Here’s Another Fine Mess is a history of U.S. film comedy from Charlie Chaplin to Renee Zellweger, 100 profiles in 475 pages, including John Wayne.
Books that try to explain why comedy is funny are never funny. They almost never answer their own question. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Comedian Jack Paar once said, “Who cares?”
Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy by Saul Austerlitz demonstrates all those points, but it might make a good textbook in a film school. It says a little bit about practically everybody, and a little more about artists, trends, and events who transformed the medium.
Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd
Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp, Buster Keaton’s stone face, and Harold Lloyd’s “glasses guy” were the first film comedians with emotional depth. As their characters evolved, and grew new potential for stories, the three expanded from the short subject to the two-reeler to the feature.
Before they came, film comedy was sight gags, pratfalls, and chases. All three started there, and never completely abandoned it.
But they also made audiences sympathize, empathize, and root for the underdog.. They fought bullies, fell in love, were rejected, and attacked social conventions.
Chaplin, along with his physical comedy, delved farthest into pathos, bathos, and satire — a combination no one since has ever equaled, Austerllitz says. Modern Times, The Great Dictator, The Gold Rush, and The Little Blind Girl push the boundaries of comic drama farther, and in more different directions, than any actor or director (he was both) before or since, Austerlitz says.
Keaton designed his own stunts and performed them himself without trick photography. They became more and more dangerous as he went along, involving moving trains, racing vehicles, and a two-ton side of a house that collapses and leaves him sitting stone faced in the window hole with just inches to spare on all sides.
Lloyd, who referred to his character as “the glasses guy” could walk through crowded streets in midtown Manhattan without his glasses and straw hat, and hot be recognized. He plays the totally unremarkable, anonymous office worker whose desk is like everyone else’s in a giant room in a giant office building. He looks for connection and meaning with very mixed results, and sometimes finds himself hanging from the hands of a giant clock at the top of a skyscraper, dodging streetcars, and getting mowed down by crowds crossing an urban intersection.
Laurel and Hardy and The Marx Brothers
By 1927, film comedy had done everything but talk. Technology made that possible by the end of the 1920′s, and Hollywood studios began recruiting writers and actors from the stage to create wordplay as funny as the pictures.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were silent comedians who learned to talk. Their words were not that funny but were hilarious the way they said them.
The Marx Brothers, who learned their craft on the stage, were the first to create as much anarchy with their words as their physical comedy.
Groucho conned Margaret Dumont, Chico conned Groucho, and silent Harpo shattered everything from pianos to the social order.
Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturgis, and Frank Capra
These were the first comedy writer-directors who did not perform in front of the camera, whose names people knew. Each name became an adjective describing a certain style of comedy.
Their bodies of work, combined with what came before, defined film comedy from screwball comedy to sophisticated romantic comedy, to comedies of manners and situations.
Austerlitz gives Capra credit for the first screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, a zany road trip with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.
Wilder, who started as a dialogue writer for Lubitsch, kept a sign in his office, “What would Lubitsch do?” to remind him how to solve knotty film problems.
The Hays Code
From 1930 until 1960, a major influence on Hollywood comedy was the Hays Code, a form of voluntary censorship the studios adopted to head off censorship by government. Naturally, it is a major theme in Austerlitz’s book.
Without explicitly endorsing censorship, he says the code stimulated Hollywood comedians’ creativity.
Under the code, married couples could not share the same bed. Anything about sex had to be implied, not expressed. Word play had to substitute for physical contact between lovers. Much of Hollywood comedy under the code was based on the chase, and ended with marriage.
In nine “high” comedies, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn start out as adversaries and come together in the end. Lower down on the spectrum. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby leer at and compete for Dorothy Lamour.
Virginal, sexless Doris Day thaws out for male chauvinist scoundrels like Clark Gable and Rock Hudson, and they come to respect her. She always chooses the scoundrel over a straight, totally upright suitor who is much more like the man she says she wants, Tony Randall or Gig Young.
His Girl Friday
Twenty years earlier, Ralph Bellamy made his living playing the upright, good looking, slow-witted suitor. The best example is His Girl Friday, where Bellamy always loses to Cary Grant’s superior wit, until the equally fast, professionally successful Rosalind Russell chooses spicy wit over bland virtue.
is also an example of divorce comedy. Life with predictable, stable, stodgy Bellamy is what she thinks she wants, what every woman wants, picket fence and children, the opposite of her stormy, exciting career and marriage to ex-husband Cary Grant.
Grant keeps coming up with schemes to keep Russell from getting on the train with Bellamy.
In the end, Russell chooses her stimulating scoundrel over her boring suitor.
The Philadelphia Story
Another great example of divorce comedy, according to Austerlitz, is The Philadelphia Story, where the charming, witty Grant tries to win back brilliant ex-wife Katherine Hepburn on the eve of her wedding to another virtuous stiff.
Austerlitz credits the Hays Code for creating divorce comedy. Since the lovers used to be married, he says, the audience assumes they had a sexual relationship in the past. So the movie does not have to say that the ex-husband is so much sexier than the man she’s about to marry.
Some Like It Hot
Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, where cross-dressing Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon snuggle up in a small train compartment with Marilyn Monroe, is the code’s broadest, possibly final challenge, Austerliz says, especially with the outright suggestion of a homosexual marriage between Lemmon and Joe E. Brown.
Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwick, Eve Arden, etc., etc.
The book barely mentions the great women of film comedy: Jean Harlow, .Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwick, Eve Arden, etc., etc. It’s a fatal, inexplicable omission in the 21st Century.
The book becomes frustrating and hard to read when Austerlitz compares well-known classics to movies only historians like Austerlitz remember. That’s why the book belongs in a film school, not the home of an ordinary film fan.
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.