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.

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.

 

LIFE STINKS (1991) – …and so does this movie

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Life Stinks is another chapter in the ongoing question, Whatever happened to Mel Brooks’ sense of comedy? It starts out nicely enough, with Mel as Trump-like mogul Goddard Bolt (“You can call me God”), who accepts a bet that he can’t live on the streets for 30 days. But the moment the movie hits the streets, it turns into a pathos-laden mess, with occasional “funny” bits interjected (Mel sees a black kid break-dancing for money and tries to do a vaudeville buck-and-wing, yuk, yuk).

Leslie Ann Warren is nothing short of wasted. The worst part is this movie’s musical number, in which Brooks and Warren do a silent dance to Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love.” Brooks’s musical parodies are usually the highlights of his movies; here he plays the whole thing straight, like a dancing excerpt from an aging guest star on “The Carol Burnett Show” (on which Rudy DeLuca, this film’s co-writer, began his career).

Go rent Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, which covered the same ground 70 years before and did it a lot better.

FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986) – A non-appreciation by an ex-teacher

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I think you have to be or have been a teacher to feel as though John Hughes’ movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is like a student scraping his nails across your blackboard for 90 minutes. When this movie was first released, I happened to see it on a week where a student came tardy to my class, cussed me out when I called him on it, and then had his mother phone and tell me that I was overreacting [for doing what was expected of me] and tell me that she was praying for me. By the time I finished watching the movie, Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), who was intended as a figure of fun, was a very sympathetic character to me.
Anyway, Matthew Broderick plays the title role, an insufferable youngster who appears to have an angel of God at his side. Ferris concocts elaborate schemes for playing hooky from school, yet he manages to endear himself to everyone except Mr. Rooney, who can never quite catch Ferris in the act, and his sister Jennie (Jennifer Grey of Dirty Dancing), who is justifiably annoyed at Ferris’ liberties.
One fine spring day, Ferris again fools his parents into thinking he is on Death’s doorstep. When they leave for work, Ferris browbeats his downtrodden buddy Cameron (Alan Ruck, later of TV’s “Spin City”) into stealing his father’s prized 1961 Ferrari, hijacking Ferris’s girlfriend (Mia Sara) from school and going on a joyride.

 

The angel-of-God analogy is particularly apt because the movie seems a latter-day version of deus ex machina. And never has a movie seemed so stagy. When Ferris starts talking to the camera (presaging similarly self-conscious ’90s movies and TV shows), expounding his theories on life and skipping school, one half-expects to read “Based on a play by Neil Simon” in the credits.
What a great combination — the self-righteousness of John Hughes and the Broadway smarminess of Matthew Broderick. Two minds without a single thought.

And the film in constantly at odds with what it tries to tell us. At one point, Ferris tells us that you’ll never get anywhere by kissing people’s hindquarters. Yet he can’t get anywhere without sucking up to people or manipulating them for his selfish whims.

He also complains about his parents being weird. The poor kid — all his parents have ever given him are everything he wants, and more attention than his sister can hope to receive.

And how is all of this massive manipulation possible? Because Hughes sets up cardboard characters and emotions. Mr. Rooney is essentially Wile E. Coyote, forever chasing the Road Runner in vain. Ferris’s parents are vapid dummies who don’t care much about anything. And Ferris is supposedly made lovable by such acts as his hammy performance to get out of school (an old bit when it was used in E.T.) and his lip-syncing to a rock song (which, after Tom Cruise in Risky Business and Rodney Dangerfield in Easy Money, was well on its way to become a modern-day movie cliché).

All of the performances are execrable, except for Ruck as Cameron, the put-upon friend. When Cameron vows to take a stand against his dad, the scene almost works, despite its utter gravity, because Cameron has been such a likable dolt up until then. If only we could see a movie about a teenager like him, instead of this self-indulgent vehicle about a self-indulgent brat.

When John Hughes was asked how he prepares his scripts, he said, “I never start with the jokes. I look at an issue and try to find the story in it…To me, Animal House was a character movie.” That’s funnier than anything in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

RAISING ARIZONA (1987) – It’s a classic, or my name ain’t Nathan Arizona!

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The films of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen are not for everybody. But if you’re in the mood for a no-holds-barred, breakneck farce, you could do far worse than the Coens’ Raising Arizona.

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This movie was early on in the careers of Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, but for my money, they’ve rarely been better. Cage narrates the story of H.I. McDonough (“Call me Hi”), a “recidivist” robber of convenience stores. Hunter is Ed (short for Edwina), the police officer who books Hi for prison after each of his robbery sprees. And the intro that sets up their story is one of the funniest movie prologues ever.

Ed and Hi slowly fall for each other, causing Hi to quit his life of crime. They marry but find out that Ed is too “barren” to have children. When they read a news report of local furniture baron Nathan Arizona and his wife having quintuplets, Ed and Hi plot to take one of the babies for their own, rationalizing that the Arizonas already have “more than they can handle.”

Granted, this doesn’t sound like a premise for belly laughs. But you would not have reckoned with the Coens’ far-from-barren imaginations. The cinematography alone — by future director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) — should earn Raising Arizona‘s place in movie history, culminating in a chase scene that just about kills you with laughter.

And there are memorable supporting characters, all perfectly cast. First, there’s John Goodman and William Forsythe as Hi’s fellow cons. (Their first scene is a beautifully done prison escape, with Goodman emerging from muck like a revived dinosaur.) There’s also Frances McDormand and Sam McMurray as the last parents on Earth who should be advising Hi and Ed on child-rearing, and Randall “Tex” Cobb as a bounty hunter so nasty that even his boots are hairy.

In these days of gross-out fests, there’s something almost brave about a comedy that takes this many chances and pulls all of them off. As one Los Angeles reviewer put it, “Imagination run amok in a Hollywood comedy — it’s about time.”