Dr. Waitsel's COMEDY Rx - Part 1
by Waitsel Smith
Twenty of the Funniest, Happiest, Most Entertaining Films of All Time
Laughter is still the best medicine (Proverbs 17:22), and I think what many of us need right now is just to laugh. I have twenty 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 election, the economy, your personal and relational problems, 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 work is 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.
It Happened One Night
1934 - 5-Star Masterpiece
Frank Capra directs Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in one of the few comedies ever to win an Oscar. It won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Writing. This is not only one of my favorite comedies of all time; it is one of my favorite pictures, period. Gable is the perfect rascally reporter, out to get the best story on the most spoiled girl in America, played by Colbert. When she jumps ship, literally, to escape the life her father has planned for her, Colbert and Gable hook up by accident on the road. He's got all the angles - he thinks - until she shows him a few he's never even heard of! They're a perfect match for each other, but will they make the perfect match? Only if the "walls of Jericho" come tumbling down! B&W.
1936 - 5-Star Masterpiece
This is perhaps Charlie Chaplin's greatest masterpiece, with City Lights (1931) being second. It is the story of his most famous character, the Tramp, as a factory worker caught in the machinery of modern civilization and just trying to survive. Although it is technically a silent picture, it does contain sound effects and music, which, as in all Chaplin films, he wrote. Paulette Goddard plays his love interest: a young homeless woman that befriends and tries to help him. Chaplin's films are always outrageously funny, but also sweet and sentimental. This one is the creme-de-la-creme in both departments. B&W.
Bringing Up Baby
1938 - 5 Stars
Howard Hawks was one of the masters of screwball comedy, and this is one of his screwiest. Starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, it's the story of an absent-minded paleontologist (Grant) that gets mixed up with one of the screwiest women (Hepburn) he, or we, could ever imagine. Hepburn receives a tame leopard named Baby as a gift to her aunt from a relative living in Africa. When she and Grant deliver the cat to the aunt, Hepburn's dog steals Grant's prize dinosaur bone and buries it. Meanwhile, Baby gets loose and starts roaming the countryside. To make matters worse, a killer leopard also escapes from a nearby carnival. Everyone goes bone and leopard hunting, but no one realizes there are two leopards, and that one is a killer! It's a lot of screwy fun! B&W.
His Girl Friday
1940 - 5 Stars
Another Howard Hawks screwball comedy, this time based on a successful stage play called The Front Page. Cary Grant is a newspaper editor that will do anything - and I mean anything - to keep his star reporter, Rosalind Russell, from quitting the paper to get married to a very straight-laced Ralph Bellamy. Besides being her editor, Grant is also Russell's ex-husband, and since he's never gotten over her, he has to do some quick thinking to save her from a fate he knows will be worse than death. Amid all the scheming is some very clever dialogue delivered rapid-fire. Some great character actors round out the cast. B&W.
The Philadelphia Story
1940 - 5-Star Masterpiece
George Cukor directs this comedy of manners about a sophisticated Philadelphia society lady, Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn), and her impending marriage to a man-of-the-people (John Howard) which, for some reason, has caught the eye of notorious pulp rag, Spy Magazine. When reporters James Stewart and Ruth Hussey turn up on the Lord's doorstep uninvited, they discover some interesting skeletons in the family closet, not the least of which is Tracy's ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), who has decided not to let the torch burn out. Then there's Uncle Willie (Roland Young) and Tracy's sister, Dinah (Virginia Weidler), both of which are hoots. This is a comedy even Shakespeare would appreciate. B&W.
