At the risk — yet again — of being branded a curmudgeon, I find it amuses me to address the subject of what seems to me the dearth of much in the way of good comedy at the movies. This has been simmering on the back burner of my brain ever since I ran Animal Crackers (1930) for Justin Souther and a few other friends a few months back. Justin, who is far from curmudgeonly age, and in the process of catching up on 70 or 80 years worth of cinema (I’ve yet to break it to him that this is an inexhaustible — if sometimes exhausting — undertaking).
Part way through this somewhat clunky, very old movie (it was only their second film), Justin asked me, “Are all their films this good, or do they fall off as they go along?” Heaving that sigh of relief that always accompanies the moment when you realize that you haven’t made a mistake by introducing someone to something you love (hey, a prime factor in one of my early break-ups had to do with the fact that she didn’t like the Marx Brothers or the Beatles), I explained that the first five of their films were pretty much golden. After that, it’s a little more hit and miss — something I blame on the movies themselves more than the Marxes.
One thing led to another — as one thing is wont to do — and over a period of time several discussions ensued about the lack of really good comedies on movie screens today. Now, before everyone starts screaming about movies like Hot Fuzz (2007), I’m not saying that there’s no good comedy out there, but that the bad — and the flat-out dreadful — far outweighs the good, especially when it comes to the folks who specialize in comedy. When your top comedic performers are Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey and such hangers-on as Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, it’s understandable that the occasionally amusing crudities from the Judd Apatow factory (which is not exactly un-associated with some of this other stuff) are taken for great comedies.
I’ll go further and say that, yes, everyone on that list has done good work, though it’s usually when they step out of their usual range and tackle something else. Further, I’m not making a case that things were so much better “in my day.” In some ways, it was. We did have the antic movies of Richard Lester, who found (and helped create) something like his own Four Marx Brothers in John, Paul, George and Ringo. And we had Peter Sellers, whose work was uneven, yes, but at its best was something to behold. But, yeah, we also had Jerry Lewis still hanging around and Beach Party movies.
Far and away the biggest thing we had was a lack of prejudice on the score of the age of a movie — and whether or not it was in color. Hell, in some cases, we didn’t even care if a movie had sound. Unthinkable, I know, but it’s true. And, yes, I’ll admit that a lot of this — at least as concerns how we were exposed to it — was situational. When you start your viewing life with black and white TV, three or four channels and no such thing as home video, you get exposed to lots of things you might otherwise pass up.
There’s probably more to it than that, of course. Anyone of tender years and a scintilla of rebellion was not only ripe for the cheerful anarchy of Lester and the Beatles and the scattershot satires of the 1960s after the fairly dismal 1950s, but was left with an appetite for more. Doris Day movies and Lana Turner weepies will do that to you. The manic anti-status quo world of the Marx Brothers, the very peculiar world of Laurel and Hardy, the overt sexuality of Mae West, the humanist and political humor of Charlie Chaplin, the genial misanthropy of W.C. Fields and, believe it or not, the snappy wisecracking of Bob Hope were just lying there waiting to seduce us. And they did.
Now, I’m hearing muttering from some corners about the fact that Abbott and Costello aren’t on my list, but I’d be lying if I said I found them especially funny much after the age of 12. They always seem more loud than actually funny, and all but a very few of their movies have an assembly line feel to them. Moreover, I find nothing liberating about them. I think there’s more depth in the works of the Three Stooges, whose films at least occasionally flirt with a kind of anarchic surrealism.
Rather than talk in broad generalities, let’s look at a few specific instances of these folks and the films I’d label classic comedies.
At the top of my list — perhaps because they’d have been at the top of any self-respecting young cinephile’s list ca. 1970 — are the Marx Brothers, especially in their incarnation as the Four Marx Brothers. The original movie team consisted of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo. Zeppo, alas, bailed on his brothers after their fifth feature Duck Soup in 1933. This wasn’t a major tragedy, because Zeppo didn’t bring much to the group apart from bland good looks, a pleasant personality and singing voice, and the fascinating ability to put the emphasis on all the wrong words every time he delivered a line of dialogue. (Supposedly, he once went on in Groucho’s role during a performance of Animal Crackers and no one noticed the difference. It seems unlikely, but it’s a good story.) Still, I like Zeppo. Plus, he’s got the coolest name of them all.
