“The Best Comedy of the Year!” 1960’s
Based on how long it has taken me to do the necessary research for this, my final decade-based installment about how many “great” comedies can reasonably be expected in any given year, it would be easy to assume that the concept of comedy as generational is a winner. Well…maybe. But that would ignore the fact that I have identified here several truly great film comedies which to my eyes and ears hold up no matter what age you are. Some others may depend a little more on your own context and tastes. There certainly are some comedies I have subjected myself to which have aged badly. Not even Lee Marvin and Lee J Cobb could keep my attention on In Like Flint, and if The Ladies Man really is among the best Jerry Lewis has to offer, then I’m really glad I didn’t see one of his “stinkers.” Even some of the really good movies are prisoners of the age, incorporating mildly painful pop culture references and jokes which don’t always land so many years later. Still more perfectly good films like The Graduate, Alfie, and Never on Sunday mysteriously get listed in various places as comedies, when they are clearly dramas.
But these articles are supposed to be more about the movies I do like…so let’s try to focus on those.
1959 – Some Like It Hot
How could I possibly cover film comedy year-by-year all the way back to 1960 and stop so tantalizingly close to one of the greats of the genre? Director Billy Wilder’s classic cross-dressing gangster era joke factory is so iconic and special that if you haven’t seen it yet, you should just log off now and go find it…well…read the rest of this article and then log off and go find it. If you go looking at a video store (you know, if you live in 1995 and video stores are still the thing) just ask the clerk for the movie that the American Film Institute named as the best comedy of all time…in 2000. Okay, so my scenario hits a snag there. Aside from the notoriously snappy direction of Wilder, and the screenplay by his legendary conspirator I.A.L. Diamond, Some Like it Hot boasts remarkably charming performances by some of the all-time charmers, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe. When hapless musicians Lemmon and Curtis accidentally witness the famous St. Valentine’s Day massacre, they flee snowy Chicago for what they assume will be the friendlier haven of Florida’s beaches as part of an all-girl band. They do so as two of the less convincing women you’ll see, which just adds to the fun. The famous final last line is “Nobody’s perfect,” but Some Like it Hot is pretty darn close.
Other notable 1959 comedies- The Mouse That Roared
1960 – Make Mine Mink
This is actually the spot that I had penciled in ahead of time for another Wilder/Diamond/Lemmon team-up, The Apartment. Then I popped in my copy to give it another look and was surprised to find that it’s not very funny. Mind you, I’d already seen it many times and I count it as a favorite. Perhaps the film’s cast and promotional materials had me fooled all along, but that is one cynical workplace romance flick. I still adore it, but I was looking for something different for these articles. What I found was the criminally obscure British comedy Make Mine Mink, starring the gap-toothed wonder Terry-Thomas. The otherwise little-known state-side cast populates a modest set of flats, living little hum-drum lives until an unfortunate gift lends some excitement, and…leads to the group (Terry-Thomas as an overbearing, mildly bumbling ex-military man joining a charitable senior citizen, a mousey spinster, and a boisterous battle-axe) becoming a gang of thieves specializing in absconding with mink coats. Make Mine Mink is the kind of deceptively strong popular art that makes you think “why isn’t everything else this good? It shouldn’t be so hard!” And you’re at least half right. The truth is that comedy that is both this light and this sharp is not easy to achieve at all. The fact that they make it look easy is a testament to the quality of the artists involved. With all of the “research” I did trying to find comedies which deserved the title “best of the year,” Make Mine Mink is my big discovery. It is available through Netflix. Go get it.
Other notable 1960 comedies- The Bellboy– Thank goodness I decided to take a look at this after having such a bad experience with The Ladies Man. Jerry Lewis displays the likability, tight comic timing, and attention to detail here which made him a star. The Bellboy does manage to fizzle a little as it runs on, but there are enough real laughs to truly recommend it.
