Theories of comedy go back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, and what is regarded as funny has evolved along the way. Recently I saw two films which illustrate some differences between dramatic comedy from the 1940s and the 1960s.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Harvey” opened on Broadway in 1944 and ran for five years before it was adapted to film in 1950. It also became a favorite play of amateur theater groups, and I remember enjoying the stage version as performed by the Sherman Community Players (starring Norman Bennett)
The film version of “Harvey,” which featured James Stewart, epitomizes the gentle laughter of that era, based largely on physical comedy and humorous misunderstandings. Stewart plays the eccentric Elwood P. Dowd, a middle-aged man whose best friend is an invisible rabbit over six feet tall named Harvey. As described by Dowd, Harvey is a pooka, a mythological creature who is especially fond of social outcasts.
Elwood has driven his sister Veta (played by Josephine Hull) and her daughter, who live with him, to distraction by introducing everyone he meets to his invisible friend, Harvey. When their inability to figure out how to deal with Dowd’s obsession with Harvey leads his family to attempt to have him committed to a sanatorium, the result is a string of humorous mix-ups. For example, when Veta talks to a psychiatrist about admitting her brother, the doctor thinks she is the one who needs to be placed in a padded cell and given hydrotherapy. The satire on psychology and mental health issues produces a lot of laughs.
In contrast, the 1967 movie “The Graduate” finds comedy in sexual issues. It tells the story of 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman), a recent college graduate with no definite aim in life, who is seduced by an older woman, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Much of the laughter in the first part of this film results from Ben’s inexperience and discomfort with the sexual advances of Mrs. Robinson, who is the wife of his father’s law partner. Like Ben, audiences were not yet familiar with the type of predatory older woman that is now referred to as a “cougar,” and they found it amusing to follow her antics in pursuing a naïve young man.
After Ben realizes that it is Elaine, the daughter of Mrs. Robinson, who he really cares for, his frantic and feckless efforts to court her despite the objections of her mother become the source of our laughter. The comedic climax occurs when Ben storms the church where Elaine is marrying someone else and convinces her to run away with him by boarding a city bus.
Watching the 50th anniversary screening of “The Graduate” in Sherman last weekend with an audience of old-timers (like me) who gleefully anticipated many of the laughs reminded me that its sexual comedy (now commonplace) was groundbreaking in 1967. It would not have gotten past the censors in 1950.
Both of these comedies were successful at the box office and also gained critical acclaim in their time. “Harvey” received two Academy Award nominations and Josephine Hull was awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. “The Graduate” was nominated for seven Academy Awards and Mike Nichols won as Best Director. Each of the films can now be seen as representing different ideas about comedy and what is appropriate subject matter for their respective eras. I enjoyed both of them.
Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now leads discussions in a classic film group at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sherman on the second Wednesday of every month. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.