Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Comedies - Jason Hyde ""

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Favorite Underrated Comedies - Jason Hyde

Jason Hyde is a film lover of the highest order. It was he who first suggested years ago that I check out the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes films, starting with THE SCARLET CLAW(which I finally saw last year and loved: He is a man whose cinematic tastes are certainly to be trusted.



THE CHASER (1928; Harry Langdon)
Harry Langdon should have been allowed to direct more films. As it is, he only managed three, and one of them (HEART TROUBLE) vanished before anybody even got to see the thing. Both surviving films are still sadly overlooked. THREE'S A CROWD was Langdon's attempt at Chaplinesque pathos that somehow ended up bleaker than most people were probably ready for in 1928. THE CHASER's just as odd and visually striking as THREE'S A CROWD, but much funnier. In it, Langdon plays a carousing husband whose wife takes him to divorce court, but the judge instead decides that husband and wife should switch roles in a decision that I'm guessing doesn't have a lot of legal precedent backing it up. So in no time at all, Harry's wearing a dress and trying to avoid the unwelcome advances of every deliveryman who comes to the house until he gets fed up and tries to commit suicide. I know this probably doesn't sound funny, but it really is. In the end, THE CHASER didn't do any better at the box office than THREE'S A CROWD, and Harry was finished as a director. Langdon kept working in shorts and supporting parts (he's brilliant in the Al Jolson film HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM) and did some top notch gag-writing for Laurel and Hardy, but never got behind the camera again, which is really a shame. I wish there were more movies like this.

MOVIE CRAZY (1932; Clyde Bruckman)
Harold Lloyd's sound films don't get nearly enough attention these days. They were generally well-received in their day, but have kind of fallen off everybody's radar since then. But I've yet to see a Lloyd talkie that I didn't love. Even the much-maligned MAD WEDNESDAY or THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK or whatever you want to call it is pretty funny. MOVIE CRAZY is the best of the Lloyd talkes that I've seen so far, although I still haven't caught up with THE CAT'S-PAW, which sounds very strange. Lloyd probably made the transition to sound more naturally than any other silent comedian. Where his silent films were famous for their stunts and elaborate physical gags, the physical gags in MOVIE CRAZY are much smaller in scale, but just as impeccably timed and executed. It helps that Lloyd's a terrific actor as well in the dialogue-driven scenes. And Constance Cummings was never better than she is in this film. There really isn't a single moment of MOVIE CRAZY that isn't absolutely perfect.

SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937; William C. McGann)
Movies don't come much crazier than this. I'm naturally inclined to love all of those Old Dark House comedies that were seemingly cranked out at a rate of about one per week in the '30s, but SH! THE OCTOPUS really goes the extra distance to stand out even within an already crazy genre. Allen Jenkins and Hugh Herbert star as a pair of dim-witted detectives stranded in an old dark lighthouse with a cast of eccentric characters, none of whom are what they seem. Also, there's a master criminal called The Octopus who's after a deadly new radium ray. And apparently a real live octopus with tentacles and everything that may be working for The Octopus, but it's not really clear because this movie makes no sense whatsoever until its final scene, and even then it's still pretty insane. I'm a big fan of Allen Jenkins these days after seeing him in Michael Curtiz's Perry Mason mystery THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, and I have to admit that I've always thought Hugh Herbert was pretty funny. I know this is not a popular opinion, but I think he's funny in THE BLACK CAT, I think he's funny in this, and I'm sure he's funny in other movies that I haven't seen yet. And I'm pretty sure that the exterior shot of the lighthouse was re-used by Raoul Walsh in THE ROARING TWENTIES.


THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963; Jacques Tourneur)
Lists of great comedy teams don't usually include Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, but maybe they should. THE RAVEN may be better remembered, but I'll always go to bat for their lesser-known team-up, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS. For starters, the humor's a bit blacker in this film thanks to Richard Matheson's witty screenplay. Price and Lorre essentially reverse their roles from THE RAVEN this time, with Lorre playing more of a meek straight man and Price tearing loose as the drunken lout. It's probably Price's nastiest character ever and he plays it to the hilt. Boris Karloff is great as Price's absent-minded father-in-law, but the biggest surprise here is Basil Rathbone. Not exactly known for his comic chops, Rathbone nearly steals the film away from his capable co-stars as Price's Shakespeare-quoting landlord who just won't stay dead. He manages to be incredibly funny and kind of scary at the same time. There's also a Joe E. Brown cameo, and it's all directed with style by the great Jacques Tourneur, who also wasn't exactly known for comedy.


DRAGNET (1987; Tom Mankiewicz)
I'm not sure exactly what the critical consensus on Dan Aykroyd is right now, but if it doesn't accept that the man was crazy funny back in the '80s, then the critical consensus needs to get its act together. Exhibit A: His perfect parody of Jack Webb's no-nonsense, straight-arrow cop Joe Friday in this spoof of the greatest of all cop shows. Every classic piece of the show is lovingly mocked here, from 'This is the city' intro to stentorian voice reading off the criminal's sentence outro. Tom Hanks in pre-serious actor funny guy mode plays Friday's hip new partner Pep Streebek, and he's funny enough, but this is Aykroyd's show from start to finish, and he doesn't disappoint. Also on hand are Dabney Coleman playing a sleazy jerk, which is pretty much how he spent the '80s, and Christopher Plummer (really, Christopher Plummer!) as a televangelist who's secretly the head of P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness And Normalcy). Harry Morgan even reprises his role as Bill Gannon from the '60s version. There's so much good stuff in here that it's easy to overlook the fact that it all goes a bit overboard with the buddy-cop action/comedy stuff. But every time Aykroyd opens his mouth to rattle off some regulations or deliver a stern talking-to, all is forgiven, at least until he and Hanks start rapping badly over the end credits.


Robert M. Lindsey said...

Great list! I've added The Chaser, Movie Crazy, and Comedy of Terrors to my must-watch list.

Hal said...

Great list, and list of underrated talents as well from back in the day.
SH! THE OCTOPUS is really wild. And not a moment wasted either. Hugh Herbert was also very funny in a very un-PC part in DIPLOMANIACS.

I think DRAGNET probably suffers from the fact that the 60's revival was already seen as a much-loved unintentional comedy long before Aykroyd spoofed it. It was like spoofing a spoof at that point.