6. Le Million (1931)
The first sound entry on the list comes not from Hollywood, but from the exceptional efforts of French filmmakers working during the same era. Rene Clair has long been heralded as one of the early cinema’s great comedy filmmakers, and Le Million (Clair’s second sound film) is considered by many critics to be his masterpiece. Although not the first musical comedy film ever made, Le Million is undoubtedly one of the most influential of its time. It tells the charmingly poetic story of an indebted man who finds he has won the lottery, only to discover that his wife has given the coat in which he left the winning ticket to a criminal on the lam. The weaving journey of the jacket takes the man and the audience from the gutters to the opera stage, intertwining charming music with rustic and comedic characters.
Like many of the early French comedies (and the works they would inspire, including the comedic genius of Jacques Tati), the comedy differs from the pratfalls and physical slapstick that marked much of the American school of film comedy, favoring the humorous and often poignant interactions between people of different genders, professions, and economic classes. The chorus of tradespeople serves like a Grecian chorus, expressing the editorial, moral, and emotional voice of the audience.
Le Million inventively uses sound for both narrative and comedic purposes, utilizing asynchronous sound in a particularly effective way near the film’s hilarious finale. From Tati’s Playtime to Fosse’s All That Jazz, it’s hard to deny the enormous impact Le Million had on both musicals and comedies in the decades following its release.
7. Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Beginning his film career in 1914 in the German cinema, Ernst Lubitsch found his greatest success in Hollywood’s sound era, directing and producing a number of beloved and daring comedies from the 1920’s to the 1940’s. While many modern audiences know him for later films such as Ninotchka (1939) and To Be or Not To Be (1942), Lubitsch’s pre-Code romantic comedy Trouble in Paradise is an excellent example of Lubitsch’s bravado behind the camera. Master thief Gaston Monescu and pickpocket Lily meet while impersonating nobility, fall in love, and go to Paris to steal the fortune of Mariette Colet, a famous perfume executive. Over time, Gaston and Mariette become romantically involved, jeopardizing the plot with Lily as well as their love.
Provocative in its sexual tensions and innuendos, Trouble in Paradise is infused with fiery dialogue which anticipates the screwball comedies of the coming decades and the romantic charms and tensions that would become synonymous with “the Lubitsch Touch.” Critics praised the film wildly upon its release, helping to cement Lubitsch’s place in the pantheon of early Hollywood sound films with what contemporary critics called a nearly flawless film. With the enforcement of the Production Code in 1935, Trouble in Paradise was not approved for reissue and was effectively kept in the vaults until 1968, by which time audiences would embrace the classic along with other gems of the pre-Code days of Hollywood.
8. A Night at the Opera (1935)
The Marx Brothers were arguably the most successful Vaudeville act to find success on the silver screen and are amongst the most recognizable of the early Hollywood comedy teams for contemporary audiences. Working exclusively in the sound era, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx made seven feature films with Paramount Pictures between 1921 and 1933, including the popular hits Monkey Business (1931) and Duck Soup (1933). Their first film with MGM, A Night at the Opera, is the Marx Brothers at the top of their game, blending musical comedy, physical slapstick, and quick-witted dialogue by which the act would become defined for generations to come.
While the film is loosely built around the plot of an up-and-coming opera star looking for his big break, it serves mostly to facilitate the comedic dynamics between the three Marx Brothers: Groucho, the wisecracking hustler; Chico, the Italian scam artist; and Harpo, the musical womanizing mute. Some of the early cinema’s most iconic skits come from this film, including the rapid-fire contract negotiation scene (“The party of the first part…”) and the roomful of people falling through the stateroom door (borrowed from Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), who worked on this scene with the Marx Brothers). A Night at the Opera, while more focused and composed than the previous Marx Brothers films, retains the zany, Id-driven wackiness of the Brothers’ tried-and-true material, combining it with an audience-friendly love story and well-polished and impeccably timed musical numbers to make a commercially and critically adored film classic.
9. Modern Times (1936)
By the time Chaplin released Modern Times, talkies were in full swing and sweeping silver screens across the globe. Chaplin actually planned on making the film as his first talking picture, going so far as to draft a full dialogue script and test some scenes. Despite the urgings of his collaborators, however, Chaplin decided to abandon the endeavor and make Modern Times an almost silent picture, maintaining that the Tramp’s global appeal would diminish if the character spoke. This would ultimately be the Tramp’s last screen appearance, as the character would appear in a derivative form in The Great Dictator (1940) with full dialogue. Despite its stubborn adherence to “outdated” technology, Modern Times was a massive success and considered by many to be Chaplin’s greatest accomplishment.
Drawing inspiration from Rene Clair’s A Nous la Liberte (1931) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Modern Times is a comedic lament of the dangers of modernity and industrialization, including the new technologies of the cinema. The Tramp fights off the rampant poverty, hunger, and unemployment of the Great Depression by working in a series of disparaging and dehumanizing positions: factory worker, dock worker, security for a department store, and a singing waiter (which provides the Tramp’s only “talking” scene, the famous gibberish song number).
The Tramp meets and falls in love with a gamin (played by Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard) on the run from the police for stealing a loaf of bread, for whom he endures all matter of misadventures and run-ins with the law. The film’s iconic “man in the machine” sequence remains poignant and clever to this day, and the film as a whole would go on to influence everyone from Jacques Tati and Jerry Lewis to Terry Gilliam and the Wachowskis.
10. The Bank Dick (1940)
W.C. Fields, like Laurel and Hardy, was a Vaudeville act who made the transition to silent comedies but is often remembered today more for the impact his work made on other media (cartoons, references in other films) than for the work itself. Growing to celebrity and on-screen success under Mack Sennett at Paramount, Fields enjoyed box-office success throughout the early years of both silent and sound cinema playing the boozy hustler and henpecked husband. After a few years off for health issues related to his alcohol abuse, Fields returned to the movies, this time working for Universal. He would star in a handful of pictures from 1939 to 1941, eventually stepping out of the spotlight after years of grappling for creative control of his pictures.
The Bank Dick represents one of Field’s greatest creative achievements, heavily collaborating in the direction and editing of the film in addition to his starring and writing roles (under the nom de plume Mahatma Kane Jeeves). Fields plays Egbert Souse, an unemployed drunk who, in accidentally tripping a would-be bank robber, become a security guard at the bank. Replete with Fields’ trademark lampooning of marriage, family life, and small-town living and his signature inebriated buffoonery, The Bank Dick also manages to tie in many aspects of Fields’ professional life, including a hilarious Sennett-style car chase at the film’s end. Selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1992, The Bank Dick is a quintessential piece of early Hollywood comedy and a must-see for comedy aficionados of any era.
Author Bio: Christopher Peterson is a writer and musician with a masters in literature from Northwestern University. He has studied and written about film since his philosophy and english undergraduate studies at Roosevelt University. He currently lives outside of Chicago, where he writes both film analysis and fiction, including a film blog and a collection of 100-word flash fiction.