Top Ten Movie Comedy Duos
s film’s first comedy star and auteur, Chaplin reigned alone over his custom-made shorts and features of the teens and ’20s, his female leads and foils dwarfed by his star power and talent. But duos, descended from the “interlocutor” (later straight man) and the lowbrow clown in minstrel shows, appeared in the silent era and proliferated during the early sound years. Short of the double- or triple-threat talents of a Chaplin or Keaton, it could be easier to orchestrate slapstick (or just tell jokes) with a two-headed attraction. Commonly built around a clever-stupid, aggressive-passive or worldly-innocent pairing, the best teams transcended these types with a more finespun identity; Hardy may have aspired to lead Laurel around by the nose, but frequently was brought lower than his simple, insensible pal.
For the ten best film duos and their top showcases, I couldn’t limit myself to “&” acts, which became scarce after Dean left Jerry, without generously overpraising the likes of Wheeler & Woolsey. This list favors career comedians over actors who could be funny (like Spencer and Kate), but not powerhouse talents who were diluted by a contractual mating (Richard Pryor’s genius was on the standup’s stage, not in his Gene Wilder movies). And because there are no rules in comedy, I’ll break mine when I feel the need.
Laurel & Hardy in Sons of the Desert (1933)
At a post-theatre discussion I attended this summer, a playgoer earnestly scoffed “We don’t laugh at Laurel & Hardy today because no one can believe anymore that people act like that.” Ptui! Perhaps the hyperrealist merriment of “Two and a Half Men” or Neal LaBute has dulled that poor creature’s appreciation for the grace, non-cloying sentiment, and lyrical truth of the great Stan & Ollie. It’s a close call over Way Out West for their best feature-length vehicle, but Sons is more quintessentially L&H; in its milieu, as they’re lodge brothers determined to attend the annual convention despite the disapproval of their formidable wives (Mrs. Hardy is given to smashing crockery over hubby’s head, while Mrs. Laurel is a shotgun-toting hunter).
Feigned illness, a shipwreck, and scampering over a roof in a thunderstorm ensue. With long gaps of silent reaction shots woven into their movies to allow audiences to finish howling, the leisurely pace of L&H; on video cultivates appreciation of the emotional readability of their characters, as Stan’s blinking button eyes and childlike, hesitant physicality signal the grinding of his mental gears, and Ollie’s dignified haughtiness and slow burns are his way of coping with one lifelong “fine mess.” Laugh and believe.
Loy & Powell in The Thin Man (1934)
The real pleasure of this Dashiell Hammett murder mystery adaptation is the sprightly adult badinage and romantic heat between William Powell and Myrna Loy as the detective-turned-bon vivant Nick Charles and his saucy heiress wife Nora, living in a swank Manhattan hotel apartment where they host chaotic soirees in between dodging bullets and unearthing bodies. Querying Nick if a young girl matches his type, Nora is reassured, “Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”
Establishing a different template for funny pairs than the knockabout clowns who graduated from vaudeville or the silent era, in their 13 co-starring vehicles Powell and Loy set the standard for smart, sexy mates later challenged by Tracy & Hepburn and Woody & Diane. Blearily coping with a Christmas morning hangover—in her mink—by watching Powell shoot balloons off the tree with a BB gun, Loy fashioned an image as a wife who was a spirited ally without truckling to male supremacy.
Olsen & Johnson in Hellzapoppin’ (1941)
The forgotten team of Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson are the enablers of a frenzied world of slapstick and non sequiturs in this chaotic adaptation of their zany Broadway hit, which kicks off with bodies falling into the flames of Hell behind the credits (followed by a musical number with gyrating demons). On the eve of an era where comedians often had some sort of leading-man snap and sparkle, Olsen & Johnson look like trouble: big suits, cheap fedoras and in Johnson’s case, a whinnying giggle and a face that makes society dames scream when he removes a fright mask.
