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‘Make ‘em laugh,’ that’s the hardest trick of all

PUBLISHED: 18:25 31 August 2017 | UPDATED: 18:25 31 August 2017

Marilyn Monroe with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot which has been voted the funniest film of all time in the new BBC poll. Photo: United Artists

Marilyn Monroe with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot which has been voted the funniest film of all time in the new BBC poll. Photo: United Artists

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The BBC have released a poll pulling together the most popular comedy films of all time. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke cast an eye over the chart and wonders why don’t comedies regularly top the list of great films?

The Monty Python film The Life of Brian which scored highly in the BBC poll of critics to discover the greatest comedy films of all time. Photo: Handmade FilmsThe Monty Python film The Life of Brian which scored highly in the BBC poll of critics to discover the greatest comedy films of all time. Photo: Handmade Films

There is a popular old adage much favoured within the acting community: “Dying is easy, it’s comedy that’s hard,” and I found myself quoting it this week when I found the results of the BBC’s All-Time Greatest Comedy Films poll sitting in my in-box.

Satisfyingly, one of my all-time favourite films Some Like It Hot had been declared the greatest comedy of all-time and one of its stars, Jack Lemmon, had been responsible for popularising the “Dying is easy” quote later in his life.

The poll came about after the BBC went to the world’s film critics to disocver the 100 greatest films of the 21st century. Top of the list was David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive followed by such heavyweight favourites as Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life and The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men. Not a lot of laughs there.

In fact if you trawl through the list, apart from a couple of Pixar entries there’s not a lot of the feelgood movies on display at all.

Screwball comedies like His Girl Friday

 with  Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell did very well in the international BBC poll. Cary Grant was represented by four films including Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story and Arsenic and Old Lace. Photo: ColumbiaScrewball comedies like His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell did very well in the international BBC poll. Cary Grant was represented by four films including Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story and Arsenic and Old Lace. Photo: Columbia

There’s plenty of good drama, there’s plenty of tragedy and soul-searching reflection but there’s no real reflection of the good things in life, those golden moments spent with family and friends that make you feel good to be alive.

It’s a mistake to assume that great art – be it film, theatre or literarture – should just be about the tragic and the forlorn.

As Jack Lemmon reminded us great comedy is hard – both to write and perform. Clearly the BBC felt that their list of great films suffered from a lack of balance and so commissioned the greatest comedies poll.

A quick look at the Great Comedies poll reveals that there are a lot of very good films there. Comedy doesn’t automatically translate into cheap, insubstantial or purile. The best comedies are full of character and truth – which is what makes them funny.

Charlie Chaplin in the 1936 film 'Modern Times'. All of Chaplin's feature films made the top 25 of the Greatest 100 Comedy Films poll. Photo: United ArtistsCharlie Chaplin in the 1936 film 'Modern Times'. All of Chaplin's feature films made the top 25 of the Greatest 100 Comedy Films poll. Photo: United Artists

The top 25 films are a genuinely eclectic mix from a wide range of different eras and countries. Because the list was constructed by a collection of international critics it’s interesting to see a lot of classic silent comedy still riding high.

Chaplin and Buster Keaton are well represented with multiple entries in the highest reaches of the chart including The Gold Rush, Modern Times, City Lights and The Great Dictator for Chaplin and Sherlock Jnr and The General for Buster Keaton. Jacques Tati makes the list with Mon Oncle and Playtime.

All these make the grade because of critics from Asia, South America and mainland Europe who also voted for The Marx Brothers Duck Soup. Analysis of the results suggests that word-based comedy doesn’t survive translation.

Critics from the UK,US, Canada and Australia tended to favour more dialogue-based films like Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Groundhog Day, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally and The Big Lebowski. That’s not to say that western critics can’t display a silly side to their character because Mel Brooks gets two films in the top 25 – Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, along with two Monty Python’s – The Holy Grail and Life of Brian, along with the Zucker Brothers Airplane and the first Naked Gun film which made it into the top 50.

Sadly for Arts editor Andrew Clarke there was no room at the inn for Laurel and Hardy and Way Out West. Photo: Hal Roach.Sadly for Arts editor Andrew Clarke there was no room at the inn for Laurel and Hardy and Way Out West. Photo: Hal Roach.

For me the biggest surprises in the list was not the dominant presence of the classic screwball comedies from the 30s and 40s because they have lasted extremely well – The Awful Truth, Arsenic and Old Lace, It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story all appear in the top 50.

What really surprises me about this list is the complete lack of Laurel and Hardy and the comparitive lack of Woody Allen.

To me Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West and Sons of the Desert are far more entertaining and inventive than Chaplin who I admire rather than like.

Similarly there is more to Woody Allen than Annie Hall. It would have been nice to see Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters or Manhattan Murder Mystery in there somewhere.

The other big surprise was the inclusion of the Blake Edwards/Peter Sellers movie The Party. It’s not a bad movie but it’s more of a cult favourite than a popular hit. Personally, I would have included 1974’s The Return of the Pink Panther from the Sellers/Edwards partnership.

All these films tell us something about who we are as people, what makes us laugh, but it also suggests that to be considered an all-timne classic then you do need some time to have passed as only 12 entries came from the 21st century.

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