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

 

broadwaybanner1

The following is my entry in The Broadway Bound Blogathon, being hosted by Rebecca at her blog Taking Up Room from June 1-3, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to Broadway-related movies!

image (1) (1)

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 2005 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.

 

Advertisements

Laurel & Hardy in WAY OUT WEST (1937) – My kind of Western

The Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon

The following is my entry in The Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon, being hosted by Classic Film & TV Cafe on May 16, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ reviews of their favorite cinematic versions of comfort food!

Way

Way Out West is an anomaly in Laurel & Hardy’s film career. Laurel & Hardy shorts and features, like most of the work from their producer Hal Roach, were taken for granted by everyone but the public. Contemporary critics sniffed their noses at L&H, and the movie industry regarded them as modest time-killers between the big-studio productions.

But Way Out West had something beyond its modest pretensions at Western-spoofing. Its jaunty score, superbly done by L&H veteran Marvin Hatley, was nominated for an Oscar. And in the wake of L&H’s success, Western spoofs suddenly became the rage, as W.C. Fields, Mae West, and The Marx Brothers followed suit.

But as with most Hollywood spin- or rip-offs, none of them managed the charm of the original. This is the one everyone remembers, mostly because of a softshoe number that goes beyond comedy to touchingly demonstrate Stan and Ollie’s underlying affection for each other. If you don’t laugh at it, it’s probably because you’re crying with joy from it. (The complete movie is embedded below; the dance routine starts at the 13:43 mark. Try not to at least smile at it. I dare you.)

The plot concerns the deed to a late miner’s valuable property, which the miner was naive enough to entrust to Stan and Ollie for its delivery to the miner’s daughter, named Mary Roberts. Stan inadvertently spills the beans to Mary’s evil caretaker (famed L&H scowler James Finlayson), who enlists his wife to impersonate Mary so they can snag the deed for themselves.

As plots (particularly Laurel & Hardy’s) go, this one is pretty sturdy, though it’s light enough to encompass three musical numbers (all low-key and charming) and tons of physical comedy within the film’s 70 minutes. Most Laurel & Hardy feature films were criticized for trying to shoehorn brief L&H routines in between the “straight” plots or romantic interests, but this movie is pure Laurel & Hardy in every sense.

Among the movie’s highlights are a chase scene that culminates in Stan’s nearly being tickled to death, and an endlessly inventive burglary scene involving nothing more than a block-and-tackle and a mule (who gets a cast credit, and deserves it). And of course, there are the wonderful musical numbers. (40 years after the movie’s release, two of these songs were released on a record in Britain and went straight to #1.)

The best-loved comedians are inevitably the ones who make us think they’re us. This movie has a running gag of Ollie confidently negotiating a stream, only to be continually sucked in by an unseen pothole. It’s a perfect metaphor for Laurel & Hardy and their ongoing audience appeal.

(Also click here to visit my webpage devoted exclusively to this wonderful movie, and click here to listen to my new Laurel & Hardy podcast!)

Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) – Two little Hitlers

modern-times

The following is my second of two entries in The Charlie Chaplin Blogathon: The Life and Films of the Little Tramp, being co-hosted by the blogs Little Bits of Classics and Christina Wehner from Apr. 14-16, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to Charles Chaplin on his 126th birthday (Apr. 16)!

(All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export.)

greatdictator

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first “all-talking” movie, is not a perfect film – there are dead spots here and there, and it wavers nervously between political farce and humanistic melodrama. Yet it is as compelling as anything in the Chaplin canon.

For one thing, you couldn’t find a movie that is more “of its time.” Chaplin’s uncanny resemblance to Hitler (they were also born within a week of each other) inevitably dictated (sorry) that Chaplin would have to take on the monster of his era. Chaplin later said that, had he known of the horrors of the actual concentration camps (portrayed fairly benignly here), he could never have made this movie. Yet one should be grateful he took on its subject matter at all, as history tells us how pacifist much of Hollywood (and America) was willing to be at the time.

