Nothing Sacred (1937): Because humor thrives on relaxed improvisation and timing, you don’t see too many comedies that fret much over the other elements of filmmaking: lighting, camerawork, etc. But not everyone is so cavalier about technique. There’s sly skill in the “invisible” direction of many classic comedies, although workhorse William A. Wellman went one better with this cynical, largely Ben Hecht-scripted screwball: He shot it in still-nascent Technicolor, an extravagance typically reserved for prestige pictures. There’s a fascinating war here between technique and material, exacerbated by how no print today, not even the restoration just released on disc by Kino, can duplicate the film’s once-splendorous colors.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957): Frank Tashlin was an animator before he turned to live action; he didn’t really change his style. His films with actual human beings are crass, bold and plastic, his stars (including Jerry Lewis) outsized. His highmark remains his second with busty living cartoon Jayne Mansfield (after The Girl Can’t Help It), a satire as visually striking as it is scabrous.
Play Time (1967): A silent comedian who arose well into the talkie era, Jacques Tati remains comedy’s great stylist, every frame meticulously fussed-over with the obsession of a classic painter.
Young Frankenstein (1974): The film positively nails the look and feel of Universal Horror. And this from a director who, with The Producers , couldn’t even direct.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): The rest of Monty Python grumbled when Terrys Gilliam and Jones—who had adopted reins as directors of their first proper narrative film outing—decided to labor as much attention on look as they did on comic material. Along with being funny, this is a gorgeously realistic look at the Middle Ages—grimy, gloomy, muddy and miserable. And are the bloody armor duel’s a nod to Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac? Maybe!
Love and Death (1975): For his last “early, funny” film, and itching to be serio-comic, Woody Allen hired no less than Belgian cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (Au Hasard Balthazar, The Young Girls of Rochefort), all so his comedy would look gorgeous. It’s an idea Woody would explore further with Manhattan , although he’s been subsequently known to waste D.P. greats (Vilmos Zsigmond, Melinda and Melinda; Harris Savides, Whatever Works ).
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