Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis) (1945)

Children of Paradise

Directed by Marcel Carne (1945, France)

“Jealousy belongs to all when a woman belongs to none.”

Children of Paradise ranks with Beauty and the Beast (1946) and The Rules of the Game (1939) as a contender for the finest French film from the first half of the Twentieth Century.  As good as the film is, the story of its production is more compelling that the film itself.  Shot in France for 18 months between 1944 and 1945, the production had to deal with moving the entire set between Paris and Nice, collaborators and spies imbedded by the Nazis, a Jewish set designer and a Jewish composer working in secret, and the logistics of acting as a cover for French Resistance fighters.  Overall it is remarkable that this film exists at all.  Since its premiere in Paris shortly after the liberation of France by Allied forces, it is said that it is playing somewhere in Paris every day of the year.

Children of Paradise, at its base, is a story about four men who are obsessed with one woman.  The backdrop is the Paris theater and carnival scene circa 1820-1830.  The four men, the idealistic yet selfish mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), the dangerous yet honorable criminal Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), the flamboyant yet kind actor Frederick (Pierre Brasseur), and the staid yet remorseless Count de Montray (Louis Salou) are based on historical figures from that era. However, the actors who play them use the historical template to create enduring archetypes that one can still see in films today.

The object of their pursuit, Garance, played by French screen legend Arletty, drives all of these men into borderline madness, and each of the men has a different reaction to those feelings.  Frederick at least uses his jealously to take his acting to new heights, while the other three men are driven to murder and betrayal.  While the melodrama may be a bit of a hurdle to modern viewers, the story is still alluring and bizarrely beautiful.

As one of the pinnacles of the pre-New Wave French style of filmmaking known as Poetic Realism, one can see how Children of Paradise could have inspired the men like Godard and Truffaut to take French film in a new and groundbreaking direction.  Children of Paradise, despite its penchant for melodrama and its staged, theatrical scenes, is one of the pinnacles of Poetic Realism.  Add to this the fact that it was created under seemingly impossible circumstances, and it stands astride pre-New Wave French cinema as a colossus.  Where else could French cinema go after Children of Paradise, if not to someplace entirely different?

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

 

Brave (2012) and Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Brave (2012)

Directed by: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, & Steve Purcell (USA)

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Directed by: Colin Trevorrow (USA)

We have two great desires that we can never achieve – to change the past and to guarantee the future.  But what if you had the opportunity to do one or the other?

Two of this summer’s films address these dilemmas.  The films couldn’t have less in common otherwise, so it probably makes sense to address them one at a time.

Brave (2012) is Pixar’s latest offering. As a movie, it is certainly on par with The Incredibles (2004) and Cars (2006), but not quite as good as Pixar’s best (Toy Story 1-3 (1995, 1999, 2010), Finding Nemo (2003), Wall-E (2008), Up (2009)).  The plot centers around the impending arranged marriage of a Scottish princess, Merida (Kelly MacDonald).  Merida, who wishes nothing more than to avoid this fate, chances upon a forest dwelling witch (Julie Walters).  The witch gives Merida a spell which would stop the marriage, but the unintended consequences of said spell are shocking and horrifying (well maybe not horrifying, this is Pixar after all).

Much like the characters in W. W. Jacobs’ classic short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” Merida doesn’t consider the full scope of the consequences of using dark magic to try and change her fate.  While her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) is stubborn, she is not entirely unreasonable. It is possible that Merida could have reasoned with her to avoid the marriage instead of trusting her fate to a random witch in the forest.

In Safety Not Guarenteed (2012), a team of reporters (Aubrey Plaza, Jake M. Johnson, & Karan Soni) tracks down a loner named Kenneth who claims to be building a time machine (Mark Duplass).  While one of the reporters tries to re-ignite a long lost romance (Johnson’s character, Jeff), Plaza’s character, Darius, befriends the loner.  The movie could go one of two ways, either Kenneth is mentally ill or a genius, and I’m not going to give away the ending.  His efforts to create a time machine, however, are nicely woven into a film where the two other protagonists are either trying to re-live their past or, in Darius’ case, emotionally damaged by it.

As anyone knows from the Back to the Future films (1985, 1989, 1990), time travel is not something to be taken on lightly.  While Darius may want to change her past, she risks unleashing unintended and dangerous consequences (she is warned of this by Kenneth and “trained” to handle it).  As this and Jeff’s brief foray into his past romance seems to suggest, it may not be all fun and games even if Kenneth is legitimately a genius building a time machine and not just some nut.