1961 – One, Two, Three
Boy, were Wilder and Diamond on a hot streak! The reverent treatment which their ’59 & ’60 offerings (Some Like it Hot & The Apartment) get from everyone including me appears to dissipate for absolutely no good reason when 1961 arrives with the comic cold war caper One, Two, Three. Maybe everybody was just tired of them by that point. Maybe the politics contained in it turned some people off. Maybe folks were disappointed not to get Jack Lemmon again. Maybe the title was hard to tell apart from the showing times in the newspaper. For whatever reason, a wildly energetic, entertaining, and hilarious comedy by a legendary director and writer which stars a very famous actor has been overlooked. The plot concerns a Coca-Cola executive played by James Cagney who has been relegated to West Berlin and must think fast when the boss’s visiting daughter suddenly marries a strident communist played by the immortal Horst Buchholz (The Magnificent Seven). One, Two, Three is fast and furious, requiring an attentive audience with nimble minds. That’s not to say that it’s overly intellectual, just that you probably don’t want to be folding laundry or doing the taxes while it’s on. If someone else in the room starts asking questions about the plot and characters early on, please pause the movie and send them out of the room. They will ruin your viewing experience.
Other notable 1961 comedies- The AbsentMinded Professor
1962 – The Music Man
Okay, so here’s where things may get a little contentious. Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man is one of the most beloved musical comedies of the American theatre. It is delightful and funny, with great hummable tunes and a black streak running through it a mile wide. But does it really belong on this list? If we open this list up to every delightful musical comedy that graced the screen in the 1960’s this could become an entirely different list. I thought long and hard and screened lots of more traditional screen comedies looking for something else to feature, but nothing else measured up to Robert Preston’s signature role. Preston’s speaking and singing voice pops off the screen at you, and he puts it to deliciously expressive use, smirking, declaring, protesting, and seducing with just the slightest tilting or drawling of a syllable. It is one of the most perfect and possessive performances ever given by an actor. His grip on the character was so strong, in fact, that Cary Grant famously turned down the role when it was time to transplant it from stage to screen, saying “nobody could do that role as well as Bob Preston.” We are all the beneficiaries of Cary Grant’s smart understanding of his own limitations. Also, Shirley Jones and Buddy Hackett are nothing to sneeze at.
That Harold Hill coulda been quite a politician if his morals weren’t too high.
Other notable 1962 comedies- That Touch of Mink Pleasant enough, and with some fun scenes, but clearly not stupendous because it couldn’t beat out a musical when I tried hard to let it.
1963 – It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World is one of the film comedies my father introduced me to when I was a kid. On my first viewing I had difficulty taking the slapstick violence lightly enough. Then I sat down to watch some Bugs Bunny and realized that what was going on with Jonathan Winters and Phils Silvers, and Buddy Hackett, and Mickey Rooney, and Terry-Thomas, and Sid Caesar, etc, etc, etc was no different than what was happening to Daffy Duck and Yosemite Sam. Once I relaxed and stopped taking it so seriously, I was able to focus on the madcap wonderfulness of it all. IAMMMMW was the original epic all-star chase comedy, and none of its imitators has been able to match its hilarity or success (it was the #2 film at the box office in 1963). Most of the top comics of the time show up, either in leads (Milton Berle, Ethel Merman) or in cameos (Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis). Spencer Tracy also has a starring role as the police captain who is tracking the greedy parade of motorists to the location of promised hidden loot. That all of this fuss is motivated by $350,000 just shows how inflation has gone over the last 50 years. But a good pratfall is timeless.
There’s also some tightly crafted spoken humor:
Other notable 1963 comedies- The Pink Panther If I was basing my choices just on the final 20 minutes of movies, this original Clouseau comedy might be at the top of the whole list. Its final stanza is as hilarious and elegantly zany as film comedy gets. Unfortunately, there’s also the mostly tedious first hour and a half which sets up that brilliant last 20 minutes. Yes, you do have to sit through it.
