My first reaction to the American Film Institute's list of the 100 funniest American movies was: "This can't be right. Where are Ma and Pa Kettle, and Francis the Talking Mule?" Then I looked more closely, saw that Dr. Strangelove, Duck Soup, Blazing Saddles, and Airplane all made the Top 10, and felt better. The Marx Brothers hit the list four times, and Peter Sellers three. Woody Allen had five entries, including a few of his early flicks like Bananas and Sleeper that you could snicker at without having degrees in social psychology, Russian literature, and sex therapy. Although the panel gave the top two spots to cross dressers, Some Like It Hot and Tootsie, the AFI Comedy 100 is a decent mix of comedy of errors and of manners, farce, satire, pantomime, and slapstick.
There's Something About Mary at number 27, between Being There and Ghostbusters, is out of place. Was it really funnier than The Thin Man, Arthur, or 9 to 5? The prom date scene was one of the most perfectly staged comic sequences I've ever seen, but after that, Mary devolved into juvenile drivel. For a testosterone driven, male chauvinistic gross-out, give me the movie with the second-best shower scene in cinema history, Porky's.
What really irked me about the AFI list was its token inclusion of the funniest man of his or any other era, W.C. Fields. He's there once, at number 58 with It's a Gift. Even his ensemble work in International House and Six of a Kind rates higher than the many one-joke movies on the list.
Fields was an accomplished clown with physical timing and balance skills from his vaudeville career as a comic juggler. He started in silent films, but when the talkies arrived, audiences learned that, unlike Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton, W.C. was funnier when he said something. He was an excellent screenwriter, often disguising his work with absurd pseudonyms like Mahatma Kane Jeeves or Otis Criblecoblis. Consider the plot of my favorite Fields film, The Man on the Flying Trapeze.
He plays a familiar role, the harried husband with a domineering wife, a sourpuss mother-in-law, a no-good brother-in-law, and a sweet lovely daughter from his first marriage. In the first scene, two burglars break into the cellar, but get distracted by a keg of applejack. They get drunk and start singing in atrocious harmony. W.C. calls the police; a cop arrives, samples the applejack, and joins in the basement reverie. Fields finally descends with a pratfall through the door, and soon there's four-part disharmony. When they get to court, the judge sets the burglars free and arrests W.C for manufacturing hooch without a license. I won't spoil the rest of the plot, but it involves four traffic tickets in five minutes, a libelous news story that his teetotalling mother-in-law died drinking bad liquor, and a wrestling match between the Russian Behemoth and the Persian Giant. At the end of a very long day, Fields is both unemployed and homeless.
It's hard to find W.C. Fields movies these days. Most of the good ones aren't available on video, and it's been years since I've seen them on television. It's possible that many voters on the AFI panel never saw his work. That's a sad comment on how Hollywood now treats the guy who kept everybody laughing during the depths of the Great Depression. As W.C. Fields himself would say: "There comes a time in the affairs of men when one must grab the bull by the tail and face the situation."