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Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Clowns (originally published 11/02)

Having conquered prime time television with a show about nothing, Jerry Seinfeld has now mounted his assault on the big screen with a movie about being a standup comic. It's likely to do well, of course, because it features Seinfeld, but there is every reason to believe that it might have made a respectable showing at the box office even without his lucrative name attached to it. Movie audiences have always enjoyed movies about the people who make us laugh, whether documentary or fictional. To see how earlier films have portrayed the lives of comics, look for these titles on home video.

"Top Banana" (1954). This film was adapted from a hit Broadway play, which is certainly nothing unusual in itself. What is unusual is that the filmmakers decided just to stage a production of the play itself, on a stage, in a theater, and record the performance with movie cameras. It would be an extremely silly way to adapt most stage plays to film, but in this case there is a certain logic to it. Both the play and the film starred Phil Silvers as the lead comic (or "top banana") of a successful television show. There's a plot in there somewhere - something about the top banana playing matchmaker to keep a sponsor happy only to fall for the young woman he has paired off with someone else - but it hardly matters. The heart and soul of the play/film is the steady stream of burlesque comedy bits. If you want a taste of what burlesque comedy was really like, performed by some of the people who knew it firsthand, this is the movie to see.

"The Comic" (1969). Dick Van Dyke portrays a silent film comedian named Billy Bright. The character is fictitious, but the events of his life are gleaned from the true stories of a number of comics of that era who lived to see their glory fade and who ultimately died in poverty and obscurity. Billy Bright brings much of his hardship on himself by being a self-centered, conceited jerk. The film was written and directed by Carl Reiner, the creator of Van Dyke's enormously successful TV show. If you have a low tolerance for schmaltz, you may be put off by one or two scenes, but the film does have some genuinely fine moments.

"Funny Girl" (1968). Barbra Streisand made her movie debut in this story of the early career of Fanny Brice. It was one of the last of the big budget Hollywood musicals. Those massive explosions of show biz excess had enjoyed a revival in the 1960s, in a kind of last ditch effort to compete with television by filling the big screen with spectacles such as "West Side Story" (1961), "The Sound of Music" (1965), and "Camelot" (1967). By the time "Funny Girl" was released, the trend had pretty well run its course. The film has very little to do with the actual life story of Ziegfeld Follies comedienne Fanny Brice and everything to do with showcasing the talents of Streisand, but as long as you know that going in there's no harm done. It's a very entertaining story paralleling Brice's early show business success with the failure of her marriage to professional gambler Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif).

"The Comedian" (1957). This one isn't actually a movie. It's a kinescope of a 90-minute live TV show from the period known as the "golden age of TV drama." The script was written by Rod Serling for an anthology series called "Playhouse 90." Mickey Rooney gives an intense, fiery performance in the title role, playing a character named Sammy Hogarth. He's the star of a hit television variety show, a man who brings joy into the lives of millions of viewers. But to the people who have to work with him, he's just a big pain in the neck. Feet of clay? This guy is mud from the neck down. The video release includes interviews with cast members and director John Frankenheimer, placing the show in historical perspective.

The great British tragedian Edmund Keane is reported to have said on his deathbed that "dying is easy; comedy is hard." Laughter, like anything of value, exacts a price. Luckily for us, from Phil Silvers to Jerry Seinfeld, there are always those who are willing to pay the price on our behalf.

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