8/15/13

Why (COMEDY) Matters by Brian Saur of Rupert Pupkin Speaks

"Why Comedy Matters?". The words ring out in my head as I begin to picture myself sitting in the library at Shermer High School whilst I try to sort out my essay. No help from Brian Johnson on this one. He's not much of a movie guy I don't think. He's too busy taking down the Physics Club minutes to be home watching CADDYSHACK for the 25th time. So why indeed does comedy matter? 

Well, first of all, it is probably the most accessible of all film genres as far as its appeal. Sure, superhero make scads of cash, but comedies do too. Lots of folks, hardcore movie fans or not, enjoy a good laugh now and again. I've told my son many times about how different people think about movies in different ways. Some(like myself) are completely absorbed and obsessed with films while others merely treat them as an occasional escapist entertainment opportunity. Comedies are the uniting factor for all of us though. Comedy can not only bridge the gap between people, but it can even bridge the gap between generations. 


Perhaps not everyone will sit down to watch a B&W comedy from the 1930s, but those that are willing can't help but be kind of surprised by how funny we as people were 80 years ago. Sure, the referential stuff is lost in the shuffle of years gone by, but there are some very essential comic truths that just come through no matter how long ago they were put to celluloid. If one was so inclined one could take a veritable "tour" through comedies of the Silent Era and work their way up to the present day to see how everything in cinema tends to build on itself. 

As my blog is chiefly a listing entity, allow me to illustrate, via a sort of timeline, just how many great comic filmmakers and actors have been at the 'makin funny' game for a long long time. Since, as I said, we are all pretty much comedy fans in some form or another, perhaps I can emphasize the importance of comedy through said illustration of the volume of material that we humans have created in the genre over the years. Also, perhaps I can turn you lovely readers onto a film or two that you've not had the pleasure of seeing before. In enjoying new comedies films, all our lives are enriched and made better(if only for a few hours at a time).

Let's start with the silents. I must admit I am a late convert to fandom for silent cinema. It pains me to say it, but I often have trouble connecting to some of the style of performance that was en vogue during that period. It has to be understandably more demonstrative and that sometimes throws me. That being said, there is nothing quite comparable to a good silent comedy. It is truly cinema at it's purest. Image and music(accompaniment) together. It's a beautiful thing. From the years 1923 and 1924 I have two silent film recommendations. The first is Buster Keaton's masterful SHERLOCK JR and the second is Harold Lloyd's SAFETY LAST. These two films are remarkable in not only their humor and cleverness but also in the amazing craft of film making involved in both. In an age of CGI and so much technological assistance for filmmakers, it is interesting to look back on some guys getting amazing things on screen with far fewer tools at their disposal. I really think that these two films could make a silent fan out of almost anybody. They are that good. Additionally, Charle's Chaplin's film MODERN TIMES(1936) is another silent classic that will surely make a nice gateway for non-silent film fans.

When we move into sound comedies, the first guys I think of that mean a lot to me comedically are the Marx Brothers. Whether it's four or three of them or however many, their unique mix of puns and language humor, absurdity, songs and physical gags is a true delight in my mind. The best examples of their sensibilities come through in their films DUCK SOUP, ANIMAL CRACKERS and HORSE FEATHERS(in my opinion). Almost all of their films are good, and many would emphasize that NIGHT AT THE OPERA is another essential from them, but I prefer the three I mentioned.
W.C. Fields is next up and he is a fella that I associate with the Marx's in a big way. They are similar in a lot of ways but very different in others. It's been said that Fields' comedy is based around the idea of characters annoying one another. The film IT'S A GIFT(perhaps my favorite comedy of all-time) exemplifies this exact paradigm throughout and never fails to make me laugh out loud.

Next up: Screwball Comedies(primarily of the 1930s). This is tough to narrow down to a few examples, but I'll pick three directors to show the importance(and downright funniness of this period). First we have Preston Sturges. His film SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS illustrates quite literally in its conclusion why comedy is important and is very funny in getting there. THE LADY EVE is a top ten item for me and it made me truly fall in love with Barbara Stanwyck. Next, there's Ernst Lubitsch. DESIGN FOR LIVING, TROUBLE IN PARADISE and TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Just watch these movies. Nuff said. Last but not least there's Howard Hawks. Hawks was remarkable in his ability to make all manner and genre of films, but let's talk about his comedies. HIS GIRL FRIDAY is a well-known movie and one I was shown for the first time in college. I'd seen Cary Grant before, but not like this. Between he and Rosalind Russell, I had no idea humans were capable of speaking so fast. I certainly had no idea this kind of thing was happening in movies at this time - and I loved it. BRINGING UP BABY is the other favorite for me as far as his comedies go. Just delightful.



 After screwball(but kind of still a part of it) is Billy Wilder. He is one of the greatest directors ever for my money. He made a lot of comedies, but they are often bittersweet. THE APARTMENT is truly one of my favorite films of all-time and a movie that demonstrates a glorious bittersweet comedic tone that is nearly unrivaled in movies before or after.

Richard Lester is an irreverent comedic voice with a frenetic, unconventional style that caught me off guard with films like THE KNACK AND HOW TO GET IT, HOW I WON THE WAR and of course, A HARD DAYS NIGHT.



Mr. Jerry Lewis has made himself into a bit of a controversial figure these days and that is unfortunate. Not because he doesn't deserve the controversy, but more because I worry it may obscure all the amazing work he's done is his brilliant career as a filmmaker and an actor. My son and I worked our way through a couple dozen of his films years ago and it was a wonderful experience for both of us. Start with THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, THE LADIES MAN and THE PATSY. See if any of these strike your fancy. I think they are works of comic genius and ridiculously funny.



After Jerry, I think  of Woody Allen, even though Mr. Allen was one of the earliest discoveries for me in this entire group. It's hard to still not be blown away by ANNIE HALL. It was and still is ahead of it's time as another bittersweet love story that is both poignant and hilarious. It is this amazing culmination of the wacky comedies Woody started with early in his career and the dramatic stuff he was getting into soon after that. MANHATTAN is like that too and one of the most gorgeous films ever made. I can't help but recommend BANANAS and SLEEPER if you've not seen those already. They are quite silly and not entirely successful in all their humor, but they hit more than they miss.

Another gent I think of in step with Woody Allen is Albert Brooks. He has a similarly neurotic side to his comedy, but I find his stuff is a bit darker. His films exist in this unfriendly sort of universe, but that is one of the things I love about them. I'm hard pressed to think of contemporary director with a better comedy three-in-a-row than MODERN ROMANCE, LOST IN AMERICA and DEFENDING YOUR LIFE. Those 3 films are just outstanding. And REAL LIFE is quite good too.  



After Albert Brooks there a couple great ones by Elaine May(A NEW LEAF and THE HEARTBREAK KID) and them I have a huge number of random favorites that are staples for me. Films I can watch over and over and I find myself smiling through every time. ROCK N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, USED CARS, CADDYSHACK , AFTER HOURS and on and on....

 Now, all my blathering aside, if you can look at the list of films I've presented here and really make any case for comedy not being important then I think you must be kinda loony. There's just too much good stuff there to argue with. Just my two cents.



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