“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.
“We were funny people. We didn’t have to tell funny stories. We were funny. We had funny bones… I think there are two types of comedians. There’s a funny bones comedian and a non-funny bones comedian. They’re both funny. One is funny, the other tells funny.”
– George Fawkes
“Comedy’s a magnificent shambles, huh? Purposeful, intentional chaos. If it isn’t funny, you die a double death, right?”
– Tommy Fawkes
“I never saw anything funny that wasn’t terrible, didn’t cause pain.”
– Bruno Parker
British filmmaker Peter Chelsom’s 1995 movie Funny Bones, which he produced, directed, and co-wrote with Peter Flannery, is the type of film that defies simple categorization. It is, among other things, a tribute to Vaudeville, a celebration of English eccentricity à la the old Ealing comedies (it was even filmed at the Ealing studios), a backstage soap opera, a drama, a tragedy, a melodrama, a mystery, a thriller, a fantasy, a horror story, a musical, and a very, very, very black comedy. Speaking of which, it is the single best movie ever made about the subject of comedy. There have been several films about performers doing comedy, including Roy Del Ruth’s Always Leave Them Laughing, Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, Alfred E. Green’s Top Banana, Carl Reiner’s The Comic, and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memoirs, but Funny Bones doesn’t just concern those who perform comedy, it deals the very nature of comedy itself. The theme of Funny Bones, however, isn’t anything as trite as posing the question, “What is comedy?” (A question so inane that it only deserves the exact same answer that Louis Armstrong gave to someone who once asked him what jazz was: “If you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know.”) Rather, the main focus of Funny Bones is exploring the difference between those who want to be funny, those who instinctively know how to be funny, and what it takes to be funny.
It’s impossible to summarize Funny Bones’ story in a sentence or two. The film does have a plot, but it’s so complex and labyrinthian that seeing exactly how it unfolds and discovering the secrets the various characters are hiding are among of the chief pleasures of watching the film for the first time. (Subsequent viewings of Funny Bones can be ever more rewarding; no matter how many times you see it, there’s always something new to discover.) Perhaps the best way to convey some idea of what Funny Bones is like without spoiling the fun is to take a look at the two characters the film revolves around.
The first one we are introduced to is Jack Parker (played by British comedian Lee Evans in his theatrical film debut) in the film’s mysterious opening scene depicting a botched robbery at sea. A young man in his 30s, Jack is first glimpsed perched at the top of the mast of one of two boats rendezvousing out in the middle of nowhere off the shore of Blackpool, England. (As Janet Maslin pointed out in her New York Times review of Funny Bones, Jack’s “most important scenes in the film have him perched above other characters at precarious heights.”) We don’t learn exactly what is being stolen or why until later in the film. What is clear in this sequence is that Jack is being betrayed by his companions, led by a slimy, corrupt cop appropriately named Sharkey (Ian McNeice), and that one of the people involved meets a macabre end when he’s thrown overboard and his feet are chopped off by the boat’s propellers, causing him to bleed to death under the water.
It isn’t until a little later in the movie that we discover that Jack’s is really a natural-born comedian and that he comes from a family of performers. His father, Bruno (Freddie Davies), and uncle, Thomas (George Carl), were a celebrated slapstick comedy team known professionally as the Parker Brothers. His French-born mother, Katie (Leslie Caron), was a singer, who is now divorced from his father, but used to participate in the family act, as did Jack. A deeply troubled individual who has already experienced more than his share of sorrow, Jack is, nonetheless, an enormously talented comic, even more so than his elders. With Jack, comedy is instinctual, even when he’s not performing. When taken into police custody because of a presumed suicide attempt that takes place in the aftermath of the robbery, he can’t resist turning an interview with a psychiatrist (Gavin Millar) into a Vaudeville routine.
Psychiatrist: “Where were you born?”
Psychiatrist: “Why Blackpool?”
Jack: “’Cause I wanted to be near me mother.”
Psychiatrist: “Have you lived here all your life?”
Jack: “Not yet.”
But Jack is no idiot savant; from years of experience. he knows the mechanics of comedy by heart and is also something of a technical wizard. We observe Jack at the decrepit warehouse on the Blackpool docks where he lives with his father, uncle, and pet dog, meticulously putting together a reel-to-reel tape recording of sound effects and snippets from several different radio broadcasts. The purpose of this recording is explained in a crucial mid-film scene set on an open mike night at a small Blackpool nightclub. That night, appearing under the pseudonym “Val Radio,” Jack performs a “dummy act” in time to his sound montage recording, giving the film audience its first indication of what a brilliant physical comedian he is. The routine has the club audience laughing hysterically, but when Sharkey shows up unexpectedly, Jack’s cut off in mid-act by the club’s owner. In is then that we get the first hint of the dark secret Jack harbors. He’s been banned from performing by the local law for the past twelve years. Why Jack got banned is one of the film’s mysteries that isn’t answered until late in the proceedings. Nevertheless, it’s been established that Jack, indeed, has funny bones.
