A Sunday in Autumn in America is Football Day in many a house in America, hence this post on the football comedy. Let me hasten to say that at least three of the words in the title belong in quotes: we don’t quite have “Fifty” items in this listicle; and while all of the examples here are comedies, they sure aren’t all “funny”; and lastly they aren’t all “films” (some are tv shows and specials). We chose all those word for the sole purpose of alliteration.
You’ll soon see that I have my prejudices. I want GAGS. I don’t much care who wins a real football game, let alone a fake one played by actors, extras and stunt men. Rooting for some fictional team in a movie? Salesman, you had better knock on some other door. So my favorite will always be something like Horsefeathers, where reality isn’t on the table.
You can learn more about many of the films and their stars by clicking on the links. And now: Ready! Set! Hut one! Hut two! Hike! Hike!
The Three Ages (1923, silent)
Buster Keaton’s first feature length comedy has three sections, one prehistoric, one set in Roman times and one set in modern times. The modern one has Buster as a college student who tries to win a girl by winning a football game against rival Wallace Beery. Oddly it’s the earliest football in a comedy I’ve been able to find, though cinema had been around for about 30 years and comedy films had been big for a decade. (And football, though primitive had been around for decades longer). Still, it wasn’t yet the all-consuming, multi-million dollar American obsession it is today.
Feet of Mud (1924, silent)
In this much-loved Harry Langdon comedy short (much loved by Langdon fans, that is), Harry plays a benchwarmer on the college football team who accidentally scores a winning touchdown when a kicked football lands in his pants and he flees from the defense into the end zone. His glory days are short lived however.
The Half-Back of Notre Dame (1924, silent)
A Mack Sennett comedy directed by Del Lord (later of Three Stooges fame), starring Harry Gribbon, Jack Cooper, Madeline Hurlock. Andy Clyde, Vernon Dent and the Bathing Beauties. The title is an obvious twist on the previous year’s monster hit (in both senses) The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney. At football-mad Castoria College, Charlie Horse and Phil McCavity are two of the football team’s players. Through sheer luck, they manage to lead their team to victory in the last game. It was later remade as the talkie The New Halfback in 1929 with several of the same cast.
The Freshman (1925, silent)
Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman is the mother of all football comedies; I’ve rarely encountered a subsequent one that doesn’t owe something to it. The plot concerns a boy’s first year at college and his attempts to make good on the football team. Ridiculed by all his fellow students, he starts out as a tackle dummy but he eventually gets put into the big game at a crucial moment, and wins it through tenaciousness and cleverness. The movie also has a sequel, made a quarter century later by Preston Sturges, The Sin of Harold Didddlebock.
Eleven Men and a Girl (1930)
Joe E. Brown plays the only decent player on his college football team. They lose every game and the coach is about to get fired. Joe essentially prostitutes the coach’s beautiful daughter (Joan Bennett), getting her to flirt with top candidates to recruit from other teams. Each seduction scene is a comic opportunity for Brown. In one he does his drunk routine. In another he wrestles with a bear. Of course they wind up with a great team, every member of which is in love with the same girl. But the night before the big game they figure it out. They all pretend to fight for her until she starts to cry and they call her on it. She tells them the truth and is contrite. They forgive her and go on to win the big game, which is played pretty straight.
Horse Feathers (1932)
My favorite Marx Brothers film is also my favorite film on this page. A lot of shady goings on trying to fix a football game between Darwin and Huxley colleges (and a lot of diddling of Thelma Todd, the college widow), resulting in easily the most surreal football game ever put on film.
Hold ’em Jail (1932)
Wheeler and Woolsey get their turn at a funny football game, in a comedy directed by Norman Taurog. The title is a play on the Ivy League cheer “Hold ’em, Yale!” The boys are framed and sent to prison, then forced to play on the warden’s team (a possible model for The Longest Yard?) The warden is played by the omnipresent Edgar Kennedy, Rosco Ates is one of the players, their frequent foil Edna Mae Oliver is in it, and it contains an early performance by Betty Grable!
