Screwball Comedies: Exposing the Production Code and Gender Roles

Screwball Comedies: Exposing the Production Code and Gender Roles

“A kiss could last three seconds. We just kissed each other and talked, leaned away and kissed each other again. Then the telephone came between us, then we moved to the other side of the telephone. So it was a kiss which opened and closed; but the censors couldn’t and didn’t cut the scene because we never at any point kissed for more than three seconds. We did other things: we nibbled on each other’s ears, and kissed a cheek, so that it looked endless, and became sensational in Hollywood.”

– Ingrid Bergman: My Story, 1980, p. 160

A ban on three second kisses sparked the creative back route through which Alfred Hitchcock portrayed Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman’s palpable and often cited chemistry in Notorious (1946). Without this restriction, this scene (above) may never have taken place. The ban, stemming from the Production Code, guided the morals of Hollywood films from 1934 to 1967. Passed as a response to a series of scandals involving sex, profanity, and drug use; the code was the final arbiter of what was deemed acceptable on screen. Containing a list of Don’ts and Be Carefuls, the Hays Code forced Hollywood screenwriters to think outside normal convention in order to portray salacious stories. A genre of film that grew out of this limitation was screwball comedy, in which Denison University professor Jane Greene defines as an American cinematic genre with an emphasis on slapstick comedy, eccentric behavior of the leading couple, and witty verbal sublimation- components which all work together as a substitute for sex in order to ensure that the film would not procure difficulties from censorship.1

George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (1949), a quintessential screwball comedy, exposes not only the rules of the Hays Production Code, but also the rules of gender norms ordained by the sociopolitical setting of the 1940’s. These guidelines are simultaneously broken and reinforced by the film through the use of comedy and a script imbedded with slapstick and witty dialogue- carefully and ingeniously crafted by Hollywood screenwriters forced to circumvent the limitations of censorship. As a trial film, Adam’s Rib (1949) proposes these patriarchal guidelines in such a setting that allows the audience to reflexively serve as a jury to a definitive battle of the sexes.

Adam’s Rib irrefutably depends on comedy to undercut the sordidness of the film’s plot. How else could a love story including extramarital affairs, vengeful scorned wives, and women successfully challenging men leap past the barriers constructed by The Hay’s Code? Ironically, it is the code itself which stimulated the birth of a sub-genre of screwball comedies that specifically intended on providing a method of storytelling within the limits of the Don’ts and Be-Carefuls by allowing married protagonists of a film to divorce or separate, intermingle with other suitors, and ultimately reunite. In 1981, philosopher Stanley Cavell coined the term “Comedy of Remarriage” to describe this sub-genre and the trope to which Adam’s Rib exemplifies.2 Indeed the film is a “Comedy of Remarriage,” but on varying levels of plot. The main characters are in their own comedy of remarriage while defending conflicting sides to another couple’s comedy of remarriage. The film’s final scene is evidence confirming Cavell’s definition of the sub-genre, considering the scene consists of the main characters’ reuniting after dwelling on their marriage so far.  Another instrumental scene from the film provides examples as to how Cukor’s work fell into this sub-genre and played by the rules of the Hays Code:

Following Amanda’s win at the trial for defending Doris Attinger, a woman who shot at her husband after discovering his infidelity, Amanda and her husband (who also happens to be her opponent in the court room) Adam, grow distant in their marriage as a result of the trial and inability to see eye to eye on “matters of the law.” Seeking a sounding board, Amanda visits her and her husband’s mutual friend and neighbor, Kip. Later that same night, Adam enters Kip’s apartment and sees Kip and Amanda sharing a friendly drink, but confronts them with a gun, for he is under the impression that Amanda is cheating on him. Amanda begs Adam to stop and tells him that he has, “No right!” prompting Adam to shove the gun in his mouth. The gun, he then explains, is made of licorice, and the confrontation was a prank to prove her wrong and to prove himself right. Amanda does not take lightly to this revelation, and the marital quarrel continues and spills into the building’s hallway.

