In Preston Sturges’ 1941 movie “Sullivan’s Travels,” a Hollywood director who specializes in silly slapstick farces decides he wants to make a serious film: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Determined to suffer the hardships of “real life” so he can bring authenticity to his masterpiece, John L. Sullivan hops a freight train and tries to lose himself among the hobo jungles of the Great Depression’s forgotten men.
Through a series of events, the director gets a bigger dose of reality than he bargained for. By the end of the movie, he is in a brutal Southern chain gang. One night, he and the other prisoners are marched into a ramshackle black church for a rare bit of entertainment. Kerosene lamps dim, an ancient projector cranks to life, and a Mickey Mouse cartoon appears. The threadbare congregation and gap-toothed convicts roar with laughter. Sullivan glances about in bewilderment. What could these people possibly have to laugh at? Then he looks up at the rubber-limbed Pluto caught on a piece of flypaper and begins to laugh with them.
When Sullivan finally returns to Hollywood, he tells studio executives that he no longer wants to make “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” He wants to go back to directing comedies. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” he explains. “Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
Many critics accuse Sturges of slapping a sappy ending on an otherwise brilliant satire of Hollywood. Gerald Mast, author of “The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies,” called Sturges a “lazy, sloppy thinker.” It comes as no surprise. Hollywood’s highbrows have never accorded slapstick comedy much respect. In the 75-year history of the Academy Awards, only one feature-length slapstick has earned an Oscar. It went to Charlie Chaplin for “The Circus.” Buster Keaton’s 1927 masterpiece “The General,” was dismissed by New York critics as “long and tedious” and “a pretty trite and stodgy piece of screenfare.” The list of comedians whose movies failed to win a single Oscar is long and distinguished: Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Mabel Normand, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Abbott & Costello, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Jerry Lewis, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor--to name a few.
True, a handful of comics, such as Keaton, were given lifetime achievement Oscars, but that hardly made up for the snubs they received during most of their careers. Woody Allen started to win Academy Awards only after he discarded the madcap style of his earlier movies and incorporated serious themes. Allen once noted that he made the move because he realized that guardians of culture were confining him to the “children’s table,” and he wanted to sit with the adults.
My father adored comedians. He covered the walls of our house with portraits of Emmett Kelly and other circus clowns. Dad was a tall, rugged ex-Marine who had fought in the bloodiest battles of the South Pacific in World War II. When I was a kid, he seemed like a towering Goliath--a restless, manic man, tormented by memories of the war and of the Great Depression. I lived mostly in fear of him. When the front door slammed as he arrived home from work, I high-tailed it for my room.
But there was one weekly ritual where we connected. Not the Boy Scout meetings--Dad never went--and not playing catch in the back yard--he quickly lost patience with my lack of coordination. It was Saturday afternoons in front of the television. The old black-and-white Zenith. Dad would sit on the checkered sofa of our den with a remote the size of a small halibut. He’d click through channels until landing on a comedy starring Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton or the Three Stooges, Dad would bellow: “DAAVVVIDD! GET IN HERE QUICK! YOU’RE MISSING IT!”
I burst from my cell with sheer exhilaration. The two of us sat raptly before the Zenith. As pies flew, pianos careened down staircases and comics dangled from skyscrapers, my father let loose gales of laughter. It was a force of nature, that laugh--a great wind that swept you away. I laughed so hard my cheeks cramped, tears squeezed from my eyes, and, yes, I’m man enough to admit now, on one or two occasions I wet my pants. The most ecstatic moments of my childhood were in that den with my father, learning to laugh with the help of Buster, Stan, Ollie, Moe, Larry and Curly.
Thirty years later, long after my parents had traded that Zenith for a Sony Trinitron, my father was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer. It was inoperable. Dad decided to undergo chemotherapy, which would buy him an extra year of life. I sat in the den as he delivered the bad news. He said the things most terminal patients say. “I’m going to fight it. I’m not giving up yet.” I said the things most loved ones say. “You never know, Dad. Maybe you’ll beat the odds.” But we both knew the score.
The hospital’s chemotherapy center was a row of booths. In each, a patient would sit in a chair and be hooked up to an IV that siphoned poison into their veins. The poison killed the cancer and often, as in Dad’s case, nearly killed the patient as well. Each booth had a TV and a VCR. For his first chemo session, I handed him a copy of “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)"--one of Woody Allen’s earlier movies.
As the nurse led Dad to his booth, the silence of the chemotherapy center was eerie. Patients stared without expression at their TVs. The nurse plugged the tube into Dad’s arm, and he slipped the cassette into the VCR as she hustled off to attend to other duties. A little while later the funereal quietude was shattered by my father’s laugh. Heads turned. What on earth?
A nurse in her mid-20s peeked into Dad’s booth and saw Woody Allen fleeing from a giant breast. “What are you watching?” she asked. Dad explained it was an early Allen flick. She called to one of her co-workers: “You’ve got to see this!” Soon a dozen patients, nurses and doctors were gathered around Dad, all of them laughing.
Don’t get me wrong. I love “The Seventh Seal,” “Citizen Kane,” “Apocalypse Now” and many of the dramas that have won best picture. But in my family’s darkest hour I did not reach for those.