Comedy, Part 2 (1929-1959) Essay, Research Paper
In 1927 Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer, a silent drama with sound sequences in which Al Jolson sang and spoke. The film was a hit, and within two years American cinema shifted irreversibly to talking films. At first everyone was planted around the microphone, but even as the technology improved, sound still slowed down the onscreen tempo because of the greater detail and realism which it brought to action. This change helped the dramatic players of silents, most of whom had equal or greater success in sound. Most silent comics, however, had seen their best days — the techniques they'd refined seemed to have no place in talkies. There of course would be ways to apply the talents honed in silence with the reality of sound, but none of the comedy careers that stalled in these transitional years were ever effectively revived.Chaplin made only two comedies in the '30s, but they were his best: his funniest, most touching, and most profound. In City Lights (1931), the Tramp helps a blind girl regain her sight; in Modern Times (1936), he runs headlong into the Machine Age. Both these classics are silents — the only way in which Chaplin could work with his character — but when he finally turned to sound in the '40s, he produced two of the decade's finest films. In The Great Dictator (1940) he played both the Tramplike Jewish barber and gibberish-spouting despot Adenoid Hynkel. The dualism was even creepier in his black comedy Monsieur Verdoux (1947), in which he starred as an elegant Frenchman who secretly marries and murders wealthy women. After playing an aging clown in the poorly received Limelight (1952), Chaplin left America and returned to Europe. In 1957 he released A King In New York, an uneasy satire of the red-baiting that had dogged him until he left the States. Its humor was not appreciated here, nor was his final film, the old-fashioned romantic farce A Countess From Hong Kong (1967), starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren.Harold Lloyd, capitalizing on audiences' desire to hear his voice, withheld his 1929 silent feature Welcome Danger, directed by Mal St. Clair, and had Clyde Bruckman rewrite and reshoot most of it as a talkie. This blend of laughs and action was his biggest hit, but having sated the public's curiosity, Lloyd had trouble getting them back into theaters for his next two films with Bruckman. The gags were their sharpest for his building climb in Feet First (1930), but for many the realism of sound made his plight too grueling to be funny. Lloyd's clever Hollywood spoof Movie Crazy (1932) was better received, but the plot-heavy and gag-thin The Cat's-Paw (1934, directed by Sam Taylor) was a flop. For director Leo McCarey, he made the popular farce The Milky Way (1936), but after the tame Professor Beware (1938, directed by Elliott Nugent), he left films until writer/director Preston Sturges lured him out of retirement for The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock (1946). Although a funny comedy, the shoot was acrimonious and the film went unseen until 1950, when it was shortened and released as Mad Wednesday; by then there was no way it could revive the lost careers of Lloyd or Sturges.All the talkies Buster Keaton made at MGM did well at the box-office. But in the two years when he made Free And Easy (1930), Doughboys (1930), and Parlor, Bedroom And Bath (1931), all directed by Edward Sedgwick, and Sidewalks Of New York (1931), directed by Jules White and Zion Myers, the pattern was set: No one let Keaton be Keaton. He was cast in scripts written by gag men who knew the kinds of jokes audiences liked to hear, and his ideas of what looked funny were usually ignored. In 1932 Keaton co-starred with Jimmy Durante in Sedgwick's The Passionate Plumber, Speak Easily, and What! No Beer?; against so verbal a comic, he seemed all the more out of place, and MGM released him from his contract the following year. He went on to star in two-reelers that sometimes reignited his talents, at Educational (Grand Slam Opera, 1936) and then at Columbia (Pest From The West, 1939); but by the mid 1940s Keaton's film career had faded into gag writing and occasional guest spots. Laurel and Hardy's adherence to short films was the secret to their success in talkies; working outside the high stakes of feature production, they could adapt, explore, and even fail now and again as they adapted to sound. Their voices suited the characters perfectly, and their films made witty use of verbal humor, songs, and