The concensus is that Duck Soup is the Marxes’ best film. I won’t really argue that. Its appeal is immediate. It runs a fast 70 minutes. It doesn’t stop for Chico to have a piano solo or Harpo to cut loose on the harp (to the degree that one can cut loose on a harp). The gags are non-stop, and it’s a good-looking production (thanks in no small part to sets left over from larger Paramount productions). It’s also the only of their films not directed by — for all intents and purposes — a hack. Leo McCarey handled this one and it shows.
Plus, it plays very nicely as an anti-war film — something that had a lot of cache during the Vietnam era when it found its late-in-the-day popularity. The movie mocks just about everything you care to name in that realm. Patriotism becomes mindless jingoism as the populace of Freedonia celebrate the fact that they’re going to war (over the silliest of reasons) and ape everything the Marxes do, no matter how ludicrous, in a production number where the Brothers sing, “They got guns. We got guns. All God’s chillun’ got guns. Gonna march all over the battlefield ‘cos all God’s chillun’ got guns.” The president of Freedonia (Groucho) inadvertently machine guns his own men, then offers Zeppo five dollars to keep quiet about it, only to decide to keep the money. It’s bitter, brilliant, endlessly inventive and very funny.
However, look beyond Duck Soup. Pick any — especially the last three — of their Paramount films and give it a try. Personally, I think I’d go with Monkey Business (1931), which finds the Marx Brothers as stowaways (in individual barrels labeled “Kippered Herring”) and offers only the slimmest of plots. In some ways, this may be the Brothers at their purest. They create havoc on board the ship for no very good reason except that it suits them to do so. They barge into one situation after another, invariably defying the straight world to notice them. And the joke is that it usually doesn’t. When they’re on the run from the ship’s captain (who seems more annoyed by the fact that Groucho has sent him an insulting note than anything else), they pause to pick up a band’s musical instruments and launch into the most out-of-tune cacophony imaginable. What do the other passengers do? Why, they politely applaud, of course.
The film’s highlight of insanity — and its strongest comment on the lack of observation — comes when Zeppo steals Maurice Chevalier’s passport (off-screen) and all four of them plan to use it to bamboozle the officials and get off the boat. Despite the fact that none of them bear even a passing resemblance to Chevalier (and jutting out their lower lips doesn’t help much), they harbor the interesting notion that if they sing one of Chevalier’s songs they can pull this off. So each in turn walks up to the official and launches into “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” — making no actual attempt to sound like Chevalier. Harpo comes nearest to succeeding — thanks to a gramophone with the Chevalier record strapped to his back. The wary official looks back and forth at Chevalier’s passport picture and Harpo, trying to reconcile the photo and the voice. Unfortunately, the gramophone winds down and chaos follows. The point is that the plan fails on the very idea that the Marxes thought it would work because they can’t sing like Chevalier. Officialdom can’t be fooled that way, but it never stops to question the existence of four Maurice Chevaliers.
There’s something similar in the world — and it really is a separate world — of Messrs. Laurel and Hardy. They inhabit a realm where policemen follow folks around and carefully watch all manner of obviously suspicious activity — and occasional outright perfidy — without seeming to take in the evidence of their own eyes. However, the Boys — as their fans call them — otherwise have nothing in common with the Marx Brothers. There’s an inherent sense of the pair as a couple of nice guys, who simply get into trouble either through some fairly childish misadventure, or by trying to help someone.
Laurel and Hardy are the epitome of male-bonding. In their world, wives are little more than glorified mothers. They exist mostly to keep the Boys from having — generally innocent — fun, and they exist to be hoodwinked. The problem is that the wives are invariably smarter than Stan and Ollie. And, yes, if you want to go there, there’s a raft of subtext in all of this — something that always gets a rise out of a certain contingent of fans if you dare to bring it up.
