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.)


Top 10 comedy films – an alternative list

Looking for inspiration for something to watch on New Year’s Eve, I tried the Guardian website for their inevitable Top 10 Films of 2013 list. While there, I perused their more extensive list of genre all-time Top 10s.[i] I found the comedy list a little disappointing. This is not to suggest that the films picked were not worthy of their place (with one exception, I greatly enjoyed them all), just that the list was a little predictable and, dare I say it, safe. Some Like It Hot, Annie Hall, The Life of Brian - these are the Citizen Kane, Godfather Part II and Rashomon of the comedy canon. You can see why they have to be there, but you can’t help but feel that their presence makes the list less interesting.

So I’ve decided to kick off the New Year with an alternative Top 10 Comedy Films. A few preliminary points are worth noting. First, these are not necessarily what I regard as the funniest ten films (the Guardian list has taken a good five or six of those). Nor are these the films I laugh the most at – some of them I included because they do something very different with the comic form, while remaining funny (in my opinion). I’ve tried to avoid consciously responding to the films in the Guardian’s list, but in a couple of cases I’ve more or less had to opt for an alternative effort from a particular director and a particular studio (there are probably other equivalences between the two lists if you care to look). And for the most part I’ve eschewed overly controversial choices – chances are you’ll have seen or at least heard of all of these films. No doubt there are people better qualified than I to come up with far more ‘alternative’ suggestions – if you are one of those persons, feel free to pass your suggestions on.

So (in no particular order) at no. 10 we have Groundhog Day.

Plenty of films have used the device of a character thrown by plot magic into an inexplicable scenario (Big, Midnight in Paris, The Exterminating Angel), and a few have had a romantic lead spying on their loved one to glean the knowledge with which to woo them (Everyone Says I Love You). Groundhog Day works these ideas together wonderfully, with Bill Murray (never better) chasing Andie MacDowell (very good in a less promising role) over the course of several year’s worth of the one day. It’s hard to think of a comedy which has better developed its humour from its basic premise. There are relatively few zingers – the funniest scenes rely on the combination of Phil Connors’s being trapped in Punxsutawney and exercising a petty dominance over the situation:

Apart from Murray’s list of deaths he has survived, he has no funny lines in this scene. The interactions with Doris and the other diners aren’t individually funny, but the culminative effect of the mini-scenes is beautifully judged (and a microcosm of the film as a whole).

[i] We ended up watching their number-one crime film, Chinatown – a perfect New Year’s movie, which I should have thought of myself.