sound effects; but the duo continued to rely on the form of visual comedy which they'd developed in the '20s. They loved to milk slapstick complications from seemingly simple tasks, such as signing their names or putting on their hats, and so their silents had usually been paced more slowly than those of most other comics. The tempo change wrought by sound thus effected them less, and among their 40 two- and three-reel talkies are such classics as Perfect Day (1929), Blotto (1930), Hog Wild (1930), Chickens Come Home (1931), Helpmates (1932), The Music Box (1932), Their First Mistake (1932), and Busy Bodies (1933). Laurel and Hardy began starring in features with the prison comedy Pardon Us (1931, directed by James Parrott) and by 1936 were working exclusively in the longer form. Although they were at their best in short films, all thirteen of their features for Roach have hilarious sequences, and at least three — Sons Of The Desert (1933, directed by William A. Seiter), Way Out West (1937, directed by James W. Horne), and Block-Heads (1938, directed by John G. Blystone) — are classics. After 1940 they left Roach and made eight features for 20th Century-Fox and MGM, where they ran into the same problem Keaton had met ten years before: They were assigned to play scenes written by people who were outside their type of comedy. In the late '40s they left Hollywood and toured Europe with a successful stage show. The disastrous Atoll K (1950, directed by Leo Joannon and John Berry), made in France when Laurel was in poor health, was their final film.Roach's other important comedy talent never found a home in features. His Our Gang series reached its high style in short films such as Bored Of Education (1936) and Our Gang Follies Of 1938 (1937), with Gordon Douglas directing the great lineup of George "Spanky" McFarland, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Darla Hood, Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, and Eugene "Porky" Lee. Charley Chase also outdid himself, first for Roach in two-reelers such as Fallen Arches (1933) and The Chases Of Pimple Street (1934) and then at Columbia with director Del Lord, in Rattling Romeo (1939) and The Heckler (1940). Sound made Chase's comedy even more true-to-life, and gave him opportunities for songs; but he never broke through into features and died of a heart attack in 1940 at age 46. By the mid 1930s, when Hal Roach was showcasing the most successful comic stars from the silents, Paramount was making features with the best new talents in talking comedy: Mae West, W.C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers. A popular singer and comic in vaudeville and on Broadway in the '20s, Mae West had also caused scandals writing and directing such plays as Sex and the gay-themed The Drag. Introduced by Paramount to great success in Night After Night (1932, directed by Archie Mayo), she starred in a series of memorable comedies, filled with sexual innuendo and double-meaning jokes. As both writer and star, she was at her best in her first films She Done Him Wrong (1933, directed by Lowell Sherman), I'm No Angel (1933, directed by Wesley Ruggles), and Belle Of The Nineties (1934, directed by Leo McCarey) — all of which kept her in an 1890s setting, where her wit seemed even saucier. The censorship-cautious Paramount increasingly inhibited her style, however, and there was an edge missing in her later features Goin' To Town (1935, directed by Alexander Hall), Klondike Annie (1936, directed by Raoul Walsh), Go West Young Man (1936, directed by Henry Hathaway), and Every Day's A Holiday (1938, directed by A. Edward Sutherland). She tried to re-establish herself at Universal, co-starring with W.C. Fields in the western spoof My Little Chickadee (1940, directed by Eddie Cline). The film failed to jump-start her career, and after The Heat's On (1943, directed by Gregory Ratoff), she turned to performing in theater and nightclubs. In the 1920s W.C. Fields had been a juggler and comic in vaudeville, a star on Broadway, and had acted in ten silent features, including Sally Of The Sawdust (1925, directed by D.W. Griffith), and Running Wild (1927, directed by Gregory La Cava). But he became an icon only after remaking those two films as the Paramount talkies Poppy (1936, directed by A. Edward Sutherland), and The Man On The Flying Trapeze (1935, directed by Clyde Bruckman). Poppy defined Fields' oversized, con-artist persona, reworked in International House (1933, directed by Sutherland) and The Old-Fashioned Way (1934, directed by William