Are you having a laugh? BBC Culture poll of top 100 comedies
Paul Whitington was one of 253 critics in 52 countries asked to vote in a new BBC Culture poll of the top 100 comedies, but the final list fails to tickle his funny bone
Last week, the BBC Culture website released the results of an intriguing poll. A distinguished roster of 253 film critics from 52 countries were asked to choose the best comic movies of all time. I was one of them, but I must say I have my problems with the final list.
No genre, it could be argued, is so hopelessly subjective as comedy: why else would the late Jerry Lewis have been hailed as a genius in France? One person's laugh riot will leave another viewer stone cold, which perhaps explains why my number one comedy pick, Laurel and Hardy's Sons of the Desert, doesn't even make the BBC Culture poll's top 100.
In fact, no Laurel and Hardy film appears in the list, partly perhaps because poor Stan and Ollie have been out of fashion for a while and their movies are rarely shown on TV anymore.
There are some great choices in there, but in my opinion, Annie Hall is not Woody Allen's funniest film, Airplane! is hardly a classic, Dr Strangelove, while a classic of sorts, is no laugh riot and I would rather stab myself with something than willingly sit through Spinal Tap's tedious in-jokes again.
But, as we say, comedy is subjective. Here are the top 10 I submitted to BBC Culture's poll, together with some pithy justifications.
1. Sons of the Desert (1933)
No film in existence makes me laugh as much as this Laurel and Hardy gem, a perfectly constructed piece of silliness starring Stanley and Oliver as harried Californian husbands whose only outlet is their membership of all-male society, the Sons of the Desert. The group's convention is about to take place in Chicago, and the boys want to go. But the wives are having none of it so Ollie feigns an illness that will require a restorative Hawaiian cruise. They go to Chicago instead and return sporting flower garlands and strumming ukuleles. But what they don't know is that their wives saw them marching in Chicago on a movie newsreel.
2. Animal Crackers (1930)
The Marx Brothers honed their anarchic routines on the vaudeville circuit before taking Hollywood by storm. Their much-loved 1933 farce Duck Soup is number five in the BBC Culture poll, but for me Animal Crackers is funnier and closer to their rowdy, vaudeville roots.
3. The General (1926)
Orson Welles famously called it "the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made and perhaps the greatest film ever made", and he might just be right. These days Buster Keaton is mainly considered a silent-era clown, but like Chaplin, he was also a brilliant and innovative film-maker and, though it was a flop at the time, The General is now considered his best film.
4. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Another film that flopped on its release, but is now considered a solid-gold classic, Howard Hawks' screwball comedy stars Cary Grant as Dr David Huxley, a mild-mannered palaeontologist who's about to marry a very serious young woman, when his life is derailed by an encounter with a beautiful and mercurial heiress: Katharine Hepburn at her imperious best.
5. Mon Oncle (1958)
A po-faced genius, whose slapstick comedy always hid melancholic undertones, Jacques Tati made a string of classic films during the 1950s and 60s. His elegantly existential 1967 film Playtime makes the BBC Culture top 10, but my favourite Tati film is Mon Oncle, a charming tirade against the numbing homogeneity of consumerist culture and mod-cons. Monsieur Hulot (Tati) is the gangly, impoverished, otherworldly uncle of Gerard, a dreamy boy who finds his parents' obsession with wealth and possessions stultifying.
6. Sullivan's Travels (1941)
A writer and director with an unerring comic touch, Preston Sturges made a good half-dozen brilliant satires in the early 1940s before burning out and dying prematurely. His delightful 1941 comedy The Lady Eve makes the BBC Culture top 20, but for me Sullivan's Travels is his masterpiece. Joel McCrea plays John L Sullivan, a high-minded Hollywood director who grows tired of making brainless comedies and decides he wants to make a film about the homeless poor. But when he sets out to pose as a tramp and ride the railroads, he gets more hardship than he bargained for.
7. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Katharine Hepburn's career was in the doldrums when she cleverly persuaded her lover Howard Hughes to buy her the film rights of Philip Barry's Broadway play The Philadelphia Story. Hepburn had been declared "box-office poison" by the Theatre Owners of America, but the wily actress saw Barry's sparkling comedy as a way back to the top - and so it proved. She sold the rights to MGM for a song, with the proviso that she be allowed to star.
8. Some Like it Hot (1959)
Billy Wilder didn't make all that many out-and-out comedies, but on Some Like it Hot, a concept and a cast came together perfectly to create something special. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play a couple of prohibition-era Chicago musicians who must go on the run after accidentally witnessing the St Valentine's Day massacre. A mobster called Spats Colombo (George Raft) is determined to eliminate them, so they dress up as women and join an all-female touring band. Lemmon gets most of the laughs, playing the histrionic Daphne.
9. Love and Death (1975)
Woody Allen made more famous films, but, for me, this 1975 historical caper is his most purely funny. Boris (Allen), a noted Moscow coward, is horrified when he's conscripted to fight Napoleon's armies and is more interested in winning the fickle heart of the beautiful, but promiscuous Sonja (Diane Keaton). Keaton and Allen work brilliantly together, bickering endlessly, and his screenplay is superb.
10. Groundhog Day (1993)
When a film's title ends up becoming part of the vernacular, you know you've done something right. And from the moment Harold Ramis' 1993 comedy was released, it had the feel of an instant classic. A film worthy of comparison with the work of Frank Capra, it combines sharp humour with a supernatural element and the kind of moral lesson central to films like You Can't Take it With You and It's a Wonderful Life. Bill Murray (at his very best) is Phil Connors, a cynical and self-centred TV weatherman, who gets stuck in the hick town of Punxsutawney. But when he wakes up and finds he's living the same day all over again, he has a metaphysical problem on his hands.