The old saying goes that dying is easy and comedy is hard; you could add that sometimes, being really funny is potentially fatal. The Hollywood legend is that after performing his solo dance number “Make ‘Em Laugh” for Singin’ in the Rain — an amazing feat of kamikaze choreography including self-abuse at the hands of a headless dummy and culminating in a proto-Street Fighter running backflip off a brick wall — actor Donald O’Connor was hospitalized, requiring three days to convalesce in a tangle of stretched limbs and sprained ankles. It’s also rumored that the actor was dreading the wall flip since he hadn’t actually done it since his childhood (O’Connor claimed he began dancing when he was 13 months old and survived a car accident at two; add a stint in the military and durability would seem to be his superpower).
In a movie that was conceived as a consolidation of MGM’s intellectual property — a highlight reel of previously established production numbers strung together by a flimsy (but in reality brilliantly self-reflexive) backstage-drama plot — “Make ‘Em Laugh” plays second fiddle only to the title song. With respect to Gene Kelly’s splashy choreography (which left him soggy and feverish), it also features a much higher degree of difficulty. In an interview years after the film’s release, O’Connor recalled that “things were building to such a crescendo that I thought I’d have to commit suicide for the ending.”
Lyrically, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” written by the crack team of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown (with a huge, borderline-plagiaristic debt to Cole Porter’s earlier “Be a Clown”) is an ode to the idea that showmanship is ultimately a matter of humility, of a cheerful, calculated clumsiness: “just slip on a banana peel the world’s at your feet.” The sequence’s enduring hilarity stems from its intensity, and maybe also vice versa; while Cosmo is ostensibly trying to cheer up his best pal Don Lockwood (Kelly) about the studio matinee idol’s sagging professional and romantic fortunes, he also takes the opportunity to put himself through the wringer in ways that hint at some kind of sadomasochistic psychosis.
At 70 years old, Singin’ in the Rain stands as probably the most celebrated American musical of the 20th Century. This month, Damien Chazelle’s new 1920s period piece Babylon promises (or threatens) to rework its predecessor’s narrative about the industry’s fraught, exhilarating transition from silent to sound production and exhibition. The quality that unites Cosmo and Don as showbiz lifers is that they both did years of hard time in the B-movie trenches as silent-era stuntmen; their dues were paid in hospital bills. In a film whose plot turns on mistaken identity and lip-synched dialogue, Cosmo and Don aren’t just ace comedians but avatars of knockabout authenticity. From the title on down, Singin’ in the Rain is about making the best of imperfect situations, and recognizing that the antidote to embarrassment is willingly making oneself the butt of the joke: or, as a baby-faced Kevin Bacon shrieked while getting his ass paddled in Animal House (1978): “thank you sir, may I have another?!”
Singin’ in the Rain didn’t invent bone-breaking stunt work, but it did help to mythologize its silent-era practitioners. And, over the years, game has recognized game: in 1984’s awesome Hong Kong action comedy The Owl vs. Bombo, Sammo Hung paid O’Connor direct, loving homage at the start of one of his fight sequences — collapsing the distance between vaudeville and martial arts. More generally speaking, the films of Hung’s contemporary and collaborator Jackie Chan carry the torch for “Make ‘Em Laugh” across genre lines, both in terms of the star’s actual performances (which, at their best, incorporate a certain goofy charisma into the violence) but also the end-credit blooper reels, with their simultaneously rousing and sadistic choruses of on-set laughter as Chan misses marks, botches landings, and takes it on the chin, over and over again. (Chan also admires Singin’ in the Rain, and worked a lovely little nod to Kelly into 2003’s Shanghai Knights, a surprisingly cine-literate film that also features a teenaged Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the young Charlie Chaplin).
The contemporary standard bearers for sadistic slapstick are of course the gang from Jackass, which is not only the most nakedly transgressive studio franchise of the the 21st century — pushing, shoving, and cramming wildly homoerotic imagery into the faces of a majority fratboy demographic — but also, in its way, one of the most old-school. There have been reams of cultural theory written and published about the precise meaning (or lack thereof) of the gang’s eager self-abasement, but for me, Jackass’ embrace of entirely analogue-slash-biological methodology — no CGI here — marks it as a site of resistance against (deep breath) the decorporealization of spectacle. In a year when various cogs in the Marvel machine bristled against the notion that they weren’t really movie stars, the most genuinely charismatic leading man performance was given by silver fox Johnny Knoxville.
The only other contender, by the way, is Tom Cruise — like Knoxville, a modern day heir to O’Connor channeling similarly crowd-pleasing impulses through his own personal military-industrial-entertainment complex. Back in May, in Cannes, Cruise bristled at a question about why he felt the need to do his own stunts. “Would you ask Gene Kelly why he does his own dancing?” he asked in return, clarifying which Hollywood he belongs to. With this in mind, no Cruise vehicle is more evocative than 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, which saw the star repeatedly mulched, crushed, bludgeoned, and dispatched a la Wile E. Coyote. Beyond its goofily doomy sci-fi existentialism, Edge of Tomorrow works as a cautionary fable about following Singin’ in the Rain’s credo to its logical conclusion. Through sheer force of will, Cruise has positioned himself as the last action hero; the question is whether he’ll be able to hold onto the title without killing himself in the process.
The question of why — Jackass and its reality-TV ethos excepted — the bodily stakes of big-screen comedy have gotten lower sort of answers itself: safety, security, and standards are not throwaway jokes. Generalizing about the overall direction of humor is always a reductive exercise, but in the same way that the anodyne, digitally-augmented style that’s overtaken action cinema (with a few Fury Road shaped exceptions) ends up downplaying the role of stuntmen, comedies predicated primarily on post-modern references — often to comic-book movies — are more apt to score points off of bruised egos than bodies. Again, there’s more than one may to make em laugh, but I can’t think of any passage of Apatow-era pop-cultural riffage that speaks a universal language — or will stand the test of time — like O’Connor happily hurling himself at the wall and grinning amidst the wreckage.
Adam Nayman is a contributing editor at Cinema Scope and the author of books on Showgirls, the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher.