Dr. Waitsel's COMEDY Rx - Part 2
by Waitsel Smith
Twenty More of the Funniest, Happiest, Most Entertaining Movies of All Time
Laughter is still the best medicine (Proverbs 17:22), and I think what many of us still need is just to laugh. I have twenty more films that I have seen dozens of times each, all of which have never failed to make me laugh and feel good. I hope they do the same for you. So, forget about the economy, your personal and relational problems, the politicians in Washington and the crazies in the world, and just let the healing power of laughter take care of what ails you. It's all in God's hands anyway. So, while you're waiting for His answers, enjoy these light-hearted remedies.
Before we begin, I'd like to say two things. First, comedy is a matter of taste. I've provided movies from a lot of decades and a lot of comedy styles. Just because you don't like one of my choices, don't think you won't like others. Do yourself a favor and give them all at least one shot. Second, kids and especially teenagers are probably not going to like my black-and-white selections. Unless your kids are especially sophisticated, I would not expect them to enjoy any black-and-white movie, with two possible exceptions: Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. You can try those and if they like them, try some others. But don't' start them out on a sophisticated Cary Grant or even a family-oriented Frank Capra comedy. Preston Sturges is somewhere in the middle: his movies are fast-paced, loud and crazy enough that they may forget that they're watching black-and-white. Whatever you do, ease them in gradually. Remember: you're dealing with people that prefer a hamburger and fries to prime rib, asparagus and potatoes au gratin.
A Night At The Opera
1935 - 5 Stars
In order to help singers Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones get together, the Marx Brothers take their pandemonium on stage, with some memorable results, including a very famous scene in which the brothers pack as many people as possible into a ship's stateroom, and another in which Harpo literally brings down the opera house. Stars Goucho, Chico, Harpo, Kitty Carlisle (of "What's My Line" fame) and Allan Jones. Black & White.
A Day At The Races
1937 - 5 Stars
Similar cast and characters to A Night At The Opera, only this time at the racetrack… and a sanitarium, where, amazingly, they're still the craziest characters in the room. This time the brothers are trying to save Maureen O'Sullivan's sanitarium, with the help of Margaret Dumont, a wealthy patient that's taken a fancy to the new staff doctor. Guess who? Stars Goucho, Chico, Harpo, Margaret Dumont (a favorite foil for Groucho), Maureen O'Sullivan and Allan Jones. Black & White.
You Can't Take It With You
1938 - 5 Stars
Frank Capra was known for his heart-warming, inspiring family films, like It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington - which the press cynically dubbed "Capra corn." But he could also turn in a very screwy screwball comedy when he needed to, as this film version of the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play proves. Starring James Stewart (It's A Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington), Jean Arthur (Talk Of The Town), Lionel Barrymore (It's A Wonderful Life) and Edward Arnold (Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington), an eccentric family, headed by Barrymore, shows how you can be happy without money. Unfortunately for businessman Arnold, their familial bliss is standing in the way of his company's expansion. Coincidentally, Arnold's son, Stewart, is in love with the daughter of the family in question, played by Arthur. The greed of Arnold goes head-to-head with the generosity of Barrymore, with the young couple caught in the middle. It really is an hilarious study in economics and ethics. Won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director for 1938. Black & White.
The Adventures of Robin Hood
1938 - 5-Star Masterpiece
Before he directed Casablanca, Michael Curtiz was known for his swashbuckling action films. This is his best, and one of the best films of all time. It is not a comedy, per se, but just a fun romp that is full of energy, color, action and light-hearted moments. Errol Flynn (Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk), swashbuckler par excellence, plays the legendary hero that takes from the rich and gives to the poor, while his oft co-star Olivia de Havilland (Gone With The Wind, The Heiress) plays Maid Marian, Basil Rathbone (The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes) dons his sword as the villain, Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and Claude Rains (Casablanca) fills the role of Prince John, who betrays his absent brother, King Richard the Lionheart, by oppressing the Saxon people of England. Just to show you what a paragon of filmmaking this movie is, none of the remakes - including the most recent with Russell Crowe (2010), and especially the one with Kevin Costner (1991) - even come close to this classic original. You can't do better than this for pure movie fun. Also worth noting: this is one of the first and best examples of Technicolor. While losing for Best Picture to You Can't Take It With You, it won for Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing and Best Musical Score. Color.
