Monday, June 2, 2014

1979: A Funny Year

Film comedy has had exceptionally productive years: 1925 (The Freshman, The Gold Rush and Seven Chances), 1927 (The Kid Brother and The General) and 1933 (Duck Soup and Sons of the Desert).  But the most prolific year for Hollywood comedy surprisingly came years after the passing of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, The Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.  The year was 1979.

In the film industry, the biggest comedy stars of the 1960s were Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers and Jack Lemmon.  But the careers of these actors wound down in the 1970s and the time came for these old masters to pass the torch to a new generation of actors.
Blazing Saddles had been a phenomenal success in 1974.  It looked as if the film's director and co-writer, Mel Brooks, was destined to inherit the comedy crown.  However, the inspiration of Blazing Saddles proved to be limited and short-lived.  A sprinkling of parody films, including Young Frankenstein (1974), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), Murder by Death (1976), The Big Bus (1976) and The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977), were released to a mixed response over the next three years.

A much greater impact was achieved four years after Blazing Saddles by National Lampoon's Animal House (1978).  It's not that Animal House was the only successful comedy of 1978 (three other laughable crowd pleasers of the year were Foul Play, La Cage aux Folles and Up in Smoke), but it was Animal House that created an explosion in popular culture, clearing the way for a new wave of comedy films.  This was the year in which Hollywood learned that they could have a box office hit with a Not Ready for Primetime Player from Saturday Night Live.  Not only did John Belushi become a movie star with Animal House, but Chevy Chase became a movie star with Foul Play.  Let's take a look at the next year.  The number of notable comedies that was produced that year was thirteen.  Here is the list:

Being There (1979) 
The In-Laws (1979)
The Jerk (1979)
Love at First Bite (1979)
Manhattan (1979)
Meatballs (1979)
Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
The Muppet Movie (1979)
1941 (1979)
Real Life (1979)
Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979)
Starting Over (1979)
10 (1979)

That is an impressive group of films.  By sheer volume, no other year can match that record.  Just as remarkable as the quality of the films was their diversity.  This group of films included a sex farce, a dark satire, a musical free-for-all, a relationship comedy, an historical takeoff, a horror parody, and a puppet romp.  Manhattan could not have been more different than MeatballsMonty Python's Life of Brian could not have been more different than The Muppet Movie.

Saturday Night Live remained the biggest influence this year.  Veterans of the series were featured in six of these comic films, The Jerk (Steve Martin), Meatballs (Bill Murray), Real Life (Albert Brooks), The Muppet Movie (Steve Martin, again), Starting Over (Candice Bergen) and 1941 (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi).  Film historians have often cited the failure of Steven Spielberg's 1941, but the film actually made substantial profits overseas and it has accrued its fair share of fans over the years.

Except for Brooks, members of Blazing Saddles' creative team had by now moved away from the parody genre.  Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor recently enjoyed great success with the comedy-thriller Silver Streak (1976).  Andrew Bergman, a co-writer of Blazing Saddles, wrote the script for The In-Laws.  Brooks and members of his stock company (Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise and Cloris Leachman) had brief roles in The Muppet Movie.  The parody trend had run its course (although one of the comedy hits of 1979, Love at First Bite, followed the example of Brooks' horror parody Young Frankenstein).

The following year, the team of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker turned out Airplane!, which might seem on the surface to be much like a Brooks film.  The fact is, though, that Brooks' films were significantly different.  Brooks, who professed his love of old-time westerns and horror films, burlesqued these genres with unabashed enthusiasm in Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.  He also expressed great admiration for Alfred Hitchcock's films, which was his inspiration for High Anxiety (1977).  The fact that these films imitated a serious work in a funny and affectionate way made them parodies.  Brooks learned much about the art of parody while writing for Sid Ceasar, who liked to put a funny twist on celebrated films like From Here to Eternity, The Bicycle Thief and A Streetcar Named Desire Airplane!, though, was not a parody.  It was a spoof, mocking a mediocre film (Zero Hour) and a dubious genre (disaster films).  It is Airplane! that later paved the way for Scary Movie (2000) and its ilk.  There's no need to point out that, in the last few years, these spoofs have gone from bad to worse.

But let's get back to 1979 and the extraordinary comedy films that came out that year.  So many great comedy talents converged in the film industry at this one particular point in time.  Steve Martin, Albert Brooks and Bill Murray were hot new properties.  Dudley Moore expertly crossed over from London to Hollywood.  James L. Brooks made his feature film debut as the writer and producer of Starting Over.  Veterans talents were enjoying career peaks.  Alan Arkin had never been funnier than he was in The In-LawsManhattan was hailed by top critics as Woody Allen's masterpiece.  Peter Sellers' performance as Chance the Gardner in Being There earned the actor his second Best Actor nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Sellers was still enjoying acclaim for the role when he died on July 24, 1980).

Animal House ushered in a new golden age of comedy, which would continue to 1989.  It is easy to have nostalgia for this period when you consider the deplorable state that film comedy is in today.  I wretch every time that I see a promo for Neighbors

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