The story concerns Chaplin’s version of Hitler, “Der Phooey” Adenoid Hynkel, and his country of Tomania, which he hopes to ruthlessly expand to include the entire globe. (Lest there be any doubt about this goal, there’s the movie’s famous, wordless scene in which Hynkel makes love to his “intended” by dancing and playing with an inflated globe of the Earth.)

Chaplin also plays Hynkel’s inadvertent double, an innocent Jewish barber who comes upon Hynkel’s Tomania after years in a psychiatric ward following World War I. The barber returns to his modest Jewish community and his business, thinking that everything is back to normal, only to be thrust into the center of anything-but-normal.

Chaplin’s burlesque of Hitler can be described only as spot-on; even the gibberish is perfect. As for the age-old question of whether the barber character is an extension of Chaplin’s Tramp, all you can do is look at the derby hat, toothbrush moustache, and waddle-walk, and think to yourself: He sure ain’t Monsieur Verdoux.

The movie begins a bit clumsily, as it’s pretty obvious that Chaplin is trying to do some silent-movie comedy at sound speed. But soon enough, the movie gets in sync and provides many memorable set-pieces: the globe dance, the barber shaving a customer in time to the radio music, the coins in the pudding, etc.

And this movie should stand as the final word to any critic who says that Chaplin never let another actor be his equal or upstage him. To a man (we’ll discuss the woman in a moment), Chaplin the director gets wonderful performances, of varying kinds, from his peers. Reginald Gardiner is rather touching as Schultz, the Tomanian officer who grants the barber some slack due to their shared past. Comic veteran Billy Gilbert is adorable as Hynkel’s flunkie Herring, forever sputtering and hoping for a ray of Hynkel’s approval. Henry Daniell is just fascinating as Hynkel’s advisor Garbitsch, bringing more to the role than seems asked of him; you get the feeling Garbitsch could have been a powermonger to overtake Hynkel if Chaplin had let him. The most sober (without being maudlin) of the downtrodden Jews is the cynical Jaeckel, understatedly played by Maurice Moscovich.

And let us give a manic salute to Jack Oakie for his Mussolini take-off, Napaloni. Chaplin gives Oakie generous leeway to show Napaloni’s passive-aggressive superiority to the neurotic Hynkel, and Oakie makes the most of every minute he’s on-screen.

download

Then there’s the famous finale, where the barber is mistaken for Hynkel and is called upon to address the world just before Hynkel’s forces are set to take over a nearby country of refuge. Chaplin famously “dropped the mask” here and delivered a heartfelt, six-minute speech devoted to humanity. The speech has mostly been a sore spot, even among many Chaplin buffs, since the movie was first released. And I have to say it: The speech works for me.

Of course, the speech is very out-of-character; it’s doubtful that the simplistic barber could conjure up such verbosity on the spot. That leaves Chaplin-the-celebrity addressing us, and many people have said he should have shut up then and there. But whenever I watch and hear that final speech, I think about 1940 and how much different (and presumably nicer) the world would have been if the real Hitler had found it in himself to say something like that. And aren’t movies just wish-fulfillment, anyway? On those terms, I can accept that speech quite handily.

(If the speech is missing anything, it’s that comic punctuation Chaplin used to include — a gag that would “snap” the pathos and keep it from getting too icky, as in City Lights when the Tramp lingers on the sight of the blind girl and she unknowingly throws water in his face. Maybe the speech could have been “leavened” by a cutaway or two to Hynkel having been forced into taking the barber’s place at the insane asylum, sitting bound-up in a strait-jacket and going into hysterics as he listens to the barber giving his power away.)

