Preston Sturges’ UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (1948) – A great symphony of a comedy

 

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Though he directed a few more movies over the years, Unfaithfully Yours (1948) was the last great hurrah from one of Hollywood’s greatest comedy writer-directors, Preston Sturges. But Lawdy, what a way to go out.

The movie stars Rex Harrison in what might be seen as a kindler, gentler cousin of his egomaniacal diction professor in My Fair Lady (1964). Here, Harrison is Sir Alfred de Carter, a world-renowned symphony conductor who is still astoundingly infatuated with the woman he refers to as his “bride,” Daphne (charming Linda Darnell). The movie never declares how long or short of a time the Carters have been married, but judging from their passion level, one would guess they’re still in the honeymooning stage.

(The far more down-to-earth married couple, Alfred’s in-laws August and Barbara, are portrayed wonderfully by Rudy Vallee and Barbara Lawrence. Barbara gets all the great barbs off against her husband, who is only too happy to show his ignorance of them.)

One day, August accosts Alfred with the unfortunate news that he paid a detective to tail Daphne while Alfred was out of town. Alfred is so convinced of his wife’s fidelity that his reaction starts at outrage and goes haywire from there. Little by little, though, Alfred is given reason to think that Daphne might have needed some spying-on after all. At his concert that evening, Alfred conducts three pieces by Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner, and with each piece, Alfred imagines the stylish revenge he will extract upon Daphne for her presumed cheating.

From this sober-sounding scenario, Sturges — as he always did — goes all over the place, from sparkling dialogue to skittering slapstick to rich drenches of sentiment. And the melange has never worked better than it does here. Just for kicks, take three of the movie’s set-pieces (the first of which — SPOILER! — is shown below): Alfred’s achingly funny dressing-down of August for siccing a detective on Daphne, the first fantasy where Alfred hatches an elaborate murder scheme, and Alfred’s drunken attempt to carry out the scheme. Three scenes of completely different tones, and they all plausibly fit into the same movie. Now try to imagine any modern-day comedy-maker whose work would display the wit of any of those scenes.

The Criterion Collection DVD of the movie does it full justice. It includes a seemingly irrelevant but nonetheless enjoyable critique of Sturges’ work from Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones. And an interview with Sturges’ widow Sandy, as well as copies of voluminous memoes to Sturges from uncredited producer Darryl Zanuck, demonstrate why the movie was initially a colossal box-office failure. Zanuck hounded Sturges to the point that the gifted creator of (to name but two) The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek began doubting himself as a writer, resulting in the final humiliation of Zanuck cutting the film on his own. Then a timely scandal involving Rex Harrison forever killed the box-office chances of a black comedy starring Harrison as an ostensible woman-murderer.

Happily, Unfaithfully Yours, like Chaplin’s similarly dark Monsieur Verdoux, survived its prudish times and has become renowned as a great movie. Alfred’s take on Delius might be delirious (as professed by one of his fans, played by the great Sturges alumnus Edgar Kennedy)…but Sturges himself remains stupendous.

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991) – Surprisingly mild Albert Brooks comedy

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In Albert Brooks’ comedies, his usual persona is that of a schnook who is so obsessed with being hip that he doesn’t realize how obnoxious he is (such as the Brooks yuppie who wanted to “touch Indians” in Lost in America [1985]). But his other movies made fun of these obsessions; Defending Your Life takes them seriously and tries to explore them. Consequently, though it’s officially a comedy, it’s more thoughtful than hysterical.

Brooks plays David Miller, a meek advertising executive who dies in a traffic accident. David finds that, before he can move on to the next level of afterlife, his otherworldly lawyer must be able to prove that David lived his life on Earth to the fullest. If he loses his case, David will be sent back to Earth to try again.

One night, David meets Julia (Meryl Streep), whose case is also being tried, and he falls in love with her. But as always, David is afraid of expressing his true feelings. Will he overcome his self-doubt? Based on his previous life, the evidence isn’t good.

The movie is pretty enjoyable throughout, but the all-out funniest parts are in the first half, as David tries to cope with both the nonchalant blandness of the afterlife and a trial that recounts his most humiliating earthly moments. The romance between Julia and David is not unwelcome either. Meryl Streep is quite charming, and her love scenes with Brooks are surprisingly believable and touching.

But the movie builds up a lot of momentum and goodwill for a huge resolution that never arrives. The whole point of the movie seems to be, “Don’t be afraid of life” —  not Brooks’s most profound statement ever. He seems content to make this film his Heaven Can Wait, complete with a tacked-on happy ending and celestial photography (provided by Allen Daviau, who also did Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial).

As in Lost in America, Brooks’ other actors constitute a rich supporting cast. Lee Grant is terrific as David’s prosecutor, and Rip Torn displays just the right degree of pomposity as David’s condescending lawyer. There are also a lot of neat cameos, such as that of the emcee of The Past Lives Pavilion; I won’t give away the surprise, but when you think about it later, she turns out to be perfectly appropriate.