In the end, changing the past or guaranteeing the future is folly.  If you want to spend your $10 of summer movie money wisely though, either of these films are worth escaping the heat wave for.  Then you can think about some of their overarching themes afterwards over some cold drinks at the beach.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Return of the Jedi (1983)

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

1983, United States, Director: Richard Marquand

Return of the Jedi may be one of the most hotly debated Star Wars films.  While it is far, far better than any of the prequels, many critics find it to be the weakest of the original trilogy.  Many fans, on the other hand, consider it the best of the original trilogy. So why the hate from critics? One word: Ewoks.

Before the numerous creative and storytelling errors of the Star Wars prequel trilogy came into being, the scene from the original trilogy that most angered Star Wars fans was the scene from Return of the Jedi where the Ewoks appear to defeat “an entire legion” of the Empire’s “best troops.”  At first glance, the scene is far fetched even for a science fiction/fantasy movie.  Little creatures that look like teddy bears defeat armored soldiers wielding energy weapons?  Seriously?  However if one were to take a moment to think about the sequence of events leading up to the Ewok attack and the events of the attack itself, it begins to become more plausible.  Here’s why:

1.  It’s not an “entire legion of my best troops.”

When the rebels first come to the Imperial Base, Han nervously points out that he and Chewie got into more heavily guarded places.  In the series, Han only gets nervous when he knows he’s wrong.  Also, in an earlier scene we see an AT-AT outside of the base.  The Base therefore is clearly heavily guarded.  However, the Ewoks shows the Rebels a back door that they didn’t previously know about and probably weren’t supposed to know about.  The Empire therefore has to scramble to a certain extent to defend that position, having expected a more direct assault.  The stronger troops probably did not have time, therefore, to swing around to the back door of the Base, which is clearly far away from the main structure.  Which leads me to:

2. The Ewoks have the element of surprise

When Han and the Rebels are caught red-handed, we see four AT-ST walkers (far weaker than AT-AT’s) and maybe two dozen troops.  This is by no means an overwhelming force.  Furthermore, the troops guarding the main base probably sat on their hands upon word that the Rebels had been captured.  In other words, the Empire was caught by surprise with a small force with its reinforcements in a state of unreadiness pretty far away.

3.  The Ewoks have the element of confusion

There are easily three or four times as many Ewoks as stormtroopers.  This is evidenced by both their numbers on the screen and how quickly they bring in various heavy weapons to the battle. Added to this, they are well camouflaged and have knowledge of the area.   This creates confusion among the Imperials as to how many Ewoks there are and where they are.

4. The confusion and surprise allows Chewie the opportunity to commandeer an AT-ST

After a few minutes, the Ewoks are clearly losing.  But the surprise and confusion allows Chewie to steal an AT-ST, swinging the battle back to the Rebels.  Some of the Ewoks are also shown having commandeered stormtrooper weapons, which probably help quite a bit as well.

5. The Ewoks are clearly stronger than they look

The Ewoks look cute and cuddly.  However, they are about the size and build of the North American Black Bear.  It is feasible, therefore, that the Ewoks are significantly stronger than the stormtroopers, and as indicated before, there are swarms of them.

In conclusion, the Ewoks have knowledge of the area, superior numbers, physical strength, and an enemy caught by surprise and out of position.  By the time the small force is defeated, the destruction of the back door of the base has caused a chain reaction destroying the entire base and shield generator (the “entire legion” of the Empire’s “best troops” along with it).  Fortunately for the Rebels, the Empire has a habit of leaving tactically critical, supposedly unreachable, areas relatively undefended (see Death Star, First).  While it clearly isn’t the most likely of scenarios, the fact of the matter is that the Ewoks use numerous tactical advantages to make up for their lack of firepower making the scene more plausible than it appears at first glance.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

A Formula for Re-Watchability

Recently, I watched Varsity Blues (1999) for the first time in several years.   As is common with movies that I enjoyed in high school and college, I found the movie silly, unintentionally funny in parts, and worthy of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.

