Laughter and Some Random Thoughts on Movie Comedians

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Chaplin with Jackie Coogan in ‘The Kid’ (1921)

Charlie Chaplin is one of my personal heroes and one of the greats of the silver screen, perhaps the very first movie genius ever, but here’s a flash; he never ever made me laugh. Smile, yes, but laugh, no. I look at his movies and recognise his story telling power, his movie making magic and much more but no, Charlie never really made me laugh. Laurel and Hardy on the other hand, two movie comedians who are not perhaps as lauded the world over as geniuses, but who are perhaps more universally loved, well, now they do make me laugh. Whenever some catastrophe befell Oliver Hardy, whenever he stood and looked straight at the camera after a cabinet landed on his head or a car accident befell him and he stood up straight amid the shambles of a house exploding around him and Stanley would go into his helpless ‘it wasn’t my fault’ act, that my friend, would not only crack me totally up but would leave me helpless with tears of laughter running down my face.

My Dad liked Laurel and Hardy and my Dad was the master of the silent laugh. I remember once, convulsing with merriment at the aforementioned duo and wondering why my Dad didn’t think it was so funny, then turning to see him also creased up with laughter, only this was a completely silent laughter, his shoulders shook and his face contorted with mirth but no sound would ever pass his lips.

chickadeeOne of the reasons that the above few lines came to me was because, through the power of e-bay and the internet, I came into the possession of a DVD starring another of my Dad’s favourite stars, WC Fields. Fields starred with Mae West in a movie called ‘My Little Chicadee’ and it’s good to think that this movie, produced some 75 years ago still has the power to bring laughter to people like me. I love the ending of the movie when the two stars use each other’s catchphrases, Fields saying to Mae West, ‘Why don’t you come up and see me some time?’ and West replying ‘I might do that, my little chickadee!’

Another favourite comedian of mine who only made a few movies was Tony Hancock. Hancock was a successful radio and TV comedian and his TV show was so popular in the late fifties and early sixties that pub landlords complained they were losing revenue because people stayed at home to watch Hancock. Tony Hancock was a troubled and insecure man though. He dropped Sid James from his show as he felt James was becoming too popular, and at times of stress had trouble learning his lines. If you take a close look at the classic ‘blood donor’ sketch it’s clear Hancock was reading his lines from cue cards. He ventured into movies only a few times but did make the wonderful movie ‘The Rebel’ written by his BBC TV writers Galton and Simpson. In later years Hancock and his writers had a parting of the ways and Hancock sadly committed suicide in Australia in 1968.

DSC_0287Peter Sellars was a master of impersonation and the funny voice and it was his voices and the inspired madness of writer Spike Milligan that made the Goon show such a hit. Sellars went on to make many a memorable comedy movies, including the Inspector Clouseau series but for his last movie, ‘Being There’, Sellars based his character, Chancey Gardner on Stan Laurel, whom he made friends with and spent time with when he lived in Hollywood. Sellars was a strange character and if you ever catch that wonderful TV documentary made by the BBC Arena team you can see Sellars as he saw himself through his own amateur film footage. Sellars seemed to think he had no personality of his own and cloned himself from the many characters he played. During the movie ‘Casino Royale’, a spoof version of the James Bond film, Peter had a disagreement with the director and vanished for three weeks. If you watch the finished film, which has its great moments as well as its bad ones, Sellars’ character seems to disappear from the movie towards the end; clearly that’s why.

Being a great comedy star is a difficult job and perhaps that’s why so many comics and comedians are difficult people. Today’s comedy stars really do nothing for me at all and ‘observational’ comedy which is at the centre of contemporary stand-up comedy leaves me cold.

Still, if I ever need cheering up I can always just reach for the DVD cabinet and take out some classic Laurel and Hardy!


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