Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy. He will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council’s Jewish Authors Blog.
In writing my book
Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy
, I spent a lot of time concentrating on the greatest films in the history of American comedy: your City Lights, your Shop Around the Corners, your Annie Halls. But often, the most pleasurable films I watched over the course of researching my book were the ones that were surprisingly decent. The mediocre films that turned out to be pretty funny; the supposedly terrible movies that I found myself, to my surprise, enjoying.
In their honor, I’d like to single out five pleasant surprises from among the ranks of American comedies. These might not be movies you’d want at the top of your Netflix queue, but you might find yourself pleasantly surprised if you happened to come across them, anyway.
5. Teacher’s Pet
Instead of being partnered with second-tier stars like Gordon MacRae, or Reagan, by the late 1950s Doris Day was starring opposite Clark Gable in 1958’s
. Directed by George Seaton, Teacher’s Pet establishes the template for the Rock Hudson films to come. Day is a professor of journalism attempting to recruit crusty newspaperman Gable to guest-lecture to her class, not knowing he is already enrolled as a student. Gable is a bit elderly for the role—you can see his hands shake when he thrusts a newspaper at Day—but the two work up a nice comic routine, with Day idealistic and sunny, and her foil cantankerous and vinegary, loving women without respecting them: “You mean to tell me that now they’ve got dames teaching unsuspecting suckers?”
Gable is most believable at his most crabbed; when he melts for Doris, the moment is hardly in keeping with the role, or with Gable himself, who never met a dame he didn’t want to push around. Day, meanwhile, struggles to maintain the appropriate distance from her student, but physical contact, like the kiss Gable snatches in her office, leaves her a little woozy, and gasping for breath. We know Doris has sex on the brain because she spurns the advances of Nobel Prize-winning scientist and author Gig Young (this film’s Tony Randall equivalent), preferring something in a more dashing cut.