Beaudine). He also excelled in playing ordinary men such as Trapeze's Ambrose Wolfinger, beset by shrewish wives, tiresome kids, dumb co-workers, gossiping neighbors, and nutty strangers. Along with Trapeze, he played this type in his 1933 two-reelers produced by Mack Sennett, The Pharmacist and The Barber Shop, (both directed by Arthur Ripley), as well as in his classic Paramount feature It's A Gift (1934, directed by Norman Z. MacLeod). Like Mae West, Fields was an important star and wrote most of his own material. Yet Paramount tended to squander him in secondary roles and so he went to Universal, where at first he still had to share the bill. In You Can't Cheat An Honest Man (1939) he co-starred with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, but Fields stole the film in his Poppy mode, as circus impresario Larson E. Whipsnade (who gets paged as "Larceny Whipsnake"!). The irascible Fields wouldn't work with director George Marshall; Eddie Cline handled his scenes and stayed on for Fields' next three films. My Little Chickadee (1940) was his second split-bill. Co-starring with Mae West, Fields once again provided the best laughs as frontier windbag Cuthbert J. Twillie. At last graduating to solo projects, he made his final classics. As small-town loafer Egbert Souse (pronounced "Sous?") in The Bank Dick (1940), Fields played his greatest Everyman, here sent on a wild trip with bank robbers and moviemakers. There's a nonsensical air to The Bank Dick's weird situations and odd physical types, and that absurdity defines Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941), where Fields lampoons himself and Hollywood, pitching a script in which he jumps from a plane to retrieve a bottle of liquor. He'd always had a taste for surreal humor, and Sucker revives such zaniness as Fields playing the super-athletic President of Klopstockia in Million Dollar Legs (1932, directed by Cline), or his classic tale of the Frozen North, the Sennett two-reeler The Fatal Glass Of Beer (1932, directed by Bruckman). Absurd humor was a basic feature of the Marx Brothers, who'd spent the teens and early '20s in vaudeville and then became stars on Broadway. When Paramount filmed their second musical The Cocoanuts (1929, directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley), their characters were in place: The cigar-chomping Groucho was a lightning-fast con man, a master of double-talk and insults; the Italian-accented Chico was a lovable, pun-spewing rogue who also played piano; the silent Harpo got the craziest gags and was as liable to eat a telephone as to chase pretty women or play the harp; Zeppo was straight man to Groucho. Their third musical, Animal Crackers, was their next feature in 1930, directed by Victor Heerman. Both films had included a secondary romantic couple who sang songs and provided plot, but the Brothers moved away from this device and relied increasingly on their own lunacy in the shipboard-stowaway antics of Monkey Business (1931) and the college-football send-up Horse Feathers (1932), both directed by Norman Z. MacLeod. The insanity culminated in their classic satire of warring dictators, Duck Soup (1933), directed by Leo McCarey, but their popularity had dimmed as their work became wilder. Zeppo retired and the three brothers switched to MGM, where executive producer Irving Thalberg re-applied the old formula with a high gloss. A Night At The Opera (1935) and A Day At The Races (1937), both directed by Sam Wood, were the Marx Brothers' biggest hits and two of their funniest films. After Thalberg's death, however, their comedies became more mechanical: At The Circus (1939) and Go West (1940), both directed by Edward Buzzell, and The Big Store (1941), directed by Charles Reisner. Their last films were made at United Artists; writer Frank Tashlin enlivened the scripts, and in A Night In Casablanca (1946, directed by Archie Mayo) and Love Happy (1949, directed by David Miller), the Marx Brothers rekindled some of their former greatness. The Marx Brothers were popular with the press and public alike, and several comedy teams trading in crazy humor began making films in the '30s. Paramount had hoped to score with stage and radio comics George Burns and Gracie Allen and featured them with W.C. Fields in International House and Six Of A Kind (1933, directed by Leo McCarey); the purely verbal humor of straight man George Burns and his daffy wife Gracie Allen, however, proved most successful on television in the '50s. Broadway comedians Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey