Action Point trailer

Every week in /Answers, we answer a new pop culture-related question. In this edition, tying in with the release of Action Point, we ask, “What are your favorite moments of physical comedy in film?”

Ben Pearson – Singin’ in the Rain

I’ve already written about how the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain is my favorite movie about filmmaking, but it also contains my favorite slapstick comedy moment in movie history. Plenty of films have slapstick moments that make me laugh at their randomness, unexpectedness, or the extreme to which a performer will go in order to get a laugh, but the “Make ‘Em Laugh” scene in Singin’ in the Rain is a different beast entirely.

In an attempt to cheer up his best friend Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), musician Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) breaks out into song on a Hollywood sound stage, pulling out all the stops: wacky rubbery faces, pratfalls, and even a couple of running backflips off walls in the big crescendo. By the end, he’s hurling himself through the air and crashing to the floor, almost as if he’s possessed by some kind of comedy demon with the singular goal of making people crack up.

It’s a masterclass in physicality and stamina, and a wonderful piece of acting at the same time. O’Connor remembered to make each little moment count and never loses track of his performance among the impressive stunts, which were filmed in long wide shots so you can clearly see him doing all of the work himself. The story goes that the Herculean effort required for the scene – combined with smoking up to four packs of cigarettes per day – put O’Connor in the hospital for days after filming it. I believe it – by the time he collapses to the floor in the final shot, the audience is exhausted by proxy.

Ethan Anderton – The Jerk

It’s clips like this that make me miss the Steve Martin we used to know on the big screen. Relegated to only poor family comedies with some of the worst jokes imaginable, Martin is rarely able to capture the same comedic power and genius he did in his early career, especially something as screwy and hilarious as The Jerk.

The above scene in particular has always been hilarious to me, and what I like most about it is that it has one of the more subtle instances of slapstick comedy. Steve Martin isn’t taking a shot to the nuts or throwing himself around the set. Instead, it’s Martin’s physical demeanor that carries the comedy and, as he sadly shuffles out of his mansion with his pants around his ankles, sets the stage for this hilarious scene. Martin grabs the only things he “needs” on the way out, slowly amassing more random items in his arms, things that he clearly doesn’t need and will do him no good out on the streets. The part that makes me laugh the hardest is his sudden realization about needing the chair as he gets further away from the camera.

Vanessa Bogart – Shaun of the Dead

From failed attempts at fence jumping, to walking up a tiny ladder, to throwing records at a zombie’s head, the gags in Shaun of the Dead are so pure and simple, but so effective. Every moment in this film is such a masterful combination of timing and physicality, that the simplest of tasks become the funniest.

However, when it comes to my all-time favorite, I have to say that the “Don’t Stop Me Now,” sequence is just too perfect. It is everything you love about old school slapstick comedy but with zombies and set to Queen. From beating a zombie with pool cues, to spraying him in the face with a fire extinguisher, to getting hit in the head with a dart, and killing someone with a juke box, you would almost think that the whole scene was directed by the Looney Tunes. The zombie is Elmer Fudd and Simon Pegg is our Bugs Bunny. It is the same humor we loved as children, just bloodier and with more swearing.

Matt Donato: Evil Dead II

I tried my damndest to stay off-brand here. Scout’s honor. Blazing Saddles and Airplane! Instantly popped into my noggin upon this week’s question reveal, but Evil Dead II wasn’t far behind. How can you not honor one of horror’s all-time greats, along with the man who deserves Hall Of Fame status for his slapstick master class? You probably know Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams, Deadite slayer extraordinaire. The man with the chin chiseled by Zeus himself. That doesn’t mean he can’t flex his funny muscles, too.

When Ash’s friends accidentally unleash unholy hell upon their quaint cabin getaway, Ash’s hand is eventually possessed by evil. This means it tries to attack Ash, knock him unconscious with dinnerware and chop him up with a butcher’s knife. Translation? Bruce Campbell beats the everloving snot out of himself as Sam Raimi watches, Campbell slamming prop plates against himself until “cut” is called. Mr. Hand acts seemingly on its own volition, while Ash crosses his eyes to project concussion symptoms (a la Looney Tunes). It’s a comedic spectacle to behold, respectfully honoring the Buster Keatons who once relied on physicality in silent filmmaking.

Campbell sells every second in that dusty kitchen of doom. Each smash scatters more shards of ceramic on the ground, which he eventually front flips into. Punches are thrown to his own gut and head, his hand grasping tufts of hair as to lead a victim towards sink face bashes. So unhinged  that we forget it’s all Campbell in control. You can’t ask for more from an actor, nor can more effort be exuded. Did a stunt double tap in at any point for the acrobatic work? Who cares. Ash’s fight against himself is a golden slapstick standard in Hollywood. A little over two minutes of masochistic punishment and showmanship yet to be outslugged as far as one-man duels are concerned.

Hail to the king, baby.

Jacob Hall – The General

You’d need four or five hands to count the truly great physical comedians the movies have given us over the past century, the rubber-faced, elastic-limbed masters of pratfall who transform the endurance of the human body into an art form. But for my money, no one has topped Buster Keaton, the most skilled and audacious of Hollywood’s early silent comedians. And since I can’t answer this week’s question with “any five minutes from any Buster Keaton movie,” I’m going with the sequence above from The General.

The General is problematic in ways that will make 2018 audiences shift in their seats (enjoying silent films is to reckon with a romanticized version of the Confederacy), but that all starts to melt away when the plot kicks in: a prized train is stolen and Keaton must ride the rails to the rescue, pulling off all kinds of physical feats, absurd gags, and death-defying stunts in the process. Like his spiritual successor, Jackie Chan, Keaton is all about real action infused with side-splitting comedy – the joke works and then you realize how potentially deadly it was to make that joke happen.’

Keaton knew how to stage a great gag and he knew how to make sure you knew he was actually pulling off the risky stunt required to sell the gag. After all, visual effects of the 1920s would’t allow for anything else. Keaton actually went out and did it and The General feels dangerous in a way that no modern (i.e. responsibly made) film could manage. But Keaton has one final trick up his sleeve. “Old Stone Face” only looks mildly perturbed as he goes about barely surviving his acts of derring-do, as if this is just another in a long line of mildly inconvenient events. He’s non-plussed about barely surviving…and that makes the physical extreme all the more impressive. And all the more hilarious.

Hoai-Tran Bui – The Accidental Spy

Any Jackie Chan fight scene deserves a place on this list, but the “Clothes Call” scene from The Accidental Spy deserves special credit because of the Hong Kong actor’s dedication to doing the scene buck naked. The four-minute chase scene is a master class in comedy, and proof that Chan is the king of action comedy and the rightful heir to Buster Keaton’s silent slapstick throne. That’s because it boils down to the core of a great Jackie Chan fight scene: the last thing he wants to do is fight. Jackie Chan is perfect at balancing his raw fighting power with an overwhelming reluctance to use his fists. Couple that with his character losing his towel, forcing him to run through the streets stark naked, and you have comedy gold.

The best thing about a Jackie Chan fight scene is that he is the essential underdog. He’s often chased by dozens of goons down a shopping mall, a factory, a room inexplicably filled with furniture. And because he has to fight his way up from the bottom, it makes his ultimate victory all the more triumphant — and funny as hell. And you can’t get more underdog than being naked in the streets of Istanbul. All throughout this scene, Chan is more desperate to find something, anything, to cover himself than he is to fight off the minions who are chasing him. But whatever marketplace knick-knack he picks up ends up biting him in the butt — literally. Sometimes, however, he accidentally finds a useful tool to ward off his hunters, and the sequence becomes a masterful dance of comedy and action choreography. The fact that all of this happens in less than four minutes is breathtaking — not just from the speed of Chan’s actions, but because you’re laughing nonstop the entire time.

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