In honor of this week’s debut of the latest outing in The Planet of the Apes franchise, I rewatched Tim Burton’s 2001 misbegotten reboot. It was like picking at a scab that wouldn’t heal—I know I wasn’t doing myself any favors by watching it, but I couldn’t help it. And along the way I ran across an essay on that Apes misfire I’d written at the time but never published. I’ve dusted that piece off and thought I’d share it here.
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.
This week’s story begins with the Three Stooges, and ends with zombies.
The story starts in 1957, when Columbia Pictures shut down the Three Stooges’ production unit and released the aging comedy stars. The Stooges had been poking each other in the eye for 22 years—and that’s just for Columbia Pictures’ theatrical shorts division—they’d been a comedy team for over three decades by that point.
In one of the crazy ironies that make life so baffling and interesting, being fired by Columbia more or less coincided with the pinnacle of their popularity. The studio’s licensing arm Screen Gems sold a package of Stooges comedies to TV, where they ended up on after-school broadcasts to a whole generation of viewers.
The ratings went through the roof, and Columbia could barely keep up, selling old Stooges comedies to meet the demand.
But here’s the thing: the actual comedians responsible for those insanely successful films weren’t getting a dime from any of this resurgent interest. They were unemployed, with no direct way to profit in their own popularity.
Last week’s post on Jean Renoir’s The Elusive Corporal brought to light a pocket of fans of Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps—and so in honor of that long-suffering cohort, this week I figured I’d properly pay tribute to one of Lang’s unsung classics.
Posted by David Kalat on October 26, 2013
I was gonna call this week’s post “2 Girls, 1 Swimming Pool” but decided against it. But inspired by TCM’s upcoming screening of one of my all-time favorite thrillers, Henri Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (AKA Les Diaboliques), I’m taking the opportunity to celebrate the twisted artistry of this gloriously macabre picture–and taking stock of one of its many knock-offs.
Clouzot’s is a dark and cynical cinema, devoid of hope and happy endings. Which is unsurprising, since that is an equally apt description of Clouzot himself. “All his work has been surrounded by an air of scandal and affront,” writes Roy Armes, “and the shooting of all his films is conducted in an atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination. His own urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his characters who seek outlets for their lust, hatred, and violence.”
Posted by David Kalat on July 13, 2013
As our weeklong tribute to Richard Matheson nears its conclusion, I thought it was high time that someone got around to commenting on Matheson’s comedy work. The only problem is, Matheson wasn’t really a comedy writer and didn’t have much in the way of comedy work. I could have gone with The Raven, or the Buster Keaton episode of The Twilight Zone–these would all have been solid choices. But man do I have a soft spot for the 1981 Lily Tomlin vehicle The Incredible Shrinking Woman.
Posted by David Kalat on March 9, 2013
Last week I talked about a low-grade Marx Brothers outing, A Night in Casablanca, and collectively we found more than a little love for the thing. This week I approach a quite impressive Marx Brothers comedy that is unlikely to find much if any appreciation here, simply for its sin of not, y’know, actually including Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, but rather a group of imitation Marxes.
Posted by David Kalat on December 8, 2012
I’m going to wind up my exploration of pulp mysteries with the ultimate pulp detective of them all—Sherlock Holmes. And for any of my regular readers, the fact that I’ve chosen Zero Effect with Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller instead of the more obvious selections like Hound of the Baskervilles shouldn’t be a surprise. And, just like when we looked at Warren Beatty as an ersatz James Bond back in the discussion of Kaleidoscope, the only way we get to such unlikely casting is by examining an unauthorized project from the margins.
As it happens, it is that aspect of Zero Effect—its status as an authorized adaptation—that is the focal point of our story this week. So—click to open the fold and let’s take a journey through the tangled jungle of Sherlock Holmes’ complicated rights issues.
Posted by David Kalat on November 3, 2012
For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at secret Hitchcock remakes—movies that may or may not have taken direct inspiration from Hitchcock’s classics, but at least pretended they didn’t. Those films attempt to stand on their own merits, independent of any comparisons to Hitchcock that their content might invite.
But we haven’t yet addressed the thorny mess of overt Hitchcock remakes—the ones that openly identify themselves as updates of movies made by the Master of Suspense. Somehow that makes a significant difference—and the direct comparisons are never flattering.
So when we come to something like Hammer’s 1979 version of The Lady Vanishes, not only do we have the worrisome aspect of a direct Hitchcock remake, we also have the exceedingly problematic audience expectations generated by the phrase “Hammer does Hitchcock.”
Posted by David Kalat on April 14, 2012
Having been on a remake kick now for several weeks, I can’t pass up the opportunity to comment on the current big-screen “remake” of The Three Stooges. The only problem is, I haven’t yet seen it (I write these blogs a week or more before they go up), so I’m not in a position to (yet) comment specifically on this particular rendition. But remaking the Three Stooges is nothing new—the Three Stooges were always an act of continual reinvention.
The Three Stooges were a show-business anomaly, and an act comprised of paradoxes. They hit their greatest and most enduring popularity not only long after their most creative period, but even after they had reached a de facto retirement. They are remembered as a movie comedy troupe, created in the crucible of vaudeville, and preserved on television. Far beyond the Cury-vs-Shemp debate, the “three” stooges, depending on how you count, number as many as 12.
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