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The prescription is laughter: Vintage comedies

Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe from the trailer for the film Some Like It Hot. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In dire times, comedy is needed more than ever. Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco had it right with his observation, “We laugh so as not to cry.” Even if laughter isn’t really the best medicine in a pandemic, it can’t hurt.

Public gatherings have been restricted and major movie releases are being postponed, so I thought I’d note some vintage, spirit-raising film comedies that should be accessible at home in the digital domain. A sense of humor is incredibly subjective. Still, it would be hard not to chuckle, chortle, or at least smile at some point while watching any of the following.

Director-screenwriter Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as two luckless musicians who need to disappear after witnessing a gangland hit. To escape murderous mobsters on their tail, the guys cross-dress to infiltrate an all-woman band and fall under the spell of one of the gals in the group, played by the bubbly, voluptuous Marilyn Monroe. From silly to sizzling, Some Like It Hot is the real deal when it comes to frantically funny fake femmes.

ALL’S FUNNY IN LOVE AND WAR

The Palm Beach Story (1942) is one of a series of immortal comedies by Preston Sturges. This intricate turn-on-a-dime masterwork of mischief, misapprehensions, and madcap fun actually starts where most screwball comedies end, as we see what happens to a pair of lovebirds (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert) in the wake of “happily ever after.” When their money runs out, the wife decides to find a way to finance her devoted husband’s dream project, even if it requires that they divorce and she marry a rich benefactor. 

Although Duck Soup (1933) might not be the greatest antiwar movie of all time, it’s definitely the wittiest and a pinnacle of the Marx Brothers’ mix of hilarity and anarchy. Glib con artist and womanizer Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) finds himself appointed the president of the country of Freedonia, thanks to romancing a wealthy widow who is financing the national treasury. Meanwhile, the devious ambassador from neighboring Sylvania wants to annex Freedonia and sends two wacky spies (Chico Marx and Harpo Marx) and a Mata Hari-type seductress to find dirt on Firefly, swiftly stoking a perfectly ridiculous, slapstick war between the nations. 

Mel Brooks — actor, director, and screenwriter — is a comic genius, and his movies hold up pretty well, years after they were first released. His stellar string of hits in the 1970s found him parodying the western genre (1974’s Blazing Saddles), Gothic horror (1974’s Young Frankenstein), and psychological mystery (1977’s High Anxiety). And his first shot at screenwriting and directing a movie after years of television work was an inside-show-biz lampoon called The Producers (1967) with Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel as a pair of scam artists who want to bilk investors by mounting a sure bomb of a Broadway musical entitled “Springtime for Hitler.” The Producers was so clever and outrageous that, decades later, it spawned a genuine hit musical of the same name on the Great White Way.

FROM BRITAIN WITH LAUGHS

The British have a reputation for being stiff and staid. Nonetheless, some of the funniest antics to ever appear on screen come from Britain, in particular, the movies of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus troupe. They include 1979’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian (a delightfully blasphemous take on the story of Christ) and 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail (an Arthurian knights-in-tarnished-armor romp), timeless in their canny, cockeyed humor. The solo work of Python mainstay John Cleese in the cast of the fine 1988 crime farce A Fish Called Wanda also deserves mention.

It would be irresponsible to forget the wealth of gut-busting movie comedies since the 1970s that feature Saturday Night Live alumni such as Bill Murray (Caddyshack), John Belushi (Animal House), Will Ferrell (Anchorman), and Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), not to forget the fantastic team-up of Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd in Trading Places.

That’s just an overview. Do a little research. Ask an algorithm for some help. The laughs are out there.

Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture. Follow him on Twitter @cultureblaster.

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