Charles Petzold

Of XAML and Screwball

January 14, 2007
New York, NY

I felt honored when the editors of MSDN Magazine asked me to write the {End Bracket} page for the February issue. This is the page where technical writers face the difficult challenge of writing 800 words of coherent prose without one line of programming code, and my attempt — under the title "Let My People Code" — has now appeared online here. Looking back over it, it seems as convoluted as an episode of Law & Order: SVU. It starts out in Hollywood in the 1920s and ends up with a plea for hand-coded XAML.

In the process, you learn at least one thing you didn't know about me, which is that I'm a fan of screwball comedy, a genre of film that flourished in the mid 1930s to early 1940s.

As examples of screwball comedy, I knew I'd mention It Happened One Night (1934) and Bringing Up Baby (1938) because everybody's seen these movies a hundred times and knows what they're like. I am actually not a big fan of It Happened One Night but I will look askance at anyone who denies that Bringing Up Baby is one of the funniest movies ever made. Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn (wearing some of the most delightful costumes ever), Bringing Up Baby has lots of fast dialog, authentic physical comedy, funny sexual innuendo involving a dinosaur bone, and a rather startling use of the word "gay" in its modern (that is, post-Stonewall) meaning.

But I had to come up with a third example of screwball because of the Rule of Three. In writing, everything has to be done in threes, and particularly examples. One's a phenonmenon; two's a coincidence; but three's a movement.

For the third film, I considered Nothing Sacred (1937), but it has an unfortunate element that can only be categorized as "rascist." My Man Godfrey (1936) was a stronger candidate. The idea of socialites going out for a recreational scavenger hunt for "forgotten men" (that is, men made unemployeed and homeless by the Great Depression) still has powerful political resonance.

The only reason I was trying to avoid Twentieth Century (1934) is that it was also directed by Howard Hawks, and I thought I should let another director get a little moment in the sun. But let's face facts: Howard Hawks was the true master of screwball comedy, and he finished his "screwball trilogy" with His Girl Friday (1940), the gender-switch version of The Front Page. Hawks' Monkey Business (1952) is sometimes also categorized as screwball, and Cary Grant even seems to reprise his role from Bringing Up Baby, but any movie that has Marilyn Monroe in it is really altogether a different kind of comedy.

So Twentieth Century it was. The movie stars John Barrymore (Drew's grandfather) as the tyrannical Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe, whose latest triumph is to turn meak shopgirl Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) into the star Lily Garland, who also becomes his mistress. But Lily Garland has her eyes set on Hollywood. She leaves Jaffe, and as her film career blossoms, Oscar Jaffe soon experiences nothing but flops. If only he could persuade Lily Garland to return to the stage, and this he tries to do while the entire cast is en route between Chicago and New York on the train called the Twentieth Century Limited.

It's actually somewhat shocking to see John Barrymore — certainly best known for drama on stage and in film — ham it up the way he does here. Carole Lombard's transformation from timid shopgirl to arrogant diva is marvelous, and she flits between moods with great comic agility. Eight years after Twentieth Century came out, both stars were dead: John Barrymore was 60 and had cirrhosis of the liver. Carole Lombard was 33 and was killed in a plane crash during a trip involving a war bond rally.

I'd always been a bit confused about the writing credits for Twentieth Century but with the help of IMDB and IBDB, I think I have it figured out. It began with a play by Charles Bruce Millholland entitled Napoleon of Broadway. I do not believe this play was ever published or produced. But Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (the writing team best known for The Front Page) used it as a springboard for a play called Twentieth Century, which opened on Broadway in December 1932 and ran for about five months.

The play takes place entirely on the train. The movie has several preliminary scenes that have never seemed superflouous to me. IMDB lists two additional uncredited screenwriters apparently partially responsible for these early scenes. These are Gene Fowler, whose career I'm not familiar with, and Preston Sturges, who later wrote and directed a string of seven brilliant (and let's say) post-screwball comedies like The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942) and the sublime Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1943).

Three years ago, Twentieth Century was revived on Broadway in an adaptation by Ken Ludwig starring Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche. Deirdre and I saw it, and enjoyed it a great deal. I think Anne Heche is a seriously under-appreciated actress whose comic style is perfect for reviving screwball. (Téa Leoni is another.)

Another amazing transformation of Twentieth Century occurred in 1978 when composer Cy Coleman and the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green turned it into the musical On the Twentieth Century, which ran for over a year. Every year I take my mother to a Broadway musical for her birthday, and in 1978 it was this one. The original production of On the Twentieth Century starred John Cullum as Oscar Jaffee and Madeline Kahn as Lily Garland, and included Imogene Coca as a female version of the man who plasters the REPENT stickers all over the train. The young actor who played Lily Garland's Hollywood boyfriend was so funny in various contorting scenes of physical comedy that everybody in the audience started checking the program to find out his name. His name was Kevin Kline.

Four years later, the Broadway musical I took my mother to for her birthday was The Pirates of Penzance with Linda Ronstadt. (It had been done in Central Park earlier.) And there he was again: Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, again with the exquisitely choreographed physical comedy. I can still see the expression on his face as he swung his sword towards the floor in a triumphant gesture and instead hit a cymbal in the orchestra pit — surprised, of course, that there would be a cymbal there at all.

When Kevin Kline started appearing in the movies, it was mostly somber roles like those in Sophie's Choice (1982) and The Big Chill (1983). He was good, of course, but I kept going around telling people "No, no, no. This is not the real Kevin Kline. The real Kevin Kline is a great comic actor." It wasn't until movies like A Fish Called Wanda (1988), I Love You to Death (1990), and the screwball-inspired Soapdish (1991) that the moviegoing audience got a true sense of Kevin Kline's wonderful talents.

It's a little bit like XAML, you know? When you use a designer, you get some generated XAML that is stern and workaday. It does its job, of course, but it has about as much personality as a brick. But get loosened up, get a little screwball, take a pratfall or two, and hit the cymbal with your sword, and you can hand-code some XAML that really sparkles.