From the beginning of this scene, the audience can tell that the comedic tone has shifted. There is a lack of score, unlike majority of the film. In fact, the scene does not have music playing over it until the latter half, when levity is finally reintroduced. The way this scene was shot adds to the shifted tone: low key lighting, shadows, and silhouettes almost make the sequence look as if it were out of a noir film.  The titular character even has a gun and his costume is askew- specifically his hat. Prior to this scene, Adam always wears his fedora properly square on his head. Yet in this particular scene, Adam cocks his hat to the side, mimicking the likes of a “gangster’s” hat- a small detail that adds to the character. But why the sudden shift in tone and even formal style?

In terms of comedy, the sequence could be deemed as a satirical attempt at portraying the film noir genre- a genre which could be hailed as the cinematic antithesis to the Hays Code, due to its heavy focus on sex, crime, and violence. Adam’s Rib is able to use comedy to critique not only film noir, but the Production Code as well. Although having Adam place the barrel of his “gun” into his mouth may have primarily been for shock value, it could be said that there is a deeper meaning to its “suicidal” aesthetic. Perhaps this was the filmmaker’s tongue in cheek way of stating the obvious- that infidelity is bad and that this point must truly be ingrained in the viewer’s minds; or, as a tongue in cheek way of physically symbolizing the film industry’s “artistic suicide” by being forced to work within the boundaries of strict rules; or, as a tongue in cheek way to test the limits of the Code by showing “violence” without there actually being any bloodshed. Following the climactic gun-in-mouth moment, Tracy’s bite of the “gun” and line, “Licorice. If there’s anything I’m a sucker for, it’s licorice,” immediately snaps the film back into its comedic tone. The act, so farcical in nature, could only exist in a textbook screwball comedy scenario; and the tone of the sequence’s faux-film noir set-up allowed for the punchline of comedic misdirection to hit even harder.


Still from ‘Adam’s Rib’

Slapstick comedy is introduced when the actors disappear offstage and sound effects of crashing plates and yelling force the audience to imagine “backstage antics.” This could have been easily shot with the actors in front of the camera, but once again, being forced to stay within the confines of the Code allowed for an unexpected and more amusing product. When the Adam and Amanda emerge from Kip’s apartment and quarrel into the hallway, the tension is cut immediately with comedy by Kip absurdly asking to be reimbursed for a broken vase, which the audience assumes the married couple broke in their offstage fight. The fact that when Amanda storms off and Adam and Kip end up in each other’s apartment is another example of comedy finding a way through the quarrel. This, coupled with a third comedic “beat” of a clueless neighbor opening the door to find no one in the hallway after all the noise is the punchline that ends the sequence. However, examples of comedy playing by the rules of the Code are not limited to this sequence.

Countless moments in the film allude to items on the Don’ts and Be Carefuls by using a myriad of other comedic tropes often found in screwball comedies of the time. Playful kissing scenes between Adam and Amanda are not shown unless in complete darkness or silhouette. An example of this is when the camera doesn’t follow the action when Amanda drags Adam to another room of the house. Moments later, Adam enters the frame only to have his face covered in red lipstick. The film is able to bypass the Production Code, but also inject humor into what otherwise would be a typical scene where a wife kisses her husband who has come home from work. In the most unintentional way, the Hays Code provided Hollywood screenwriters a route towards the “Comedy of Remarriage,” a route which may have never been uncovered without the limitations that stimulated its creation.  The “Comedy of Remarriage” was and is still successful due to its staying power, although now not necessarily due to a moral code, but rather the sub-genre’s roots in highlighting the conflicts which result from gender roles.

Screwball romantic comedies are not complete without verbal sparring between the sexes, in which this dialogue serves as a substitute for physical, sexual tension. In Adam’s Rib, the comedy lies in where gender roles are broken, reversed, or muddled, rather than reinforced.  In a decade where most women retained their domestic roles, Katharine Hepburn’s Amanda resisted this stereotype and forged a career, interestingly enough, in the same occupation as her husband.  Unfortunately for Adam, yet to the amusement of the audience, when Amanda takes on the case and becomes his opponent, the trial no longer remains a battle between justice and injustice, but a battle between men and women. Adam and Amanda are fighting over matters of law, yet this law is somehow more inclined towards the favor of men. It is no accident that the film does not show the philandering Warren Attinger showing any remorse for his actions, nor any punishment, implying that perhaps infidelity is a gendered notion. Granted, his wife attempted to shoot him, it is still a fact that he was the instigating betrayer in their marriage. Perhaps Adam is so wound up about the case because his, as in- man’s law is at stake, threatened by the uprising role of women, specifically his own wife.

