Revival House: Eleven Great Comedies
Everybody can use a good chuckle now and then, but the feeling one gets from uncontrollable laughter is hard to beat. I’m talking about the kind of laughter that makes your face turn red, brings you to tears, and leaves you begging for it to stop, if only for a second. That’s the kind of comedy I’m talking about here. Every film on this admittedly slapstick-heavy list is all about one thing: that bubbling feeling of joy that comes from laughing until your sides hurt.
Airplane! (1980). Truth be told, in terms of sheer laughs, I consider this to be the funniest movie ever made. The jokes come so fast that you don’t even have time to process them all — I think it was around my 15th viewing of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker’s directorial debut that I noticed a vulture lurking in the background in one shot. Just about every single disaster-movie cliche is spoofed, plus a few other genres are thrown in for good measure. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, a woman is shown having an affair with a horse.
National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). Humor magazine National Lampoon‘s first foray into big-screen entertainment — a collaboration between the great comedy minds of director John Landis, producer Ivan Reitman, and writer Harold Ramis — led to one of the most profitable movies ever made. Animal House initiated a whole era of R-rated, “lowbrow” teen comedies in the ’80s and launched the tragically brief film career of John Belushi. Lots of funny moments throughout, but what seals the deal is the climactic Delta House assault on the homecoming parade.
Caddyshack (1980). Continuing the stream of irreverent teen-targeted comedies influenced by Animal House, Caddyshack dares to put Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, and Ted Knight in the same movie, with insanely funny results. If you ask me, Dangerfield’s the one who steals the show — every moment he’s on-screen is pure hilarity, particularly the boating sequence. But of course there’s also this bit of goodness with Bill Murray …
The General (1926). An entertaining but also quite epic tale, this silent classic stars Buster Keaton as a locomotive engineer during the Civil War. Keaton’s stuntwork here is amazing: he sits on the cow-catcher of a moving train and and on one of the side rods and is slowly moved up and down as the train gradually picks up momentum. One of my favorite physical bits involves an image of him standing on top of the train and leaning forward slightly as he looks into the distance.
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). I wrote a little about this one in a previous column about poorly reviewed movies that I love. The end of the first act is quite a standout, a montage of the assorted characters in various states of slapstick distress, including an out-of-control airplane flying through a Coca-Cola billboard and an automobile sinking in a river. But when it comes to laughs, the climactic fire-ladder sequence is what really pushes this one over the edge for me.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). It’s hard to pick just one Python film. Life of Brian (1979) undoubtedly has a stronger storyline and therefore doesn’t come across as a series of sketches like their other films, but that Black Knight bit just slays me every time, not to mention Lancelot’s “rescue” montage, in which he ends up killing dozens of innocent people. Fun stuff.
The Producers (1968). I once had the pleasure of talking to Mel Brooks on the phone. I told him that if I were to make a time capsule of the ten greatest comedies of all time, The Producers would be included. His reply: “Jeff, you have very good taste!” Indeed, it’s the rare comedy that actually gets funnier upon repeated viewings. Three words: “Springtime for Hitler.”
Raising Arizona (1987). Only the Coen brothers can deliver a comedy about kidnapping, bank robbery, and forgetting an infant on the roof of a car. The chase sequence in this movie made me laugh so hard the first time that I had to look away from the screen momentarily. The wild, over-the-top cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld adds to the chaos, particularly the moment when the cops, with their guns drawn, pursue their suspect through some innocent family’s living room.
The Return of the Pink Panther (1975). I wrote about this film in a previous column as well, so here’s a bite-size review: the combined genius of director Blake Edwards plus star Peter Sellers equals slapstick gold. Where it becomes almost unbearably funny for me is the slow-motion fights between Inspector Clouseau and his manservant, Cato (also executed hilariously in the next installment, 1976’s The Pink Panther Strikes Again).
Slap Shot (1977). This George Roy Hill comedy about a fledgling hockey team that resorts to violence to sell seats has lots of great gratuitous profanity and very funny performances by Paul Newman, Strother Martin, and Lindsay Crouse. But the out-of-control laughs begin once the Hanson brothers hit the ice and all that sweet violence kicks in.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984). The reason why my list goes to 11. A faux documentary of a fictitious rock band, This Is Spinal Tap is easily one of the most innovative and influential comedies of all time. Okay, so it wasn’t the first time this sort of thing had been done — Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run beat it to the punch by 15 years, for example. But no movie has done it better, before or since.