What I find much harder to ignore (or accept) about the movie is Paulette Goddard as Hannah, the simple, modest cleaning woman of the Jewish ghetto. Hannah is a poorly written character to start with – she’s little more than Chaplin’s love letter to Goddard (who was Mrs. Chaplin at the time) – and Goddard herself doesn’t add much to the role. Hannah is forever giving “Rah-rah, let’s beat those nasty storm troopers” speeches to the point of tedium. One such speech occurs when Hynkel, in an effort to finagle a loan from a Jewish businessman, decides to temporarily quit persecuting the ghetto’s Jews. When the storm troopers unexpectedly treat Hannah and the barber politely, Hannah looks straight into the camera and expostulates about the world’s goodness in a way to make you turn away in embarrassment.

Complaints aside, The Great Dictator remains compelling and often hilarious Chaplin viewing. It was his biggest money-maker to date, so there must have been at least a few other people who agreed with Chaplin’s sentiments in that closing speech.

(If you liked this blogathon entry, click here to read my first entry, about the ongoing debate on Chaplin vs. Buster Keaton.)

Charlie Chaplin vs. Buster Keaton: Who cares??

modern-times

The following is my first of two entries in The Charlie Chaplin Blogathon: The Life and Films of the Little Tramp, being co-hosted by the blogs Little Bits of Classics and Christina Wehner from Apr. 14-16, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to Charles Chaplin on his 126th birthday (Apr. 16)!

(All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export.)

ChaplinOrKeaton

I first came across Charlie Chaplin when I was 11 years old and just “getting into” silent movies. I didn’t start watching Buster Keaton movies until a few years later, mainly because I never had access to any of them until a local PBS station began showing them. I find both men, in their individual ways, brilliant silent-film comedians.

Ever since I was a kid, I have been listening to the ridiculous debate about Chaplin versus Keaton — which comic is funnier, less sentimental, more artistic, etc. — as though great movie comics are so plentiful that we must compare apples to oranges. For the final word on this subject, I have two quotes. The first quote is from The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr’s invaluable study of silent-film comedy; the second is a seemingly irrelevant quote about a completely different subject by Susan Sontag. (However, in Sontag’s case, replace “The Doors and Dostoyevsky” with “Keaton and Chaplin,” and you’ll see what I mean.)

SilentClowns

* “…[Keaton] has been hailed, here and there, not only as Chaplin’s equal but as Chaplin’s superior. This, I think, is waste effort, a misreading of Keaton’s very values…Let Chaplin be king, and Keaton court jester. The king effectively rules, the jester tells the truth.” – Walter Kerr, 1975

SusanSontag

* “If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?” – Susan Sontag, 1996

(If you liked this blog, please click here to read my second blogathon entry, about Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.)

CELEBRITY (1998) – Woody Allen’s weak take on the excesses of fame

CelebrityPoster

Three caveats about the cast of Woody Allen’s Celebrity must top this review. First, this movie got more than the usual publicity for an Allen film solely because Leonardo Dicaprio is in it. But any teenaged Leo fans must be forewarned: The guy from Titanic takes up about 10 of the movie’s 113 minutes, and the rest of the film will leave you either bewildered or apathetic.

Secondly, when I heard that Kenneth Branagh was in the movie, I envisioned the wonderful British actor bring grace and suavity to the lead role. Instead, Branagh ends up doing an uncanny imitation of Allen — the gestures, the stuttering, even the wardrobe. This nebbishy impersonation makes his character — a womanizing journalist who drives around in an Aspen-Martin — quite implausible, bordering on intolerable.

Lastly, the unsung heroine of the movie is Allen alumnus Judy Davis, whose performance as Robin, the journalist’s neurotic ex-wife, creates the movie’s only believable character. With all the fuss that critics have made about Branagh’s and Dicaprio’s appearances, there was barely a whisper about Davis’s work. But without her, the movie would be downright soulless.

Branagh plays Lee Simon, a lowly travel writer who itches to become a celebrity journalist. But writer-director Allen doesn’t begin to get the details down. Star-chasing Simon carries only a pocket-sized notepad, on which he occasionally scribbles some notes. As the husband of a local newspaper editor, I can tell you that the backpacks of my wife’s staffers weigh more than Simon does.