Three Little Pigskins (1934)
Hilarious! The Three Stooges play panhandlers who are hired as mascots to advertise a football game. They are hired accidentally by college scouts to play football. They are romanced by three girls, one of whom is a young Lucille Ball. Lots of hijinx clearly inspired by Horsefeathers, but still funny.
Pigskin Parade (1936)
Fairly annoying and irritating college comedy with several saving graces in the cast. Jack Haley (the chief saving grace, as far as I’m concerned) is hired to coach football at a provincial Texas college. His wife (Patsy Kelly) is the brains behind him. The team they are hired to coach is of course terrible. The rub is that they have accidentally been sent an invitation to play a charity match against Yale. They recruit a hillbilly farmboy who is adept at throwing watermelons (Stuart Erwin) to be quarterback. Judy Garland (in her first role) is adorable as his sister. Elisha Cook Jr plays a young communist and there’s also Betty Grable, Grady Sutton, Julius Tannen and a bunch of other familiar faces. But you have to sit through a zillion musical numbers. Blecccch. The last 15 or 20 minutes consist of a really boring fictional football game in the snow, with little comedy to speak of.
Life Begins at College (1937)
The Ritz Brothers in their first starring roles as players at a college endowed by fellow student Nat Pendleton, a wealthy Native American (and star player). Vaudeville veteran Fred Stone plays their coach; Gloria Stuart is his fetching daughter. Also in the cast are Joan Davis, Tony Martin, and Lon Chaney Jr.
$1,000 a Touchdown (1939)
Joe E. Brown and Martha Raye play a couple who inherit a failing college. In order to make a go of it, they offer $1,000 to any of their football players who can score a touchdown. Doesn’t sound very cost effective! The cast also includes the great Eric Blore and the fetching Susan Hayward.
The Cowboy Quarterback (1939)
This was the first film Bert Wheeler made after the death of his partner Bob Woolsey, and unfortunately his bid to be a solo comedy star at this late date (though he had been one in vaudeville) fizzled. Here he plays a rural football player who gets drafted by William Demarest and encounters the hazards of the big city and big league football. Luckily he has his girlfriend Marie Wilson (My Friend Irma) with him to keep him out of even more trouble. The film is based on a play by Ring Lardner, and also features Eddie Foy Jr.
Screwball Football (1939)
A Tex Avery cartoon with a bunch of hilarious gags hung on a football game, with many of the voices by Mel Blanc. Here’s a clip: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x15mr1q_screwball-football_fun
Rise and Shine (1941)
Jack Oakie in his customary dumb football player role (here acknowledged that he’s middle aged and getting a bit old for that), with George Murphy as another player, Walter Brennan as Grandpa and Milton Berle (nearly a decade before his tv show) as a crazy gangster who makes horse noises when he gets worked up. Written by Herman J. Mankiewicz the same year as Citizen Kane — and I think we can safely call this the anti-Citizen Kane.
That’s My Boy (1951)
Jerry Lewis as a nebbish disappointment to his athlete parents; Dean Martin as a fellow student hired by the parents to help Lewis succeed on the football team. For some reason this one is hard to see…I’ve seen the My Friend Irma movies, and At War with the Army and Sailor Beware (the films they made prior and around the same time) many times, but never this one, to the best of my recollection. To up the ante, Polly Bergen is in it!
Hold That Line (1952)
Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and all the Bowery Boys are entered into college as part of wager that “anyone can make it through college if given have a chance”. Their grades are terrible, but (as always it seems), Sach (Hall) invents a vitamin potion that makes them invincible successes on the football field.
Football Now and Then (1953)
A Walt Disney cartoon short in which a modern team takes on a squad of old timers. Look! Here it is!
Trouble Along the Way (1953)
Sort of a comedy…but mostly a boring drama, in which football coach John Wayne is brought in to bail out the football program at a failing Catholic college and does so by hiring professional ringers. Meanwhile he is endeavoring to retain custody of his daughter, despite the scrutiny of cold-fish social worker Donna Reed, whom of course becomes his love interest.
