Posted by Susan Doll on April 2, 2012
Last month, Carl Reiner turned 90 years old. A show business veteran, to say the least, Reiner began on stage in the late 1940s, became an Emmy-nominated member of Sid Caesar’s TV sketch series Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, produced and wrote The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s, then turned to directing comedy films in the 1980s. The breadth of his career, in which he collaborated with everyone from Sid Caesar to Mel Brooks to Dick Van Dyke to Steve Martin, is truly remarkable. While I admire the whole of Reiner’s career, right up to his appearances in Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans series, I became a fan because of two films: The Thrill of It All (1963) and Enter Laughing (1967). Both offer examples of Reiner’s specialty—spoofing the conventions and archetypes of various modes of popular entertainment.
Starring Doris Day and James Garner, The Thrill of It All is one of Day’s romantic comedies from the 1960s, and it will be part of TCM’s salute to Doris Day as Star of the Month. Beginning on April 2 and ending April 6, TCM will be showing 28 of Day’s films, with The Thrill of It All scheduled for Thursday evening. Reiner wrote the screenplay for The Thrill of It All, based on a story he conceived with legendary TV writer Larry Gelbart—an example of Reiner’s talent for picking the right collaborators. In this domestically based comedy, Doris Day plays stay-at-home mom Beverly Boyer, who is wife to successful obstetrician Dr. Gerald Boyer. Because of her “regular housewife” honesty, Beverly is hired as the spokesperson for Happy Soap, a detergent and hand soap company that sponsors a popular television drama. In addition to being the face of Happy Soap for print ads, Beverly goes to the studio a couple times a week to appear during the commercial break of the live drama to tout the virtues of Happy products. The television industry is shown through the point of view of Beverly, who is depicted as a rational person in the real world, just like us. Like Beverly, we see the producers, ad executives, writers, etc. from an outsider’s perspective. The artifice, pretense, and manipulative nature of the entertainment and advertising industries seem alien and slightly ridiculous to us. Adopting this strategy allows Reiner to affectionately poke fun at the familiar conventions of television storytelling—just enough to spoof but not skewer them.
Scenes from three episodes of the television drama sponsored by Happy Soap are scattered throughout The Thrill of It All. Reiner appears as the main character in all three episodes, and the joke is that the scene is essentially the same from week to week but the genre is changed. Whether a western, a costume drama, or a WWII story, each episode features Carl Reiner as the villain who tries to manhandle his leading lady in order to coax something from her. The dialogue is virtually the same, and the scene concludes with the offended leading lady throwing a drink in Reiner’s face. When Beverly innocently notes that the episode seems similar to the previous week’s show, the producer acknowledges the formulaic nature of television but assures her that it is “much too subtle for the public to detect.”The scene cuts to Beverly’s young children watching the episode at home, remarking to their father that the same thing happens every week, and predicting that the woman is about to throw a drink in the man’s face.
Contemporary bloggers and reviewers tend to ignore this part of the storyline and focus on the relationship between Beverly and Gerald, who embody traditional gender roles. As the archetypal stay-at-home wife and mother, Beverly often bears the brunt of ridicule or criticism from these hindsight reviewers: She is just too content in her idealized middle-class home and too devoted to her idealized middle-class family. Today’s young bloggers and reviewers tend to assume that because a film is old, then it must embody old-fashioned ideas and values of the past—as though all past eras are uniform in their attitudes and understanding of cultural ideology. However, I liked to think that the spoof of the world of television and advertising serves as a clue to a certain self-awareness on the parts of Reiner and Gelbart. Perhaps they were subtly poking fun at the conventional male and female archetypes of romantic comedy. I doubt if they intended to criticize patriarchal ideology, but The Thrill of It All seems to acknowledge that romantic comedies—like television programming—is the stuff of formula and fantasy.
The Thrill of It All was released while Reiner was producing and writing The Dick Van Dyke Show. Van Dyke’s character, Rob Petrie, is a writer for a television variety series starring Alan Brady, who is played by Reiner as a gentle spoof of the egocentric comic icons who hosted the hit tv series of the 1950s—Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Jackie Gleason. There were two primary settings for The Dick Van Dyke Show—the office, where Rob collaborated with Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie on the scripts for each week’s show, and home, the setting for domestic comedy between Rob and wife Laura, played by a perky Mary Tyler Moore. The Thrill of It All seems a big-screen extension of Reiner’s work on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Enter Laughing is an adaptation of a play version of Reiner’s 1958 novel of the same title, which is loosely based on his years as a teenager who had dreams of becoming an actor. Reiner was 16 when his brother, Charles, suggested he take a dramatic workshop that was part of the WPA. He quickly discovered he had a proclivity and a love for performing, and two years later, he joined the Avon Shakespearean Touring Company. While traveling around America with the troupe, he appeared in Hamlet, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and the Comedy of Errors, among others. In Enter Laughing, Reiner’s experiences are funneled through the adventures of David Kolowitz, played by Reni Santoni in his first starring role.
David works in a machine shop but dreams of becoming a suave, sophisticated actor like his idol Ronald Colman. He auditions for a cut-rate, broken-down acting troupe planning to mount a drawing-room melodrama off-Broadway—way off-Broadway. The troupe is headed by the pretentious Harrison B. Marlowe and his daughter Angela, who matches her father’s theatricality with her own eccentric affectations. David lands a part because Angela takes a shine to him, and because he pays the Marlowes a fee for becoming part of the troupe. Reiner’s experience and understanding of show business archetypes from his years as a sketch writer on Sid Caesar’s show came in handy in his depiction of the Marlowes who are painted with broad strokes. Jose Ferrer is hysterical as the gin-guzzling Marlowe whose days in the limelight are long past. He added just the right baroque flourish to his powerful voice to come across as the epitome of the “theatrical ac-tor.” Elaine May plays Angela, who approaches life as though it were a part in a play. When David visits Angela in her dressing room, she flirts, acts coy, and tries to charm the naïve teen. When he leaves, she recites the “parting is such sweet sorrow” speech from Romeo and Juliet. Caught up in the moment, David wants to respond in kind, but he can only think of the rousing lines from Kipling’s Gunga Din that conclude with “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”
The film’s funniest scenes revolve around David’s misadventures with the Marlowes’ acting company. When asked for his name, David decides to go with a stage name and blurts out, “Ronald Colman.” Mr. Marlowe questions him about having the same name as a famous Hollywood movie star, so David claims it is Donald Colman. Which is it? It’s Ronald Donald Colman, according to David. And, much to his chagrin, his new stage name is soon shortened to Ron Don Colman. Opening night finally arrives, and David’s family, best buddy, and girlfriend are sitting in the audience anxiously awaiting his entrance onstage. And, that entrance is indeed memorable because he flies through what is supposed to be the wall of the set instead of the door. The sequence is a tour de force of character comedy, verbal humor, and physical comedy all done with exquisite timing.
The title of the film derives from David’s first reading for Mr. Marlowe. He enthusiastically begins his reading with “Enter laughing. . . .,” speaking this stage direction as though it were his opening line. Beyond its meaning as simple stage direction or as the movie’s title, “enter laughing” is also appropriate for audiences who encounter Reiner’s work in television or film.
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