This point is highlighted in the scene previously discussed. While the sequence begins as a dramatic standstill in the overall comedy of the film, the actors’ blocking did not miss an opportunity to capitalize on making something funny, all the while highlighting gender norms. David Wayne, the actor who portrays Kip, cowers behind Hepburn and uses her body as a shield, alluding once again to the shift in gender roles because it reverses the notion that men are the sole “protectors” of women. In these screwball comedies, it is typical of the eccentric woman to manage a victory over the less assertive, easily frustrated man. However in this scene, Adam manages to “win” by having Amanda prove him right, no one is above the law- his personal perception of the law. This example of a reversal of already reversed gender roles adds to the script’s comedy.

It is important to also remain critical of Amanda, who had the audacity to call Adam petty and contemptible after the stunts she pulled in the courtroom vying for the jury’s sympathy. While her stunts never verged on prank suicide, they were attention grabbing nonetheless, providing not only comedy to the film by showing just how far the couple would go to prove his or her point, but also showing the escalating battle between sexes. An example of Amanda’s in-court stunts is her hilarious hiring of a female weightlifter to carry Adam as an effort to prove her point to the jury that men and women are equals. Not unlike his wife, Adam is also guilty of using a stereotype of “the other” to prove a point; and as an example of comedic irony- Adam mimics Amanda’s ability to “turn on the waterworks” in order to gain sympathy from her- a “device” generally used by women. A humorous bit in court involves Adam accidentally calling Amanda by his term of endearment for her- Pinkie. The trial’s typist is faced with the conundrum of not knowing how to spell Pinkie. Amanda quickly explains that she herself is Pinkie, P-I-N-K-I-E, while Adam is Pinky, P-I-N-K-Y. This witty dialogue is comedy with an undercurrent of defining gender roles, considering female names end in –ie, while male names end primarily in –y.  The conflict within the film is laid upon a foundation of shifting gender roles, highlighted by comedy.

It is interesting to note that the audience subconsciously follows the film’s simultaneous breaking and reinforcing of these two codes (Production and gender). Keeping in mind the scene which has been described, when Adam peers up into Kip’s apartment window and sees the silhouette of Kip and Amanda, the audience remains in the dark concerning Amanda’s fidelity, allowing viewers to unknowingly align themselves with Adam because of a conclusion they have jumped to- not unlike the conclusion Adam has made. Is it due to the patriarchal society of the 1940’s that the audience must side with the man and not give Amanda the benefit of the doubt? Adam’s Rib is implicating the audience by purposely not showing the events unfolding with Amanda and Kip just yet. Perhaps this silhouette shot of Amanda and Kip was to satisfy the code, but the filmmaker is able to sway the audience in the direction of one possible event, much like a lawyer is able to sway the jury to his or her side of an argument. By including a mirror behind Amanda and Kip, which physically reflects Adam’s entrance into Kip’s apartment with his “gun,” the audience is introduced to a “reflected world,” perhaps even an opposite, or, dramatic world- relating to the sudden shift in tone. The mirror also serves as mediator of the scene, in a way physically showing Adam and Amanda the very conflict of their trial.

As attorneys they represent their clients, and yet, when faced in the very same position as their clients, their opinions are completely reversed. Amanda is trying to defend a woman who shot at her husband, and Adam is trying to defend a man who committed adultery. Yet, when faced with the situation in real life, but on opposite sides, the couple is quick to “jump the gun” and wholeheartedly switch sides. This spectacle of evidence is for the audience to once again serve as a jury to see how the characters’ hypocritical standpoints stem from the codes satisfied by the law and also their gender roles. This “backstage access” can also relate to the actors’ own personal lives.