The problem with not bringing it up is that it’s occasionally inescapable. Take their 1932 short (the best of their films are the shorts) Their First Mistake. The film is driven by Stan having won tickets to the Cement Workers’ Bazaar and inviting Ollie on the strength of the idea that they “might win a prize — they’re giving away a steamshovel.” Ollie has to lie to the wife (Mae Busch) in order to go. Of course, the truth comes out and the duo end up imprisoned in the bedroom like naughty children. When Stan wonders why Mrs. Hardy is so mad, Ollie tells him, “She says I think more of you than I do of her.” Stan considers this for a moment and, with a degree of shock that it could possibly be otherwise asks, “Well, you do, don’t you?” To this, Ollie responds, “Well, we won’t go into that.” Later, Mrs. Hardy leaves and sues Ollie for divorce — and Stan for “alienation of affections.” Nope, no subtext there.
Their First Mistake is a good, but somewhat uneven film that doesn’t so much end as just stop. If I were to pick a Laurel and Hardy essential, it would be Come Clean (1931). This is also a domestic comedy, but one that finds Ollie unusually happily married to Gertrude Astor, with whom he’s looking forward to a quiet evening at home without “those Laurels.” Naturally, “those Laurels” show up and attempts to pretend that they’re not home come to disaster, followed by much forced good-fellowship.
It’s not long, however, before it becomes the Boys vs. the Wives when Stan and Ollie play good Samaritan and rescue an attempted suicide (Mae Busch), who turns out to be a hooker (without a heart of gold) who is not in the least grateful. “You’ve got a lot of nerve butting into other people’s affairs,” she tells them and then announces, “Well, now that you’ve saved me, you can take care of me.” The problem is that they know and the hooker knows and knows they know that the Wives aren’t going to buy the innocence of the whole thing. It all works spendidly and boasts one of the best endings and best ending lines of any of their films.
To balance things out a bit with the woman’s point of view there’s Mae West — one of the most unlikely performers ever to come along. West was nearly 40 when she made her film debut — and possessed of a figure that came close to what we call Rubenesque. This didn’t keep her from becoming the sexiest thing in movies — after her own fashion. From the moment she walked into Night After Night (1932) and a cloakroom girl enthused, “Goodness! What beautiful diamonds,” earning West’s blunt response, “Goodness had nothin’ to do with it, dearie,” she was a hit. She took sex out of the bedroom and kidded it openly. She was the aggressor and made no bones about it — nor about her character using sex to get what she wanted. In her first starring film, She Done Him Wrong (1933), someone calls her a “fine woman.” Without a pause, she adds, “One of the finest women that ever walked the street.”
Thank God, Mae West got to the movies when she did. Not only did She Done Him Wrong save Paramount from bankruptcy, but she arrived just in time to sneak in under the Production Code wire. By 1934 she would find herself hampered by the dictates of the Breen Office and its myriad of “Thou Shalt Nots” where the movies were concerned. By her fourth movie, Belle of the Nineties (1934), she was considerably toned down. In fact, the film’s original title, It Ain’t No Sin, was deemed unacceptable — something that left the Paramount publicity department stuck with a hundred parrots that had been taught to say, “It ain’t no sin,” on cue.
West worked around the Code as best she could — and she was pretty good at it, because a lot had less to do with what she said than with the way she said it. Two of her films, however, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel (1933), made it through pretty much unscathed. She Done Him Wrong is probably the better of the two. It’s more stylishly made and it’s more compact.
