'Movies are better than ever" went a dubious Hollywood slogan of a generation ago. They may well be in some ways, but not, certainly, in the laugh division. They're just not as much fun.
In the old days (the threadbare '30s), about half of everybody in the United States went to the movies once a week. Then Hollywood was grossing about $1 billion a year. Today, with much higher ticket prices and millions more potential patrons, the take is only about $5 billion, according to the movie industry's own annual. Of course VCR watching is partly responsible for the industry's not making billions more. But there are other reasons, too.
Maybe funnier movies would help. Filmmakers still seem able to produce master works that touch deep strands of American tradition and emotional history, among them "The Color Purple," "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Field of Dreams." But where are the universal funnies, the stress-destroying yackers that can attract all age levels? In thin supply, it seems.
Back Tracks herewith presents its idea of at least six films that on revival are just as funny as they ever were. Most, but not all, are available on cassette.
"The Court Jester": When Danny Kaye, in full armor, mounts a horse for the medieval joust, falls off and even so wins the fair maid, it is sheer joy. But even that scene is not as funny as the famous chalice sequence. Here, the local duenna, Mildred Natwick, puts a poisoned pill in the chalice intended for the villain, but it gets mixed up with others. Kaye must drink with the bad guy and pick the right goblet. He tries to memorize the line "The chalice from the palace is the brew that is true," but garbles it with hysterical results that go on for minutes. Angela Lansbury plays the haughty princess in this one.
"The Great Dictator": Though it has a soupy, illogical ending, this Chaplin opus has some of the great comedian's most inspired digs at 20th century super thugs Hitler and Mussolini. Billy Gilbert's porcine Goering and Jack Oakie's Il Duce are splendors of buffoonery.
"A Night at the Opera": Probably the Marx brothers' No. 1 achievement, this film has two immortal scenes. In one, what seems to be most of the cast, excluding resident dowager Margaret Dumont, tries to jam itself into one small stateroom. Even funnier is the finale, with Harpo ripping the set of "Il Trovatore" to shreds in the middle of a performance. It's perhaps the funniest eight or 10 minutes ever filmed in sound movies.
"Kind Hearts and Coronets": This Alec Guinness tour de force is as clipped and clever as anything can be, and it features a trick ending. Here, the British satirize their noble dukedoms and gorgeous tiaraed ladies with results that are hilariously literate.
"The Man Who Came to Dinner": A distillation of Manhattan wit of the '30s and '40s, this film's plot deserves revival and updating, with its scabrous view of celebrities, Hollywood and hicks in the sticks. Turn Sheridan Whiteside, the sulfurous snob celebrity of the original, into a me-generation talk show host and you'd have it made.
"The Freshman": Unquestionably the funniest football show ever made, with a wild sequence showing Harold Lloyd scoring for the alma mater.
"The Apartment" and "The Out-of-Towners": A doubleheader tribute to Jack Lemmon, his co-actors and the writers who put together the two best shows about a place that is really no laughing matter at all: Manhattan.
Addenda to the list are suggested by associates. Front-runners include "Arthur," with Dudley Moore; "National Lampoon's Vacation," with Chevy Chase; "The Producers," with Zero Mostel; "Some Like it Hot," with Marilyn Monroe; and anything at all with Laurel and Hardy, including their most melodious movie, "Fra Diavolo." The list is doubtless long. But few, alas, have been recently made. *