The difficulty of comedy is under-rated. It’s not easy to make people laugh, especially as one person’s definition of “what is funny” is entirely different from another person’s; sometimes they even differ from their own’s, depending on what hour it is. Thus, to create a film which not only is universally declared “hilarious” when released, but still makes people fall of their couches in hysterics, that’s something to be damned proud of.
This is John Cleese’s favourite film of his own¹, and one can see why: it’s a simple, yet very funny, story of a theft in the same tradition of The League of Gentlemen, The Lavender Hill Mob, or that other heist film from Ealing Studios I don’t recall the name of right now. Drat.
Anyway, this similarity isn’t too surprising, given that the film is mostly directed by Charles Crichton, the man responsible for directing The Lavender Hill Mob. I have described Mr. Crichton as having “mostly” directed the film because the studio was worried he wouldn’t be able to handle a comedy assignment, and asked Mr. Cleese to ‘keep an eye on things’²; demonstrating that studio people in positions of influence are frequently idiots and haven’t a clue about anything other than what they have watched in the last minute or three, most likely due to most of their brains have been burned away by cocaine.
But, I digress.
Cleese’s character, the barrister “Archie Leach” (the birth name of Cary Grant³), is possibly the simultaneously stupidest and highly educated individual you’ve ever encountered. Sadly, he’s possibly also the most realistic character you’ve ever seen in a film. That’s what makes not only his character, but all of them in the film work so very well. As absurd as they are, they’re all well within the bounds of reality. We see the events of the tale and the way the characters deal with those challenges causes us to think there, but for the Grace of God, go I. This doesn’t exactly prevent one from considering a life in crime, but it certainly makes for a damned funny movie.
The key to this – or any – type of comedy is best summed-up in a post by Christopher Fowler (which you can read RIGHT HERE), in which he details a conversation he recently had with the writers of the Tony Hancock’s material, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Hancock’s character (he only had the one, really) could never be mistaken for either a ‘success’ or a ‘bright spark’, and therein the comedy bursts forth, according to the writers. In describing the un-produced Hancock film The Day Off, Mr. Fowler says this:
It’s virtually plotless, sad and very funny indeed. In it, Hancock meets up with another bus driver, and argues about the pointlessness of saving and withdrawing the same amount each week with his bank. He tries to bully a man on a park bench into admitting he feels insignificant, and fails. He loses an argument about wasps and bees. He meets Charlotte, a girl who works in a dress shop, and pretends he’s an architect building a cathedral, while she pretends she’s a model. He forces her to have a dessert she doesn’t want because she needs to stay model-thin. Hancock gets found out just before a touching goodnight kiss, and the romance turns sour. The film ends as it begins, with Hancock going home alone as the weather-girl announces tomorrow will be a sunny day – for those with a day off.
… [Ray Galton and Alan Simpson] agree that the script’s downbeat ending is funnier because ‘failures are funny, successful people are not’.
Thus we can see this film, full of the incredible failures nearly from start to finish, as a classic English comedy in the same tradition as Hancock, Ealing, and so very many others… most of which I can’t remember the names of… Drat.
There’s a further connection to this film for Mr. Fowler: in addition to his award-winning novels, he’s also responsible for co-writing a piece of comedy on the DVD of A Fish Called Wanda with Mr. Cleese. Unfortunately I returned this to the library before I remembered that, and thus I cannot tell you either which bit of “extra material” it is, or how funny I thought it was. Drat.
A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Star Partners Limited Partnership
Directed by Charles Crichton
and un-credited John Cleese
written by John Cleese
from a story by John Cleese and Charles Crichton