In the years since the Oscar for Best Picture was given to Wings in 1929, only seven comedies have won Hollywood’s highest award. Comedies come in different forms, and the winner in 1934, It Happened One Night, was a screwball comedy, defined as a combination of farce, witty repartee, and romance. The 1938 winner, You Can’t Take It With You, was the film version of a successful Broadway play.
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In 1960 The Apartment won the Oscar, the first American comedy of any kind in over thirty years to do so, and it is categorized as a comedy/drama. Six years earlier Tom Jones won but that is a British comedy. Annie Hall, 1977’s winner, is a romantic comedy, Forest Gump is another comedy/drama and the 1998 winner, Shakespeare in Love, is a romantic/drama/comedy. In eighty years, therefore, comedy wins on average once per decade, and then only in a watered-down form.
The Golden Globe awards, on the other hand, divide the Best Motion Picture category into the sub-categories of drama and musical/comedy, and in that second category, many of the great comedies produced in the past fifty-five years have been acknowledged. However, the selectors are journalists who cover the American film industry for publications outside North America. For that reason, the focus of this essay will be on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from whom, in the words of comedian Rodney Dangerfield, comedy gets no respect — even though, as will be argued, comedy deserves to be taken seriously.
Part of the reason for comedy’s neglect can be found in the history of comedy on film. The earliest comedies were made just for laughs. Mack Sennett, for example, produced one- and two-reel slapstick comedies in record time by “discarding any idea of plot, character or motivation” (Sennett 2). The Keystone Kops series consisted of chases, fights, and pratfalls which delighted audiences of the day.
Charlie Chaplin, a seminal figure in the development of comedy, came out of the Keystone studios to make his own short films and soon “progressed from burlesque and slapstick to romantic sensibility” (Sennett 3) through his Little Tramp character. Once the silent era passed Chaplin extended his range in films such as Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940) by expressing what appeared to be his social conscience. Modern Times, for example, contains striking images of a machine-dominated society in which Chaplin is shown working on an assembly line against the clock, only to be swallowed by a giant mechanism and spat out. Those images have lived on into the present time.
In Dictator, he was one of the first in Hollywood to ridicule Hitler and Nazism. He himself denied he had any interest in making films with a message but that “there is a healthy thing in laughing at the grimmest things in life” (Gehring 10).
What makes comedies of this era less than art is best seen in Chaplin’s comedies which, even at their most serious, were gag-based. There was little concern with plot, character, or coherence. In Modern Times he made a short-lived attempt at originality but soon lapsed into shtick; or, as critic Theodore Huff said, the film “gets back to the old Chaplin comedy pattern,” abandoning the theme of workers being dehumanized by the machines they operate; in fact, Huff regards the last two-thirds of the film as “a sort of anticlimax to the opening idea” (252-253).
This was permissible in that era since most comedies were even less coherent, readily giving up plot and character for the sake of a snappy line. In addition to that, Chaplin’s films are egocentrically structured, with him dominating every scene. However, for the contemporary viewer who has been exposed to much more variety in comedy, such a tight focus on the main character becomes tedious. These factors have made comedy the black sheep of the cinematic family in the Academy’s eyes, even today when comedy has evolved well past that point.
The star-centered comedic tradition continued in the Marx Brothers’ zany, anarchic comedies in which their on-screen personas reduced all other actors to foils. For people who grew up with those comedies and who accepted their conventions, the Marx Brothers are hilarious. One of those people is Woody Allen who, in his early films, showed the same inability to resist a good line and the same reluctance to give one to a secondary character.
His 1973 film, Sleeper, is a classic example of a comedy that should get no respect. Peter J. Bailey, writer of a full-length study on Allen tries to prove Sleeper is not just a film, one of those “in which the fulfillment of their comic design exhausts their aesthetic purposes” (30), but that it is deserving of closer scrutiny; after that, he hardly mentions it again. The fact is that Sleeper is a satire without a center, a vehicle for Allen’s shtick and for taking potshots at his contemporaries, most of whom have by now been forgotten.
