The world of cinema certainly has had its share of sympathetic bumbling and stumbling characters rich in both comedic and tragic layers and anything else in between. Some of these movie misfits are misunderstood and actually more aware then they appear. The combination of being slow-witted, clumsy, awkward, inept, unstable–it all has its entertaining points in the hapless scheme of things. Importantly, these bumbling and stumbling film figureheads generate a kind of loose-minded and in some cases underlying poignancy that resonates so soundly for global moviegoers to observe with embraced enthusiasm.
So let us take a look at a selection of klutzy candidates (both in seriousness and silliness) that inspire us to chuckle and root for in the column Whoops…Did I Do That?: Top 10 Film Bumblers and Stumblers (NOTE: the listing of the choices below are not in any particular order of preference):
1.) Forrest Gump from Forrest Gump (1994)
It is so hard to believe that we were introduced to Forrest Gump in movie theaters exactly twenty years ago from the framework of 2014. For the younger movie fans that were not even born yet when Tom Hanks assumed the good-natured and naive skin of Winston Groom’s 1986 novel protagonist but they still know and have seen the lovable underdog stumble into some of the most important historical events in America with clueless abandonment.
Good ole’ Forrest was an instant pop cultural boob that had a good heart from the start despite the early childhood physical limitations and schoolyard taunting that the Alabama-born youth endured incessantly. What person is not aware of the famed catchphrases that Forrest Gump spawned off to the movie universe? Such dialogue ditties as “Life is a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re going to get” or “Run, Forrest, run!” or “Stupid is as stupid does” are all stuck in our movie-quoting consciousness.
We follow Forrest and he bumbles and stumbles his way into serving heroic time in Vietnam, being an inspiration for a young Elvis Presley’s hip-swirling move, becoming an accidental millionaire in the fishing boat industry, showing prowess as a top-notch collegiate football star and meeting JFK in the process, partaking in a Black Panthers meeting, clumsily addressing the massive crowd during the famous march on Washington D.C. or creating bumper sticker slogans and other incidental gimmicks that benefited others indirectly–all were surreal happenings for the unaware Forrest Gump. All this poor soul ever wanted was to conquer one thing properly and intentionally and that was his prolonged love for his troubled and directionless Jenny.
Hanks won his second best actor Oscar for Forrest Gump and fittingly so for the humanity, humor and humps of decency he injected into this beloved bumbler of the big screen.
2.) Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men (1939)
John Steinbeck’s creation of misinformed gentle giant Lennie Small (Jon Chaney Jr.) from Of Mice and Men was the absolute representation of a man-child wrapped in the texture of innocence and insolence. The hulking Lennie was a mentally-challenged ox of a man but harbored a softness for objects that were delicate and dear to him. George (Burgess Meredith) was Lenny’s physically smaller but saner buddy, protector and adviser. Both men had a dream to own their ranch one day but for now all they could do is roam the dust-bowl ruins looking to labor tediously on the soil of others more prominently fortunate. The depression is in full force and two migrant field workers have no choice but to take what is offered them.
Lenny means well in what he does when appreciating the tender things in life such as a woman’s silky dress or a female’s flowing hair (both which lands him in hot water as these preferences result in a rape charge and murder against Lenny) or the caressing of small cuddly animals (for which the powerful Lenny inadvertently snuffs the life out of them due to his uncontrollable strength). When Lenny and George arrive at a crude cowboy’s ranch to work the stakes become too high as an unknowing Lenny gets caught up in the ill-advised drama where the level-headed George cannot save his beloved brute from the eventual imprisonment or lynching based on his misguided actions.
In many ways Lenny Small was a well-meaning and sensitive soul physically big in stature but bigger in inner turmoil–a stumbling prisoner of his own disabling demons.
3.) Billy Bibbit from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Mental patient Billy Bibbit (Brad Duriff) was a young stuttering, timid and awkward mama’s boy who missed out on the finer things in life due to his institutionalized circumstances. Thankfully, hotshot renegade Randall “R. P.” MacMurphy’s (Jack Nicholson) arrival at the mental facility served as a needed release from the constant scrutiny and inherent fear of head Nurse Ratched’s (Louise Fletcher) unbearable hostile presence.
MacMurphy’s disregard for rules and regulations (and immense disdain for Nurse Ratched) resulted in him trying to librate Billy and the other mental patients to come out of their shell and experience life through MacMurphy’s non-conformist whims. No doubt that Billy looked up to the rabble-rousing MacMurphy and worshiped him unconditionally because he was able to open up and feel free and flexible.
