Deciding which films fit into the neo-screwball classification can be difficult as it is, with any new films, in a sub-genre so completely linked to a specific time period. When a film is described as neo-screwball, I am always drawn to it. I need to see how close it comes to my favorite genre.
I have always thought Wes Anderson‘s 1998 film Rushmore takes influence from the screwball comedy, creating a unique look at the social class narrative found in countless screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. Rushmore is a more serious look at the screwball comedy genre than many other films of its kind, but it is one I feel represents the best of the genre in a clever and creative way.
Rushmore tells the story of obsessive private school student, Max Fisher (Jason Schwartzman) as he develops relationships with Herman Blume (Bill Murray), and Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). Throughout the film, Max is shown as a self-centered character, unaware of the dangers of his actions. Telling this story with screwball comedy conventions helps create an interesting combination of genres.
The Economic Class Struggle
One of the characteristics of the screwball comedy is a struggle between different social and economic classes. This is usually shows between the two characters romantically involved, but in Rushmore this class difference is shown more clearly between Max Fischer and Herman Blume. Classic screwball examples of this battle between economic classes can be found in It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve, as well as many others.
In Rushmore, Max first meets Herman Blume when he is the chosen chapel speaker. Max first forms a bond with Blume during this speech because he sees himself in Blume. Max is from a working class family, unlike most of his classmates. Learning this successful and rich person delivering a speech to all his classmates was not born rich. Max felt a connection to him, even if they seem of completely different social and economic classes on the surface.
The film is just as much about the battle between individuals of different classes and the notion of class in general, something both characters feel removed from. Max feels he belongs in a different class than he is by pretending his father is richer and more successful than he is. While Blume feels lost and disconnected in the economic class he worked up to.
One scene that stands out as showing how lost Blume feels in his supposed economic class is the birthday party for his twin sons. He is sitting at a table, separate from the rest of the party. The clothing choices in this scene, as well as the rest of the film, tell the audience so much about his discomfort living among the rich people; not truly wanting to be a part of their lifestyle. Blume wears a Budweiser bathing suit, which is something more commonly associated with a lower class than the one of which he is supposed to be a part.
Throughout the rest of the film, Blume is seen wearing the same suit in every scene. The monochromatic shirts and ties change throughout the film, but the suit remains the same in every single scene he is in. This may have started as a way to lower budget costs so the film could be made, but it ends up saying so much about the character. Even though he is of a higher class, his clothing choices are more closely related to someone who is trying to get by with as little as possible. On the other hand, Max who is of a lower economic class takes pride in his uniform and goes above and beyond his fellow students, wearing a red beret and navy blazer to school everyday. He is trying to be a part of a higher class, one of which he is not a part.
This battle between the classes in Rushmore is very different than how it is represented in a typical screwball comedy, but it is still made a key focus of the film, even going into scenes where the characters really are trying to one-up each other.
Ridiculous and Farcical Situations
In a typical screwball, characters encounter ridiculous situations, especially situations which would be considered dangerous in any other genre of film. In Rushmore, these moments come across as more dangerous, since the film is a more dramatic take on the typical characterizations of the screwball comedy.
Throughout their battle, the situations gradually become more and more dangerous. They start out fairly simply, yet become life-threatening by the end. In Rushmore, this comes across as unstable since the film is taken more seriously than your typical Screwball Comedy. In a classic screwball, ridiculous situations like Max cutting the Breaks in Herman’s car would happen, but not be taken seriously.
Another scene further along in the film, which is a good example of a farcical situation taken to new, darker levels is when Max pretends to be injured from a car accident, giving him one last shot at Rosemary. This scene shows how Max is disturbed and obsessed with Rosemary, yet a similar type of scene could easily fit in an old screwball comedy.
Characters in this sub-genre are often lying about something in order to get one more chance with the person in which they are supposedly in love. In Rushmore, this convention is taken in a darker direction, letting the audience realize the disturbing side to most common romance tropes.
In Bringing Up Baby, David (Cary Grant) and Susan (Katharine Hepburn) accidentally let out a dangerous leopard, thinking it’s Baby, the pet leopard Susan is giving her aunt. These situations are played entirely for comedy. In Rushmore, the tree rigged to fall and crush Herman shows a darker side of Max, while still fitting into the farcical and physical comedy sub-genre.
By combining the features of a screwball and a more dramatic film, Wes Anderson was able to create a unique film exploring the dangers of these conventions (including unchecked obsessions, keeping secrets, and relationships built on infatuation, not love).
The Woman is Always in Charge
In Rushmore, Rosemary Cross, a first grade teacher at Rushmore Academy, is the reason for the majority of the action in the film. Herman Blume and Max Fischer enter the previously discussed farcical yet dark battle over their affections for Rosemary. Max’s actions throughout the film are done to impress Rosemary. In the Screwball genre as well as Rushmore, this evolves from the women being a force in the man’s life.
Max develops an inappropriate infatuation with her when he discovers she left a note in a copy of the Jacques Couseau book Diving for Sunken Treasure. Herman develops an interest in Rosemary when he is introduced through Max. The three share many moments together. As the relationship between Herman and Rosemary develops, the relationship between Herman and Max becomes more unstable, causing the two to enter into a battle for the affections of Rosemary.
This battle tells more about Herman and Max than it does Rosemary, since she knows their was never any competition. The very thought of her affections being a competition pushes her away from both of them, only coming back together when Max invites them both to his play at the end of the film.
The woman being the dominate character in the relationship is a factor most commonly associated with the screwball comedy, sometimes it is seen as a reversal from a typical romantic comedy. Another characterization of the screwball comedy is the romance is not taken seriously. This differs slightly from Rushmore, since the film is taken more seriously than a typical Screwball, but the actual romance between either Max and Rosemary or Herman and Rosemary is not as important as the father-son relationship developed between Herman and Max and how their interests in Rosemary impact this newfound bond.
Everyone is Keeping a Secret
Another aspect of the screwball comedy is characters keeping secrets before they blow up into even bigger problems. The Lady Eve is an excellent example of this. In The Lady Eve, Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) is a con-artist going after Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), but falls for him over the course of the con. Pike learns of Jean and her father’s business, and dumps her. She enters his life again, as Lady Eve Sidwich, but she again reveals her con-artist past, causing Pike to leave her again. The film ends with him meeting Jean again and reconnecting.
In Rushmore, this mistaken identity can be seen frequently with Max’s reluctance at being himself. Throughout the film, he is always trying to find a new identity to help him achieve whatever goal is on his mind at that moment.
When he is at Rushmore, he tells everyone is father is a neurosurgeon instead of a barber. He uses all his time to appear richer and more involved than he is. By signing up, and starting so many different groups and organizations, he does not let himself stick with anything, resulting in lackluster performance across the board.
He uses his extracurricular activities as a way to hide from his true self, but we do occasionally see him step out from this performance of a jumbled personality. Once he does stick to something, he is able to accomplish more than expected. By choosing not to hide behind too many different identities, he is able to succeed in his goals.
When he begins working as a barber with his father, he is wearing yet another costume, this time of his father. This might seem a step in the right direction, but he is still hiding behind another identity. You can tell he does not want to work as a barber like his father by how exactly he copies his father’s mannerisms and clothing choices.
Rushmore fits many different aspects of the definition of screwball comedy without creating the exact same atmosphere. Wes Anderson was able to create a uniquely interesting film with moments of heart, humor, and a little bit of caution.
Which films do you think fit the Screwball Comedy definition? Do you feel Rushmore uses these conventions in an interesting way to tell its story? Do you consider Rushmore a Neo-Screwball film? Please share your thoughts in the comments.