Defending Your Life is not a bad movie, but coming from Brooks, it’s amazingly benign. If you liked Brooks’s hapless newscaster in James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News (1987), you’ll probably love this one. But it’s surprising that one of America’s most incisive satirists is content to settle for middle-of-the-road sweetness.

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997) – One of Woody Allen’s bawdiest and best movies

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Most of Woody Allen’s 1990’s movies were so kind and polite, they’re almost anemic. (His musical Everyone Says I Love You was a charming concept, but was the movie’s Groucho Marx number at all necessary?) But with Deconstructing Harry, Allen regained some of his bite and managed to make his funniest movie in years.

Harry is a bit like Allen’s much-reviled Stardust Memories. As in that movie, Allen plays an artist (here, a writer named Harry Block) with a mental block and a predilection for troubled women. There are frequent movies-within-a-movie sprung from the artist’s brain. (My favorite is the movie actor who is literally always out of focus, providing Robin Williams with a perfect cameo.) And much of the story is told in flashback and jump-cuts, to reflect the artist’s fractured state of mind.

But at least in Harry, Allen is as unforgiving of his own character as he is of the others. Harry Block is shown as a swearing boozer, pill-popper, and regular customer of prostitutes. Judging from Allen’s public comments, I would guess he is very little like this in real life. But while the makers of As Good As It Gets have publicly crowed about creating an unsympathetic lead character, Allen has quietly done a far superior job of it.

And Allen’s revitalization has extended to his direction. Allen’s cast have been filled with an ever-growing list of big-name stars recently, but they usually don’t come off very well. Here, Kirstie Alley, Billy Crystal, and Demi Moore, among others, are quite satisfying. (Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s cuckolder seems almost an extension of her “Seinfeld” character.)

The world is divided between Woody Allen fans who delight in deconstructing his work, and detractors who have made careers out of Allen-bashing. Deconstructing Harry shows how entertainingly Allen can do the job for both sides.

THE ARISTOCRATS (2005) – Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

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Never has a single joke been so thoroughly deconstructed, much less to such satisfying effect, than in the documentary The Aristocrats. The movie is the brainchild of performers Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame) and Paul Provenza, who have analyzed the workings of an off-color joke that (according to the movie) has been around since the days of vaudeville.

The basic form of the joke is this: A guy walks into a talent agency and tells the agent, “I have a family act you won’t believe.” The guy then proceeds to describe himself and his family members doing feats that can never be adequately described on a PG-rated blog. The stunned agent says, “And what do you call this act?” The guy haughtily replies, “‘The Aristocrats’!”

As you can probably guess, it is in the second third of this joke where its teller goes to town, as he/she expounds upon the ethical and physical lows to which this family will stoop in order to make it in show biz. To be sure, many versions of the joke (told here by three or four generations of actors and comedians) are enough to prevent you from munching on your popcorn for a while.

But one of the movie’s points is how a comic’s style can make the joke his own, and that often happens here. The Smothers Brothers make it sound like a slightly racier version of their usual routine. A mime does a version of the joke that wouldn’t have been out of place in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie. There’s even a sleight-of-hand card-telling version of it.

And the quiet subtext of this bawdy, often hilarious movie is how some people are easily offended by certain subject matter, while the movie illustrates that once shock value is opened up for discussion, its power is often dissipated. As such, the movie is as interesting an argument for the First Amendment as The People vs. Larry Flynt.

But finally, the movie’s lure isn’t due to its power as a political treatise. It basically shows how talented comedians can make even the most unsavory material funny. And in these times, that might not be such a small talent.

HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I (1981) – Mel Brooks as the 20-million-year-old man

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

This movie did middling box-office (as did all Mel Brooks movies from this point on), but for my money, it’s one of Brooks’ funniest. Having cemented his comedic reputation early on with the 2000-Year-Old Man, it seems inevitable that Brooks would eventually take on the spectrum (or sphincter, as he might put it) of world history. And in the age of the Farrelly Brothers, Brooks ideas about bad taste seem almost quaint.

It begins with a lot of black-out gags (the first such gag amounting to, Ape Man = Onan) and takes off from there. The first sustained sequence, The Roman Empire, probably goes on a bit too long, and it “introduced” a buxom actress named Mary-Margaret Humes who, justifiably, went right back to obscurity shortly after the film’s release. But there are also many enjoyable moments: Gregory Hines’s mellow film debut, Madeline Kahn’s ecstatic song tribute to her well-endowed male slaves, and most of all, the Last Supper sequence at the end — completely messed up time-wise (it puts Jesus and Leonardo da Vinci in the same shot), but all the more hilarious because of it. (John Hurt plays Jesus, and as in Brooks’ Spaceballs [1987], his straight-faced seriousness just makes the insanity around him that much funnier.)

