Theme: Film – Comic Relief

Is there a “car film” car enthusiasts can all agree to like?

From The Big Lebowski: source
From The Big Lebowski: source

Those of us who love cars belong to a broad church. The 1997 Glanza driver is unlikely to enjoy the same movies as the pootler in his perfectly restored 1932 Ford 8. Some of us worship at the altar of pistons and power while others genuflect at the shrine of good looks.

My holy grail has always been big coupes, but surely there is room for us all (well maybe I’ll draw the line at modified cars). There’s never going to be a film or even a genre to suit everyone. My tuppence worth (you’re probably going to get about 48p if you keep reading) says I would have put Bullitt in a notchback and I really don’t like movies where the car is the star.

What really works for me is a movie with well cast cars that are credible and complement the story being told. Perhaps comedy is where we might find some agreement amongst ourselves.

Yellow Piaggio Ape
This certainly has comedic possibilities. Source:

Since the days of the Keystone Cops and a little later, Laurel and Hardy with their Ford Model T there have been many attempts to make comedy out of cars. Mostly with little or no success. Call me a curmudgeon but even as a kid Herbie did my head in (although I will admit to watching if only to glimpse Stephanie Powers you understand). Mr Bean’s Mini was never funny and Lightning McQueen with his anthropomorphic buddies wasn’t one of those films that worked for adults the way say, Shrek did.

There is a hierarchy of hilarity though. Clearly well maintained cars don’t make for good comedy. In “The Big Lebowski” the Dude’s rust bucket of a (perhaps one time yellow) 1973 Ford Torino clearly demonstrates this. The sheer abuse this car receives during two White Russian fuelled hours of madness is breathtaking.

The scene that makes me laugh time and time again is when “El Duderino” is enjoying a brew and getting the very last from a joint. A glance in his rearview makes him think a VW Beetle is following him. The spliff falls between his legs, is doused with a beer and a large dumpster inflicts further damage on this seemingly indestructible car. This vehicle is also set on fire by a group of German nihilists – but that’s another story.

If the Ford isn’t quite funny or yellow enough for you, perhaps we might up the laughter quotient by checking out “Little Miss Sunshine”. The original VW bug with a “53” decal and two white stripes might not have done it for me but it’s big brother (a yellow type 2 bus) was hilariously cast in this sleeper hit from 2006. 1st and 2nd gear being out of action requiring the van to be push started was charming rather than funny. The sight of the yellow bus containing the dysfunctional family, a corpse and a variety of gay and straight porn with it’s horn uncontrollably blaring being pulled over by a state trooper might not sound terribly funny. It is.

Don't ask! Source
Don’t ask! Source

They are horribly dated, sexist, casually racist and at times can make the strongest among us cringe. However Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Sûreté has surely given us moments of comedy heaven that shine through the dross that was “The Pink Panther” series of movies.”The Trail of the Pink Panther” was (perhaps fittingly) a very sorry end to this saga of films. Sellars had died and Blake Edwards, trying to squeeze a few dollars more from his maladroit comic hero picked up little pieces of film from the cutting room floor and sticky taped them together to make this steaming pat of non sequiturs.

There was one bright moment though. Posing as a mustard salesman from Dijon with two broken legs he finds it difficult to attend to business in the cramped confines of an airplane toilet. This had nothing to do with cars though. His dealings with a yellow Piaggio Ape in 1975’s “Return of the Pink Panther” also turn the comedy dial up to 11. I know that a motorised three wheeled anything is naturally just funny. Del Boy in his Reliant with Grandad in the boot is a very strong childhood memory for me. However the comedic possibilities of a three-wheeled van were fully exploited by the intrepid Clouseau’s inept operation of such a vehicle.

Whilst masquerading as a telephone repair man the handbrake assembly of his yellow La Poste van parts company with the floor. He throws the handbrake out the window as he realises the footbrake has also ceased to function. In true slapstick fashion the van travels uncontrollably backwards narrowly missing various obstacles before retaining just enough momentum to roll backwards into a swimming pool.

Incidentally, at that very moment a red Citroen Acadiane was being craned from the pool. It too had been deposited there earlier in the day by Clouseau (while impersonating a swimming pool repair man). It had also had it’s useless handbrake hurled out the driver’s window after narrowly missing among other things Christopher Plummer in his yellow Rolls Royce Corniche. Not terribly surprisingly this led to the little Citroen losing control, on this occasion he entered the water forwards.

I hope these links will bring a smile to your face. The common threads here are pretty obvious (is yellow really that funny?). There is no threat or pretension in any of the scenes and none of the cars could be described as particularly desirable. The actors effortlessly get the most from the scenario and the cars are used as props, not the central character. There may be some dissent with my three choices but surely comedy is where those of us who know what’s truly important might share some common ground?

The relevant clips from The Big Lebowski and Pink Panther can be found on YouTube.

13 thoughts on “Theme: Film – Comic Relief”

  1. It’s interesting Mick. I’ve not really thought about it much before but, although I like a laugh as much as the next person, maybe too much sometimes, I have never found car humour in films funny. Well maybe I sniggered at a TV thing with a Messerschmitt bubble car back in 1966. I guess I just take my interest too deadly seriously. I did get sort of stuck in an Ape myself – it’s not made for tall people is it – and that made me laugh. But I don’t think it would have stretched to a movie.

    1. I guess there goes my theory! I do feel that although generally cars don’t lend themselves to comedy there are some exceptions that worked for me. I know it’s not exactly highbrow but Peter Sellars in that Ape gets me laughing every time.

    2. I’m not sure if either clip can be classed as ‘car humour’ as such. I see it more as humour involving cars, which is perhaps needlessly splitting hairs. I’ll concede the choice of cars and in the case of The Dude’s Torino, it’s state of decrepitude is in itself intended to be amusing; something which is rarely handled well in movies. (See also Withnail & I).

      Having said that, I giggled at Edward’s repeat gag at the swimming pool and well, The Big Lebowski is a film I’ve never tired of. I will say however, I found ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ to be rather over-rated.

      Another movie trope is one of automotive miscasting. One of the worst examples of this in is the otherwise excellent Shane Meadows, ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’, where the local criminal warlord character is driven around the Derbyshire countryside in a 2CV Dolly. The implausibility of that alone (almost) ruined the film for me.

    3. Eóin, that 2CV in Dead Man’s Shoes really jarred with me also. Meadows is normally so adept at creating a believable atmosphere (the cars used in “This is England” are spot on) but that Dolly was a misstep. At first I thought I was missing something but even after a second viewing nothing clicked.

  2. The 2CV van was well done, as it actually played on the mechanics of the car. As a former twin pot Citroen driver, the square section pull out handbrake always seemed to be threatening to come out all the way.

    1. Given the Cohen Brothers’ knowledge of film history and genres etc, I would say almost certainly.

    2. Well spotted Sean, I had never even thought about that. Neither have I ever been in a 2CV or it’s van derivative but it always made me think of a 4l which I learned to drive in. The handbrake in that car would not have filled you with any degree of confidence either. Suffice to say I always left it in gear.

    1. Angeljon, I have to confess to not having seen this film. I do enjoy that ’70s slapstick humour so it’s definitely on my list thanks.

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