The hero, Miles Monroe, jokes his way through the film and occasionally gives his female lead, Diane Keaton a good line that is recognizably his. Sleeper is now seen as a step toward Allen’s best comedies such as Annie Hall and Manhattan. The fact remains that Sleeper quickly took its place among the hundreds of slapdash, sophomoric comedies made in the spirit of the late Max Sennet, and which made comedy only slightly more respected than pornography in cinematic circles.
Gag-based, comedian-centered films largely disappeared after the Sixties when comic actors such as Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, and Red Skelton were swept aside by a new generation of comedians, and not a moment too soon. In the late 80s, Ted Sennett took another look at Jerry Lewis’s most successful comedy, The Nutty Professor, made in 1963, and found it depressing, calling it “glum and dispirited,” and that “both sides of the hero’s split personality are off-putting” (228). The same can be said for many of those comedies, and the fact that the appeal of these comedians faded so suddenly, and that their films turned from hilarious to painful, shows how quickly that kind of comedy becomes dated.
The self-deprecating hero who emerged in the 1960s took comedy a step closer to in-depth characterization which is considered to be the basis of more durable comedy. According to Sennett, this was partly due to Peter Sellers’s portrayal of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films and Woody Allen’s persona as an “intellectual nebbish” (232) which established itself even in his amateurish early films and grew in sophistication and strength along with his later films.
Censorship restrictions had eased by this time, giving comedy writers much greater scope and resulting in a string of films that mocked American institutions and traditions. By the 1970s the range of comedy had expanded to the point where films as sophisticated and funny as the 1972 film by Peter Bogdanovich, What’s Up, Doc, a spoof of and a homage to the screwball comedies of the past, and the raucous Animal House of 1978 were enjoying success at the box office.
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That the Academy ignored Animal House is understandable. Not only has it been credited with starting the “gross-out” genre of comedy but the film makes no pretension to cinematic art. Bogdanovich’s film, however, might have rated a mention. After all, the director was regarded as a Hollywood wunderkind after The Last Picture Show had been nominated for an Oscar 1971; but comedy was still regarded as a disreputable form by the Academy’s membership.
Over the past forty years, comedy has taken its place among other genres as legitimate cinema yet, not counting the 1960 winner, The Apartment, a throwback to the fifties, only three comedies have won the Oscar for Best Picture in that time. The simplest way to explain that deficiency is to take Mel Brooks’s 1974 comedy, Blazing Saddles as a test case. Should it have been at least nominated for Best Picture? It was nominated in the Best Actress (Madeline Kahn) in a Supporting Role, Best Editing, and Best Music, Original Song categories.
In 2006, Blazing Saddles was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” (Wikipedia, Blazing Saddles). It has therefore been recognized as a major film but when it was first released there was no question of it being given the award for Best Picture. It would be interesting to learn which criteria the Academy applied in its selection process, but it has revealed only the most basic ones: to be selected a film must be made in America, it cannot be an animated feature, it must be over 40 minutes in length, and must have played in theaters for at least a week (IMDb). In other words, Blazing Saddles was eligible.
The other criteria used by the selection committee for this prestigious award remains shrouded in mystery but attempts have been made to infer them from past winners. Emanual Levy came up with the following list of reasons why some films win: ad campaigns, studio politics, a nominee’s personality, popularity in the industry, emotional and political factors, the “validity” or “morality” of off-screen personalities, and whether a nominee was denied a well-deserved award previously (262).
There seems to be no set of agreed-upon esthetic criteria for judging films. Admittedly Blazing Saddles lacks the elements usually found in classic films such as a great love story or stupendous special effects, but it performs a great and lasting service to lovers of comedy by destroying the clichés perpetuated by Hollywood, including the Hollywood Western, for which alone it deserves an award. Satire often bites the hand that feeds it, and Blazing Saddles is primarily a spoof of Hollywood movies. Perhaps that is the primary reason for the Academy’s aversion to comedy: it is irreverent, even dangerous, as likely to attack Hollywood as any other American institution.
