Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Comedies - William Garver ""

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Favorite Underrated Comedies - William Garver

William T. Garver or “garv” is a soused cinema enthusiast whose website, Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide, chronicles the role alcohol has played in film from the silent era to the present day.

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The Old Fashioned Way (1934)
W.C. Fields was the funniest man to ever stagger in front of a movie camera, but most of the under-forty set are unacquainted with the Great Man’s films. Any one of his pictures could be considered underrated, but The Old Fashioned Way is the title most deserving of that distinction. While film scholars deservedly laud the comedies in which the Fields played a henpecked family man (It’s a Gift, The Man on the Flying Trapeze, and The Bank Dick), they rarely mention the movies in which he played variations on the persona for which he is most remembered – that of an itinerant con man. The Old Fashioned Way is the best of W.C.’s huckster comedies. It features Fields as “The Great” McGonigle, the leader of a fourth-rate theater company, who leaves a trail of poor reviews, unpaid bills, and arrest warrants in his wake. Admirers of the Great Man should consider The Old Fashioned Way essential viewing. Not only does it feature the supreme clash of wills between the comedian and adorable brat Baby LeRoy; it is also the only time that W.C. performed a portion of his legendary stage juggling act on screen. While the movie can’t be purchased on its own, it can be obtained as a part of the DVD box set, The W.C. Fields Comedy Collection Vol.2 (Universal).

Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934)
The work of early sound comedians Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey was long out of circulation and is only now being rediscovered by a new generation of film fans. Unfortunately, their best film, Cockeyed Cavaliers, is still fairly forgotten today, as it continues to be unavailable on home video (although a MOD release is expected eventually from the Warner Archive). This period costume comedy sets Bert and Bob as traveling miscreants in 17th Century England. Running afoul of the law due to Bert’s kleptomania, the boys pose as the king’s physicians and find lodging with an ailing Duke (Robert Greig). Along the way, Bert falls for Mary Ann (Wheeler & Woolsey regular Dorothy Lee), the Duke’s runaway fiancé and Bob woos the Duke’s niece (Thelma Todd) who is married to a bullying, boar-hunting baron (Noah Berry). With better-than-average jokes, catchy song and dance numbers, and higher production values than generally seen in a W&W vehicle, Cockeyed Cavaliers is an all-around charmer.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
Writer-director Preston Sturges was the greatest comedy mind of the 1940’s. While Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and The Lady Eve (1941) are regularly singled out as the standouts of Sturges’ most fertile period, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was the director’s biggest hit and his most constantly hilarious film. Betty Hutton stars as Trudy Kockenlocker, a man-crazy teen who defies her father’s wishes to attend a party to see the soldiers off to war. A blow to the head causes Trudy to forget much of the evening; but as days pass, she comes to realize that she was secretly married (though to whom she’s not sure). Worse yet, she has a bun in the oven. What’s a small-town girl to do but to convince a 4-F sad sack (Eddie Bracken) to marry her to cover up the predicament? The studio held back the release of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek for over a year, fearing the censor’s wrath over the depiction of unplanned pregnancy, potential bigamy, and the “miracle” of the title, which amounts to a veiled satire of the nativity story. In the end, the movie was so joyous, funny, and big-hearted that no one much cared about the alleged indecent content. Like all of Sturges’ screwball comedies, the film features memorable support from a cadre of character actors including William Demarest, who performs a few of the most amazing pratfalls ever committed to celluloid. Sturges’ fans will also recognize Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff, who briefly reprise their roles from The Great McGinty (1940). The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is as audacious and hilarious today as it was seventy years ago. A very nice print is available on DVD from Paramount.

The Wrong Box (1966)
Easily the best tontine comedy ever made, The Wrong Box is a showpiece for the crème de la crème of British comedy talent of the 1960’s. Based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, this Victorian flavored farce features Ralph Richardson and John Mills as the oldest surviving members of a tontine, a weird wager/insurance policy in which a dozen families put up a tidy sum in the names of their offspring. By the rules of the legal agreement, the last living member of the children eventually receives all of the principal and the interest from the policy. Of course, this kind of thing encourages foul play, so Richardson’s two greedy nephews (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) try to rig the game, while Mills’ son (Michael Caine) falls in love with Richardson’s niece (Nanette Newman). With colorful supporting work by Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, and Wilfrid Lawson (in the scene-stealing role of Peacock, the aged butler), The Wrong Box deserves a bigger audience in the U.S. It can be obtained as a MOD disc from Sony.

