by Christopher Campbell
The other day I took in a triple feature consisting of the following very different films: Shane Meadows’ Somers Town; the political farce In the Loop; and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Two things each of these films did share are they all come from the UK (the last is a co-production at least) and they all were more naturally funny than Funny People, which I watched the next day.
I’m not sure if it’s my inherent Anglophilia that causes me to appreciate the humor of Jim Broadbent in a fantasy blockbuster more than Seth Rogen or Adam Sandler in the latest from the reigning king of American comedy, but I did realize that I should probably be watching more British cinema, much of which is humorous whether labeled comedy or not, and less Hollywood comedies, most of which tend to be overwritten and forced nowadays.
This isn’t to say I’m going to turn all blueblood snob and ignore the domestic stuff. I still enjoyed Funny People for the bittersweet tale(s) that it is, and I’ll continue loving Keaton more than Chaplin and the Marx Brothers more than any comedy group that has or will ever come out of Great Britain. However, I am looking to expand on my so-far limited familiarity with British comedy, which barely extends further than the must-see bunch listed below. So please leave a comment with any other recommendations you have for myself and anyone else interested.
Blithe Spirit (David Lean, 1945)
Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s play about a man (Rex Harrison) haunted by the ghost of his first wife (Kay Hammond) is a supernatural twist on the American screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (which have their roots in Shakespeare, so we can’t completely credit the U.S. for inspiring this film’s plot). That and the fact that it has spawned a number of awful copycats, most recently the Paul Rudd mistake Over Her Dead Body, makes Blithe Spirit a hard sell to young cinephiles, who might wonder how this is necessary, rather than redundant/obsolete, viewing. Besides proving that comedies can and should employ great-looking cinematography (Funny People somewhat does this, too), this film’s witty dialogue and scene-stealing performance from Margaret Rutherford as the eccentric medium maintain that it be a staple of the genre and of British cinema.
A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)
This jewel heist caper may have been co-produced in the U.S. and feature two American costars, but coming from a script by Crichton and John Cleese, it is undeniably a British comedy more than anything else. It’s funny, though, that the film’s sole Oscar went to an American (Kevin Kline), while it’s two BAFTA wins were for the British stars (John Cleese and Michael Palin). The “equal” (rather than sequel, since it’s the same cast in different roles) follow-up, Fierce Creatures, is also worth seeing, but hardly the masterpiece that this is.
A Hard Days Night (Richard Lester, 1964)
Fans of Richard Lester might cite something less obvious and famous, but this really is his most essential film, and it’s probably his most influential. The reason for mentioning it, though, is also to recognize the significance of The Beatles to British comedy of the past 50 years. Not only were they fans, they also contributed to the successes of many comic talents. Especially important was George Harrison, whose company HandMade Films produced such British comedy classics as Life of Brian, Time Bandits and Withnail & I. As for this great musical comedy, which is forever the measuring stick for all other films starring bands as themselves, it really works thanks to Ringo, and it’s a shame it didn’t lead to a better acting career for the drummer. Unfortunately, he’s almost as remembered for appearing in awful B-movies and cheesy children’s television as he is for being one of the Fab Four.
Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949)
Everyone that recommends this classic satire of course begins by mentioning the performance(s) by Alec Guinness as eight separate characters, all members of the D’Ascoyne clan soon to be murdered off by a vengeful relative (Dennis Price). But there’s so much more to the film, and besides, Eddie Murphy may have ruined the credibility and appeal of multi-role performances for a large percentage of moviegoers anyway. “One of the ironies to the movie is its being known as a Guiness picture,” writes film historian David Thomson in Have You Seen…?, in which he recommends the movie by focusing on Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography, Hamer’s direction and subversive script cowritten by John Dighton (loosely based on a novel by Roy Horniman) and Price’s lead performance all before even mentioning Guinness.
The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955)
Another film starring Alec Guinness, who is unfortunately primarily known in the States for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars than for his brilliant comedic roles, here he plays the leader of a gang planning to rob an armored car who masquerade as a band of musicians. It’s a testament for how great British comedy is, particularly in its tendency for social context, that even the Coen Brothers couldn’t sufficiently remake this film. Like Kind Hearts, Ladykillers was produced by the legendary Ealing Studios, out of which A Fish Called Wanda director Charles Crichton also rose to fame.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, 1975)
Two of the greatest comedies of the 1970s were Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and the Monty Python troupe’s Holy Grail, both of which poke fun at their respective nations’ most defining and identifying folklore. For Saddles it’s the American west, while Grail takes on Arthurian legend, and each coincidentally ends with a reflexive abandonment of setting and — more so in Grail — plot. The best Monty Python movie is arguably Life of Brian, yet Grail is certainly the most consistently funny and it’s definitely more significant to British cinema, in that it parodies such a distinctive part of the nation’s history.
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
Like Blithe Spirit, this brilliant zombie movie owes a lot to the American screwball films, particularly the comedy of remarriage subgenre (though without an actual marriage), as well as later Hollywood romantic comedies. In fact, at its core the movie is more a parody of the romantic comedy genre than of zombie movies, as its often mistakenly labeled. The zombie subplot is merely an added obstacle and inconvenience, a la the undead invaders of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s basically His Girl Friday and Zombies, where Ralph Bellamy’s suitor role is substituted with the living dead (which may actually exhibit more personality). Wright and Simon Pegg’s script is additionally one of the richest, most layered pieces of comedic screenwriting of the past 30 years.
Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007)
After making their debut feature with the unavoidably disappointing yet still underrated adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, visionary filmmaking team Hammer & Tongs (writer-director Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith) gave us this little triumph that has been too undeservedly dismissed for being just another cute coming of age story (it also didn’t help having a plot similar to the bigger-starred Be Kind Rewind). Really, though, it’s a brilliant twist on films about rises to fame and movies set in the film industry. The funniest moment takes place during a party that’s every bit like the typical Hollywood club scene, except the coke is substituted with Pop Rocks. And as a French exchange student who becomes the star of school and an amateur sequel to First Blood, Jules Sitruk hilariously steals every scene he’s in.
Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1987)
At times very dramatic and quite frightening, Robinson’s autobiographical cult classic is first and foremost a dark farce, one of the best of its kind thanks to Richard E. Grant’s riotous performance as the alcoholic “Withnail,” who goes on a “vacation by accident” to the country with his roommate and fellow unemployed actor (Paul McGann as the titular “I”). Besides a hilarious sequence involving a chicken and the duo’s lack of culinary skill, there’s not much that’s obvious comedy, yet laughter does come with nearly every line out of Grant’s pouty potty mouth. His Withnail is like the missing link between (or middle brother to) Midnight Cowboy’s Ratzo Rizzo and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ Raoul Duke.
The Wrong Trousers (Nick Park, 1993)
They may be animated and fictional, but Wallace and Gromit are without a doubt the best comedy duo of the past 20 years. They’re both kind of each other’s straight man, with Wallace being the often oblivious and bumbling fool and his dog Gromit being his more knowing and practical foil. Gromit is also undoubtedly the most brilliant pantomime character/actor since Harpo Marx. While it’s worthwhile for W&G newbies to start at the beginning with their first short, A Grand Day Out, and while all of Park’s films (including Creature Comforts and Chicken Run in addition to the four shorts and one feature starring W&G) are must-sees, The Wrong Trousers is his funniest, if only for its introduction of “Feathers McGraw,” one of the most wonderful and hilarious animated villains ever created.