Friday, April 24, 2015

Laughing at old movies

I made some rather controversial remarks in one of my film discussion forums recently.

They aren't the kind of controversial remarks that might get me in trouble. They're the kind of controversial remarks that might make me look stupid.

The gist of these remarks is: Old movies aren't funny.

Okay, there's a little more nuance in what I said than that. What I really said was something along the lines of "Seeing a movie during the era of its release gives you the best chance of finding that movie really funny."

The remarks were well-intentioned, made in response to the fact that someone in the forum had just seen Planes, Trains and Automobiles and not found it funny. I sympathized with him, as my own recent viewing of this movie made me realize that it had not held up particularly well and was in fact not quite as great as I had always thought it was.

However, whatever its objective merits, a movie can both be funny and remain funny to you, building off those initial positive feelings, if you saw it when it was new. Conversely, finally seeing a movie that everyone has been raving about for the last 25 years of your life carries a pretty high risk of letdown.

I believe the same topic arose some weeks earlier in the discussion of a different Steve Martin film, The Jerk, which he also didn't like and which I hadn't much liked either. The difference for me between Planes, Trains and Automobiles and The Jerk is that I saw the former when it first came out, and the latter in the past ten to 15 years. So, I definitely felt the truth of my own observation as it related to these two movies.

Of course, my comments were met with varying degrees of justified incredulity. One commenter in particular retorted that she always made sure to jump in her time machine before watching Chaplin and Keaton movies.

Touche. If you extended the logic of my argument, it means we're unlikely to find anything funny that wasn't made within our own lifetimes.

Although the actual wording of my observation may have been inelegant, I still believe the logic behind it. Another commenter who came to my defense, in a manner of speaking, observed that the biggest problem with older comedies has nothing to do with those movies themselves. It has to do with the fact that what was funny in them had probably been repeated ad infinitum by ensuing inferior comedies, which nonetheless got to bask in the borrowed glow because they got there first -- for most of us who had normal cinematic upbringings, we watched those new comedies before the older ones they're indebted to. Laughing relies on being surprised, and if the essential humor of a bit has been repeated, adjusted and deconstructed dozens of times since it first appeared, you just aren't as likely to laugh when you do eventually see the first appearance.

What this all brings us to is the wonderful and excellently timed exception to my rule.

You'd think borrowing The Great Dictator from the library might have been a direct response to the commenter who chided me about Keaton and Chaplin, but it was really just a coincidence. I'd been wanting to see Chaplin's first talkie for ages, understanding it to be a trenchant and biting satire of the Nazi regime in particular and dictatorships in general. I figured that if it were funny, it would be the kind of humor that produced knowing smiles rather than busted guts.

Well, I said surprise was a key to humor, and boy was I surprised by The Great Dictator.

I was laughing nearly from the first minute. The movie starts out in the first World War, with the character played by Chaplin (one of two) on a battlefield, engaged in all kinds of physical shenanigans involving canons, grenades, and finding himself marching on the wrong side of the battlefield after getting lost in the fog. And this stuff was driving me to hysterics, even though it has probably been copied more times than we can count in the 75 years since the movie's release. I practically couldn't contain myself when Chaplin is forced to help an injured pilot guide his plane home. The physical gags were funny, of course, but the thing that made me laugh the hardest was this exchange:

Schutz: "Can you fly a plane?"
Jewish barber: "I can certainly try!"

As though flying a plane were an activity that can be undertaken by any person with a plucky, can-do spirit.

Then Chaplin's second character -- the dictator, Hynkel -- appears, and gives a Hitler-like speech that's full of made-up German fricatives. It's something straight out of Mel Brooks, most of whose movies I've seen, meaning that in this case I could actually identify where I had seen homage paid to this film. And though I'm sure I found those moments funny in Brooks' films, it was nothing like watching Chaplin do it. I even felt myself feeling happy for Charlie Chaplin -- who has been dead for nearly 40 years and needs nothing from me -- because I knew that he had moved into the sound era with some reluctance, and it was cool to see that he was so much better at vocal performance than he probably thought he'd be.

I could go on about The Great Dictator, but I'll mention only two more moments that I found sublime: 1) Hynkel's dance with the inflated globe, which has laugh-out-loud moments but actually kind of humanizes the character in terms of his uncertainty about the very power he desires, and 2) the stirring final speech of the Jewish barber, which demands a better world in terms that entirely drop the film's previous commitment to tickling our funny bone.

Can't find any older movie funny? I knew I didn't really think that, but I'm glad The Great Dictator came along to remind me.

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