It seems to me that the timing is right for an unapologetically mercenary post that plays with both my innate passion for making lists and my desire for starting arguments. This means that this post will be more self-indulgent than usual. –how can that be?
Here is what I propose: a three-part series that argues not for the twenty-five most important American film comedies but, more specifically, the twenty-five most important American film comedy scenes as represented by screenshots. By “important,” I mean “iconic,” “seminal,” “best,” “most hilarious,” “provocative,” or, in other words, “my favorites.” They should be yours, too.
I intend to start with 7 screenshots that indicate essential comedic moments in American film history in this the first of three posts on the topic. I hope to encourage others to chime in with their favorites by commenting on this post and, ideally, including links or files with the screenshots they suggests. I will follow in subsequent posts with the growing list.
For now, the images are not ranked or presented in any order other than my impulses as I think of them or run through my library of screenshots. In the end, I may try to rank them just for the hell of it.
Here are the first seven:
From Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In perhaps one of the most iconic moments in film comedy history, the Tramp is consumed by the industrial machine but continues to perform his job. It is a concise but cogent statement of class tensions and the perils of the “factory worker” caught in the cogs of industrialism. It is so iconic that one cannot talk about it without puns and symbolic flourishes. See above.
From Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. This first appearance of Clark Gable’s torso provides more than the titillation that such a statement implies. The scene is a remarkable and intricate power struggle between two formidable performers in a comedic gem. The scene, the film as a whole for that matter, would go one to influence the romantic comedy formula to this day. If he had only tried a similar approach to Scarlett.
From the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers. This is a shot from the big finale scene wherein everybody gets on stage like the closing of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards show–lots of folks on the stage but with only a few who do anything worthwhile. In this case, that is fine because it is the Marx brothers who demand the attention in every scene. This scene demonstrates the wonderful comic interplay between the brothers but also mocks the pretensions of respectable society and the smug coziness of the officer’s advice to the subversive Harpo.
From Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. This panoramic shot of the big board and the big table captures a more elaborate scene that the other screenshots selected. It is meant to imply the entire sequence of the power brokers at work to save the world–or at least themselves. In short this shot cuts to the core of all American satire by implicating the inherent horror of a star chamber, no matter how comic.
From Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. This is the money shot–well, that sounds wrong. What I mean is that this shot has its own iconic status and provides the core symbol for both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the film. The triangulating power of Mrs. Robinson’s leg, and little big man Benjamin trying to keep up.
From Harold Ramis’s Caddyshack. No apologies for this one. This shot is from arguably the most concise illustration of the American dream at work in the mind of an inherent loser. Yes, Cinderella is the most American of the European fairy tales. He is the working man dreaming of a Masters championship when all he will end up with is more work replacing the flowers he is destroying.
From The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. This shot is a shot within a shot. The McDonnoughs try to record for posterity their new family portrait, complete with their freshly stolen child. “It’s about to pop, honey.” As we say in the business, this is funny.
Please send suggestions for other essential screenshots via comments to this post.
Long live Harold Ramis.
Although he has never fully received his full due in the popular imagination on the par with one of his most devoted collaborators, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis is nonetheless a vital figure of American film comedy. A major creative voice behind popular comedies from the late 1970s throughout the 1990s. Ramis deserves an enduring place in the canon of American humor. Consider his productive six-year run as writer, in particular: Animal House (1978); Meatballs (1979); Caddyshack (1980); Stripes (1981); National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983); and Ghostbusters (1984). He would later put together him most ambitious comedic film narrative with Groundhog Day (1993), a beautiful romantic comedy. For the long 1980s (I just coined that phrase–the long 1980s, which runs from 1977 -1992, from “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols to the election of Bill Clinton, but I digress), no other director/writer/actor was so integral to establishing the comedy best of the era while also effectively drawing on mainstream American comedic traditions.
His timing, his content, his comic framing were all on point. May his memory and that Egon hair stick with us.
For my take, the four films that should remain firmly within our popular and critical imaginations are Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, and National Lampoon’s Vacation. They exploit the most persistent and beloved of American comedic tropes–the tension between mainstream forces of respectability and the marginal forces of subversion, or, to be more concise: the snobs versus the slobs.
From the barbarians at the gates who emerged Animal House to the subversive caddy-underworld of an elite country club, to the ne’er-do-well losers who join the army out of desperation, to the bumbling, ever-failing American suburban father–the beloved marginal characters in these Ramis films exploit our communal desires to root for the underdogs, the Cinderella stories out of nowhere. Out of everywhere.