Funny girls. . . who says women aren't the Mae West?
A box office clash between two Hollywood comedies has re-ignited the old argument about whether women are inherently less funny than men. The Hangover: Part 2, the laddish comic sequel that we discussed in this column last week, got terrible reviews but has done huge business at the box office both here and in America.
Bridesmaids, which was released in the US last month and will open here next week, is an all-female comedy that follows the disastrous build-up to a wedding and has been lauded by critics as possibly the best comedy of the year.
Bridesmaids is a very enjoyable romp that features fine comic performances from Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph, but will be lucky if it earns a third as much as the crushingly unoriginal Hangover 2.
Why the discrepancy? Some commentators would have us believe that women just aren't very funny. The release of Bridesmaids was met with hostile scepticism in some quarters, and the popular New York media blog site 'Gawker' wondered if "women can be funny too?"
Essayist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens has gone even further, turning a prejudice against female humour into a thesis.
"For some reason," he wrote recently in Vanity Fair, "women do not find their own physical decay and absurdity to be so riotously amusing, which is why we admire Lucille Ball and Helen Fielding, who do see the funny side of it.
"But this is so rare as to be like Dr Johnson's comparison of a woman preaching to a dog walking on its hind legs: the surprise is that it is done at all."
Mr Hitchens is a past master at provoking an argument, but his thesis is errant nonsense. Bridesmaids will do worse than Hangover 2 because movie audiences are dominated by young men, who would rather look at beautiful, compliant women than funny ones, whom they tend to find threatening.
And if Hollywood's history is light on hilarious women, that's probably because men wrote most of the screenplays and preferred to cast females as the decorative butt of male jokes. But there are honourable exceptions to this rule, and the evidence shows that when given the chance female comediennes can more than match the efforts of the men.
Early Hollywood comediennes could be surprisingly bawdy, and Mae West was very much the Joan Rivers of her day. She didn't stand around waiting for men to tell jokes, she told them herself, and her salty witticisms became legendary. "When I'm good I'm very good," she once boasted, "but when I'm bad I'm better."
West became a huge Hollywood star in the early 1930s, and was famous for rewriting her scenes. In the 1932 film Night by Night, a hatcheck girl stopped West and said "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds." "Goodness has nothing to do with it dearie," was the actress's self-penned reply.
In the classic screwball comedies of Howard Hawks and Ernest Lubitch, Cary Grant emerged as a master of comic timing. But he had to share the laughs with a formidable group of comediennes.
Jean Arthur was successfully teamed with Grant in a string of films, most memorably in George Stevens's 1942 comedy Talk of the Town. Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn once unkindly described Ms Arthur's profile as "half angel, and the other half horse", but she had a girl-next-door appeal and was a wonderfully skillful comic actress.
She did her best work in Frank Capra's films Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take it With You (1937) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1938), and George Stevens said she was "one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen".
Irish-American actress Irene Dunne was teamed with Cary Grant three times, and The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favourite Wife (1940) are screwball classics. Dunne had a fine beauty, and a ladylike elegance that was immune to all pratfalls, but in the late 1930s a new breed of comic actress emerged who weren't afraid to mix it with the boys.
Katharine Hepburn had started out in romances and melodramas, but in Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938) she revealed a real flair for comedy. She played a spoilt and free-spirited heiress who takes a fancy to Cary Grant's shy paleontologist, and the film's slapstick routines involving Hepburn, Grant and a leopard were hilarious.
In The Philadelphia Story (1940) and her later comic collaborations with Spencer Tracy, Hepburn proved you could be beautiful and funny, and so for a brief time did the peerless Carole Lombard.
Lombard was toiling in forgettable B-pictures until Howard Hawks met her at a party and was impressed with her lively, bawdy personality. In broad comedies like My Man Godfrey (1936) and Nothing Sacred (1937), she revelled in quick-fire dialogue and comic pratfalls.
She achieved her greatest success opposite Jack Benny in the 1942 comedy To Be or Not To Be, and her marriage to Clark Gable made her part of Hollywood's reigning golden couple. But sadly she died in a plane crash shortly before To Be or Not To Be was released. "Marvellous girl -- crazy as a bedbug," was Hawks's affectionate tribute.
In the postwar period, Lucille Ball became one of the biggest stars on the emerging medium of television, but she started out in B-movie comedies, where she honed her expert timing. She was actually very pretty, and took to wearing crazy hats and loud dresses to make herself look funnier.
Doris Day is now remembered for her wholesome looks and sweet singing voice, but she had a gift for comedy that recalled the bawdiness of the vaudeville era. She made a string of charming romantic comedies with Rock Hudson, easily the best of which was Pillow Talk (1959).
Shirley MacLaine was part of the last generation of stars to come through the old Hollywood studio system, in which young actors would be tested in different genres to see where their strengths lay. MacLaine could sing, dance and take on serious roles, but comedy was an especial strength. She later won her only Oscar for her work in the 1983 comedy Terms of Endearment.
If Mae West made her name playing the sassy blonde, Goldie Hawn resurrected the old stereotype of the dumb blonde. She started out playing a ditsy airhead in the popular 1960s TV show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and that translated to a long and successful career playing mentally challenged females in broad comedy.
Because of her performances in heavyweight dramas like The Godfather and Reds, Diane Keaton's skills as a comic actress are sometimes overlooked. After becoming romantically linked with Woody Allen in the early 1970s, she starred with him in five seminal 70s comedies.
The most famous is Annie Hall, a huge hit partly inspired by Allen and Keaton's off-screen relationship (her real name is Diane Hall).
Meg Ryan's star has fallen sharply in recent years, but in her day she was as good a comic actress as anyone. Her finest moment came in Rob Reiner's 1989 hit, When Harry Met Sally, in which she and Billy Crystal played old friends who suddenly become lovers. The diner scene in which Ryan loudly simulates an orgasm is justly celebrated.
While the likes of Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock have continued the grand tradition of Hollywood comediennes, most modern rom coms don't include funny roles for females.
In modern comedies, women are generally shrewish harridans who make men's lives a misery as soon as they get their claws in them. Mostly the men get the funny lines, and the girls are either objectified or monstrous.
Joan Rivers once remarked that "men find funny women threatening. They ask me 'are you going to be funny in bed?'" And for modern film audiences, that old joke seems to hold true.
Bridesmaids opens nationwide next Friday, June 24