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It has been said that laughter is the best medicine.  If that is the case, then comedy films are like a week at a health spa where we can all be refreshed and revived.  There is something wonderfully special about being in the company of other people who are laughing at the same things we are.  Watching a comedy film with a receptive audience in a theater makes us all friends.

Comedy films are films with a purpose, and that purpose is to make us laugh.  The stories are usually fairly simple, the characters are people we can relate to on some level, and the movie will most likely have a happy ending.

There are many types of comedy.  Among them are dead-pan, slapstick, verbal, dark, and parodies, or spoofs.  There are also many sub-genres of comedy film, like romantic comedies, action comedies, horror comedies, Western comedies, etc.

Deadpan comedies involve humorous situations where the main character does not react to what is happening to him or around him, but maintains a blank expression no matter what is going on.  The master of deadpan comedy is Buster Keaton whose early films include “Our Hospitality” (1923) and “Steamboat Bill Jr.” (1928).

Very popular in early silent films, slapstick comedy has always been popular.  It is said that the term ‘slapstick’ comes from clowns slapping sticks together to encourage the audience to applaud the action in early vaudeville performances.  The comedy in slapstick style is mostly visual and physical, such as someone being hit in the face with a pie, or falling inelegantly onto their bottom, or tripping over their own feet, and does not rely as heavily on dialogue as other forms of comedy.  Seeming to be simple, slapstick is actually one of the more difficult types of comedy to perform because the timing is critical to the success of the gag.  The Keystone Kops silent films were early examples of slapstick comedy.  Laurel & Hardy, in films like “Sons of the Desert” (1933), and The Three Stooges’ “Have Rocket, Will Travel” (1959), are also prime examples of slapstick artistry.

Verbal comedy depends on dialogue which is often sarcastic, sometimes cruel, and quite often absurd.  Abbott and Costello’s ‘Who’s on first’ dialogue, which they had performed many times on the vaudeville stage and elsewhere, was featured for the first time on film in “One Night in the Tropics” (1940) and is a good example of absurd verbal humor.  The use of verbal comedy has been popular since the beginning of the ‘talkies’, and more recent examples include Woody Allen’s comedies such as “Play It Again, Sam” (1972).

Dark (or ‘black’) comedies center around subjects that are not usually considered funny, like war, illness, and death, but are treated in a humorous manner.  “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949), where Alec Guinness plays eight roles as members of a family, deals with revenge and murder, but is considered a comedy.  The 1970 movie “M*A*S*H” is also a dark comedy, being a comedic anti-war film set in the Korean War.

Parody or spoof films are satirical, meaning that they make fun of their chosen subject.  The subject can be a form of government, another genre of film, the institution of marriage, or almost anything.  Parodies rely on stereotypes to make their point, and are generally sarcastic in tone.  “Cat Ballou” (1965), starring Lee Marvin, is a spoof of Westerns, and Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” (1974) is a parody of horror films.

One of the earliest comedy films is 1918’s “The Cook”, directed by its star, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle and released by Comique Film Company.  The twenty-two minute silent film is a classic slapstick comedy about the highjinks at an expensive restaurant where ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle is the cook and Buster Keaton is a waiter.  It includes a scene where ‘Fatty’ is dressed in drag and dancing, a parody of Theda Bara’s film “Salomé”.

Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and directed by E. L. Kennedy, the silent “You're Darn Tootin’” (1928) is one of the earliest Laurel and Hardy films.  The opening title for the film is “The story of two musicians who played neither by note or by ear – they used brute strength”.  It is a twenty minute silent film which relies on slapstick routines.  The story follows the hapless Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy through a disastrous performance with an orchestra, eviction from their boarding house, and their attempt to make a living performing on street corners as a musical duo.

It Happened One Night” (1934) is a romantic comedy directed by Frank Capra and released by Columbia Pictures.  Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is a spoiled heiress who has just married a fortune hunter when her father intervenes and drags her back home.  Furious and pouting, Ellie runs away but then meets Peter Warne (Clark Gable), an unemployed newspaper reporter.  Sensing a big story, Peter offers to help Ellie reunite with her erstwhile husband in return for an exclusive on her story.  Their misadventures and misunderstandings as they each try to achieve their goals and fight their growing romantic attraction make for a good story.  Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, and Alan Hale also appear.  “It Happened One Night” is the first film to ever win all five top Academy Awards: for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay.

In 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released the Ernst Lubitsch directed “Ninotchka”, starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas.  The film, a romantic, sophisticated comedy, relates the story of Ninotchka (Garbo), who is a special envoy sent from the Soviet Union to complete the purchase of jewels stolen from Russian Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire).  The jewels are in the possession of Count Leon d’Algout (Douglas) who has obtained them from three Russians who brought the jewelry to Paris.  Serious and formidable at first, Ninotchka falls under the spell of the Count and the lifestyle of the West.  Bela Lugosi also has a role in the film as a Russian Commissar.

