Edwardian Comedy

John Ritter’s spastic freak-out in a parking garage in Skin Deep is an archetypal Blake Edwards image. What characters repress or ignore will always be expressed through their bodies, with or without their consent.  The Warner Archive recently re-issued three Edwards comedies on DVD: S.O.B. (1981), Victor/Victoria (1982) and Skin Deep (1989). While new transfers of these visually elegant works would have been welcome, they gave me an excuse to watch them for the first time, so I’ll keep my complaining to a minimum. All three films involve varying levels of performance, and bodies that either accept or reject the facades imposed upon them. The most furious rejection occurs in S.O.B., a flesh-eating virus coated letter to Hollywood.

The origin of S.O.B. lies in the failure of Edwards’ 1970 Darling Lili, a WWI spy movie musical that went over budget and then under performed. A common occurrence, but one that Edwards was virulently attacked for due to some extenuating circumstances. In his critical study A Splurch in the Kisser, Sam Wasson writes that the Commonwealth United Corporation lent Paramount parent Gulf + Western “a certain humongous sum” to complete production that G +W were unable to pay back, so the studio was especially incensed. Wasson writes that head of production at Paramount Bob Evans said that Edwards was responsible “for the most flagrant misappropriation of funds I’ve seen in my career.” Licking his wounds, but still ambitious, Edwards followed it up with the epic Western Wild Rovers (1971), another big budget disappointment that was cut down by nearly 40 minutes by new MGM head James Aubrey, whom John Houseman had nicknamed “The Smiling Cobra”. After battling with Aubrey again over the medical thriller The Carey Treatment (1972), from which he tried to get his name removed, Edwards was a frustrated man. He moved to Switzerland, only to return to filmmaking two years later for The Tamarind Seed (1974), three Pink Panther sequels, and the enormous hit Ten (1979).

With Inspector Clouseau and Bo Derek’s slow-motion trot restoring him to studios’ good graces, he was finally able to get his savage satire, Hollywood S.O.B. funded. Something of a “secret legend” in town, according to Wasson, it was picked up and then ditched by Orion, before upstart Lorimar, transitioning from TV to film, agreed to back the title-shortened S.O.B., Victor/Victoria, and a sci-fi comedy Far Out that was never made. In an appropriate irony, Lorimar had recently made a deal with Paramount to distribute their films, the studio that S.O.B.is targeted at.

The film is set in motion by the attempted suicide of director Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan), whose family friendly musical Night Wind tanks horribly. Left in a catatonic funk, his image conscious wife Sally (Julie Andrews, playing off her Mary Poppins persona) abandons him as he wanders his beachfront home clutching the trades, blaring headlines like, “NY CRITICS BREAK WIND”. Rings of PR maneuverings circle around him, from his assistants, to Sally’s team (led by a brassy Shelly Winters) outward to the studio’s, who sends out cynical fixer Tim Cully (William Holden) to corral Farmer and get him to re-edit the film. It’s three circles of self-obsessed hells, with Felix the ignored center. All three are oblivious to Farmer’s depression, and he wanders off to the garage to give himself a carbon monoxide cocktail. But his body betrays him, and he survives. Edwards frames him in backgrounds and corners early on, a wraith irrelevant to his life as an image. The entire film industry is out to defend or destroy his image, while the flesh and blood Farmer is out to polish himself off.

This is mirrored in another unobserved death, as an anonymous runner collapses on the beach outside his home – his body laying in plain sight of sun-bathers for days before he is identified as a corpse. The most sympathetic character in the movie is the dog who yelps for his fallen master (who turns out to be a character actor). Image trumps reality, and Farmer cracks under its pressure. Edwards arranges an ace menagerie of gargoyles to feast off of him, including Robert Vaughan as the cross-dressing vampire of a studio head, Robert Preston as an acidic drugged-up doctor, and Holden as the infernal ring leader, a grizzled vet so jaded he’s cynical about his cynicism.

When Farmer cracks through this PR babble, he changes roles from tortured artist to crackpot prophet, one he acts out with brio, preaching to the lowest common denominator: “We sold them schmaltz – they want sadomasochism!” He proposes re-shooting Night Wind and turning it into soft-core pornography, which Sally agrees to only after weighing the PR hit of a long lawsuit. No matter how much Farmer panders to the audience’s basest impulses, in the end the system returns him to the background, incinerated in a Viking funeral as that sympathetic dog yelps once more.

Victor/Victoria represents the inverse of S.O.B., Edwards’ ideal of performance, one in which identities can be perfected on stage, and the image and the man (or woman in drag), can become one. It is a remake of the Weimar musical comedy Viktor und Viktoria, directed by Reinhold Schünzel, about a down on her luck opera singer who becomes a star as a male drag queen, pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. In Edwards’ version, it is one Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) on poverty row, plucked from obscurity from recently fired nightclub singer Toddy (Robert Preston). Chicago gangster King Marchand (James Garner) is hot to book her at his club and into his bed – convinced she’s a woman.

