To the playwrights of ancient Greece, tragedy was what ended in death and comedy was what ended in marriage. Now, all of it is funny. To quote the Greek philosopher Elvis Costello, "I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused." Here are the funniest movies.
"Monkey Business" (1931), directed by Norman Z. McLeod, begins with the Marx brothers, stowaways on a luxury liner, harmonizing inside herring barrels down in the hold. Soon, they're on the loose aboard ship.
"Duck Soup" (1933), directed by Leo McCarey, is the Marx brothers' best comedy and one of the funniest movies ever made. Groucho, president of Freedonia, declares war on neighboring Sylvania just for being a boring country.
"Dinner at Eight" (1933), directed by George Cukor, puts on the dog, talent-wise, for a sharp satire with ensemble cast about events leading up to a fancy dinner party at a ritzy mansion. It's Jean Harlow's moment to shine.
"Sons of the Desert" (1933), directed by William A. Seiter, is the most uproarious jewel in the Laurel and Hardy crown. Our boys connive to fool their wives and sneak off to a lodge convention. The best laid plans...
"It's a Gift" (1934), directed by Norman Z. McLeod, is virtually a compilation of W.C. Fields' finest early sketches in a tale of a family that goes west to seek fortune.
"It Happened One Night" (1934), directed by Frank Capra, has Clark Gable as the hard-boiled reporter tagging along with Claudette Colbert, who is fleeing the hassles of being fabulously rich. At first they can't stand each other...
"Twentieth Century" (1934), directed by Howard Hawks, is Hollywood's grand train comedy. This is why writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were put on this earth.
"A Night at the Opera" (1935), directed by Sam Wood, is the Marx Brothers with all the production values of Hollywood at their disposal. It's all here, from the big set piece gags to the musical numbers to the bizarre wordplay.
"Philadelphia Story" (1940), directed by George Cukor, tweaks the mores of the Main Line as complications arise in an impending society wedding when an ex-husband, Cary Grant, and newspaperman, James Stewart, horn in. Katherine Hepburn is the focus of all their attentions.
"His Girl Friday" (1940), directed by Howard Hawks, is the best of all the versions of the classic newspaper comedy "The Front Page." Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant are a comic dream team as a reporter and editor whose chicanery knows no bounds.
"The Bank Dick" (1940), directed by Eddie Cline, has W.C. Fields as slacker who stumbles into job as security guard in a bank. Fields is besieged on all sides by idiots and pompous asses.
"The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1941), directed by William Keighley, has imperious New York critic breaking his leg, being forced to spend winter with Middle American family. Naturally, all his wacky cronies drop by to see him.
"Never Give a Sucker an Even Break" (1941), directed by Edward Cline, is W.C. Fields classic with no discernible plot, just piles of gags. Big chase finale can still make your jaw drop.
"To Be or Not to Be" (1942), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is Jack Benny's shining moment on screen as leader of acting troupe in Poland who must use all the theater tricks at his disposal to pull some sleight of hand on the Nazis.
"Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (1944), directed by Preston Sturges, stretched the old production codes about as far as they would go in tale of girl who goes to wild party, ends up pregnant and is unsure who the father is.
"Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" (1948), directed by H.C. Potter, gathers up all the gags about homebuilder's heebie jeebies into a snazzy package with Cary Grant as the ad executive relocating from Manhattan to Connecticut.
"Sitting Pretty" (1948), directed by Walter Lang, turns on Clifton Webb's classic performance as stuffy professional genius who deigns to take job as babysitter in sweet suburbia.
"Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949), directed by Robert Hamer, is the quintessential British black comedy served up bone dry. Nobleman wannabe who is eighth in line for a title decides to have that title by knocking off the lot, one at a time. Alec Guinness plays all eight victims.
"The Belles of St. Trinian's" (1955), directed by Frank Launder, is the British classic about the picturesque girls' school in England where all the girls are really scheming little gangsters who team up with a bookie to make a big score.
"Auntie Mame" (1958), directed by Morton DaCosta, lets Rosalind Russell give full vent to her comedic gifts in adaptation of Patrick Dennis' novel about a boy and his rich, martini-guzzling bohemian aunt in New York. The spirit of British TV's "Absolutely Fabulous" was born here.