Based on her play (West wrote her own material) Diamond Lil — the title and the character name were on the banned list, but not the plot — it presents West as the mistress of an 1890’s saloon owner and career criminal (Noah Beery, Sr.). She’s strictly and brazenly in it for the money. Her romantic interest centers on Captain Cummings (a very young Cary Grant) who runs the Salvation Army Mission next to the saloon. Cummings pretends not to notice that she’s coming onto him, but Mae West is an unstoppable force of sex. “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” she asks. (Her catchphrase, “Come up and see me sometime,” didn’t crop ups in that form till I’m No Angel.) He claims he’s busy, but she won’t be disuaded. “Come up — I’ll tell your fortune. Oh, you can be had,” she tells him sashaying up the stairs. And, of course, that’s true, though it works out in a more or less moral way. That moral way, however, has to wait till West has killed a woman, set up an old boyfriend to shoot an unwanted suitor and sung the notorious “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone.”
Charlie Chaplin is in a class by himself. He’s a mix of low comedy, pathos and social critique. Of course, he dates back to 1914 in the movies and the full-flowering of his unique blend came later. All the same, elements of that more mature artist crop up early on. The sentiment is there as early as The Tramp (1915), while social criticism certainly rears its head in The Immigrant (1917). In one of the short film’s best remembered scenes, Charlie — in the title role — casts an askance look at the Statue of Liberty when he finds himself and his fellow immigrants herded like cattle by the authorities.
I think the film that most directly spoke to the audiences of my generation was Modern Times (1936) — Chaplin’s last non-talkie (he does sing a gibberish song near the end). Though very funny, it was a deliberate slap at modern society. In fact, the film opens by equating factory workers with sheep being herded. The workplace is an inhuman technocratic nightmare — one that finally drives Chaplin’s character insane and gets him arrested when he tries to use his wrench to tighten to the buttons on the front a woman’s dress.
For the early 70s filmgoer there was the added surprise of a sequence where Chaplin inadvertently becomes a hero because he’s accidentally high on cocaine. In fact, most things that happen to him are accidental — including the scene where he picks up a red flag that falls off the end of a truck and uses it to try to attract the driver’s attention. Instead of that, however, he inadvertently finds himself leading a left-wing parade, which lands him in more trouble with the law. Considering his future troubles with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and him being taken up by the rebellious-minded counter culture of the 60s and early 70s, it’s a significant moment. Yet it’s also clearly accidental — a gag that happens to have paid dividends years later.
Perhaps no classic comedian, however, tapped into the consciousness of a later generation more than W.C. Fields. To some extent, this is almost a misunderstanding, because it’s less Fields’ movies that held the appeal than it was Fields’ persona. Some of his films are indeed as cynical and distrustful as that persona suggests, but many of them have their share of sentimentality — which isn’t a bad thing, since it tempers the image a little, modifying what otherwise might seem like sheer cruelty.
With Fields you can take your pick from a variety of styles. There’s the satirical Million Dollar Legs (1932), which is a little like an incipient Duck Soup, but badly compromised by a truly flat ending. Or for a wholly unsympathetic Fields, there are the delights of International House (1933), a 70 minute extravaganza with tons of guest stars, musical numbers and a thin plot with Fields becoming entangled with Peggy Hopkins Joyce (a kind of more appealing Paris Hilton of the era, whose specialty was marrying millionaires), much to the ire of jealous ex-husband Bela Lugosi. It moves like lightning and the musical acts are often good (Cab Calloway shows up to perform “Reefer Man”). It also had a profound impact on the birth of hard censorship with its cellophane-wrapped chorus girls, sex jokes, and the moment where Fields extricates a cat from beneath Peggy Hopkins Joyce and gleefully exclaims, “Ah! It’s a pussy!”
Really no assessment of Fields is complete without considering his bizarre short film, The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), which may be the first post-modern film (before anyone knew what that was) of the sound era. (Will Rogers made some silent shorts that qualify.) It deliberately presents itself as a movie — a defiantly unbelievable one. There is no attempt at realism — the film dares you to try to believe it. Bad rear-screen photography is made just that much worse by never being in scale (to judge by the film, Fields has a herd of giant reindeer). The whole thing is set in the frozen north, which allows Fields to wander to the door of his cabin every so often, open it, say, “And it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast,” followed by a handful of fake snow being thrown in his face. The humor is odd to say the least. At one point, Fields brags that a creditor won’t get the lead dog from the sled team because “I et him. He was mighty good with mustard.” In 1933, it was a disaster. One theater owner even wrote to Paramount asking them to please not send him “anything like this again.”
