The Great Comedies

Upon receiving a concerned visitor while he was hospitalized for a serious illness, the great Zero Mostell allegedly said, "My dear, dying is easy; comedy is hard." Truer words may never have been spoken. Over the years comedies have always taken a back seat to dramas in the eyes of the "legitimate theater". Indeed, a search of Academy Award winning films that could be classified as comedies will turn up but a handful. So why is it that these under-recognized films do so well at the box office? Perhaps it is because in the grand scheme of things, people have always had more reasons to cry than to laugh. All we have to do is turn on the evening news in order to see examples of cruelty and loss, not to mention the disaster of the week. If that isn’t enough, we can always examine our own lives or the lives of those around us. As a philosopher once said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation." Perhaps that is precisely the reason that we all enjoy a good laugh so much. We laugh because, in the midst of chaos, "when all about us are loosing their heads", nothing heals better than laughter. As such, it should probably come as no surprise that the history of comedy goes back as far as the history of film itself. Indeed, long before filmmakers attempted to tell epic stories, pioneering filmmakers were shooting for laughs. Everyone from the legendary Lumiere brothers to Thomas Edison took a turn at producing comedic films. Even the celebrated George Melies, the father of science fiction and fantasy films, incorporated comedy into all of his works.

A list of the great comedies is as difficult to come up with as a list of the elements that make up a great comedy. Truly memorable comedies have certain key elements in common. A meaningful plot, or at the very least a semblance of a plot, believable performers who have mastered the critical art of timing, and a witty, intelligent script. The history of comedy reads like a litany of great performers. It includes names as diverse as Buster Keaton, the Marx’s Brothers, Billy Crystal, and even Jackie Chan.

Suggested Comedies

The General

1927

Buster Keaton stars as a down-on-his-luck railroad engineer who single-handedly rescues his beloved locomotive from the Union soldiers who have kidnapped it. A silent film classic and one of Keaton’s best

The Gold Rush

1925

One of Charlie Chaplin’s best silent comedies, the Gold Rush is a hysterical look at life in the Klondike. Watch for the "dinner sequences" - they are some of the best ever captured on film.

The Music Box

1932

Laurel & Hardy, the dynamic duo of early comedies, are a pair of movers who are confronted by a series of insurmountable obstacles including a mountainous staircase in their quest to deliver a piano. The film won an Academy Award for best short subject in 1932.

It Happened One Night

1934

One of the few romantic comedies ever to win the Best Picture Oscar and the best actor and actress awards for its two stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert as the reporter and the heiress who fall in love on a cross country bus trip.

A Night At The Opera

1935

The Marx Brothers have never been funnier than in this slapstick farce that literally saved their careers. The film's screenplay was written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, the Marx Brothers original writers. The film focuses around the brothers attempts to boost the fortunes of up and coming young tenor Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones) and the object of his affections, the opera company’s leading soprano Rosa (Kitty Carlisle). One of the punniest slapstick farces ever captured on film.

Road to Singapore

1940

The first of the successful "Road" pictures features Bob Hope and Bing Crosby as two friends who find themselves in an exotic location (later films were set in Zanzibar, Morocco, Utopia, Bali, and Hong Kong) attempting to rescue Dorothy Lamour.

Woman of the Year

1942

The start of one of the most extraordinary off-screen collaborations in film history this film features the first pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The legendary George Stevens directs this charming and witty film that proves that opposites can and do attract, at least when they are this talented and this witty. This romantic comedy is one of films first looks at feminism.

Arsenic and Old Lace

1944

Two elderly spinsters decide to do their "civic and Christian duty" by poisoning the lonely old men who comes to call. Things only get worse when their homicidal nephew escapes from prison and wants to hide out at their house. Cary Grant turns in a devastatingly funny performance in this comic farce.

Harvey

1950

Jimmy Stewart’s career got a boost when he played Elwood Dobbs opposite Harvey, a giant (six feet tall) invisible rabbit, in this timeless classic.

Roman Holiday

1953

Director William Wyler captures the beauty of Rome and the dazzling charms of Audrey Hepburn (who never looked more luminous), in this romantic comedy that earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Some Like it Hot

1959

An uproarious mix of slapstick and romance, this film features the work of three classic comedians Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon and Marilyn Monroe. In the hands of director Billy Wilder, this comedy subtly mixes in numerous controversial elements so deftly that viewers will probably miss them. Curtis and Lemon are hysterical as two musicians on the run from the mob. Monroe is charming and vulnerable.

Dr. Strangelove

1964

Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens star in Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about the accidental deployment of nuclear weapons.

The Graduate

1967

One of the most important films of the sixties. Mike Nichols and Buck Henry created film’s most bizarre love triangle between disillusioned college graduate Dustin Hoffman, lovely ingenue Katherine Ross, and her seductive mother Anne Bancroft. Simon and Garfunkel contributed the rock and roll score, including some very popular songs that – once you have seen the film – may never seem the same. Look for cameos from (very young) Richard Dreyfuss and Ryan O’Neal, and think about one word: plastics.

