Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s – Part 2
This is the second article in a 4-part series. You can read Part 1 here.
With sick comedy beginning to bubble up through the margins of the studio system in Hollywood, filmmakers in Britain soon leaped on the bandwagon. The country was in a “gallows humour” mood anyway. World War II had left London a shell of its former self, as a result of the Nazi Blitz bombing and the economics of war, and cinematic “outliers,” such as Robert Hamer’s exquisite comedy of murder, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), now emerged as a new form of British humor. In this remarkable film, a young man, unjustly deprived of his birthright by an unfailing, uncaring British social system, contrives to murder one by one all the potential heirs to his estate that stand before him in the line of succession.
Dennis Price, a delightfully urbane actor, is perfection as Louis Mazzini, the young man seeking to reclaim his title as the Duke of Chalfont. Adding to the mordant humor is the fact that all eight of the heirs, members of the D’Ascoyne family, are played by Alec Guinness in a variety of disguises, including one role as a woman, Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne. As the film proceeds with cheerfully grim efficiency, all the D’Ascoynes succumb to Louis’s machinations, and the Dukedom is at last his, with lands, estate, and title. Yet Louis is undone in a dénouement of surprising absent-mindedness, no doubt as a sop to the censor.
When Hamer was assigned the task of directing the film, which was made at Britain’s Ealing Studios, his boss, Sir Michael Balcon, sent him a note on his first day on the set; “You are trying to sell that most unsalable commodity to the British – irony. Good luck to you” (qtd. in Perry 1981: 121). Of course, the film was a remarkable success, and led to a string of similarly mordant comedies, most notably Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers (1955), in which a group of robbers (including a young Peter Sellers) use the cover of a genteel British boarding house to plan a large-scale robbery, which they successfully execute, netting £60,000.
Their landlady, Mrs. Wilberforce (Jack Nicholson’s character’s name, Wilbur Force, in Little Shop of Horrors, is an homage to The Ladykillers), played to perfection by Katie Johnson, an expert in “little old lady” parts, discovers the plans for the robbery, and remonstrates with them as if they were truant children. In response, the four members of the gang resolve to murder her, but all fail at the task, and are killed themselves in a variety of grotesque accidents. In the end, only Mrs. Wilberforce remains alone in her house with £60,000 to her credit; although she tries to return the money, the local police don’t believe her story, and so The Ladykillers ends with Mrs. Wilberforce returning home, much richer, able to retire in style.
By the late 1950s, the Boulting Brothers would produce their scathing satire on labor unions, I’m All Right Jack, with Peter Sellers cast as Communist shop steward Fred Kite. The film is rife with class conscious jibes, and centers on the misadventures of an upper class British “twit” (or idiot), Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael), who despite family connections and the “old boy” network, as represented by his Uncle Bertram Tracepurcel (Dennis Price) and his uncle’s Army friend Sidney De Vere Cox (Richard Attenborough), is utterly unable to find work “befitting” his station. He is eventually put to work in a blue-collar job at his uncle’s guided missile factory, where he attacks his duties with vigor, arousing the suspicions of the officious Fred Kite.
In I’m All Right Jack, everyone is seen as corrupt or incompetent, and throwaway gags in the film (such as a “quality inspector” at a chocolate factory repeatedly sneezing into the boxes of candy she is checking) add to the film’s overwhelmingly nihilist humor. In the end of the film, both labor and management are shown to be interested only in their own ends, often to absurd degrees, and when Stanley makes a televised statement exposing bribery, slacking off at work, price gouging and extortion by all the principals involved, he is banished from “polite” society. When last seen, Stanley is ensconced in a nudist colony, trying (literally) to escape from all the trappings of a social order that has broken down at every level.
William Castle, better known for his “gimmick” horror films of the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as House on Haunted Hill (1959), in which, using a process Castle dubbed “Emergo,” “the ghost actually emerges from the screen” (actually, an oversize skeleton briefly sweeps over the heads of the audience), also took note of the trend towards sardonic humor, and traveled to England to collaborate with Britain’s Hammer Studios to produce and direct The Old Dark House (1963), a dark comedy remake of the 1932 James Whale original of the same name. Whale’s version was already verging towards parody, but Castle, aided and abetted by a remarkable cast of British character actors, including Robert Morley, Joyce Grenfell, Mervyn Johns, Peter Bull, and Fenella Fielding, top lined by American comedian Tom Poston, takes matters several steps further into outright “sick” farce. Based on a novel by J. B. Priestley, The Old Dark House is a curious film in many respects. Although practically no one remembers it, the film was the first motion picture in which the macabre cartoonist Charles Addams took a decisive hand, designing the titles for the film, as well as rough drafts of the interior sets (which were executed by the gifted Bernard Robinson), and even signing his name on screen to his credit in the film’s opening titles.
