BBC releases list of top 100 comedy films of all time
The hot list throws up all sorts of funny food for thought
Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot has been voted the best comedy of all time in a poll for BBC Culture. Some 253 critics from around the world – including Tara Brady and this writer for The Irish Times – were asked to rank their 10 favourite comic films. The final 100 delivered some predictable results and a few notable surprises. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, a serious comedy, was propelled to number two on the back of significant rankings from many US critics. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall was in third place.
Eight of the top 10 were American – Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Jacques Tati’s Playtime being the exceptions – but there was an impressive spread across the eras. Buster Keaton’s The General from 1926 was the highest silent entry at number 10. (Playtime is wordless, not silent.)
The BBC’s boffins came up with interesting analysis. If only US and Canadian critics had been considered then Dr Strangelove would have made it to number one. Withnail and I (one of my selections) was 6.6 times more popular with European critics than those from the rest of the world. Asian critics were fonder of silent films. There was less divergence between female and male critics than one might expect, but women were much keener on Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (one of Tara’s choices) than the chaps. Coming in at number 34, Clueless is the highest ranked of just three pictures by female directors.
Some Like it Hot is not a surprising winner. A famously unstoppable romp, starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as two musicians posing as women to evade hoodlums, Wilder’s picture has the ability to cross cultures and generations with ease (though the poll suggests it is more popular in Europe than its home country). It was 1959 and Marilyn Monroe was at the height of her fame. Everything clicks together with well-oiled efficiency.
The film also has the advantage of neatly satisfying conflicting pressures on any critic participating in such a poll. This is officially a list of the “100 greatest comedies” of all time. Does that mean the greatest films that are comedies or just the 100 funniest films? Those are not quite the same things. Most critics would agree that Dr Strangelove (number 2) is a “greater” film than Airplane! (number 7). Nobody talks much about the cinematography in the latter entertainment. Nobody wonders if it still speaks to the geo-political traumas of the present day. But who would sincerely argue that Strangelove is funnier than Airplane!? You would? Shirley, you can’t be serious.
I pondered this when ranking my own list. On balance, I leant towards pretending that some objective notion of greatness – don’t ask me to further define? – was more significant than the number of laughs generated. Hence the arrival of Wilder’s The Apartment at number one in my list. It is definitely a romantic comedy. A guy falls for a girl. The girl has another guy. The first guy eventually gets the girl. “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.” It stars such comic geniuses as Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. And yet the film hangs around a misused woman who attempts to kill herself at Christmas. The laughs decorate the often-gloomy action rather than providing it with a reason to exist. I still feel as if I’ve cheated just a bit.
Approach this from another angle. Need we ask only that a film be funny for it to qualify as a comedy? Quite a few of the voters seemed to think so. You will find Pulp Fiction at number 46. Yet Quentin Tarantino’s picture simply does not have the shape of a classical comedy. People say funny things, but Pulp Fiction is surely a noir thriller exposed to sunlight. There are more zingers in Wilder’s Sunset Blvd than there are in The Apartment, but not one of the 253 critics voted for it. The hero dies at the end and the beginning. So, it’s a sort of tragedy. Right?
In the case of Woody Allen, critics appear to have counted the yucks when making their choices. Neither Manhattan nor Crimes and Misdemeanours, both highly acclaimed, make it into the final 100. Three funnier films – Love and Death, Annie Hall and Zelig – are there at widely spaced intervals. (Incidentally, for all Allen’s famous popularity in France, only Zelig registered with the French critics polled.)
All of which is a longwinded way of saying that, at their penumbrae, all genres allow a great deal of flexible definition. The list further confirms that critics like films to settle in before they declare them worthy of top-level adoration. The highest-ranking film from the current century, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, comes in down at number 33. But here’s a surprise. The most popular decade for comedies was one of the less celebrated in film history. A full 18 of the top 100 were released in the 1980s. Stand up, This Is Spinal Tap! Take a bow, Withnail and I. You’re a star, Tootsie.
It’s a list worth pondering. I fume that not a single critic voted for the incomparable Doris Day comedy Pillow Talk. I now wonder if I should have voted for Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers, which, despite charting with Australian, Indian and Chilean critics, somehow failed to make the 100. Come to think of it, Ealing Studios look to have been shamefully robbed.
Oh well. Nobody’s perfect.
THE BBC CULTURE TOP 10
1. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
2. Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
3. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
4. Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)
5. Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933)
6. Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)
7. Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, 1980)
8. Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
9. This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
10. The General (Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, 1926)
DONALD CLARKE’S TOP 10 COMEDIES
1. The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
2. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
3. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
4. The Happiest Days of Your Life (Frank Launder, 1950)
5. Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959)
6. Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson, 1987)
7. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)
8. This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
9. The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937)
10. Jour de fête (Jacques Tati, 1949)
TARA BRADY’S TOP 10 COMEDIES
1. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
2. This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
3. The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)
4. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
5. Team America: World Police (Trey Parker, 2004)
6. Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, 1980)
7. Trading Places (John Landis, 1983)
8. Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933)
9. Project A (Jackie Chan and Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, 1983)
10. Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)