Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple. Photo Credit: Getty Images
BY STEPHEN WHITTY
What’s better than a really smart comedy? A really dumb one.
Because let’s face it: Sometimes you just want to see someone get a pie in the face.
Luckily, Hollywood knows how to deliver. And it seemed to reach peak goofiness in the ’50s and ’60s, as big-budget movies took a turn for the nutty, and huge stars happily made fools of themselves.
Filmmaker Billy Wilder moved easily between dry comedy and dark drama. Some of his best movies — Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Apartment (1960) — expertly mix both. But audiences loved him best when Wilder got wilder, as in the rowdy The Seven Year Itch (1955) starring Marilyn Monroe as a girl who just can’t cool down. Or The Fortune Cookie (1966), a farce about a fraud, and the film that first hilariously teamed Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Still, the best and brightest Wilder comedy may be Some Like It Hot (1959), with Lemmon and Tony Curtis dressing up as ladies to get away from the mob. Monroe shows up again, and while her seduction of Curtis’ faux Cary Grant is the film’s sexiest spot, it’s Joe E. Brown’s daffy courtship of Lemmon that gets the biggest belly laughs.
Throughout the early ’50s, no one did slapstick cinema better than Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, who bonded at New York City’s Glass Hat nightclub in 1946 and quickly became one of the highest-paid acts in show business. From 1949 to 1956, the pair released 16 films — including 1951’s The Stooge, 1953’s The Caddy and 1955’s Artists and Models — until Martin grew weary of their dimwit-and-straight-man shtick and went solo, 10 years to the day they first met.
And though he brought his favorite crazy voice and fake teeth to The Nutty Professor (1963), Lewis — who wrote, directed and starred — pared the film’s plot down to a clever Jekyll-and-Hyde spoof, with Lewis playing both parts.
Doris Day discovered it’s fun to be foolish when she became a huge rom-com star in the sneakily sexy Pillow Talk (1959) with Rock Hudson (and a cleverly risqué, split-screen scene that put them in adjoining bubble baths). Follow-ups like Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964) made them a favorite team. An even goofier Day comedy was The Thrill of It All (1963), a TV-ad satire with a sublimely silly scene of co-star James Garner driving into a swimming pool. Day also lit up The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), a wild spy spoof with Rod Taylor that also found room for funnyman favorites Dom DeLuise and Paul Lynde.
If you’re looking for a comedy that’s more squeaky clean, 1965’s The Great Race has broad family appeal. Curtis and Lemmon teamed up again, abetted by a gorgeous and game Natalie Wood, an epic, round-the-world chase, dozens of face-planted pies, and parodies of everything from silent movies to The Prisoner of Zenda. This is a big, bright, candy-colored cartoon of a movie, with archetypes any child will recognize — the charming and resourceful hero, the bitter villain (compete with clumsy henchman) and the gorgeous damsel in distress who is, in fact, a lot more self-reliant than she’s given credit for.
While The Great Race was a wide-screen winner, it wasn’t nearly as epic as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Director Stanley Kramer set out to make a mammoth and merry statement about greed, and while Mad might not be the best comedy, it’s certainly the biggest, boasting dozens of comedians from Jonathan Winters to Milton Berle. (Also on the hunt for buried loot: Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers and, in one of the movie’s many cameos, the Three Stooges.) It’s almost easier to list funny folks who aren’t in this one.
Last, it’s hard to get more bare-bones than the basics of The Odd Couple (1968): two characters and a living room. That’s the movie’s setup, although the film pokes its head outside a couple of times, and other folks pass through. But at its heart, this is a simple movie about two (hilarious) people — best friends Lemmon and Matthau playing best frenemies Felix and Oscar.
And its answer to “Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?” is “No.” Nor without driving an audience into hysterics.
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