1964 – Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Instead of The Pink Panther, this is the Peter Sellers comedy which stands like a giant near, if not at, the top of the heap. Smartly satirical, serious, but hysterically funny, Dr. Strangelove is both historically important and chaotically irreverent. With documentary-like black and white scenes building to ridiculous, but honest conclusions, the movie’s visual style is not just stylistically appropriate, but does the job of set-up man for its talented cast. Peter Sellers (The Pink Panther, The Party, Being There) plays a trio of very different roles, British air officer Lionel Mandrake, who uncovers a shocking threat to the world’s safety, American President Merkin Muffley who must deal with an emotional Soviet leader, and the titular Dr. Strangelove, a comic creation who is slyly held in reserve until the proceedings are just short of getting out of hand. He originally had planned on playing bombardier pilot Major Kong, but wisely ceded the role to the hilarious Slim Pickens (Blazing Saddles). George C. Scott (Patton, The Hustler) and Sterling Hayden (The Killing, The Godfather) also contribute career-defining performances as military men with earnest, but misguided instincts. Director Stanley Kubrick initially intended the film to end with an enormous pie fight, but thankfully allowed for a more legitimate ending to the presented insanity, and created a masterpiece.
Other notable 1964 comedies- A Shot in the Dark, Mary Poppins (letting musicals in really does cause trouble, doesn’t it?), and The Americanization of Emily (no guffaws to be had, but this Paddy Chayefsky script is so darkly cynical and intellectually engaging, that I give it my highest recommendation as a comedy you will not laugh at)
1965 – The Great Race
Blake Edwards’ retro auto car race comedy has its detractors, and some will point to a different comedy from the same year, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, as superior. While that film has its charms, I personally prefer the pleasures of seeing Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, and Jack Lemmon in cartoony roles. A good friend of mine is so taken with Curtis as The Great Leslie that he has a hard time accepting him in unsympathetic parts like The Boston Strangler and Sweet Smell of Success. I don’t fully agree with him on that, but Curtis is pretty indelible as Leslie, especially as he strides through an enormous pie fight in a white outfit without getting hit. When the four-day shoot necessary for the pie fight ended, director Blake Edwards was immediately barraged with pies. Lemmon features in a pair of outlandish roles, including as the main heavy, the ridiculous mustache-twirling Professor Fate, with his sidekick Max, played by Peter Falk. He also plays the jovial tyrant of a small kingdom the competitors happen into. Much like It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, The Great Race requires a suspension of the normal rules of physics and human endurance, but it’s a delightful, fluffy romp, great for a rainy day in.
Other notable 1965 comedies- nope.
1966 – The Fortune Cookie
Yes, you’re seeing this right. It’s yet another Billy Wilder movie starring Jack Lemmon. But this is the one which made Walter Matthau into a comedy star on the big screen (Lemmon had insisted on him over such stars as Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason). His Oscar-winning performance as unscrupulous personal injury lawyer “Whiplash Willie” led to a long distinguished career in film humor. So much so, that younger audiences tend to act puzzled when they see him in one of his dramatic or villainous roles (like in Fail-Safe or JFK). Matthau plays Jack Lemmon’s brother-in-law, who convinces him to feign a more serious injury when he is accidentally run over on the sidelines of a Cleveland Browns football game while taking footage as a camera man. The machinations Willy puts in place and counters when the insurance company smells a rat are wonderfully entertaining, with the shrewd P.I.s snooping on the pair offering plenty of fun, too. Lemmon and Matthau would go on to team up for a total of ten films together, including Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, which Matthau had played in on Broadway and the 1993 comeback success Grumpy Old Men.
Other notable 1966 comedies- The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming is a cold war goof with a little of the spirit of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Mouse that Roared, starring Alan Arkin and Carl Reiner. I got a very strong recommendation for Cary Grant’s last film Walk, Don’t Run, but try as I might, I could not find a copy.
1967 – How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is another one of those deceptively charming musicals of the era that features main characters with less than pristine motivations or methods. In this case, we’re talking about J. Pierpont Finch, a backstabbing sycophant intent on quickly rising up the ranks of middle management in a Manhattan high-rise company called World-Wide Wickets (what do they make? Wickets, I guess). Finch is played by a charmingly smarmy kid with a face like a jack-o-lantern, Robert Morse. Morse can currently be seen as the senior partner of Sterling, Cooper & Partners on AMC’s Mad Men. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when Morse first showed up on Mad Men, it looked like stunt casting to me. There aren’t many actors with a more immediate connection to the underbelly of 1960’s business culture. While there is plenty to recommend about H2$, the absolutely unhinged performance which Morse brought from the stage to the screen is chief amongst them. He does truly bizarre things which the camera only really catches about half the time. This is almost certainly due to his lack of understanding about how to shoot a movie at the time, but somehow it only heightens the delight of watching him do his thing.
