It is a mystery that plagues pop psychologists and culturists alike. What happened to the American sense of humour? American film comedy, which dominated the world in the silent era with towering figures like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, took a few years to figure out the new synch sound medium in the late ’20s, and then picked right up where it left off, cranking out delicious lightweight confections and more weighty comedies of substance through the mid-’40s.
And then it all but ended.
Many attribute it to the dropping of the bomb, after which nothing could ever be truly funny again. But it’s not as if things were all rosy from 1930-1945. Great Depression. World War II. Audiences everywhere still laughed their butts off. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to argue with the record. For despite the occasional comic auteur—the Jerry Lewis, or Woody Allen, or Judd Apatow—despite the occasional gem, American film comedy has been in prolonged doldrums for about seventy years now. So, as a fond remembrance of a time when laughter filled out movie theatres, Simon Butler and I are selecting our five favourite American comedies from that funniest of pseudo-decades, 1930 -1945.
Horse Feathers (1932)
Horse Feathers was not the Marx Brothers’ best movie. (That would be 1933’s Duck Soup.) It was not their most successful. (1935’s A Night at the Opera.) One of Simon’s choices, Monkey Business (1931), is arguably better as well. But whether it’s Chico calling the football signals (“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, this time Professor gets the ball”), Groucho’s “I’m Against It” song, or the triumphant “Swordfish” scene, I have always found this to be the most entertaining of all the Marxes.
Nothing Sacred (1937)
Comedy in the early part of the decade was dominated by the transitional vaudevillians like The Marx Brothers, Mae West, and W.C. Fields. But after the Production Code neutered a lot of their bawdiness, a new kind of well-made lunacy, built on both rapid-fire dialogue and slapstick pratfalls, took centre stage. In 1934, the era of the screwball comedy was born. A few years later, Fredric March and the glorious Carole Lombard brought screwball to a new peak as they traded punches and romance in this tale of small-town girl Hazel Flagg who becomes the toast of New York when she is mistakenly diagnosed with a fatal disease.
His Girl Friday (1940)
The thing to understand about comedy in this era is that the actors and directors were not just comedians. Howard Hawks made excellent movies in every genre. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell could do comedy one day and tragedy the next. Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer changed the successful play The Front Page (already filmed in 1931) from a story about two newspaper men into a story about a female reporter and her male boss. The decision led to comic gold. Grant’s Walter Burns, the fastest-talker of them all, is one of the greatest comic creations in American film.
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
And then there is Preston Sturges. His career burned hot and fast throughout the war years. The eight movies he wrote and directed between 1940 & 1944 represent the pinnacle of a particularly American brand of comedy. Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is his most famous. The Lady Eve (1941) is his best constructed. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), two Eddie Bracken vehicles, are particular pleasures based on the ephemeral nature of wartime heroes. But The Palm Beach Story, from the Weenie King to the Ale & Quail Club to the greatest film use of Rudy Vallee, is the funniest. Maybe the funniest American comedy ever made.
To Be or Not To Be (1942)
Whereas Sturges could be crassly American, Ernst Lubitsch brought European charm and tact to American comedy. Not that tact is the first thing you think of in a comedy about Nazi Germany and Hitler. This may be the greatest comedy film ever made. It is about a troupe of Polish actors who use their talents to score an espionage victory for the allies. It is also about politics and art, heroism and acting. It has romance and suspense. It has Jack Benny, a comedy icon who never found a home in movies, in his greatest role. And it again has the glorious Carole Lombard in her final screen appearance. Shortly after completing work on the film, she died in a plane crash returning home from a trip promoting war bonds. She was 34. The days of American laughter were nearing the end.
Monkey Business (1931)
Jon has listed Horse Feathers as his favourite Marx Brothers picture, and that’s an admirable choice. For some reason, though, Monkey Business makes me scream with laughter every time I watch it … and that’s quite a lot. It’s about as anarchic as they come, this tale of stowaways on a boat who foil mobsters, crash parties and … aaahh, who cares? There’s really no plot to speak of. Just pure, unadulterated Brothers Marx. Yes, Duck Soup may be the team’s greatest overall film, but Monkey Business—from Harpo’s puppet show to the ludicrous fight scene in the barn—offers moments where the hilarity may be unequaled.
Modern Times (1936)
Perhaps more relevant today than ever, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is one of the great satires of the automated world ever made … and the Little Tramp sings, for Pete’s sake! Can’t be bad, right? The evolution of Chaplin’s iconic character reaches a profound maturity in this picture, where he battles rambunctious machines (the celebrated scene with the feeding contraption always leaves me in stitches), cocaine cowboys (check out the clip here; I dare you not to laugh) and cops who always seem to put him behind bars … even if he’s just returning a flag that has just dropped off a truck. This movie offers proof that the great comedian’s transition to sound was a successful one, and it remains a classic. Must-watch, in my opinion.
Mumbling, nebbishy Roland Young is at his absolute funniest in this comic ghost story, a fluffy piece of whimsy starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as suave, sexy ghosts out to give their old banker buddy a good time. In my opinion, this film never dates; the spirit-infused humour is perfectly paced, and Young’s physical comedy when the ghosts are not all there is sublime. Don’t forget Glinda the Good Witch herself, Billie Burke, as Young’s long-suffering wife. Every time I watch this film, I end up laughing; I never get tired of it. Spawned a sequel, Topper Returns (1941), that’s almost as good.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
One of the few movies featuring animals (specifically, a leopard and a dog) where the human actors aren’t overshadowed by the beasties, Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby is fast-paced screwball comedy offering hardly a room for breath. You have Cary Grant as a palaeontologist pursued by the very dizzy Katharine Hepburn, and no bone (har, har) is left unturned when it comes to the jokes. Sidesplittingly funny stuff, never replicated, with a crack cast—including the great Charlie Ruggles as the easily confused Major Applegate. Bet you’ll end up singing the song “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” after seeing this one.
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)
I have to apologise for only putting one 1940s comedy on my list of favourites—I did have To Be or Not to Be, but Jon had that, too—and I’m happy he has included it. That’s because I can feature my favourite W.C. Fields vehicle, his absurdist masterpiece Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, which concerns the exploits of a screenwriter as he navigates the surreal world of Hollywood and beyond. It’s worth watching the flick just to see Fields drink goat’s milk … gadzooks! With a great cast that includes Franklin Pangborn and Margaret Dumont, this surreal, hilarious picture is a viewing pleasure.
About the Authors
Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/ and at https://twitter.com/rockynrudy.
Simon Butler is a writer and editor living in Forest Hills, NY. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and is a big movie buff, with favourite flicks including The Seven Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia, The Seventh Seal and, of all things, That Man From Rio. His film-centric blog may be found at cinemablogishkeit.com.