The softer — more accessible in many ways — Fields can be found in films like It’s a Gift (1934), which is usually called his best film. If it’s not, it’s in the top two or three. Here he’s a hapless grocer named Harold Bissonette (his snobbish wife, Kathleen Howard, insists it be pronounced “Bis-o-nay”), who sinks an inheritance in a worthless California “orange ranch.” It’s all prime Fields, which is to say it’s messy, barely structured and filled with wonderful asides. Plus, it has the now venerable exchange where someone tells Fields, “You’re drunk.” Fields admits the distinct possibility, but counters, “And you’re crazy. I’ll be sober tomorrow and you’ll be crazy for the rest of your life.” Who can dispute it?
The last comedian I’m going to bring up is Bob Hope. I can hear the groans now, but get the notion of Bob “TV personality” Hope out of your minds. Forget the fact that Hope’s last really good film was Son of Paleface in 1952, his last marginally passable one was Call Me Bwana in 1963, and ignore his unfortunate insistence on continuing to make the damned things through 1972. Go back to Hope in his prime with movies like The Ghost Breakers (1940) or My Favorite Blonde (1942). These are revelatory. This Hope is a sharp guy. He’s quick with a wisecrack, unfailingly anti-establishment and an all around terrific performer. Even when a line is scripted, Hope can make it sound like an ad-lib. He’s also a sucker for a pretty girl or a get-rich-quick scheme, and he’s a professional coward. Woody Allen’s screen persona owes much to Hope.
There’s a large catalogue of Bob Hope pictures to choose from, but you have to include a “Road” picture — one of the series of movies he made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. I’ll go with the second one, Road to Zanzibar (1941), which is both a great “Road” picture and a solid satire of the African adventure movie. Rather than present Lamour as her usual phony exotic character, the film casts her as one half of a Brooklyn singing act promising “two girls and a guitar,” who, like Bing and Bob had found herself stranded in Africa. In essence, everyone is out to fleece everyone else with Hope getting the lion’s share of the fleecings — including wrestling with a gorilla when he and Bing get captured by natives, who endlessly bicker (via subtitles) over whether or not the duo are gods (“If he’s a god, I’m Mickey Mouse” reads one improbable translation).
The Hope-Crosby relationship is not wholly dissimilar to that of Laurel and Hardy — subtext is ever-present, and, in fact, they even end up married to each other in 1952’s Road to Bali (“One of us has to go to Reno before [gossip columnist] Louella [Parsons] finds out”). But they differ in that their not so innocent. The relationship is built on double-crossing each other — especially over women. The problem is that Hope isn’t very good at it, while Crosby is an effortless master.
In a different mode, there’s always Son of Paleface, which — for those who insist — has the bonus of being in color. As directed by Frank Tashlin, the film is about as close as a live action film can get to being a cartoon. It’s wild stuff right from the beginning with Hope graduating from Harvard (class of 1895) magna cum laude. (The improbability of Hope graduating at all is stressed when he tells the audience that magna cum laude is “Latin for ‘if you folks drive home after the picture, be sure and use a car.”) The film is a sequel to the much more sedate The Paleface (1948), and it truly showcases Hope at his best.
I’m going to leave it there — and await the wrath over having left out Buster Keaton and possibly even Wheeler and Woolsey — but I really suggest that readers check out some of these films and these performers. I think you might be surprised at how short-changed we’re being today. And notice one key factor about these “golden age” comedians — at no time do they beg for laughs (Hope comes close on occasion, but never crosses the line). There’s not a moment in these films where you get the sense of the performer screaming, “Hey! Look at me! Look! I’m being funny now! See?” — and that’s the thing (even more than flatulence gags and penis jokes) that really sinks so much current comedy for me.
— Ken Hanke