New DVDs: Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness

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A slew of new releases starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers prompts some comparing and contrasting of these two great British comedians; my New York Times column is here.

This, by the way, will be the column’s last appearance on Tuesday.  Beginning this Sunday, Feb. 8, I’ll be moving to the weekend Arts and Leisure section of the Times, where business will continue as usual.

108 comments to New DVDs: Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness

  • Tom Brueggemann

    FWtBT was indeed Paramount; Meyer I believe is meant to mean Mayer, who had nothing to do with FW.

    I’m curious why Wood left MGM for most of the 1940s with his being such an ideal Mayer director – opportunity to make more money free-lancing perhaps (starting with Goldwyn).

  • John M

    “…to me needing to be “corralled” and “had absolutely nothing to do with shaping their films aesthetically” (your words) doesn’t sound like very ideal conditions for great comedy that coheres into a work of art.”

    Oh, I don’t know, these sound like pretty good conditions to me. And cohesive as all get out–Marx Brothers movies FEEL as though they’re being run through. They weren’t shot so much as harnessed.

    There’s unity there, by god.

  • Kent Jones

    This discussion of the Marx Brothers is very odd, because it keeps skewing in a direction that has nothing to do with them. Comparing them to Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, or Peter Sellers for that matter, is just off – it’s like comparing a horse to a can opener. It’s not like they were trying and failing to work in a more creative and responsible way: they were all about anarchy as performers, as personalities, apparently as people. It was expected of them. They were inimitable. Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python were well-organized and orderly in comparison. For me, the best example of the peril of imitating them can be found not in comedy per se but in the films of Harmony Korine.

    If you’re expecting aesthetic unity based on the model of Keaton or Lloyd, then of course they fail to deliver. But that doesn’t seem like a real argument against them. I do agree with John – there is unity there, because if there weren’t then the films wouldn’t function. The only analogous films I can think of are Andy Warhol’s, but let’s drop that before the discussion dries up. For me, watching the Marx Brothers is pure joy, especially with a room full of children.

    I will say that I think the idea that they were cut off at the knees by MGM and RKO is off. It seems to me that they just ran out of steam. How could they not?

    Blake, this reminds me a little of your extreme dislike of Marlon Bradno. You seem to have a low tolerance for performers who threaten to overwhelm the movie.

  • Blake Lucas

    Maybe so. I conclude that I like the kind of aesthetic unity I find in other comedies simply because, unlike you and John, the Marx Brothers are not fun for me. Not at all. And that’s all I’ve tried to say.

    Like you, I’d rather move on. Maybe we might all agree that there’s comedy supreme, along with much else, in Luis Bunuel…

  • jbryant

    The word “lesser” seems to be the problem here, re the Marxes. I’m sure Blake simply intended “lesser” to refer to his opinion of the Marxes’ abilities, not their popularity and influence (which are much more objective things). But I’m not surprised that this word choice led to misunderstanding. If one of us had said “lesser actors, such as Sonny Tufts,” no one would blink an eye, because it’s practically an objectively true statement, both in terms of Tuft’s talent and his career. But referring to the Marx Brothers as lesser comedians suggests they are to be lumped in with Joe Penner, Leon Errol or, as Kent mentioned, Wheeler and Woolsey. Even if one were to find all of the above comedically superior to the Marxes, the latter’s extreme popularity and ongoing cult status should ensure their status as “major comedians.” One doesn’t have to find them funny to consider them major.

    I’m sure everyone is now thrilled that I’ve introduced semantics into the debate. :)

  • jbryant

    My above post overlapped with Kent and Blake agreeing to walk away from the subject. So feel free to let it lie.

  • Kent Jones

    jbryant, I think that’s all very well put.

  • Blake Lucas

    I agree and appreciated that you posted it, jb.