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Ball of Fire (1941)
Thanks to the Criterion Channel, Howard Hawks’ witty and risqué spin on Snow White—starring Barbara Stanwyck as a nightclub singer who hides out from the mob at the home of seven bachelor professors (among them Gary Cooper), in exchange for teaching them slang words for their encyclopedia—is available to watch for the first time in years.
The Road to Morocco (1942)
The best of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour’s “Road pictures” has all the magic ingredients of the seven-film comedy franchise: witty banter, amusing tunes, exotic locales and fourth-wall-breaking gags that were years ahead of their time.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Cary Grant (an ex-acrobat and underrated physical comedian) does some of the best double-takes ever recorded in Frank Capra’s cartoonish black comedy, about a Brooklyn drama critic (Grant) who discovers on his wedding day that the lovely old aunts who raised him (Jean Adair and Josephine Hull) are serial murderers.
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Best comedies of the 1950s Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
MGM’s singing, dancing, Hollywood-spoofing crowd-pleaser is easily the best musical comedy Hollywood ever produced. It’s also among the funniest films of any genre, particularly when it comes to effervescent musical numbers like Donald O’ Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” and Gene Kelly’s soaking-wet performance of the title song. Debbie Reynolds is a delightfully sassy ingenue, and Jean Hagen almost walks away with the film as a silent-movie star with a voice that could break glass.
The Band Wagon (1953)
Legendary song-and-dance man Fred Astaire brutally satirizes his own fading career in Vincente Minnelli’s musical gem, about a famed Hollywood hoofer (Astaire) who teams with a pair of New York playwrights (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray, themselves parodies of screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green), a prima ballerina (Cyd Charisse) and an eccentric director (Jack Buchanan) to mount his Broadway comeback–with unexpected results.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell are perfection in this cheeky musical comedy about two showgirls trying to find love aboard a cruise ship. As their signature songs explain, Lorelei (Monroe) is only interested in a suitor who can afford diamonds, while Dorothy (Russell) goes after the best-looking men…who may not be interested in women at all.
Related: Marilyn Monroe Quotes
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
The premise is so sexist, it’s almost quaint: an ordinary guy (Tom Ewell) whose wife and kids are out of town for the summer is tempted to infidelity when a gorgeous, nameless blonde (Marilyn Monroe) moves into the apartment upstairs. But Monroe is so effervescently funny, and Ewell’s attempts at being a Casanova are so ridiculous, that it’s impossible not to laugh. Billy Wilder’s film is loaded with risqué-for-the-fifties double entendres, including that famous scene above a subway grate.
Auntie Mame (1958)
One of mid-century cinema’s most memorable characters, Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell) is a free-spirited socialite in 1920s Greenwich Village, whose hard-partying life changes (but not too much) when she becomes the legal guardian of her young nephew Patrick. Russell lands each deadpan punchline and wears every outlandish costume like she was born in it, while the antics of Mame’s eccentric family (both biological and chosen) stay hilarious through every decade.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
A sex comedy that turns gender norms inside-out, Billy Wilder’s movie is about two 1920s musicians (legendary comedic actor Jack Lemmon and fifties sex symbol Tony Curtis) who become accidental witnesses to a speakeasy gang murder, then go into hiding by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl band. Things get even more complicated when they both fall for Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), an unlucky-in-love jazz singer who laments that she “always gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” The three stars are a dynamite trio, and keep you guessing right up until the film’s immortal last line.