“The Best Comedy of the Year!” 1970′s
The 1970′s are widely considered to be an era of cinematic genius. Most of this reputation is built on a boiling revolution of elevated realism; the mainstreaming of the work started on stage in the 1930′s by the Group Theatre. It manifested itself in the dark modern dramatic works of Coppola, Scorsese, Cimino, Friedkin, DeNiro and Pacino, among others. At the same time, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were ushering in the age of the special effects spectacle, the sequel and the t-shirt and toy deal. Comedy is not what first comes to mind.
But the 1970′s were also a powerhouse of iconic comedy. Of course, as a child born at the beginning of the decade, I knew nothing about any of this at the time. What I was getting was Sesame Street and Happy Days. Not that Grover wasn’t a master of vaudeville-style humor. So let’s take a look back at what I was missing and had to discover as a teenager once video tapes of movies became widely available. Let’s travel back to the wild and wooly “Me Decade.”
1970 – The Out of Towners
Decades tend to fade in and out of one another. After all, how much does your life really change just because you have to write a new number on your checks? The Neil Simon/Arthur Hiller “fish out of water” comedy The Out of Towners, starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis sure feels a lot like the late 60′s, doesn’t it? Well, the film was shot in New York City in the summer of 1969 (no Bryan Adams appearances, though). Lemmon had only recently started transitioning into middle-aged roles, a development which would be punctuated by his later Oscar-winning work in 1973′s Save the Tiger. As a fan of city living, the movie runs counter to many of my own tastes in its depiction of the metropolis as a cruel and careless abuser of people. Its anti-city bias is mitigated though, by two things: 1) It was partly true at the time. New York City from the late 60′s through the early 80′s was beset by financial ruin and a decaying infrastructure 2) The movie is funny. Lemmon and Dennis have great chemistry as a perfectly normal Ohio couple who turn into a nightmare pair of overwhelmed complainers on a trip for a job interview that would land their family in Manhattan. Inconveniences turn to catastrophes and back again as they blunder into every possible roadblock to their mission, whining and taking names.
Other 1970 comedies: M*A*S*H and Start the Revolution Without Me.
1971 – Harold and Maude
Yet again, we see a 1970′s comedy that is a clear indication of the fallout of the decade which preceded it. The dark comedy of the film, most obviously through Harold constantly faking his own death to the boredom of his controlling mother and the horror of the society girls she tries to set him up with, helped to make Harold and Maude a critical and box office disappointment. I can’t imagine that many people find the idea of a romance between a teenager and a geriatric enticing, either. But it gradually found its audience in part through both novelization and stage versions of the story. The Cat Stevens songs which populated much of the film’s soundtrack also helped bring fans back and it finally turned a profit more than a decade later. My high school’s sister drama program at First Colonial put up a production of the stage show, bringing almost as much consternation to its upper-class parents as Harold does to his.
Other 1971 comedies: Woody Allen’s Latin American revolutionary comedy “Bananas.”
Well, it was liable to happen eventually. After searching around quite a bit, I found nothing but disappointment from 1972′s comedies. John Waters’ Pink Flamingos was certainly important, but it is a great deal more appealing as an idea than as a reality to watch. The cross-dressing Divine leads her clan in hope of maintaining her title as “The Filthiest Person Alive.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? Nope. Last of the Red Hot Lovers, with Alan Arkin seems promising too, but boasts way too few laughs. What’s Up Doc? is written by Buck Henry and has a strong reputation, but Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal just rub me the wrong way in it. This isn’t surprising since neither of them appeals to me in many other films, either. If you like this pair, maybe give What’s up, Doc? a try. Hey, it’s set in San Francisco, so it has that going for it. Avanti! also could’ve been great, written by the brilliant Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond and starring Jack Lemmon. It’s a combination that looks great on paper, and it is a good movie, but it doesn’t come close to stacking up to other greats by Wilder and Lemmon. His character is mean and again there aren’t many real laughs. Based on the decade’s output so far, the future of comedy in the 1970′s looks pretty bleak.
