Posted by Susan Doll on May 19, 2014
Tonight and tomorrow evening, TCM presents six movies produced through Brooksfilms, the production company headed by Mel Brooks. In addition to Brooks’s comedies, the company has been responsible for a variety of movies not associated with the comic mind that spawned Blazing Saddles, including my favorite David Lynch film, The Elephant Man, and a gothic horror flick called The Doctor and the Devils.
Tomorrow night, TCM airs the Brooksfilms production My Favorite Year, which happens to be my favorite Peter O’Toole movie, though fans of his more lauded signature roles might disagree. Set during the Golden Age of Television, when prime-time programming was produced live in New York, the story unfolds from the perspective of Benjy Stone, a junior writer on the comedy series The King Kaiser Show. O’Toole plays Hollywood movie star Alan Swann, who is guest-starring on the show because he needs the money. Benjy is assigned to watch Swann throughout the week of preparation and rehearsal, because the star lives as large as his image, chasing women and drinking at every opportunity. As a result of their week together, Benjy, who is both disillusioned and awestruck by Swann, grows from a wise-cracking kid into a mature young man.
The obvious appeal of My Favorite Year, which was the directorial debut of actor Richard Benjamin, is its basis in recognizable events and stars. The King Kaiser Show recalls the highly respected Your Show of Shows (1950-1954) starring Sid Caesar, and its later incarnation, Caesar’s Hour (1954-1957). Joseph Bologna plays the Caesar character, a gifted but egotistical comic who enjoys his reputation and stardom. Like Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, the fictional King Kaiser Show features Hollywood legends as guest stars, including the swashbuckling heartthrob Alan Swann, who is obviously patterned after Errol Flynn and/or John Barrymore.
Legend has it that Errol Flynn actually guest-starred on Your Show of Shows, and online reviews and articles on My Favorite Year are quick to make the connection between Flynn’s experiences on the program and the film’s storyline. However, on a website that listed all of the Your Show of Shows episodes, I did not see any that featured Flynn, though I did find his swashbuckler rival Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., on the list. If Flynn did appear on one of Caesar’s show, it was likely Caesar’s Hour. Flynn made several guest-star appearances on television, even presenting and performing in an anthology series called The Errol Flynn Theatre. If he did appear with Caesar on one of his series, I wonder why there are not more details about it. (There is a reference called Errol Flynn: A Bio-Bibliography that lists every film, television show, and radio program the star appeared in, but I did not have access to it.)
According to the online articles about My Favorite Year, if Alan Swann is Errol Flynn, then Benjy Stone is Mel Brooks, who began as a writer on Your Show of Shows and stayed with Caesar through Caesar’s Hour. The stories about Brooks and Flynn’s real-life experiences during this week vary, depending on the source. Some write that Flynn’s episode was uneventful, and the writing staff did not even meet the legendary star, making the events in the film fiction. Some suggest that the character Benjy Stone is likely a composite of Brooks and Woody Allen. Others swear that Brooks was assigned to watch over Flynn for a weekend, and events unfolded much as they did for Benjy and Swann in the movie. Fact and fiction are difficult to separate, though whoever brought Allen into story did not do their homework. Allen did not write for Your Show of Shows or Caesar’s Hour; he wrote for Sid Caesar’s television specials on NBC from the late 1950s.
Those who claim that the antics in My Favorite Year are slight exaggerations of Brooks’s real-life experiences generally paraphrase or quote from a 1997 interview in the webzine Film Score Monthly, which has been reposted many times. Interviewer Jeffrey K. Howard asked Brooks how close the movie was to real events. This is supposedly Brooks’s response: “Pretty damn close. My company made it, Brooksfilm, and I made sure that we were telling the truth. I was locked in the Waldorf Towers with Errol Flynn and two red-headed, Cuban sisters. For three days I was trying to get them out of there and he was trying to get me drunk and in there. It was the craziest weekend of my life. I was 20 years old and just starting with The Show of Shows. He was a tough guy to corral and get to rehearsals. Max Liebman assigned me to him and said, ‘Get him into rehearsal! Make him learn his lines! Work with him on the sketch!’ Errol Flynn was a raving maniac. All he wanted was booze and to fool around. He did learn the sketch. Actually, I whispered into his ear when he was asleep. I’d say all the lines and unconsciously, I knew it would get through to his head.”
Several things do not ring true with this interview and particular quote, and I would be hesitant to use it as definitive proof of anything. Obviously, the title of the series is incorrect: It is Your Show of Shows, not The Show of Shows. And, Brooks was 20 years old in 1946—four years before the start of Your Show of Shows in 1950. Finally, the timing doesn’t seem to fit Flynn’s other television appearances, which occurred in the mid to late 1950s. Whatever the true story, it will be interesting to see what Mel Brooks says about My Favorite Year when he appears with Robert Osborne on Tuesday.
Somehow, the exaggerations, discrepancies, and half-truths about the origins of the film’s storyline only add to the appeal of My Favorite Year, which has at its heart a character whose very existence is a construct of fact and fiction. And, Alan Swann does not know where one ends and the other begins. But, in the end, it isn’t relevant. I don’t think I ever truly understood the mystique and meaning of stardom to movie-goers until I heard it articulated so poignantly in My Favorite Year. Near the end, when Swann tries to justify his less-than-heroic actions, he tells Benjy that he is only a man. The young writer stands in for all of us when he declares that he doesn’t need the real man. He needs the big-screen, larger-than-life movie star, who represents a value or a virtue that he, Benjy, aspires to. That is the importance of stars to all of us: They signify the ideals, behaviors, and virtues we admire and measure ourselves against.
Sadly, today’s star system is only a shadow of what it once was, when the likes of Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and countless others graced the silver screen. Though there are still stars, the entertainment press has robbed them of their larger-than-life status by exposing every physical flaw, private problem, and moment of weakness, destroying their value as signifiers. In addition, the industry has devalued the star system by emphasizing two-dimensional fictional characters over the stars who play them, because adolescent audiences care more about fidelity to a 2-D construct on a comic book page than actors who can breath life into characters via unique interpretations. Finally, the movie-going audience in general seems to have turned its back on movie stars, preferring “real” actors in true-to-life stories about the people next door to movie stars with glamorous images. On this final note, I have to say I agree with Joan Crawford, who was once asked about the new realism in Hollywood movies: She noted, “If you want to see the people next door, then just go next door.”
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