"Some Like It Hot" (1959) is director Billy Wilder's comic masterpiece and one of the great American movies. Two musicians, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, disguise themselves in drag and hide out in an all-girl band after they inadvertently witness a gangland slaying. Marilyn Monroe is unforgettable as the singer "Sugar" Kane.
"The Apartment" (1960), directed by Billy Wilder, has Jack Lemmon milking both laughs and pathos in story of put-upon clerk in big office who is trying to get promoted by lending his apartment out to higher-ups who want to entertain their mistresses. That's how he meets soulmate Shirley MacLaine.
"The Bellboy" (1960), directed by and starring Jerry Lewis, is really a series of blackout sketches with Lewis, in title role, creating chaos in luxury hotel. This is his best movie.
"The Little Shop of Horrors" (1960) is Roger Corman's legendarily cheapo flick about the sappy clerk in a florist shop who doesn't know what to do about his people-eating plant, which keeps getting bigger. The plant gets most of the funny lines.
"One, Two, Three" (1961) is director Billy Wilder at the reins again with an insane Cold War farce. James Cagney is a Coca Cola executive who no sooner arrives to head West Berlin office than he is assigned to babysit his boss' sexpot daughter, who is on tour. The fun starts when she is impregnated by a Communist beatnik. Warning: people have hurt themselves laughing at big chase ending.
"The Errand Boy" (1961), directed by and starring Jerry Lewis, copies the formula for "The Bellboy" with considerable success, this time setting Lewis loose in a movie studio.
"Tom Jones" (1963), directed by Tony Richardson, is a great bawdy romp through the highways, taverns, and bedrooms of 18th century England as our spirited young Tom seeks his fortune. Often imitated, never duplicated.
"Good Neighbor Sam" (1964), directed by David Swift, takes on those old standbys, advertising and surburbia, in story of ad exec Jack Lemmon who must feign ultra-wholesome lifestyle to land big milk account. Murphy's Law, of course, prevails.
"A Shot in the Dark" (1964), directed by Blake Edwards, pulls out the stops with Peter Sellers as the monumentally inept Inspector Clouseau on the big murder case. This is the second and best in the series.
"The Loved One" (1965), directed by Tony Richardson, stunned 1960s audiences with its aggressive mocking of the funeral industry. It still packs a satirical wallop and the sequence featuring Mrs. Joyboy at dinner will sear itself on your brain.
"The Fortune Cookie" (1966), directed by Billy Wilder, owes its success to Walter Matthau in tour de force performance as scheming personal injury lawyer who sees big moneybags when his brother-in-law, Jack Lemmon, a cameraman, gets knocked flat on the field during a pro football game.
"What's Up, Tiger Lily?" (1966) is a unique comic confection from Woody Allen. He took a hokey Japanese spy movie and inserted completely new sound and dialogue, putting terrific one- liners into the mouths of the cast. It has to be seen to be believed.
"The Wrong Box" (1966), directed by Bryan Forbes, is a grand spoof of Victoriana pulled off with panache by a top shelf British cast. There is perfidy galore in this tale of a tontine, or death lottery.
"Don't Make Waves" (1967), directed by Alexander Mackendrick, is an unexpected delight, a funny Tony Curtis comedy. Story has Curtis stranded in Malibu, where he crosses paths with a variety of satirically etched Southern Californians, including musclemen, real estate agents, beach bunnies and, of course, movie people.
"The President's Analyst" (1967), directed by Theodore Flicker, is a 1960s artifact that still tickles. James Coburn gets the job as shrink to the president, finds life turned upside down by FBI, CIA, KGB and other sinister suits who want to know what he knows. He's a paranoid with real enemies.
"The Producers" (1968), written and directed by Mel Brooks, is unhinged farce about a scam dreamed up by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder to rook investors by staging a sure-to-flop Broadway play called "Springtime for Hitler." This is Brooks' finest moment.
"The Party" (1968), directed by Blake Edwards, employs Edwards' favorite bumbling idiot, Peter Sellers, as Indian actor who creates mayhem at a chic Hollywood party. The set-piece gags are among this director's best.