A good example of a dangerous film is Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 “black comedy,” Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It had to be made over the objections of the Motion Picture Association of America whose president expressed reservations about a satire that targeted the US president and military (LoBrutto 232).
The film was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture but lost to My Fair Lady, once again showing Hollywood’s preference for lighter entertainment. Since its release, Dr. Strangelove has been honored as one of the greatest comedy films of all time and the 15th best film of all time (Wikipedia, Strangelove). Then why was it not good enough to be Best Picture of 1964?
Dr. Strangelove was one of the first films to challenge Hollywood’s tightly controlled system by crossing the boundaries of tasteful satire. The film contains sexual and scatological references (General Buck Turgidson, for example, and Colonel “Bat” Guano), it ridicules the ruling elite, it puts Major “King” Kong at the controls of a B-52 carrying twenty megaton hydrogen bombs, the equivalent of thousands of Hiroshimas, and it makes comedy out of nuclear winter, life in mine shafts and the return of fascism, ending with the unforgettable image of Kong riding a thermonuclear weapon like a cowboy on a bronco.
Some critics were appalled, but philosopher Lewis Mumford spoke for many people when he wrote that “this film is the first break in the catatonic Cold War trance that has so long held our country in its rigid grip” (qtd. in LoBrutto 248). If that grip had never been broken, it would have suited Hollywood because Kubrick’s satire raised the bar for the whole movie industry and thus put pressure on the movie industry to abandon the old for the new.
The “Metropolis of Make-Believe,” says Richard Maltby, wanted to control its output because they had to protect and promote Hollywood’s most valuable possession: the idea of Hollywood. Well into the 1950s Hollywood produced films that propagandized in the service of that idea, a Hollywood that was the creation of its own press and public relations corps. This was done to conceal the industry itself, diverting the public’s attention away from the “routine, mechanical, standardized aspect of the industry’s central operations” (Maltby 18-19).
These industry-tested audience responses and engineered their product so as to elicit the desired responses from that audience, “making it laugh or cry at the appointed times.” In order to achieve its ends, Hollywood favored what is termed the “classical” film. Hollywood defined classically as adhering to its ideal of “decorum, proportion, formal harmony, respect for tradition, mimesis, self-effacing craftsmanship, and cool control of the perceiver’s response” (Maltby 16), but of course, this approach limits creativity and innovation.
Once Dr. Strangelove poked a hole in the dam, there was first a trickle, then a flood of innovation which, coming on the heels of the end of the studio system, resulted in films that could not have been imagined in the 1950s. The Graduate, for example, showed a married woman committing adultery without dying for her sin, as Elizabeth Taylor had done in the 1960 film, Butterfield 8 just seven years earlier. These films made money and so Hollywood had to produce them but they did not have to like them.
In many ways comedy has been its own worst enemy, at least in getting the respect it deserves from its own capital, but then the writers and directors of great comedy do not depend on Oscars to keep them hard at work. The Golden Globe’s list of winning and nominated comedies shows that as a genre it is as diverse and dynamic as the list of dramas. The quality of the writing, direction, and acting in the best comedies is at least equal to that in the dramatic category, these comedies have durability and the power to entertain and instruct, and are therefore deserving in every respect to be included in the Academy’s March line-ups.
However, to Hollywood comedy is dangerous, increasingly so as one comedian after another strips away the disguise under which the movie industry has gone about making its money. Until Hollywood comes to terms with comedy, it is unlikely that the Academy Awards speeches will have the audience rolling in the aisles.
Anonymous. IMDb Awards. Web.
Bailey, Peter J. The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen. Louisville: UP of Kentucky, 1998.
Gehring, Wes A. American Dark Comedy: Beyond Satire. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Huff, Theodore. Charlie Chaplin. New York: Henry Schuman, 1951.
LoBrutto, Vincent. Stanley Kubrick: A Biography. New York: Donald I. Fine Books, 1997.
Maltby, Richard. Hollywood Cinema. London: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
Sennett, Ted. Laughing in the Dark: Movie Comedy from Groucho to Woody. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.