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Year by Year: Best Comedic Performances: 1950s

Year by Year: Best Comedic Performances: 1950s

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

1950: George Sanders in All About Eve

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s screenplay for All About Eve is rightly considered one of the great feats of writing for the screen. Much as it offers up ample juicy moments for Bette Davis to deploy her h-bombs of brash, angry authority. Wonderful as she is (and it really is one of the best performances from a woman who had no shortage of mighty contenders for praise), the film’s comic pulse belongs to George Sanders as cultured theater critic Addison DeWitt, delivering droll rejoinders like they’re frothy candies fizzing to liveliness on his tongue. Given the dialogue that most clearly had its genesis on the page of a writer who had endless time to conceive the proper response of the highest intelligence, Sanders somehow makes every erudite snip utterly natural, the spontaneous expression of a mind that could – that must – confront the deviousness of the title character by asking, “Is it possible, even conceivable, that you’ve confused me with that gang of backward children you play tricks on, that you have the same contempt for me as you have for them?” – Dan Seeger

1951: Alec Guinness in The Man in the White Suit

Sidney Stratton is The Man in the White Suit, a chemist obsessed with the creation of an indestructible, everlasting fabric. Alec Guinness as Sidney shows more than the typical asocial tendencies of a deep scientific mind resistant to distraction; his demeanor exhibits an occasionally otherwordly calm, adding to his inherent charm. But Sidney is a man who nearly no one can relate to. Sidney embarks on a little scheming and a lot of dodging of self-inflicted chemical explosions to finally realize his dream of inventing his miracle fabric. This invention will cost jobs and hurt the economy, though he has no concern for anything but his science. Yet he remains likeable, and the moral ambiguity of the situation is entirely due to Guinness’s ability to buffer the cynicism with earnestness and naive delivery. His delightful, almost musical cadence renders Sidney unthreatening, despite a sharp deft wit and solid gaze. His performance is a comedic triumph, hilarious without ever being unbelievable or cruel. Alec Guinness was the very definition of the unflappable gent, the perfect man to deliver biting satire while still having a heart. – Stacia Kissick Jones

1952: Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain

The emotional ups and downs of show business are crystallized into some of cinema’s finest musical numbers in Singin’ in the Rain, with Donald O’Connor’s Cosmo rounding off the film’s multiple narrative threads as protagonist Don Lockwood’s (Gene Kelly) sidekick. Cosmo may act as a voice of reason for Don when he faces his romantic and career obstacles, but Cosmo’s charm is mostly found in his good-natured clowning, which is applicable in just about every situation in the film, whether he is putting the exasperatingly self-absorbed Lina (Jean Hagen) in her place, providing pithy commentary on the bizarre mores of Hollywood, or being a positive, encouraging best friend who brainstorms the clever trick that saves Don’s new film. It’s not unimaginable but still strange to imagine the comedian originally written for the role of Cosmo: the erudite oddball Oscar Levant, who could easily deliver the witty one-liners, but could never live up to the droll dash O’Connor provides in every silly facial expression and boisterous clumsy dance-falls into drywall and other hard surfaces. O’Connor’s energy, particularly in the musical numbers is unbelievably infectious and irresistible. And unlike Lina, he didn’t have to tell me that himself. – Tina Hassannia

1953: Jacques Tati in M. Hulot’s Holiday

Jacques Tati’s comic persona Monsieur Hulot is one of the greatest creations in comic filmmaking history. Even though this character is always the protagonist in Tati’s films, it’s hard to say he always occupies the center of each film’s world. This culminates in Tati’s defining masterpiece Playtime, an expansive, swirling vision of the world in which Hulot is just one small speck amidst the rumble of humanity. The scale of M. Hulot’s Holiday is decidedly smaller—a seaside resort serves as the setting rather than a sprawling metropolis—but Tati plays Hulot in the same way, just one of many interlocking comic puzzle pieces. But what distinguishes Tati’s Hulot from the other characters, a motley collection of men and women playing it straight around a true comic genius, is the way the world seems to rotate with Hulot as its axis. Everywhere, he is there, causing chaos and generally upsetting the proper orderliness of families on vacation. Tati’s Hulot is a mischief maker, albeit an unwitting one, who breaks down social order just by being himself, and in doing so, he makes everyone around him funny. Tati’s sense of comedy is thus deeply ennobling and humanistic. — Trevor Link

1954: Thelma Ritter in Rear Window

Thelma Ritter, nominated for six Oscars for her career of magnificent character work, went overlooked for her performance as James Stewart’s insurance-company nurse. A side player in a film in which the camera rules all, Ritter blends into the background even more seamlessly than usual, yet she plays the film’s moral compass with a bracingly funny edge. Her advice and commentary reflect the most inoffensively traditional values, yet she wraps her straight-talking, no-nonsense rants in mini-tangents and left-field thoughts that add shades of self-aware irony to her moralism. “Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence,” she chides Jeff, briefly taking the discussion of marriage into a strange, ridiculous realm before she drifts back on-topic to harangue him some more. Ritter knows she has Stewart’s ear because he cannot escape her, and she slyly plays up her own constant, chattering proximity as the equally tense inverse of the suspicious neighbor’s faraway, silent presence. – Jake Cole