To Be Or Not To Be
1942 - 5 Stars
Speaking of Shakespeare, anyone for Hamlet? How about just a ham? The ill-fated Dannish prince is Polish actor Jack Benny's dream role; only, every time he gets to the line, "To be or not to be," a young, good-looking pilot (Robert Stack) gets up and leaves the theater. "It's something every actor dreads," he tells Carole Lombard, who plays his actress wife. Only Stack didn't leave the theater - he went backstage to meet Lombard. Just as the marital intrigue is heating up, another type of intrigue begins: Hitler invades Poland! Stack has to leave for the war and the theater is closed. Before his first mission, he discovers that a double-agent is getting ready to smuggle information about Poland's underground back to Berlin. When the acting troupe finds out, they begin impersonating different German officers in order to catch the agent, which they do; but he dies in the attempt. Meanwhile, Benny has become so distracted by Stack's earlier infatuation with his wife, that he jeopardizes the underground's plans and endangers their lives. To make up for it, he impersonates the dead agent. Unfortunately, the agent's body resurfaces. But Benny will not be upstaged, even by a dead man! He figures out a way to make the dead agent seem like the impostor! It's quite a performance. This is classic Benny, classic Lombard and classic Ernst Lubitsch, who directed. B&W.
1950 - 5 Stars
George Cukor directs Judy Holliday in the same role that made her a star on Broadway in playwright Garson Kanin's hit play. Holliday is magnificent as the empty-headed blonde maul of millionaire tycoon Broderick Crawford, who has come to Washington to "buy a senator." But Holliday is becoming a liability: she doesn't know how to act in "polite society." Neither does Crawford, for that matter: he is rough and boorish. But he's the boss; so he decides to hire William Holden, a suave writer, to give Holliday some polish. What he doesn't count on is their falling in love. Nor does he count on Holliday ending up knowing more than he, or having integrity. So now he wants Holden to make his girlfriend dumb again. But it's too late: Holliday is ready to expose Crawford's shady dealings, and Crawford is ready to play rough. It's quite a dilemma, but Holliday has got the answer - and it's classic! You get a nifty tour of Washington and some lessons in civics thrown in, just for fun. B&W.
Singin' In The Rain
1952 - 5-Star Masterpiece
Stanley Donen directs Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor in what is the definitive musical about the coming of sound to Hollywood. This film is jam-packed with some of the best songs, dance numbers and comedy scenes in cinema. It would be hard to imagine the movies without this screen gem. The historical aspects about the coming of sound - loosely based on the facts, of course - are interesting. And all the stereotypical representations of Hollywood are over-the-top. Some of the most memorable numbers are "Good Mornin'," "Make 'Em Laugh" and, of course, "Singin' in the Rain." This movie is on everybody's top 20 movie list - and for good reason! Color.
1953 - 5-Star Masterpiece
This may very well be the most perfect romantic comedy ever made. It has everything: location shooting in Rome (one of the first movies shot on location, by the way); Audrey Hepburn in her first starring role, plus Gregory Peck; William Wyler directing (Ben-Hur, Mrs. Miniver); and 10 Oscar nominations back when that meant something. It won Best Actress (Hepburn), Best Costume Design (Edith Head) and Best Story (Dalton Trumbo). It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actor (Eddie Albert - he's terrific), Best Art Direction-Best Set Decoration. It just doesn't get much better than this, as far as good romantic comedies. And the way it was shot makes you feel like you really are in Rome with these wonderful characters. B&W.
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers
1954 - 5 Stars
Another Stanley Donen musical, this time on a shoestring budget. But what that man could do with a shoestring! He has an incredible cast, including Howard Keel, Jane Powell, Jeff Richards, Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall, Marc Platt, Matt Mattox and Jacques d'Amboise; top Broadway choreographer Michael Kidd, who created some of the most original dance numbers in history; and magician-cinematographer George Folsey, whose shots are gorgeous. Where Donen chose to cut costs was primarily in the sets, which shows, unfortunately. And the music itself is nothing to whistle about. But, in spite of these handicaps, this film is one of the all-time great musicals. Color.
