By Alan Hurst
Comedy on film is probably the hardest thing to pull off successfully on the big screen, and yet of all film genres it’s the one that struggles for critical respect.
Good, even bad comedies enjoy much more success at the box-office than their more serious counterparts, yet come awards season it’s rare to see them on the list of best picture or best performance nominees. At least the Golden Globes have a separate category for Comedy/Musical films, but even there the rules are pretty loose as to what accounts for a comedy. I still haven’t figured out how Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015) – an excellent drama and adventure film with some light moments – managed to win comedy category for Best Picture and Best Actor that year.
Perhaps the trickiest form of comedy to pull off is slapstick. By definition, slapstick is an exaggerated type of humour where the set up goes beyond normal physical comedy to depict dangerous, comical mishaps – both accidental and intentional – where the individuals involved walk a fine line between being believable and being far fetched. It’s also not funny if it’s mean-spirited or forced – a truly funny slapstick bit is organic to the story and completely in character. The exemplars of the art include early comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett reigned supreme in television, and later Jim Carrey and Melissa McCarthy showed both a game attitude and considerable skill. They – and many others – had one thing in common: a total commitment to the moment. If they believed it, so would audiences.
By no means an exhaustive list, these are 10 of my favourite cinematic slapstick comedies:
Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
This was one of the last of the great silent film comedies and I think its Buster Keaton’s best film. Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, was one of the great physical comedians of the era. His stone-faced countenance and his almost balletic approach to the dangerously funny situations he put himself into have really never been equaled. The story has Keaton as an educated, but accident-prone son of a big, tough steamboat captain. Nothing like his father, the slight Keaton eventually transforms himself by helping his father stave off his more sophisticated competitor and he also wins the hand of the daughter of his father’s rival. There’s a lot to admire in the film’s beautifully staged comedic sequences, but the standouts are probably the ones that people will remember today, as they usually pop up in any compilation of great comedy scenes. There’s a cyclone full of destruction with Keaton pushing himself gracefully the gale force winds. Another has him standing in front of a building, when the entire side falls forward. Keaton is positioned perfectly at the spot where there’s an open window. I had the good fortune a few years ago to see a terrific restoration of this film on a big screen, complete with a full orchestra. It was perfection.
Modern Times (1936)
There are so many Charlie Chaplin films that you could include, but I’m going with Modern Times specifically because it’s supremely funny and, nine years after sound was introduced, Chaplin decided to forgo dialogue, which only emphasizes the marvelous slapstick sequences. The film opens with the Little Tramp (Chaplin) working at a stylized factory where machinery reigns supreme and allows Chaplin to demonstrate his meticulous staging of comic and slapstick moments. These include an out of control conveyor belt, a food serving contraption, and Chaplin literally being swallowed up by the machinery. Between stints in jail, he meets Paulette Goddard, and tries multiple other jobs – with more perfectly executed slapstick bits along the way. Chaplin always made everything look easy because he was such a graceful physical comedian. You do feel sorry for his Little Tramp, but you’re never too worried about him – he has the smarts and dexterity to get out of any situation.
The Fuller Brush Girl (1950)
It’s definitely B movie fare, but The Fuller Brush Girl provided Lucille Ball with the best opportunity yet to show her flare for slapstick and zany comedy. It was directed by Lloyd Bacon who had been both an actor in silent films and a solid director with hits that included 42nd Street (1933) and Action in the North Atlantic (1943). Here, thanks to a script by former animator Frank Tashlin, we’re treated to a farcical but amusing plot that includes murder, mistaken identity, and shady business dealings all directed and performed at a breakneck pace. Ball and co-star Eddie Albert are really put through their paces here, Ball in particular. She’s called upon to imitate a trashy burlesque performer, get stuck on a clothesline, take all kinds of abuse trying to sell cosmetics door-to-door, hang from a bunch of bananas, and get blown out of a ship’s smokestack. But she’s game and the result is a very funny, live-action cartoon. Lucy Ricardo and I Love Lucy were only a year away and we would then see the full extent of Ball’s prowess as a physical comedienne.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
This atypical Stanley Kramer film seemingly pulled every comedian and comic actor around into a marathon of slapstick, car chases, screaming, and extended physical gags that almost – but not quite – feel like too much. It’s long – three plus hours – and you don’t want to sit down to watch if you have anything that even remotely feels like a headache because you’ll in migraine territory by the time its over. It really is an assault to the ears at time, but it’s saving grace is that it’s riotously funny in both obvious and surprisingly subtle ways. The plot that serves as the springboard for all the chaos is simple. Various travelers encounter a dying Jimmy Durante in the desert, and he gives them a clue as to the location of a big wad of stolen cash. The larger group can’t agree on a joint plan, so they all compete to be the first to find the money, all the while being watched by the police who are using them to find the money. Kramer had just worked with Spencer Tracy on the acclaimed film adaptation of Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and the usually serious Tracy is here again as the head of the police department watching (and causing) the action to unfurl. Other cast members included Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Phil Silvers, Peter Falk and in cameos Jack Benny, Art Carney, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner, Zasu Pitts, and even the Three Stooges. The standouts for me are Winters and Merman. They’re hysterical.
