I had planned to run something else here this week, but in light of this week’s tragic news regarding Robin Williams, I’ve shoved that essay to a later week and opted to re-run an oldie but a goodie, my fifth ever Movie Morlocks post from four years ago about one of my very favorite movies, which happens to star Robin Williams (apparently when I re-posted it, the original comments reposted with it!).
The actual piece itself makes a passing mildly unkind remark about Williams, within the context of praising one of his most notorious flops. I thought about rewriting that section but decided against it because it felt dishonest. And as schmaltzy as Williams ever was, he was never dishonest.
There is a curious distinction to be drawn between “pop culture” and “popular culture.” It’s a divide that’s been opening up in American entertainment ever since the days of Elvis–arguably ever since jazz–but the 21st century’s media fragmentation and Internet communities have only hastened the pace. To put it simply, “pop culture” loves Community; “popular culture” loves NCIS. And there was a time when Robin Williams was an anarchic rebel force from pop culture, and a time when he opted to make career choices driven by popular culture. The hipsters of pop culture never forgave that defection; the vast majority of America never saw it as a defection in the first place.
Below the fold: the story of an oddity that belongs to neither pop culture nor popular culture, despite being a splashy musical comedy from some of America’s most accomplished satirists and starring its then-up-and-coming beloved comedian superstar, adapted from one of the most ubiquitous and enduring characters of 20th century pop/popular art.
Richard Pryor stood on the stage of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC in 1998. It was an unusual audience for the veteran comedian—a bunch of stuffed shirt politicos and hoity toits, there to award Pryor with the Mark Twain Prize for humor, and to congratulate themselves for doing so. He was 58 years old—and although no one knew it at the time, he had less than a decade left to live.
Those 58 years had been filled with incident: he was born in a brothel, forged his comic fearlessness in front of the Vegas Mafia, set himself on fire while free-basing cocaine, and played a computer hacker in Superman III.
Addressing this audience of VIPs, Pryor said that he considered his mission as a comedian to be more than just making people laugh—it was using that laughter as a tool “to lessen people’s hatred.”
As it happens, we can see this noble calling at work in a particular scene of Pryor’s 1976 film Silver Streak.
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.
As part of TCM’s tribute to the films of Mel Brooks, his 1983 remake of To Be Or Not To Be is screening on Tuesday. It’s a curiosity to be sure—too slavish to the Lubitsch original to really find its own voice as a Mel Brooks film, yet too much of a Mel Brooks film to bear easy comparison to the Lubitsch version.
Brooks and Lubitsch are ultimately very different filmmakers with very different comic sensibilities. Lubitsch was known for his oblique, indirect touch—often mistaken for “subtlety.” But there’s a difference. Lubitsch lobbed bawdy joke after bawdy joke at his audience, but in ways designed to just barely miss the target cleanly, and instead not fully register as dirty. The viewer is inundated by these off-target gags to the point they know they’ve seen something ribald, even if they can’t quite put their finger on quite what.
By contrast, Brooks nails every gag. He nails every gag to the floor, that is, and then sets up flashing hazard lights around them to make sure everyone spots them.
My choice of language probably gives away that I prefer Lubitsch’s dry wit to Brooks’ rimshot muggery, but so what? Yes, I have my tastes and preferences, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also admire Brooks and enjoy his films, too—this isn’t a zero sum game.
But when both men set out to film the same script, comparisons are going to be made, winners are going to be chosen.
Posted by Susan Doll on May 12, 2014
While Chaplin and Keaton remain the giants of silent comedy to modern-day movie lovers, Harold Lloyd was the most popular film comedian and the biggest box-office draw during the 1920s. His movies out-grossed Keaton’s comedies, and after Chaplin began to fret over his features, Lloyd out-produced the Little Tramp. In 1927, Lloyd was the only performer on Variety’s list of the top 20 wealthiest people in show business (see An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture by Richard Koszarski.) Having seen many of his feature films, including Safety Last, Speedy, Girl Shy, and The Freshman, I can understand his appeal. Youthful, optimistic, and persevering, Lloyd’s so-called “glass” or “glasses” character suited a decade in which Americans sought to better themselves economically, acquire consumer goods, and partake of the American Dream. Lloyd’s comic persona, who was always called Harold in his films, was not disenfranchised like Chaplin’s Little Tramp nor a misfit like Keaton’s Great Stone Face. Instead, he was akin to the hapless boy next door who worked hard to get ahead and win the hand of the girl. Even his costume was “normal” in that it was purchased off the rack and not an exaggerated ensemble from the costume department of Hal Roach’s studio.
