Some time ago, my friend Jim Medway (look him up, very talented cartoonist) asked if I was going to post some suggestions for comedy films that I would recommend. I had feared that someone would make that request, as Comedy is my least favourite genre, when it comes to films. It is not that I don’t find things funny, far from it; just not the sort of things that are commonly called ‘comedy’, by film-makers.
I could barely raise a chuckle at the big box-office successes starring the likes of Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, or Steve Martin. It is also highly unlikely that I will ever want to watch a teenage ‘rom-com’, or one of the cruder attempts at being funny, that seem so popular in the multiplexes these days. I will confess that some parts of ‘There’s something about Mary’ made me laugh, but not enough to get it included in any list on my blog. Many of the films described as ‘comedies’, seem a long way from that to me. The Robert de Niro film, ‘King of Comedy’, is often listed as such, but is a drama, about a pathetically sad man, who will do anything to achieve fame, and recognition. ‘Uncle Buck’ may be considered amusing, but I see it as a coming-of-age-drama, about family relationships. So, you see my dilemma.
What do I like then?
There are many comedians, and funny people on TV, that I like a lot. Eddie Izzard, everyone in the marvellous ‘Spaced’, and the ensemble cast of The ‘League of Gentlemen’. I also like Ricky Gervais as a stand up comedian, but his film efforts, as with many others, just fall short, and do not transfer successfully. A good example of this recently, would be the TV show ‘The Inbetweeners’. This was hilarious as a half-hour comedy, but a complete disaster as a ninety minute film.
The usual list of five recommended comedies has been the hardest one to work out yet. I have felt the need to include films that many would not find at all funny in the 21st century, but were once considered to be the height of hilarity. As usual, I have deliberately omitted some that are too well-known; and others, such as the ‘Carry On’ series, have been left out for obvious reasons, despite having some comedic merit. I will try to explain my choices as I go, and hope that you will ‘get’ some of them, if not all. If you don’t, I will understand.
Oh Mr Porter! Will Hay was an English comedian and stage artist, who came late in life to films. During a career of less than twenty years, he made over twenty films, many of which are rightly considered by critics to be classic comedies. In the earlier films, he worked with Moore Marriott, and Graham Moffatt, both present here. The interplay of these characters was always the same, whatever the subject. Hay would be a blustering boss figure, Marriott the old cantankerous one, and Moffatt the young put-upon dogsbody. It was this trio system that worked so well, and gave rise to much of the humour in the films. In this offering, which many consider to be his best, the scene is a run-down station in Northern Ireland. Hay’s character has been sent there, considered to be too incompetent to work anywhere else. Trains are few and far between, and his two staff are reluctant to improve their lackadaisical standards. With added slapstick, speeded-up set pieces, and often hilarious one-liners, it has the feel of an old silent film, with the added delight of giving the viewer some idea of life in Britain in 1937, before the coming war would change everything. This is history on film, in every sense. Here is the entire film. (Sorry about the advertisement)
School for Scoundrels. Moving on to the year 1960, still saw English comedy films portraying middle class and upper class characters, avoiding the ordinary, where possible. This likeable film stars some of the stalwarts of British Cinema; Alastair Sim, Terry-Thomas, Ian Carmichael, and Dennis Price all appear, at the time a stellar line-up. Carmichael’s character is constantly thwarted by the caddish interloper, played so well by Terry-Thomas. He loses at everything, whether it is sport, cars, or his love life. Determined to find some backbone, and to learn more about life, he enrols at the school run by Alastair Sim, called ‘The College of Lifemanship’. Here, he learns all the tricks to succeed in life, and how to win the heart of his girl. The latter part of the film shows him getting sweet revenge on all those who have mocked him before. This is another film that also provides a fascinating look at the life of the day. The clothes, the houses and flats, the cars and scenery, all seem long gone now. Here is an early scene, showing how gullible he is, before her attends the school.
Annie Hall. Woody Allen is so well-known as a film-maker these days, it is easy to forget that he started as a stand-up comedian. I used to listen to vinyl records of his performances in the 1960’s, and fall about laughing. His transfer to film as a lead actor, often casting himself (against type surely?) as the romantic lead as well, was a hit and miss affair. However, this witty gem of a comedy of relationships, and his pairing with Diane Keaton, came along at just the right time (1977) and set the standard by which all others are judged. This is not comedy of the laugh out loud variety, it is a comedy of subtlety, nuance, and a marvellous script. Again, it is a film very much of its time and place, and all the better for it. So much cleverer than a lot of Woody’s later work, if you have never seen this, don’t be put off. Here is the original trailer, giving you a taste of the film.
The Closet. It wouldn’t be me, if there wasn’t a foreign film with subtitles, would it? This French film is from 2001, and stars two of that country’s best actors, Daniel Auteuil, and Gerard Depardieu. Like many farces before, it takes the themes of rumour and innuendo, and uses those to create the comedy. In this case, Auteuil’s character pretends to be gay, to avoid losing his job. The consequences of this pretence are surprisingly beneficial, getting him unexpected respect from family and friends, and a new relationship with his boss (Depardieu). This amusing film has a lot to say about political correctness, and the culture of litigation, and deals warmly with all the issues related to homosexuality. Again, guffaws are few, it is just nice and funny, in a French way. Here is the US trailer, it doesn’t do the film justice.
Hot Fuzz. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost work well together on television, and have managed to make that all too rare leap into films that are quite good as well. Their zombie comedy ‘Sean of the Dead’ was a good start, but this take on everything to do with Police and murder mysteries really hit the spot in 2007. Very English in feel, it manages to take a swipe at every ‘buddy’ cop film ever made, taking in all the cosy TV detective dramas on the way. Never afraid to go completely over the top, the success of this film, for me, lies in the fact that Pegg plays it completely straight throughout, and there is never a wink to the viewer that he is anything but serious. There are ludicrous, impenetrable country accents, improbable arms stashes, macabre killings and a ridiculous shoot-out finale, in a small market town. Somehow, it just works, perhaps because it is not trying too hard to do so. Here is a short series of clips.
Well that is my list of comedy films, definitely my hardest task to date. I have only just noticed that they appear in chronological order. This was unintentional, and as usual, they are not in any preferred order either. I hope that you discover something different, and manage to at least raise a smile or two.