equality. Lombard handled her career with the kind of business acumen that would lead her to breakaway from the tyrannic paternalism of the big studios and go freelance. Her own terms included a “percentage deal”(on box-office profits), on top of numerous provisions that guaranteed her creative control over her career and star image. By the late 1930s, she was the highest earning star in Hollywood, male or female.

Don’t miss

My Man Godfrey (dir. Gregory La Cava, 1936). Lombard pulls off an unforgettable madcap number as Irene Bullock the rich girl/socialite ingenue in love with Godfrey the butler, who she ‘scavenged’ from a Brooklyn dump. Godfrey is played by William Powell, her first husband, who suggested her for the role showing a very modern, undramatic post-divorce relationship. This is the screwball summit. Nothing Sacred (dir. William A. Wellman, 1937) Here she excels as Hazel Flagg, the small-town coy-girl turned con-artist, who fakes terminal illness and conquers NYC on a tabloid-sponsored exhibitionist trip. The film sees Lombard punched unconscious (out of love) and then shows how women punched back in those days. A great pamphlet against an unscrupulous press selling people’s misfortune to gullible masses, it was a box office hit and her own personal favourite.

Do you believe these women were feminist precursors?

AH: Lombard and Russell were interested in these topics. Russell was invited to a convention of businesswomen to hold a speech about career women in film. Lombard supported equal pay and was one of the first to ditch her contract with the studio system, preferring her independence. Mae West wasn’t interested in this attribution: I don’t think she’d have called herself a feminist. That was part of her don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, right? Which in many ways makes her very modern – she was that raunchy badass type who led her career on her own terms and never shied away from scandal. She also started her movie career at almost 40, which used to be considered ancient.

AH: By the time she came to Hollywood and made her first film, she was already a Broadway star. She had been jailed following a scandalous show called Sex [written and performed by West in 1926] after she refused to make the required changes demanded by the censors – she just chose to go to prison instead. It was a big publicity stunt for her. She knew how to turn any situation to her own advantage. She even joked that the Hays Code was invented because of her. She was a real punk-rock star before it even existed! What would later be conceptualised as the “male gaze”, she grabbed it by the balls and used it to craft her persona. In the end it’s Mae’s gaze, onto herself.

RR: When we talk about the way actresses developed characters, we always talk about a gap between what is in the script and what Russell and Lombard deliver to the audience using self-irony and distance. There’s nothing like this with Mae West. She created a Mae West persona, and never distanced herself from it. It was a well rehearsed blend of ingredients: the way she dressed in a late 19th-century fashion to outline her curves, or the way she moved her hips. It was her trademark. Then she’d write her own roles and dialogues placing herself at the centre of every film. A film with Mae West had to be a Mae West film.

AH: If she had had social media, she would have been a huge influencer!

Mae West (1893-1980)

Studios Licensing, LLC


West was the most unrestrained and abrasive star of her time. Everything about her was unconventional – from her brassy brand of glamour to her screen career. She debuted in Hollywood in 1932 at the ripe age of 40, bringing her Broadway notoriety to the screen and rescuing a struggling Paramount in the process. There, she enjoyed the unusual freedom to (re)write scripts and dialogues and was the highest paid actress on a studio payroll. With her bawdy lines filled with risqué double entendres, a suggestive fashion sense and trademark lascivious poise (she was 150cm and her double-decked platform shoes helped accentuate her trademark gait) all oozing unbridled sensuality, she transgressed effortlessly. She was there to offend the blue-noses and Hays Code censors, with which she struggled line-by-line (she later said she would deliberately plant provocative lines to distract the censor) until she threw in the towel and moved on to a record-breaking career in Las Vegas and on Broadway, where she was allowed, even welcomed, to be herself.

Annika, you will be leading a panel discussion exploring their pioneering roles. As a woman, do you identify with these actresses?

AH: In general, yes. I was especially impressed by Mae West. When I saw her on screen for the first time I thought, wow, she’s not moving or saying much, but she’s the centre of it all, the frames, and the world. She’s so self-confident, for me it was amazing – especially for that time. You can’t compare her to any other actress. That’s when I truly thought that we had to do this retrospective. We ought to show her and her films to a younger audience and see how they react to the fact this was possible in the 1930s.