Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Carry on Laughing" with The World's Coolest International Movie Comedians

It's been over one month since my last blog entry, so I've tried to make this a "good one." I can't guarantee it is, but I hope so...

by Charles Zigman, September 15, 2009

Left to right: French comedy superstar Fernandel and Italian comedy superstar Toto', together, for the first (and only) time, in The Law is the Law (1958)

On July 20, 2008, my first book was published, WORLD’S COOLEST MOVIE STAR: THE COMPLETE 95 FILMS (AND LEGEND) OF JEAN GABIN, VOLUMES ONE AND TWO. (The Second Edition -- aka, "The 2009/2010 Edition," revised and expanded, has just arrived, and you can buy it on Amazon.com). It is a combination of biography and filmography, and it concerns itself with Gabin, one of Europe’s pre-eminent movie stars of all time. Gabin is known in the United States only for seven classic movies which he made in the 1930s (La Grande illusion, Pepe Le Moko, La Bete humaine, Le Jour se leve, and Le Quai des brumes) and maybe two additional films in which he starred in the 1950s – Touchez pas au grisbi and French Cancan. The point of my book, is that Gabin starred in ninety-five movies during an illustrious career which spanned the years between 1930 and 1976, and most of his other films are either just as wonderful, or almost as wonderful, as the abovementioned “acknowledged classics.” Sadly, more than sixty of the actor’s films were never released in the United States, so the point of my book is to introduce American readers to this actor’s other great movies. It took me seven years to write and research the book.

And since I've already introduced you to Jean Gabin, I'd now like you to make the acquaintance of a few more notables -- The World's Coolest International Movie Comedians. If I ever write a second book (I hope a forward-thinking publisher is reading this!), this will be the subject, and this blog post is a "preview of coming attractions:"

When Americans think about classic movie comedians from the Golden Age, invariably, our minds turn toward American comedians – Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Bros., Abbott and Costello, and W.C. Fields. However, there are a lot of fine international movie comedians whom we don’t know about, just because most of their films were not released here, and I would like to devote a book to them. (Outside of Jacques Tati, whom I think of as being more of a surrealist than a comedian, American cineastes are uniquely ignorant of foreign film comedies.)

There are five international movie comedians – or, more specifically, four individual movie comedians and one ensemble cast of movie comedians – who I think really deserve special recognition in the United States:

1. FERNANDEL (From France, 3/8/1903 – 2/26/1971): France’s reigning #1 movie comedian of all time is the beloved Fernandel, an exceedingly funny, sharp, fast-talking man with a long “horse face” who always makes sure his characters are poignant and human. Like many great movie comedians, Fernandel is equally adept in comedies and dramas and, in fact, Fernandel appeared in seven beautifully heartfelt Marcel Pagnol pictures. The most appealing thing about Fernandel, is that, in his films, no matter what life hands him, he always smiles. To wit, in a great French comedy from 1932, director Maurice Tourneur’s Les Gaietes de l’escadron (Fun in the Barracks), a superior officer hands “Private” Fernandel a broom and makes him sweep out the barracks, as punishment for having committed some sort of a very minor infraction. Rather than fighting or pouting about his dusty fate, as anybody else in the world might do under similar circumstances, he takes the broom, and not only does he sweep, but he looks ecstatically happy as he’s doing it; in Gaietes, as in each of the more than one hundred and thirty feature films in which Fernandel appeared, between 1930 and 1971 (I’ve only seen twenty-five so far, so I have a long way to go), he looks eternally heavenward, to thank his Maker for having given him the opportunity to do anything – even sweeping. Just about all of the Fernandel movies I’ve seen are wonderful: He’s the kind of actor who has few bad movies in his catalog, because his fun personality elevates the material of every film, in the sense that you always want to watch what he’s doing – you’ll happily go anywhere with Fernandel. If you have Netflix, you can see Fernandel in the five-film Adventures of Don Camillo series, a French/Italian co-production which was produced between 1952 and 1965, in which the comedian plays a good-hearted small-town priest who mostly deals with local government, usually in the form of the Italian actor Gino Cervi, who portrays Peppone, the Communist Mayor in each of the films or. In the case of the fifth film in the series, 1965’s Il Compagno Don Camillo, our clergyman is forced to put up with a group of stiff-necked visiting Soviets who are completely against religion.

Fernandel as Don Camillo (with Gino Cervi as his eternal nemesis, Mayor Peppone).