"The Odd Couple" (1968), directed by Gene Saks, smartly casts Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as divorced men, one a fussbudget and one a slob, who make the mistake of trying to live together. This is playwright Neil Simon at the peak of his talent.
"The Magic Christian" (1969), directed by Joseph McGrath, captures most of the corrosive spirit of writer Terry Southern's coal-black humor. Fabulously rich Guy Grand, Peter Sellers, finds it fascinating to see how people will humiliate themselves for money.
"Take the Money and Run" (1969), written and directed by Woody Allen, is Woody's crime spoof, from bank heist to chain gang and beyond. The portentious narration is priceless.
"Where's Poppa?" (1970), directed by Carl Reiner, has George Segal as New York lawyer at his wits' end trying to live with his senile mother, Ruth Gordon. This comedy flirts brazenly with risky themes like matricide and ethnic stereotypes. It's Reiner's masterpiece.
"The Twelve Chairs" (1970), directed by Mel Brooks, has a lot of fun with greedy peasants, priests, and poets running around Czarist Russia looking for a missing chair with jewels sewn into the seat. The period flavor is a perfect complement to the Brooksian style.
"The Owl and the Pussycat" (1970), directed by Herbert Ross, pairs George Segal memorably with Barbra Streisand as pompously intellectual bookstore clerk who finds his life entangled with a brassy prostitute. At first they hate each other...
"Pink Flamingos" (1971) is writer-director John Waters' mondo opus all the way. Aggressively tasteless, "Flamingos" barges obscenely through the door Andy Warhol left open. One of the funniest movies ever made, if you can take it.
"Bananas" (1971), written and directed by Woody Allen, has our hero donning beard and fatigues to become revolutionary in South America. The jokes come fast and furious.
"What's Up Doc?" (1972), directed by Peter Bogdanovich, successfully recreates the screwball comedies of old with sassy Barbra Streisand endlessly complicating the life of stuck-up Ryan O'Neal. Impressive stunts highlight chase ending.
"Harold and Maude" (1972), directed by Hal Asby, is a bona fide cult comedy about a death-obsessed young man, Bud Cort, whose hobbies include staging fake suicides, and his love affair with free-spirited Ruth Gordon, a concentration camp survivor. It's an acquired taste, to be sure.
"The Ruling Class" (1972), directed by Peter Medak, is downright bitter in its contempt for British nobility, but there's laughs along the way. Peter O'Toole is the dotty lord who thinks he's Jesus...or perhaps Jack the Ripper.
"Paper Moon" (1973), directed by Peter Bogdanovich, deftly pulls off a nuanced, funny road picture about a con artist and a little girl, who may be his daughter, who team up to ply their trade across the Midwest during the Great Depression. Ryan O'Neal co-stars with his real-life daughter Tatum.
"Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles" (1974), both directed by Mel Brooks, giddily spoof a variety of conventions of Hollywood monster movies and westerns. It's the whole megillah, right down to the peasants with torches after the monster and the posse tearing up the sagebrush.
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975), directed by Terry Gilliam, gives the Arthurian legend the inimitable Pythonesque treatment. The anachronisms, non sequiturs, and shaggy dog gags pile giddily up and up.
"Don's Party" (1976), directed by Bruce Beresford, is a comedy from Australia that bites like a wombat. Suburban couples gather for a cocktail party on an election night and end up, after a lot of drinks, with their pretensions and vanities in pieces on the floor. This is not a pretty picture of Australian males.
"The Pink Panther Strikes Again" (1976), directed by Blake Edwards, gives plenty of room to Herbert Lom to run amok as the driven-to-derangement boss of Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau.
"Annie Hall" (1977) and "Manhattan" (1979), both written and directed by Woody Allen, constitute an affectionate comic paean to New York and New Yorkers. The jokes, always presented with perfect pitch, range from the lyrical to the slapstick.
"Movie Movie" (1978), directed by Stanley Donen, sends up films of the 1930s by recreating two typical features, "Dynamite Hands," about the ethnic kid who boxes his way out of poverty, and "Baxter's Beauties," the Broadway backstage drama. It's a clever and affectionate tribute.
"National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978), directed by John Landis, lets John Belushi off the leash as the baddest of the frat house bad boys at dinky Faber College. Fratboy culture, scorned in the 1960s, gets rehabilitated.