The Odd Couple

1968

Neil Simon’s classic pairing of two mismatched bachelors Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau) and Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) spawned a television series and an enduring partnership between two well established film stars.

The Producers

1968

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder are theater producers who plot to rip off their investors by staging an intentional flop – the only problem is it is a hit! The show, Springtime for Hitler, is the best BAD play ever filmed. Directed by Mel Brooks.

M*A*S*H

1970

"Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and "Trapper John" McIntyre (Elliott Gould) are two Korean army surgeons who try to survive the system in Robert Altman’s scathing black comedy about the Korean war.

Harold and Maude

1971

A college favorite, this film revolves around the exploits of twenty-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) and nearly eighty-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon) and their unconventional relationship. Over the last twenty years this rather dark off-beat comedy has become a cult classic that is only surpassed by The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

What’s Up, Doc?

1972

Director Peter Bogdanovich’s homage to the screwball farces of the 1930’s features solid performances by Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neil as well as the chase scene to end all chase scenes. Streisand has never been funnier than as this one woman walking disaster area. Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton’s screenplay proves that it is possible for everything old to be new again.

Blazing Saddles

1974

Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder star in Mel Brooks’ sidesplitting send up of westerns that is probably the most un-politically correct western ever made.

Return of the Pink Panther

1974

Peter Sellers stars as the illustrious Inspector Clouseau the bumbling detective who always manages to save the day.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

1974

Quite possibly the most quoted film of all time, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a classic example of British comedy. Graham Chapman, John Clesse, Eric Idle and company run around cutting off each other’s arms and being eaten by bunnies in this parody of English legend.

Annie Hall

1977

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton star in this romantic comedy about a neurotic New York comic’s quest to win the love of an aspiring singer from the Midwest. Allen’s Academy Award winning comedy won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress for Keaton.

Airplane!

1980

Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker’s satirical parody of disaster films revolves around the perilous journey of the passengers and crew of a plane that has been devastated by food poisoning. Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack are a hoot as the air traffic controller with a substance abuse problem and the amazingly dense hot shot pilot. This film tries to offend everyone - especially the disaster filmmakers it pokes fun of.

Tootsie

1982

Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman stars as Michael Dorsey, an out of work actor who disguises himself as a woman in order to win a role on a soap opera. Jessica Lang turns in an Academy Award winning performance as Hoffman’s love interest Julie.

Local Hero

1983

Peter Riegert, Burt Lancaster, and Fulton MacKay star in this offbeat comedy about an oil company employee who is assigned to buy up a small Scottish coastal village so that the company can turn it into a refinery.

Ghostbusters

1984

Possibly the second most quoted film in history, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis are a team of wacky scientists who specialize in ghost eradication. Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts turn in strong supporting performances in this outrageous comedy. Hey, if you are looking for a laugh, "who ya gonna call?"

Moonstruck

1987

This gentle comedy features a host of fine performances, most notably Olympia Dukakis (who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) and Cher (who won an Academy Award Best Actress). John Patrick Shanley’s story revolves around the proudly Italian Castorini’s an eccentric group of individuals who are trying to deal with the ordinariness of their lives.

Roxanne

1987

This clever update of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Begerac features an outstanding performance by Steve Martin as the notably nosed C.D. Bales, the fire chief of Nelson, Washington, who sublimates his melancholy with generous amounts of wit and charm. Like Cyrano he finds himself in love with the beautiful Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), who is in turn captivated by the obtuse Chris (Rick Rossovich). Martin is mesmerizing as the graceful Charlie turning in a dexterous performance that is physically reminiscent of the great silent comedians and simultaneously verbally deft. This film is definitely worth a rent!

Big

1988

Tom Hank’s is delightful as Josh Baskin, a twelve-year-old who is magically transformed into an adult by a carnival’s fortune telling machine. The film features a delightful rendition of "Heart and Soul" between Hanks and his boss (Robert Loggia) atop a giant piano keyboard.

A Fish Called Wanda

1988

The best combination of American and British comedy. Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis are thieves, and John Cleese is the lawyer who may know where the loot is hidden. Throw in Michael Palin as an ASPCA advocating assassin with a stutter, and you have… well, something darn funny.

Waiting For Guffman

1996

Christopher Guest directs and stars in the trials and tribulations of small town Blaine, Missouri, putting on a musical for the town’s 150th anniversary. This is a must-see for any one who has ever done community theater.

Cold Comfort Farm

1996

A sophisticated young orphan has a major impact on the crude farming relatives she comes to live with in this hysterical British Comedy.

The Full Monty

1997

This Academy Award Winning offbeat comedy defied all the odds in 1997 to get nominated for Best Picture. The story is deceptively simple; six out-of-work (and out-of-shape) British steelworkers decide to do the Chippendales one better in order to improve their financial situations.