The next sequence (embedded below) is one of Brooks’s best: The Spanish Inquisition as a Marx Brothers-style musical number, with Mel Brooks as a socko Torquemada, beating out a rhythm on his victims’ shackled knees. This sequence alone justifies Brooks’ existence as a comedy director.

The sequence depicting The French Revolution has two main objectives in mind: show off as much of (1) British comedienne Pamela Stephenson’s bust and (2) Brooks’s wee-wee humor as humanly possible. Nevertheless, it has its moments, with Cloris Leachman as Madame Defarge, and Brooks as a randy king.

The final short sequence, a trailer for Brooks’s non-existent History Part II, is worth the bother just for one of those moments that makes me laugh for no discernible reason: a scene from “Hitler on Ice,” showing Brooks’s favorite nasty German as an Ice Capader. This ersatz trailer is enough to make me wish Brooks had really made a sequel. I doubt it would have turned out any worse than Spaceballs.

INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003) – Cruel, maybe; intolerable, hardly

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Ever since I fell in love with Joel and Ethan Coen’s comedy Raising Arizona (1987), I’ve been waiting for them to do another all-out farce. And God bless ’em, it took them only 16 years. Intolerable Cruelty is the funniest movie I’ve seen in ages.

George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a legendary divorce lawyer called upon to help a rich man (Edward Herrmann) divorce his golddigging wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). I hasten not to divulge any of the movie’s surprises. Suffice to say, a prolonged and very verbose battle of the sexes ensues.

That alone almost makes the movie worth watching. After being mentally assaulted by recent movies with totally moronic main characters, what a pleasure to hear intelligent dialogue between intelligent people — even if both of them are the biggest schemers you could ask for. Clooney, in particular, has long, leisurely takes where he delivers pages of dialogue, and he relishes every opportunity.

Granted, not all of the jokes are Mensa-level. (Some of the earthiest laughs come from the always reliable Cedric the Entertainer as a private eye way too willing to dig up dirt for his clients.) But a critic once made the un-academic distinction between stupid comedy done stupid, and silly comedy done intelligently. The first kind we all know about, because that’s most of the bodily-function comedies that come out these days. Far more difficult to pull off is comedy based on normal people’s reactions to outrageous circumstances. Intolerable Cruelty provides a wealth of that.

As an example, I cite the movie’s climactic scene, in which someone labors to prevent a murder and someone gets killed anyway. A subject as inherently unfunny as murder is the acid test; if not pulled off properly, nothing falls flatter. I can say only that the scene’s punchline had me laughing until I cried.

And the timing of this movie’s performers is never off. Clooney, Zeta-Jones, Cedric, and Billy Bob Thornton (as a self-loving actor)…they have bells on their toes. I wish more comedies were as tolerable as Intolerable Cruelty.

THE PRODUCERS (2005) – I’m a prisoner of love…for Mel Brooks

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There are countless groups who are certain to be offended by Mel Brooks’ musical version of The Producers. There are those who didn’t like Brooks’ initial 1968 film, those who thought his Broadway version was a bad idea, and those who will think the new, twice-removed film version is even worse.

A pox on all of them.

I’ve been a Brooks fan since Blazing Saddles. But though Brooks is famous for wallowing in excess and bad taste, his more recent movies were downright benign, as if Brooks had turned into the eccentric uncle who tells risque stories at the dinner table. The musical Producers returns Brooks to full-throttle bad taste, and it is all the more hilarious for it.

You probably know the basic story by now: Loser Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) and his meek accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) scheme to produce the worst show ever, so that it will close in one night and they can keep the investors’ money. They choose to produce “Springtime for Hitler,” written by an unrepentant Nazi (Will Ferrell). And to treat themselves, they hire Ulla (Uma Thurman), a beautiful but ESOL-impaired Swedish secretary.

If you liked Brooks’ 1968 version, you can regard this one as The Producers on steroids, and that’s mostly a compliment. People who seemed like one-joke numbers in the original — Ulla, the Nazi — get to blossom here. Who knew that Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell could sing and dance so well? (As for me, this is the first Ferrell movie performance I’ve actually enjoyed.)

And that’s another of the movie’s surprises: Satiric or not, it’s presented as an honest-to-gosh musical, as if Guys and Dolls had collided with the scatological Brooks. Some of the numbers are straightforward, others are slightly wacko (the tap-dancing ladies with walkers are one for the ages), but they’re all done with old-style panache. For that, kudos to Susan Stroman, who directed the Broadway version as well as this one.

People will complain that it’s all too over-the-top. Of course, any of Brooks’ best work is. They’ll complain that Lane and Broderick are not Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (of the original version). No, they’re not — they’re Lane and Broderick, and they do just fine as such.

Best of all is Brooks’ relentless effort to score laughs, big and small. It’s been a long while since a moviemaker worked so hard for his comedy, and an even longer while since I’ve laughed until I cried. It was worth the wait.