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Comedy Teams - 7/11


From Laurel and Hardy to Martin and Lewis, beautifully matched combinations of comic talents from the movies' Golden Age have kept film audiences in stitches. In support of CNN's premiere of The History of Comedy on July 15, TCM brings fans a night devoted to some of the best comedy teams from classic Hollywood. Learn more about CNN's upcoming series by clicking here.

CNN's original series examines the historic influence of comedy in an eight-part documentary that includes archival footage and contemporary interviews with comedy legends, scholars and current stars. The series is an examination of what makes us laugh and how comedy has affected history's social and political landscape.

Here are the comedy partnerships highlighted by TCM, with a representative film for each combination:

Abbott & Costello were perhaps the most popular comedy duo of the 1940s and '50s. Bud Abbott was a burlesque entertainer who had worked as a straight man for other comics, including his wife Betty. Lou Costello was also a burlesque comic as well as a film extra and stunt double. The two first worked together in 1935 and soon won a huge following through joint appearances in burlesque, on radio and on the Broadway stage. Eventually, movies and television solidified their popularity. Abbott was cast as the scheming straight man with Costello as his dim-witted and gullible partner.

The Time of Their Lives (1942) has Costello as a tinker who was killed in Revolutionary times and haunts a country estate where Abbott and his friends come to live. Leonard Maltin calls the movie "one of their best...funny and well done." The cast also includes Marjorie Reynolds and Gale Sondergaard.

Laurel & Hardy are recognized as the most beloved comedy team in movies of the 1920-1940s. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had each been established individually in the film world before they officially became a team in 1927. They appeared as a duo in more than 100 films including 23 feature-length movies. Their slapstick comedy antics featured Laurel as the bumbling innocent and Hardy as a domineering, if childlike, bully.

Sons of the Desert (1933), considered by many to be the funniest of all Laurel & Hardy films, casts the boys as members of a fraternal order (somewhat like the Shriners) who want to go to a national convention as a way of escaping their lives as henpecked husbands. Dorothy Christy and Mae Busch play the wives.

The Marx Brothers, initially made up of five brothers and eventually numbering four, became one of the most celebrated and influential comedy acts of the 20th century. After a successful career in vaudeville, the brothers moved on to Broadway and eventually a series of hilarious and very successful movies. Three brothers were dominant in the act: Groucho, Harpo and Chico. Zeppo appeared in the first five of the 13 Marx brothers films, while Gummo left the act after entering the military during World War I and was not in any of the movies. Groucho later had the most successful solo career, starring in additional movies as well as radio and TV shows.

Monkey Business (1931) is set mostly aboard an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic, with the Marx Brothers as stowaways who cause constant chaos in their efforts to avoid the ship's crew and deal with some pushy gangsters. The movie, inspired in part by some of the brothers' vaudeville routines, is considered by many to be among their funniest.

Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis were successors of sorts to Abbott & Costello, rising to fame in the post-World War II years just as the older duo was fading. Dean Martin had been a nightclub singer and Jerry Lewis had a comedy act in which he lip-synched to records. They made their debut together in 1946, performing in nightclubs before moving on to radio, television and films. Martin played the suave crooner to Lewis's overgrown and often-spastic adolescent. Their split in 1956 dismayed fans but both went on to enormously successful individual careers.

At War with the Army (1950), the third of 17 Martin/Lewis movies, was the duo's first starring vehicle after supporting roles in two My Friend Irma comedies. Set at a stateside training base during WWII, this one has Lewis as a hapless PFC and Martin as an overbearing First Sergeant. The guys rehash some of their established routines to hilarious effect and the movie serves as an introduction for future star Polly Bergen.

The Three Stooges, specialists in lowbrow slapstick, enjoyed a long career that lasted almost half a century (1922-70) and encompassed some 190 comedy shorts that were first shown in theaters and later revived for television. The Three Stooges also appeared in a number of feature films. The original Stooges were Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Shemp Howard. Shemp's role was filled at various times by another Howard brother, Curly; Joe Besser; and Curly Joe DeRita.

Beers and Pretzels (1933) is one of a series of five short films that The Three Stooges made for MGM in which they were billed as Ted Healy and His Stooges. Healy was the actor/comedian who had helped the Stooges develop their act in the early days. In this short, the guys are thrown out of the theater where they have been performing and forced to wait tables at a high-class restaurant. You can imagine the chaos that ensues.

Burns & Allen were a husband-and-wife comedy pair that performed together for more than 40 years in vaudeville, film, radio and television. George Burns and Gracie Allen met in 1922, when both were in their 20s. They were wed in 1926 and beginning in 1929 appeared in shorts and feature-length films as a couple. After their long-running radio show was canceled in 1950, the couple reappeared on television with a popular sitcom. After Allen's death Burns enjoyed a second career as a movie actor, winning an Oscar for 1975's The Sunshine Boys. He liked to say, "I did have a talent - and I was married to her for 38 years."

A Damsel in Distress (1937), in which Burns and Allen costar with Fred Astaire, is a musical with a distinguished pedigree screenplay by P.G. Wodehouse from his novel, direction by George Stevens and music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. Astaire is an American entertainer who falls for a British heiress (Joan Fontaine). George and Gracie play Astaire's press agent and secretary and, yes, they get to sing and dance!

Wheeler & Woolsey were Broadway theatre performers who formed a comic duo in shorts and feature films for RKO beginning in 1929 and ending with Woolsey's death in 1938. Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey first worked together in the stage musical Rio Rita and the 1929 film based on it. Audiences were delighted by their interaction, with Wheeler as a dim but sweet and ever-smiling innocent and Woolsey as a bespectacled, cigar-smoking, trouble-prone lecher.

Diplomaniacs (1933) is a social satire with Wheeler & Woolsey as a pair of barbers who work on an Indian reservation and are sent to represent the tribe at a Geneva peace conference, where they run afoul of arms manufacturers. Film historian Steven H. Scheuer calls the film "fast, furious, and silly, with standout performances."

by Roger Fristoe

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