I watched Some Like It Hot (1959) for the first time last week, and since then have been considering the notion that comedy is a more effective barometer of cultural sensibilities than serious dramas are. Language aside, the sentiments of a tragedy like Sophocles’ Oedipus are nearly as understandable and recognizable to us now, as they were back in ancient Greece. Aristophanes’ The Frogs, however, takes quite a bit of work to find funny (if you’re interested in thinking about this more, Mary Beard, a classics professor at Cambridge University has some helpful thoughts).*
Older comedy films are of course more accessible to us than Aristophanes (both historically and culturally), but it can still be a surprising to watch a film made in the last century. While I might recognize that a joke is being made, I won’t be quite sure why and how the audience was supposed to react. It takes some work to understand the film fully.
But, despite the localized issues and cultural boundaries they flirt with, some topics of the comedic art remain timeless: the folly of a human in love and the awkwardness of bodied existence comes across loud and clear. And sometimes, freed as we are from some of a film's uniquely era-sensitive commentary, we are able to see and be pushed by its more universal truths more powerfully. Said more simply, old comedic films shouldn’t just be watched for historical merit. They’re funny too.
The simple question, “Why is this funny?” can be a profitable beginning for an exploration of old comedies. Here are a couple of titles** to start with:
The General (1926)
You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
His Girl Friday (1940)
Some Like It Hot (1959)
*If you happen to find Aristophanes an absolute scream, I’m not implying that you’re weird.
**As with a review, this list isn’t a blanket recommendation for any of the included titles, nor is a carefully set out “best of”; it’s merely a place to start.