If Jack is one side of a coin, then the flip side of that coin is Tommy Fawkes (Oliver Platt). Like Jack, Tommy is the son of a professional comedian in his 30s whose life’s calling is comedy. Unlike Jack, Tommy isn’t funny. It isn’t just a lack of talent; it’s his attitude. Tommy is an arrogant, hipper-than-thou, privileged rich kid who can’t help feeling superior to those around him. Jack and Tommy are first linked by a transition from the Blackpool sea to a Las Vegas casino on the night of Tommy’s big debut at a prominent venue after years of playing tiny comedy clubs. Chelsom makes the transition with the aid of music: French singer and songwriter Charles Trenet’s original 1946 recording of “Le Mer” (The Sea) plays underneath the opening scene and, when the locale shifts to Vegas, it is in the middle of an elaborate stage rendition of the Americanized version of the song, “Beyond the Sea,” performed by a dancer (Harold Nicholas) backed up by a big band and a line of chorus girls.
In a scene that’s almost as nightmarish as the one preceding it (but in a different way), Tommy waits to go on in his dressing room fighting a major case of backstage jitters. Everything that subsequently happens in that dressing room conspires to add to those jitters. The attempts of his joke writer Al (William Hootkins) to both pump him up and calm him down only succeed in infuriating him.
Al: “How’s the star of the show?”
Tommy: “I’m gonna die.”
Al: (joking heartily) “Tommy, you’re among friends. We won’t let you die!”
Tommy: “No, Al, I don’t mean on stage–although I feel like shit—I mean, I’m gonna die!”
Al: “What is this? What’re you talking about?”
Tommy: “If I don’t do it, make it happen—you know, find that feeling—in two weeks, I’m just not gonna live any more.”
Al: “You mean you feel desperate, that’s all. A lot of people feel desperate before doing something exceptional.”
Tommy: “You know, Al, I’m not gonna play safe any more. I’m gonna take it to the edge –right to the edge—and do pirouettes.”
Al: “Pirouettes? What—what are you talking about?”
Tommy: “Pirouettes, you dumb fuck! And if I fall… well, so be it. You know? Who gives a shit, you know?!”
Getting increasingly apprehensive, Al warns Tommy not to do “the sheep story,” pointing out that it’s a mainstream audience out there who won’t appreciate a joke with “the ‘F’ word” in it. “You’ll lose ‘em with the ‘F’ word,” he pleads. Tommy’s next visitor is his fiancée Jenny (Peter Pamela Rose), who bursts into tears over Tommy’s rudeness and breaks off their engagement. “You’re so cold! You wonder why people don’t laugh at you?” she wails before storming out of the dressing room. (The look of sheer horror on Tommy’s face reflected in the mirror at something so traumatic happening to him right before he goes out on stage is one that just about any actor or performer can identify with.) Last and most nerve-racking of Tommy’s visitors is the man he’s lived in the shadow of his entire life, his father, world-famous comedian George Fawkes (Jerry Lewis). George’s lackadaisical attitude as he peruses the dressing room (“New mirrors,” he casually observes, an ad-lib by Lewis) only intensifies his son’s case of nerves, especially when he tries to put him at ease. “You couldn’t ask for a better audience,” George says, “That room is filled with people, friends, old friends of the family. The whole of show business is there. They’re all just hoping and wishing and ready to laugh, son.” After George leaves, the heavens themselves add another twist of the screw to Tommy’s anxieties: a rumbling thunderstorm begins outside.
And just when Tommy is convinced it can’t possibly get any worse, it does… with a vengeance. After the dancer’s number is over, he spots George in the audience and encourages him to come up on stage. (Listening on the dressing room monitor, Tommy fearfully begs, “Don’t do it, dad! Oh, please don’t do it!”) Being a 24-carat ham, George unhesitatingly goes up on stage to overwhelming applause and a standing ovation. George then proceeds to do an impromptu stand-up set, beginning with, “As the cow said on a cold, wintry morning, thanks for that warm hand.” Overshadowed yet again, it’s the last straw for Tommy: he makes a beeline for the men’s room and throws up in a toilet.
Reduced to a neurotic bundle of nerves, Tommy finally takes the stage. Assuming an angry young man persona, he barely get some mild chuckles with his first jokes. Desperate, Tommy launches into the “sheep story.” Sure enough, as Al had predicted, even before he gets to the F-bomb punchline, he’s already lost the audience. Even the Japanese tourists aren’t amused. (It should be noted that this supposedly “edgy” piece of comedy material is actually one of the oldest blue jokes in the book.) Realizing how badly he’s bombed (people are already walking out), Tommy tells the crowd, “I gotta run. You’ve been a lousy fucking audience! My name’s Tommy Fawkes and I got two weeks to live!“ He flees the stage to a small, unenthusiastic smattering of semi-polite applause. When his friends and family go backstage to Tommy’s dressing room, all they find a handwritten scrawl on the mirror, “Goodbye. Sorry.”