Yankee Doodle Dandy
1942 - 5 Stars
Here's another Michael Curtiz extravaganza, this time starring the actor that was known for his gangster roles, James Cagney. Before he took up a life of crime for the screen, Cagney was a song-and-dance man on stage, and he pulls out all the stops in this tribute to musical theater phenomenon George M. Cohan, composer of the title song, along with a ton of other patriotic melodies. He is supported by Joan Leslie, who plays his wife Mary, about whom he writes a very memorable tune. Walter Houston plays George's father, Jerry, who leads his musical family in their trek to stardom. But if it weren't for the talent and energy of George M., they would never have seen the lights of Broadway. And he doesn't stop there: George's destiny leads him all the way to the White House, where he confers with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he has been playing on stage, and now gets to find out first hand what he really thinks of his performance. Cagney took Best Actor for this role, and the film took Best Musical Score. This is a delightful film, and in glorious Black & White.
Hail The Conquering Hero
1944 - 5 Stars
There are two words that best describe the films of Preston Sturges - fast-paced and outrageous. But not in the Marx Brothers sense. While Marx Brothers movies are full-blown farces, Sturges' are only partly farcical, the remaining part being screwball comedy. His situations actually could happen, sort of. When you add screwball characters played by the likes of Eddie Bracken and William Demarest (both of The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek fame), even a normal situation gets screwy. Here's the situation: after a soldier (Bracken) is discharged from the army for having chronic hay fever, a sergeant (Demarest) and his men decide to help him save face with his hometown by palming him off as a war hero. The town goes wild. Before he knows it, Bracken is caught between a lie and an offer to be mayor, with no way out. Black & White.
I was torn between Hail The Conquering Hero and Sturges' equally funny The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek (also 1944). If you like one, you'll like the other. One deals with a wanna-be military hero; the other with a don't-wanna-be pregnant heroine. In The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek, Betty Hutton (yes WILD Bette Hutton) plays the unwed pregnant mother. Bracken plays the boyfriend. Again willing but unable to enter the military, and because he loves Hutton, he offers to step in and do the right thing by her - even though he is not the father. Demarest plays a single father, over his head trying to raise two daughters: Hutton, and a very smart-mouthed younger sister, played by Diana Lynn. Even though this was a very touchy subject in the mid-1940's, it is handled with hilarious good-taste. This is one movie you will never forget. Black & White.
Arsenic And Old Lace
1944 - 5 Stars
Another Frank Capra film, this time a black comedy, which is unusual for the family-friendly director. But this is a very special black comedy: it's based on the perennial play by Joseph Kesselring about two sweet maiden aunts that believe they're doing lonely old bachelors a charitable service by giving them poisoned wine to drink. Cary Grant plays their wooden-headed theater-critic nephew who's just gotten married to the beautiful Priscilla Lane. Then there's the crazy uncle that lives upstairs and thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt (John Alexander). Add to the mix a brother that just broken out of an asylum for the criminally insane (Raymond Massey), along with his bug-eyed accomplice (Peter Lorre), and a host of local characters, including Jack Carson and Edward Everett Horton. It's quite a halloween treat. Each time the sisters "help" someone, they tell "Teddy" he was the victim of yellow fever, so he'll bury him in the Panama Canal, which just happens to be located in their basement. Guess how many bodies are down there right now? Coincidentally, it's just one more than Massey has killed, which drives him nuts until he can figure out how to break his aunts' record. Fortunately for him, a victim is at hand: his less-than-astute brother, Grant. It makes for a lot of fun. Black & White.
An American In Paris
1951 - 5-Star Masterpiece
As far as film musicals go, this one is second only to Singin' In The Rain. And the music is Gershwin! It stars Gene Kelly as an ex-GI living in Paris and trying to make it as an artist. Dancer Leslie Caron is his love interest, pianist Oscar Levant is his best friend, singer Georges Guetary is another friend, Nina Foch is his patron, and "the world's most gorgeous set of legs," Cyd Charisse, is in one really hot dance number in the famous "Gotta Dance" montage. The art, music, costumes, sets, cinematography, writing - everything - is spectacular, and won Oscars in all those categories, as well as Best Picture. It deserved it all. Quite a feast. Color.
