With regard to the relative weakness of the comedies of this era, as mentioned by IN04150, I have to agree. When compared to the films of the 1930’s and 1940’s, we can conclude that bigger (and longer) is not always better. While I enjoy many of the films of this era, I think they can be overlong, ponderous and forced in their humor. “The Great Race” (1965) as an example, is enjoyable but physically taxing. I think “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963), though longer, is better comedy, but watching it is still something of an ordeal. Several reasons for the decline have been discussed, including the need to compete with television in the 1950’s and the changing demographics of audiences in the 1960’s (which resulted in the change to a new rating system in 1968). Another factor that has not been discussed is the breakup of the studio system. Movies faced a double-barreled threat in the late forties: competition from television; and a government-mandated prohibition on dual ownership of movie studios and movie theaters. This resulted in the slow dissolution of the studio system during the 1950’s -- a system that had controlled film production and distribution from its earliest days. While the studios are often accused of stifling creativity, they also controlled the creative propensity for excess. I think the studios served a function similar to that of an editor -- shaping the finished product, sometimes for the worst but often for the better. Is it a coincidence that the decline in quality corresponded with this loss of external control over the creative process? Something to ponder.
Another possible factor is that comedy had run its course under the rules and conditions that existed at the time. The move to all-star comedy extravaganzas may be, in fact, a sign of weakness in the genre. A parallel can be drawn to the Universal horror genre, the last gasps of which were the “monster all-star” movies: “House of Frankenstein” (1944) and “House of Dracula” (1945). As we have seen, the next step after exhaustion is parody. For Universal horror, it was “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948). After the epic comedy era ran its course, comedy moved into an extended period of spoofs and parodies in the 1970’s. The target of these parodies was not comedy, itself; it was other genres or films from Hollywood’s past. The change in the production code in 1968 laid the foundation for a new kind of comedy that would come to the forefront after (and as) the 1970’s parody period played itself out.
It is interesting to contrast the performances of Milton Berle in “Always leave them Laughing” (1949) and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963). In “Always,” Berle is not a likable character. He is an aggressive schemer willing to do almost anything to get ahead. And the comedy in the movie is too blatant and burlesque for my tastes. I was never a big fan of his style of comedy. Whether on radio, in movies or on television, he always seemed like he was trying too hard. But in “Mad, Mad,” I find him subtle and effective in his comedy. I find myself sympathetic with his character who must deal with Ethel Merman as a mother-in-law and Dick Shawn as a brother-in-law. And the “fight” with Terry-Thomas is hilarious. In an interview made at the time of production, Berle admitted that he intentionally acted in an understated way that was markedly different from his usual performances. I think it was a very effective performance.