2. CANTINFLAS (From Mexico. 8-12-1911 – 4/20/1993): The second comedian in my book will be Cantinflas. For my entire life, I always heard about this comedian’s movies, but I never watched any until a couple of years ago because, first of all, until about five years ago, none of these films were available with English subtitles, and secondly, in my mind, I had already pre-determined that I would not like them: I believed, based upon nothing at all except for my own cynicism, that the humor in Cantinflas’s films might be immature – probably along the lines of the guy dressed in the bee costume on the Mexican t.v. perennial, “Sabado Gigante.” Anyway, about two years ago, Columbia Pictures finally released a group of Cantinflas’s films on DVD, for the first time with English subtitles. As it turns out, I shouldn’t have pre-judged the man: Cantinflas, like Fernandel, is fantastic, and you can see why he continues to be considered Mexican cinema's premiere comedian of all time. He's very sharp – kind of a "card," usually a slum dweller who gets confused with royalty or with some kind of visiting bureaucrat. (Invariably, while he’s initially “getting in, over his head,” he winds up doing a better job than the real king or bureaucrat would do, and then the “real” man gives him his eternal thanks.) The best way I can describe Cantinflas’s persona, is to say that it is very much like Bob Hope’s, in Hope's classic movies. Cantinflas’s characters, like Hope’s characters, usually think they’re smooth and suave, but they’re really "bumblers." Like Fernandel, Cantinflas can also be poignant, in a sweet/real/non-mawkish way.

The American movie studio Columbia Pictures, always having an eye toward the “bottom line,” even back in the ‘40s through the ‘60s when Cantinflas made his movies, knew that the Spanish-language market throughout the world was a major one, and that’s why Columbia actually produced thirty-four of Cantinflas’s fifty movies, releasing them only in Spanish-speaking countries, and never with English subtitles. Columbia made millions from the actor, even without ever having released a single one of his movies in an Anglophone market. (Here’s a profound statistic I just discovered on Wikipedia: In the year 2000, nine years after Cantinflas’s death, Columbia Pictures made, in that year alone, $4 million from of the sale of his old movies on DVD, throughout the world.)

Cantinflas in Ahi esta el Detalle (You're Missing the Point) (1940).

3. TOTO’ (from Italy. Real name – you’ll love this one – Antonio Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno de Curtis di Bisanzio Gagliardi. 2-14-1898 – 4-15-1967): The third comedian I would like to write about in WORLD’S COOLEST INTERNATIONAL MOVIE COMEDIANS, Toto’, made, like Fernandel one hundred and thirty movies, and only around ten are presently available on DVD with English subtitles, and the ten Toto’ pictures which I have already seen are stupendous. Toto’ has a really strange crescent-moon shaped face, owing to a serious accident which he survived as a teen-ager, and you’ve seen Toto’ before (even if you don’t know you have), because if you’ve seen director Guiseppe Tornatore’s 1988 film, Cinema Paradiso, you know that the film is based around a famous sequence in which the townspeople are watching a movie which is being projected onto a building in the town square, and the film they happen to be watching, is a Toto’ comedy. (“Serious” Italian directors sometimes used Toto’ in their own “art” films, hoping that his trademark hilarity would, like “a spoonful of sugar,” help the often socialistic message of their films to go down smoothly. To wit, Toto’ appears in Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan, Pasolini’s Hawks and Sparrows, and Vittorio de Sica’s Big Deal on Madonna Street.) Toto’s shtick, like most great movie comedians, seems to be that he can talk his way out of anything with an out-of-control super-confidence which betrays his outward awkwardness (of which he does not seem to be aware), and his mannerisms directly paved the way for his fellow countryman Robert Benigini, whose big-screen persona is directly inspired by Toto’s; if you see Toto’s movies and Benigini’s movies, you can see that Benigni is channeling Toto’, in a very direct way.

After the success of Pepe Le Moko with Jean Gabin, Toto' starred as Pepe's cousin in a comedy remake -- Toto' Le Moko! (1949)

4. GEORGE FORMBY (England, 5-26-04 – 3/6/61): This man, whose movies are in English, began on stage, in the music hall, and he’s been making Brits laugh for six decades, based upon the great comedy features in which he starred in the '30s and '40s, and not only does this “shy” comedian always get the girl, he’ll frequently entertain her by singing and playing the ukulele. He starred in twenty great comedy features which were made between 1934 and 1946, and he will be appreciated in England forever, because his movies helped the Brits laugh their way through World War II. In fact, all four of the Beatles admired Formby so much, they even paid tribute to him at the end of their 1994 music video, "Free as a Bird:" At the very end of the video, we’re treated to eight seconds of Formby, who’s seen from the back, on stage, playing his “uke.” (Another Formby fanatic is Ridley Scott, who likes George Formby so much that he used a Formby song, "Leaning on a Lamppost," in his 2003 Nicolas Cage movie, Matchstick Men.)

