Comedy - it's a serious business; CINEMA

As Jacques Tati's `Jour de Fete' is re-released, David Thomson recalls the movies that have made him laugh the most

A man and a woman meet; they fall in love; they get married, and everything's perfect. As is the way in such paradises, they like to introduce their new soul-mate to favourite things from their past. She takes him to the ballet and the South Downs - he's wild about them both. He gets her to read Herman Melville and eat anchovies - she's deeply impressed. And then he sees there's a WC Fields season at the National Film Theatre. "You've never seen Fields?" he cries, thrilled to find a fresh sport for them.

They go to The Bank Dick, or whatever, and soon - as always - he's falling out of his chair with mirth. But, as never before, he notes the stilled silence beside him. She's not laughing. He feels disapproval in the darkness, an inescapable defiance, or is it difference?

"You don't like him?" he whispers.

"He's just a pathetic, disgusting old man."

"Exactly!"

And, already, he's laughing again. She does her best; she pulls off a few polite chuckles (sad grunts) - but the muscles that have to make a decision to laugh become exhausted so quickly. The fellow is downcast - it's like a quarrel almost, their first - but then he hears, a few rows away, the persistent, helpless merriment of a young woman, and he knows from the silvered lilt of her laughing that she's pretty, wise and adorable and ... Is this story a comedy, a tragedy, or at the least bitter-sweet?

Comedy is a serious business; or, as the actor Edmund Gwenn is supposed to have uttered, on his deathbed: "Dying is very hard but doing comedy is harder." Of course, Gwenn was speaking professionally, from the point of view of the performer. But our response to comedy is so profound, so natural, so unguarded, that there is no hiding the kind of gulf our young marrieds discovered. You may put on a brave, solemn, "interested" face with Ingmar Bergman and Peter Greenaway (and get away with it), but God help you if you simply can't see why anyone ever thought that Jerry Lewis, Jim Carrey or Norman Wisdom were funny. Actors sometimes say that laughing in character is very hard to do - and laughing, in life, for the sake of politeness or stopping short of revealing your amazement that your mother-in-law can't see the point in Fawlty Towers ... well, that is itself a curse and an affliction worthy of the great, murderous Basil.

Such thoughts are prompted by the revival of Jacques Tati's Jour de Fete, his first feature film. The new print restores the colour of Tati's original and some material that went missing after the 1949 debut, and it offers for a new generation the sublime antics of a small-town postman, his taste for modernization, and Bastille Day. Tati died in 1982, and I suspect that today's young hardly know him. In part, at least, that's because Tati made sound films in which there's very little talk and every sense of working in a tradition of mime and comic gesture derived from Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton and Buster Keaton. I put it that way because for today's audience Keaton has taken the crown that once was Chaplin's. Chaplin is maybe a little too coy, ingratiating and manipulative, but old stoneface Keaton has that grave, straight-faced readiness for comic disaster. He is the resigned clown for a century weary of its own absurdity. The General, people say, as it is revived so often, or The Navigator, or Sherlock Jnr - these are the funniest films ever made. To which one could easily add, in contest, Tati's Mr Hulot's Holiday, that essential foreign movie of the 1950s (long before foreign films were "in").

Hulot is like a silent film (though devotees will hardly need reminding of the running jokes that exploit sound effects). It is, if you will, a universal cartoon about the awkward, solitary but enthusiastic man, taking his holiday at the French seaside. As in all of Tati's great work - Mon Oncle, Playtime, Traffic - the true comedy is social, spatial and a matter of serene acceptance of the vagaries of life. The very silence of Hulot (the lack of character) represents the tranquillity or the patience that will carry on despite everything.

Whereas, just as words seem like an extra advantage, a level of weaponry, and a way into dramatic character, still the more the great verbal comedies talk, the more the eloquence, intelligence and purpose in language are like booby-traps meant to prove the madness and disorder of life. It is a matter of temperament, I daresay, which we prefer. But my own contenders for "the funniest film ever made" would be not just those of Fields, but the best of Groucho (forever humiliated by stupidities in others).

His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby (that's three Cary Grants, as if to remind us that comedy needs not just comedians but real actors), a lot of Preston Sturges, Some Like it Hot and Lubitsch's exquisite The Shop Around the Corner. Except that the story about Alfred and Klara, who work in the same Budapest shop, is also a love story that might easily become a tragedy. For Alfred and Klara believe they can't stand each other. It just happens that, as romantic souls, they have fallen into letter-writing love affairs with strangers. They don't know it, but they are writing to each other.

Is that situation funny? Or a disaster waiting to happen? For how many people can come to terms with their own blind foolishness? Yet Shop Around the Corner surely is a comedy to set alongside Twelfth Night, The Marriage of Figaro and much of Chekhov - works that bewildered many people by being labelled "comedies". Equally, His Girl Friday is a rather dark story about a man who cannot quite own up to love except by entering into the challenge of frantic, back-handed wooing. Cary Crant in that film has lost Rosalind Russell once. She is about to marry Ralph Bellamy (so much great comedy turns on characters being determined to do the wrong thing). So he goes after her, and puts in all his wit and cunning to get her back. This works, but is there any prospect for happy or settled marriage? No, they might as well get divorced again so they can resume their "fun". His Girl Friday is based on a perilous paradox: that Grant is a charming man and an impossible husband.

There's no novelty or insight in this, but so many fine comedies depend an the narrow avoidance of mistake or disaster. In other words, the pain, the loss, the death even are at the doorstep. We sometimes think that black comedy is a smart, modern acquisition, but hasn't comedy always relied on the proximity of that black, mourning edge? That's certainly true of Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be and Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot, and it covers Keaton, too, who sometimes remains unaware as a building collapses around him. As he worked, Buster sustained many injuries, but on screen he is perfect and intact, a survivor (just), a sleepwalker in danger of being awoken.

Of course, comedy needs idiots ready to be deflated, fat ladies and whoopee cushions, clergymen and banana skins, and the human being's inane vulnerability to sex, greed and other appetites. It may be a band of devout gourmets who, somehow, just can't get their dinner (as in Bunuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). Comedy is timing, double-takes, pratfalls, slow burns, staggering routines of making faces and falling down - let us not forget Laurel and Hardy's short epic on destruction, The Music Box. Comedy flirts with our humbug notions about taste; thus, there must have been jokes in Auschwitz. It's there in Bonnie and Clyde when Clyde shoots off his toes just as the system is preparing to release him - ain't life grand, he sighs. There's even in Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa (I know, it isn't a movie - but why not?) a terrific dark joke about a shot hyena that starts to eat itself in an effort to get at the bullet. That's not funny? We laugh, if we are lucky, to forestall tears and horror. And, unlike hyenas, we are a species blessed with irony.

! `Jour de Fete' (U) is re-realeased on Fri.

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