Of course, our tastes change as we age.  Few adults enjoy all of the same things we enjoyed when we were younger, and many of us have developed an appreciation for things that we didn’t quite understand earlier in our lives.  For example, a child’s first reaction to a sip of coffee is often revulsion, but many of those same children grow up to become the type of crunchy folk that frequent coffee houses in the Pacific Northwest.  This much is obvious.

But why has a movie that I counted as a favorite a decade ago, one of the first movies that I ever bought on DVD, aged so gracelessly?  Certainly the movie is cliched and an easy target of parody, but this was as true the day it came out as it is today.  Furthermore, there are a few similar movies that I know are equally as bad or worse that I still enjoy as movies and not as objects of ridicule.  National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002) comes to mind as an example.

Here’s what I think.  There’s a re-watchability formula.  Let’s say a movie has to have at least the same nostalgic value as a movie you enjoyed watching at 3:00 am in college or in some other fondly remembered situation (Van Wilder for me).  Your present opinion of it has to be at least the same as a solid movie that you just saw (no nostalgic value) that you enjoyed but wouldn’t call your favorite movie by any means (The Hunger Games (2012) for me).

Now nostalgia points are worth half of present opinion points.  So I would give Van Wilder 5/5 for nostalgia and 2/10 for quality.  I would give The Hunger Games 7/10 for quality and 0/5 for nostalgia.  Therefore, a movie has to rate at least at 7 combined score or it’s in “let’s make fun of it” territory rather than “let’s watch it” territory.  Here is a chart with ten movies that I loved ten years ago:

There you go, if it’s at or above the green line it’s re-watchable as a movie.  If it’s below the green line prepare to make fun of it.  Feel free to play around with this concept!

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Evil Robots!!!

More often than not, the robot comes to us in the movies as a villain.   However, an examination of these so called evil robots reveals that the evil robots are not always as evil as they appear. Take for instance, five movie robots, starting at the beginning with Fritz Lang’s “Maschinenmensch” or “Machine Man” from 1927’s Metropolis.

 

As background, the Machine Man was developed by the mad scientist Rotwang as tool of revenge.  Rotwang uses it to incite violence and chaos.  While the Machine Man is clearly used for evil purposes, it could be argued that if it were programmed not to obey a mad scientist but rather to, say, help old ladies cross the street, we wouldn’t think of it as an evil robot.  Clearly that would make for a very boring movie.  Let’s move on.

 

Certainly HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) qualifies as an evil robot – right?  It’s even listed in AFI’s ‘100 years” series as one of the top villains in movie history.  But is HAL really evil?  In order to complete its mission, to trace the signal being projected by the Monolith, it decides to eliminate all obstacles (in this case the humans).  But is HAL’s mission and the resulting evolutionary progress for mankind worth the lives of the two cranky astronauts?  If you argue yes, than HAL is not evil at all.  Machiavellian perhaps, but not evil.

 

Certainly the Machines from the Matrix (1999) are evil right?  After all they enslave humanity to either a lifetime of being plugged into a video game or eating gruel and fighting the machines in an endless war.  But this line of thought conveniently forgets that the humans built the machines to enslave them, and then tried to destroy them all with nuclear weapons (forgetting, apparently, that nuclear weapons would destroy everything else too).  Also, it appears all life on Earth has been obliterated except for the humans, so the machines and their massive game are the only things keeping the humans alive.

 

Certainly Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is evil right?  After all he tries to destroy humanity.  And just look at him in the poster!  He’s kidnapping a scantily clad woman!  How evil is that?!? That’s a very human-centric way of thinking about it though.  Apparently the other civilizations in the galaxy don’t like our penchant for violent conflict and want to preemptively take us out a potential threat.  Unfair, perhaps, but to them, not especially evil.

 

Finally!  Megatron (Transformers (2007)) is definitely evil!  It’s actually pretty hard to argue against this, partly because Michael Bay’s “films” have about as much subtlety as a jackhammer.

Anyway that’s enough evil robots for today!

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

The Essentials

Sometimes I get asked for movie recommendations.  I like to take that one step further – in my opinion there are ten films that are essential to understanding the development of the modern movie, from Oscars contenders to summer blockbusters to independent and foreign films.  In order of date, here goes:

Battleship Potemkin (1925, Russia, Director: Sergei Eisenstein)

For much of the first half of the twentieth century, Battleship Potemkin was consistently ranked in surveys as the “greatest film of all time.”  It wasn’t the first propaganda film or the first film to use montages to tell its story.  But it was the first combine these techniques effectively to influence audiences.  It is an important film to see because if you understand its elements and its techniques you will know when the filmmaker is trying to manipulate you.