While this surrealistic circus, loosely framed by Hollywood gags about the impossibility of making Hellzapoppin’ into a watchable film, owes as much to optical gags and the go-get-em presence of Martha Raye as to O&J;, I lie prostrate before the shamelessness of two-handed scenes like this:
Johnson (on phone): That’s good. That’s good. That’s bad. That’s good. That’s bad…As Cro-Magnon as this and other O&J; jokes are, the movie loses a lot of its musty endearment when more conventional performers pop in to give the audience respite. (In their follow-up Crazy House, Johnson shoots the romantic leads at the end, a move the Marx Brothers surely envied.) For all the vaudeville lifers who never soared to the success of a Hope, Burns & Allen or Jack Benny, O&J; deserve a niche, or a notch, on this list. Natch!
Olsen: What are you doing?
Johnson: I’m helping her sort a box of strawberries!
Hope & Crosby in Road to Utopia (1946)
Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were casually subversive, for the preeminent comedian and pop singer of their time: the Road movies always presented them as fast-talking, loot-chasing, horndog con men in cardboard travelogue plots that were never shot outside the Paramount studio, and which set a new standard for breaking character as they razzed each other over other their wealth, radio sponsors, career paths, etc. (Bob to Bing after they lose a talent contest to a monkey: “Next time I bring Sinatra.”)
When they stuck to the plot, Crosby generally won their battle of alpha males, shooting Hope out of a cannon, selling him into slavery, or besting him in pursuit of Dorothy Lamour. In Utopia, the fourth in the series, they lust for gold in the Klondike with a treasure map in hand, impersonate killers with fake beards and bluster (“I’ll have a lemonade … in a dirty glass!”), sing and hoof to some pleasant lightweight songs, and end with a brilliant paternity gag. They’re still the most exhilaratingly confident, smartly stupid, verbally dextrous wits in the history of the “buddy” film.
Abbott & Costello in Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Having run all their horror series from the 1930s into the ground, Universal Pictures inserted their golden box-office clowns Bud Abbott and Lou Costello into a plot stuffed with Dracula (Bela Lugosi, in his albatross role for the last time onscreen), the Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein creature in a spoof that anticipated Mel Brooks by three decades, resulting in a big hit and the most durable of the team’s 36 movies. As the skeptic to Costello’s terrorized fellow shipping clerk, the bullying Abbott, among the most limited and unsympathetic of comedy straight men, is forever turning his back or leaving the room when his cherubic partner is menaced by the undead.
Costello, whose quicksilver shifts from hyperventilating coward to enraptured Romeo have a manic grace, discovers a staircase and giant cistern behind a castle door—“Broom closet,” he deadpans to Bud. Mocking the hoary expositional dialogue right to poor Lon Chaney Jr.’s face, A&C; are stand-ins for the villagers who usually get burned alive or mauled in monster movies, but their healthy instinct to run like hell saves them. “You know that Dracula isn’t a real person!” “Yeah—but does Dracula know it?”
Martin & Lewis in Living It Up (1954)
For an opening scene to a crowd-pleasing Eisenhower-era comedy, you can’t beat Jerry Lewis driving through the Los Alamos atomic testing grounds in a jalopy marked DANGER: RADIOACTIVE. Soon his desert-town dweeb is falsely diagnosed by Dean Martin, an MD with dubious credentials, as fatally poisoned, and the pair is off to New York to live on the dime of a sensation-seeking tabloid for as long as they can keep the terminal-illness charade going.
Few of Martin & Lewis’ 16 films caught much of the breathless horseplay that defined their nightclub partnership—for a taste, see the budget DVDs of their live TV appearances, where Dino got to be just as funny as Jer—but Living It Up is a glossy, mostly agreeable, and reasonably cynical entertainment featuring two “innocents” leading a life of big-city excess, including doing a top hat-and-tails duet or hanging from chandeliers when the script says to. Lewis’ “eternal eight-year-old” persona is like the raging id of postwar America, Martin the cool crooner its ego; a Hope & Crosby for the boom years.
Cook & Moore in Bedazzled (1967)
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s buoyant reworking of Faust paved the way for a subsequent decade or two of Monty Python and other naughty Brit boys and, under the direction of onetime MGM musical master Stanley Donen, gave the duo their first and only essential movie together, augmenting stage and TV stardom. As a suicidal short-order cook incapable of wooing the waitress (Eleanor Bron) he’s fixated on, Moore is ensnared by the standard contract (“I, Stanley Moon, hereinafter and in the hereafter to be known as ‘The Damned’”) from Cook’s careerist Devil, who takes a break from pranks like scratching new LPs to offer his victim seven wishes, all of which put the Everyman in close but impenetrable proximity to his beloved—most memorably, in a convent of silent nuns.
