How much contrivance can you stand?

The fine art of screwball romance

The fundamental building block of all romance novels and movies is that a couple will get together at the end of the story, which means the rest of the plot must be devoted to keeping them apart long enough for this resolution to feel satisfying.

Here’s the question of the day for you, reader: How much contrivance will you put up with to allow a couple to reach their happily ever after (HEA) or happy for now (HFN)? How much emotional angst are you willing to endure? How many capers, misunderstandings, changes of direction, and red herrings can you stomach before you want to scream, “Just tell them you love them already!”?

I prefer screwball romance to angsty romance. I’m willing to watch people miss each other by seconds as they knock on the wrong doors, race to the airport to find the plane has just taken off, let Aunt Ida set them up with the wrong person, hunt a loose leopard named Baby who is really very tame, honestly. I’ll give a lot of benefit of the doubt to a good screwball that takes characters on crazy adventures.

Here are three of my favorite:

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Admittedly offensive, thanks to the mistreatment of Godfrey by a pack of out-of-touch socialites, the film makes stark commentaries on the plight of the “forgotten man” at the height of the Depression. The blossoming romance between the mismatched homeless Godfrey (played by the easily cleaned up William Powell) and ditzy Irene (the effervescent Carole Lombard) reaches its peak when Godfrey can stand her idiocy no longer and throws cold water on her. Everything works out in a way that is deeply satisfying to romance lovers and deeply obnoxious to those of us on the other side of growing social inequalities in the 21st century: the family, it turns out, is on their way down, and Godfrey is on his way up. He saves them, and in return Irene coerces him into marriage.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

This is the aforementioned leopard-chasing movie that sees Susan (Katharine Hepburn) and David (Cary Grant) getting into one delicious caper after another as they chase down Baby. Bonus: Cary Grant in glasses. The best screwball moment, in which something completely ridiculous happens for the most inane reasons, is when the back of Susan’s dress rips in the middle of a fancy dinner. To save her face, David stands behind her, and they walk out together in a moment of perfect physical comedy timing. With two lesser actors, a lesser script, and a less agreeable audience, this scene would cause eye rolls. It never fails to make me laugh.

Watch the full clip here.

Putting on the Ritz (1991)

Not a romance, per se, by the rules established by pretty much every romance reader, writer, and scholar, but…this book is one of my favorites for madcap screwball adventure and calamity that culminates in a “no way, this is not even plausible / oh my god, this is the best thing ever” climax that leaves New York high society with pie in its face. There are three books in the series: Blue Heaven, Putting on the Ritz, and My Lucky Star. In each, gay best friends Gilbert and Philip become embroiled in a mess when Gilbert figures out ways to get rich and famous. Author Joe Keenan has a knack for witty dialogue, sparkling characters, and putting readers into the place of outcasts who desperately want in – but only get in with the worst possible consequences. I adore all his books and wish there were more. I wish they had been adapted into movies. I first discovered Putting on the Ritz at a used book sale at a LGBT library before the third book in the series had even been published. Later I found the other novels and read them back to back. A few years later, I revisited them by reading the whole Gilbert and Philip saga again. I’d like to believe that eventually they end up together (spoiler: they become involved for a hot minute), which would make these actually romance novels.

What are some of your favorite screwballs?