made over 20 features for RKO between 1929 and 1938, until Woolsey died at age 49. Co-starring regularly with comedienne Dorothy Lee, Wheeler and Woolsey could be funny and full of surprises, especially in their 1934 films Hips Hips Hooray and Cockeyed Cavaliers, both directed by Mark Sandrich. The vaudeville duo of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson began making features at Warner Bros. in the early '30s but did their best work a decade later at Universal: Hellzapoppin (1941, directed by H.C. Potter), a subdued adaptation of their madcap Broadway smash, and two genuinely zany and funny films, both directed by Eddie Cline: Crazy House (1943) and Ghost Catchers (1944). But after their indifferent See My Lawyer (1945), also with Cline, Olsen and Johnson returned to the stage and later worked in television. The vaudeville trio of Al, Jimmy, and Harry Ritz started in features at 20th Century-Fox, providing comic interludes between Alice Faye numbers in Sing, Baby, Sing (1936) and On The Avenue (1937). The Ritz Brothers were soon starring in their own vehicles at Fox, such as The Three Musketeers (1939) and The Gorilla (1939), both directed by Allan Dwan; but after a few routine comedies at Universal in the 1940s, they left films for nightclubs and television.When compared with the uneven outputs and limited careers of most other comedy teams, the films of the Three Stooges seem all the more impressive. In the 1920s Moe Howard, his brother Shemp, and Larry Fine appeared in vaudeville and on Broadway as dimwitted flunkies for comedian Ted Healy. In 1932 Shemp was replaced by the youngest Howard brother, Curly, and the new trio began appearing with Healy in two-reelers (Beer And Pretzels, 1933) and features (Dancing Lady, 1934) at MGM. Their slapstick mayhem stole all their scenes with Healy, and in 1934 Moe, Larry, and Curly signed to make their own two-reelers at Columbia as the Three Stooges. They starred in almost 100 shorts, working most frequently with the expert comedy directors Del Lord and Jules White; among the best are Men In Black (1934, directed by Raymond McCarey), Pardon My Scotch (1935, directed by Lord), Healthy, Wealthy And Dumb (1938, directed by Lord), You Nazty Spy (1940, directed by White), In The Sweet Pie And Pie (1941, directed by White), and Micro-Phonies (1945, directed by Edward Bernds). Their violent knockabout was heightened by the sound effects of Joe Henrie, who made every eye-poke and skull-bash reverberate with a nuttiness normally reserved for cartoons. Although dismissed by critics, audiences loved the Three Stooges, and today their films retain plenty of freshness, energy, and above all, laughs. Curly retired in 1946 after suffering a stroke; he'd die six years later, at age 48. Shemp, who'd kept busy in supporting roles in comedy shorts and features, rejoined the team in 1947. He made over 70 two-reelers with Moe and Larry, including the Jules White gems Scrambled Brains (1951), Three Dark Horses (1952), Scotched In Scotland (1954), and Scheming Schemers (1956). In 1955 Shemp died of a sudden heart attack at age 54. The following year burlesque and film comedian Joe Besser joined Moe and Larry for the team's last sixteen shorts at Columbia (all helmed by White), most notably Rusty Romeos (1957) and Pies And Guys (1958). Burlesque comic Curly Joe DeRita replaced Besser, and in 1959 the new Three Stooges made their first starring feature, Have Rocket, Will Travel. Less violent than the old days but still filled with vintage Stooges buffoonery, they followed with another five features in the early '60s, most notably their last, the western spoof The Outlaws Is Coming (1965). Thanks to television, the Three Stooges kept working until 1971.Buster Keaton and Charley Chase weren't the only silent comics who ended up in sound shorts. Fatty Arbuckle finally got in front of a camera again in 1932 with a series of two-reelers at Vitaphone; less than a year later, about to start a feature, he died of a heart attack at age 46. At Columbia Harry Langdon was reunited with directors Harry Edwards and Arthur Ripley and made over 20 shorts between 1934 and his death in 1944. Former Keystone and Roach comic Edgar Kennedy, a master of the slow burn, starred in over a hundred two-reel comedies at RKO in the 1930s and '40s and was as funny in his first efforts (Fish Feathers 1932) as he was toward the end (Sleepless Tuesday, 1945). Leon Errol never found success as a silent comic in the late 1920s, but at Columbia in the '30s he starred in such zany two-reel talkies