Friday, February 6, 2009

Comedy Uncles

French director/ comedian Jacques Tati made an impact on the international film community with his features Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958). Tati was a throwback and a progressive at the same time. In accepting an Oscar for Mon Oncle, he expressed his gratitude to the silent film comedians, whose work had been a great inspiration for him. He said, "If Hollywood had not done so many funny pictures, I would not be here tonight. For all those great comedians, I am not the uncle, but the nephew." Yet, Tati, who was taking the ideas of the old silent film comedians and adapting them to current technology and culture, was able to impress fans with his daring innovations. Tati had no interest in plots or dialogue, which he felt interfered with his comedy. He produced, instead, loosely connected gag sequences enhanced by music and sound effects. The filmmaker's influence became clearly evident in the sixties, particularly in the work of Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers.

Lewis' The Bellboy (1960) is an outright attempt to capture the style of a Tati film . The Bellboy is introduced by a mock producer, Jack Emulsion, whose sole purpose is to warn the audience that the film has no plot. Lewis, as the bellboy, performs in scene after scene without speaking a word. But Lewis follows Tati's example even further than that. Lewis' bellboy, much like Tati's Mr. Hulot, has a boyish curiosity that often gets the better of him. Mr. Hulot is at his most curious when confronted by a noisy baffling gadget. Technology is also an attraction for the bellboy. When he boards a jet to retrieve a suitcase for a hotel guest, he becomes a mesmerized by the sight of the pilot's control panel. The next thing we see, the jet is taking off. After he makes a mess of things, the bellboy is willing to steal away from the scene before someone has time to notice. We can see him cringing with fear and embarrassment as he quickly tip-toes away. He is a naughty child afraid to get a spanking. Tati is also unwilling to be answerable for his actions. He is expressionless as he saunters away from a scene, acting as if he was in no way involved and doesn't even known that something has gone wrong.

Tati's ideas show up in other Lewis films. For Mon Uncle, Tati built a scene around the clickety-click sound of a secretary's high heels. In The Nutty Professor, Lewis' shoes make a loud squeaking noise. He removes the shoes so that he can walk quietly but, when he walks in his stocking feet, he continues to make the same annoying squeak. In Cracking Up (1983), Lewis slips on slick floors and slides off modern furniture, something that Tati had done earlier in Mon Oncle.

Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, like Mr. Hulot, was often a silent observer in a busy social setting, such as a party, a nightclub or a nudist colony. Clouseau once took a seat at the side of a pool to calmly watch bathers pass. As an attractive woman stands beside him, getting ready to dive into the pool, he leans back slightly to steal look at her and ends up falling back into the pool. It is comedy without a villain to be bested, or a woman to be won, or a job to be accomplished. Yet, it is still meaningful and funny.

The Sellers' film that owes the greatest debt to Tati is The Party (1968). Tati's elaborate modernist nightclub from Playtime (1967) is replaced in The Party by an elaborate modernist home owned by a movie producer. Sellers loses his shoe in a canal running through the home and tries several different ways to retrieve it. It is reminiscent of problems Tati had with a fountain in Mon Oncle. In Mon Oncle, Tati has trouble with a factory machine that produces an overwhelming stream of plastic hose. Sellers has trouble with a similar gadget, an electric toilet paper dispenser that won't stop dispensing toilet paper.

I identify similarities between Lloyd Hamilton and Jacques Tati in my Hamilton biography. It is not hard to notice that both comedians use a funny hat and off-kiltered gait to make themselves identifiable on screen. But the characters they portray also share a number of personality traits. Both are childlike. Both are loners. Both demonstrate a deliberate approach to problem-solving. Both are not good at being helpful. This last similarity is the most important. Hamilton's friendly and well-meaning character has a willingness to help others, even though it often gets him and others into trouble. Tati's Hulot is always polite and willing to please, as he demonstrates in Playtime when he helps two women with a broken lamp, but his helpfulness usually leads to disaster. These similarities, and other similarities discussed in my book, make me wonder if Hamilton was one of Tati's inspiring silent comedy uncles.

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