Who are your favorite comedic actors? Think throughout the history of film. Chaplin? Keaton? Hepburn? What about more recent performers? Will Adam Sandler, Jack Black and Tina Fey live on and be remembered with the greats? Only time will tell.
Comedy is a slippery thing. What one person finds comic, another will not even crack a smile. Only a few comic performances are considered ubiquitous, telegraphing through space and time to make people laugh, people whose parents weren’t even born when the performance was committed to celluloid. These are the greatest roles and they still mean something, no matter your preferences.
We here at Spectrum Culture have decided to revive our Year by Year feature with the best comedic performances ever in mind. We pored through every screwball comedy and crappy SNL-inspired flick to create a list of the comedic performances from 1930-2010. The only rule? We could pick only one selection per year. Some years were easy, others nearly impossible to find one worthy suitor. Most difficult of all were the ones were numerous actors could have been the victor. Seriously? Cary Grant vs. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby? How does one choose? But what we did learn is that year after year, there are some great actors and actresses that will live on forever. I hope you enjoy the first part of this feature - David Harris
1930 was not the year in which the Marx Brothers were unleashed on the world. Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo (and sometimes Gummo) already had a well established vaudeville career and two films, Humor Risk (1921) and The Cocoanuts (1929), under their belt by the time the ‘30s rolled around, but it’s Animal Crackers that really put them on the cinematic map. Adapted from their Broadway show of the same name (and written by Algonquin Round Table member George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind), Animal Crackers is the brothers out in their full powers, unrestrained by logic or propriety. Their characters were already firmly established through years of live performance: Groucho the snide wit, Chico the dimwitted con man and Harpo the…well, the harp-playing weirdo. Also, Zeppo was there too.
Though Animal Crackers has a rough plot, the film is largely a structure in which the Marx Brothers go at their routines at breakneck paces. With Groucho as Captain Spaulding (and introducing his eventual real life theme song “Hooray for Captain Spaulding”) throwing insults left and right, and Chico double teaming a mime- and physical-comedy, it’s as great of an introduction to the brothers as you could ever need. It has some of Groucho’s most memorable lines (“I shot an elephant in my pajamas…”) and more shameless mugging than you could shake a horn at, but most of all, it has the brothers working in seamless conjunction with each other, trading barbs and puns at a pace quicker than most could comprehend, yet alone deliver. The Marx Brothers would go on to make grander, bigger movies over the years, but Animal Crackers set their standard. - Nathan Kamal
Chaplin only made two films in the ‘30s (City Lights and Modern Times) as Hollywood moved into the sound-film era. Modern Times is one of Chaplin’s best films and a well-celebrated critique of industrial society, but it feels almost cold in comparison to the sweet rom-com City Lights – which also contains a superior performance from Chaplin. This may be because the comedic set pieces in City Lights feel more consistent in narrative structure, as they are balanced by the sentimental scenes with Chaplin’s ingénue, a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherill). City Lights also contains one of Chaplin’s funniest gags, the infamous boxing match in which the Tramp outpaces his more experienced opponent by adroitly hiding behind the referee, turning an aggressive sport into a nimble comedic dance. Fewer characters arouse more empathy than the Little Tramp, but this especially true when he is searching for love, and this narrative goal is grounded more firmly in City Lights than Chaplin’s other works. By developing an unprecedented degree of character identification, the Tramp’s trials and tribulations are that much more hilarious – and in the romantic scenes, more touching. - Tina Hassannia
Michel Simon plants himself in the middle of Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning like a drunken boulder, unmoving in the face of a bourgeois elitist’s attempts to save the bum from himself. A class-conscious embodiment of the “Scorpion and the Frog” parable and, to date, the best screen depiction of Melville’s Bartleby, Simon’s Boudu will not be bent by his savior’s quest to domesticate him. Simon’s giant frame (complete with a face so massive one wonders how not only his neck but his whole skeleton can support it) makes him an unstoppable force of lechery. His bawdiness serves as a sledgehammer to social propriety and as a Pied Piper’s tune for the women in the Lestingois home. Boudu breaks so many social confines that Simon’s performance breaks free of the source novel itself, letting him run free from even an ironic acceptance into the fold. - Jake Cole
Duck Soup is the consensus choice for the finest film effort the Marx Brothers were ever a part of, but it’s also notable for being the clearest instance of one of the siblings stepping forward from the pack with a full-fledged star turn. Groucho always had a gift for wordplay and a splendid ability to spin even the mustiest vaudevillian gags into something almost alarmingly fresh (in every sense of the word). Those qualities are in full evidence in Duck Soup, joined with a scathing insolence as he deflates the very notion of national authority as Rufus T. Firefly, the ruler of Freedonia who cheerfully traipses his way into war with neighboring Sylvania. The comic actor’s rascally charm takes on a whole other level of import when it is setting the wheels of absurd international conflict into motion, which is made abundantly clear by the raucous final portion set in the midst of battle. Beset by a situation that seems primed to best even his vaunted cunning, Groucho finds and conveys new reserves of impish intelligence, sometimes through little more than artfully raised greasepaint eyebrows. – Dan Seeger
