Tony Curtis’s death prompted me to compile an honor roll of the 10 funniest American talkies ever made. My criterion was simple: number of belly laughs per minute.
Curtis’s “Some Like It Hot” (1959) tops the list. He and Jack Lemmon co-star as two Chicago jazz musicians who, having accidentally witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, elude the mob by joining an all-girl band that includes Marilyn Monroe’s breathy Sugar Kane.
Even great comedies usually don’t feature more than a couple of classic sequences. “Some Like it Hot,” co-written by director Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, has one every few minutes. The two-disc MGM Collector’s Edition is particularly valuable for its extra features on the making of the film, including Curtis’s remark (later retracted) that kissing the temperamental Monroe was “like kissing Hitler.”
Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), co-written by Terry Southern, is probably the greatest antiwar film, although you’d have to be pretty humor-challenged to think of it that way.
It’s a nihilist cackle of a movie featuring an all-star cast of loons, including Sterling Hayden’s General Jack D. Ripper, with his “purity of essence” fixation. There’s also George C. Scott’s General “Buck” Turgidson, who would have loved the smell of napalm in the morning, and Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove, who looks as if he was wheeled in from a Fritz Lang movie by way of Mad magazine.
The Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” (1933), directed by Leo McCarey, is another great antiwar, pro-laughter movie. Groucho plays dictator Rufus T. Firefly of tiny Freedonia, who for no particular reason declares war on neighboring Sylvania. Chico and Harpo are his spies, and the ineffably clueless Margaret Dumont is the butt of all their jokes. Hail Freedonia!
In “It’s a Gift” (1934), W.C. Fields plays a harried grocery store owner whose chief nemeses are his harpy wife and the preternaturally annoying Baby LeRoy. There may be no funnier slow-burn sequence in movies than the one where Fields is continually rousted from his porchside nap by annoying passersby. One of them, a salesman searching for a Mr. Carl LaFong, repeatedly drones, “That’s capital C, small a, small r....”
Preston Sturges’s “The Lady Eve” (1941) calibrates every witticism and pratfall to the millisecond. Henry Fonda is the geeky heir to a brewery fortune and amateur ophiologist (“snakes are my life”) ensnared by wised-up con artist Barbara Stanwyck. In its own Golden Age of Hollywood way, “The Lady Eve” is as beautifully worked-out and satisfying as anything by George Bernard Shaw.
Forget the Broadway musical of “The Producers.” The best incarnation of this screw-loose story about the wages of sin remains Mel Brooks’s 1968 movie. Zero Mostel plays beady-eyed scoundrel Max Bialystock, whose scheme to deliberately stage a Broadway flop and make off with the investors’ money capsizes when “Springtime for Hitler” becomes a surprise hit. The elephantine Max is surprisingly fleet-footed, which comes in especially handy while fleecing blue-haired dowagers. Gene Wilder’s pathologically whiny accountant Leo Bloom is Mostel’s match.
When it opened in 1980, the terminally humorless criticized “Airplane!” for being a mere joke-book movie. Yes, but what jokes! Co-writer-directors Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams brought out the lunacy that was always lurking just beneath the stalwart surfaces of flight-disaster films like “Airport” and “Zero Hour.” They also brought out the crazy streak in poker-faced actors like Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and Peter Graves.
Sydney Pollack’s “Tootsie” (1982), co-written by Larry Gelbart, is second only to “Some Like It Hot” in the transvestism comedy sweepstakes. Dustin Hoffman plays an unemployed actor who disguises himself as a woman to cop a star-making role on a hit soap opera. My favorite scene: Hoffman shows up in full drag for a lunch appointment with his unsuspecting agent at the Russian Tea Room. The agent, played by Pollack, takes one look at his client and moans: “I begged you to get some therapy.”
Carl Reiner’s “The Man With Two Brains” (1983) is the funniest, though not the best-known, Steve Martin film. He plays famed neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr, who falls in love with a woman’s disembodied brain. Kathleen Turner, fresh from “Body Heat,” is the doc’s impeccably venal wife. Comedy doesn’t get more blissfully silly than the scene in which Martin, in a rowboat, romances the bottled brain of his beloved.
Albert Brooks’s “Lost in America” (1985) is a road movie with no destination. Brooks, who also co-wrote and directed, plays a yuppie who ditches his job as an ad exec to “find himself” by riding a motor home across the country with his wife (Julie Hagerty).
The joke is that there isn’t all that much to find. When his wife blows their nest egg in Las Vegas, Brooks tries to persuade the casino manager (Garry Marshall) to give the money back as a public gesture of goodwill. Minute-for-minute, this is one of the most hilarious deadpan sequences ever filmed.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).