Barry Norman’s 101 greatest films: comedy

Find out which movies amused our critic most throughout film history

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Some Like It Hot 1959 U 121min BW 

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Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon disguised as female musicians in an all-girl band to escape the Mafia and Monroe at her dizziest and most desirable are enough on their own to make Billy Wilder’s romp a true classic. Add on great dialogue, a wickedly sharp examination of gender and identity, and one of the most memorable last lines in movies, and you have one of the greatest comedies ever. 

Did you know? Wilder was keen to cast Edward G Robinson as one of the gangsters. However, the actor refused to appear alongside George Raft, with whom he had a long-standing feud. So the director not only cast Edward G Robinson Jr as mobster Johnny Paradise, but also had him flip a coin in imitation of Raft and then pop out of a cake to machinegun Raft to death. 

Say it again! “Nobody’s perfect!” Osgood E Fielding III 

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Annie Hall (1977 15 89min Colour) 

I could fill this section with Woody Allen movies but this is his best, a funny love story packed with shrewd observations of Manhattan life and pretensions, and gags as sharp as a razor. Allen is the angst-ridden Jewish comedy writer, Diane Keaton the kooky Wasp singer and love interest. All Allen’s neurotic hang-ups are wonderfully on display in one of the few comedies to win the Oscar for best picture. Sample line from Allen: “Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.” 

Did you know? The scene where Woody Allen sneezes into a pile of cocaine happened by accident. Allen was forced to recut the film after the preview audience laughed for too long through the jokes that immediately followed. 

Say it again! “Don’t you see, the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.” Alvy Singer 

Oscars: Best Picture, Woody Allen Directing, Diane Keaton Actress, Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman Screenplay 

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Groundhog Day (1993 PG 96min Colour) 

When a film’s title finds its way into everyone’s vocabulary, it must be doing something right and this one does everything right. In a most ingenious plot, Bill Murray is the TV weatherman doomed to live the same day over and over again. How he adapts to this bizarre circumstance is what makes the story both fascinating and very funny. Murray is sublime. Hard to think of anyone else who could have made it work so well. 

Did you know? Who says Hollywood is a cultural desert? Groundhog Day contains snatches of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, as well as a quotation from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Work without Hope (spoken by Bill Murray).

Say it again! “Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” Phil Connors 

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Ninotchka 1939 U 105min BW 

This one was advertised with the slogan: “Garbo laughs!” Well, she didn’t normally do that a lot but here she shows an unexpected gift for comedy as the Russian commissar seduced by the charms of the West and Melvyn Douglas. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch and co-written by Billy Wilder, it’s the kind of light, witty, sophisticated comedy you don’t see much (or any) of these days. 

Did you know? Garbo later bumped into Wilder during her long retirement and informed him she “would like to make a picture about a clown. I always am a clown, and I am wearing a mask, and I will not take the mask off. I will only be in the picture as a clown.” 

Say it again! “Don’t make an issue of my womanhood.” Ninotchka 

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Airplane! 1980 PG 84min Colour 

This is outright farce from the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams – juvenile, silly and an uproarious spoof on disaster movies. The inspiration clearly comes from films like Airport and its sequels, and this one takes the mickey out of all of them. The plotlines are familiar – stricken airliner, pilots poisoned, passengers in a panic, traumatised war hero left to land the plane, if he can. A terrific cast including Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges and Julie Hagerty plays it beautifully straight. 

Did you know? The movie most heavily parodied is the 1957 drama Zero Hour. It not only contains a character called Ted Stryker, but also includes such unintentionally hilarious lines as Leslie Nielsen’s “fish for dinner” quote. 

Say it again! “The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.” Dr Rumack 

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Duck Soup 1933 U 65min BW 

You can’t list a bunch of comedies without the Marx Brothers and this is their masterpiece. Yes, I know – everything they do you’ve seen done by others, but the brothers were always first. Duck Soup, in which Groucho becomes president of Freedonia and declares war on neighbouring Sylvania, is a crisp, hilarious satire on the politics of war, and there’s some stuff with a broken mirror that is as funny as anything the brothers ever did. But then the lunacy is never less than inspired, especially in the battle scenes. 

Did you know? How did Groucho explain the film’s title? “Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup the rest of your life.” 

Say it again! I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows till you come home. Rufus T Firefly

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Blazing Saddles 1974 15 88min Colour 

Mel Brooks is the absolute master of bad taste and, thankfully, there’s plenty of it in this classic spoof western about Rock Ridge’s first black sheriff (Cleavon Little) and his washedup gunslinger deputy (Gene Wilder). The farting that follows the baked bean scene alone rises, as Brooks himself would put it, below vulgar. And how about Little asking the Ku Klux Klan, “Where the white women at?” For Brooks, nothing succeeds like excess and this is rich with excess. 

Did you know? Having sued the ghost writers of her 1966 autobiography for inventing anecdotes about her, actress Hedy Lamarr moved on to Mel Brooks, threatening court action over Harvey Korman’s character name Hedley Lamarr. Doubtlessly amused, Brooks settled out of court for a small sum. 

Say it again! “I must have killed more men than Cecil B DeMille.” The Waco Kid

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Kind Hearts and Coronets 1949 U 101min BW 

We all have our own favourite Ealing comedies and this is mine because it’s atypical – darker, cooler and more cynical. There’s precious little warmth in Dennis Price as he seeks to gain a dukedom by killing off all the relatives who stand in his way. But murder has rarely been so joyously funny. Anyway, most of the deceased had it coming, so that’s all right. A spiky, witty script, and Alec Guinness turns in a tour de force by playing all eight of Price’s victims, a woman among them. 

Did you know? Alec Guinness later revealed that he also appeared in “one non-speaking cameo and a portrait in oils”. Eyes peeled! 

Say it again! “It is so difficult to make a neat trump of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.” Louis Mazzini 

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Bringing Up Baby 1938 U 102min BW 

For me the best of all screwball comedies – a wonderful combination of Cary Grant at his gawky, querulous best, Katharine Hepburn and her pet leopard, Baby, and a deliciously daft plot that lands them all in jail. (Actually there are two leopards, one far less cute than Baby, and also a dog.) Grant is a palaeontologist painstakingly reconstructing a dinosaur, Hepburn the kooky, flighty heiress who irritates and disrupts him, and everything is directed by Howard Hawks with the lightest of touches. 

Did you know? If you think Asta in The Thin Man and George in Bringing Up Baby look similar, it’s because they’re played by the same dog – a wire-haired terrier aptly named Skippy. At the height of his career, the dog commanded $250 per week.

Say it again! “Now it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn toward you, but – well, there haven’t been any quiet moments.” Dr David Huxley 

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Monty Python and the Holy Grail 1975 15 85min Colour 

A glorious send-up of the Arthurian legend (and every medieval movie you’ve ever seen, come to that), this has the Pythons at their zaniest and funniest. Limbless swordsmen fighting on, a French soldier shouting bizarre insults, extras banging coconuts to make the sound of horses hooves and so on. It looks good, too, and somewhere beneath the surface is a sharp disapproval of man’s tendency to violence. 

Did you know? Novelist Iain Banks appears as an extra – he was studying at nearby Stirling University at the time 

Say it again! “If you do not tell us where we can buy a shrubbery, my friend and I will say… we will say… ni.” King Arthur

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Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time! part 1 was first published in Radio Times magazine (21-27 January 2012)

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Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time! part 2 is available in next week’s Radio Times magazine