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Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy (Cappella Books) Paperback – September 1, 2010


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

American film comedy is barely a century old and already commentary on it can fill bookshelves, with countless pages devoted to the evolution of physical comedy, the influence of notable comedians like Charlie Chaplin, and the effects of technology on the form. Austerlitz touches on all of these things, but his objective is to provide a chronological set of biographies of the most important figures, both major (the top 30) and minor (over 100 more), and comment on their achievements and influence. The result is a comprehensive textbook that traces a legitimate line of succession from Chaplin to Apatow. Clearly Austerlitz has great affection for and knowledge of his subject; he can comment with equal skill on Renee Zellweger and W.C. Fields. Still, his take on the century is not without bias. Never less than candid ("Mel Brooks is overrated"), his tastes are also present in what he leaves out (Hal Ashby, Hal Hartley, and Cameron Crowe are all missing). Though readers will surely disagree with some of his choices, the breadth of material Austerlitz has compiled here is a feat. Photos. (Sept.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Austerlitz asserts that comedy has been underappreciated as a cinematic genre by critics and historians, and that this has resulted in underrepresentation in Academy Awards presentations and nominations. To redress this inequity, Austerlitz presents more than 100 biographical sketches of top comedy talents from Charlie Chaplin to Judd Apatow, augmented by shorter tidbits regarding lesser players. So the Jim Carrey saga coexists with the legend of Harold Lloyd, and the debonair comic stylings of Cary Grant contrast nicely with those of Will Ferrell. As the title would indicate, Laurel and Hardy are limned, as are Buster Keaton, W. C. Fields, Mae West, and the Marx Brothers. Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Doris Day are the only other women accorded full chapters, but Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, and Tina Fey, among others, garner tidbit status. More recent comic masters featured include Ben Stiller, the Coen Brothers, and Steve Martin. With broad coverage like this, the book has some reference applications, though most of the pieces are unfailingly upbeat. Even tragic death is fraught with dreamy potential: regarding Jean Harlow’s death at 26, Austerlitz muses, “What might Preston Sturges have made of her had she lived?” Entertaining reading. --Mike Tribby
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Product Details

  • Series: Cappella Books
  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press (September 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1556529511
  • ISBN-13: 978-1556529511
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #331,947 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and critic. His work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Boston Globe, Slate, the Village Voice, The National, the San Francisco Chronicle, Spin, Rolling Stone, Paste, and other publications. He is the author of Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes (Continuum, 2007), and Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy (Chicago Review Press, 2010). Money for Nothing is being made into a forthcoming documentary film, for which he has written the script. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Becky.

Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By reader984 on August 26, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Thoughtful exploration of an often overlooked - yet clearly formative and distinctly American - aspect of our culture. Also made me feel more versed in the culture of an earlier era which I knew little about; enjoyed reading about Buster Keaton and WC Fields, for example. Division of chapters makes it easy to pick up. Good subway reading. Good stuff. 4.5 stars.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Ari Vander Walde on September 15, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I had so much fun reading this book? It made me feel like I was watching all my favorite movies all over again, but even better. Usually, explaining why a joke is funny is extremely un-funny, but Saul Austerlitz takes the best moments of comic film history and makes them even funnier by putting them in context. I laughed as I was being told why I was laughing. The writing is superb. Very intelligent but not condescending. And the author treats all comedy as serious art, be it old stars that we don't see much nowadays but critics love to discuss amongst themselves, or modern-day low-brow comedy like Scary Movie and it's offshoots. I felt validated in the fact that a movie doesn't have to be "important" to be important. I'm hoping for a sequel, if only I could read it again!
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Jet Jaguar on January 3, 2011
Format: Paperback
What is implied when a book bears the subtitle "A History of American Film Comedy" is fairly clear. It suggests a book of facts, perhaps laced with the author's slant, but nevertheless established truths about the subjects contained within. It also suggests that it is somewhat comprehensive, and in its possession of such a dry and neutral title it gives us the idea of a book compiled from research and even possibly a general consensus of opinion if opinion is included at all.

What Another Fine Mess is, from what I can tell, is one man's opinion of which film comedians are worthy of mention, and to what degree they are worthy of mention, and which aspects of their lives and careers he thinks are relevant, who his favorites are and what he thinks of them, who can make him laugh and who can't, and whether or not he's pretty sure this one or that one was gay. While he say in the introduction that he simply did not have room for all the people worthy of mention, it was not that alone that bothered me. He does indeed, as mentioned before, print rumors as facts. Yes, he does discuss many of the comic films, and the lives of many comedians or comic actors. He certainly has seen a lot of movies. But as long as he prints myth as fact and states his opinion as though it also should be regarded as fact, all of his "factual" statements become suspect.

He spends whole chapters running people down (he does not, for example, care much for Mel Brooks, and it shows in every word of the chapter about him, where he even tears down one of the man's best films, and blatantly mocks him for what he assumes was his attitude while filming it). Those comedians he does like get the best treatment, but that is still no guarantee of accuracy.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By SOS on December 1, 2010
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I'm sorry, but trying to read a whole book of sentences like, "There are echoes of Awful Truth's cunning, with Grant marvelously professing mock-befuddlement over Dunne's desert-island companion (Randolph Scott), but Lubitsch's smoothness has been elided, replaced by a klutzy, anxious energy native to Cary Grant alone" just gets me down. The author continues this style throughout the whole book, and I really miss simple sentences and straightforward narration. In addition, he makes catty remarks throughout the book (such as referring to a biographer as a "hagiographer"), and appears to have swallowed unsubstantiated Hollywood gossip as gospel truth. More research, a simpler style, and less intrusion of unpleasant opinions would have made this a much better book.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I expected this to cover the history of comedy in film. Instead it's a series of vaguely biographical sketches that mostly focus on what the author thinks of that comedian. He writes well and if I wanted a film reviewer, it would be great, but I thought it was a history.
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By Micah on September 17, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a required text for one of my college courses, but I'll be reading it long after the class is done. The author has an engaging, informative, and witty writing style that makes the information--which, in the hands of a lesser writer, could be quite dry--memorable and interesting. The book reads like a collection of biographies, but also chronicles the overarching themes of the film industry, specifically comedy's role.

Highly recommended for any film buff/comedy lover/history major looking for a fun read.
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