Great film comics help us live with ourselves

Director Preston Sturges’s classic comic testimonial ‘‘Sullivan’s Travels’’ (1941) starred Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. Director Preston Sturges’s classic comic testimonial ‘‘Sullivan’s Travels’’ (1941) starred Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. (PARAMOUNT PICTURES)
By James Sullivan
September 14, 2010

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Film comedy, Woody Allen once claimed, is harder to produce than drama. Still, the perpetually unsatisfied director was convinced that comedy is “less valuable than serious stuff.’’

In “Another Fine Mess,’’ a survey of the most significant artists — yes, artists — to make us laugh at the movies, from Charlie Chaplin to Will Ferrell, writer and critic Saul Austerlitz takes rigorous exception to Allen’s line of thinking. Addressing sexual, racial, economic, or political tensions, comedy has always helped its audience sort through the vagaries of the way we live now. Slapstick, screwball or spoof, comedy serves a function.

“We turn to drama to experience a heightened version of the world as we know it — life, puffed up,’’ writes the author. “Comedy releases all that hot air; our laughter is a bemused acknowledgment of our own collective foibles and inadequacies.’’

Perilously, Austerlitz set for himself the task of identifying the 30 most representative comic figures in Hollywood history. Many are obvious — Chaplin, Allen, the Marx Brothers, Peter Sellers. Others, such as Dustin Hoffman, a dramatic actor who has done lots of comedies, or Judd Apatow, the director of a recent spate of ribald, dude-centric cash cows, might need a little splainin’.

But the writer, who contributes occasionally to the Boston Globe, and whose first book was a history of the music video, makes his case as deftly as Groucho lanced metaphorical balloons. W.C. Fields, the master of the withering aside, was in his early silent-film appearances “a juggler performing with one hand tied behind his back,’’ the critic observes. And if Preston Sturges, director of the classic comic testimonial “Sullivan’s Travels,’’ gave frequent leading man Joel McCrea the power to bend “the world to his will,’’ McCrea’s successor, the “pint-sized neurotic’’ Eddie Bracken, “could hardly convince his own extremities to comply.’’

Austerlitz notes that his biographical chapters are intended to create a conversation among comedy’s most influential practitioners. Arranged in rough chronological order, the effect is cumulative. Mae West’s brazen sexuality primps the pillow for Marilyn Monroe’s bombshell self-awareness; unlikely bedfellows Jerry Lewis and Richard Pryor somehow manage to conceive Eddie Murphy.

Austerlitz has his biases. Murphy, for one, has been unfairly dismissed. The much-maligned Doris Day “is ripe for reinvention as a proto-feminist role model,’’ he argues. And Mel Brooks, the zany shpritzer behind such broad-as-a-barn burlesques as “The Producers,’’ “Blazing Saddles,’’ and “Spaceballs,’’ “is overrated,’’ Austerlitz writes. “There — I’ve said it.’’

The author would not be the first to linger over the genius of Chaplin’s beloved Tramp, or the directors Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, or Cary Grant’s canny subversion of his own good looks. “If Mount Rushmore were dedicated to comedians instead of statesmen,’’ he suggests, “Grant would have found himself climbing across his own face in ‘North By Northwest.’ ’’

But Austerlitz has plenty of fresh opinions, too. The unshakably taciturn Bill Murray, for instance, “was the ideal comic hero for a generation raised on dreams of rebellion but too unmotivated to rebel themselves.’’

A 100-page coda features short entries, a la David Thomson’s “Biographical Dictionary of Film,’’ on a wide-ranging underclass of comic notables from Abbott and Costello to Renée Zellweger, with Bugs Bunny, Cheech and Chong, and John Waters mingling in. If the author fails to mention the washed-up vaudevillians of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,’’ well, the joke’s on them.

“Nothing is deader than what once made us laugh, and can no longer,’’ Austerlitz writes about the shameful stereotypes that sometimes marred Hollywood’s early years. By contrast, he implies throughout, timeless comedy is one of the true wonders of the world.

Whether “Zoolander’’ or “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby’’ endures like, say, Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be’’ remains to be seen. But this author’s enthusiasm for his subject — from the ridiculous to the sublime, sometimes all at once — makes this “Fine Mess’’ a keeper.

James Sullivan, author of “Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin,’’ can be reached at

ANOTHER FINE MESS: A History of American Film Comedy By Saul Austerlitz Chicago Review, 512 pp., $24.95