The movie buzzes on a colliding series of contradictions, of which the gender bending is the most obvious. Victoria is an opera singer who makes money at burlesque; King is homophobic and in love with Victor; Toddy is gay but has to pretend to sleep with Victoria. Constructing the Paris of 1934 entirely on a backlot, Edwards has a controlled environment to run these experiments in the expansive 2.40:1 frame, chaotic in café and bar fights, a mess of arms and legs, and only unified on stage, in which Victor/Victoria and Toddy each get their moments of self-actualization. Victoria, after her scandalous debut in which she ripped off a wig to become a “man”, returns to womanhood and cedes the stage to Toddy, who becomes an unselfconscious queen in the raucously funny finale, more woman than Victoria could ever hope to be.

Skin Deep finds Edwards in more heterosexual terrain, as womanizing Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Zach (John Ritter) loses his wife, his career and his sanity. He is introduced as a torso leaning back on a barber’s chair, his head off-screen behind the entryway, as a blonde hairdresser undresses and mounts him in a very unprofessional manner. This is all seen in long shot, from the perspective of the first of many spurned lovers, who will soon have him in bed with a gun to his head. In these brisk opening minutes Edwards establishes images that show Zach as literally brainless, a human pleasure receptor and not much else.

Edwards will use off-screen space, as well as elliptical editing, to indicate Zach’s short attention span and disconnection from the world. In a rapid montage Zach will hear his wife’s divorce demands, and a few shots later, they will be enforced by the judge, his defense invisible, and his force of will indicated by Ritter’s slackjawed stare. Zach becomes more and more self-obsessed and debilitatingly horny, unable to write or maintain any emotional connections (except with an exceedingly understanding bartender, Barney (Vincent Gardenia)). The jokes play off of Zach’s spiraling disconnection, from waking up bleary eyed in a women’s aerobics class to wandering into a black tie party in an Aladdin costume. He even can’t get shocked into self-awareness: the top image shows him recovering from a session with her electric massaging machine. The most notorious joke is one in which Zach entirely disappears except for his erection – a glow in the dark condom provides for a new definition of sword fight. These tame gross-out moments seem to anticipate the Farrelly Brothers  – there’s even an unconscious dog gag that re-appears in There’s Something About Mary.

The ending of the film is disappointingly traditional, coming in the form of a deux ex machina tidal wave that sets Zach on the straight and monogamous path. The natural end for the repeated imagery of a mind-body split would be a beheading of one form or another, but I think it’s safe to say that wouldn’t get past the producers. In any case it is still a tightly shot and structured comedy whose laughs spin organically from Edwards’ mise-en-scene, of a man divided against himself. Maybe if he just watched Victor and Victoria he wouldn’t have had to go through all that trouble.

0 Response Edwardian Comedy
Posted By dukeroberts : May 29, 2012 10:15 am

No mention of S.O.B.’s most famous scene? I’m sure that was shocking to fans of The Sound of Music and mary Poppins at the time.

The two things I remember about Skin Deep are the glow in the dark condom and John Ritter having sex with a woman who was much more macho than he ever was.

Posted By dukeroberts : May 29, 2012 10:15 am

No mention of S.O.B.’s most famous scene? I’m sure that was shocking to fans of The Sound of Music and mary Poppins at the time.

The two things I remember about Skin Deep are the glow in the dark condom and John Ritter having sex with a woman who was much more macho than he ever was.

Posted By Margaret Perry Movies : May 29, 2012 10:34 am

There’s is that excellently uncharacteristic JA scene in SOB – made all the funnier with her husband as director! I love the gender confusion you talk about with Victor/Victoria. That film really deconstructs the mode in which we identify and define gender rules. And it’s so funny and has some great musical numbers! Thank you for your post.
http://margaretperrymovies.blogspot.com/
http://thegreatkh.blogspot.com/

Posted By Margaret Perry Movies : May 29, 2012 10:34 am

There’s is that excellently uncharacteristic JA scene in SOB – made all the funnier with her husband as director! I love the gender confusion you talk about with Victor/Victoria. That film really deconstructs the mode in which we identify and define gender rules. And it’s so funny and has some great musical numbers! Thank you for your post.
http://margaretperrymovies.blogspot.com/
http://thegreatkh.blogspot.com/

Posted By Juana Maria : May 29, 2012 12:04 pm

Why did Edwards want his name removed from “The Carey Treatment”? I thought was relevant to issues going on in that decade and now. That and I’ll watch anything with James Coburn. I’m used to really funny movies from Blake Edwards,especially “the Pink Panther” movies. They have made me happy for a long time! I don’t know if I would want to see some of the movies discussed. I haven’t made my mind up yet. Thanks for the article.

Posted By Juana Maria : May 29, 2012 12:04 pm

Why did Edwards want his name removed from “The Carey Treatment”? I thought was relevant to issues going on in that decade and now. That and I’ll watch anything with James Coburn. I’m used to really funny movies from Blake Edwards,especially “the Pink Panther” movies. They have made me happy for a long time! I don’t know if I would want to see some of the movies discussed. I haven’t made my mind up yet. Thanks for the article.

Posted By Juana Maria : May 29, 2012 12:06 pm

When I first saw the photo at the top of the article I thought it was a young Chuck Norris. Then the caption said it was John Ritter. I’m just not used to seeing Ritter with a beard.

Posted By Juana Maria : May 29, 2012 12:06 pm

When I first saw the photo at the top of the article I thought it was a young Chuck Norris. Then the caption said it was John Ritter. I’m just not used to seeing Ritter with a beard.

Posted By swac44 : May 29, 2012 12:10 pm

Once again I’m saddened by the fact that three great movie comedies (okay, two great ones and one good one, sorry Skin Deep) are relegated to the Warner Archives MOD line. Victor/Victoria deserves a blu-ray edition at the very least.

I really enjoyed Wild Rovers and The Carey Treatment, perhaps a bit unusual for Edwards, but as Experiment in Terror proves, he was an adept filmmaker in just about any genre. Still haven’t seen Darling Lili though, I really should get that on my want list (any chance of it showing up on TCM any time soon?).

Posted By swac44 : May 29, 2012 12:10 pm

Once again I’m saddened by the fact that three great movie comedies (okay, two great ones and one good one, sorry Skin Deep) are relegated to the Warner Archives MOD line. Victor/Victoria deserves a blu-ray edition at the very least.

I really enjoyed Wild Rovers and The Carey Treatment, perhaps a bit unusual for Edwards, but as Experiment in Terror proves, he was an adept filmmaker in just about any genre. Still haven’t seen Darling Lili though, I really should get that on my want list (any chance of it showing up on TCM any time soon?).

Posted By AL : May 29, 2012 6:28 pm

It’s always been a mystery that effeminate John Ritter was, unaccountably, the most consistantly mis-cast actor in history.

Posted By AL : May 29, 2012 6:28 pm

It’s always been a mystery that effeminate John Ritter was, unaccountably, the most consistantly mis-cast actor in history.

Posted By AL : May 29, 2012 6:30 pm

Has anyone out there ever seen Blake Edwards in STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP ?

Posted By AL : May 29, 2012 6:30 pm

Has anyone out there ever seen Blake Edwards in STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP ?

Posted By AL : May 29, 2012 6:35 pm

Why were TAMARIND SEED and DARLING LILI so drastically shortened AFTER their initial releases ? Have they been, or are they going to be, restored to their original ruinning times ?

Posted By AL : May 29, 2012 6:35 pm

Why were TAMARIND SEED and DARLING LILI so drastically shortened AFTER their initial releases ? Have they been, or are they going to be, restored to their original ruinning times ?

Posted By Anonymous : May 30, 2012 7:39 pm

Blake Edwards is a strange director, to say the least. DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES is brilliantly directed, and EXPERIMENT IN TERROR is pretty good, too. So who directed his other films? I’m not overly fond of the comedies I’ve seen. THE PINK PANTHER and VICTOR/VICTORIA have their moments (V/V is awfully slow for my taste), but don’t make me want to check out a lot of his other films. However, S.O.B. and SKIN DEEP are now on the list to see. I recall THE TAMARIND SEED as being all right.

Posted By Anonymous : May 30, 2012 7:39 pm

Blake Edwards is a strange director, to say the least. DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES is brilliantly directed, and EXPERIMENT IN TERROR is pretty good, too. So who directed his other films? I’m not overly fond of the comedies I’ve seen. THE PINK PANTHER and VICTOR/VICTORIA have their moments (V/V is awfully slow for my taste), but don’t make me want to check out a lot of his other films. However, S.O.B. and SKIN DEEP are now on the list to see. I recall THE TAMARIND SEED as being all right.

Posted By swac44 : May 31, 2012 10:00 am

I remember The Tamarind Seed as being kind of awful, but then again I was watching it on a local TV movie matinee program that probably cut at least 20 minutes out of it for commercials, showed it in a murky and faded pan & scan transfer, and removed any adults-only material. No movie could be good under those circumstances, thank heavens for TCM.

Still, I can’t say I have a strong urge to watch it again to see what I’ve missed.

Posted By swac44 : May 31, 2012 10:00 am

I remember The Tamarind Seed as being kind of awful, but then again I was watching it on a local TV movie matinee program that probably cut at least 20 minutes out of it for commercials, showed it in a murky and faded pan & scan transfer, and removed any adults-only material. No movie could be good under those circumstances, thank heavens for TCM.

Still, I can’t say I have a strong urge to watch it again to see what I’ve missed.

Posted By Brent : May 31, 2012 1:18 pm

About time for S.O.B.! Absolutely loved the way it messed with your expectations from the very first shot – man falling dead on the ground AND NO-ONE NOTICING! Nice Robert Preston as a druggie, Mary Poppins doing porn – nothing was sacred and the university audience I saw it with howled with laughter. And yet I couldn’t get it on DVD. Hmmm… to close to Hellywood’s heart?

Posted By Brent : May 31, 2012 1:18 pm

About time for S.O.B.! Absolutely loved the way it messed with your expectations from the very first shot – man falling dead on the ground AND NO-ONE NOTICING! Nice Robert Preston as a druggie, Mary Poppins doing porn – nothing was sacred and the university audience I saw it with howled with laughter. And yet I couldn’t get it on DVD. Hmmm… to close to Hellywood’s heart?

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