The Great Race (1965)
Blake Edwards never really got his due as a great director. He succeeded in multiple genres – drama (1962’s The Days of Wine and Roses), romantic comedy (1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s), musicals (1982’s Victor/Victoria), satire (1981’s S.0.B), and thrillers (1962’s Experiment in Terror). But he truly excelled with slapstick as evidenced by the success of the many Pink Panther movies, The Party (1968) and my personal favourite, The Great Race. The film reunites Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis six years after Some Like It Hot (1959), and instead of Marilyn Monroe we get the gorgeous Natalie Wood. This was one of the many big budget extravaganzas of the time – unnecessarily oversized but still entertaining and, in this case, very funny. The story concerns a car race from New York to Paris in the early part of the last century. Among the competitors are the nasty Professor Fate (Lemmon), the dashing Great Leslie (Curtis), and Maggie DuBois (Wood) as a would-be journalist and suffragette. The film is a little too long, but it’s filled with wonderful moments of physical comedy courtesy of all three leads, as well as Peter Falk as Lemmon’s unfortunate sidekick. There’s an amazingly staged pie fight sequence, explosions, crashes – very much like a live action Warner Brothers Road Runner cartoon but dressed up here in period settings and an amazing wardrobe for Wood.
The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)
Spy movies – both spoofs and dramas – were a big thing in the sixties. The Glass Bottom Boat was one of the first spoofs and also one of the last big hits of Doris Day’s movie career. It’s definitely a change of pace for the actress. The silly set-up has Day working as a tour guide at an aerospace lab, but also helping her father’s glass-bottom boat business by dressing as a mermaid. Rod Taylor plays an executive at the space centre who becomes smitten with Day when he’s fishing and snags her mermaid tail. When they meet again at the space centre, Taylor ramps up the wooing of Day, while security begins to suspect her of being a Russian spy. Frank Tashlin – a former animator – leverages the silliness of the plot for some truly funny scenes of slapstick expertly executed by Day and Taylor, as well as the recognizable cast of supporting players. Particularly funny are Dom DeLuise and Paul Lynde as two of the most inept security agents imaginable. DeLuise and Day share a great bit when they both get their feet stuck in some kind of umbrella stand. The film also features some nice southern California and Catalina Island scenery.
What’s Up Doc? (1972)
Along with Young Frankenstein (1974), this is one of the decade’s best comedies. An homage to 1938’s Bringing Up Baby, it’s a terrific screwball farce with some of the most expertly staged slapstick comedy sequences ever filmed. What’s Up Doc? also features a truly top-notch cast. It’s all about four identical suitcases and the confusion that follows as they’re lost, stolen and switched. At the centre of the craziness is a young woman (Barbra Streisand) who sets her sights on an academic (Ryan O’Neal). This was director Peter Bogdanovich’s successful follow-up to The Last Picture Show and it couldn’t be more different. He keeps this film moving at a breakneck pace both in terms of the visual momentum and snappy repartee. The slapstick moments are frequent and they’re all perfectly integrated and executed. Standouts include an academic soiree that goes very wrong and a subsequent wild car and bike chase through San Francisco where everyone ends up in the ocean. Streisand is at her most relaxed and sexy here, nicely partnered with an equally tanned and sexy Ryan O’Neal. They’re a golden couple and a great comic team. But the scene-stealer is Madeline Kahn in a wonderful film debut as the fiancé of O’Neal’s character. The whiny voice she gives her character, along with the Sears catalog look and totally unexpected line readings, are perfect. What’s Up Doc? also features one of the best car chases ever filmed.
Woody Allen’s assurance as writer, director and actor is one of the treats of seventies cinema and Sleeper, probably the best of his early films, is a surreal and slapstick treat that is still bracingly funny almost 50 years after its initial release. Woody plays the owner of a health store who has died during surgery and wakes up 200 years later after being cryogenically frozen. But the world is a very different place with underground rebels working to overthrow the oppressive regime in power. Fleeing from the police, he meets Luna (Diane Keaton) and they join forces. Allen’s early films seemed to be paying homage to early masters like Keaton, Lloyd, Chaplin and even Bob Hope. That’s truer than ever here. Like his predecessors Allen fumbles trying to cope with machinery, bullies and women and those are all key drivers of the slapstick here. Scene after scene allows Allen to provide the audience with opportunity to guffaw and some very smartly conceived and executed antics involving robot servants and robot dogs, giant fruit, and even an aggressive instant pudding. Allen is terrific as the hero, but another treat of Sleeper is seeing Diane Keaton gain her footing as one of the era’s best comediennes.
Silent Movie (1976)
Coming off the comic home runs of 1974’s Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks was riding high in the mid 1970’s. The winning streak continued with Silent Movie, Brooks’ rude and riotous homage to the silent film masters of the 1920’s. Brooks plays Mel Funn, a reformed alcoholic trying to make his comeback as a filmmaker. He gets the bright idea to make a modern-day silent film and with his two sidekicks by his side – the wonderful Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman – they go to work to get the biggest stars of the day to commit to starring in the film. Some of these encounters work better than others (the Burt Reynolds encounter is the best) but all are funny, and they allow Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli, Paul Newman and Anne Bancroft the opportunity to cut loose with some inventive and silly slapstick. Although there is no dialogue throughout the film, the soundtrack is filled with sound effects and music that adds to the lunacy. Not every joke lands but that’s the beauty of a Mel Brooks film – the jokes come so fast and furious that you’re already laughing at something else before you realize that what you just saw or heard fell flat.
Home Alone (1990)
Since it’s initial release around Christmas in 1990, Home Alone has become a perennial holiday favourite. But’s it’s also a decidedly offbeat and darkly comic film that features some of the most brutal and funny slapstick sequences every devised at the expense of the game and brave Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern (and their stunt doubles). Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) is perceived by his family to be a bit of a brat and the night before a family trip to Paris, he has to sleep in the attic. In the chaos of getting to the airport the next morning they forget about Kevin, who is thrilled to realize he has to the house to himself. But things take a dark turn when he figures out that Pesci and Stern plan to rob the house. It’s here that the slapstick and action kick into high gear. The ingenious Kevin imaginatively booby traps the house and Pesci and Stern endure an endless and deserved stream of smacks, falls, burns and crashes. Director Chris Columbus expertly stages all of this with just the right amount of exaggeration, so we don’t feel too bad for laughing.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.