While it’s primarily a devastating satire on war, one can’t help but observe that perhaps as much as a quarter or a third of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H is given over to pure slapstick in the form of a wacky football game. In fact, it constitutes the entire climax of his movie. Ironically, as you probe that central fact it becomes thought provoking. The movie is like a dream — hyper-realistic in many aspects (art direction, location, special effects, many historical details), in others its a complete self-conscious retreat into genre convention and fantasy. We’re having such a good time we just go with it. Consider: EVERY doctor at this army hospital was a college football player? And one of them, the star player, is an African American brain surgeon in the early 1950s (I’m not saying that’s impossible, look at the resume of Paul Robeson. But an incidental, plausible, commonplace fact of historical life it is not). It’s just really, really, really what we WANT to have happen — our cheeky anarchistic humanitarian doctors kick the regular army’s ass at football, using every subversive trick at their command. So they do. This set piece is second only to the one in Horsefeathers as my favorite comedy football game.
The Longest Yard (1974)
Having seen the Adam Sandler remake first, thanks to my kids, I was surprised at what a dark, substantive film the original is. I of course had not seen the original when it came out — it had a well deserved R rating, and I was 9 years old at the time. Directed by Robert Aldrich, the man responsible for the noir masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly (1955), as well as the psycho-biddy jewels Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), and the suicide mission classic The Dirty Dozen (1967), it should not surprise us that the sensibility here is not light even though there are some confusing markers of such. For example it is perhaps the only film in which good-ole-boy comedy sidekick Jim Hampton (Dobbs from F Troop) becomes martyred by being roasted alive, and the only film in which Eddie Albert (Green Acres) swears like a gangster and condemns men to their deaths so that he can win a football game.
The story: former pro football player Burt Reynolds (still an actor and not yet a vain buffoon) beats the shit out of his girlfriend and goes on a destructive drunk driving spree, and then brawls with cops who try to arrest him. He fully deserves the 18 months at the county farm his misbehavior gets him, but not the extortion prison officials bring to bear when they want him to win football games. Nevertheless he does put together a winning prison team, helped along by the likes of pituitary giant Richard Kiel (“Jaws” from the James Bond Movies). The film has a lot in common with The Dirty Dozen…a thesis that men at the bottom, who are the supposed scum of the earth, are still capable of moments of heroism, and because of that are deserving of at least a minimum of human dignity. The film was released right in the thick of the prisoner’s rights movement, it was right in tune with the zeitgeist of its time. And football lovers will enjoy the fictional game more than any other we’ve previously mentioned. While it has its clearly staged elements (including lots of dirty tricks), it looks like Aldrich filmed his actors and extras in the act of really playing, which is interesting. And one of the funniest things in the movie is Bernadette Peters’ hair! This film was written by Ed Wynn’s grandson Tracy Keenan Wynn!
A snapshot of late “High Disney” before the studio’s 1980s renaissance, and come to think of it, also of late old school Don Knotts before his Three’s Company renaissance. I remember this movie from when it came out, of course, but it was fun to go back and watch it as an adult. It has good heart behind it, and for those moments when there aren’t genuine laughs, it has unintentional camp.
The memorable element of course is that it’s about a field-goal kicking mule that (through a loophole in the rule book) helps a pro football team get all the way to the Superbowl. What I’d forgotten was the set-up. His keeper is a young man from Yugoslavia, played by Gary Grimes, the kid from Summer of ’42. (Grimes’ brief film success was nearly a fluke on the level of Gus’s pro football career). This was one of his last films, and by all reports the parting was mutual. Though his character is from Yugoslavia, he speaks with no accent (whereas his father is played by the inevitable and thickly accented Tito Vandis). The movie is so dumb that I swear the characters refer to the young man’s native language as “Yugoslavian” (if you don’t know why that’s dumb, please leave my blog). Anyway, you have to sit through endless scenes of Tim Conway and Tom Bosley wallowing in condiments in a grocery store, but on the other hand it’s always hilarious when the fake donkey hoof kicks the football, which sails over the goalpost with a wacky sound effect, and isn’t that what you want in a movie? I was ready to dislike the film on a moral basis though, since it seems to be selling the idea that it’s OK to cheat your way to victory using a ringer. But it redeems itself at the last second when Grimes’ character wins the big game on his own, allowing manager Ed Asner to retain ownership, and isn’t that what big league sports is all about — owning million dollar franchises?
