Archive for the ‘Genre Countdown: Comedy’ Category


By Roderick Heath

More than 20 years since the end of the Cold War, and nearly a half-century since the film was released, why is Stanley Kubrick’s seventh feature, a modish fantasia dealing with the perverse id and assailed mentality of its specific era, still so lauded, so beloved, so vital? How can a film with such subject matter still be considered a titanic work of cinematic comedy? Why does it stand tall when attempts to update it or reproduce its unstable blend of elements usually fall very, very short? Some answers: a great filmmaker at the height of his craft. A great comic actor also at his height, backed up by other superlative talents. A screenplay possessed of a pitiless intelligence and ornery wit. A time when taking risks in cinema was rapidly becoming more permissible, even necessary. Over and above all this, Dr. Strangelove helped to define something about the modern world that has survived even as the Cold War has faded. The apocalyptic anxiety it diagnosed and treated with mockery and gallows humour has hardly vanished, but has rather faded to the background static in our daily lives. Dr. Strangelove is a purgative rather than a wallow, however, a work of fatalistic fervour that is nonetheless perversely cheering precisely because it considers the worst the world had to offer and yet still finds the joie de vivre in it.

Dr. Strangelove began evolving when Kubrick, interested in dealing with the threat of nuclear war, had a book recommended to him credited to the pseudonym of former RAF officer Peter Bryan George. George’s novel, variously titled Two Hours to Doom or Red Alert, was a sober thriller depicting Armageddon almost brought about by a combination of human frailty and technological estrangement. Kubrick had been pushed close to the summit of Hollywood success in helming Kirk Douglas’ earnest projects Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960) only a few years after the precocious former photographer had broken into the industry with self-financed films. But frustrating experiences making Spartacus and One-Eyed Jacks (1961), from which he was fired, soured him on Hollywood. Kubrick had recently made what proved a permanent move to Britain to shoot Lolita (1962), a movie that established him as a more eccentric and individualistic director than anyone had realised, gifted at tackling taboo subjects whilst maintaining an ironic but fervent empathy for tragically human protagonists. (more…)


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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among the many genius works of renaissance man Charlie Chaplin, City Lights stands as a singular achievement. It is not that other Chaplin films aren’t as funny, and the story for City Lights is certainly not as ambitious as, say, Modern Times (1936) or The Great Dictator (1940). If it were made today, we’d call it, perhaps dismissively, a romcom, a slapstick story of a poor man who loves a blind girl and uses his dubious encounters with the more prosperous outside world to help her.

Some may say that City Lights gets its reputation as Chaplin’s greatest film because of its miraculous last scene. No less a writer and film critic than James Agee had this to say about that famous scene:

“At the end of City Lights the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.”

As I watched that ending for the umpteenth time, and the hubby saw it for the very first time, our eyes moistened and our hearts agreed—this scene is indeed the finest ever committed to film. He and I, however, didn’t agree about what happened in the scene, and indeed, I don’t agree with Agee about The Tramp suddenly seeming inadequate to himself when The Girl’s realization of who he really is is reflected back to him. But more on that later. (more…)

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by Ed Howard

The General is one of the purest delights that the cinema has to offer. Its construction, and its appeal, is utterly simple, and yet there’s a visual poetry to it that goes far beyond its minimalist surface. Buster Keaton’s most famous feature, co-directed with Clyde Bruckman, is quite possibly also his best, and certainly the most direct, undiluted example of his kinetic, visceral comedic action. The film has not a shred of fat on it, not a wasted moment. There’s none of the sometimes meandering set-up that kicks off some of Keaton’s lesser features, no need here for extended exposition or narrative. It’s just one great scene, one great pantomime gag, after another.

Keaton plays Johnny Gray, a train engineer on a Southern rail line during the Civil War. When the war starts, he tries to enlist and is rejected because his civilian job is too important, but his girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack) and her family just thinks he’s a coward, so the serious young man — who, a title card informs us, loves only his train and his girl, probably in that order — is eager to prove his bravery and his masculinity. With that out of the way, the film then hurtles forward into the two extended railroad chase sequences that together comprise virtually the entirety of its running time. The film is neatly halved: in the first half, Keaton pursues a group of Union train thieves across Union lines, and in the second half he steals back his train and is chased by the Union army back across Confederate lines, in a race to warn the South before a sneak attack is sprung. (more…)

