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Monday, November 5, 2007

The Jailhouse Follies (originally published 4/99)

Back in 1930, when talking pictures were still new, MGM released the great-grandfather of all prison movies, "The Big House." The success of this film spawned imitators almost immediately, from "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" (1932) to "Each Dawn I Die" (1939). Some of the films inspired by "The Big House," however, were less serious in tone. It goes without saying that wherever there is a successful dramatic genre there will also be parody. The producers of comedy films wasted no time in lampooning the type of story for which "The Big House" stands as the prototype.

As the tradition of serious prison dramas continues to this day, with such films as "The Shawshank Redemption," so does the parallel tradition of prison comedies. The most recent example of the latter is "Life," starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence as a couple of convicts who have found each other's company to be the single worst element of their punishment. Here are some earlier examples of comedy films with prison settings.

"Pardon Us" (1931). Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who had built their comic reputation on two-reel short subjects, chose to parody the prison film genre in their first feature length production. Busted for selling bootleg beer, the boys find themselves up the river with the toughest guy in the joint as their cellmate. To make matters worse, Stan has a loose tooth that periodically makes a buzzing sound, as if he's giving someone the raspberry.

"Modern Times" (1936). Although this Charlie Chaplin classic doesn't take place entirely in prison, it does contain some of the funniest prison sequences ever filmed. Charlie's familiar Little Tramp character is portrayed here as a man who is unable to adjust to life in the modern world. After going nuts while working on a production line, he is confined first to a mental hospital and later to prison. After thwarting a jailbreak, he is treated as a model prisoner and accorded every privilege. Consequently, when his sentence is up his number one goal is to return to prison.

"Convict 99" (1938). One of world cinema's unfairly forgotten talents is British comic Will Hay. Like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, Hay learned his trade performing in English music hall sketches. In those days, his bread and butter routine was playing the part of a bumbling schoolmaster. So thoroughly was he identified with that role that he continued playing similar characters - stuffed shirts in positions of importance that far exceeded their capabilities - throughout much of his film career. In "Convict 99," Hay is the new warden of Blackdown prison. Arriving at the same time as a new batch of prisoners, he is mistaken for one of them and becomes Convict 99 in his own prison. When the mistake is eventually discovered and Hay is placed in charge of the prison, he allows the convicts to persuade him to institute some cushy reforms, including armchairs and radios for the cells and even allowing the prisoners to buy and sell stocks. It is this last reform that places Hay in jeopardy. When the funds are stolen the unfortunate warden finds himself in the position of being liable for embezzlement unless the offender is caught.

"Take the Money and Run" (1969). In his first film as a writer and director, Woody Allen tells the story of small time criminal Virgil Starkwell, played by Allen himself. The film takes the form of a mock documentary, a form to which Allen would return fourteen years later with "Zelig" (1983). Roughly half of the film takes place in prison, since the scenes alternate between Virgil's crimes and the prison time he serves as a result.

"Stir Crazy" (1980). Although each had enjoyed successes individually, the success of "Silver Streak" (1976) established Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor as a comedy team in the minds of moviegoers. In their second film together, they play a couple of losers who are arrested for a bank robbery they didn't commit. Their misadventures in the hoosegow garnered another solid box office return, guaranteeing that they would be paired onscreen again.

There are, by the way, a great many worthwhile prison comedies that haven't yet been released on video, from director John Ford's "Up the River" (1930) to the amusing "My Six Convicts" (1952). Perhaps if we appeal to the governor we can get these films released.

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