as Honeymoon Bridge (1935). Playing an errant husband and rubber-legged tippler, he made 90 shorts at RKO, including such standouts as The Jitters (1938) and The Spook Speaks (1947). Among performers who started in talkies, some of the funniest shorts were the one-reelers of actor/writer Robert Benchley, who parodied lectures and public addresses. In 1928 he made two classics at Fox, The Treasurer's Report and The Sex Life Of The Polyp. He'd film over 40 shorts in this vein, mostly at MGM, where the best include How To Sleep (1935) and No News Is Good News (1943). In the 1940s and '50s, director Richard L. Bare and actor George O'Hanlon co-scripted over 60 "Joe McDoakes" one-reelers at Warner Bros; their series of loony instructionals included such first-rate efforts as So You Want To Be A Detective (1948) and So You Want To Be Your Own Boss (1954). Back in the mid '30s, former vaudeville comic Bob Hope made several two-reel comedies at Vitaphone; but only after making it big on radio did he become a film star at Paramount with the haunted-house spoof The Cat And The Canary (1939, directed by Elliott Nugent). The next year he made Road To Singapore (directed by Victor Scherzinger) with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, and the trio reconvened six times over the next 20 years, most notably in Road To Utopia (1946, directed by Hal Walker). Until the mid 1960s, Hope starred as a bumbler who manages to triumph over his foes; his best work spoofed swashbucklers, with The Princess And The Pirate (1944, directed by David Butler) and Monsieur Beaucaire (1946, directed by George Marshall), and westerns, with The Paleface (1948, directed by Norman Z. McLeod) and Son Of Paleface (1952, directed by Frank Tashlin). Danny Kaye had a similar if briefer trajectory in popular Samuel Goldwyn productions of the 1940s and '50s, including The Inspector General (1949, directed by Henry Koster) and The Court Jester (1956, directed by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank). Other famed comics had less impact in films: Jack Benny (Charley's Aunt, 1941and To Be Or Not To Be, 1942); Red Skelton (Whistling In The Dark, 1941and A Southern Yankee, 1948); Milton Berle (Over My Dead Body, 1943); and Lucille Ball (Miss Grant Takes Richmond, 1949) all had their greatest success on television. Even Abbott and Costello, who made three-dozen features and were the most popular comedy team of the 1940s, did their best work on television. The two seasons of their half-hour series The Abbott and Costello Show (1952-54) distilled some of their funniest material. Burlesque comedians in the '30s, they'd developed numerous verbal routines in which the short and chubby comic Lou Costello was bullied and exploited by his tall and thin partner, straight man Bud Abbott. They signed with Universal in 1940 and hit big in a quartet of 1941 comedies directed by Arthur Lubin: Buck Privates, In The Navy, Hold That Ghost, and Keep 'Em Flying. Their popularity waned after the war but they made two of their best films at the end of the '40s: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Africa Screams (1949), both directed by Charles Barton. Their films then became more labored and formulaic in the '50s, and they made their last release in 1956. That same year also marked the split-up of Martin and Lewis, the most popular comedy team of the 1950s. Handsome singer Dean Martin and zany comedian Jerry Lewis were a smash in nightclubs in the late '40s and between 1949 and 1956 made 18 successful films at Paramount, including At War With The Army (1950), directed by Hal Walker, and Artists And Models (1955) and Hollywood Or Bust (1956), both directed by Frank Tashlin. Still a box-office draw in the mid-'50s, the tensions between the duo made it impossible for them to continue; each went on to become a big star, but they never worked together again.Along with the work of people who were performing comics, several gifted comedy directors also came into their own by the 1930s. Frank Capra, who had helmed Harry Langdon's best features, made some of the funniest and most popular films of the decade with writer Robert Riskin: Platinum Blonde (1931) with Jean Harlow; the Damon Runyon adaptations Lady For A Day (1933) and Broadway Bill (1934); the classic romantic comedy It Happened One Night (1934), with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert; and two quintessential Capra films in which decency triumphs over greed, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) with Jean Arthur and Gary Cooper, and You Can't Take It With You (1938) with Arthur and Jimmy Stewart. Director Leo McCarey, besides his great work with Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, W.C. Fields, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Harold Lloyd, is also admired for his comedies The Ruggles Of Red Gap (1935) with Charles Laughton and The Awful Truth (1937) with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. George Cukor made handsome films of stage comedies: The Royal Family Of Broadway (1930), Dinner At Eight (1933), Holiday (1938), The Women (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and Born Yesterday (1950). Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin wrote Cukor's funniest originals, Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat And Mike (1952), both showcasing Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as a romantic-comedy duo. Howard Hawks directed two classic comedies from plays by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur: Twentieth Century (1934) with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, and His Girl Friday (1940) with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell; Hawks' original farces include Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), written by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, and Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball Of Fire (1941) written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. With writer Samson Raphaelson, director Ernst Lubitsch made the sublime Trouble In Paradise (1932) with Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall, The Shop Around The Corner (1940) with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and Heaven Can Wait (1943) with Don Ameche and Gene Tierney. For Lubitsch, Wilder and Brackett wrote Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), with Cooper and Colbert; Walter Reisch joined them on Lubitsch's classic Ninotchka(1939) with Greta Garbo. For director Mitchell Leisen, Wilder and Brackett also penned the delightful Midnight (1939), which starred Ameche, Colbert, and Barrymore; Preston Sturges scripted Leisen's Easy Living (1937), with Ray Milland and Jean Arthur. Both Wilder and Sturges became major directors at Paramount in the 1940s. Sturges made a brilliant series of comedies which mixed slapstick and farce with social satire. The Great McGinty (1940) spoofed political corruption; Christmas In July (1940) took on contest crazes; The Lady Eve (1940), with con-artist Stanwyck and rich-sap Henry Fonda, was perhaps his funniest film; Sullivan's Travels (1941), with Joel McCrea, juxtaposed Hollywood pretensions with real-life desperations; The Palm Beach Story (1942), with McCrea and Colbert, was a light comedy of the idle rich; The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek (1942), arguably his best film, skewered small-town hypocrisy and big-city hype, with a husbandless Betty Hutton going from pregnant shame to quintuplet glory; Hail The Conquering Hero (1943) zeroed in on wartime hero worship. After leaving Paramount, Sturges produced three films, all poorly received: The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock (1946) with Harold Lloyd; Unfaithfully Yours (1948), a comic/fantasy look at jealousy, starring Rex Harrison; and the broad and garish The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend (1948) with Betty Grable. They finished his career, which ended with the minor Les Carnets Du Major Thompson (1955), made in France. Billy Wilder alternated powerful dramas with expert comedies, and he and Brackett usually gave the humor an acid social commentary. In Wilder's Hollywood directing debut, The Major And The Minor (1942), Army officer Ray Milland finds himself uncomfortably attracted to a 12-year-old girl who's really Ginger Rogers in disguise. After the war, Wilder went to the ruins of Berlin for A Foreign Affair (1948) and set American innocence Jean Arthur against European experience Marlene Dietrich. He and Brackett split after 1950, and Wilder's play adaptations — Sabrina (1954) with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, The Seven Year Itch (1955) with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell — are softer and less incisive. There's more of an edge to his romantic comedy Love In The Afternoon (1957) with Hepburn and Gary Cooper. The script was his first collaboration with writer I.A.L. Diamond; together they would bring a greater sophistication and trenchancy to American film comedy and help define a new era in the genre.