The Court Jester
1956 - 4 Stars
Melvin Frank and Norman Panama both wrote and directed this comedy gem starring Danny Kaye, who poses as a court jester in order to rescue a baby with a memorable birth mark - a purple pimpernel, and thus rightful heir to the throne. All the scenes in this film are good, but some are great. None surpasses the "flagon with the dragon has the brew that is true" scene. It is hillarious. The cast is superb, including Glynis Johns (Mary Poppins), Basil Rathbone (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of Robin Hood) and Angela Lansbury (Murder She Wrote, Broadway production of Sweeney Todd). As an actor, and even as a comedian, Danny Kaye seems somewhat silly to me; but in this film, he is quite funny. Color.
Some Like It Hot
1959 - 5-Star Masterpiece
"Hot" is the perfect word to describe Billy Wilder's comedy masterpiece starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe. It's winter in 1930's Chicago, and two out-of-work musicians, played by Curtis and Lemmon, have just witnessed the St. Valentine's Day Massacre; so they have to hot foot it out of town. They decide to impersonate female musicians and join an all-girl band heading to Florida. Marilyn plays the lead vocalist named Sugar. George Raft plays one of the gangsters that's hot on their trail; and Pat O'Brien is the police detective that's after Raft. They all converge at a lush resort for millionaires, which includes Joe E. Brown, who develops a crush for Lemmon's female character. It is farcical and outrageous, but very few films can touch it for pure entertainment. This was the high point in the careers of Wilder, Curtis, Lemmon and Marilyn, so it is definitely a classic. B&W.
Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines
1965 - 5 Stars
Writer-director Ken Annakin has taken his love for aviation history and infused it with a host of wonderfully funny characters engaged in a loosely historical race: a flight from London to Paris in 1910. At a time when people were literally obsessed with flying, there were some incredibly weird machines being put into flight, and many of them appear in this film. All the planes used are authentic reproductions of actual craft, built on spec with the original materials, but souped up a bit with more powerful engines. Stewart Whitman plays an American cowboy-pilot flying a plane modeled after the Wright Brothers' machine. Sarah Miles is his beautiful love interest, who is also pursued by suave British pilot James Fox - his screen debut. Robert Morley plays Miles' father, and the sponsor of the race. Terry Thomas is a dastardly villain that is not above sabotaging his competitors' planes, usually with poor results. The cinematography, art direction and costumes are stunning; which, considering that this film has been fully restored, makes it some of the best eye candy in cinema. It's great fun and a great family film. If you like it, also check out Blake Edward's The Great Race, made the same year. Color.
What's Up Doc?
1972 - 5 Stars
I never thought of Barbara Streisand as Bugs Bunny, but she gives a convincing imitation of him in this Peter Bogdanovich film, which also stars Ryan O'Neal as a Harold Lloyd / Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby) type egghead professor that has a musical theory about rocks. Madeline Kahn is perfect as his repressed wife. Kenneth Mars is also perfect as O'Neal's snooty competition for a research grant from Austin Pendleton. One of the gags in the film is that several of the characters have matching plaid carry-on bags: one containing jewels, one containing secret documents, and one containing O'Neal's rocks. There are jewel thieves and secret agents after those bags, so that O'Neal's rocks get lost in the shuffle. And Streisand, who has taken a liking to O'Neal, does everything she can to add to the confusion. This film is a tribute to slapstick and screwball comedy, and contains some of the best examples of both. Bogdanovich has a reputation for off-beat humor, and he lives up to it in this, one of his best films.
Back To The Future 3
1990 - 5 Stars
Both the first and third of the Back To The Future movies are a lot of fun, but there is something special about the third one. It combines Americans' love of the Old West with their love of sci-fi. Like the first, it's clever, witty and funny; but it also has a terrific story, especially the love interest between Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen). And, of course, Michael J. Fox is wonderful as both Marty and Seamus McFly. Thomas Wilson is also memorable as both Buford 'Mad Dog' and Biff Tannen. The standout scene is near the end when a locomotive (taking the place of the DeLorean as the time machine) has to make the jump to the future. It's quite exciting. Robert Zemeckis (Forest Gump, Polar Express) co-wrote and directed all three Back To The Future films.
What About Bob?
