Stanley Cavell defines the screwball genre as “comedy of remarriage” (1).  Rather than implying a happily-ever-after, screwball comedies center on the relationship of quarreling partners who question or defy the boundaries of matrimony and, by doing so, reinvigorate what threatens to calcify into a state of mind-numbing bondage. Challenging the institution by asking “Is Marriage Necessary?”—one of the working titles for The Palm Beach Story (Spoto 173)—the screwball twosome eventually arrives, through a series of fights and flights, at an affirmative answer.  For the reformed team, the conjugal bond becomes a legitimate yet negotiable playing field on which to explore sexual desires and elective affinities.  As Cavell explains it, screwball lovers appear to be merely “playing at being married”; but at the heart of this “set of games” is a “kinship” without which the “eventual marriage would not be warranted,” just as, “without the separation or divorce, the marriage would not be lawful.”  Instead of being the last stop in romance, ‘[m]arriage is always divorce,” as it “entails rupture”; and “since divorce is never final, marriage is always a transgression” (103).  In flux and subject to renegotiation, screwball relationships are continually redefined by trial and separation.


Few Hollywood actresses of the studio era were as much at home playing women on their way—and using public transportation to get there—as Claudette Colbert.  Roles in memorable epics and less memorable costume dramas notwithstanding, Colbert is now best remembered for her portrayals of modern, urbane and enterprising women with an independent spirit and a peripatetic streak.  Whereas Carole Lombard and Irene Dunne “got their men through special screwball variations of the dating game,” film comedy scholar Wes D. Gehring observes, “Colbert generally won hers somewhat reluctantly.  Her screwball heroines seemed more out for a good time, which is one of the key reasons they traveled so much” (137).


Whether on the go or on the run, pleasure seeking or career pursuing, Colbert’s characters demonstrate the social significance of public transportation in the United States from the Great Depression to the automotive boom of the 1950s.  What’s more, the stations of her long career in film (1927-1961) correspond with dramatic shifts in the western representation of women in mid twentieth-century popular culture.  From liberated heiress to trapped hausfrau, from homeless adventuress to harried homemaker, Colbert’s heroines convey how studio-era Hollywood made use of the train motif in its definition of gender roles in accordance with changing socio-economic demands.


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