Top 10 comedy films – an alternative list

No. 9 – The Apartment
Only a few of the films on this list have the sole purpose of making audiences laugh. Most have some other aim, be it social, political or artistic (in the sense of stretching the boundaries of what comedies are capable).  Of those with a social message of some kind, The Apartment is arguably the best thought out and most perfectly pitched.
The main plot is the love story between office drone C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator girl at the building where he works. Baxter’s rival is Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray),  an overbearing personnel manager with the power to transform Baxter into an executive or dispatch him back to the drudgery from whence he came. This fact indicates the social critique the film develops, as does the use of Baxter’s eponymous dwelling by Sheldrake and other senior members of staff. This critique isn’t politically sophisticated, but few other films have so acutely tuned the epic themes of self-knowledge and rebellion against the social order to the minutiae of modern life. Any of us who have ever worked in an office (or lived in an apartment) can identify with Baxter as he juggles romance and his career and more generally tries to find some nobility in his subservient place in society. There’s no overt comment on the distorting effects of this society, but it’s hard not to read it between the lines as Baxter bends his life to accommodate those more powerful than him.

Billy Wilder is one of two directors whose work is more or less mandatory in a list like this.[i] There is no doubt that Some Like it Hot is a funnier all-out comedy than The Apartment, but arguably the latter has been more influential. This is partly because of its subject-matter, and partly because Wilder succeeded in coaxing dramatic themes into lightly played comedy. This bittersweet tone has been the template for any number of modern blends of comedy and drama.

That’s a beautifully chosen (and delivered) ‘fruitcake’. What might have been a corny, overplayed joke (‘She sends me a cake every Christmas’ ‘What kind?’ ‘A fruitcake’) is undercut, a word slipped into the middle of a line thrown away at the end of Lemmon’s monologue. It's poignant, and funny because of what Baxter's infatuation has become, and because he realises it. That mixture of something genuinely touching with a character's awareness of its absurdity is the gift The Apartment has given subsequent comedies.

[i] No prize for guessing who the other one is. (There’s a good case to be made for Alexander Mackendrick, but – spoiler alert – I have decided not to include any of his films.)

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