Posted by David Kalat on April 13, 2013
Every week my blog postings here are riddled with errors. Most of them are spelling glitches that I would like to blame on Apple, and my habit of writing these on my iPad with the aggressive spell-check feature turned on. But in amidst all my spelling mistakes are more serious errors–like my apparent inability to distinguish Jude Law from Rufus Sewell, or the fact that I thought Joel McCrea’s name was Joel McCrae. Not to mention all my grievous errors of thought (did I actually argue here that Star Trek The Motion Picture was a good movie? Why, yes, yes I did apparently)
So this week I pay tribute to all the errors that great filmmakers I admire left in great movies I love.
For example, let’s start with one of my heroes, Charley Chase. By the time he started directing shorts for the Three Stooges, he had a weight of extraordinary comedy achievements behind him. He was an acknowledged master of the form and knew what he was doing. He also had a reputation for working efficiently, which the Stooges and their production team greatly respected, given the usual slave-driving work habits of detail-obsessed Jules White.
But there’s a fine line between “efficient” and “in a hurry,” and at times Chase’s work with the Three Stooges veers uncomfortably into that later category.
Take for example Flat Foot Stooges, which is in places one of the funniest and freshest things the Stooges ever appeared in. But there’s this one weird moment where Moe and Curly clearly flub their lines and pause, waiting for Chase to call cut, only to realize he’s not going to. So they gamely plod on, trying to save the take, which really no one else should ever have seen:
But the profusion of such odd moments lends this particular short a pleasing roughness–and Moe’s forgetting the dog’s name and Curly failing to offer up a smart-alecky response to being slapped are actually funnier than if they’d gotten the scene right.
Although that error is kind of obvious, sometimes errors are much harder to spot. For example, Shane Carruth’s Primer, which is one of my favorite movies and is highly recommended (he has a new movie out, which I haven’t seen, but my mouth is already watering). Anyway, here’s the thing: Carruth got it into his head that he needed to shoot Primer in a 1:1 shooting ratio, which no one has ever done because it’s a crazy idea. But unlike Charley Chase simply deciding that flubbed takes were good enough and not bothering to reshoot when things went screwy, Carruth’s attitude was that if the cast didn’t nail a scene on take one, he’d just drop the scene from the movie and move on.
As a result, I don’t have any clips of his mistakes to show you, because they weren’t used–but the scenes they were supposed to be in weren’t used either. And in a movie that is already a sci-fi head scratcher, the sudden deletion of key moments of exposition only served to make the thing even more puzzling. There’s a huge game changing revelation late in the film in which our understanding of their time traveling experiments is suddenly rewritten and new mythology introduced, but almost all of this occurs off-screen and is barely mentioned, so the audience is left to guess at what happened and what it meant.
Other times, errors are used in the final cut get so integrated that they are hard to spot. For example, in Buster Keaton’s The Three Ages, he was supposed to leap from one skyscraper to another, but the stunt proved more challenging than predicted and he missed the rooftop. Keaton was injured by the accident and filming was suspended for months. By the time he was recuperated and ready to return, there was no question of tempting fate by trying the same stupid stunt a second time–instead he and his gag men cooked up a new routine around the fall that was so well orchestrated and clever that it probably never occurred to anyone watching that it hadn’t been planned all along.
Which brings me to my last example, which turns this idea on its head. Here’s an error that appears to be a mistake, but which was planned.
It’s from Animal Crackers, a Marx Brothers vehicle adapted from their popular stage show of the same name. In this scene, Louis Sorin appears to mix up his character’s name with Groucho’s, and Groucho pounces on the flub to mercilessly taunt Sorin, and Sorin’s character.
But what’s weird is how this bit occurs at the end of a scene in which Groucho and Roscoe W. Chandler have been obsessively and ritualistically introducing themselves to each other–repeating their names as a sort of vaudeville routine to mark off each round of jokes within the scene. Of all the times to flub your name, to do it here?
I saw a stage revival version of Animal Crackers at Washington’s Arena Stage in 1999 starring Frank Ferrante in the Groucho role. And when that scene came up, Lawrence Redmond (as Roscoe W. Chandler) flubbed his line in the exact same way and Ferrante responded with the same barrage of apparent ad libs.
Then in 2009 I saw another revival performance in Chicago, in which Stanley Wayne Mathis and Joey Slotnick “flubbed” their lines again, and again recovered in the same way.
At both shows, the audience loved this apparent break, and afterward happily quoted the exchange. Even people who had seen the movie before, but not memorized it, still singled out this faux-faux pas as an example of the Groucho-worthy quick wit and irreverence of the performers. Because these are demonstrably not ad libs, I can only conclude that at some distant point in the evolution of the original Animal Crackers play, someone did flub their lines and it did get a response. And from what I’ve read by and about Groucho, I expect he responded by permanently ensconcing the mistake into the show’s book, and then carefully experimenting with his “ad libbed” riposte until he’d engineered the perfect laugh, which subsequent renditions have faithfully recreated.
Because sometimes a mistake is just a mistake, and sometimes it’s genius.
(Next week: a mistake that’s just a mistake!)
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