Saturday, December 04, 2004

I Wanna Make the World Laugh

The March 1 DVD releases I mentioned below actually turn out to be only two of six classic comedies that WB home video is releasing on that day; there will also be single-disc DVD releases of Stage Door, Dinner at Eight, Libeled Lady and, best of all, Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not to Be. As usual with WB's "themed" releases, all six movies will be available separately or in a boxed set.

I love movie comedy -- most of the DVDs that I buy, as opposed to just renting, are of comedies, because those are usually the movies that I can enjoy watching over and over -- and I would say that movie comedy is the greatest achievement of Old Hollywood. There are many genres that, in my opinion, achieved their "golden age" in other eras, or other countries; I think Westerns generally got better after the studio system collapsed, and European movies went deeper into serious drama than Hollywood usually could. But when it comes to great feature-length comedies, it's hard to beat the quantity and quality of the work produced in the '20s, '30s, and '40s. (This is even more apparent if you count musicals as comedies.)

Hollywood's mastery of film comedy is more impressive when you consider that, by rights, movie comedy shouldn't even work. Comedy performance is based on the interplay of performer and audience: the performer times his actions and line delivery to the audience's response, and that response -- laughter -- is not only part of the timing and pacing of the comedy, it's part of the standard by which we judge the success of a comedy. Dramatic actors "work" the audience too, but they can transfer their performances to the screen more easily because they don't depend on an audible response from a live audience. But why should someone like Groucho Marx or W.C. Fields be successful in a format where the only audience is the crew, and they're not allowed to laugh? How do you know if something's funny when there's no audience to tell you so? And then there's pacing, which is so vital to sustaining an evening-length comedy; how do you create a sense of forward momentum, of keeping everything moving, when you're shooting the scenes out of sequence? There's so much going against movie comedy that it could have wound up as one of those things that just didn't work in cinema format, like opera or ballet. Instead, the cinema became the perfect medium for many of the greatest comedy performers in the world. In some ways the pioneers of movie comedy, Mack Sennett and such, are the most impressive of all cinema pioneers, because they helped create a whole new set of rules for timing, pacing, and gag construction -- and by doing so, they made cinema a vehicle for comedy performance, something that, again, isn't obviously appropriate for the screen.

Another thing about comedy, as I've said in an earlier post, is that it tends to drive away control-freak directors -- directors who want to put their stamp on every aspect of the picture. Comedy often requires the director to surrender part of his autonomy to the performer; the great comedy performers will be doing their own things, creating their own characters and bits of business, rather than doing only what the director says. I think that may be why a lot of directors stop making comedies once they get very famous and renowned; think of Bergman (if you must) or Fellini or George Stevens. Major directors who keep making comedies as they get older tend to be the looser, more improvisational directors who don't mind letting the actors have free rein in some scenes: Renoir, or Hawks, or possibly Robert Altman. There are exceptions, of course; Lubitsch, the dean of comedy directors, was a control freak who coached his actors in every movement, every gesture, so that every actor in his movies affects a recognizably "Lubitsch" style of line delivery, hand gestures, and so on. But in general, I think great movie comedies are freer, less controlled and micromanaged, than any other kind of movie. Which may be one of the reasons I like them so much.

One more point about comedy: some studios just never seemed to get the hang of it. Of the six comedies in WB's upcoming box set, not one is from Warner Brothers (three are from MGM, two from RKO, and one made independently). That studio was the best when it came to gangster movies, swashbucklers, and soap operas, but they made very few great or even particularly good comedies. Somehow it seemed they didn't have the right directors or actors for the genre; they were so low on good comedy stars that they sometimes put Bette Davis in comedies, which is like casting W.C. Fields in Now, Voyager. MGM, whose output was pretty bland for most of the '30s and '40s, tended to do a bit better with comedy -- Libeled Lady, A Night at the Opera, The Shop Around the Corner, and others. But the real action, comedy-wise, was at RKO, or Columbia -- which didn't make many great movies in any genre except comedy -- or Paramount, home of Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields.

Given the fact that WB did so well with violent movies and not so well with comedies, I guess they're proof of the adage that dying is easy, but comedy is hard.

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