1964 - 5-Star Masterpiece
This is arguably the best live-action film Walt Disney ever produced. It has everything: great songs, great special effects, great magic and a great story. And Julie Andrews was born for this part - this, and Maria in The Sound Of Music. Dick Van Dyke is also perfect in the role of Bert, Mary's chimney sweep friend. David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns are terrific as Mr. and Mrs. Banks. The kids, Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) are good but not particularly memorable. There are also some fine supporting actors, including Ed Wynn as Uncle Albert and Jane Darwell who plays the Bird Woman during that wonderful "Feed the Birds" montage. There are so many wonderful songs, not the least of which is "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." This is the perfect family film, and the only Disney film, by the way, to be nominated for as many as 12 Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Sceenplay), 5 of which it took: Best Actress (Julie Andrews), Best Special Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Musical Score and Best Song ("Chim Chim Cher-ee"). It's also one of the first to combine live action with animation. This is one special movie.
The Sound Of Music
1965 - 5 Stars
This film almost forms a set of book ends with Mary Poppins. This time, 10 Oscar nominations, and this time, taking Best Picture and Best Director, along with Film Editing, Musical Score and Sound. But this time, Andrews lost as Best Actress, though she probably deserved the award. The 60s were the era for the movie musical, and this was the apex. (Some would argue that My Fair Lady was the apex; but this film broke new ground by shooting many of the musical numbers on location, whereas before they had always been shot in a studio.) Plus, it's a story that is true. There is just nothing you can say against this film if you believe in good, wholesome fun. Yet, there are those who have, decrying it for its very wholesomeness.
Robert Wise has done a spectacular job adapting the stage musical by Rogers & Hammerstein, who adapted the book by Maria von Trapp. The days of the big studios getting onboard a project like this, and the Academy awarding them for that effort, are probably over. Today, Christian movies - and this is a Christian movie - are little affairs that filmmakers have to go outside Hollywood to produce. But, as with the dream of Camelot that faded into legend (another musical from this period), we can say that "once there was a day" when movies like this were possible in America. Perhaps there will be again.
The Great Race
1965 - 4 Stars
This is a companion movie to Those Magnificent Men And Their Flying Machines, which was on my previous list. It has a slightly different twist to it: instead of an airplane race, it's a car race, from New York to Paris; and while the previous film was historically-based, this one is pure fabrication, although there were such races at the time. What director Blake Edwards and his writers have done is to take a lot of different scenes from both the silent era and sound, and put them together into a spoof on swashbuckling heroes of the white hat variety. Tony Curtis plays the white-hatted hero, complete with sparkling white teeth; while Jack Lemmon plays the black-hatted villain, with Peter Falk as his devious assistant. Natalie Wood is the voluptuous heroine that adds spice to every scene. An example of the spoofing being done: the sword-fighting scene between Curtis and Ross Martin (Wild, Wild West TV show) in the castle is meant to lampoon The Prisoner Of Zenda, a very famous, very expensive and very good swashbuckler from 1937 starring Ronald Colman. While this may not be the greatest film ever made, it is definitely one of the most fun.
1973 - 5-Star Masterpiece
This is pure movie fun, and it's fun based on, not just fooling a big crime boss named Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) in order to punish him for murdering a harmless grifter; but fun based on our getting fooled as well. Its the Depression, and everyody is doing what they can to stay alive, including Robert Redford's character, Johnny Hooker, a small-time grifter whose partner Lonnegan knocked off. In order to get Lonnegan, Hooker travels to Chicago, the stomping ground of big time con artist Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), and together they plan a sting operation that will set Lonnegan back considerably. To do it, they gather all the big con guys in Chicago and set up a horse betting operation that Lonnegan, an avid gambler, won't be able to resist.
But first, to test the waters, and to get some setup money, Newman decides to beat Lonnegan at cards. Lonnegan cheats; but Gondorff cheats better. That scene alone, which takes place on a train, is worth the price of admission. But it gets better, as they add more elements to the sting and more and more characters show up, including a bunko man from Hooker's hometown out to nab him (Charles Durning), an FBI agent out to nab Gondorff (Dana Elcar), an assassin out to murder the grifter that took Lonnegan's money, and it goes on. By the end of the movie, somebody is going to get taken, and it's not just Lonnegan!
This is a very clever film, and a real classic that won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (George Roy Hill), Best Screenplay, Best Musical Score (Marvin Hamlisch), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Film Editing. It was also nominated for Best Actor (Redford), Best Cinematography and Best Sound. This film also introduced a whole new generation to the ragtime music of Scott Joplin.
