Tuesday 24 October 2017

BBC's top 100 comedies... Are you having a laugh?

Paul Whitington was one of 253 critics in 52 ­countries asked to vote in a new BBC Culture poll of the top 100 ­comedies - but the final list fails to tickle his funny bone

Critics' choice: Marilyn Monroe in poll-topper Some Like it Hot
Critics' choice: Marilyn Monroe in poll-topper Some Like it Hot
Animal Crackers
Bringing Up Baby
The General
Groundhog Day
Love and Death
Mon Oncle
The Philadelphia
Sons of the Desert
Sullivan's Travels

Paul Whitington

Last week, the BBC Culture website released the results of an intriguing poll. A distinguished roster of 253 film critics from 52 countries were asked to choose the best comic movies of all time. I was one of them, but I must say I have my problems with the final list.

No genre, it could be argued, is so hopelessly subjective as comedy: why else would the late Jerry Lewis have been hailed as a genius in France? One person's laugh riot will leave another viewer stone cold, which perhaps explains why my number-one comedy pick, Laurel and Hardy's Sons of the Desert, doesn't even make the BBC Culture poll's top 100, which is available in full at www.bbc.com/culture.

In fact, no Laurel and Hardy film appears in the list, partly perhaps because poor Stan and Ollie have been out of fashion for a while, and their movies are rarely shown on TV any more. But a couple of the films that scored high on their list did surprise me.

There are some great choices in there, but in my opinion, Annie Hall is not Woody Allen's funniest film, Airplane! is hardly a classic, Dr Strangelove, while a classic of sorts, is no laugh riot, and I would rather stab myself with something than willingly sit through Spinal Tap's tedious in-jokes again.

But as we say, comedy is subjective. Here are the top 10 I submitted to BBC Culture's poll, together with some pithy justifications. Critics, when they make these lists, are often accused to trying impress rather than pick their favourite - or in this instance funniest - films, and I will admit that the presence of a French comedy in my list is suspect. But the list is genuine - these are my favourite comedies. Please feel free to angrily disagree.

1 Sons of the Desert (1933)

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Sons of the Desert
 

No film in existence makes me laugh as much as this 1933 Laurel and Hardy gem, a perfectly constructed piece of silliness starring Stanley and Oliver as harried Californian husbands whose only outlet is their membership of all-male society, the Sons of the Desert. The group's convention is about to take place in Chicago, and the boys want to go. But the wives are having none of it so Ollie feigns an illness that will require a restorative Hawaiian cruise. They go to Chicago instead, and return sporting flower garlands and strumming ukuleles. But what they don't know is that their wives saw them marching in Chicago on a movie newsreel, and waving into the lens. The boys are about to get it in the neck.

2 Animal Crackers (1930)

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Animal Crackers
 

The Marx Brothers honed their anarchic routines on the vaudeville circuit before taking Hollywood by storm. Their much-loved 1933 farce Duck Soup is number five in the BBC Culture poll, but for me Animal Crackers is funnier, and closer to their rowdy, vaudeville roots. The brothers' stately recurring dupe, Margaret Dumont, is Mrs Rittenhouse, a society matron who's hosting a party to celebrate the unveiling of her latest priceless painting. The Marx boys will do their best to ruin it, especially Groucho's arrogant and boastful African explorer, Captain Spaulding. "One morning," he tells his rapt audience, "I shot an elephant in my pyjamas - how he got in my pyjamas, I don't know."

3 The General (1926)

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The General
 

Orson Welles famously called it "the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made", and he might just be right. These days Buster Keaton is mainly considered a silent-era clown, but like Chaplin, he was also a brilliant and innovative film-maker, and though it was a flop at the time, The General is now considered his best film. In it he played a southern train engineer called Johnny who becomes an inadvertent hero when his train and his girlfriend are stolen by Union agents during the Civil War and he bravely gives chase. Full of hilarious and touching moments, Kea­ton's brilliantly shot and edited film culminates in a spectacular bridge collapse that involved 500 extras.

4 Bringing Up Baby (1938)

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Bringing Up Baby
 

Another film that flopped on its release but is now considered a solid-gold classic, Howard Hawks' screwball comedy stars Cary Grant as Dr David Huxley, a mild-mannered palaeontologist who's about to marry a very serious young woman when his life is derailed by an encounter with a beautiful and mercurial heiress. Katharine Hepburn, at her imperious best, is Susan Vance, a free-spirited female who encounters Huxley on a golf course when he's trying to impress a wealthy donor. Despite his best efforts, Huxley can't get rid of her, and he, Susan and a tame leopard called Baby embark on a hilarious escapade.