Starring two of comedy’s earliest and biggest stars, “My Little Chickadee” (1940) is a Western-themed comedy film directed by Edward F. Cline and released by Universal.  On her way to visit family in the Old West in the 1880’s, Flower Belle Lee (Mae West) is kidnapped by a stagecoach robber, but soon shows up in town unharmed.  When the bandit sneaks into town to visit Flower Belle they are caught kissing and soon she is run out of town.  On board a train she meets a con-man, Cuthbert J. Twillie (W.C. Fields), and they survive an attack by hostile Indians.  The scheming Flower Belle believes that Twillie is wealthy, and soon marries him.  Complications arise as she avoids Twillie’s romantic overtures, Twillie becomes the town sheriff, and Flower Belle once more encounters the masked bandit.  Joseph Calleia, Dick Foran, Margaret Hamilton, and John Forrest 'Fuzzy' Knight also have roles in the film.

One of the funniest and most popular comedy pairings in history, Abbott and Costello appeared in 1950’s “Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion”, released by Universal Pictures and directed by Charles Lamont.  Bud Jones (Bud Abbott) and Lou Hotchkiss (Lou Costello) are wrestling promoters in debt to a syndicate.  Their star wrestler, Abdullah (Wee Willie Davis) takes off for his home in Algeria, leaving them with no way to pay back the syndicate.  Out of desperation they follow Abdullah to Algeria, where they run afoul of Abdullah’s cousin and a crooked Foreign Legionnaire.  Hilarity ensues in plot twists including mistaken identities, the rescue of a damsel in distress, and the outwitting of the villains.

Paramount Pictures released “Road to Bali” in 1952, directed by Hal Walker.  Song-and-dance men George Cochran (Bing Crosby) and Harold Gridley (Bob Hope) have to get out of town in a hurry in order to avoid various marriage proposals, so they take jobs as divers.  On the way to Bali they meet, and both try to capture the heart, of Princess Lalah (Dorothy Lamour).  Trouble increases when the treasure they dove for, a chest of priceless jewels, attracts the greed and attention of some local bad guys.  Many stars of the day appeared in cameos in the film, including Humphrey Bogart, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, and Jane Russell.  “Road to Bali” is the sixth in a series of “Road” pictures starring Crosby and Hope.  The others are “Road to Singapore” (1940), “Road to Zanzibar” (1941), “Road to Morocco” (1942), “Road to Utopia” (1946), “Road to Rio” (1947), and the final one was “The Road to Hong Kong” (1962) (the only one distributed by United Artists).

The Three Stooges Meet Hercules” (1962) was directed by Edward Bernds and released by Columbia Pictures.  Starring Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Joe DeRita as the Three Stooges, the film follows the zany trio as they help a neighboring shop owner build a time machine, and then are transported back to Ithaca in ancient Greece.  There the evil King Odius (George N. Neise) consigns Schuyler Davis (Quinn K. Redeker), the shop owner, and the three stooges to the slave galleys so that he will be free to pursue Schuyler’s love interest Diane Quigley (Vicki Trickett).  Escaping, they promote Schuyler as Hercules, until they meet the real Hercules (Samson Burke).

Directed by Gene Kelly and distributed by National General Pictures and Warner Brothers, “The Cheyenne Social Club” (1970) is a Western comedy with a bit of an adult theme.  John O’Hanlon (James Stewart) receives a letter telling him that his brother has left him an inheritance.  O’Hanlon and his buddy Harley Sullivan (Henry Fonda), two aging cowboys, leave Texas for Wyoming to collect the inheritance, only to find out that it is the Cheyenne Social club, a high-class brothel.  Unwilling to run a brothel, but still wanting to keep the property, O’Hanlon decides to turn it into a boarding house, and has to deal with the “working girls” he’s inherited, including Jenny (Shirley Jones), Opal Ann (Sue Ann Langdon), and Pauline (Elaine Devry).

Annie Hall” (1977) is a quirky comedy directed by Woody Allen and released by United Artists.  The plot involves the romantic relationship between Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and his girlfriend Annie Hall (Diane Keaton).  Both characters are neurotic, and their interactions are poignant and funny at the same time, as their relationship grows and then fades.  The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  Tony Roberts, Colleen Dewhurst, Jeff Goldblum, and Sigourney Weaver also had parts in the film, and even Truman Capote made a cameo appearance.

A prime example of a satirical comedy, “Airplane!” (1980), was directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, and released by Paramount Pictures.  In the spoof of disaster films Ted Striker (Robert Hays), an ex-fighter pilot who is now afraid of flying, takes the drastic step of buying a ticket on a flight where the love of his life, Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), is a stewardess.  When the pilot, Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves), the co-pilot Roger Murdock (Kareem Abdul-Jabaar), and passengers become ill from food poisoning, diagnosed by passenger Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen), the only hope of landing the plane safely is Ted Striker.  The airport’s tower supervisor Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges), and a former colleague of Ted’s, Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) are enlisted to try to talk him through the process of landing the seemingly doomed plane.

Whatever your taste in comedy, there is something here at Matinee Classics for you to enjoy.  As one of the greatest comedians of all time, Milton Berle, said, “Laughter is an instant vacation”.  Select some comedies and settle in for a mini-vacation…..and you don’t even have to pack your suitcase!

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