Classic Movie Review: Laugh and You Might Live Longer

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Classic Movie Review by Ellen Bunton

(and her eager assistant, Meatball)


A Regular Monthly Feature

The Classic Movie Review

  The first Wednesday of the month.

October already?  As promised: Heeeeerrrrrres ELLEN 🙂

Men, Women, and Comedians

I know women generally outlive men but still I think it’s strange that so many leading men of the classic era died young while their female co-stars lived much longer. Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, and Gary Cooper all died of natural causes by the age of 60. However, their female leads–Myrna Loy, Lauren Bacall, Olivia de Havilland (alive at 99 as I write this), Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Greta Garbo lived into their 80’s and 90’s.


Marlene Dietrich, 1930's. Restored by Nick & jane for Doctor Macro's High Quality Movie Scans website: Enjoy!


lauren bacall


Maybe it’s just the life expectancy thing.

But wait a minute! Look at Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Milton Berle, Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, and Jerry Lewis (still hosting telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association until 2011; alive today at 89). They all lived into their eighth and ninth decades.

Bob Hope and George Burns even made it to 100! I know there are exceptions. Vivien Leigh and Veronica Lake died relatively young while Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart were octogenarians, but I think overall the numbers bear me out.936full-groucho-marx




Many in the film world would say drama is easy, comedy is hard.  And, I guess it might be easier to make an audience cry than laugh, but I don’t think this is about hard work. I really think this is about the ability to laugh at yourself and not to take yourself so seriously (and Errol Flynn being drunk doesn’t count).

It’s sometimes hard to separate Clark Gable from Rhett Butler or Tyrone Power from Zorro and they had a reputation to maintain off screen. They were expected to look tough and act tough whereas the women weren’t held to the same standards in the culture of that era. And the comedians could laugh at themselves even when their jokes weren’t funny and then make a joke out of that!

So, the moral of the story is laugh, especially at yourself, and you might live longer!


If you like Ellen’s idea that laughter is good for you, read about the women in Looking for Lydia; Looking for God as they discover they can laugh at life and themselves and discover new ways to be happy in their nineties.  Looking for Lydia is available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback, hardcover, and for your Kindle.  Read about it on the Home Page of this website.

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5 Responses to "Classic Movie Review: Laugh and You Might Live Longer"
  1. Dean Robertson says:

    Thanks for posting this thoughtful piece.

    I’m reading your last paragraph about women not being held to the same standards–I assume you mean the standards of toughness–but weren’t they held to just as rigid a set of standards? They had to be submissive, quiet (unless they wanted to be labelled “hysterical”), beautiful, pleasing. And yet they did survive; they did–and still do–for the most part outlive the men. Maybe your idea about laughter still holds true. Women, like many a suffering group, often hang in there by outrageous laughter. If your point is that women just seem naturally able to laugh at ourselves, while men need the “cover” of scripted comedy, but that the result is the same: laughter=survival, then I agree 100%. We belong to an organization that is to some degree based on the belief that there are days when only our ability to laugh at ourselves can save us 🙂

  2. Alison Daniels says:

    I found this an interesting topic although I am not quite sure that leading men always died younger than their leading ladies. I am just happy to think that some of the greats from the classic years are still with us. I always feel somewhat of a personal loss when they finally do go. I think that some of the issue might be that back then as today women were more diligent about attending to their health and men avoided admitting any kind of frailty. Maybe they were indeed over-exerting themselves so as not to admit to aging. Maybe they ignored signs of ill health because they were “men” determined to act “manly.” Leading men often continued to co-star as romantic leads with much younger actresses, oftentimes women decades their junior. (They often married much younger women too). Clark Gable died of a heart attack shortly after doing all these exhausting physical stunts in the film The Misfits. Perhaps he just didn’t want to admit that those stunts were too much for him and had to prove he could still do it. And there he was in that film romancing beautiful Marilyn Monroe, while a female actress of his age would have been playing somebody’s grandmother. Maybe women live a little longer because we are just a little smarter– and realize when we need to take care of ourselves! And hopefully laugh at ourselves too.

  3. Doris day was pretty tough in “Annie get your gun” and I think she’s still alive. The laughter theory is probably the correct one. I’m going to buy myself some good joke books. If I’m still alive in thirty years, you will know you were right. Thanks for a very interesting article.

  4. Dean Robertson says:

    This is Ellen using Dean’s computer, and as I write this on Oct. 11 Doris Day is very much alive having celebrated her 91st birthday this past April. She played Calamity Jane opposite Howard Keel.

  5. Alison Daniels says:

    Just one correction, Doris Day was in Calamity Jane, Betty Hutton was in Annie Get Your Gun.
    Doris was also a tough lady in Love Me or Leave Me and I think that is her finest performance.

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