Comedy – Catchup Part 1

Up next in “501 Must-See Movies” is the Comedy section.  This is probably the most universally beloved genre of film and has made icons out of actors and directors like Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.  To this point, Comedy is the genre in which I’ve seen the most movies off of the list.  As such, I’ll be breaking my recap into two posts.  First, I’ll cover the movies that I’ve seen from the beginning of the list (1923) up through 1984.  Below you’ll find a recap of the movies I’ve seen so far of the 50 Comedy movies that were selected.

Seen to date: 29 out of 50

The General (1926)

Director: Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

Starring: Buster Keaton and Marion Mack

AFI Top 100 – #18 (2007)

The engineer of a locomotive (‘The General’) is among the first to sign up to fight for the Confederacy at the outbreak of the American Civil War.  But, he is rejected as the Confederacy considers him more valuable as an engineer.  This causes his girlfriend to leave him, believing that he is a coward.   A year later, when his beloved train and ex-girlfriend are taken by Union soldiers, he sets off to rescue both.

The General is a classic example of a film that was a critical and financial failure at the time of its release, but eventually came to be considered a classic.  As evidence, it was named as the 18th greatest film on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of top 100.  The General may well be the grandfather of Action-Comedy films and, even as a silent film is enjoyable for movie lovers of the current generations.

My Rating – 3.5 Ticket Stubs (Out of 5)

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 92% (38 Reviews)

Duck Soup (1933)

Director: Leo McCarey

Starring: The Marx Brothers

AFI Top 100 – #85 (1998) #60 (2007)

Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) becomes the President of Freedonia.  He hopes to marry a wealthy citizen, Mrs. Teasdale for her money, but so does the Ambassador of Sylvania.  The Ambassador also works to take over Freedonia.  Two inept spies (Harpo and Chico) work both sides as Sylvania and Freedonia start a war.

The humor of the Marx Brothers is and was completely unique.  So much so that audiences hadn’t warmed to it by the time Duck Soup was released.  However, in the years since Duck Soup has held up as the best example of their slapstick, nonsensical brand of comedy.  It is full of classic one-liners, jokes and routines like the famous mirror bit.  It works well as a satire with a lot to say about war and government.

The Mirror Scene on Youtube:

My Rating – 3 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 94% (36 Reviews)

Modern Times (1936)

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Starring: Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard

AFI Top 100 – #81 (1998) #78 (2007)

Chaplin’s character starts out as a factory working, but eventually he goes crazy and is sent to a mental institution.  Eventually he is released, but then is arrested for supposedly being a Communist.  After jail, he finds life on the outside to be tough and tries to get arrested again, before trying to settle down with an orphaned beauty.

Chaplin is known primarily for his work in silent films and even though Modern Times was released after the innovation of talkies it was done as a silent film (excluding voices through machines and some singing).  To be honest, I was surprised that he was only rewarded with one film chosen among the 50 “Must-See” comedies. For example, AFI also includes Chaplin’s City Lights and The Gold Rush on its top 100 list.  While Modern Times is certainly funny, its story is all over the place and I didn’t think the comedy held up as well as other older films and it was inferior to the likes of The General.

My Rating – 2 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 100% (52 Reviews)

Nothing Sacred (1937)

Director: William A. Wellman

Starring: Carole Lombard and Fredric March

Wally Cook (March), New York reporter, is in trouble with his editor for a hoax story that backfired, hears of Hazel Flagg (Lombard), a typist from Vermont who has contracted radium poisoning.  Hazel has just a few months to live and is convinced to go to NY so that Cook can tell her story.  New Yorkers embrace her, the mayor gives her the key to the city and the pair falls in love.  But, Cook soon finds out that she is in perfect health.

Nothing Sacred was innovative in more ways than one.  For starters, it was one of the first comedies to be filmed in color.  It was also one of the earliest comedies in the popular sub-genre of Black Comedy, as well as an early example of a classic comedy with a female lead.  Nothing Sacred is a 1930s gem and if you like comedies about death, you should check it out.

My Rating – 3.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 100% (9 Reviews)

His Girl Friday (1940)

Director: Howard Hawks

Starring: Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell

Reporter Hildy Johnson (Russell) approaches her editor and ex-husband (Grant) to tell him that she is leaving the paper business and marrying an insurance salesman.  Her editor spends the rest of the film trying to discredit her betrothed and tempt her back into reporting.