Heaven Can Wait
1978 - 4 Stars
Unlike most remakes, which usually fall far short of their originals, Heaven Can Wait far surpasses its predecessor, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, made in 1941 and starring Robert Montgomery. Warren Beatty is perfect as the football star whose life is cut short at the peak of his career - and, strangely enough, premature of Heaven's schedule. So a new body must be found for him to live out his life and die when he's supposed to. Interestingly, the body in question is that of a wealthy industrialist that has just been murdered by his wife (Dyan Cannon) and his personal secretary (Charles Grodin). When he comes back to life, now with Warren Beatty's spirit, their plans are foiled; not to mention the plans of Beatty's board of directors, who now find their industrialist has aspirations to be a quarterback. Julie Christie plays a social activist that is trying to get Beatty to shut down some of his harmful enterprises, but ends up falling in love with him. James Mason plays Mr. Jordan, a type of Heavenly travel agent, after whom the original film was named. This movie is not to be confused with the 1943 film of the same name.
The Princess Bride
1987 - 5 Stars
This is a Rob Reiner "bedtime story," told by Peter Falk to his grandson. It is clever, witty, tongue-in-cheek and loaded with entertaining performances: Cary Elwes (Robin Hood: Men In Tights) plays the hero, Westley; Broadway star Mandy Patinkin (Sunday In The Park With George) is something of a knight-errant sidekick; then there's Andre the Giant, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane and Robin Wright (Forest Gump) as the Princess Bride, Buttercup. (What a name!) It's just a lot of off-the-wall fun set back in the time and place where most fairy tales are set: some nondescript European kingdom in the Middle Ages. Elwes and Wright make an attractive couple. Crystal and Kane, on the other hand, are about as weird-looking as they can possibly be… and almost steal the show! This movie is a perennial favorite.
The Truman Show
1996 - 5 Stars
I'm not a big Jim Carrey fan, but he does a super job in this fantasy about an insurance salesman named Truman Burbank, who wakes up one day to realize his life is just too perfect. The reason? It's a TV show. That's right, the man's life is a TV show, conceived by this genius producer named Cristof (Ed Harris), and everyone in the world knows it except the star himself. The TV network "adopts" a baby and follows its development through childhood, adolescence and adulthood - even through marriage. But Truman senses that something isn't right. His best friend (Noah Emmerich) is hiding things from him, and his wife (Laura Linney) always seems like she's doing a commercial. (Product placement is very important on the Truman Show.) And why, every time he tries to leave the island, does something happen to prevent it? Then, one day, Truman's real father turns up on the set as a homeless person. This starts a whole chain reaction of events, including reconnecting with an old girlfriend (Natascha McElhone) that thinks Truman has a right to know he's on a TV show. This is a very clever, fascinating and entertaining film. Nominated for Best Director (Peter Weir), Best Supporting Actor (Ed Harris) and Best Screenplay.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
2000 - 5-Star Masterpiece - Comedy - starring George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson; directed by Joel Coen, written by Ethan Coen
The Cohen brothers, Joel and Ethan, are known for several things: 1) impeccable recreations, albeit stylized, of various periods and regions; 2) some of the quirkiest characters the screen has ever seen; 3) blood, blood and more blood. However, every once in a while, they will do a film that is just plain charming or just plain funny. They did that with The Hudsucker Proxy - a very charming story about the invention of the hula hoop, set in the 1950s - which is on my previous Dr. Waitsel's Comedy Rx list. Now I'm offering you O Brother, Where Art Thou? - an outlandish yarn, supposedly following the storyline of Homer's Odyssey, but definitely based on a 1930s Preston Sturges classic, Sullivan's Travels, starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is set in the deep South, so it's full of Southern idioms, and involves three escaped convicts from a chain gang (George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) that form a musical band, go on the radio and produce a hit song that has the whole South going wild. It also stars John Goodman and Holly Hunter. There's a klan rally, a riverside baptismal service, corrupt politicians (naturally), a bank robbery with Baby Face Nelson, a black guitarist that claims he's sold his soul to the devil, and tons and tons of good, ole timey bluegrass music. The movie is hilarious. Nominated for Oscars in Screenplay (Ethan and Joel Coen) and Cinematography.