Other notable 1967 comedies- Bedazzled is far superior to the Brendan Frasier remake, but still not as great as its own reputation. I will recommend it for a couple of very funny scenes, and for one of the most black-hearted endings I’ve ever seen in a comedy. If I was naming the best film of 1967, The Graduate might fit the bill, but I have to say that I was shocked to see so many people listing it as a comedy. Meanwhile, Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park starts out strong, but loses me about halfway through.
1968 – The Producers
Mel Brook’s directorial debut, The Producers, is quite simply one of the funniest movies ever made, boasting bravura comic performances by (above) Zero Mostel, Kenneth Mars, and Gene Wilder. For the uninitiated, the plot centers on a down on his luck theatre producer who pairs with his meek accountant to defraud investors by putting up a sure-fire flop, the Nazi propaganda musical “Springtime for Hitler.” Although many early reviews reacted to The Producers with the same revulsion as the audience is supposed to reserve for Franz Liebkind’s ode to the Fuhrer, the sheer energy and force of etiquette-busting and the sense that you are seeing on screen the intersection between traditional borscht belt humor and modern transgressive comedy have made it an indispensable piece of the history of American funny. Not even a badly out of date psychedelic Warhol turn by Dick Shawn can dampen proceedings, as hilarious set piece after set piece drops on our heads like they’re falling off a relentlessly bizarre conveyor belt. This is what we want out of comedy. Jokes. Lots of jokes.
Other notable 1968 comedies- Unlike other Neil Simon scripts, The Odd Couple is engaging and humorous from start to finish, with two of the great comedy stars of the time giving great performances. In most other years, it would’ve taken the prize. The Peter Sellers vehicle The Party is a very funny take on 1960s culture and will provide some good laughs.
1969 – Cactus Flower
Since he’s a big fan of Ingrid Bergman, I’ll be interested to hear Lebeau’s take on this one. For any fan of cinema, it’s hard to get the image of a young Bergman out of your mind. But leave no doubt, despite sharing the screen with the “it” girl of that particular moment, Bergman delivers one of her most wonderfully nuanced and empathetic performances in this fun little rom com. The fact that she and a young Goldie Hawn are fussing over Walter Matthau is a little hard to swallow, but the guy is one of the sharpest comedic actors I’ve ever seen, and he manages to make it work. For anyone who had the misfortune to see the Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston flick Just Go with It first, the premise will be familiar. A medical professional enlists his long-suffering receptionist to play the estranged wife his current love interest insists on meeting. Don’t let the missed opportunity of that movie chase you off of this one. Screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond and the expert cast have elevated what could have otherwise been a terribly tired story. Hawn’s Oscar win has been one of those which some observers have scoffed at. I am not one of those scoffing. Her remarkably immediate, expressive, and honest performance gives the movie an energy it just can’t do without. That said, check out the topper line on this scene.
Other notable 1969 comedies- Take the Money and Run This was a very close call, and on a different day, I might have chosen this early wacky Woody Allen picture with plenty of great gags. I’ll also recommend Putney Swope, not because it’s particularly funny, but because it is such an interesting document of its time with a fantastic premise. It has to be seen to be believed.
So that’s the 60’s-
I found them to be a mixed bag. There are comedic masterpieces here, but there was also a lot of terrible mediocrity. Instead of trying to wrap this series up here, I plan on doing a full ranking of the films I’ve named, with a “Mendoza line” below which the listed comedies are Not great, but maybe just decent or good. Some simple math should reflect about how many great comedies can be expected in any given year, with the statistically significant sample of about 55 years worth of funny pictures. It’s not a high number.