George Formby sings his hit "When I'm Cleaning Windows," in the 1936 feature film, Keep Your Seats, Please.

5. THE ENSEMBLE CAST OF THE THIRTY-ONE-FILM CARRY ON MOVIE SERIES (Great Britain, 1958 – 1992): For my entire life, I have always heard British people talking animatedly about a series of ensemble features called the Carry On series. Ninety-percent of the Carry On movies weren't released in the United States so, in my mind, I believed that they were probably "too English," or worse, that they might be juvenile, but I was wrong. Between 1958 and 1992, producer Peter Rogers, director Gerald Thomas, and screenwriters Norman Hudis and Talbot Rothwell, teamed-up for thirty-one Carry On movies, and this past summer, I managed to see every single one of them, courtesy of a boxed-set of imported DVDs from England. I began watching the Carry On films in chronological order, beginning with the first one, Carry on Sergeant (1958) and finishing with the final entry in the series, Carry on Columbus (1992), and I became instantly enthralled, in the same way in which I was enamored of Marx Bros. movies or Abbott and Costello movies when I was a small boy. Just based on sheer brilliance alone, I would put the Carry On films head-to-head with Monty Python’s movies, and in terms of sheer belly laughs, the Carry On movies are about a million times funnier than some of the British comedies with which we are already familiar in the United States – the world-renowned Ealing comedies of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets, films which I, too, admire, but which I have always found to be a bit mild – a bit slow and staid, and too “polite.” Each of the Carry On films is exceedingly well-made, owing to the fact that the same director, producer, and writers were involved with all of the films.

Carry On movies are about as ‘bawdy’ and ‘naughty’ as any random episode of “The Benny Hill Show,” but the ‘saucy’ double-entendres are, by today’s standards, very mild, and are all offered up with a sly wink. Some of the Carry On pictures are set in the “contemporary” world of “swingin’ London,” in hospitals and offices, while others in the series are lavishly produced period pictures, which look fantastic, in spite of having been produced on miniscule budgets: Carry On: Don’t Lose Your Head takes place during the French Revolution; Carry On, Henry is set in the world of Henry the Eighth; Carry On Up the Khyber is a “piss-take” on the British ‘Raj’ in India, and Carry On Cleo sends up Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra, in top form. In fact, every entry in the series is uniformly well written and directed. (I could go on forever: In Carry On Cowboy, from 1966, the cast of regulars brilliantly lampoons the American western; another great entry is 1964’s Carry On Spying, a sharp, smart James Bond/Third Man spoof.)

The same ensemble cast of between six and eight performers appeared in every Carry On vehicle, although every once in awhile, one performer or another would “sit one out” to “re-charge the batteries,” after which time he or she would return, to appear in a subsequent film. Of the principal performers, the true standout in the bunch (every Carry On fan has his particular favorite of the group) is the beyond-brilliant Kenneth Williams: If you’re an American, you have probably seen Williams’ face at some point in your life, even if only in a photograph: Williams was lucky enough to be born with the most comedically stereotypic aristocratic/“to-the-manor-born” facial features you’ve ever seen – his hallmark, flaring nostrils make him look like he’s turning his nose up at everybody else in the cast when they’re behaving “bawdily,” so he typically played the uptight bureaucrat in every film, although, in the end, his characters always managed to convey a great sweetness. I decided, after I watched all thirty-one Carry On pictures, that Kenneth Williams is as brilliant as Peter Sellers. Everybody already knows this to be de facto-true in England, and if you don’t believe me, grab any English movie-lover over the age of thirty, from any social stratum, and ask him if he knows who Kenneth Williams is; he’ll light up like a Christmas tree. But because Williams’ movie roles were mostly relegated to this one particular film series, which was screened mostly only in England, and because Sellers played a variety of characters which became famous in movies that were screened throughout the world, nobody outside of England, even today, knows about Williams like they know about Sellers – which is a dirty shame.

In Carry on Teacher (1959), Shakespeare instructor Mr. Milton (Kenneth Williams) gets flustered by his students' questions!

Kenneth Williams’ counterpart in the Carry On series, “socio-politically,” is a “working-class” type, Sid James (nĂ©, Sidney Cohen), a South African-born comedian who’s more than reminiscent, with his pockmarked proboscis and surly mien, of Walter Matthau. (Kenneth Williams’ aristocratic gentility and Sid James’s rough-hewn surliness are a match made in character-conflict, not to mention class-conflict, heaven.) The Carry On movies aren’t really about social class though, although many prominent British critics have always read them that way. For me, the Carry On movies are about having fun.

Sid James as a randy Henry VIII, "having it off" with Barbara Winsdor in Carry On Henry (1971).

The three main actresses, throughout the run of the series, are the incredible comedienne Barbara Windsor, a sexy Judy Hollady/Betty Boop type, Hattie Jacques (pronounced “Hattie Jakes”) who usually plays the overweight matron figure – her job, in most of the films, it seems, as with Kenneth Williams, was always to reprimand the other characters for the their “naughtiness” – and Joan Sims, who is all-purpose, a la Tracy Ullman. In the various Carry On productions, Sims plays a wife, a nurse, or even the Queen of England, and she can do it all with great dexterity.

Dr. Jim Dale gives Barbara Winsdor the once-over in Carry On Again Doctor (1969), much to the chagrin of matron Hattie Jacques. This is one of three Carry On films set in a hospital. Saucy!

Another principal in the Carry On series is Charles Hawtrey, a brilliant “reactor” who is accorded less dialogue in the series than are the other actors, but who looks like a human sight gag: If Harpo Marx were hit by lightning, and he weighed one pound and grinned all the time, even in the face of adversity, he'd be Charlie Hawtrey, who looks, physically, like the American comedian, Wally Cox. (Hawtrey is the Carry On series’ equivalent of those little Sergio Aragones cartoons hidden away in the corner of Mad Magazine, a Where’s Waldo-figure who’s always grinning mischievously – that is, if you can find him!)

Charles Hawtrey has fun "in hospital" (as they say in the UK) in Carry On Nurse (1959). He's kind of a British version of the American comedian, Wally Cox.

If you’ve never seen Charles Hawtrey before, and you’re an American baby-boomer, you have heard Hawtrey’s name before, even if you’ve never seen a single Carry On movie, if you own the Beatles’ “Let It Be” album: At the beginning of the track "Two of Us," as you know, John Lennon goofily vamps, "'I Dig a Pygymy,' by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf-Aids [“deaf-aid” is Brit-speak for “hearing aid”]. Phase One, in which Doris gets her Oats." I never knew what this rather cryptic phrase meant until this past summer, when I saw the Carry On movies for the first time: John Lennon loved Charles Hawtrey and the Carry On movies so much, that he paid improvisational tribute to the comedian at the beginning of the song. (In fact, Lennon's trademark "humor," which the musician exhibits in his '60s books like A Spaniard in the Works and In His Own Write, is very specifically inspired by the humor of the Carry On movies.)

John Lennon pays tribute to Carry On star Charles Hawtrey, during the opening of "Dig a Pony" from the Let It Be album (1970).

One of the most famous sequences from any Carry On movie. In Carry On Up the Khyber (1968), which deals with the British Raj in India, Governor Sid James and members of his party have dinner while the Indians (including Kenneth Williams, in a turban!) wage war outside; with stiff upper lips, they ignore it, even until the last moment.

Aside from John Lennon, another admitted fanatic of the Carry On movie series is none other than Austin Powers himself, Mike Myers. When Mike Myers used the phrase "cheeky monkey" in a famous SNL sketch called “Simon,” in which he appeared in a bathtub alongside Danny DeVito, this was Meyer’s direct homage to Kenneth Williams, who famously-improvised that line in one of the early Carry On movies, 1961’s Carry On Regardless. In Regardless, Williams, much to his own embarrassment, but because he’s been paid to do it, is forced to buy a bus ticket for a chimpanzee that he’s escorting around London, and he improvises the “cheeky monkey” line. Mike Myers has also paid direct tribute to the Carry On movies in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999): There’s a bit in that film, which you may remember, in which Myers and Heather Graham are ensconced in a tent, and we see them only in silhouette; as you might recall, it looks like Graham is yanking things (telephones, pineapples) out of Myer’s posterior and doing “dirty things” to him, even though she’s really not, and this is Myers’ direct homage to the most famous sequence from Carry On Camping (1970).