In Castle’s version of The Old Dark House, Tom Penderel (Tom Poston), an American car salesman visiting London, delivers a car to the gloomy country estate of his friend, Caspar Femm (Peter Bull), only to find out that Caspar has died. With the storm raging outside, Penderel has no choice but to spend the night in the old, dark house, where he discovers to his horror that all the members of the Femm family are being dispatched by an unknown killer, one by one, on a hourly basis. The Femm family (the name itself is an obvious pun on “femme,” for, as it turns out, the killer is a woman, Cecily Femm [Janette Scott], whom no one suspects) is an exceedingly odd one, and all the actors make the most out of the film’s numerous double entendre lines.
When Penderel is first introduced to Agatha Femm (Joyce Grenfell), Caspar’s mother, she nods in delightful anticipation, and cheerfully proclaims “We’re having you for dinner . . . delicious!” before drifting out of the room in a gleeful daze. Later, when Agatha is discovered dead with a pair of knitting needles stuck neatly through her neck in a crosshatch pattern, with a manic smile fixed on her face, her brother Roderick Femm (Robert Morley) “tut tuts” disapprovingly “I don’t understand it. She was always so careful with her knitting.” In similar fashion, the “vampish” seducer Morgana Femm (Fenella Fielding), repeatedly attempts to bed the reluctant Tom throughout the film, who resists her advances because, as he notes, people “have a way of dying” in her bedchamber.
Although Howard Thompson, writing in The New York Times, found the film “a laboriously arch and broad blend of humor,” the film is actually one of the more successful “horror comedies,” enlivened (if that is the right word) considerably by the energy of its cast and crew. Indeed, the Hammer/Castle co-production came about when Hammer and William Castle each discovered that the other was in pre-production on a remake of The Old Dark House; recognizing the opportunity afforded by a collaboration, Hammer induced Castle to come to England and work on their version, with his own distinctive sense of dark humor attached. Released through Columbia, and shot in color, The Old Dark House was originally released in black and white for economy reasons. However, as the recent color DVD release of the film makes clear, black and white works much better in the world of Charles Addams and J. B. Priestley, particularly given the film’s cheerfully ghoulish sense of humor. Color really doesn’t belong here. After all, Addams’ famous drawings, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, were all done in black and white.
Back in America, producer/director Stanley Kramer was readying a much more ambitious project, perhaps the most overwhelmingly brutal comedy ever made: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). With a cast featuring literally every living comedian in either a leading, cameo, or supporting role, including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Phil Silvers, Dick Shawn, The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, and everyone else in between, the film, budgeted at a then-colossal $9.4 million, was of such epic proportion that when released at 192 minutes (in two parts, with a 15 minute intermission), after preview screenings of 210 minutes, it was one of the most spectacular films of the year, regardless of genre.
But what is most striking about the film, in the end, is not its epic dimension or scope (the film was shot in “Ultra Panavision,” then touted as the new seamless form of Cinerama, a popular 1950s three camera, three projector process that produced an illusion of depth), but rather the film’s view of life, which is acerbic in the extreme. The premise of the film is slim; an aging gangster, “Smiler” Grogan (Durante), runs off the highway in his car, and with his dying words, tells a group of “good Samaritans” who have stopped to help him that there is $350,000 in stolen loot stashed under a “big W” in the fictional Santa Rosita State Park in California, and the money is theirs, if they can find it. With that, Grogan dies, literally “kicking a bucket” down the culvert as he does so. Almost immediately, the passersby begin fighting amongst themselves for the money, and soon each one is trying to stop the others from leaving the park, and finding the $350,000. The film then becomes a literally mind-numbing orgy of violence and destruction, as gas stations, cars, planes, and anything else in sight is destroyed with ritualistic, almost sadistic fetishism.
The members of the group are shadowed in their quest by Captain T. G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy, in one of his last roles), the Chief of Detection of the Santa Rosita Police Department, but in the end, he, too, succumbs to the temptation of “Smiler’s” loot, and tries to abscond with the entire fortune, tricking the others into thinking he will turn it in to his superiors at police headquarters. When the group discovers they’ve been tricked, they give chase, and in the end all wind up in the hospital as a result of injuries sustained in their pursuit, including Captain Culpepper. All their efforts have availed them nothing, and in the bargain, all face lengthy hospital stays while they recuperate. The film has developed a cult following other the years, and certainly, in terms of excess, violence, and spectacle, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is one of the most expensive and epic “dark” comedies ever produced.
Yet the majority of humor in the film derives from outright cruelty – Ethel Merman perpetually screaming at her on-screen husband, Milton Berle, or anyone else in her line of fire; Phil Silvers offering a lift to the stranded Jonathan Winters, who is puffing along in the desert on a child’s bicycle; when Winters throws the bike away, Silvers speeds off, leaving him in the dust; Sid Caesar and Edie Adams locked in a basement full of exploding fireworks – and as many critics remarked at the time, the sheer wastage of the film is appalling. All that motivates the film’s central characters is greed, anger, lust and avarice. As a compelling vision of the dark side of the American dream, the film certainly succeeds. But when viewing the film, one can’t help but wonder how much of it was conscious, and how much simply a byproduct of the movie’s brutal trajectory.
Lured on by the “promise” of instant wealth, the protagonists of Kramer’s film are locked into a headlong race to their own destruction, and they lay waste to everything they touch in the process. The film remains controversial to this day for its sheer overkill; how many more car crashes can the mind absorb? How many more shouting matches? How much more destruction? There seems to be no answer forthcoming in the film, which ends with Ethel Merman’s character slipping on a banana peel in the hospital ward where all of her co-stars are convalescing. At this, everyone starts laughing hysterically. Humiliation, pain, violence, cruelty; is this really the stuff of comedy? Yet the colossal perversity of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World remains a monument to over indulgence; “give me more, more, more,” the film seems to say – which is just what its protagonists want, as well.
A much lighter and more effervescent film is Richard Lester’s sex comedy The Knack… and How to Get It (1965), based on the stage play by Ann Jellicoe. Grade school teacher Colin (Michael Crawford) owns a boarding house in London, and is clueless when it comes to attracting the attention of the opposite sex. Tolen (Ray Brooks), on the other hand, lives in the top floor of Colin’s house, and has an endless stream of women beating down his door. When one of Colin’s other tenants moves out, he puts up a “Room to Let” sign, hoping for a more compatible tenant. Into this ménage comes Nancy (Rita Tushingham), a shy out-of-towner looking for a “clean, respectable” place to stay, like the YWCA. Seeing Colin’s sign, she decides to move in, but Tom (Donal Donnelly) has also seen the sign, moves in unannounced, and begins to paint the entire first floor bright white, to cover up the “brown – I hate brown” paint that predominates the existing décor.
While Tolen is pleased to see Nancy move in, as another possible conquest, he and Tom immediately lock horns. Tom is deeply unimpressed by Tolen’s sexual prowess, and sets about to undermine Tolen’s grip on the household. Tolen would much rather have his equally libidinous friend Rory McBride (never seen, only mentioned) as their new flat mate, and resents Tom’s criticism of his lifestyle. To effect this, Tolen promises Colin that he will teach him the secrets of his success as a womanizer, but only if Rory McBride moves in, and Tom moves out. The stage is thus set for an intriguing battle of the sexes – male and female – in which, at the end, Tolen is revealed to be a sham, Colin and Nancy find love, and Tom feels content in keeping Rory McBride at bay.
Lester, who had just finished directing the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (1964), stages the action in The Knack in a frenzy of speeded up motion, jump cuts, reverse shots, superimposed titles, and fantasy sequences, set against a backdrop of stunning art direction created by Assheton Gorton, and further complemented by a superb jazz scene from John Barry, then famous for scoring the James Bond films. What makes the film “dark” is its view of relationships between men and women. Despite the light and airy feel of the film’s construction, what serves as the guiding narrative impulse here is The Knack’s take on heterosexual compulsiveness – Tolen has to seduce every woman he meets; it’s almost like an affliction. Similarly, until Tom comes on the scene, Tolen treats Colin with only faintly disguised contempt, flaunting his success with the ladies as proof of his heterosexualized superiority. While the film offers a seductively inviting vision of swinging London, it also depicts the meaningless emptiness behind Tolen’s endless succession of casual hookups, and views the entire romantic vision of heteronormativity with a deeply cynical eye.
Lester, who started in commercials, and was born in America, was one of the less publicized victims of the early 1950s Hollywood Blacklist; sensing that uptight America was no place for his glossy vision, he moved to London, and was soon working in episodic television. But it was his Monty Pythonesque short, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), composed of silent sight gags and running a scant 12 minutes, that brought him to the attention of the Beatles, who demanded that Lester direct A Hard Day’s Night. The overwhelming success of the film launched Lester on a long and prolific career, and The Knack, with its crisp black and white cinematography by the gifted David Watkin, as well as razor sharp editing by Antony Gibbs, really stands out in the director’s career. To the surprise of everyone involved, this small, sharply observed film won the coveted Palme D’Or at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. Almost forgotten today, The Knack deserves another look, as a sardonic, knowing dissertation on the sexual mores of a vanished era.
At roughly the same time that Richard Lester was working on The Knack, another American expatriate, Stanley Kubrick, was putting the finishing touches on one of his finest and most widely appreciated films, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, the film is arguably the darkest of all political satires, and culminates in the obliteration of the entire planet in a hail of thermonuclear bombs. At the time, with the Soviet Union and the US locked in an arms race stalemate, such a prospect was hardly the stuff of comedy, but Kubrick, working with writer Terry Southern (co-author with Mason Hoffenberg of the brutally satiric sex novel Candy , a pop literary sensation) and Peter George, with a hefty uncredited assist from Peter Sellers, fashioned a screenplay, and then a film, that fulfilled all the promise of the project’s apocalyptic concept. At 94 minutes, the film moves swiftly, and begins with General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), a paranoid anti-Communist who is clearly unhinged, ordering a nuclear attack by his nuclear missile armed B-52’s, convinced that the Communists are planning to take over the United States by fluoridating the nation’s water supply. Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers, in one of three roles), tries to stop him, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, in the War Room at the Pentagon, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) apprises US President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) of Ripper’s unprovoked attack. After consulting with the Soviet Ambassador, Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull), Muffley calls the drunken Soviet Premier Dimitri Kisov on the “hotline” to assure him that Ripper’s action is that of a rogue warrior, and isn’t part of an all out attack. However, Kisov informs Muffley that if any nuclear attack on the Soviet Union succeeds, even a minimal one, it will trigger a “Doomsday Machine” that will destroy the entire planet in a barrage of thermonuclear destruction. Muffley’s scientific advisor, Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again) confirms the existence of the “Doomsday Machine,” and begins calculating how long it will take to repopulate the earth after such an annihilatory strike.
In the meantime, using advice from the American military, Soviet fighters have managed to shoot down all of General Ripper’s B-52 bombers except for one, piloted by the ignorant, racist Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens). Although Kong’s plane is severely damaged by the Soviets, he manages to make his way to the bomb bay, open the bomb doors, and literally ride a huge hydrogen bomb into the sky, screaming like a cowboy at a rodeo. In the War Room, Dr. Strangelove continues to calculate that it would take “ten females for each male” to repopulate the earth in a “reasonable” amount of time, when the Doomsday Machine suddenly activates. The film ends with a montage of nuclear bombs detonating across the globe, while Vera Lynn’s British World War II hit “We’ll Meet Again” plays on the film’s soundtrack. The film fades to black, and the briefest of end titles.
The impact of Dr. Strangelove as both a cautionary tale and a “nightmare comedy” (in Kubrick’s words) has not lessened with the passing of years; indeed, it has become more pronounced. As someone who teaches Film Studies on a regular basis to college age students, I can readily assert that while my incoming students may not have seen Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939) or even Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), they have all seen at least two canonical classics: Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Dr. Strangelove. Clips from the film proliferate on YouTube, especially Dr. Strangelove’s final war room speech to President Muffley and “Buck” Turgidson in which the doctor, an ex-Nazi who twice addresses the President as “Mein Führer” by accident, expounds his bizarre theories on the survivability of a nuclear holocaust. Much of Seller’s work as Strangelove was improvised, and Kubrick, recognizing Sellers’ genius at creating such a horrifically comedic character, gave him free reign. Uncharacteristically for such a meticulous filmmaker, Kubrick even included a take near the end of the film in which Peter Bull, playing the Russian ambassador, is clearly starting to laugh – or as the British put it, “corpse” – in the middle of a scene, reacting to the extreme energy and absurdity of Seller’s performance as the wheelchair-bound, partially paralyzed Dr. Strangelove.
Sellers was originally supposed to play Major “King” Kong as well as the other three roles, but never felt comfortable with the Kong part, and after “spraining an ankle” (accounts vary to this day as to whether or not Sellers faked the accident to get out of the role), Kubrick offered the role to John Wayne, who instantly turned it down cold (Hill 2001: 118-119). Slim Pickens was then offered the part, and played the role as a straight dramatic part, offering a neat contrast to the utterly over-the-top portrayal of Buck Turgidson by George C. Scott. Interestingly, Scott later claimed that Kubrick had tricked him into delivering such a manic performance by encouraging the actor to mug through a series of outrageously exaggerated rehearsal takes, and then incorporating them – after shooting a series of supposedly “official” takes – into the finished film (Jones 2004). Dr. Strangelove was also scripted to conclude with a huge, Three Stooges style pie fight in the War Room, which was actually filmed, but cut before the film’s release, because Kubrick thought such obvious slapstick would move the film into the realm of pure farce, and blunt its satiric edge.
Typically, Kubrick took his time filming the project, and did multiple takes on nearly all of the set ups, often with different interpretations. Sometimes, this led to complications. Dr. Strangelove was James Earl Jones’ first film as an actor, as Bombardier Lothar Zogg, and while he was thrilled to be working with Kubrick on any project, the logistics of the film were daunting. While he noted that “Stanley was unfailingly polite and even-tempered on the set. After every take that didn’t work, even the 100th, he would say nothing more than ‘Let’s try that again,’” he also remembered all too well that:
“it was also true that Stanley was a control freak of the highest order and ran his set more like a dictator than a director. He treated actors as if they were technical elements in his design, not as creative professionals like himself. I had decidedly uncomfortable moments as an actor under Stanley’s direction. One day, hours before I was scheduled to be on the set, I was hustled into costume to shoot a scene full of Air Force techno-jargon. I had learned the lines. But in the weeks of waiting around to shoot the scene I had forgotten them, and Kubrick said, ‘You mean you don’t know your words?’ He momentarily stopped chewing his gum and then said very coldly, ‘Let’s move to the next set.’ I felt uncomfortable with him afterward.” (Jones 2004)
Indeed, Kubrick would as a matter of course film scenes over and over again, until he got precisely what he wanted, no matter what. The scene in which Slim Pickens, as “King” Kong, rides a falling nuclear bomb to earth like a rodeo cowboy, for example, was filmed numerous times, with Pickens doing one take as stoically as Buster Keaton, and others with a degree of surprise, bemusement, or even shock. Throughout the film, then, Kubrick was ceaselessly experimenting with every aspect of the production.
While Kubrick went on to a variety of other projects, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with great success, he never again achieved the perfection of this peculiar mix of the absurd and the all-too-real. As he told critic Joseph Gelmis,
“My idea of doing [the film] as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay . . . As I kept trying to imagine the way in which things would really happen, ideas kept coming to me which I would discard because they were so ludicrous. I kept saying to myself, ‘I can’t do that – people will laugh.’ But after a month or so I began to realize that all the things I was throwing out were the things that were most truthful.” (Qtd. in Stillman 2008: 488)
Which, of course, is precisely why they had to stay in, why they have such comic resonance, and why Dr. Strangelove has retained its luster as an unalloyed “dark” comic masterpiece. As director Sydney Pollack commented, looking back on his first viewing of the film, “I remember watching it the first time, seeing Slim Pickens riding that bomb, thinking, ‘how does somebody think that up’?” (qtd. in Stillman 2008: 487). Or, as Kubrick himself told critic Eugene Archer,
“It’s all very elusive and very rich. There’s nothing like trying to create it. It gives you a sense of omnipotence – it’s one of the most exciting things you can find without being under the influence of drugs . . . If I told you [the meanings of my films] it wouldn’t be ambiguous – and if you didn’t discover it for yourself, it wouldn’t mean anything anyway.” (Qtd. in Stillman 2008: 487)
There is a curious postscript to the making of Dr. Strangelove. At the same time that Kubrick was making his film, director Sidney Lumet was preparing to shoot Fail Safe (1964), a deadly serious look at the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, from a novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, which had almost the same exact plotline as Peter George’s Red Alert. Indeed, George was so incensed by the similarities between Red Alert and the novel Fail Safe that he sued Burdick and Wheeler for plagiarism, ending in an out-of-court settlement. Kubrick then sued the producers of Fail Safe, the movie, arguing that since the novel Fail Safe had been shown to have an intellectual debt to Red Alert, the release of Fail Safe as a film would harm Dr. Strangelove’s chances at the box office. The legal wrangling continued for some time, and although production on Fail Safe, a deeply effective film in its own right, proceeded on schedule, Fail Safe was ultimately released nearly a year after Dr. Strangelove, and received respectful critical notices, but a disappointing reception at the box office.
NOTE: An earlier version of this essay described a sequence of mass destruction in a supermarket in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; in fact, no such scene exists in the film. Chalk it up to faulty memory. The author regrets the error.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (University Press of Kentucky, 2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; revised 2nd edition published 2013). His blog, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here.
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The author wishes to sincerely thank Richard Graham of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s Love Library for his invaluable assistance in the research for this article.