Often when I make someone laugh – or more regularly when I say something that I think is hilarious and everyone else disagrees – I like to joke that I do comedy semi-professionally. While that has not actually been true for a few years now, laughter – both being around it and attempting to generate it from others – has been a huge part of my life. I think it is high time we look at my top-rated comedy, which is Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, dir. Stanley Kubrick).
Before we get too deep into this discussion, there may be some who disagree with my categorization of some films as comedies while leaving others out. I have two comments for those people: first – get your own movie blog and you can make whatever rules you like. Second – every film on the list falls under a comedy heading in a brief internet search. Somebody other than me thinks this and the subsequent list of ten films are comedies. That is good enough for today.
Dr. Strangelove is an anti-war dark satire that shows – in ridiculous ways – the folly of nuclear proliferation. General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders his air force base to alert and transmits an attack code for all bombers to attack Russia. In the film, these bombers are always two hours away from their targets in Russia and quickly move to follow this order. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) learns this is a case of Gen. Ripper going rogue and that the US is not under attack. While he tries to subvert the attack from the ground, President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) and General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) try to deal with the ramifications – particularly when they learn that Russia has a Doomsday Device that automatically launches all of their nukes at the US if one bomb detonates. Eventually, these discussions are aided by a very strange German man in a wheelchair – Dr. Strangelove (a third Sellers role).
Clearly this is a perfect setup for my top-rated comedy of all time. Much of the comedy comes from a well-known tenet of comedy writing and performing; namely to bring truth to comedy. Put another way, this means that avoiding playing scenes for laughs will get you more laughs. Dr. Strangelove is a textbook example of this. Everything we see evolves from a place of truth – even when it gets to the absurdist levels of discussion and the introduction of the character Dr. Strangelove. However, nothing about this movie works without the singular brilliance of Peter Sellers. The significant differences among his three major characters are so pronounced that many people who are unfamiliar with Sellers (i.e., people under the age of 40) will not recognize that he is playing three roles. He disappears into each role, and the result is a triumphant comedic performance that carries the film to its lofty perch in history.
Certainly, there are those who will not find Dr. Strangelove humorous. These people are simply wrong but judging them is not something I am prepared to do. I have long said that comedy is individual. If you laugh at something, then that something is funny. If you do not, then it isn’t. I do not find the Police Academy movies funny, but if you do – more power to you. But if you have somehow made it these past 60 years without having seen Dr. Strangelove, do yourself a favor and check it out (or revisit it one more time if you were not blown away by its brilliance). It is a slow burn. The younger version of you may not have liked it as much as you would today. If you can get past the serious subject matter to see the satire below the surface, I guarantee you will have a good time.
FUN FACT – According to James Earl Jones (who makes his film debut here), George C. Scott was tricked into his performance. Allegedly, Kubrick wanted a zanier character than Scott wanted to deliver. Kubrick had Scott give crazy line readings and overtly physical movement in what he was told would be warm up rehearsals not to be filmed. Kubrick actually filmed these scenes and used most of them in the final cut. This may not be true, but I choose to believe it.
Here are my top ten comedies of all time. Again, some films may not fit my definition. I will note those that otherwise would make the list at the end. Overall ranking is in parentheses.
- Strangelove (2)
- Some Like It Hot (23)
- Blazing Saddles (35)
- M*A*S*H (38)
- Young Frankenstein (40)
- Sullivan’s Travels (43)
- Fargo (47)
- Finding Nemo (56)
- Broadcast News (57)
- It Happened One Night (59)
Really only omitted Singin’ in the Rain, which is clearly fun but also clearly fits in the musical genre. If you wanted to argue that Fargo or Sullivan’s Travels are not comedies, I would not put too much of a fight. If you did that, the list would include City Lights (65) and Shakespeare in Love (81).
JustWatch says that Dr. Strangelove is not currently streaming on any service except AppleTV+. It is available to rent or buy on most platforms, including AppleTV, Redbox, and Amazon Prime.