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Genre-Busting Dark Comedies of the 1970s: Twelve American Films

Dr. Wes D. Gehring, prolific film scholar and Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at Ball State University, has published 36 books, all of them focused on American film comedy, be it romantic comedy, screwball comedy, dark comedy, populist comedy, parody, or personality comedy. Most recently, his focus has been dark comedy, resulting in his late 2014 study, Chaplin’s War Trilogy: An Evolving Lens in Three Dark Comedies, 1918-1947, now followed in 2016 with Genre-Busting Dark Comedies of the 1970s: Twelve American Films.

Chaplin’s War Trilogy, selected by the Huffington Post as one of the “Best Film Books of 2014,” traces dark comedy elements throughout Chaplin’s oeuvre, but with special focus on three war-related films: SHOULDER ARMS (1918), THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940), and MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947). It was Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” through which the painter expressed his shock and outrage over what was happening in the Spanish Civil War, that inspired Gehring to examine Chaplin’s work from a similar perspective. What he found was that, the master filmmaker had used dark comedy in three different ways over the years. That is, with SHOULDER ARMS, Chaplin had used it to help the US, Great Britain, and their allies win World War I; with THE GREAT DICTATOR, he used it to try and stop World War II; and with MONSIEUR VERDOUX, he used it to condemn, by implication, business interests which provoked international wars in order to profit from them. Choice (the go-to reference for library purchasing in the US) wrote that, “This tribute to Chaplin is both a brilliant analysis and a cultural history…Gehring remains supreme in film comedy scholarship.”

A key theme in Chaplin’s War Trilogy (one of many books Gehring has written about that director’s life and career) was how contemporary audiences and critics alike were put off by THE GREAT DICTATOR and MONSIEUR VERDOUX, unable to find humor in the death and destruction of World War II, or in the charming menace of a serial killer, much less to see through the dark comedy haze into what Chaplin was actually saying. As the author points out, it was not until the 1960s, with the success of films like Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, that both reviewers and filmgoers finally caught up with what Chaplin had been doing in the 1940s and rediscovered his previously under-appreciated dark comic masterpieces of that decade. Gehring also came to understand how the national tumult of the 1960s (e.g., urban riots, political assassinations, and especially the Vietnam War) led American movie directors to make dark comedy a pivotal, and often commercially successful, film genre of the 1970s.

 After lecturing on the subject of his latest Chaplin book at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2014, Gehring decided to turn that larger insight into a new book titled Genre-Busting Dark Comedies of the 1970s, in which he would focus on twelve dark comedies released over the course of still another turbulent decade. The twelve films in question are Robert Altman’s MASH (1970), Mike Nichols’ CATCH 22 (1970), Arthur Penn’s LITTLE BIG MAN (1970), Hal Ashby’s HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971), Bob Fosse’s CABARET (1972), George Roy Hill’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972), Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974), Woody Allen’s LOVE AND DEATH (1975), Milos Foreman’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975), Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL (1977), Hal Ashby’s BEING THERE (1979), and Bob Fosse’s ALL THAT JAZZ (1979).

Gehring opens the Epilogue for Dark Comedies of the 1970s as follows: “From the comic to the sublime, cinema has always had dark comedies. But the genre finally came into its own during the 1960s. Besides new dark comedies like Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964) and the reissuing of previously underappreciated ones like Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) and MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947) the genre was finally receiving the recognition which it deserved. Yet most of these examples smacked audiences right between the eyes with their mood, such as Chaplin’s use of Hitler for humor. The full ambiguous blossoming of the genre would occur during the 1970s, fueled in part by many of the factors delineated in the prologue, including TV’s gutting of old school Hollywood, a betrayed trust in feel-good Capraesque people by modern McCarthy populism, New American Cinema cannibalizing the French New Wave, and the promise of Kennedy’s New Frontier quickly collapsing…into the violent discord and distrust leading to Watergate.”


Taking what he learned from the pioneering dark comedies of the 1940s and 1960s, Gehring now examines these twelve darkly comic and deeply thought-provoking films of the 1970s, a period in which American filmmakers rebelled and matured precisely in sync with members of America’s Baby Boom generation, the perfect audience for some of the greatest – and darkest – comedies ever made.
Because dark comedies were so abundant in the ’70s, Gehring went out of his way to pick several films not normally thought of as being of that genre (illustrated below).


Dr. Wes D. Gehring’s Chaplin’s War Trilogy: An Evolving Lens in Three Dark Comedies, 1918-1947 and Genre-Busting Dark Comedies of the 1970s: Twelve American Films are both now available from McFarland & Company, Inc.

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