His Girl Friday is legendary for its humor and its pace.  The script employs overlapping dialogue, simultaneous conversations and rapid delivery.  It’s a classic screwball comedy, but at twice the speed.  Cary Grant is extraordinary as the shrewd, quick witted Editor and Ex.

My Rating – 3 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 97% (37 Reviews)

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Starring: Carole Lumbard and Jack Benny

Joseph Tura (Benny) and his wife, Maria (Lombard) lead a troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who are enlisted to use their talents to intercept an incriminating list of names on its way to the Nazis. 

To Be or Not to Be satirized the Nazi regime while World War II still was being waged in Europe; making it easily the first American picture to do so.  That alone would be enough to make To Be or Not to Be significant, but additionally it is extremely smart and funny.  Benny and Lombard both shine as over the top actors on a mission.

My Rating – 3 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 97% (34 Reviews)

Born Yesterday (1950)

Director: George Cukor

Starring: Judy Holliday, William Holden and Broderick Crawford

Academy Award Wins – Best Actress (Holliday)

Junk-metal tycoon and all around bad guy, Harry Brock (Crawford) shows up in Washington to establish an illegal business cartel.  He brought along his mistress Billie (Holliday), who he regards as a ‘dumb broad’ to join him for social engagements.  In the hopes of smartening her up and fixing her speech, he hires journalist Paul Verrall (Holden) to tutor her.  Billie learns quickly and turns Brock’s business dealings upside down.

Born Yesterday was nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards including: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Costume Design.  And, Holliday’s performance as the tough cookie getting an education and making good earned her recognition as 1950’s Best Actress.  She steals the show and quickly shows that she is more than just the ‘dumb broad’ she had been written off as.

My Rating – 3 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 95% (20 Reviews)

The Pink Panther (1963)

Director: Blake Edwards

Starring: David Niven, Peter Sellers and Robert Wagner

An Indian Princess owns the world largest diamond (known as the Pink Panther) and takes it with her on her holiday at a Swiss ski resort.  Meanwhile, playing a game of cat and mouse are an infamous jewel thief known as ‘The Phantom’ and French Detective Inspector Clouseau (Sellers).

The heart and humor of The Pink Panther are both represented by the bumbling Inspector Clouseau.  (SPOILER ALERT) For me, the film is ruined when all the players conspire in the end to get Clouseau convicted for the crimes that the ‘The Phantom’ has committed.  However, I do understand the rationale for that type of ending to this movie and realize that the character is brought back in subsequent The Pink Panther films.

My Rating – 1.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 89% (28 Reviews)

The Producers (1968)

Director: Mel Brooks

Starring: Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder

Academy Award Wins – Best Original Screenplay (Brooks)

Accountant Leo Bloom (Wilder) teams up with down-on-his-luck producer Max Bialystock (Mostel) to get rich by producing an outright Broadway flop.  The result of their plans is Springtime for Hitler – which features a Nazi dance line and lyrics like, “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty! Come and join the Nazi party.”  The pair’s plans are unraveled when the opening night audience thinks they’ve watched a hilarious satire.

The Producers couldn’t have been a more outstanding directorial debut for Mel Brooks.  Its characters are rich and its story is full of laughs.  The American Film Institute considers it to be the 11th best comedy feature ever made.  Mostel is over-the-top in a good way.  And, Wilder (a personal favorite actor of mine) shines in the role of the nervous, timid accountant Leo Bloom and was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  This classic has been adapted into an inferior remake and a Grammy award winning musical.  If you enjoy comedies or have a soft spot for musicals, you should check out the original film version of The Producers.

My Rating – 4.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 93% (61 Reviews)

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask (1972)

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Tony Randall and Gene Wilder

Seven distinct vignettes answer all of the questions that people always wanted to know about sex.  1. Do Aphrodisiacs Work? 2. What is Sodomy? 3. Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching Orgasm? 4. Are Transvestites Homosexuals? 5. What Are Sexual Perverts? 6. Are the Findings of Doctors and Clinics Who Do Sexual Research and Experiments Accurate? 7. What Happens During Ejaculation?

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex is not for those who easily blush.  Allen takes a humorous look at a host of private sexual questions each with its own distinct vignette.  Woody Allen is an extremely rare and unique talent and the film is at its best during the vignettes in which Allen takes lead.  First he plays a court jester, who uses a love potion on the queen.  Then he plays the husband of a woman who can only orgasm in public places.  He also plays a researcher visiting a Frankenstein-esque sex researcher.  In the final vignette, he plays a neurotic sperm within the body of a guy who is getting lucky. 

