Editorial: American Comedy

The editorial - Sullivan's Travels 

The Editorial: thoughts, short stories
or essays about the world of cinema


 
The extraordinary thing about classic American comedies, and, by that, of course, I refer to the likes of Lubitsch, Capra, Cukor and Sturges, or Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot and Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (I will write about Chaplin and Buster Keaton another time), is that you can predict from the very beginning how it will end, and yet, their style is captivating – unexpected ideas, the wildest fast-talking farces and the most comical details in the story are possible. Ironically, Preston Sturges’ own yearning to make a ‘significant’ picture later proved part of his professional downturn. I myself often disregard what otherwise could qualify as a very good movie if it weren’t for the happy ending. Maybe that’s why Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is one of my all-time favourite films. It is one of the finest satirical comedies, different from the formal plot of romantic comedies, old and new. It has subtlety and an adult sensibility, which is what makes the story so good and poignant and real. The beauty and strength of the movie come from the fact that it shows that life comes with good and bad, you can’t have one without the other.

But, still, what is it about the majority of classic comedies that still attracts me despite the predictable ending? I guess I like the exercise of style and sophistication a classic comedy exerts. Often, the first hour of a comedy, even the whole movie right up until the end, is such an unhindered display of creativity and craft, as if the director and writer gave complete reign to their imaginations, to being silly without forgoing wit and a lightness of touch. Not to mention the shrewdness and effervescence of screwball comedies, and the fact that romance always comes second to comedy in a screwball, which is why I always prefer it to romantic comedies.

But what I want to point out is that I think comedies are often underrated. There is that famous line in Sullivan’s Travels (1941) when Joel McCrea’s character, after he has been mistaken for a tramp, arrested and put to work on a chain gang and he finds himself watching a comedy with the other convicts, every one of them laughing harder than the other, as if they have no worries in the world: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.” Sometimes laughter is the best medicine. We should never underestimate a comedy’s merit and power. Few comedies are as smart as Sullivan’s Travels, which was made in the time when Preston Sturges was praised as Hollywood’s premier satirist and crafter of social comedies. He “sent affectation and friendliness to the devil and replaced them with satire and cynicism,” wrote François Truffaut. Sullivan’s Travels is unpretentious but remarkably complex, as Sturges proves his skill and ease to steer between moods and genres, always delivering a good punchline just at the right time. Sometimes a good punchline is all we need to make a bad day better.

photo: Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s a Travels, 1941 | Paramount Pictures

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