2002 - 5 Stars (4 Stars for Spiderman 2 and 3)
The first Spiderman, starring Tobey Maguire (Seabiscuit), Willem Dafoe (John Carter Of Mars, Last Temptation Of Christ), Kirsten Dunst and James Franco (127 Hours, Flyboys), is about as innocent as action movies get. Not only that, but there's an underlying Christian theme that really comes through in the third and, I'm guessing, final film. So this series is appropriate for many younger viewers, in my opinion. Even though it's rated PG-13 for stylized violence, it has some good moral lessons that kids ought to hear. Unfortunately, after the first film nails the comic book character in a very entertaining way, the series wanders in the second film, and goes even further afield in the third. While Toby McGuire is great as Peter Parker, he's a bit hard to believe as Spiderman. Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane is the most frustrated girlfriend anyone ever had. I'm guessing, even married to Spiderman, she won't be happy. James Franco, as Harry Osborn, is gone - killed off by Venom. All the best villains are gone as well. And if we have to hear Aunt May moralize one more time, I think we'll all go nuts. So I don't think there will be a fourth Spiderman, and that's probably just as well. (Knowing Hollywood, there will be another Spiderman, and half a dozen more. They'll just resurrect the dead characters and continue to drag this series out. Anything for a buck.) Nevertheless, this first Spiderman is top-notch entertainment.
2003 - 4 Stars
I don't typically like Tim Burton, because he has a tendency to paint everything either dark or garish. But in the case of Big Fish, he actually did a very charming job. This is a quirky story - naturally - about a man named Will Bloom (Billy Crudup), whose father is known to tell some incredibly tall tales about his past. Albert Finney plays the father, Ed; but in his stories about himself, he is played by Ewan McGregor. McGregor makes this film. As Ed tells one whopper after another, McGregor is so likable, we what to believe them. They are filled with the most bizarre characters, played by, among others, Helena Bonham Carter, Matthew McGrory, David Denman, Missy Pyle, Loudon Wainwright III, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito. It's quite a cast of oddities. Will has never accepted his father's stories, nor his eccentric behavior; but because he's dying, he decides to humor him. In the process, he gets to know his father better and, for awhile, wonder if his stories might not be true. This is a great example of the types of tall tales that are part of the American past, like the stories of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill.
2003 - 5 Stars
This is a movie for the child in all adults. It's about an adolescent boy named Walter (Haley Joel Osment) that goes to live with his two crazy bachelor uncles because his trailer-trash mom, Mae (Kyra Sedgwick), can't keep a job and is always attracted to the worst kind of men. Rumor has it, the two brothers have a ton of cash hidden away somewhere on their place. The last thing Mae tells Walter when she leaves him is to find that money… and to smile. But Walter doesn't have much to smile about; until his uncle Garth (Michael Caine) starts telling him stories about his uncle Hub (Robert Duvall). The stories are so fantastic - all about his joining the Foreign Legion, then falling in love with a princess named Jasmine, then fighting off assassins sent by a potentate that's in love with the same princess -Walter's not sure if he should believe them. Then one day, he watches in astonishment as his uncle Hub singlehandedly demolishes a gang of young hoodlums right after having a heart attack.
This convinces Walter, not only that the stories are true, but that he wants to be just like Hub when he grows up. In spite of the shangri la existence he has found living with his uncles, there are forces at work to undermine Walter's happiness and secure the hidden loot. This coming-of-age film is filled with so many wonderful, quirky scenes, it would be difficult to decide which to highlight. Let me just say that two of the supporting actors almost steal the show: one is Christian Kane, who plays Young Hub in Garth's stories: he's terrific as the swashbuckling brother. The other is Josh Lucas, who plays the grown-up Walter and a successful cartoonist. He only appears at the end of the film, but he does a memorable job. Nevertheless, Osment holds his own along side such greats as Caine and Duvall. This film was nominated for zero Oscars, which is truly a shame, since it is far better than most films that get nominated. Tim McCanlies (The Iron Giant) wrote and directed this little gem about two crazy uncles, a boy and his lion. Oh, I forgot to tell you about the lion! You'll just have to watch the movie. :)
Toy Story 1, 2 and 3
1995, 1999, 2010 - 5-Star Masterpiece for Toy Story 1; 5 stars for Toy Story 2 and 3
There is no better "feel good movie" company than Pixar, and there is no better Pixar movie than Toy Story, the first feature-length, computer-animated motion picture. Interestingly, all three Toy Stories are equally good. You can't say that about any other movie series. If you really want to feel good, watch all three movies in sequence. Strangely, the first two never won an Oscar. The third not only won Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Song ("We Belong Together" by Randy Newman), but was also nominated for Best Picture - something very few other animated films can boast. (Beauty And The Beast and Up are the only other two.) In addition, director John Lasseter won a Special Achievement Award for developing the technology that made feature-length, computer-animated films possible. Share these films with someone you love.
If any of these movies especially touches your funny bone, I'd love to hear from you.
Waitsel Smith, May 31, 2011
Text © 2011 Waitsel Smith. Photos © the respective movie studios. All Rights Reserved.