Because we like to swim in dangerous waters, we thought we’d ruin your Sunday by dashing off a quick listicle ranking the top ten male classic movie comedy teams of the sound era. By “classic” we restrict the time frame to the 1930s-50s. We’ve also narrowed it down to teams that starred in their own films (ruling out, for example, Burns and Allen). The criteria for judging are: 1) quality; 2) ratio of good films to bad ones; and 3) volume (meaning not noisiness, but quantity). By using these criteria I think we’ve arrived at a balanced, fair and objective list that will not only surprise people but inevitably piss many of them off. True justice always does.
I won’t be unique in calling Laurel and Hardy the greatest film comedy team of all time, a factor of the sheer number of their films (both shorts and features), the excellence, variety, and originality of these comedies, and the fact that relatively few of them (essentially just a handful, the ones they made during their last decade) are undeniably bad. I’m comfortable calling them the greatest.
Some will be appalled by the high standing I give the Stooges; others will be appalled that they aren’t number one. Granted they are the most low-brow of all comedy teams and by no stretch of the imagination are they actors. On the other hand, they are EXTREMELY original, their characterizations (in every incarnation of the act, and there were many) were funny, unique and memorable. And this above all: 220 films, 190 of them being those Columbia comedy shorts. So, yes, there is virtue in quantity (even if they did repeat themselves on many occasions.) That, and their mass appeal, which lasts among millions even unto this day.
The idea that this team ranked so high was the precipitating cause of doing this list in the first place. When I prepared my post on Wheeler and Woolsey’s films the other day, it occurred to me that they just may have the best track record in features of any classic comedy team. 22 of them over eight years, all of them pretty damn entertaining. Comedy fans tend to punish Robert Woolsey for seeming like a lesser George Burns or Groucho, but looked at through another prism, it seems to me the later duos (Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, and Martin and Lewis) all borrow their formulas from Wheeler and Wooley. Further helping their high standing is the sad fact that Woolsey was cut down in the prime of life, which meant there would be no real decline for the team. (Although Wheeler did suffer on his own when his partner died). Both members of the team were old musical comedy hands, they could act better than most of the comedians on this list, meaning that they were easier to integrate into stories. All in all, an under-rated and unjustly forgotten comedy team, whose standing deserves to be restored with the public.
“But the Marx Brothers are the greatest comedy team in history”, you say, “how can they be fourth on this list?” Even I agree with you! And yet the Marx Brothers are hobbled in the standings by their relative paucity of films, and the high ratio of bad ones to good ones. Of 13 features, about half are brilliant and most of the rest fairly dreadful. It must be remembered that they started making pictures relatively late in life. Chico, the oldest, was already 50 years old by A Day at the Races (1937), the start of their decline. By the time of Love Happy (1950), their last as a team, he was 63. I’m not saying you can’t be funny when you’re old (look at W.C. Fields), but the Marx Brothers at their height were an act predicated on energy. Pace is only one of many factors (which we’ve written about elsewhere) why the team and their films were not up to their own standards for a good half of their cinematic career.
We can scarcely call Hope and Crosby a comedy team per se. Each had incredible solo careers and they only made seven comedies together. Of the seven, the first was pre-prototypical (i.e., they weren’t yet a team) and the last was pretty bad, which doesn’t leave much numerically. But this handful of “Road” movies are magical, and so indelible that we tend to think of these guys as one of the seminal, archetypical comedy teams, despite the fact that the partnership was just a lark they indulged in from time to time.
I was going to put these guys much lower on the list, but in the end I decided that, much like the Marx Brothers, their excellent comedies are so excellent that they float their worse ones. The dichotomy is so stark it’s tough to reconcile. Olsen and Johnson made nine features. In their first five, made for Warner Bros and Republic, of all places, the team are so boring they barely register. On the basis of those movies alone, I’d put them near the bottom. But in 1941 they transferred their crazy Broadway show Hellzapoppin to the big screen for Universal. That and its follow-up Crazy House (1943) reinvented the team for films (the irony is that their stage act had always been that crazy, it’s just that their screen vehicles of the 30s hadn’t tapped into it). Much like W.C. Fields, Olsen and Johnson’s best screen era was their last phase, and also at Universal.
I acknowledge that this may be the most subjective and knee jerk film team on this list. I happen to love this idiosyncratic duo, whose films are a sort of conceptual mix of the Marx Brothers (surreal) and the Three Stooges (short subjects). Clark and McCullough made about three dozen shorts for Fox and RKO. I’ve only seen about a third of them, if that, but I know what I like. There’s no way I’m putting them below any of the guys who are beneath them on this list.
If we were including their television and radio shows, I’d likely put this team higher, but their cinematic output, while both voluminous and popular, consists of features that padded out their scattered comedy routines with boring plot filler, making them two or three times longer than they needed to be. My secret theory is that most people who claim to be hard core A&C fans either haven’t seen all (or many) of their films or know them chiefly from edited compilations containing only the classic comedy routines. The features in their entirety are almost unwatchable, as entertaining as the team can be from time to time.**
Ditto Martin and Lewis. The films are mostly filler, with the added drawback of Lewis’s irritating self indulgence marring also the comedy portions. Ironically I like his solo films better, where his crazy vision engulfs the whole movie. The Martin and Lewis movies are both dull and painful, simply an ordeal.
They could sing, dance and make faces, but as for portraying characters in a narrative film the Ritz Brothers might as well have been three trained mules. Ironically, in contrast with most of the teams listed here, their track record of VEHICLES is quite solid. The actual movies were quite good, or entertaining, or whatever (thanks largely to scripts, direction, co-stars), but I find calling the Ritz Brothers a “comedy team” problematic. It’s a comedy team in which all three members are the same guy. And that guy is just as irritating as Lou Costello or Jerry Lewis. There’s no way the Ritz Brothers wouldn’t have been at the bottom of this list.
** “On the contrary, I happen to like 4 out of the 36 disposable garbage-films Abbott and Costello made, therefore I cannot agree with you when you say that most of their movies don’t measure up to the scores of masterpieces by Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy etc” — the typical slapdash, self-contradictory defense of the team people feel it necessary to bother me with. About eight people have replied with such like illogical and groundless rebuttals; we acknowledge no obligation to publish them. I understand feeling the need to defend these films when you’re eight years old. When you’re no longer eight years old, the impetus for indignation escapes me.