As with other 70s football satires, I was surprised to find a real movie here. Because this one stars Burt Reynolds again, one can be forgiven for mixing it up with The Longest Yard, but is a very different movie. It’s about a love triangle, with two pro ball players (Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson, jockeying for the hand of Jill Clayburgh, the daughter of their team’s owner (Robert Preston). It’s directed by the sure hand of Michael Ritchie, the guy behind The Candidate (1972), Smile (1975), The Bad News Bears (1976) and Fletch (1985) and you can see that hand at work mostly in the films subplot in which the three all get involved with a cult run by Burt Convy (who gives a surprisingly good performance for a game show host). What prevents the film from being a better remembered classic (I am convinced) are the weaknesses of all three of its stars: Kristofferson (who can be effective but must be deployed correctly even on the best of days), Clayburgh (no comedienne for all her Oscars), and Reynolds (now well down that road to being a vain buffoon we mentioned earlier). M*A*S*H seems to be an influence here — Reynolds and Kristofferson are long-haired anti-authoritarians, pre-saging a theme that would soon be picked up again in North Dallas 40. And unless I heard it wrong fellow player Brian Dennehy appropriates John Schuck’s groundbreaking line from the M*A*S*H football game (“Alright, bub, your fuckin’ head’s coming right off.) (Robert Preston also utters the word “fuck” in this film, which gives me an icky feeling not unlike that of seeing an elderly woman naked). Also in the cast, former pro-football player Carl Weathers, fresh off his first stint playing Apollo Creed in Rocky.
A Doonesbury Special (1977)
This counts, this absolutely counts. B.D. in Doonesbury NEVER took his football helmet off, and the 1977 TV special recreates the strips where hippie freak Zonker joined the team and even brought grass into the huddle. I watched this show when it aired!
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
A remake of the classic Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), scripted by Elaine May and Buck Henry, and co-directed by Henry and its star Warren Beatty, who also produced. Beatty plays a quarterback for the L.A. Rams who dies before his time and whose soul can’t return to his body because it was cremated. He is temporarily given the body of an industrialist by angels James Mason and Buck Henry, but is hell bent in working his way back to playing quarterback for the Rams, which he eventually does, through several convoluted steps. The screenplay, which includes murderous intrigues perpetrated by Charles Grodin and Diane Cannon, and a love affair with Julie Christie, is kind of a mess, but football and love of football, is woven throughout. Jack Warden plays Beatty’s personal trainer.
North Dallas 40 (1979)
This is one I also used to lump together with The Longest Yard and Semi-Tough (before seeing them), but again while it has its similarities with the latter, it’s ultimately quite different. Though Robert Altman’s influence is strongest felt in this one — there’s a kind of realistic fabric to it that feels Altmanesque. This is an extremely anti-establishment film, the sort of movie where a priest delivering a prayer is presented as a guaranteed laugh-line. All authority figures, coaches, officials and so forth are hypocrites and idiots — again that’s presented as a given. (This is the same year as National Lampoon’s Animal House). Nick Nolte and Mac Davis are two long-haired, drug taking, sex loving pro football players. Davis is the star of the team. Nolte, though extremely skilled at catching the ball, doesn’t get to play as much because of his bad attitude. He “just wants to play football.” And it’s a bit of an existential stand-off, something similar to Yossarian’s in Catch-22. All he has do is “play ball” and he can play ball. The point of view of the film is extremely skewed. It presents a world in which EVERY player is a sort of sewn up sack of broken bones, held up only medical tape and painkillers administered by corrupt, exploitative owners. The irony is that Nolte is only too willing to dope up and hurt himself, he just doesn’t want to have to kiss anyone’s ass while he does it. Welcome to planet earth, Mr. Nolte! You’re fired!
The Best of Times (1986)
A negligible entertainment in which Robin Williams persuades Kurt Russell to relive a football game they’d lost back in high school. Like nearly every movie starring either Robin Williams or Kurt Russell, it’s a piece of crap. In fact there can be no better illustration of how the average Hollywood movie of the seventies is 100 times better than the average Hollywood movie of the eighties or afterward than the fact that though it’s not even a genre I LIKE I would gladly watch The Longest Yard, Semi-Tough or North Dallas 40 again…and I can scarcely be bothered to type two sentences about this one.