Metropolis (1927, Germany, Director: Fritz Lang)

It was difficult to imagine how Metropolis’ reputation could be enhanced until a nearly complete reel of the film was discovered a few years ago.  The nearly complete version, once thought lost forever, cements Metropolis as not only the first great science fiction film but also the first film to resemble modern Hollywood blockbusters.  It is debatable, but with Metropolis the first era of film-making may have reached its full potential.

Citizen Kane (1941, US, Director: Orson Welles)

While viewing the Venus de Milo in Paris, I learned that it isn’t considered a masterpiece merely because of its form and detail, but because it was sculpted hundreds of years before those techniques were thought to be invented.  Citizen Kane is similar in that it is the first film to embrace the sense of realism that we take for granted in every film we see today, and it was not widely seen until years after it was first released.  The list of innovations that Orson Welles introduced in the film is summarized by Roger Ebert in a 2004 article entitled “A Viewer’s Companion to Citizen Kane” ((c) 2004 rogerebert.com).

Bicycle Thieves (1948, Italy, Director: Vittorio De Sica)

Italian Neorealism is possibly the most influential movement in the history of cinema.  Simply put, films such as Bicycle Thieves present fictional stories in a way that makes them feel like documentaries.  De Sica’s masterpiece was the first film of the movement to earn widespread international acclaim, and it went on to influence dozens of realism movements in other countries.

Rashomon (1950, Japan, Director: Akira Kurosawa)

“They say that even the demon who dwelt here at Rashomon fled in fear of the ferocity of man.”  Rashomon was the first of Kurosawa’s films to become popular outside of his native Japan.  It is most notable for Kurosawa’s fragmented, unresolved story and his use of natural effects to establish mood and move the story along.  While almost any Kurosawa film could be considered essential viewing, Rashomon is one of his shorter films and a good place to start exploring his catalog.

Pather Panchali (1955, India, Director: Satyajit Ray)

In the first film of Ray’s Apu Trilogy, Ray takes realism to its logical conclusion.  There is very little “plot” in Pather Panchali, instead the viewer is pulled along by authentic emotion and unforgettable images.  Its importance stems from the fact that it was one of the first films to come out of the developing world that rose to international acclaim, and by doing so inspired filmmakers across the world.

Psycho (1960, US, Director: Alfred Hitchcock)

The more movies people see, the more they think they know what to expect.  The brilliance of Psycho comes from its defying of audience expectations in a visceral and horrifying manner.  While it could be said that Hitchcock wrote many of the rules for plot development in Hollywood films, Psycho broke through those conventions so completely that it changed our perception of what movies could get away with.

Breathless (1960, France, Director: Jean Luc Godard)

Much has been written about the French New Wave and the film regarded by some as “the French Citizen Kane.”  After all, the conventional film had been done so well, and with such compelling back-story with 1945’s Children of Paradise that its young filmmakers were left with really no place to go except to invent an entirely new style of film.  Simply put, the French New Wave is why shots are shorter and movies are faster paced than they used to be, and Breathless is the film that started it all.

Persona (1966, Sweden, Director: Ingmar Bergman)

Bergman once said that he put all of his skills as a filmmaker to work in Persona, and the result is one of the most powerful and thought provoking films ever made.  If you describe what Persona is about based on the plot alone, it may be difficult to get someone interested in seeing the film.  After all, there are only two characters in most of the film, one of which barely speaks.  However, the film isn’t about these characters, but the dark recesses of our own minds.  Persona isn’t a film so much as it a mirror.

The Godfather (1972, US, Director: Francis Ford Coppola)

While Citizen Kane is the most important American film, The Godfather is the best constructed.  The writing, acting, production, cinematography, directing, and every other element of the film is so well done that only the most nit-picky of critics can find weaknesses.   This is what a film looks like when all of its elements are firing on all cylinders, and it is a good a place as any to bring our list to a close.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Top Ten – Comedy Ensembles

The comedy ensemble is the direct descendant of Vaudeville, which is what people went to go see before there were movies.  Groups of performers would tour the country and deliver to their adoring public a cavalcade of random music, comedy, drama, and pretty much anything they could think of that wouldn’t get tomatoes thrown at them.  Among these groups, the most popular were often the comedy teams.