But rather than committing suicide, Tommy turns up in his hometown of Blackpool, where he and his family lived before moving to America when he was six-years-old. Sporting a hideous mustard-yellow suit and a fake pencil mustache, Tommy is going by the name of “Rick Tarascas” (echoing the nom de plume Jack hides behind later in the film). “Tarascas” tells the lawyer he’s hired to represent him, Lawrence Berger (pronounced “Ber-jer”), a charming little milquetoast of a man played by Christopher Greet, that he’s come to Blackpool looking for new and unique comedy material. (By the way, “Tommy Fawkes returns to his hometown to find comedy material” might fit handily into a capsule review of Funny Bones, as so often has been the case, but that’s no more the plot of the film than “an anonymous reporter travels around the country trying to find out what the hell ‘Rosebud’ is” is the plot of Citizen Kane.) It soon becomes apparent, however, that the real purpose of Tommy’s quest is trying to discover the elusive secret of how to be funny.
Jack and Tommy first meet at the aforementioned open mike night. From there, everything in the story builds to the grand finale: a spectacular circus performed at a Blackpool arena, with the Parker Brothers headlining the bill. While his father and uncle are performing, Jack slips out of the audience and Sharkey smells a rat. (“Find Jack Parker now,” Sharkey cautions his men. “It’s all gettin’ a bit French… an’ I don’ like it.”) Events both magical (literally) and sinister occur, karma happens, lives are changed forever, and, after eluding the police backstage, Jack finally makes his triumphant return before an audience. But whether his appearance will result in redemption or tragedy remains to be seen until the film’s final few seconds.
Throughout the movie, Chelsom’s direction reflects his inventiveness. There are several intricately-edited montages depicting Blackpool, its eccentric inhabitants, and the even more eccentric—and downright bizarre—variety acts that audition for Tommy and Berger, including a bagpipe-playing dwarf, a lady with a singing poodle, a backward-talking man, a pair of dancing identical twins, a musical saw player, and a costumed, powdered wig-wearing magician who goes by the stage name of “the Bastard Son of Louis XIV.” Chelsom depicts important flashback sequences in two different film styles: Jack’s flashbacks are shot in black-and-white, utilizing a harsh, hard-edged, documentary-like style, whereas Tommy’s flashbacks are filmed with hand-held cameras, in slightly blurry, over-exposed footage with faded colors like 8mm home movies. As mentioned before, Chelsom’s use of music is also very creative. In addition to John Altman’s superlative background score, recordings by such diverse artists as John Lee Hooker, Memphis Minnie, Willie Dixon, Washboard Sam, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and the Raymond Scott Quartet are heard.
For Funny Bones, Chelsom got first-rate performances from all of his actors. Both Evans and Platt do their best work to date as Jack and Tommy. Davies and Carl exude a feeling of melancholy resignation as the Parker Brothers. Caron is every bit as sensuous and lovely as she was in her younger days with her charming, sympathique turn as Katie. Jerry Lewis gives perhaps his finest serious performance as George, even better than his work in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Although his lack of even a hint of a British accent belies the idea of George being a native of England, it should be stated for the record that Chelsom wrote the role especially with Lewis in mind, and being the only cast member with a direct connection to classic days of Vaudeville and Hollywood comedy, Lewis’ presence is absolutely crucial to the overall film, despite only having about fifteen minutes of total screentime. Other notable performances are provided by Ruta Lee (as Mrs. Fawkes), Ticky Holgado, Terrence Rigby, and Richard Griffiths. And the late Oliver Reed plays what has to be the most atypical role of his career as Dolly Hopkins, a flamboyantly gay millionaire obsessed with his own mortality. (The fact that most of Reed’s performance wound up on the cutting room floor only adds to the sheer oddness of the role.)
Funny Bones was produced by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures division, and they obviously had absolutely no idea of how to market the finished film when it was released in the spring of 1995. They futilely tried to sell it as a family comedy with ambiguous ad copy like, “Comedy. It’s in the timing. It’s in the material. But mostly, it’s in the bones.” (On the other hand, the theatrical trailer did suggest some of the off-the-wall quality of the film.) But it was to no avail; the film got mixed reviews and quickly vanished from sight. Disney released a DVD of the film in 2003 with no extras, not even the trailer, with the cover featuring Lewis billed as co-star and an equally deceptive tagline, “A zany look at two comedians who’ll do anything for a laugh.” One can only wonder at how many unsuspecting parents thought they’d be safe showing their children a seemingly typical Jerry Lewis comedy with an innocuous-sounding title like Funny Bones only to cause those kids to have nightmares for weeks afterwards!
 “Dummy act” is a Vaudeville term for an act where a comedian mimes in time to music or a recording. In the years before he teamed up with Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis got his start performing a dummy act with phonograph records he played on stage.