It’s always fun to speculate about the reasons some comedians travel and others don’t. American comics seem to be born with a passport good for every country in the world, while a major talent like Jean Dujardin can only escape the French domestic market through the elaborate ruse of hiding his accent in a pseudo-silent movie (“The Artist,” for those of us who have already forgotten what won last year’s Oscar). Would Chaplin have made it in American movies if we’d been able to hear his voice and identify his otherness? On the other hand, an English accent didn’t hurt Stan Laurel, whose voice turned out to be added value when he and Oliver Hardy made the transition to sound.
Comedy, like politics, is perhaps most effective when it is practiced locally. A culture’s particular comic tradition is one thing that Hollywood can’t simply co-opt, and local comedy is the one genre keeping many national cinemas alive in the face of overwhelming American competition. (One reliable way of identifying the leading comedians are in any given territory is to see who’s dubbing the Pixar and DreamWorks animated films.)
VCI Entertainment, the Oklahoma-based budget label that has lately been importing a great deal of British commercial cinema, has just brought out double-feature discs devoted to two of the most beloved British comedians of the last century, Will Hay and Norman Wisdom. The dyspeptic Hay roughly corresponds to W.C. Fields as a beleaguered social striver; Wisdom is something of an English Jerry Lewis, combining aggressive, anarchic slapstick with a frighteningly transparent need to be loved. Both men seem to me highly gifted, for reasons I try to outline in this week’s New York Times column, but neither gained any traction in the US, even as their films were breaking box office records at home. Is it because we already had domestic versions of their comic personalities, or because (more likely, I think) neither Hay nor Wisdom offered the snob appeal Americans seem to require from British entertainment? It’s Oxbridge we want — not the music halls.