Here are my top ten comedy ensembles from the movies, based on influence and creativity.   The definition of a comedy ensemble for purposes of this list are: at least three people including directors, at least two of which appear in at least two different movies of the same style.  The ensemble has to be represented in at least four movies total.  Sequels involving the same characters or an extension of the same plot do not count. “Double Acts” do not count either.

10.  “The Frat Pack” (Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Christine Taylor) Movies:  Zoolander (2001), Old School (2003), Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy (2004), Wedding Crashers (2004).

The first entry on our list is the ill-defined “Frat Pack” of the early 2000’s.  For purposes of this list, I’m not counting the Wes Anderson or Judd Apatow pieces that some consider part of this particular set.  Also, I don’t particularly care for the name “Frat Pack” since I feel as though it’s a bit pejorative (Ben Stiller is on record as agreeing).  Besides, it’s an allusion to the Rat Pack, and these actors did not collaborate as closely as the Rat Pack did by their own admission.

So why such a recent group on the list?  The “R” rated comedy ensemble film had been a lost art since the early 1980’s, and this group is responsible for a revival of that form.  Also, the quality writing of these films is reflected in the fact that they are quoted in casual conversation more often than any films released in the last ten years.

9. The Hawkes/Cukor/Capra Screwball Comedy Actors (Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur) Films: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

The Screwball Comedies of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s featured some of the most talented actors of the Hollywood Golden Age.  The films of Howard Hawkes, George Cukor, and Frank Capra stand apart as the finest works of this genre. These three directors cast their best works from the same pool of actors, and in doing so, organically created a loosely connected comedy ensemble.

What is a Screwball Comedy?  A fast paced, witty, usually romantic comedy usually involving a battle of the sexes or class conflict.  While modern romantic comedies are not as absurd as their screwball ancestors tended to be, almost any romantic comedy you see today can be traced back to these films that contained some combination of the actors listed above, and almost always Cary Grant.

8. “The Road Movies” Ensemble (Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamar) Films: The Road to Singapore (1940), The Road to Zanzibar (1941), The Road to Morocco (1942), The Road to Utopia (1946), The Road to Rio (1947), The Road to Bali (1952), the Road to Hong Kong (1962).

As soon as there were movies, there were movies making fun of other movies. The logical extension of the Hollywood golden age was a series of films starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamar called “The Road Movies.”  The plot didn’t matter, the script was often improvised, and none of Hollywood’s finest achievements were sacred.

The popularity of the Road movies opened up the doors for other satires.  From the good (Blazing Saddles (1974), Airplane (1980), The Naked Gun (1988), South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut (1999)) to the bad, these movies owe a great debt to to Road movies.  And the best part is that the three principals were pretty much just goofing off the entire time.

7. The Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop) Films: Ocean’s 11 (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962), 4 for Texas (1963), Marriage on the Rocks (1965), The Cannonball Run (1981).

Were the Rat Pack really a comedy ensemble?  Probably not in the purest sense, since comedy was often third or fourth on their agenda after chasing tail, drinking, and music.  The name itself was coined by Humphrey Bogart to describe his 1950’s Hollywood drinking club.  Sinatra’s 1960’s group called themselves “the Summit,” but thanks to the media, the Rat Pack name stuck to their group rather than Boggie’s (although there were several common members, like Sinatra himself).

The Rat Pack are remembered as cool first and foremost – even at Dean Martin’s most drunken and incoherent.  The style itself was more prominent in their off-screen endeavors than their films.  Still, if it wasn’t for the films that style wouldn’t have reached such a wide audience,  and may not have become the definitive combination of comedy and cool.

6. Mel Brooks’ Ensemble (Mel Brooks, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, Dom Deluise, Gene Wilder) Films: The Producers (1968), Blazing Saddles (1974), The Young Frankenstein (1974), Silent Movie (1976), High Anxiety (1977), History of the World, Part 1 (1981).

Mel Brooks is one of the funniest people ever to get behind, or in front of, a camera.  He is a master of satire, timing, and dialogue.  Admittedly, his humor often comes from a dark place, but shows us that the best way to disarm a monster is to drag it out into the open, put it in tights, and make it into an object of ridicule.