Despite the ceaseless chicanery he perpetrates upon his diminutive, hapless partner, Cook retains his share of audience sympathy by acknowledging with a sigh that his evildoing is rote and uninspired, and also by being so damn cool; as befits a Swinging London Mephistopheles, he incarnates a blasé pop star when sneering the title song. Beyond the classical opposition of their characters, Pete & Dud are clearly on the same side when the wish-scenarios permit them to assay aristocratic twits or skewer bourgeois romances (Moore can’t abide humping neighbor Bron because Cook is her saintly, oblivious spouse). Their high-and-low wit and comfy chemistry is so seductive that 20th Century Fox probably didn’t notice it had produced a comedy where God comes off as the villain.
Allen & Keaton in Sleeper (1973)
The second in six on-screen collaborations of Woody Allen and his muse Diane Keaton, this is the most unapologetically breezy and jokey, with the bittersweet neurosis of Allen’s Mature Period just seasoning rather than the entrée. As a dim poet in a 22nd-century idiocracy who’s kidnapped by Allen’s fugitive from 1973 Greenwich Village, Keaton is not just “the girl” as in the stage and film versions of Play It Again, Sam, but holds up her end of the knockabout slapstick set pieces, riding Woody’s balloon-suited back across a lake and doubletalking through a climactic operating-theater sketch.
Though initially an easily scored-upon dum-dum and potential toy for his Playboy-era libido (her “I got a Ph.D. in oral sex” draws “They make you take any Spanish with that?”), she joins the rebel underground when Allen is brainwashed by the state, growing into a gung ho if thoroughly inept neo-Trotskyite accomplice, managing a mean Brando Streetcar impression too. Seeing her make the most of a role mixing Gracie Allen and a shiksa niece of The Three Stooges must’ve launched Allen on creating three-dimensional characters like Annie Hall for Keaton, who could add depth to his investigations of “sex and death—two things that come once in a lifetime.”
Arkin & Falk in The In-Laws (1979)
Selecting this one is clearly a cheat, but given the path of much traditional comedy after the ’60s—as Mort Sahl said, “It stopped being funny”—and the alternative of Cheech & Chong, I can only wish that these distinguished veteran actors had been allowed to morph into a regular duo on the heels of this giddy union of Understatement and Anxiety, instead of teaming again only for the ill-regarded Big Trouble. Writer Andrew Bergman’s transcendentally silly espionage travesty has Alan Arkin’s panicky New Jersey dentist sucked into deadly international intrigue when his daughter’s future father-in-law turns out to be an unflusterable, seat-of-the-pants CIA agent... or perhaps a sociopathic rogue who’s robbed the U.S. Treasury.
Peter Falk’s sweet-talking, opaque warmth meshes blissfully with Arkin’s increasingly distraught ravings as their bullet-dodging odyssey leads them to a Latin American dictator (Richard Libertini) who greets them with kisses from a puppet-face drawn on his right hand. For a full month after seeing The In-Laws you’ll be looking for excuses to yell “Serpentine!” regardless of the social circumstances, and fully expect all airline safety instructions to be delivered in Cantonese.
Chan & Wilson in Shanghai Noon (2000)
A few years past his athletic prime as the funniest action hero since Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan’s second Hollywood film matched him with the garrulous Zen surfer-goofball Owen Wilson, who created the optimistic burglar Dignan in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket four years earlier—a character so oddly original that Wilson was soon playing diluted variations of it in big-budget genre movies.
Given the formula requirements of an American Chan project, it takes awhile to get the stars alone together in an East-meets-Old West rescue plot, but the middle reels do find some enchanted moments, particularly a jailbreak engineered with a piss-soaked shirt—“A 2,000-year-old civilization and that's the best you can come up with?” Owen asks Jackie. “Shame on you. Shame on you”—and a leisurely bathtub soak that cuts to the pardners ecstatically howling through a Chinese drinking game. Unfortunately the villains must be dispatched in an overlong, mostly played-straight climax; for a production that would let them rip through the frontier in consistently merry style, these two cowboys were born too late.
By: Bill Weber
Published on: 2007-10-24