Here's the whole gang in fine form and fettle, in the trailer for the hilarious Carry On Camping(1969). Mike Myers "borrowed" the silhouetted tent sequence for his own movie, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Not only have Mike Myers and John Lennon been influenced by this almost-completely-unknown-in-the-U.S. Carry On movie series, but Ivan Reitman who, like Myers, grew up in Canada, where Carry On movies were regularly televised, must have enjoyed them, as well: In the third act of the new-recruits-in-the-military comedy Carry On Sergeant (1958), the drill instructor is injured, and the slovenly/happy-go-lucky platoon members (Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Charles Hawtrey) are forced to train themselves without him, for the following day’s big graduation exercise, and Ivan Reitman seems to have “borrowed” this trope for his own goofs-in-the-military comedy, 1981’s Stripes, starring Bill Murray. Also in Carry on Sergeant, during a scene in which the soldiers are rehearsing themselves for their graduation exercises, the score-music composed by Bruce Montgomery, sounds very suspiciously like Elmer Bernstein's "original" (cough, cough) score for Stripes.

Carry On films are now so respected in Britain, they are even shown at museums: At the Barbican cinema, in 1998, new prints of all thirty-one Carry On films were struck, and the theater showed every single film.

Carry On Abroad (1972) is so funny, it might make milk come out of your nose -- even if you're not drinking milk!

Fernandel. Cantinflas. Toto’. George Formby. The Carry On Players. What all of the International Movie Comedians I’ve just mentioned have in common, is that they are all inherently likeable, sympathetic and hilarious at all times – unlike some of today’s contemporary movie comedians (Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey, Jack Black), who sometimes come across, for this author, as being angry and sarcastic. Like the best of the American movie comedians from the Golden Age – Marx Bros., Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy – when you watch movies featuring these great international comedians, you really feel like you “know them,” and this is exactly what I want to communicate to film fans. Part of being an American is that, sometimes, we’re too lazy to look outside of our own culture to discover interesting people (“Jean Gabin or “Fernandel” or “Toto’” or, for that matter, “anybody”), and I’m just as devoutly guilty of this sin as is anybody else. Fernandel, Cantinflas, Toto’, George Formby, and the Carry On ensemble are great inroads into any formal, or informal, study of “comedy from other lands,” and all of the movies I have mentioned herein, are timeless and completely free of cynicism, unlike today’s movie comedies.

P.S.: “Combo Plate:” Cantinflas and Fernandel actually appeared together in a film which was a rare American-made/English-language outing for both of them, producer Mike Todd’s 1956 epic, Around the World in 80 Days, the film in which Cantinflas, in one of his two American films, plays second lead to David Niven, in the role of Niven’s majordomo, Passepartout.) In 1958, Fernandel and Toto’ appeared together in a French/Italian co-production called La Legge e Legge (The Law is the Law), and the French and Italians lined up at the box-office in droves, to see their favorite comedians together, for what turned out to be the first and only time.

P.P.S. I know that there are other “international” movie comedians whom people really enjoy as well: From England there’s the vaudevillian Norman Wisdom who starred in more than thirty movies and Will Hay who starred in nineteen movies; a lot of French people enjoy the shrill/Jerry Lewis-like Louis de Funes who appeared in one hundred and fifty-two movies; and in Japan there’s the forty-eight film Tora-san series, starring Kiyoshi Atsumi. I can appreciate Wisdom, Hay, De Funes, and Atsumi, but comedy is a subjective business, and Widsom, Hay, de Funes, and Atsumi simply don’t make me laugh as hard as the other people I’ve mentioned in this article, which is why I haven't mentioned them.

P.P.S. This has nothing to do with International Comedians, but here's one more thing that Ivan Reitman "may have" (cough, cough) plagiarized, aside from the third-act of Carry On Sergeant: In 1984, when I was in high school, my friends and I were invited to the Warner Bros. lot, in Burbank, to see a rough-cut recruited screening of Reitman's Ghostbusters. Because the theme song had not yet been finished -- Ray Parker, Jr.'s "Ghostbusters Theme" -- Reitman used a temp track for the evening's screening: He used "I Want a New Drug" by Huey Lewis and the News. When Ghostbusters was finally released, Huey tried to sue Columbia Pictures, stating that the Ray Parker "Ghostbusters Theme" sounded substantially like "I Want a New Drug," but Reitman maintained that the Huey song was not even in his thinking when he commissioned the Parker, Jr. song -- and yet, there was Huey Lewis's "I Want a New Drug," playing over the beginning credits of Ghostbusters, during that fateful preview screening. What a tangled web we weave, right, Ivan?