Recently I’ve been reading Sam Wasson’s wonderfully spirited biography of Blake Edwards. Wasson argues eloquently that Edwards is long overdue for a significant critical rehabilitation as one of comedy cinema’s great directors, to be spoken of in the same breath as Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, or Woody Allen. But here’s the thing: even in this gloriously pro-Edwards manifesto, even here we find the Pink Panther franchise getting slagged off. Sure, Wasson celebrates the original Pink Panther (on TCM tonight!) and its brilliant follow-up A Shot in the Dark, but of the others he writes: “the Panther franchise did little to enhance anything but Edwards’ bank account.”
Well, golly. If you aren’t gonna find love for the Pink Panther franchise in the book that calls Blake Edwards an unsung genius, then where are you gonna find it?
Here, of course!
There’s a risk in peaking too early. Just ask Jean Renoir—one of the greatest names in cinema history, whose prolific career was eclipsed by its first act. Having made too many masterpieces as a young man, he set a bar he could never cross again. And nowhere is that clearer than in 1962’s delightful The Elusive Corporal—lively, gorgeously photographed, briskly paced and full of memorable incidents, richly characterized, and fantastic on just about every level—except for not being The Grand Illusion. As if being not quite as perfect as The Grand Illusion constitutes some kind of sin. But there you have it, folks, a glorious film that would have made the career of almost anyone else, but forgotten and dismissed because it (gasp!) wasn’t a masterpiece.
Later this week, TCM is running a programming block to pay tribute to all of the 1937 Best Supporting Actor Nominees. Which is one of those gloriously random, weirdly specific programming decisions that makes TCM such a delightful destination for obsessive compulsives. The channel will run Leo McCarey’s screwball classic The Awful Truth, in honor of Ralph Bellamy’s Best Supporting Actor nod. And that’s all fine and well and good—Bellamy is excellent in his “Right Wrong Man” role—but if you really want to celebrate the best supporting performance in this film, you need to be looking at Asta the Dog.
Let’s start with a rarely seen 1940 screwball comedy, Roy Del Ruth’s He Married His Wife. While I won’t pretend that this is anything but a minor but somewhat enjoyable trifle, there’s something rather weird about it that deserves discussion. A number of social scholars—admittedly some of them film historians, but quite a few of them not film people at all—have written about this movie in a specific context: how Hollywood treats romantic love.
The “he” of the title is horse racing mogul Joel McCrea. His preoccupation with—and incompetence at—the horse trade crowds out any other consideration. Ex-wife Nancy Kelly grew weary of perpetual also-ran status in her husband’s life, and divorced him. Ironically, divorce provides her with the opportunity to force her way higher on his list of priorities: as he is now committed to a punishing monthly alimony, he can’t help but think of her constantly. McCrea conspires with his lawyer Roland Young to end the alimony by getting Nancy married to someone, anyone—say, their mutual friend Lyle Talbot. The plan goes awry when she snubs poor Lyle for a flashy, oily gigolo Cesar Romero. McCrea starts to realize he cares about something much more than horses or alimony… (there’s no real surprise where any of this is heading—just check out the title of the movie if you have any questions).
What makes this interesting to social commentators is that the idea of making a romantic comedy about a divorced couple getting back together didn’t just happen the once, or even twice—it’s an idea you’ll find in: The Awful Truth, (1937), Philadelphia Story (1940), My Favorite Wife (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), That Uncertain Feeling (1942), and Palm Beach Story (1942). Add He Married His Wife to that list and you have four such comedies appearing in 1940 alone—eight within five years.
Why do the French love Jerry Lewis? It’s an age-old question—one that has dogged American pop culture for over 50 years. It’s inspired no end of speculation—Rae Gordon wrote a whole book on the subject, and as recently as last year such publications as The New York Times and Vanity Fair took their cracks at it. The answers dig into the history of film comedy, of comedy itself, of traditions of clowning, of differences in French and American culture, of philosophies of masculinity…
Blah blah blah. For all the effort that’s been put into answering the question, precious little has been spent in questioning the question. In other words, before we wonder why the French love Jerry Lewis, we better first figure out do the French love Jerry Lewis?
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