Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Comedy is serious business

Grant and Rogers in Monkey Business
Paddy wrote last week about Monkey Business, the Howard Hawks film with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers acting like little kids and monkeys running around causing all sorts of trouble. In the comments, I mentioned something that occurred to me about this Old Hollywood flick I didn't think of when I wrote about it earlier this year: the caliber of talent involved, on both sides of the camera, is way too good for a movie like this. More to the point, if it had been made today, chances are it would be strictly for the peanut gallery. It probably wouldn't be helmed by an A-level director such as Hawks, and the only way superstars like Grant and Rogers would appear is if it were animated.

This is speculative, I admit, but look at the comedies made by the superstar actors of today. Meryl Streep makes Florence Foster Jenkins, a film about a high-society dame who aspires to be an opera singer, but totally can't sing. Tom Hanks makes A Hologram for the King, based on a capital-L Literary work by a major best-selling author, Dave Eggers. George Clooney makes Hail Caesar!, a movie notable as much for its evocation of studio-era Hollywood as anything else. Sandra Bullock makes Our Brand is Crisis, a picture with strong political themes. Matt Damon makes The Informant!, a brainy satire from an acknowledged auteur director, Steven Soderbergh.

Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins
Movies like these, regardless of quality, have a patina of... class, for want of a better word, to them. They're meant to be funny, but they also have higher aspirations; usually, they're the kind made of gold or silver and are mounted on pedestals and are prominently displayed on shelves. Often, these kinds of comedies are made at smaller studios. They rarely make as much money as movies by Will Ferrell or Melissa McCarthy, "legitimate" comic actors who aren't afraid to engage in "low" humor... such as a movie with a monkey.

Is it possible that once certain actors achieve a certain level of prestige, they turn their backs on low comedy? Hanks appeared on a weekly TV series in drag and made goofy comedies like Bachelor Party and Dragnet before he started winning Oscars. Will Smith starred in an equally silly, fish-out-of-water TV show before he became Mr. Action Hero. Remember when talk show hostess Whoopi Goldberg made movies like Jumpin' Jack Flash and Burglar?

Matt Damon in The Informant!
Is it a matter of age? Grant and Rogers were 48 and 41, respectively, when they made Monkey Business. Is it a matter of changing audience tastes? A pie in the face will always be funny, whether 100 years ago or 100 years from now. (Paddy generously calls such movies art.)

I can't say this trend bothers me much; this is more of an observation than anything else. Modern movie stars will gravitate towards the kinds of films that appeal to them (and that will make money, too; let's not forget that). Voice-over work in animated films is a safe way to get in touch with their goofy side, but that's not the same thing. Ultimately, making a fool of yourself in front of a camera is an act of bravery. Not everyone can do it... but hat's off to those few who can.


  1. Grand post enlarging upon those comedy observations.

    I'm not a total snob regarding my beloved pratfalls as I do count many a witty and sophisticated comedy among my favourites. Preston Sturges had a foot in both camps and that is what made him a genius.

    Nonetheless, to this very day I get the giggles thinking about the goat dance in Dragnet. My mom, my daughter and I laughed ourselves hoarse at a matinee of Spy. Psst, don't let on, but I even have a soft spot for the Ritz Brothers.

  2. I used to watch DRAGNET whenever it came on cable when I was a kid. One day I may have to write about that film.

    Glad you brought up Sturges. You're right; he knew how to do both low and high humor, and that's one reason why his films still hold up.


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