Wildcats (1986) Though directed by Michael Ritchie (see above) this is a strictly cheesy 80s comedy with a boilerplate script featuring every cliche in the playbook. It’s a Goldie Hawn vehicle, at the time when she was riding high on a succession of formulaic films that never quite solved their own formula. Generally she was an incompetent ditzy woman who proved that she could succeed in some sphere generally dominated by men, but usually her reluctance to show her characters in a bad light caused her to back off from ever being funny…and she never solved the inherent contradiction of being someone who’s simultaneously afraid of breaking a nail but capable of kicking men’s asses at their own game. (In other words, it’s supposed to be feminist, but her story isn’t just about a woman succeeding; it’s inevitably about a flighty, hyper-emotional, superficial woman succeeding — the stereotype doesn’t seem terribly feminist to me). In Wildcats she realizes her dream of being a football coach, and she is given the opportunity of coaching an inner city teams of loser misfits (including Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson in their first film roles). Her command of football is already understood, so the only tension in the film is whether she can win the hearts and respect of her Sweat Hog like charges. This might be an okay arc in a more realistic film (e.g., The Blackboard Jungle or To Sir, With Love) but this is written in strokes too large. In short, it’s just dumb.
Terrific, magical near flawless situation comedy starring the hilarious Craig T. Nelson and his sidekick Jerry Van Dyke, with Shelly Fabares as Nelson’s straight-woman and love interest. Again, though I’m not even interested in football the writing and performances on this show were so damn funny, it’s a classic. It being one of those 3 camera, live-to-tape sit comes there’s almost zero football action — it’s all in the locker room. But that’s OK — plenty of comedy can happen there.,
Necessary Roughness (1991)
Cheesy eighties comedy (even though it’s technically the 1990s). A Texas college is forced by league officials to ban all their players for rules infractions. This forces them to form an entire team entirely out of actual (non-sports scholarship) students. It’s a movie that takes the point of view that football is the reason for having a college. The Dean of the school (Larry Miller), who actually values education and doesn’t give a crap about sports, is presented as a meddlesome asshole, an impediment to the school’s obvious mission, playing football games. (Miller, as always, is hilarious in the thankless, misguided role.) Sinbad and Scott Bakula play a couple of middle aged players brought on to the team as ringers, already eroding the premise of the film before it even starts. Rob Schneider is an announcer. The coaches are played by Robert Loggia and Hector Elizondo. It’s a pretty capable cast, but the script is junk and the laughs are rare.
Little Giants (1995)
An inoffensive kids’ comedy in which SCTV’s Rick Moranis and Married with Children’s Ed O’Neill play brothers who coach rival Pop Warner teams.
The Water Boy (1998)
I expected to like this movie a lot more, based on scraps I saw on tv over the years but, no, it was the epitome of terrible. It’s the usual Harold Lloyd story arc borrowed from so many comedians from The Freshman, but Adam Sandler’s character is so broadly played that it doesn’t jibe at all with a tale that obviously seeks to involve us emotionally. Sandler gives a performance that would overstay its welcome in a CAMEO and expects the audience to spend 90 minutes with it. And it’s so lackluster and weak in the joke and gag department that the film’s enormous success with audiences can only be explained by the millions of people who bought tickets have never seen any funny movies before (i.e., ones that weren’t made by morons), which is undoubtedly the case. We know why it was a success — the character was a variation on a funny bit he did on Saturday Night Live, and so millions of lemmings were automatically conditioned to buy tickets. Watching it objectively outside that context as I did a few weeks ago was an exercise in WTF. Sandler plays a 31 year old professional Louisiana college football waterboy who loses his temper one day, revealing heretofore unsuspected football skills. He then becomes a successful football player. Along the way he must battle his over-protective mother (Kathy Bates), the mental illness of his coach (Henry Winkler), and the evil of the competing coach (the insufferable Jerry Reed, in what was, thankfully, his last role). I’d rather be used as a tackle dummy than ever be subjected to this movie again.
