UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Love triumphs : the production code, sex, and the screwball comedy Sherman, Zoë S.


“The love impulse in man,” reports a psychiatrist in Bringing Up Baby, “frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.” This statement perfectly embodies not only the situation of the central couple in the film, but also the circumstances surrounding the creation of the screwball comedy, a genre representative of 1930s Hollywood. In June 1934, Hollywood implemented a new system of internal regulation which radically altered the cinematic landscape and its representation of sexuality for the next three decades. The Motion Picture Production Code required films to pass rigorous processing by the Production Code Administration and its newly appointed leader Joseph Breen. The Production Code enforced strict regulations for film content, promoting socially conservative views and banning material which could challenge the institution of marriage. This involved themes of sexuality, forbidding any depiction of explicit or suggested nudity, sex, or illicit behaviour. The screwball comedy became a predominant genre in Code-era Hollywood, in spite of its seduction-driven narratives. However, the screwball did not represent sex or any implication of it onscreen. Often, the principle couple of the screwball comedy did not so much as kiss by the film’s end. So how did the screwball comedy represent love and sex? In what ways were these themes coded in order to evade interference from the Production Code Administration? How was romantic union represented as triumphant when so many barriers were put in place to prohibit the depiction of sexuality onscreen? This thesis discusses such questions via case studies of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938). By employing historical research and visual formal analysis, this thesis examines the genre’s codification of sexuality and lust, positing the archetypal screwball heroine as a critical figure for breaking down narrative and symbolic barriers. In transgressing the narrative barriers of these films, the “screwy” female also subverts conservative values promoted by the Production Code in the 1930s. By reading the genre alongside its historical context, this thesis considers the screwball heroine as an important cultural critique for the era’s expectations of gender and discourse of women’s sexuality.

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