1973 – Sleeper
Things start to look up in 1973 with one of the comedic stars of the time. Woody Allen would reach greater cinematic heights with his later offerings and get branded a genius in some quarters, but the core of his best work still leans on his unique brand of smart, self-depricating Catskills humor. Sleeper stars Allen as a health food store owner who goes in for minor surgery in the early 70′s and wakes up 200 years later to find that quite a lot has changed. A lot of the fun, of course, is Allen himself being placed around people who are taking him seriously. Like in this scene:
Diane Keaton co-stars as an establishment socialite who Allen kidnaps after briefly posing as her robot butler (see above), and the two gradually come to understand each other while on the run. There is a futuristic revolutionary plot that the gags hang on which eventually involves the DNA information available in a person’s nose. Try not to place too much importance on the story…
Other 1973 comedies: Paper Moon, and The Sting are both entertaining movies which had good success at the time. Neither gives me the pleasure of Sleeper, though.
1974 – Young Frankenstein
After only mild success with The Producers and the outright flop of The 12 Chairs, Mel Brooks returned to the big screen with a vengeance in 1974, teaming up with Richard Pryor for Blazing Saddles and Gene Wilder for Young Frankenstein. I had a hard time choosing between these two irreverent satires of well-worn film genres. Both are laugh factories which lovingly overturn audience expectations and break with the mores of the time. In the end, I went with Young Frankenstein because I re-watch it on a nearly yearly basis without ever getting bored with it. The film’s gorgeous black and white photography, fastidious attention to detail and beautiful musical score give it just the air of respectability which help the gags to really land. Wilder has never been better, in a project which was his idea, and is joined by Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Terri Garr, Cloris Leachman (He vas…my BOYFRIEND!!), and Kenneth Mars in a gang of vulnerably wacky performances. Oh yes, and there was this from the great Gene Hackman:
Other 1974 comedies: Obviously, there was the previously mentioned Blazing Saddles, but I’d also like to bring special attention to the film version of Eugene Ionesco’s genius stage comedy about political and personal conformity, “Rhinoceros.” This is visualized by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as citizens of a town whose inhabitants are gradually transformed into…well…you know. The film loses some of the play’s bite and was subject to criticisms over changes that were made, but I still consider it worth mentioning. ’74 was a great year for Gene Wilder!
1975 – Monty Python and the Holy Grail
For many American audiences, Monty Python’s wonderfully irreverent and surreal comedy first came to light with re-broadcasts of their BBC television program on PBS in 1974. The following year, the Pythons would release their parody of the King Arthur legend, shot on a shoestring budget with John Cleese returning to the group after leaving between seasons of the TV show. “…Holy Grail” was a big success, eventually earning over $120 million after spending only $365,000 on production. The budget had been so low, in fact, that it ended up inspiring one of the film’s iconic bits. Because they couldn’t afford to use real horses, the knights of the round table pranced around pretending to ride while their manservants banged coconut halves together. It did not go unmentioned by the other characters. The killer rabbit scene was shot with a borrowed white bunny which was then covered in fake blood for the shoot. Unfortunately, the inexperienced crew had permanently stained the little rabbit and the Pythons themselves hurriedly attempted to wash off the large spatters of red before its owner discovered the mistake. The bunny was unharmed, but would forever hop around looking like the fabled Rabbit of Caerbannog.
Other 1975 comedies: Gee whiz, sometimes I wish some of these films were made in different years! It was painful to leave The Rocky Horror Picture Show out. It would’ve been selected in just about any other year.
1976 – Murder by Death
Murder by Death is another in a long line of fun comedies by playwright legend Neil Simon. The whole idea is to get variations on some of the most famous private eyes in film history in one dark mansion for the most confounding murder mystery they’ve ever encountered! Oh, and it’s a comedy. And their nemesis is played by Truman Capote! The script includes some soft-touch stereotype humor, but it doesn’t really offend, perhaps because it’s delivered by greats like Peter Sellers and Peter Falk, and maybe because some of it is really funny. In addition, we get David Niven (The Pink Panther), Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey), James Coco (Ensign Pulver), Alec Guinness (Star Wars), James Cromwell (Babe), and Eileen Brennan (The Sting). Don’t get caught up in trying to solve the mystery in this one. Just enjoy the performances and the well-turned goofs on the genre. By the way, Maggie Smith has been awesome for a long time.
Other 1976 comedies: I came very close to naming Network the top comedy of 1976, but after going back and watching it again, I came to the conclusion that it was not enough of a comedy to win out here, even though I get in a few good laughs every time I watch it. It is, however, the best film of 1976. Don’t come to me with Rocky. A couple of decent comedies from the bicentennial year are Bad News Bears and The Sunshine Boys, both starring Walter Matthau.