The Garbage Picking Field Goal Picking Philadelphia Phenomenon (1998)
A Disney comedy in which Taxi’s Tony Danza plays a garbage man who is hired to be a field goal kicker based on the strength in his legs brought about by pressing a pedal on his garbage truck. In other words, this is Disney’s remake of Gus.
A.k.a. The Fanatics. One of those movies where a bunch of people run around working very hard to be as funny as possible in a lackluster script but merely irritate the audience member (a.k.a ME). Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure) plays a football team owner who moves his team to another city, prompting crazy fan Ed Asner and his sidekick (Gregory Sporleder) to kidnap the team and bring it back. Austin Pendleton plays the town nebbish; O-lan Jones (nee Shepard) is a country bar maid. This is a film best left…alone.
The Replacements (2000)
Surely one of the films that convinced Gene Hackman to retire (which he did just a few films later). The star who gave such incredible performances in The French Connection, Scarecrow and The Conversation here plays a coach in a routine, formulaic “wackiest team ever” comedy. Inspired by the 1987 NFL strike, it stars Hackman as a pro coach who must rebuild an entire team with scabs, like Keanu Reeves (a former college football star who choked during the big game), Rhys Ifans (a rugby player), Jon Favreau, a psychotic war veteran, etc. Gee, I wonder if they’ll all work together to win the big game? (I wonder that because I turned it off before it was over).
The Longest Yard (2005)
Sandler shows his football love again, by remaking the Burt Reynolds classic described above. In typical modern fashion, all substance or relevance or interesting elements are washed out of it, creating a notable anomaly: it is a light-headed comedy inhabiting the skeleton of a film that ought to be about something. The closest thing to a meaningful event is the fact that the martyred prisoner has now been recast as black, and it’s Chris Rock. But don’t get too excited. It’s dished out like we all ought to care, but the film-makers clearly don’t. The stakes are the big football game, not hope for humanity. In a bit of stunt casting Burt Reynolds is in the film, now playing the old coach originally played by Michael Conrad.
The Comebacks (2007)
I expected to hate this one, and was shocked when it afforded copious chuckles. It’s a spoof of sports movies in the vein of the Airplane and Scary Movie series. It’s a starring vehicle (perhaps the only one possible) for David Koechner (the sportscaster in Anchorman) and believe it or not, he carries the ball. This type of comedy generally relies not just on the quality but the quantity of gags and (as is true here) a small army of gag-writers shoveling coal into the comedy furnace. Most of the jokes are Koechner’s and he sells them all (even the lame ones), through his performance, maintaining just the right pitch, deadpan but bemused. He valiantly makes it work. I’m not saying this is any great masterpiece, or even a movie I’d even recommend to most people I know. I’m saying I laughed plenty of times, and that’s far from always the case.
The Game Plan (2007)
I’m beginning to get the idea the Disney likes to produce family football comedies. The Game Plan is a movie that’s appropriate for the 7 year old in your life, but probably not for you. My teenage son shocked me by knowing of it; I’d never heard of it, but then he’s the kid. Vain, preening pro wrestler “The Rock” plays a vain preening pro football player who is suddenly saddled with a seven year old daughter he didnt know he had. The football world is essentially just a backdrop for the parenting story. It’s the old The Kid/ The Champion/ The Clown formula with the difference being that Mr Rock’s histrionic and comic abilities are about on par with a participant in a high school talent show.
I saw this one with my kids when it was in the theatres. A light comedy set during the rough and tumble days of “early rules” football (1925), directed by and starring George Clooney as a pro team captain who hires a WWI hero and college player (John Krasinski) to bail out his failing team. The two wind up in a love triangle with lady reporter Renee Zellweger, who wants to blow the lid on the story that the new player’s tale of war heroism is a fake. The corruption and lovey-dovey plots are a bore. The highlights of the film are the shots of the games, with the hilariously violent early playing styles. Worth seeing at least once, if for that gimmick alone. And it kind of brings us full circle, eh? We’re back to the kind of playing (and the leather helmets) used by Keaton and Beery in The Three Ages!
For more on comedy film history please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out more about show business past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.