The 20th century's top comedies to be announced at 'AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Laughs'

Monday, June 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Few sounds are more gratifying than a symphony of laughter in a movie theater. When it occurs, it erases all boundaries between audience members and turns strangers into friends.

The American Film Institute is one of the few cinema organizations to realize this fact. The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences acknowledges laff-fests only when faced with a paucity of Oscar prospects. But on Tuesday, June 13, the AFI will salute movie mirthmakers with "AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Laughs."

Late in 1999, film historians, industry members and those sourpusses known as movie critics were sent ballots to vote on the top 100 American movie comedies. The AFI listed 500 choices, and ballots were due at AFI offices on Dec. 1, 1999.

Anticipating that voters would carp about some omissions among The Filmland 500, the AFI used a ballot that allowed five write-in selections. Instructions were to rank only our top five choices, which would be used as tie-breakers if needed. We were not burdened with ranking the remaining 95, but, realizing that readers have a lust for lists, I grudgingly rank all my selections.

The AFI's embracing of comedies couldn't come at a better time. Moviegoing is on the rise - but so is home entertainment. While any moviegoer welcomes the insights and added knowledge afforded by DVD tracks, I stubbornly insist that the best place to see a movie is in a movie theater. Without a doubt, some audiences need serious lessons in moviegoing manners; why any parent would inflict their babies' cries on others is beyond comprehension. But movies simply work best as a communal experience, and the most happily infectious communal experience is the sharing of laughter.

A serious drama may purge your emotions. A robust adventure may fulfill your fantasies. But a comedy provides the happiest catharsis of all.

Comic impact

I became aware of comedy's emotional tug when I was 12 years old and ventured to the old Esquire Theater on Oak Lawn Avenue to see "Merry Andrew," a minor comedy with Danny Kaye as a schoolmaster who joins a circus. Seated in front of me was a man who had limped into the auditorium, obviously in pain, and his worried wife, who tended him lovingly.

He looked disoriented, and I suspect now that this was their first outing since the onslaught of his ailment. As the movie progressed, he allowed himself small chuckles that gradually grew into hearty guffaws. He forgot his pain and focused almost entirely on the screen, occasionally looking at his wife to share a laugh.

"Merry Andrew" is on no one's list of top comedies, but it achieved something more important. It made the man laugh, and he was having a great time. His wife hardly glanced at the movie. Instead she watched her husband, and her face glowed with tenderness, relief and gratitude that he was still capable of enjoying himself. Comedy truly is a gift from the muses.

From a dryly critical perspective, few genres employ all aspects of filmmaking as forcefully as comedy. The great silent comedians, including such legends as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, spoke volumes with facial expressions and body English, enhanced by camera angles. But film is both a verbal and visual medium, and the best modern comedies bring expert dialogue into the mix. The most gifted comic actors speak their lines with deceptive casualness, generously allowing us non-wits in the audience to think that we, too, might be just as clever under the same circumstances.

Ensemble harmony

Comedy requires the harmony of ensemble acting. Irene Dunne, one of the best-liked comediennes of the '30s, usually makes my skin crawl. When dispensing pleasant dialogue, she has the manner of a schoolteacher handing out report cards. But the eternally playful Cary Grant balances her dignity with his own brand of mischief. The secret to a great comic performance is to make the other person look good. Woody Allen addressing his own neuroses is funny; Woody Allen working in comic concert with Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow or, currently, Tracey Ullman is hilarious.

Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler and Mike Myers are effective one-man shows. The real test of their talents will occur when they're cast opposite someone of equal comic weight.

MGM Pictures

Frances McDormand and John Carroll Lynch in the 1996 hit "Fargo."

Ever see someone slip on a banana peel? I haven't, but I assume it's not a pleasant experience. Those among us who aspire to Deep Thoughts have always insisted that comedy is the flip side of tragedy. And many comedies do play serious situations for laughs. This approach doesn't soften the situations, but it sometimes lightens our own perspectives, however temporarily.

Among my favorite comedies, "The Lady Eve" suggests that people are not always what they seem - and, in fact, may sometimes even be better than they seem. "Some Like It Hot" comments on the futility of gender stereotypes. "The Graduate" reflects the emptiness of materialism, embodied in the simple word "plastics." "Annie Hall" captures the joy of emerging love and the bittersweetness of evanescent love. "The Awful Truth" addresses the extremes of suspicious minds.

Most of us cry at the same things. The death of a beloved character, the dashing of fondest hopes, the end of a beautiful romance all bring cozy tears when viewed from a comfortable distance. But comedy is even more personal than drama. We don't always laugh at the same things. One viewer may roar at the now-prevalent bathroom humor with the abandonment of a gleeful infant. Another may adopt a "we-are-not-amused" approach.

Never-ending debate

Comedies provoke the greatest debates among movie fans. I rank high on the hate list of Frank Capra devotees. Although I'm susceptible to other types of corn, I've always thought "Capra-corn" patronizing of the "little people" it pretends to applaud. Only one Capra film adorns my 100-best list, and "It Happened One Night" is not typical of the populist comedies that were to follow. I'm prepared to be denounced as a heretic by Capra's true believers.

I've also suffered a lifetime allergy to Jerry Lewis, who seems always to be simply giving a performance. His acolytes insist that there's a method to his madness. I see only the madness and have never found it riotous.

But when audiences are united in laughter, it's a great celebration of the moviegoing experience. When Indiana Jones shoots the Arabian swordsman in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," when Jack Lemmon responds wordlessly to Joe E. Brown's final line in "Some Like It Hot," the laughter rolls through the theater. These are magic moments, and there's no such thing as too many of them. In an increasingly self-absorbed society, they are responsible for that rare experience of happy intimacy.