For me the prototypical “screwball comedy” is Howard Hawks’s 1938 “Bringing Up Baby” in which the sensible male lead (Cary Grant) attempts to ward off the chaos of the flamboyantly eccentric and pathologically oblivious female lead (Katharine Hepburn). Hebpurn’s Susan Vance is initially not aware of wanting to subjugate Grant’s David Huxley (Initially! She becomes aware and even says, “He’s the man I’m going to marry, he doesn’t know it, but I am.”) A variant offered in another classic screwball comedy, Preston Sturges’s 1941 “The Lady Eve” in which Barbara Stanwyck comically connives to capture the naïve Henry Fonda. Class differences figured prominently in those two movies and in other classic screwball comedies such as “It Happened One Night” and “My Man Godfrey.” The mismatch in socioeconomic status could be in either direction (in my prototypical examples, Hepburn and Fonda were the rich ones). Initial antagonism was common, but not defining. Often the male who would end up in a romantic relationship (the genre arose after censorship shut down intimations of sex!) was initially diffident more than antagonistic.
Characters in the prototypical John Cassavetes movie (A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night) may be crazy (, depressed, alcoholic), but until one sees the 1971 movie “Minnie and Moskowitz” which he wrote and directed (and played an important role without much screentime), it is difficult to conceive that he made a romantic comedy, let alone a screwball comedy. The class disparities are there (which is uncommon for Cassavetes movies), but the gender roles are reversed. It is the woman, Minnie Moore (played by Cassavetes’s wife (from 1954 until his death) and muse, Gena Rowlands, looking particularly glamorous early on) who is diffident, and the man, Seymour Moskowitz (Seymour Cassel, who started working with Casavetes back in 1957 on “Shadows”) who is somewhat eccentric and flamboyantly unconcerned with social conventions.
Minnie works at the Los Angeles County Museum (doing what, I don’t know). Seymour is a parking-lot attendant. Before they meet, we see him leave NYC for LA, her get roughed up by her married lover Jim (Cassavetes) and go on a lunch date with the needy Zelmo Swift (now there’s a screwball comedy name! and he typifies the wild and wooly supporting characters of screwball comedies, especially those made by Preston Sturges), a date Minnie did not want to go on.
It ends with Zelmo blowing up and the car attendant (Seymour) coming to blows with Zelmo, who is left bleeding in the parking lot as Seymour drives Minnie away. He takes her to a down-scale restaurant and buys her a hot dog, and her second lunch ends nearly as badly as her first (she does not get any food into her mouth in either one….) There is a “meet cute,” though it occurs considerably later than is usual in romantic comedies (screwball or other kinds).
Seymour is uncouth (though his long blond hair is neatly tied in a ponytail and his handlebar mustache is clean), Minnie borderline chic (with a tasteful two-story apartment). Seymour is convinced that she is The One for him and pursues her vigorously (some might call it “stalking”), She likes his unusual candor and having a man fully devoted to her (after his wife, mother of their three children, attempts suicide, Jim has renounced his affair), but recognizes that a relationship with Seymour (who could be classified as a “deadbeat”) is impossible.
When he takes her out dancing and encounter a group that knows her and she does not introduce Seymour to them, matters devolve into another fistfight that Seymour loses. So they decide to get married and bring their mothers from NYC and Vancouver. As Sheba Moskowitz, John Cassavetes’s mother Katherine, is a stereotypically undercutting mother, detailing why Seymour is an unsuitable mate for Minnie, whose mother (played by Rowlands’s real-life mother, Lady) tries to look on the bright side. “An Albert Einstein he’s not,” Sheba warns. “Pretty he’s not. Look at that face. A future he doesn’t have; he parks cars for a living.” (She reminded me of Ruth Gordon, who starred in that era’s prototypical mismatched romantic comedy, “Harold and Maude.”)
Having earlier in the movie spoken of her disappointment in real-life liaisons in comparison to Hollywood ones (which reminds me that there are two visits to repertory theaters showing “Casablanca” and one for “The Maltese Falcon”: Seymour is unlike Bogart, let alone Clark Gable!), Minnie exclaims, “It’s [Seymour’s] not the face I dreamed of, Seymour.”
For inappropriate speaking, Sheba exceeds her son, and the wedding has its farcical elements, followed by a fairy-tale happy ending (with some of the Cassavetes-Rowlands children). The pace is a bit slower than that of the Hawks and Sturges classics, and the movie is in color, and I’ve already mentioned the reversal of gender roles, but I found M&M quite entertaining. I definitely prefer Rowlands being resilient (Gloria) to Rowlands falling apart (Opening Night, A Woman Under the Influence, Unhook the Stars), though admiring her either way. She is very sympathetic as Minnie. Cassel also appeared in multiple Cassavetes films, being nominated for an Oscar in “Faces” (and was de facto inherited by Wes Anderson and Tracey Ullman (separately)). He is the star of the commentary track, which also includes Rowlands (repeating the brash/demure roles in the movie itself). The DVD also has a trailer and filmographies.
BTW, Cassavetes was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen.