I recently received a copy of Saul Austerlitz’s Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, which was released last month. It is, in a word, engrossing.
But a pithy, single-word review won’t do, will it? Nor is that single word sufficient, really, to explain to you how wonderful this compendium of film comedy truly is. Austerlitz manages to do something that would initially seem impossible: condensing the entire history of silver-screen yuks into a mere 500 pages, and doing it well.
Part retrospective, part dissection, and chock full of informed opinion, Another Fine Mess deftly examines the span of comedic film, beginning with its earliest purveyors of hilarity–Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd–and ending with a look at the state of comedy in modern cinema through the films of its most recent champions–Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, and Judd Apatow, among others. From silent to screwball, subversive to subtle, glib to gross-out, Austerlitz covers it all with an analytical acumen and winking humor that makes for a highly appealing combination.
The book is broken into two parts: a series of in-depth chapters dedicated to a singular filmmaker or star, and a few dozen short notes that briefly address other actors, directors, and writers whose contributions to the world of film comedy cannot be overlooked. Arranged chronologically, Austerlitz traces the history of twentieth-century comedic cinema with informative glimpses of such stalwarts as the Marx Brothers, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers, and Doris Day, and timeless directors such as Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen.
The biographical portraits of each star are fascinating, but it’s the analysis of their various films that really makes this book more than just a mere encyclopedia of comedy. The author demonstrates a keen eye for even the most nuanced details of a particular film or performance, making for a highly informative read. Let’s just say that after reading this book, I have a new appreciation for (most of) the Eddie Murphy canon (except Norbit. Austerlitz tries to make a somewhat halfhearted case for this stinkfest, but I’m not biting).
As a classic movie fan, I take umbrage to a couple of Austerlitz’s assertions; after all, every one of us has his or her favorites, and the need to defend those favorites can be hard to suppress–as, for example, when I read the section on Wilder, in which Austerlitz refers to one of my favorite Wilder pictures, 1942’s The Major and the Minor, as “slight.” This elicited a rather loud, “WHAT??” and vigorous head-shaking (personally, I think characterizing Major as “slight” is short-sighted, considering the genius of the script–one of the funniest and most perverse of Wilder’s career, despite its latent saccharine tendencies).
One of the things I really appreciate about Austerlitz’s book is that he rarely dabbles in the salacious. Many classic movie fans are aware of the peccadilloes of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars–the allure of adultery, the stars who fought to maintain a closeted homosexual life, etc.–but instead of indulging in pointless retellings of classic Hollywood gossip, Austerlitz focuses on the things that crafted these performers and directors into the comedic forces they would eventually become, keeping their work–and the stories derived from that work–at the forefront of his narrative.
And if Austerlitz does not care for a particular star or film, he does not hold back his condescension. But for the most part, this lack of restraint is enjoyable as opposed to bothersome. His short note on the “comedic” milieu of Julia Roberts’ film career, for instance, is a master class in subtle snark, yet quite enjoyable nonetheless (though, admittedly, this is probably because I’ve never much cared for the actress either, and I dislike her signature film, Pretty Woman, with a passion that burns with the heat of a million suns. Prostitution in and of itself is not funny or romantic, and that’s not the kind of “happy ending” most of them end up with, people).
If I have a problem with the book, it’s not from Austerlitz’s work itself, which is, overall, impressive. But reading through this history of film comedy highlights the lack of female comedians and the dearth of minorities in memorable comedic roles. There are several comediennes who deserve their own chapters here (in my estimation, anyway): Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, and Carole Lombard, at the very least, deserve that kind of in-depth recognition, but each is instead relegated to her own short note in the second half of the book. And in the same vein, had I undertaken the gargantuan task of writing this book, I likely wouldn’t have devoted whole chapters to actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Ferrell myself. But any examination of film–be it comedy or drama, all-encompassing or a brief history thereof–is reliant on the author’s own perceptions, and Austerlitz is no exception. And thankfully, he acknowledges this–as the author states in his introduction, he merely aims to start the discussion, and debate is not only encouraged, but welcomed.
All things considered, if you’re looking for a good read on film history that’s informative and far from the same old boring, obtuse commentary, Another Fine Mess is just what you’ve been searching for. If you deem yourself a fan of film in general and comedy in particular, Austerlitz’s work is an education unto itself, and immensely entertaining to boot. I came away from reading Another Fine Mess with both a greater understanding of some of my favorite classic stars and a greater appreciation for the sheer bravado it took to put some of our most memorable comedies on the screen, then and now.
For an initial taste of Austerlitz’s commentary, check out his “Top Ten Great Film Comedies” guest post from earlier this week–and feel free to contribute to the discussion on the best films from each decade of Hollywood history!
True Classics would like to thank Saul Austerlitz and Anna Suknov of FSB Associates for making this review possible.