My Rating – 2 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 89% (19 Reviews)

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Director: Mel Brooks

Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn

Black Bart (Little) is appointed as the Sherriff of Rock Ridge by a crocked Governor and corrupt speculator (both played by Brooks himself).  They believe that the townspeople will be so demoralized by having a black Sherriff that they can buy up the town and build a railroad through the town.  Bart enlists the help of the Waco Kid (Wilder) and they hatch a plan to fool the Governor and speculator.

With The Producers, Brooks spoofed the Broadway musical.  He continues his genre spoofing with Academy Award nominated (Best Supporting Actress, Best Film Editing and Best Original Song) Blazing Saddles.  Financially, Blazing Saddles is one of the most financially successfully westerns of all-time and may be the first major studio film with a fart joke.  Blazing Saddles is probably Brooks’ best work and that’s saying something with classics like Young Frankenstein, Space Balls and The Producers on his resume.

My Rating – 4.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 89% (46 Reviews)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Director: Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones

Starring: Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Eric Idle

After recruiting the Knights of the Round Table, King Arthur (Chapman) is given the sacred task of seeking out the Holy Grail.  Along the way they encounter some rude French castle dwellers, the Knights who say ‘Ni’, a Three Headed Giant, a limb-less Black Knight and a killer rabbit, among other hilarious deterrents.

Of my favorite 20 movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the one that I saw earliest in life.  From the moment that those coconuts first hit together all the way until Arthur is on the bridge for the three questions, this movie always has me laughing out loud.  Monty Python humor is uniquely British and universally funny and their take on King Arthur is a timeless comedic classic.

My Rating – 5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 95% (61 Reviews)

Animal House (1978)

Director: John Landis

Starring: John Belushi, Tim Matheson and Donald Sutherland

The Delta fraternity is known for its toga parties, binge drinking, pot-smoking and food fights, none of which has endeared them to the Dean.  After the entire Delta fraternity is expelled due to their poor exam results, they plot war on the college by wrecking the homecoming parade.

Often imitated and never duplicated, Animal House is the inspiration behind generations of movies about fun loving fraternity brothers.  For years, Animal House was the most successful comedy film ever produced.  It is often cited as being ‘crude’ or ‘gross’ and part of the significance lies in those descriptions.  Animal House is the grandfather of the now commonplace Gross Out comedy.  John Belushi’s ‘Bluto’ is a truly classic character that lives on as part of comedic culture.

My Rating – 3 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 90% (41 Reviews)

Trading Places (1983)

Director: John Landis

Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis

A rich young broker (Aykroyd) and a con-man (Murphy) are the subject of a ‘nurture versus nature’ bet between the two elderly, wealthy Duke brothers.  The broker turns (ineptly) to crime and the former con-man excels at his new job.  Eventually the odd couple turns the tables on the Duke brothers.

Aykroyd and Murphy are a perfect comedy ying and yang.  The nurture versus nature experiment plot has been used since, but never of the same quality of Trading Places.  If you haven’t seen it, you should.  Keep an eye on the TV guide as this is a cable favorite.

My Rating – 3.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 89% (38 Reviews)

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

Director: Rob Reiner

Starring: Rob Reiner and Michael McKean

This mockumentary is about Spinal Tap, a British heavy-metal band widely known as one of ‘England’s loudest.’  The band is on their comeback tour and preparing for the release of their newest album ‘Sniff the Glove.’  But, both are plagued with problems as audiences dwindle and the band’s bond is tested.

A superior spoof movie, This is Spinal Tap is a more than a mockumentary, it’s a rockumentary.   The past their prime rockers are all perfectly portrayed to the point that audiences initially believed the band to be real.

My Rating – 3 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 95% (57 Reviews)

Up next – the second part of my “501 Must-See Movies” Comedy update starting with The Breakfast Club.



About DC Evans

I’m a long time film lover. For as long as I can remember, I’ve spent my free time going to multiplexs; renting tapes and building my own DVD/Blu-ray collection. I'll be blogging about my efforts as I watch my way through the history of film. For starters, I’ll be focusing on watching each movie in the book “501 Must-See Movies.” Follow me on twitter: @D_C_Evans
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