(Simon is also an aspiring novelist and scriptwriter, yet he still composes on a typewriter, and he had only a single manuscript of his half-completed novel. Forget computers, even–hasn’t this guy ever heard of copy machines?)

Simon inexplicably gets assigned celebrity beats and does his best to foul them up. In the middle of an orgy with the room-trashing heartthrob (Dicaprio), Simon tries to get the guy to green-light his script. And Simon’s date with a hot fashion model (Charlize Theron) is ruined when he plows his sports car into a showroom during a passionate kiss.

In the meantime, Allen inserts some scattershot satire. We’re meant to lament a pop culture that makes celebrities of one-hit wonders and supermodels. This lecture disguised as a movie carries little weight, coming from a director who shuns publicity yet still gets photographed at only the poshest hot spots and fashion shows. In middle-class America, we call that having our cake and eating it too.

The rest of Allen’s standard big-name cast — including Joe Mantegna, Winona Ryder, and Melanie Griffith — come off as ciphers. And Allen, once renowned for his movies’ memorable females, here presents Bebe Neuwirth (of “Cheers” and “Frasier”) as a prostitute who tutors Robin, in the most insulting female movie scene of the year.

A lot of Woody Allen’s latter-day work features interesting characters and insights that are far offset by Allen’s obsession with sexual mechanics. Celebrity is a prime example.

W.C. Fields in THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER (1933) – And it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast!

1

As parody (in this case, of old stage melodramas), The Fatal Glass of Beer was ahead of its time. Roundly panned upon its initial release for its cheap look and over-the-top acting, its sense of bad taste is positively quaint in this post-Mel Brooks era. Plus, it’s still funny as all get-out.

Fields plays Mr. Snavely who, with his wife (Rosemary Theby), live in a modest cabin in the Yukon at the turn of the century. The Snavelys have a son named Chester (George Chandler), who left his modest home to go find his way in the big city, only to be arrested and jailed after stealing some bonds. We find this out in a song that Snavely torturously sings to a visiting Mountie (played by Rychard Cramer, frequent villain of Laurel & Hardy comedies), as well as hammily acted flashbacks that accompany the song.

Besides the inevitable, bathetic reunion of Chester with his parents, much of the movie’s comedy comes from what we could kindly call its lack of mise-en-scene. At one point, Snavely goes “over the rim” with his team of sled dogs, one of whom is so spindly that his paws don’t even touch the ground. As Snavely repeatedly commands the dogs to “Mush!”, he swallows some of the fake snow that has been lobbed at him and observes, “Tastes more like cornflakes!”

Whereas in most W.C. Fields comedies whose cheapness and lack of coherency are to be taken at face value, The Fatal Glass of Beer presents those debits as comic relief to what we’d have had to endure if the melodrama had been played straight. The movie is a real hoot.

W.C. Fields in THE PHARMACIST (1933) – Wanna buy a stamp?

1

The Pharmacist is easily the slightest of the three shorts that W.C. Fields made for producer Mack Sennett. With its utter defiance of film sense and continuity, it almost seems a short-subject companion to Fields’ equally surreal feature film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).

Fields plays Mr. Dilweg, the owner of a pharmacy that does not seem to be thriving. And small wonder — Dilweg seems to regard himself as most successful when selling entries from his postage-stamp inventory, and he gives away huge, arty vases to all of his customers (even the non-paying ones) as “souvenirs.”

Even stranger than the movie’s miniscule plot is Babe Kane — the worldly fiancee from Fields’ Sennett short The Dentist — as Dilweg’s Baby Snooks-like toddler daughter, whom Fields disciplines in a way that is just short of child abuse. As with Sucker, this movie’s finale seems to have come about mostly because Fields couldn’t think of anything better with which to end the movie.