After three consecutive dramatic scenes,—two of them very dark—it’s time to talk about some comedy. Narrowing the field on this one is quite a challenge. Do I pick a huge, overblown musical number like “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers or the innuendo-laden “Let’s Duet” from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story? Does the best humor come from a meeting of three different comedic actors like the Harvey Manfrenjensen scene from A Fish Called Wanda, which mixes Kevin Kline’s quickness with John Cleese’s hilarious faces and Maria Aitken’s dry wit? What about a character who is just so over-the-top that much of the humor comes from the other characters reacting to him, like the first meeting with Franz Liebkind, also from The Producers. There’s the hilarious constrained laughter in the Pontius Pilate scene from The Life of Brian, and the breakfast scene from Grosse Pointe Blanke is very underrated (as is the whole movie), but the scene that is both the smartest and makes me laugh the most is the phone call from Dr. Strangelove.
In a movie full of crazed and hilarious characters, it seems that President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) is one of the only sane characters, but it’s actually his level-headed manner that becomes the joke. He is so polite and patient, which is great in an everyday situation, but not when a bonkers general literally named Jack T. Ripper has ordered an airstrike on Russia, turning the Cold War hot.
The brilliance of the scene is that we only hear one end of the conversation. President Muffley talks with the leader of a foreign country as if he’s talking to his ex-wife, with great lines like “Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello? (pause) Of course I like to speak to you. Of course I like to say hello.” There are also hints throughout this and other scenes that Premier Kissoff is drunk, which leads to the hilarious clarification of “The bomb, Dimitri. (pause) The hydrogen bomb.”
We can imagine the rightfully impatient Russian premier on the other line, trying to get to the point of the conversation as the President runs through formalities, like trying to find a nice way to say “Thanks to an insane general, we’re bombing you.” It could be my 100th time seeing the movie, but I’ll still get a kick out of, “Well now what happened is, one of our base commanders, he had a sort of, well he went a little funny in the head. You know. Just a little… funny.”
These two men are on the brink of nuclear war, and yet they’re arguing about who’s sorrier. Just the way Sellers says, “Alright! You’re sorrier than I am! But I am sorry as well,” might be the single-funniest line delivery ever. He sounds like a teacher correcting a prideful student.
As if this wasn’t enough, throughout the scene we get hilarious shots of General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) reacting to what he’s hearing.
Scott’s performance isn’t just over-the-top in his line delivery, but also in the way he is constantly contorting his face. It’s just the right amount of ham for this kind of film.
There will never be another Peter Sellers, and while there are plenty of scenes that show off his incredible talents, none compare to this one. It has become an iconic film monologue, and it just gets funnier every time I watch the movie.
Tomorrow, I’m going to take a look at villains and the scenes that tell us all we need to know about them.