In several of his earliest films, he assembled a brilliant cast that brought his hilarious vision to life.  Where did he find these brilliant people?  You’d have to ask him – but by finding them and putting them together he created a type of comedy where nothing is sacred, nothing is off limits, and there are absolutely no rules.

5. The Three Stooges (Moe Howard, Curly Howard, Larry Fine, Shemp Howard, Joe Besser, Joe “Curly Joe” DeRita) Films: Over 220 Films between 1934 and 1975

In the 1920’s, two brothers, Moe and Curly Howard, and their friend Larry Fine joined a Vaudeville act led called “Ted Healy and his Stooges.”  By 1933 they had their own film contract with MGM.  The rest is history.  Even three decades after the deaths of Moe Howard and Larry Fine, the act is still a staple of Sunday morning syndication and still has legions of fans.

So what has made the Three Stooges the most enduring ensemble in all of American comedy?  The short, simple storylines focusing on slapstick comedy are certainly part of the reason, as the Stooges’ antics provide a quick and funny escape from daily life.  Their mastery of the quick, funny, and basic slapstick routine inspired unnumbered masters of physical comedy, and continue to do so today.

4. Monty Python (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin)  Films: And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), Monty Python and Holy Grail (1974), Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983).

And now for something completely different.  For a long time Hollywood thought that Americans would never like British comedy.  It is too dry, too goofy, they said.  Boy were they wrong.  Soon after “And Now for Something Completely Different,” a compilation of greatest hits from their television series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” started touring American college campuses, the Pythons became one of the most popular comedy teams of all time.

The Pythons’ most notable features are their goofy, often dark, usually dry, comedy. Like the work of Mel Brooks around the same time, their work infused an anything-goes style of comedy that was lacking in Hollywood, albeit from a different perspective.  The influence of their comedy can especially be seen in popular television shows such as “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.”

3.  The National Lampoon Radio Hour Team/Original Cast of Saturday Night Live (John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, John Landis (Director)) Films: National Lampoon’s Animal House (1979),  The Blues Brothers (1980), Caddyshack (1980),  Stripes (1981), National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), Ghostbusters (1984). 

The popularity of Saturday Night Live, and some of the most beloved comedies of the 1980’s can be credited to a team that started working together on the National Lampoon Radio Hour, a syndicated radio series created by the staff of National Lampoon Magazine.  The Radio Hour became a feeder during the early years of SNL, which launched the film careers of this team, most of whom remain household names and working actors today.

The success of this ensemble helped turn SNL, and its feeder system of New York and Chicago comedy clubs, into a pipeline to fame for dozens of comedic actors.  Certainly many more individuals behind the scenes have made this possible, and I only named the some members of this ensemble who created the films listed above.  Indeed, the rich collection of talents that this process has brought to the American public over the last three decades is far too numerous to name here.

2. The Muppets (Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great, Rowlf the Dog, Scooter, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, et. al.)  Films: The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), Muppets from Space (1999), The Muppets (2011).

For many of us, the Muppets brought us our first experience with performed comedy.  But the genius of Jim Henson and his team’s creation is that it appeals to both adults and children.  As is standard, I have listed the Muppet characters, but men and women behind the Muppets are just as important, although like their creations, too numerous to list here.

The Pixar movies, the Shrek Movies, and anything else that adults and children both enjoy owes a debt of thanks to the Muppets.  That of course isn’t to say that the Muppets can take sole credit for the popularity of their successors (although I’m sure Miss Piggy would beg to disagree).  But the popularity of their style of humor certainly has built an entire floor above their predecessors.

1. The Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo Marx) Films: 15 Films between 1921 and 1949 including Animal Crackers (1930), Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), and A Night in Casablanca (1946).

In 1912, a family Vaudeville act was interrupted by a loud, braying mule.  Annoyed that the audience had turned their attention from the stage to the suffering animal, one of the performers started cracking a series of jokes at the audience’s expense.  Instead of throwing various fruits and vegetables at the stage, the audience absolutely loved it.  The performer’s name was Julius Henry Marx, better known to posterity as Groucho Marx, and he and his brothers would go on to change the nature of comedy in the United States forever.

I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that none of the other ensembles on this list, with the possible exception of Monty Python, would have become what they became if it weren’t for the path cleared by the Marx Brothers.  Certainly individual comedy was already extremely popular in the movies by 1930, but it was their ensemble comedy that first demonstrated the potential of what a group of comedians, working together, could produce on the screen.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe