THE RUNAWAY BRIDE Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930's By Elizabeth Kendall Knopf. 320 pp. $24.95

THERE'S A jubilantly subversive scene near the start of "The Lady Eve," Preston Sturges' comic masterpiece. The con-woman played by Barbara Stanwyck has trained her pocket-mirror on the rich naif played by Henry Fonda, who is sitting at a distance from her in the lounge of an ocean-liner. Other predators are also drawn by Fonda's gilded eligibility, and as the viewer watches over her shoulder Stanwyck interprets the mirror's silent action -- dropped handkerchiefs and other, equally unsubtle passes, all of which Fonda rebuffs -- with her slangy, rapidfire narration, shrewd speculations, really, on the motives of these birds and their elusive prey.

What's right with that picture? Before answering, I need to make a brief excursion into the history of film criticism.

In the early 1960s Andrew Sarris proffered his auteur approach to movies, an attempt to make better sense of the ones churned out during the heyday of the Hollywood studios by directors whom most cineastes had dismissed as hacks. And so the oeuvres of such journeymen as Raoul Walsh and John Cromwell and Douglas Sirk were scrutinized for their individuating touches. Pauline Kael savaged the theory behind the method in a famous essay called "Circles and Squares." The "ideal auteur," she wrote, "is the man who signs a long-term contract, directs any script that's handed to him, and expresses himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots." There have been rebuttals and surrebuttals over the years -- with Kael taking pains in her Citizen Kane Book to show that even a "pantheon director" (Sarris's term) like Orson Welles owed much to his collaborators -- but auteurmania has been fruitful at least to the extent that it's drummed up audiences for good, neglected films of the past.

Now comes Elizabeth Kendall with an arresting variation on the auteur theme, one likely to do its own share of audience-drumming. Briefly stated, her thesis is that the great romantic comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s were the products of synergies between a core group of brassy female stars -- Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne -- and a handful of proto-feminist and in some cases love-smitten male directors -- Frank Capra, George Stevens, Gregory La Cava, Leo McCarey and Sturges.

She begins with four movies Capra directed in the early '30s, all of them starring Stanwyck, "his muse and collaborator" and perhaps his lover: "Ladies of Leisure," "The Miracle Woman," "Forbidden," and "The Bitter Tea of General Yen." Both principals were still mastering their crafts at the time, and Kendall makes a sound case for the proposition that Capra reshaped the films as he reacted to what he saw Stanwyck could do with her roles. The result was a fresh, tone-setting female persona, a departure from both the simpering ingenues of the past and the "icons of femininity" personified by Garbo and Dietrich: a mate with a mind of her own. The soundstage had been set for a new cinematic genre -- the romantic comedy.

For personal and professional reasons, Capra cast Colbert and not Stanwyck opposite Clark Gable as the heroine of "It Happened One Night," the movie that epitomized the genre in its pathbreaking novelty (and won all four of 1934's top Oscars). But in Kendall's view "It Happened One Night" merely rounds out "the revision of 'male' and 'female' {Capra} had started in the Stanwyck movies" -- with, for example, Gable cooking breakfast for Colbert and her rescuing their romance by ditching her wealthy, callow intended at the altar (hence Kendall's exuberant title) to go after Gable.

Kendall extends the insight to other comedies of the same ilk, notably "My Man Godfrey," which features Carole Lombard as a loopy debutante who falls for a hobo played by William Powell. Lombard's antic acting fed upon La Cava's flair for roistering improvisation, and the movie helped them both rejuvenate their careers. "Stage Door," the story of a boarding house full of aspiring actresses, fits into the Kendellian framework best of all. The principals -- director La Cava, writer Morrie Ryskind and stars Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers -- virtually made up the movie as they went along. Halfway through the filming, Hepburn demanded of Ryskind, "Who gets {Adolphe} Menjou, me or Ginger?" The answer they all finally arrived at had less to do with narrative formula than the dynamic that had built up between two strong women in "a movie that takes a romantic-comedy heroine farther in the direction of work and self-realization than any {other} heroine had yet been taken."

One begins to wonder how these co-conspirators managed to undermine traditional values so unabashedly even as many of their films did boffo business. Kendall attributes the ease of the shakeup to the Depression, which not only staggered male breadwinners and drove young women to look for jobs in big cities but also formed a generation of creative mavericks in Hollywood. Yet by the late '30s "the people most responsible for the texture of romantic comedy had ceased being young rebels and begun to be prosperous citizens," she writes. "As the crisis mentality of the Depression drifted out of the audience's memory, so it receded from the lives of the directors and the stars." The new genre was already in decline.

It was superseded by, among other throwbacks, the Tracy-Hepburn comedies, which encouraged audiences to take sadistic pleasure in watching the snooty lady from Bryn Mawr yield ground reel by reel until she had become the sniveling helpmeet of the stolid burgher who was her real-life lover. In a deft passage, Kendall charts the jump to page 9 swing back to missionary-position jollity via a comprehensive look at the later roles assigned to romantic comedy's leading ladies. "Starting in the forties (while still in their thirties), they would be cast as mothers, widows, do-gooders, or, in a savage twist, criminals. Hepburn would become the token feminist, fated to be taught humility; Rogers, the silly, dizzy dame who had to be set straight; Stanwyck, the dragon lady, obsessed with power. Colbert and Arthur would turn into self-sacrificing maternal types for a time, then retire early from the screen." Dunne retired, too; Lombard died in a plane crash.

Yet the mischief enjoyed a last, fleeting efflorescence in the films of Preston Sturges, which brings us back to Stanwyck and her wonder-mirror. Sturges was a genuine Hollywood auteur -- he not only directed his films, he wrote them. And he wrote "The Lady Eve" specially for Stanwyck. Watching the mirror scene, a layered sequence of quips and stratagems and savvy, one senses that the actress has taken control of the picture -- that Stanwyck is practically causing those other gold-diggers to fall all over themselves and Fonda to shrug them off and leave the way open for her to move in when she's ready, that in effect she's directing a film within the film and Sturges is cheering her on. It's the heady culmination of the female chutzpah that made romantic comedy such a liberating art-form.

Kendall has addressed similar issues in her earlier book, Where She Danced. The Runaway Bride itself is a fine performance -- stylishly written, ably argued and more cogent than James Harvey's rich but sprawling 1987 book on the same subject, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges. Bride brims over with so much zest for the movies it celebrates that repertory-house managers and discriminating video-store owners would do well to start filling out their order-forms with a copy at hand.

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.