Classic comedies built on common circumstances

Public Domain (Still from 'His Girl Friday')/Courtesy

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It has been said that comedy is the hardest art. In all of film history, there has only been a select group of writers, actors and directors who have been skilled enough to make the type of humor that crosses demographics and lasts for years afterward.

Due to the sheer number of films made annually, it’s easy for many of these classic gems to be lost to today’s audiences. Luckily, Steve Seid, video curator at the Berkeley Museum of Art & Pacific Film Archive, has compiled some of the best comedic films in the currently running series “Funny Ha-Ha: American Comedy” at the Pacific Film Archive. The compilation includes such famous screwball misadventures as “It Happened One Night” (Frank Capra, 1934) and the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” (Leo McCarey, 1933).

For Seid, selecting which funny films would make it into the series was no joke. “A lot of the decisions were kind of built by the period because the comedies of different decades kind of address different things,” Seid said. “In the ’30s, so many of the comedies really are touching on the Depression. And then the ’40s are a little more gleeful. And then when you get to the ’50s, there’s this attempt to be a little more sensational, risque, in a sense.”

Seid’s extensive insight into the comedic trends in cinematic history lends itself perfectly to the “Funny Ha-Ha” series, which will last until Feb. 22. This lineup is the first of three series installments, with the second two soon to come to the PFA. Overall, the three will cover the evolution of American comedy from the early ’30s all the way into present day.

The films may have been made in the mid-20th century, but they still hold relevance to a college audience in 2014. “At a more sociological level, a lot of these films were addressing social and cultural issues,” Seid explained. “I thought it was particularly interesting to look at the ’30s when they were in the middle of the Depression and they’re … based around the aristocracy. The rich are the butts of all the jokes. Like, in ‘It Happened One Night,’ one of them is sent out into the world and learns something about humanity.”

According to Seid, this is what makes these comedies timeless. “So at some level, if you’re from a different period, you can still use those films as ways to kind of explore or build a kind of empathy, because certainly we have similar issues with the economy.”

Beyond the thematic parallels to modern day, the films themselves are shining examples of great filmmaking to be appreciated by film buffs and movie fans alike. “One of the films … ‘His Girl Friday,’ is an amazing comedy,” Seid said, “because it has dialogue that is not only very well written, but it’s delivered with such velocity that it’s kind of overwhelming. That’s just terrific stuff because it’s such a kind of crazy challenge.”
The series has been running since mid-January, but there’s still plenty to see for audiences. Upcoming comedies to look forward to include “The Palm Beach Story” (Preston Sturges, 1942), “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (Howard Hawks, 1953) and the iconic Billy Wilder cross-dressing romp “Some Like It Hot” (Billy Wilder, 1959).

Seid’s main wish for modern-day audiences is to not worry about what year the films came out but instead come to be entertained. “I think there’s terrific humor in a lot of them,” Seid said. “Even though they say they may be a little bit tame, just enjoy the craft of the comedy.”