Saturday, April 09, 2016

Funny Is Funny

When the Marx Brothers' classic Duck Soup didn't make money, their contract at Paramount wasn't picked up.  It looked like they might be finished in movies, but then they got a deal at MGM and under the watchful eye of Irving Thalberg made A Night At The Opera.  At the first preview, no one laughed.  None of the people involved could understand it--they'd taken such care to ensure this one would play.  Thalberg, calm as always, simply took the reels across the street and showed it at another theatre where it got roars.  The film was a huge hit and is considered a classic today.

It fascinates me--how the same film can fail or succeed with different audiences.  The quality, of course, matters, but you never know.  Which is why I'm intrigued--and slightly scared--at what I see is going on at one of my favorite cinemas, the Music Box in Chicago.  They will be showing a bunch of classic comedies and asking "is it still funny?"

The schedule has National Lampoon's Animal House, Blazing Saddles, good old Duck Soup and There's Something About Mary.  But really this is a question you can ask about numerous classic comedies.  And the answer isn't so easy.

I've been a fan of old movies, especially comedies, just about all my life.  I sought them out in the days when they were hard to see, and I still go to see them--even though I've watched them countless times--if they're playing in a theatre and there promises to be a crowd.  Indeed, most of my best movie-going experiences have been at showings attended by large, appreciative audiences watching films generally made before I was born.  In fact, I've been hosting movie nights for years not only to spread my love of these classics, but because I feel they're meant to be seen with other people--having others around you (laughing or not) changes the experience.  Watching them alone, and on a small screen, can be fun, but it's not the same thing.

When I was in college I got to see a lot of classic comedies for the first time, with big crowds, and I sometimes think they were a bigger education than the classes I attended.  Not all lived up to there reputations, but more often than not they seemed far better than what was available in the present.

But movies nowadays are experienced differently.  You can still go see them in a theatre--better catch it the first week while the crowds are there--but more people watch movies when they're by themselves, on Netflix or DVD or whatever medium, stopping and starting whenever they want.  This may be leading to films where the plots are flimsier, and the comedy less subtle, because what may be most important is there be sections you can excerpt, sometimes bizarre bits (perhaps improvised during shooting) that are fun to watch and quote over and over.

The four comedies above I've seen numerous times, including in theatres.  Animal House was a huge title for my generation, and it changed the face of comedy (making it raunchier, if nothing else).  I saw it years later and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't--I guess it depended on the attitude (not the age) of the audience.  But I think a movie is as good as its best screening, and I still consider it a classic.

Blazing Saddles I didn't love when I first saw it--I thought it was too vulgar (believe it or not).  I preferred Woody Allen comedies, even if Mel Brooks had bigger hits. But I've grown to appreciate it more over the years, though it's politically incorrect, very possibly in ways that date it with a modern crowd (though political incorrectness can be a pretty bad reason to hate an old film--you've usually got to accept it was a different time and move on).

Duck Soup I may have watched more than any other film.  It was the first Marx Brothers film I ever saw (I think I was about 10) and it turned me into a lifelong fan. I attended packed screenings in college and it got laughs like I'd never heard before.  I've seen it more recently and it still gets laughs, though I'm not sure it does as well as it used to--though this may be because when you get a crowd for it (and it's hard to get a crowd for old films these days) many in the audience already know the gags, which are pretty much everything in a Marx Brothers film. (A Night At The Opera may play better today merely because while still funny, it has a plot you can hold onto--that was what Thalberg added, which turned out to be the beginning of the end for the team.)

There's Something About Mary--as I've stated this on the blog before--may be the best comedy of the past 20 years.  It's a minor miracle, and the Farrelly Brothers haven't come close to it since.  I saw it three times when it first came out not only because it was funny, but because it was a surprise hit that sold out for weeks (which could still happen in the 90s) and I wanted to be part of that communal experience.  But will it still play?  Once again, most people know it--the question is how would people respond who haven't seen it before.

Ultimately, what the Music Box is doing must by necessity be an imperfect experiment.  Some films play well, some don't, but to do it properly, you've got to have a good print, good projection and good sound.  More important, you need an audience that isn't jaundiced or jaded--one that doesn't have their arms crossed thinking who needs old stuff (or black and white or silent stuff), or worse, one that's waiting to be offended.  They need to be a large crowd eager to be entertained (though not necessarily easy laughers).  And while it should be a crowd that has some familiarity with the actors and the times in which the movie was made, shouldn't know the film, or if they do know it, shouldn't be able to recite the dialogue along with it.  Get that, and have numerous showings, and then you've got an experiment worth trying.

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