5 Mon Oncle (1958)

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Mon Oncle
 

A po-faced genius whose slapstick comedy always hid melancholic undertones, Jacques Tati made a string of classic films during the 1950s and 60s, from Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot to Jour de Fête. His elegantly existential 1967 film Playtime makes the BBC Culture top 10, but my favourite Tati film is Mon Oncle, a charming tirade against the numbing homogeneity of consumerist culture and mod-cons. Monsieur Hulot (Tati) is the gangly, impoverished, otherworldly uncle of Gerard, a dreamy boy who finds his parents' obsession with wealth and possessions stultifying. Their ultra-modern home is a source of hilarious recurring gags, especially a fountain Gerard's dad only turns on for special guests, and pointedly extinguishes whenever Hulot turns up.

6 Sullivan's Travels (1941)

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Sullivan's Travels
 

A writer and director with an unerring comic touch, Preston Sturges made a good half-dozen brilliant satires in the early 1940s before burning out and dying prematurely. His delightful 1941 comedy The Lady Eve makes the BBC Culture top 20, but for me Sullivan's Travels is his masterpiece. Joel McCrea plays John L Sullivan, a high-minded Hollywood director who grows tired of making brainless comedies and decides he wants to make a film about the homeless poor. But when he sets out to pose as a tramp and ride the railroads, he gets more hardship than he bargained for. Veronica Lake plays a failed actress who offers him a ray of hope, and Sturges misses no opportunity to poke fun at Hollywood's skewed priorities.

7 The Philadelphia Story (1940)

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The Philadelphia
 

Katharine Hepburn's career was in the doldrums when she cleverly persuaded her lover Howard Hughes to buy her the film rights of Philip Barry's Broadway play The Philadelphia Story. Hepburn had been declared "box-office poison" by the Theatre Owners of America after appearing in a string of flops (including Bringing Up Baby), but the wily actress saw Barry's sparkling comedy as a way back to the top, and so it proved. She sold the rights to MGM for a song, with the proviso that she be allowed to star. She plays Tracy Lord, the spoilt and wilful society heiress who's about to marry an entirely unsuitable self-made industrialist when her dashing ex-husband (Cary Grant) intervenes.

8 Some Like it Hot (1959)

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Critics' choice: Marilyn Monroe in poll-topper Some Like it Hot
 

Billy Wilder didn't make all that many out-and-out comedies, but on Some Like it Hot, a concept and a cast came together perfectly to create something special. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play a couple of prohibition-era Chicago musicians who must go on the run after accidentally witnessing the St Valentine's Day massacre. A mobster called Spats Colombo (George Raft) is determined to eliminate them, so they dress up as women and join an all-female touring band. Wilder hired a noted female impersonator called Barbette to train Curtis and Lemmon, but Lemmon looks like he didn't need too much help, and gets most of the laughs playing the histrionic 'Daphne'.

9 Love and Death (1975)

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Love and Death
 

Woody Allen made more famous films, from Manhattan and Annie Hall to Hannah and her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors, but for me this 1975 historical caper is his most purely funny. Groucho Marx and Bob Hope were his two great comic heroes, and their influence is pleasantly evident in this winningly witty farce inspired by the great Russian novels. Boris (Allen), a noted Moscow coward, is horrified when he's conscripted to fight Napoleon's armies, and is more interested in winning the fickle heart of the beautiful but promiscuous Sonja (Diane Keaton). Keaton and Allen work brilliantly together, bickering endlessly, and his screenplay is superb. When a beautiful woman tells him he's the greatest love she's ever had, Boris replies "Well, I practice a lot when I'm alone".

10 Groundhog Day (1993)

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Groundhog Day
 

When a film's title ends up becoming part of the vernacular, you know you've done something right. And from the moment Harold Ramis's 1993 comedy was released, it had the feel of an instant classic. A film worthy of comparison with the work of Frank Capra, it combines sharp humour with a supernatural element and the kind of moral lesson central to films like You Can't Take it With You and It's a Wonderful Life. Bill Murray (at his very best) is Phil Connors, a cynical and self-centred TV weatherman who gets stuck in the hick town of Punxsutawney while reporting on an annual ritual involving a weather-predicting groundhog. He sneers at the locals and goes to bed, but when he wakes up and finds he's living the same day all over again, he has a metaphysical problem on his hands.

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