1977 – Annie Hall
Annie Hall is one of those perfect movies in which every scene both entertains and casts light on the characters as it does. This is quite a surprise, given its development. Famously, it was originally as much of a murder mystery as a romantic comedy, and then it was a much longer bit of self psychoanalysis, but the film was majorly re-cut and the Annie Hall character was emphasized. There has been much disagreement about exactly how autobiographical the film is, with Allen himself claiming that he is not much like Alvy Singer, the intellectual Jewish stand up comedian he plays. For her part, Diane Keaton says that parts of her previous romantic relationship with Allen had been mined for the Alvy/Annie relationship of the movie. Consider that Keaton was born with the last name of Hall and had been known by the nickname of “Annie” earlier in her life. Allen had set out to make a much more dramatic film than the screwball comedies he was known for at the time, but ended up with one of his funnier films, perhaps due to the sheer volume of material that was written and filmed for it. Since it is a story being told by Allen’s character and defined by his character’s thoughts and obsessions, it veers frequently from the world of the real into imagination and fantasy. Like when Allen and Keaton become cartoons…or like in this classic scene:
Favorite Line: “I heard that commentary and dissent had merged and formed ‘dysentery’”
Other 1977 comedies: Lots of sports-inclined men will trumpet the Paul Newman hockey comedy Slap Shot. High Anxiety has a few great gags, but an inconsistent and at times flat visual style which undercuts its satirical punch. Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl is an enjoyable romantic comedy with a happier outlook than Allen could probably muster at the time, but it, along with these others, could not match the idiosyncratic poetic humor of Annie Hall.
1978 – Animal House
For many years, John Landis and Harold Ramis’ Animal House provided a model for the idealized debauched university experience. Who knows? Maybe it still does. We sure danced to “Shout” and “Louie Louie” quite a lot at our high school functions and the movie seemed to play in the background of about every third or fourth college party I attended for a while. I guess if you’re going to keep up as strong a party schedule as we did at East Carolina you’re going to need a little inspiration from time to time. The activities depicted by Belushi, Hulce, Furst, Matheson, et al had somehow become an expected rite of passage for every fun-seeking young person. Did we care that Belushi’s party lifestyle had been partly to blame for his sad early demise? Nope. Neither did Chris Farley. Nor did a couple of classmates who became (or maybe already were) true alcoholics.
Is it fair to lay all of this at the feet of a movie. Heck No. We all make our own choices. The movie certainly had no role in my decision to drink heavily during college and for a few years after. The culture of alcohol on the nation’s campuses was well entrenched long before the film’s release. Animal House was, in fact, based on the experiences its writers had had while participating in fraternities at separate schools. Oh by the way, it’s a funny movie.
Other 1978 comedies: The same can not be said for the undeservedly legendary Cheech & Chong vehicle (natch) “Up In Smoke.” Yawn.
1979 – Monty Python’s Life of Brian
After the huge success of their previous venture into full-length filmmaking, the members of Monty Python were asked what their next movie was going to be. Eric Idle suggested the title “Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory” as a joke. When the whole group convened to try to write on the theme, however, they agreed that they generally admired Jesus’ teachings, even as they mistrusted most organized religion. What they decided to do instead was to create a new character named Brian who would be followed as a savior despite his rejection of the role. The film would take place at the same time and in the same general location as the stories of the New Testament. Despite the Pythons’ move to avoid making fun of Jesus, the film was picketed heavily with charges of blasphemy. As is usually the case in these situations, most of the protesters had no knowledge of the actual content of the film. And, of course, to see the film and find out whether it was blasphemous or not for themselves was out of the question. Some localities imposed an outright ban on Life of Brian, leading to one ad campaign claiming “So funny it was banned in Norway!” Despite the roadblocks put in its way Life of Brian was a huge commercial success, becoming the fourth-highest earning film of the year in the UK.
Other 1979 comedies: After a few disappointing years in film comedy, the 70′s closed strong. The Jerk kicked off Steve Martin’s fantastic movie career with a bang, Being There was Peter Sellers’ last major release, The in-laws cut a goofy figure for Peter Falk (Serpentine!!) and Alan Arkin, and Manhattan bounced back for Woody Allen nicely after the dreadfully dour “Interiors.” That’s a very good year for comedy in cinema!
certainly had its share of great comedies, but there looks to be a lack of real depth of quality here. I’ll be interested to see if there is a rebound when we look at the 60′s or if general tastes continue to create a sort of bell curve for me that others may be able to reproduce.
It appears that I’ll have to write a wrap-up article to go over the hard numbers produced on my tastes once we’ve gotten back to ’59.