The bumbling Billy, through MacMurphy’s arrangements with one of his promiscuous galpals, was finally allowed some private time to sexually please a woman and feel like a normal man during the facility’s after hours. And so Billy “tapped” the woman much to the approval of MacMurphy and the other patients that were happy to see their boy experience something so natural and winningly tawdry. Unfortunately, Billy’s carnal dalliance with MacMurphy’s loose lady friend would get back to the iron maiden Nurse Ratched. Upon Nurse Ratched’s stern and threatening promise to shame and humiliate Billy for his misplaced actions by hinting to tell his mother about his bed-hopping behavior the poor guy would soon commit suicide by slicing his throat. Outraged and shocked. MacMurphy lunges at Ratched’s throat in order to kill her in retaliation for making a guilt-ridden Billy take his life due to Ratched’s monstrous intimidation tactics.
Douriff’s tragic yet treasured portraying of the tortured Billy Bibbit earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Billy bumbled and stumbled his way into incarcerated uncertainty until his off-kilter mentor MacMurphy gave him permission to step out of bounds and enjoy his craziness in appreciating the little things that seemed so elusive. Billy won his battle briefly even if Nurse Ratched declared an ugly war in twisted victory.
4.) Solomon from The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)
Solomon (Ernie Hudson) in certain ways seems like a throwback to mentally-challenged bumblers such as Steinbeck’s Lenny Small in that he is a big and slow-witted laborer with a soft-heart despite his mental restrictions. However, Solomon has more independent spirit and awareness. Unfortunately, stumbling onto the sinister presence of psychotic Peyton Mott’s (Rebecca DeMornay) insidious plans to destroy his employers The Bartels makes the vulnerable Solomon an endangered target. And thus Peyton begins her frame-up tactics against Solomon whom she ignorantly labels ” a retard”.
When Peyton succeeds in falsely hinting to Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra) about Solomon’s inappropriateness towards her young daughter Emma (Madeline Zima) by planting a pair of the kid’s underwear in the worker’s tool cart, he is quickly fired from the job and ordered back to the agency that sponsored him. But the determined Solomon is not out for the count and promises to himself that the impulsive vixen Peyton will be stopped. Of course in the film’s conclusion Solomon comes to the rescue of the family that believed the worst in him courtesy of Peyton’s lies and manipulation. In the end, Solomon is the heroic bumbler that figures into Peyton’s demise and renewed respect with the Bartells. Hey Peyton…you just got outwitted by “the retard”.
5.) Will Stockton from No Time for Sergeants (1958)
Just two mere years before Andy Griffith made his mark in pop culture as television’s sensible sheriff Andrew Jackson Taylor of Mayberry, North Carolina on the classic The Andy Griffith Show in 1960 he had portrayed bumbling bumpkin Will Stockton from Callville, Georgia in the hilarious 1958 feature No Time for Sergeants. In fact, Griffith’s fun-loving military menace Will Stockton is the precursor to Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., the spin-off starring Jim Nabors that originated from Griffith’s show. In any event, most folks did not realize how charismatic and comically (as well as dramatically) gifted that Griffith was in the movies before his iconic Andy Taylor and later Ben Matlock (and other short-lived TV series in between) would seep into the memories of television viewers for generations. Of course ardent Andy Griffith enthusiasts would cite his classic stand-up comedy bits and country/gospel music background to boot.
As a draftee in the United States Air Force, Will would spontaneously turn his service time upside down by driving the his peers and superiors absolutely nutty. The running gag, of course, is that Will in fact may be smarter and sharper than anyone gives him credit for as he parades around and arms himself with a country clown facade that make him shrewdly observational while exposing the hypocrisy of others running the big show.
6.) Professor Julius Kelp from The Nutty Professor (1963)
Professor Julius Kelp (Jerry Lewis) was a bumbling and stumbling collegiate science teacher who was shy and relentlessly nerdy in how he approached people, his classroom instruction…and yes…women in general. Needing to break out of his drab routine as a beaker-pouring bookworm Kelp concocts a potion that would transform the geeky educator into someone more acceptable to society…especially the ladies.
Hence, Kelp has found his alter ego in handsome hipster Buddy Love. However, Love was insufferable, over-confident, boorish, vain and demanding. Nevertheless, Buddy Love snapped his fingers and got what he wanted with immediate attention from the skirts and every guy that wish they had his coolness and ability to entertain at the piano. Julius Kelp had the sweetness and intellect but Buddy Love had the swagger and bluntness. Soon, Kelp/Love would find out the hard way that balancing two separate personalities does not make a whole man feel complete.
Lewis’s gimmicky take on the Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde premise may seem kind of simplistic and trivial but is was actually a decent and warm-hearted commentary on appreciating one’s individuality for who they are in spirit. Behind Jerry Lewis’s predictable zaniness and the bouncy goofiness of The Nutty Professor’s antics lies the inherent message about loving yourself unconditionally.
7.) The Three Stooges from The Three Stooges in Orbit (1962)
How can one not include legendary lunatics Moe, Larry and Curly Joe (okay…special mention needs to be given to Shemp, the original Curly, Joe and even Ted Healy for that matter) when discussing bumbling and stumbling movie personalities? In fact, The Three Stooges practically invented the genre single-handily–or at least was one of the early pioneers behind the nonsensical anarchy of on-screen madness.
Of course in highlighting the now older Stooges in The Three Stooges in Orbit (which was their fourth feature collaboration) we could have easily looked at any one of their other three big screen adventures (or their classic film shorts from the heyday of their act) and outlined how infectiously cheesy yet entertaining they were but hey…Orbit pretty much captures the typical banal brilliance that we come to know, appreciate and love about the thick-headed threesome and their trademark slapstick comedy–with the emphasis on “slap”.
8.) Police Detective Frank Drebin from The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)
Ah, the the trials and tribulations of one arresting bumbling idiot in Detective Frank Drebin, the incompetent cop of the insanely popular Naked Gun movie series. Of course prior to Leslie Nielsen’s big screen stint as the loopy law enforcer he played Drebin on the small screen in the short-lived Police Squad! television program.
Creators Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrams were the mocking masterminds behind the Naked Gun phenomenon with Nielsen assuming the frolicking foolish face of one of cinema’s hopelessly likable stumbling crime-stoppers. The Naked Gun franchise thankfully revived Nielsen’s career as the actor went on to do other repetitive spoofs that never quite caught on as his badge-carrying buffoon Drebin.
In The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! we find the clumsy-minded Drebin trying to prevent Queen Elizabeth II’s assassination at an American League baseball game. The incessant barrage of devilish jokes, sight gags, pratfalls and droll deliveries of dialogue make for the inviting nonsense to work its manic magic. And Nielsen’s Frank Drebin is just the poster boy of preposterous proportions to bring this fun-loving farce to its knees.
9.) Luther Heggs from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)
“That a’ boy, Luther!” is the recurring catchphrase that is routinely shouted out whenever jittery string bean-shaped Luther Heggs (Don Knotts) is in the vicinity from the light-hearted romp The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Knotts, who has crafted the art of bumbling nervous Nellies in television living rooms starting with his early association on The Steve Allen Show to his well-known five-time Emmy-winning TV role as Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show (not to mention variety shows or as playboy wannabe landlord Ralph Furley on Three’s Company or as sidekick Les on Matlock), got to perfect his shaky persona as Luther Heggs, a fresh-faced newspaper reporter trying to secure a permanent job at the Rachel Courier Express. The stipulation is that he must spend an overnight at a gloomy mansion to investigate its mysterious connection to a murder. Can Luther overcome his chicken-minded tendencies and get to the bottom of the mansion’s mystery if he is to ever be taken seriously by the townsfolk that think he’s a joke? One can see it is going to be a safe beg that bumbling Heggs saves the day and declares redemption. Oh yeah…”that a’ boy, Luther!”
10). Inspector Jacques Clouseau from A Shot in the Dark (1964)
Now what would the Pink Panther film franchise be without Peter Sellers’s charmingly inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau? That would be like trying to appreciate a yummy lemon pie without its delicious flaky crust. The always witty and bumbling blockhead Clouseau is deliciously maddening…especially when he gets under the skin of his increasingly flustered superior Charles Dreyfuss (Herbert Lom).
In A Shot in the Dark, Clouseau investigates the murdered employee of a wealthy patron and the suspicions fall on the maid Maria Gambrelli (Elke Sommers) whose presence seems to lead to high body counts. Clouseau, attracted and intrigued by the mysterious beauty, gambles away on having her roam about in an effort to catch her in the act. The problem is that the more Maria is allowed to be free to come and go as she pleases the more murders are being committed at a racing hare’s pace. Clouseau is blinded by the reality that his affectionate Maria is the likely slaughtering siren on the loose thus driving everyone absolutely batty. Filmmaker Blake Edwards’s trench coat-wearing twit is certainly one hysterical stumbler for the ages.