The Magic Christian (1969)
Derided by most critics as an incomprehensible mess, The Magic Christian is in reality a comprehensible mess, and a very funny one. The film, co-written by Terry Southern and Joseph McGrath with additional material by Peter Sellers, John Cleese, and Graham Chapman, tells the story of multimillionaire Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) and his adopted son (Ringo Starr) as they strive to take down the stuffy, hallowed traditions of English society through bribery and dirty tricks. This psychedelic, anti-establishment comedy leaves no sacred cow un-tipped, as Sellers and Starr wreak havoc of posh restaurants, pheasant hunts, Shakespearean productions, boxing matches, and a luxury ocean cruise. The highlight of the film is the Cleese- and Chapman-scripted Crufts’ Dog Show scene, which plays very much like an early Monty Python sketch. While Dr. Strangelove is Peter Sellers’ best film, The Magic Christian may capture his Goon-ish sense of humor better than any other. A new release of The Magic Christian is scheduled on blu-ray from Olive Films in May.

Cold Turkey (1971)
Television comedy mogul Norman Lear wrote and directed this scathing satire of the tobacco industry, small-town hypocrisy, and media obsessiveness. When a tobacco company pulls a publicity stunt offering twenty-five million dollars to any American town that can quit smoking for 30 days, Reverend Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke) convinces his flock to take them up on the deal. Hilarity ensues as nerves frazzle, the national media descends on the community, and a tobacco company exec (Bob Newhart) tries to torpedo the town’s chances. Surprisingly dark for a comedy featuring Van Dyke and Newhart, the film also boasts excellent work from a company of familiar faces from TV including Vincent Gardenia, Barnard Hughes, Jean Stapleton, and Tom Poston, as well as a rare movie appearance from radio’s Bob and Ray. It is now available as an MOD disc from MGM.

The Wrong Guy (1997)
This Canadian burlesque of Alfred Hitchcock “wrong man” thrillers never received a theatrical release in the United States, despite being much funnier than most comedies that premiered around the same time. Co-starring and co-written by The Kids in the Hall’s David Foley and Malcolm in the Middle’s David Anthony Higgins, The Wrong Guy centers on Nelson Hibbert (Foley), a dunderheaded businessman who publicly threatens his boss after losing out on a promotion. Shortly thereafter, Nelson discovers the body of his murdered employer, and he assumes he will be blamed. In the tradition of North by Northwest, Nelson takes it on the lam, covered in his boss’ blood. The twist is that no one is actually chasing him. While on the run, Nelson regularly crosses paths with the real killer, who believes Nelson to be a super-cop that is doggedly pursuing him. Co-writer Higgins appears as the police detective assigned to the case, and Joe Flaherty, Jennifer Tilly, and Kevin McDonald also lend comic support. If you like the silly early Steve Martin comedies like The Jerk and The Man With Two Brains, you’ll enjoy this too. It’s available on DVD from Disney.

The Living Wake (2007)
This bizarre indie comedy stars Mike O’Connell as K. Roth Binew, a self-proclaimed artist and dedicated drunkard, who is dying of a yet-to-be-named disease that is extremely punctual. With the help of his best friend, manservant, and biographer, Mills Joaquin (Jesse Eisenberg), Binew uses his final day to visit friends, enemies, lovers, family, and the village liquorsmith, in hopes of finding the meaning of life that has thus far eluded him. During each visit, the individuals who have played a part in the short existence of the dying dipsomaniac also receive an invitation to attend Binew’s final bow--a wake to be held during the last minutes of his life. The film is uneven, twee, a tad amateurish, and at times obnoxious, but it is undeniably hilarious. Despite the relative obscurity of this comedy, you can find it fairly easily on DVD and video-on-demand.

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