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By Jon Warner

At my parent’s house in Chicago there is this photo album with a slightly yellowed and faded photo. In it, is an image of a small boy, about age 4, who is holding an RCA videodisc in his hand. It is a copy of Duck Soup. He has a beaming smile. Yes….that was me. It sometimes strikes me as I look back at that photo and realize how much that film and the Marx Brothers have meant to me throughout my life. Back then, we would go visit my grandparents in Davenport, IA and my uncle would come over to visit in the evenings. He had an RCA videodisc player which he would bring over. He had a remarkable collection of titles. We would watch Shane, The Great Escape, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, among many others. He also had The Marx Brothers, who were my favorite. He had  Animal Crackers, A Day at the Races, and what I consider their best film and a landmark of comedy…Duck Soup. My brother and I would sit down in my grandparent’s basement watching these movies and laughing our heads off. This routine went on for years. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The following is the transcript of classroom introduction, and post-film discussion in an undergraduate cinema studies class held in the Margaret Crowden Auditorium at Jersey City State College on the morning of Friday, September 10, 1972.

Professor Harold KeatonHello ladies and gentleman.  My name is Professor Harold Keaton and I would like to welcome you all to ‘Introduction to Cinema Studies till 1941’ Please check your schedule and make sure you are presently in the right class.  This is the Margaret Crowden Auditorium.  The class will convene every Friday morning from 8:30 till 11:40 A.M.  Depending on the running time of some of the features you can generally figure on a 15 minute break, at which time you are welcome to indulge in a snack that either was brought in or obtained at the student union building directly across from the entrance to this building.  I do not permit smoking in my class, so for those who indulge, you can avail youself of the break time outdoors.  The current fall semester, as many of you are already aware will run for fourteen weeks until the first week of December, when final exams will be administered.  The grade you earn in this class will be based on three components.  The first will be the cumulative average of two term papers that will deal with assigned topics that tie in with the weekly screenings.  The topics will be given out on the third week of class, and will be accepted voluntarily.  The best strategy is to complete the first before the halfway point, so that the final seven weeks can be utilized to negotiate the second one.  The second component is the final exam, which will be given during the second week in December.  The exam will take into account the films that are screened and the lectures and discussion that preceed and follow the viewings.  The last requirement to figure into your final grade will be active participation in class discussion and analysis.  I will closely monitor the contributions of each and every one of you, and can only advise you to be as animated as possible in your invlovement in class discussion.  I’d go as far as to say that this component may well be the weightiest of all three.  If there are any people who define themselves as shy, I’m sorry to say that this is not the class for you.  The first three weeks will cover silent comedy, with today’s sceening of The Gold Rush set to launch during today’s session.  Has anyone in this class ever seen the film, or have heard of the director and lead actor, Charles Chaplin?  Please state your name at all times before responding.

James Woods: I have seen a few shorts by Chaplin, that were once shown on Ch. 13, but I haven’t seen The Gold Rush.

Brian Leary: (coughing) I saw it once, but I can’t remember too much about it.  My father took me to some theatre across the river in Manhattan when I was about 11.  I remember my father laughing himself silly, and a few times I joined him. (more…)

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a playtime jacques tati criterion new PLAYTIME-9

by M. Roca

It’s hard not to feel bittersweet emotions while watching Jacques Tati’s Playtime. Here is a film touched with breathtaking moments of brilliance, but also with the recognition that an astonishing career would never fully recover again. Knowing that the filmmaker did not come out unscathed lends an aura of melancholy to the movie that is palpable to those who know the backstory. Daring and expensive, Playtime was a commercial failure that couldn’t recoup a large portion of its working budget. Tati went all out in the creation of his comedic masterpiece, sparing no expense. In fact, it was the most costly French picture ever made at that time in 1967. The enormous sets took hundreds of people to make and maintain. Such a colossal endeavor also lent itself to production woes that ate away the money and valuable time. Dubbed “Tativille,” Playtime’s set was basically a living, breathing city of glass, cubicles, and a fully functioning power plant filmed on 70mm. The high-resolution film stock caused even more problems for the director: Tati refused to show his work in theaters that were unable to accommodate that level of wide projection and considerable aspect ratio. These factors coupled with the challenging nature of the movie itself, irreversibly affected the rest of Tati’s career financially and artistically (though Trafic is also a masterpiece in my eyes). Debt and bankruptcy hounded him. He had had only the chance to complete six feature-length works. Regardless of what happened in the past, Playtime exists…and for this, we should be forever grateful. (more…)

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                                         David: “Don’t lose your head!”

                             Susan: “I’ve got my head—I’ve lost my leopard!”

by Brandie Ashe

Bringing Up Baby (1938) is, without a doubt, the funniest movie I have ever seen, a textbook example of the screwball comedy and a hallmark of the romantic comedy genre. In fact, it is one of the first films I show when introducing “newbies” to the world of classic film, because I have yet to meet a person who is not thoroughly delighted and/or ready to collapse from laughter by the time the credits roll. It is, in a word, a marvel (let’s just say, there’s a reason it was the unquestionable number-one entry on my comedy ballot!).

Baby stars Katharine Hepburn as a dizzy heiress, Susan Vance, who falls head over heels in love with a hapless paleontologist, David Huxley (a sexily disheveled and bewildered Cary Grant). Through her machinations, David loses a very valuable bone–the “intercostal clavicle”–that belongs to the skeleton of a brontosaurus. Susan also inadvertently jeopardizes David’s attempts to secure a million dollars’ worth of funding for his museum. And to add to the craziness, Susan has recently received a rather intimidating gift–a large leopard named Baby–which she plans to take to her family’s farm in Connecticut, of all places. Toss in a nosy aunt, a bumbling big-game hunter, a concerned psychiatrist, and an idiotic constable, and you can imagine the chaos that ensues. (more…)

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by Joel Bocko

(Apologies for the premature posting last night. This here is the real deal. If the embedded videos give you any trouble, you can watch it directly on YouTube here and here.)

The following video essay is my entry in the comedy countdown. Enjoy!

(Part 2 after the jump)


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by R. D. Finch

When making out my ballot for the Comedy Countdown here at Wonders in the Dark, the biggest dilemma I faced was deciding just what was a comedy and what wasn’t. As I worked on the list, several films whose overall tone I was uncertain of fell off the list. A few of these eventually found their way back on. One of the films I went back and forth on was Sullivan’s Travels, which I eventually placed at #5, right after my two favorite silent comedies—one by Chaplin and one by Keaton—and my two favorite screwball comedies. The dilemma I faced in classifying Sullivan’s Travels is that it doesn’t fit comfortably into either the “comedy/ha-ha” or the “comedy/not tragedy” modes of humor. Tonally, the film is a real paradox, a movie where gravity and humor exist side-by-side, a tragicomic picture whose subject is comedy and whose premise is a serious one—that a movie which aims to do no more than make people laugh is as important as one that makes them think.

Joel McCrea plays film director John L. Sullivan, Hollywood’s Caliph of Comedy, who decides that he’s tired of making frivolous movies, no matter how popular they are, and wants to direct a film that makes a serious statement about contemporary socioeconomic conditions. Because Sullivan has no first-hand experience of the grinding poverty he wants to depict onscreen, he decides to research the subject by disguising himself as a tramp and going out on the road. No matter where he heads, though, circumstances invariably take him right back to Hollywood. During one of these false starts he acquires a traveling companion, an aspiring actress who has given up on Hollywood and is on her way back to Kansas when she meets Sullivan at a Hollywood diner. (Called simply The Girl, she is played by Veronica Lake in her first starring role. She was never again this natural or this good.) It’s fully two-thirds of the way through the film before the pair finally manage to get on the road and gather the knowledge Sullivan needs to give his new picture authenticity. When he decides to go back on the road one last time alone, the film’s comic tone, already sobered by what he and The Girl have experienced of life on the skids, turns tragic. (more…)

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by Ed Howard

Sherlock Jr. is one of the cinema’s greatest tributes to itself, a dazzling, relentlessly inventive ode to the movies as an escape, a source of dreams and a fantastical reflection of the real world. Buster Keaton’s five-reel, 45-minute short is crisply, quickly paced, with not a second of waste, not a frame that isn’t absolutely essential to the film’s hilarious and strangely moving vision of the cinema’s magical power. Keaton plays a hapless young movie theater projectionist who’s also studying to be a detective and scraping together whatever cash he can get to woo his girlfriend (Kathryn McGuire). When he’s framed for the theft of a pocket watch belonging to the girl’s father, Keaton tries to catch the real crook (Ward Crane) in a hilarious scene where he shadows the taller man, walking immediately behind him and mimicking his every gesture. When this fails, he returns to the movie theater, dejected, a failure as a detective and miserable over the loss of his girl.

He then falls asleep, and what follows implicitly links the cinema to dreams, as Keaton nods off in the projection booth and has an out-of-body experience, his ghostly doppelganger stepping out of his sleeping form and into the movies. It’s a fantastic, and fantastically funny, sequence, as the projectionist imagines the figures on the screen transformed into ones from his real life, enacting a mystery drama derived from his own experience with the purloined watch. Except, in this dream/movie, he can actually be the hero, the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Jr., dapper and sophisticated in a top hat and nice suit, a master intellect who can outwit any criminal. It’s pure wish fulfillment, as the young loser imagines that he can catch the crooks and get the girl — and then, in Keaton’s master stroke, he wakes from the dream movie into another movie, the movie Keaton’s making, and he gets the girl after all. (more…)

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