With this list I have abandoned all notions of objectivity. More than any human emotion, humour is a very personal thing and what makes one laugh like a drain may leave others cold. I’m painfully aware, too, of the titles conspicuous by their absence, like Wilder’s masterpiece Some Like It Hot, Keaton’s The General, Lubitsch’s bitter-sweet Little Shop On The
Corner, or Hawks’ screwball comedy par-excellence Bringing Up Baby, and so on. What remains is a personal choice of favourites, films which still make me laugh after repeated viewings.
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Like a good meal, great comedy doesn’t have to be heavy, as long as it satisfies. The following list, in no order of preference, will remain my own table of excellence for a long, long time.
Young Frankenstein (1974) director: Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks at his peak, with a spot-on funny pastiche of all those great Universal horrors of the 1930s and early 1940s. Peter Boyle is great as Frankenstein’s well endowed monster (who at one point does a Fred Astaire number), Feldman does his Igor, Wilder is the reluctant scientist with the famous mispelt surname, while the loving creation of incidentals shows a sympathy and care entirely lacking in Brooks’ career after High Anxiety. For a while the director and his preferred star Wilder were a creative comedy team unequalled in Hollywood, as was proved by another cult favourite, Blazing Saddles.
Sullivan’s Travels (1942) director: Preston Sturges
Sturges’ masterpiece, and that’s saying something. A spoilt filmmaker goes on the road to gather research for his next worthy project O Brother, Where Art Thou? (sound familiar?) and encounters in succession – Veronica Lake, the constraints of fame, a chain gang and the existential joys of animated film. A work which emphasises the transforming nature of comedy, and one in which the most distinctive comedy writer-director of the 1940s makes a witty statement about his own craft. After a short run of great films, Sturges career entered a precipitous decline after his uneven late work for Harold Lloyd on Mad Wednesday (aka: The Sins of Harold Diddlebrock).
Start The Revolution Without Me (1970) director: Bud Yorkin
Wilder again, in another historical comedy and this time cast as one half of a double set of identical twins separated at birth in pre-revolutionary France. The other set of twins is played by a goofy Donald Sutherland. Orson Welles is the portentous narrator who, in an echo of Touch Of Evil gets shot at the close and topples into a lake. Frenetically paced, and shot on locations, this farce is still very funny and bears worth watching again and again. Billy Whitelaw displays an unexpected light touch, while Hugh Griffith is surprisingly touching as the cuckolded French King. Inspired by a great cast, Yorkin never made anything so entertaining and reached a nadir with Arthur 2.
Weekend At Bernie’s (1989) director: Ted Kotcheff
Low-budget and in bad taste yes, but this film still succeeds on its own terms where, say, Eight Heads In Aa Duffel Bag failed – a genuine black comedy for the youth market. Images such as Bernie’s artificial hand-waving, the wig-stapling and beach scene, once seen, remain indelibly in the mind. An unwise sequel in 1993 overstretched the original joke too thin, and reduced the laugh quota accordingly. Andrew McCarthy may have done more worthy projects since this, but few have been this entertaining. It’s harder to make a film this funny, without a sense of strain, than one may think. Apart from this cult highlight Kotcheff’s career contains little else of lasting interest and he has since retreated to television.
The Music Box (1932) director: James Parrott
This short won Laurel and Hardy their only Oscar. Although perhaps not their very finest two-reeler (The Perfect Day or Two Tars may take that honour) it is remembered fondly as one of their funniest 20 minutes on screen and appears here as symbolic of their great career in comedy shorts. A fat man and a thin man try and transport a piano in a box up some steps in a scenario which is both beautifully simple and utterly timeless in appeal. Virtually alone out of the great silent comedians, Laurel and Hardy successfully made the transition to sound without difficulty and much of their work from their great years 1927-35 has the unassuming air of easy perfection. The steps featured so prominent in this film still exist, something of a Mecca for the duo’s fans. Laurel and Hardy’s finest feature is Sons Of The Desert, in which Parrott’s younger brother, the now neglected comedian Charlie Chase, co-starred.
Duck Soup (1933) director: Leo MacCarey
The Marx Brothers’ most completely realised film, made without the usual distractions of the boring padding of romantic subplots and songs. For once they are outside of a realistic setting, and running (or attempting to run) the surreal, fictitious country Freedonia. Graucho is Rufus T. Firefly, the ridiculous dictator, who brings his country to war over his love for a society matron, was the most memorable representation on screen of political foolery until Chaplin’s Great Dictator a decade later. MacCarey also worked with Laurel and Hardy (helming the magnificent short Liberty in 1929) in a long career which gradually went off the boil in the 1950s.
There’s Something About Mary (1998) directors: Bobby and Peter Farrelly
After several uneven productions, the Farrelly brothers struck gold in this film of what is, essentially, the old tale of unrequited love repeated in different contexts. Cameron Diaz’s hair gel has entered popular mythology, while in this film she also revealed an innate gift for light comedy. Ben Stiller went on to star in the almost-as-good Meet The Parents. The song refrain structure was unusual and proved another inspirational touch in a plot which is delightfully complex and proportioned.
Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975) directors: Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones
When I saw this in the cinema originally, it was accompanied by a spoof travelogue with John Cleese swearing at gondolas. That extra is missing from more recent showings and video, but the unadorned feature which remains is still one of the Python’s most enjoyable films. The Life Of Brian may be more controversial running this close in the estimation of fans, but this mock-epic just nudges ahead with fine location shooting, lunatic credits in Norwegian and Chapman’s booming voice as God. The self-referential ending reminds me vaguely of that of Hellman’s Two Lane Backdrop, where the medium of film similarly comes to an ‘end’ over familiar now, but a reminder of how radical the team were, both on big and small screen.
It’s A Gift (1934) director: Norman Z. McLeod
Fields was always beloved by critics than by fans, although the run of films he made in the second half of his career remain firm favourites, even after a generation. It’s A Gift characteristically satirises the pretensions of America’s middle-class, indulges Field’s love of language (indebted to Dickens who was a favourite author) and attacks many sacred cows (financial solvency, love of children, sobriety, sexual probity) with an unerring aim. Field’s brand of anarchy still seems daring and mature, particularly when contemporary Hollywood product is often the opposite. Of Field’s other films, only The Bank Dick, made later, is just as good, but the present film includes the classic porch scene, blind Mr Muckle demanding cumquats, and Field (alias ‘Harold Bisonette’) finally arriving in an orange plantation nirvana. Several of the ten minute scenes were released by Castle films as ‘mini-masterpieces’.
Raising Arizona (1987) director: Joel Coen
Before he remodelled himself into an action hero and was so badly miscast in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Cage made a few much more interesting films of which this, the second by the Coen brothers, is a standout. Obviously conceived in comic contrast to the darkness of Blood Simple, (birth being the underlying theme here, whereas death was at the heart of the earlier film, for instance) Raising Arizona was the first to reveal the Coen’s unerring touch in weird characterisation, pacing and the surreal. Cage’s goofy character, the eccentric hero at the centre of all the fun-with-fecundity, is a unique creation and his pairing with Holly Hunter is an inspired combination. With each new film it grows obvious that, amongst other things, the Coens are the finest comedy creators of their generation.