Feel-Good Comedies to Chase the “Home Stretch Blues” Away
Jackie Jerkins, Literary Editor
April 10, 2012
Needless to say, it is now “that” time of year. The downward slope from the midway. Sleepless nights will come in droves—last-minute studying sessions will spill over into the wee hours—the scramble for extra credit will be afoot. Ropes and wits alike will find ends, and these ends will be frayed, fried, and frazzled. My friends, we are in what they call “the home stretch.”
Thus, in light of the inevitable academic strife ahead, I would like to take the liberty of offering a few bona fide remedies for the infirmity of stress—comedies. Balkers and head-shakers will rest assured be surprised at just how much influence a froufrou comedy of old wields over the disposition.
Heed the following—with an open mind—and I guarantee oasis.
1) Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – This masterpiece is easily the funniest and most delightful film I’ve ever seen in my life. Also considered (more like declared) to be the greatest musical ever made, Singin’ in the Rain tells the story of 1927 Hollywood’s transition into talking pictures. Gene Kelly, arguably the most extraordinary dancer in film history behind Fred Astaire, is cast as pompous movie star Don Lockwood. Lockwood’s sidesplitting chum Cosmo Brown is played by Donald O’Connor, whose superhuman wit and breathtaking talent for dance is enough to steal the film entirely from its headliners. Also making comedic headway is the unbearable leading lady of Don Lockwood, Lina Lamont (played by Jean Hagen), whose riotously squeaky voice paves the Hollywood way for cherubic Debbie Reynolds as aspiring songbird Kathy Selden. Singin’ in the Rain features musical numbers and choreography that is masterful and timeless, securing its status as an eternal legend. Singin’ in the Rain is both a comedic and musical monument, and is in itself one of the finest cinematic productions in history. Plus, it’s in beautiful, vivid Technicolor.
2) Bringing Up Baby (1938) – This fast-paced, fast-talking Howard Hawks comedic tour de force stars handsome, debonair Cary Grant as an exasperated paleontologist who, by means of fate and an escaped pet leopard, gets tangled up in a wild adventure with hilariously oblivious and naïve heiress Katharine Hepburn. As far as comedies go, Bringing Up Baby is absolutely unrivaled. Every line of dialogue contains an unforgettable joke, and each moment is more preposterous than the next. No hilarious stone was left unturned in this film giant—the backs of dresses are ripping at country club parties; a station wagon carrying the pet leopard is crashing into a truck carrying chickens and swans; grand theft auto is occurring left and right; Cary’s clothes are stolen while in the shower and he is left with only a frilly women’s bathrobe to cover up. It is endless. I wish I could describe it in a way that would do justice to its insurmountable quality, but there are simply no words. Just know this: on a scale of 1 to comedic paradise, this gem ranks a genuine Shangri-La.
3) Some Like It Hot (1959) – Billy Wilder’s 1959 adaptation of two innocent bystanders on the run is a crown jewel in the world of comedy. The American Film Institute, in fact, has year after year declared it the greatest comedy ever made. Some Like It Hot follows the story of two struggling musicians in 1929 Chicago who unexpectedly witness the notorious Valentine’s Day Massacre by Al Capone’s men. In a stroke of luck, they find a way to flee to Palm Beach, Florida by way of a traveling band, but there’s a catch: it’s an all-women band. So, to avoid being “taken care of,” with some makeup and a couple of wigs Joe and Jerry become Josephine and Daphne. All’s well until the boys, as their female counterparts, become smitten with a fellow band member, a sultry Marilyn Monroe in her most beloved role as vapid blonde singer (and ukulele player) Sugar Kane. Simply put, Some Like It Hot is rife with humor of the highest caliber and is truly a comedic force.
4) Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) – Frank Capra directs this farcical achievement, arguably the wildest romping comedy I have ever seen. Hailing straight from Babetown (which I am told is in England) is Cary Grant in the role of astute theater critic Mortimer Brewster, who notoriously boards up his windows at the first whiff of matrimonial winds. However, against his own judgment he has just married doll-faced Elaine (played by doll-faced Priscilla Lane—what are the odds?) and is stopping by the house of his two beloved aunts before he and his new bride dart off to honeymoon in Niagara Falls. In a bizarre twist, he discovers that his sweet, dear little aunts have been poisoning lonely old men who come to rent their spare room because they genuinely believe it is the kind thing to do. Where it seems like it would obviously be a drama or a thriller, Capra takes advantage of the comedic contrast, and puts innocent and unsuspecting Mortimer Brewster at the center of an exasperating plot that will have so consumed you within fifteen minutes that you’ll be flailing about (no lie). The aunts are delightful and syrupy, which only makes their serial killing more hilariously preposterous, and the plot (whatever’s left of it by this point) thickens when Mortimer’s estranged brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), who is a truly psychotic serial killer, suddenly comes home with his minion (played appropriately by Peter Lorre). To make matters more ridiculous, Mortimer’s new wife, who hasn’t a clue in the world as to what’s going on, keeps popping in from her home next door to see if Mortimer is ready to leave for Niagara Falls. Subtle nuances like a constantly waiting taxi and a cousin who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt contribute to make this film one of the greatest comedic feats ever. There is never a second that is not bombarded by something more fantastical than the previous. You honestly have to see it to believe it.
5) The Awful Truth (1937) – Cary Grant, again, has us in stitches in what is considered to be the greatest screwball comedy of all time. Cary as Jerry Warriner and comic whip Irene Dunne as Lucy Warriner appear as a couple who, both suspecting one another of infidelity, file for divorce. While they are waiting for the divorce to be finalized, they are forced into contact on account of mutual custody over their beloved dog, Mr. Smith. In a series of hilarious shambles, both try to thwart the other’s attempts at a new romance. Director Leo McCarey’s lack of planning for this film often left Cary and Irene without a script altogether, forcing them to entirely improvise what turned out to be some of the finest scenes in comedy. You’d never guess they were making it up as the camera was rolling. Such is genius! The Awful Truth single-handedly influenced romantic comedies of the present, but notwithstanding 75 years and literally no solid script or direction has remained above every attempt to duplicate its mastery. Wickedly smart and quick, Awful Truth is glittery fun that makes one realize how much the funny business has been bankrupted since 1937.
There you have it. Five of the greatest comedies ever made. I wish I could properly emphasize how important they are, how much influence they had, have, and will have, and, most importantly, how instantly delightful they are.
Delightful is perhaps the only word worth using—because these films were designed to be hard diamonds of comedy from start to finish—but it does not even begin to encompass the mastery and genius of each film. The secrets and beginnings of comedy as we know it are all locked within the vaults of these five films (and countless more), and if the average high school student is willing to set aside the theatrical prejudice against “old movies” or “black-and-white movies,” he or she will stumble upon a gold mine they would otherwise never have known existed.
(And for more immediate comic relief, please consult the nearest complete television series of I Love Lucy. Take two, and you can thank me tomorrow.)