While filming Adam’s Rib, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn had already been years into their love affair, which incidentally lasted until Tracy’s death. How might their off-screen affair affect their acting choices in the film’s mis-en-scene? Perhaps their infidelity could garner the character’s sympathy or, conversely, disdain due to the actors own personal guilt. Two actors portraying lawyers involved in a case concerning infidelity is ironic, a startling case of meta-fiction, and kismet. While the case is ultimately won by Amanda, the audience is aware that this is a bend in the codes so vehemently established by society because the woman got away with being “on top;” yet the audience’s awareness is only existing due to their understanding of how the codes work in the favor of men. The audience is implicated as a jury, being handed the evidence in the form of the film’s breaking and reinforcing of the Production and gender codes.

In the 1950’s, foreign films that were created not under the influence of censorship began drawing in larger crowds from mainstream releases and the Hays Code came under increasing attack. Internal and external pressure lead movie executives to drop the Production Code in 1967, replacing it with today’s rating system. But what would become of the genre that was spawned by the Hays Code? Screwball comedies, inherently romantic comedies, have been under scrutiny by movie critics such as A.O. Scott, who in 2008 claimed that the genre “died.”3

But the movies made under the old taboos of the Production Code are far more sophisticated, and far less timid, than what we see today. The standard PG-13 romantic comedy nowadays treads so delicately in fear of giving offense to someone somewhere that it wonders into blandness and boredom. Its naughty R-rated sibling, meanwhile, will frequently wallow in coarseness at the expense of subtlety or wit, mistaking grossness for honesty.

-A.O. Scott, The New York Times (2008)

In his article, Scott claims that the films of the past succeeded in ways that modern romantic comedies are not. This is perhaps due to the framework which, not only the Hays Code, but also gender codes of the time presented to screenwriters. In his quote, Scott critiques modern films for not being able to find a balance between the delicacy of PG-13 films and crass R rated films. This balance was offered to screenwriters in the past because they were almost forced to be witty in order to circumvent the restrictions of the code. While it is undoubtedly positive that gender roles are now acceptably more fluid in society, this lack of sociopolitical boundaries between men and women also take away what was so interesting about screwball comedies of the past. For example, another Tracy and Hepburn classic Woman of The Year (1942) directed by George Stevens, has a plot line entirely devoted to how Hepburn’s character is a successful political affair’s columnist- groundbreaking for the time, considering most women stayed at home or held secretarial positions.This film would have a comparatively difficult time succeeding in modern cinemas because it would (fortunately) now be deemed commonplace for a woman to have the ability to hold such an occupation. This focus on feminism is embedded in another writing Carnegie-Mellon University professor David R. Shumway wrote, which contradicted Stanley Cavell’s definition of the “Comedy of Remarriage,” explaining that this sub-genre of screwball comedy was successful not due to its emphasis on the reunification of the couple at the climax of the film, but by the way “Comedy of Remarriage” films address feminism through verbal sparring between men and women.4 Shumway’s point of view with regards to women’s roles is certainly applicable to Adam’s Rib, considering the role of Amanda, her job, and her ultimate victory in the trial. Perhaps A. O. Scott is nostalgic for the way Adam’s Rib exposed the codes (Production and gender) by simultaneously reinforcing and breaking them, for most modern romantic comedies no longer implicate the audience in not only enjoying the film, but also enjoying the way the film exposes and critiques these codes.


2Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage Harvard Film Studies, 1981.

1Greene, Jane. “Screwball Comedy and the Production Code.” Journal of Film And Video 63.3 (2011): 45-63. University of Illinois Press. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

3Scott, A.O. “A Fine Romance, My Friend, This Is.” The New York Times 3 Feb. 2008. The New York Times Company. Web. 5 Nov. 2014. <;.

4Shumway, David R. “Screwball Comedies: Constructing Romance, Mystifying Marriage.” Film Genre Reader III. Grant, Barry Keith, Ed. University of Texas Press, 2003.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: