“I’m Not an Actor, I’m a Movie Star”: Notes on ‘My Favorite Year’

MFYbenjyTonight 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.

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May 17, 2014
David Kalat
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2B OR NOT 2B (2)

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.

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KEYWORDS: Ernst Lubitsch, Mel Brooks, To Be or Not To Be
COMMENTS: 10
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What, Harold Lloyd Worry?

haroldposterWhile 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.

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March 22, 2014
David Kalat
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Think Pink

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!

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KEYWORDS: Blake Edwards, Peter Sellers, The Pink Panther
COMMENTS: 14
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February 22, 2014
David Kalat
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Jean Renoir’s Less Grand Illusion

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.

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KEYWORDS: Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir, The Elusive Corporal
COMMENTS: 6
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asta 2
February 15, 2014
David Kalat
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Dog Star

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.

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KEYWORDS: After the Thin Man, Asta the Dog, Comedies of Remarriage, Screwball Comedy, The Awful Truth, The Thin Man
COMMENTS: 15
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February 8, 2014
David Kalat
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Divorce American Style

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.

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KEYWORDS: Bringing Up baby, Comedies of Remarriage, Romantic Comedies, Screwball Comedy, The Awful Truth, The Palm Beach Story, The Philadelphia Story
COMMENTS: 10
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jerry lewis
February 1, 2014
David Kalat
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Of Jerry Lewis, the French, and an undying myth

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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KEYWORDS: Jerry Lewis
COMMENTS: 16
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January 18, 2014
David Kalat
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What, No “What, No Beer?”

This coming Wednesday at 6 am Eastern, TCM is running What, No Beer?    It is just about as unloved as a movie can be.  If all the hatred and invective thrown at this 65 minute-long 1933 comedy were somehow bottled up and concentrated, it could power a small city.  (And ladies and gentlemen, that’s my modest proposal to solve the energy crisis—wean us off foreign oil and start using movie criticism as an alternative fuel source).

In the past  I have used this forum to defend Buster Keaton’s MGM talkies—but even I sniffed at What, No Beer?  2014 is a new year, though, and with the new year comes the possibility of redemption and renewal for all things.  I mean, if we can find détente with Iran, then certainly we can find a way to rehabilitate What, No Beer?

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KEYWORDS: Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, What No Beer?
COMMENTS: 11
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Back to the Perfume Counter: Joan Crawford in The Women (1939)

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It is Joan Crawford month at Turner Classic Movies, with sixty-two of her features airing on Thursday nights in January. Today I’ll be looking at one of her scene-stealing supporting turns, as the gold lamé digger Crystal Allen in The Women (1939, screening on 1/16 at 8PM on TCM). It was directed by George Cukor, recently the subject of a complete retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Cukor was canned from Gone With the Wind a month before shooting started on The Women, and it was a fortuitous re-assignment. The Women was based on the hit stage comedy by Clare Booth Luce, trumpeted as having ran for 666 performances at the Ethel Barrymore theater. Famed for having an all-female cast, Cukor’s movie claimed that even its animals were of the fairer sex. A sensitive director of actresses, Cukor elicits a wide range of performances from his volcanically talented cast. Norma Shearer is the nominal lead, projecting regal innocence as news of her husband’s infidelity is smeared over the tabloids. Rosalind Russell is her loudest friend, a motormouthed gossip buried under headscarves and microscopic hats. Cukor was fondest of Joan Fontaine, one of his discoveries, perfecting her shaking leaf naivete. But the one who hip-swivels away with the picture is Joan Crawford.

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