It’s not easy being beautiful, glamorous and funny, but Myrna Loy made it look effortless. As Nora Charles, the charming (and slightly enabling) wife of the permanently-soused Nick in The Thin Man (1934), Loy revealed both her impeccable comedic timing and undeniable star power. After years of being typecast as an “exotic” woman, often Asian and usually a femme fatale, Loy finally found her acting niche as the wife of a semi-retired detective. Nora is competent and witty, not the usual brassy noir dame or stuffy female background character supporting the hero lead. She can drink like a man and knows how to take a punch, a true partner to Nick and holding her own throughout. The character is so outsized that it’s a testament to Loy’s talent that Nora doesn’t come across as either caricature or super-hero. Loy is solid and believable, and when given something more to do than wondering and worrying about her husband, she’s hilarious and marvelous, even revolutionary. - Stacia Kissick Jones
Throughout the 1930s, Edward Everett Horton was a stalwart of the so-called sissy character, the implied gay man who acted as sidekick and comedic foil to the hetero male lead. Even after the Hays Code forced studios to tone down depictions of gay characters, Horton’s particular brand of comedic foppishness flourished. Top Hat (1935) was the second film where Horton played the fussy sidekick to Fred Astaire’s regular Joe, and in a cast overflowing with cinematic sissies, Horton out fussbudgets the best of them. His Horace Hardwick provides the cluelessness necessary to keep the thin mistaken identity plot moving, and his effete mannerisms are perfect for making Astaire masculine by comparison – which is exactly why Fred sings that he’s “free for anything you fancy” right to a charmed Horton lounging on the couch. More than that, though, Horton’s solid acting chops provide a foundation for Astaire to straight-man off of, helping Astaire in scenes he frankly could not hold on his own. Horton is often enjoyed but rarely appreciated for what he truly was: the anchor that held many a flimsy Depression-era plot together. - Stacia Kissick Jones
One of the great pleasures of William Powell’s performance in My Man Godfrey is the deftly ingenious way he plays the nesting doll of roles within the role. Powell plays a man plucked from among the down-on-their-luck derelicts to serve as the fulfillment of an entry on a wealthy debutante’s scavenger hunt list calling for a “forgotten man.” In short order, he’s put to work as the butler of the young woman’s family, a role he takes on with a sharp-tongued dignity, not letting on that he himself hails from great wealth, his excursion to the slums provoked by a broken heart rather than a ravaged bank account. Made deep in the midst of the Great Depression, the film wrests jokes from the callous indifference of the rich to the plight of their fellow man, even those in their direct employ. Powell is the film’s graceful, sardonically wise center, commenting on the excesses he sees with a tinge of weariness that signals the way the character is still smarting from his own sudden influx of empathetic feeling. – Dan Seeger
Irene Dunne walks into The Awful Truth with a beaming smile and an air of innocence. But she also walks into it with a man who is not her husband and provokes a fight that soon spirals into divorce proceedings. For the next hour, she mostly plays the victim of Cary Grant’s manipulative peevishness, giggling at his clumsiness and infuriated by his interference with her plans to remarry. When she gets her chance at revenge, however, she seizes control of the film in its last act. Posing as Grant’s lout of a sister, Dunne has no control of her body and even less of her mouth. Letting her syllables hang in the nose for a half-second and chuckling in ragged stammers that suggest she may break out in drunken tears at any second, Dunne would bring Grant’s wooing to a halt with only a few words. Then she starts a song and dance number as Grant’s thin smile fights to hold back both great terror and a returning affection for his estranged bride. Both reactions are perfectly understandable. - Jake Cole
In Bringing Up Baby, one of the most charismatic Hollywood stars, Cary Grant, stoops to playing an uptight dweeb. His is a meticulously crafted performance, each movement a manifestation of some twitchy inner anxiety, and like the dinosaur skeleton he’s building, a goal which he spends the entire film pursuing, Grant’s performance is steadily built explicitly for the purpose of collapsing. Every bit of tightly wound-up nervousness hints at an underlying need—director Howard Hawks might say “pathology”—and he is driven to attempting to put everything in its proper place. Such a desire is hopelessly doomed, of course, and in Hawks’ comedy, propriety and orderliness are always sacrificed for ecstatic bursts of liberating joy: the final destruction of Grant’s dinosaur is crushing for a split second, but it ultimately frees him. The goal of life, it seems, is to be endlessly wrapped up in convoluted adventures with a person you love, in this case Katharine Hepburn. Allegedly, Grant improvised his famous line, screaming that he “went gay all of a sudden” when Hepburn catches him in her nightgown (…long story). Screwball isn’t just a flavor of comedy, it’s an entire way of being, transfiguring and joyous. — Trevor Link
1939: The fact that Greta Garbo spends more than half of Ninotchka as a dour communist party functionary might seem to undercut the comic status of her performance, but the dreariness of her role in the film’s first half only makes the eventual melting of that icy exterior all the more charming. Bending her native Swedish accent into a Russian register, she anchors this amiable Lubitsch comedy by nailing the transition, fully occupying both halves of the character, with just the right touches to make her eventual transformation believable: her Nina Ivanovna Yakushova lets thin rays of joy peek through her harsh exterior; her eventual love-struck Ninotchka is sunny but still a little dark. The feat is even more impressive considering it was Garbo’s first foray into comedy, and bittersweet considering it would be her second to last film, retiring after the commercial failure of George Cukor’s Two-Faced Woman two years later. - Jesse Cataldo