1955: Gunnar Bjornstrand in Smiles of a Summer Night

Ingmar Bergman has a reputation as a doom-and-gloom purveyor of pitch-black Scandinavian nightmares, but there are a few relatively light comedies floating around in his body of work, most sunny of all being this Swedish take on the classic French countryside farce. Swapping the tortured soul-searching for a breezy, couple-swapping frolic, it’s a fantasy where a single magical night in the countryside can right an entire series of romantic wrongs. The film is anchored by Bergman staple Gunnar Bjornstrand, who plays the tortured Frederik Egerman, unable to convince his virginal 19-year-old wife to consummate their marriage. This quest calls for Bjornstrand to strike the right mix of restrained civility and horny desperation, which he does with aplomb, playing the nominal straight man in this surprisingly fun charade. – Jesse Cataldo

1956: David Niven in Around the World in Eighty Days

There’s perhaps nothing so quintessentially British as a hot air balloon race. Then who more perfect to play the protagonist in the 1956 comedic adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days than that most British of all men, David Niven? As Phileas Fogg, the gentleman inventor, Niven is in his element; he’s perpetually calm, bemused and out of place any place that doesn’t have a cup of tea available. Whether he’s being fed lunch by his devoted manservant Passepartout (comedian Cantinflas) high in the sky in a balloon, getting caught up in a bullfight (Passepartout again) or modifying steam engines in the Wild West, Niven is as unruffled and droll as only an English gentleman could be. And of course, the entire race around the world is predicated on that most perfect of all activity: the gentleman’s bet. – Nathan Kamal

1957: Tony Randall in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Frank Tashlin’s wickedly satiric, mass-cultural deconstruction is grounded by Tony Randall, a man who projects lofty dreams but low ambitions in every ounce of his being. Cary Grant used to put on glasses to play the intellectual straight man, a joke in its own right. But Randall actually looks the part of the man who secretly (and not so secretly) thinks he has what it takes to be a big shot but has none of the competence and drive to succeed. Much as the film stylistically skewers every aspect of postwar mainstream culture, Randall, as the ultimate gray flannel suit, may be the purest form of attack. When Rock suddenly finds himself the most famous man in the country and well on his way up the corporate ladder, he gets everyone’s dream, not merely the acquisition of fame and fortune but the ease of it. But the lack of enjoyment with which Randall plays Rock’s shock and disdain for what he gets is genuine: Tashlin’s film depicts pop culture as finally devouring those who craft it, and Randall gets a horrible look into the endpoint of all his idle fantasy. – Jake Cole

1958: Dennis Weaver in Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil exists in a world crowded with impermanent allegiances and characters whose pasts go on for miles. It’s Shakespeare via grungy, late-era film noir, two cops as enemy kings of bordering lands. Orson Welles’ screenplay, based on the Whit Masterson novel Badge of Evil, sharpened to a fine tip the usual bone-weary dialogue of film noir, often taking it fully into comedic territory. Thus the night manager of the Mirador Hotel, played by a fantastic Dennis Weaver, enters the play. He is the jester, a strange and jittery man who reveals more with his lunacy than any sane man could. Weaver employs outsized physicality in the role, with moves and sight gags straight out of Mack Sennett. But it is no simple goof for a momentary chuckle. The night man’s wide-eyed discomfort at the idea of making a customer’s bed — people have sex in beds, you see, which is very upsetting — is not only funny, it brings us back to the foundation of Touch of Evil, the struggle of two lovers to remain together in a corrupt world. While the traditional Shakespearean fool often appeared after a troubling scene, Touch of Evil’s night man arrives before the horror, his fear of the no-good Grande boys informing the group’s perversity rather than distracting from it. It’s pure Wellesian dark comedy, as horrifying as it is hilarious. Weaver’s role may not be a typical comedic performance, but it is a masterful one. – Stacia Kissick Jones

1959: Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot

Where to begin with the standout performance in a film routinely cited as the greatest American comedy ever made? Tony Curtis turns in an amusing Cary Grant impression and Marilyn Monroe gives her quintessential performance, breathily cooing about always getting “the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” Lemmon, though, is something else, bringing an irresistible exuberance to his portrayal of a musician named Jerry who puts on a dress and masquerades as Daphne to hide out from gangsters after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Initially agitated by the feminine alias or indulging in out-of-character lusty excitement when Monroe’s Sugar pops into his train car berth for a girls’ night snuggle, Jerry eventually embraces his new identity, helped along by an ego-boosting romantic pursuit from an oddball millionaire (Joe E. Brown). When Jerry is shaking maracas blissfully in a hotel room, declaring himself a lucky girl because he’s just got engaged to his unlikely beau, Lemmon gets at the freedom his character feels while still nailing the high humor of the moment. Writer-director Billy Wilder mixed absurdity and honesty like few others, and Lemmon brought that home like no one else could. – Dan Seeger

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