"Airplane!" (1980), directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, is the first and best of the anything-goes grab bag style spoofs by these three directors. It's got laughs between the laughs.
"Melvin and Howard" (1980), directed by Jonathan Demme, takes the Melvin Dummar saga and runs with it. Working class couple's life is turned upside down after will surfaces naming the husband heir to the late Howard Hughes. Mary Steenburgen steals the movie as the cocktail waitress wife.
"Used Cars" (1980), directed by Robert Zemeckis, has rival used car dealers, operating across the highway from each other, plotting endlessly and hilariously to top each other in customer- attracting gimmicks.
"Mommie Dearest" (1981), directed by Frank Perry, is ostensibly about child abuse in the Joan Crawford household, but Faye Dunaway, as Crawford, chews the carpet with such gusto that it starts getting campy until--at the moment Christine delivers the line "I am not one of your fans!"--it turns screamingly funny.
"Polyester" (1981) proves that writer-director-provocateur John Waters can go Hollywood and still jolt an audience with schtick about abortion, etc. It's clear, however, that it is the dwindling gang of his Baltimore cohorts--represented here by Divine, Edith Massey and Mink Stole--that is responsible for much of the back alley brio that make a Waters film a Waters film.
"My Favorite Year" (1982), directed by Richard Benjamin, set in a television studio where a show not unlike Sid Caesar's is being produced, is an affectionate tribute to old television. Peter O'Toole virtually plays himself as the show's swashbuckling, hard-drinking guest star.
"King of Comedy" (1983), directed by Martin Scorcese, offers a standup comedian wannabe, Robert DeNiro, who decides to make his dreams come true by kidnapping a talk show host, Jerry Lewis, for the ransom of being on his show. This is satire etched in acid.
"Local Hero" (1983), directed by Bill Forsythe, works its comic magic by showing how American hard chargers fall out of step in Europe. In this case, some oil company executives set up shop in a village in Scotland and find themselves going native.
"Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" (1983), directed by Terry Jones, is the most scatalogical outing by the Python crew, but the laughs are there. The "Each Little Sperm" production number is for all time.
"The Pope of Greenwich Village" (1984), directed by Stuart Rosenberg, uses Eric Roberts' hammy style to great advantage in story of a couple of hustling New Yorkers who get in trouble that tried and true way, stealing money from the mob.
"Broadway Danny Rose" (1984), written and directed by Woody Allen, is about a New York nickel-and-dime talent agent, Allen, who has to outwit gangsters, dodge bullets, and even go to New Jersey to keep his main client, a boozy nightclub singer, happy.
"Stranger than Paradise" (1984), written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, a triumph of style over substance, is as deadpan as funny movies get. A couple of New York race track buddies decide to drive to Cleveland for a vacation, in the dead of winter, taking along a relative from Hungary. Somehow, they end up in Florida.
"All of Me" (1984), directed by Carl Reiner, is about a befuddled lawyer whose body is entered by the spirit of a bitchy rich woman, creating two people in one body. The considerable talents of Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin make this one soar.
"Raising Arizona" (1987), directed by Joel Coen, is bravura post-modern filmmaking in the stylish way it weaves together disparate comic elements. In simpler terms, it's one of the funniest movies ever made.
"High Hopes" (1988), directed by Mike Leigh, borrows the deadpan, slice-of-life style pioneered in the U.S. by Jim Jarmusch and John Sayles to convey the struggles of some contemporary Londoners.
"Parenthood" (1989), directed by Ron Howard, surrounds fretful father Steve Martin with his dad, his kids, his wife, and assorted relatives to illustrate the foibles of having kids. Director Howard is a master of hip feel-gooders like this.
"Life Is Sweet" (1991), directed by Mike Leigh, illustrates perfectly that not all eccentric, self-destructive, anti-social behavior is dysfunctional. Portrait of goofy working class family in London is highlighted by a formidable performance by Jane Horrocks as the thoroughly disagreeable daughter.
"Clerks" (1994), directed by Kevin Smith, is a subversive dispatch from the front lines of today's service economy where a job behind the counter is tolerable only when you can carry on your hobbies, romance, and social life at the same time. Bosses--keep your McJob minions from seeing this.
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