1991 - 4 Stars
I love deadpan, tongue-in-cheek, dry humor. (See To Be Or Not To Be above.) This is one of the best of that type. Directed by Frank Oz of Muppet and Star Wars fame (the voice of Yoda), it stars Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfuss and Julie Hagerty. I think the writing and delivery in this film, especially by Dreyfuss, are superb. He plays an analyst that takes himself far, far too seriously, and who recently picked up Bill Murray as a client. What he discovers is that Murray is totally codependent on his analyst in the most terrifying way. Dreyfuss thinks he's going away on a quiet vacation with his family; but it turns into the vacation from hell when Murray shows up on their doorstep. Outrageous fun.
Much Ado About Nothing
1993 - 5-Star Masterpiece
When I sold my video collection to move to DVDs, this was the movie everyone wanted. And it's Shakespeare! It is one of actor-director Kenneth Branagh's two masterpieces, the other being Henry V. Light, sunny, witty, comical, and with a host of excellent actors - including Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton, Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale - you cannot help but end up smiling after watching this delightful film. It is one of the best romantic comedies ever made, and Branagh and Thompson, who were married to each other at the time, never looked better.
The Hudsucker Proxy
1994 - 4 Stars
The Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel) are known for their off-the-wall and black humor, but this is almost a fairy tale, it is so innocent. It is the story of the invention of the hula-hoop. Tim Robbins is a man with a future - and an idea. (Wait 'til you see how he shows it.) He comes across as a naive rube. Well, that's exactly what Paul Newman and his board of directors are looking for to be the titular head of their corporation. He and the board want the company's stock to drop so they can buy it all up. What they don't know is that Robbins has an idea that will revolutionize the company and send the stock soaring. Clever in every way, with as much dry humor visually as verbally, this film is a delight. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Campbell are terrific as reporters, and Jim True-Frost makes an interesting elevator operator. Everyone in this film is a caricature, so don't expect realism.
1994 - 5-Star Masterpiece
Another Robert Zemeckis film - his masterpiece. Forest Gump (Tom Hanks) is slow... mentally. But he's fast physically. So whereas he starts out as the waterboy for the football team, he ends up as the star. That's just the way Forest is. He's a lot like life, which is a lot like a box of chocolates: you don't know what you're going to get... but it's always something good. So while Forest may frustrate some, like Lt. Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise); he delights most everyone he meets, like his army buddy Bubba (Mykelti Williamson); amazes a nation with his feats of prowess (cross-country running, ping-pong champion, millionaire owner of Bubba-Gump Shrimp); and endears himself to his mom (Sally Field), his lifelong girlfriend, Jenny (Robin Wright - The Princess Bride), and us. As with so many of the comedies I like (Secondhand Lions, Big Fish, Hudsucker Proxy, even O Brother Where Art Thou?), it's about a journey that is part reality and part dream. It's a metaphor for life (like the box of chocolates). Life is about turning a dream into reality, so it's going to have elements that are real, and some that are not. The successful traveler is the one who can figure out how to overcome the realities (i.e., the challenges) without losing sight of the dream. I think Forest does this very well.
2004 - 5 Stars
I could have listed all the Pixar films, because they are all some of the funniest, happiest, most entertaining movies ever made. But I limited myself to this one which, in my opinion, it is the funniest. Brad Bird (Ratatouille, Iron Giant) wrote and directed this futuristic, super-hero, secret agent spoof about a family of super heroes that are forced into retirement by a public that can no longer tolerate being saved. But Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and his buddy Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) just can't let it go; so they sneak out at night to do some undercover hero work, which drives Incredible's wife, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) nuts. Little do they know that a new nemesis named Syndrome (Jason Lee) has arisen and is liquidating all the super heroes in retirement, and that they're next on his list. Clever, funny and entertaining in every way, including the music, which has terrific Bond-style theming.
If any of these movies especially touches your funny bone, I'd love to hear from you.
Waitsel Smith, November 3, 2008
Text © 2008 Waitsel Smith. Photos © the respective movie studios. All Rights Reserved.