There’s nothing worse than revisiting one of your favorite comedies from the past, a movie that’s brought you nothing but joy and laughter time and time again, only to realize in the cold light of adulthood…it kind of sucks. Have you changed so much over the years? Have you lost some spark of innocence and levity that once burned bright within? Or is it the movie that’s changed? Maybe that super questionable joke or character or premise isn’t holding up like it once did? Who were you to ever laugh at these things? Why did you ever like this???
Well, thanks to FilmStruck, you don’t have to worry about answering any of these questions. These timeless comedies, available to stream now, not only hold up, but have gotten even better with age. Let go of the fear and rediscover some of your old favorites.
“City Lights” (1931) — Watch Now on FilmStruck
When Chaplin made “City Lights” in 1931, it was three years since the advent of sound had taken over Hollywood. Chaplin thought “talkies” were a fad and despite some sound effects and musical synchronizing, he ignored studio objections and made “City Lights” as a silent picture. The resulting film is widely regarded as Chaplin’s best.
In this wonderfully simple and sentimental story, Chaplin’s Little Tramp strikes up a dysfunctional friendship with an alcoholic millionaire, whose riches (and general drunkenness) he exploits to impress a blind girl he’s fallen in love with. “City Lights” is chock full of iconic visual gags (the boxing match, oh the boxing match) that remain as funny and awe-inspiring as they did eighty-seven years ago. But what makes “City Lights” so enduring is how well those gags fill out a bittersweet love story that culminates into one of the all-time great Hollywood endings. “City Lights” may have marked the end of the silent era, but it ended it on a perfect grace note.
“His Girl Friday” (1940) — Watch Now on FilmStruck
When newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) finds out his ex-wife and star reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is getting remarried, he tries to lure her back into his newsroom – and his life – with a story too good to pass up. Although Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play “The Front Page” had already been adapted once before for the screen, director Howard Hawks made one crucial change in his version – that Hildy be a woman. But other than the ex-wife angle, much of the snappy dialogue from the play remains untouched, resulting in Russell having an absolute blast in a role that at the time was all too rare for women in Hollywood – assured, funny, and smart as hell. The chemistry between her and Grant is electric, and the way they tear through their breakneck dialogue is downright athletic.
Look, you’ve probably already seen “His Girl Friday.” But watch it again and revel in just how perfect a piece of comedy it remains today.
“To Be or Not To Be” (1942) — Watch Now on FilmStruck
Upon its release in 1942, Ernst Lubitsch’s Nazi-spoofing wartime comedy “To Be or Not to Be” was considered so offensive by some that even star Jack Benny’s father walked out during the first screening he attended, disgusted. Indeed, the film – about a theater company in Poland who must use their theatrical skills to foil the Nazis – is still rather shocking today. Murder, infidelity, and fascism are all given the Lubitsch screwball treatment, and considering that it was made just as the U.S. was entering World War II, the movie often feels as dangerous as it does funny. Think “Noises Off” meets “Inglorious Basterds.”
Tragically, “To Be or Not to Be” was the final role of its leading lady, Carole Lombard, who, at 33, died in a plane crash before the film was released. It’s an iconic performance from one of Hollywood’s best comedic actresses in one of Hollywood’s most daring comedies – one Jack Benny’s father learned to love and saw 46 times in theaters.
From “A Face in the Crowd” to “The Andy Griffith Show” to “Matlock” – the whole of Andy Griffith’s remarkable career could be summed up in two simple words: “Aw” and “shucks.” No one did folksy like Andy. But he takes that golly-gee persona to poetic levels in “No Time for Sergeants,” the smash comedy based on Ira Levin’s hit Broadway play (which itself was based on a popular novel).
When wide-eyed country bumpkin Will Stockdale (Griffith) gets drafted into the Air Force his severe literal-mindedness and oblivious charm make him a headache and hero in equal measure. Like a proto-Forrest Gump, Stockdale barrels blindly through danger with a smile on his face, always managing to come through just fine – often to the horror of others, including a hyperventilating Don Knotts in a fortuitous screen debut alongside his future Mayberry pal.
“Sergeants” is something of a precursor to sweet rag-tag military comedies like “Stripes” and “Private Benjamin” – moving episodically as its fish out of water hero navigates training, butts heads with his superior officer, and then finally gets a taste of action. It makes sense that the book-play-film then got turned into a TV show — “No Time for Sergeants” works, not as a towering achievement in cinema, but as an old-fashioned, unpretentious, aw shucks blast.
“My Favorite Year” (1982) — Watch Now on FilmStruck
Peter O’Toole was Oscar-nominated for his role as Alan Swann, a washed up movie star scheduled to make an appearance on a TV variety show – if he can stay sober long enough to show up. Swann is modeled after producer Mel Brooks’ experiences with Errol Flynn while working on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” but O’Toole could have just as easily been playing himself, which is perhaps why he’s so effortless in the role. Less effortless is the movie around him, which sometimes veers hard into sub-Neil Simon slapstick and sentiment. Actor-turned-director Richard Benjamin (who went on to direct VHS classics like “The Money Pit” and “Mermaids”) doesn’t have the comedic finesse of, say, Mel Brooks, and the supporting cast (which includes a pre-“Perfect Strangers” Mark Linn-Baker as Brooks’ surrogate) often seem like they’re acting for a laugh track that never arrives. But despite these hiccups, “My Favorite Year” remains a wonderfully endearing and much beloved comedy, thanks almost entirely to O’Toole, who rides off with the movie on a stolen police horse right through Central Park.
“Local Hero” (1983) — Watch Now on FilmStruck
Movies don’t get much more charming than “Local Hero,” Bill Forsyth’s low-key comedy about an oil company rep (a delightfully deadpan Peter Riegert) who’s sent to a small seaside Scottish village by his eccentric billionaire boss (Burt Lancaster) to try and purchase the town and surrounding property from the locals. Forsyth fills this fictional small town with colorful characters and an overall appeal that often verges on magical. It’s a comedy not so much filled with jokes, but rather small moments of delight that grow funnier and funnier the more you get to know and love the people onscreen.
With gorgeous cinematography by Chris Menges and a perfect soundtrack by Mark Knopfler (who began playing his popular theme from the film during encores at Dire Straits shows) “Local Hero” is a true cult comedy, where the experience of watching it is similar to the experience of its main character – the more time you spend with it, the less you want to be released from its charms.