THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981) – This movie’s a bust — Adrienne Barbeau’s, specifically

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If you’re familiar with the late 1970’s/early ’80s movie love-fests between Hal Needham (stuntman turned director) and Burt Reynolds (stuntman turned overindulged star), you’ll recognize The Cannonball Run as the tail end of a movie “series” that began at least fairly promisingly with Smokey and the Bandit.

This one is a fairly plotless number about a cross-country, high-speed chase-cum-race. Big-bust enthusiasts will greatly appreciate Adrienne Barbeau’s mostly-unzipped outfit, and a nifty cameo by Valerie Perrine as the only cop who slows her down. (Since the movie is rated only PG, it skips the obvious next step in the Perrine-Barbeau fantasy, in which Adrienne would use more dramatic measures to worm her way out of a ticket.)

The rest of the movie plays like a car-crash version of “The Love Boat,” in which aging stars amuse themselves with supposedly hysterical cameos. (Aging Rat Packers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. scrape the bottom of the barrel as bogus priests.) Why do the bustiest stars always appear in the worst movies?

Happy birthday, Adrienne Barbeau

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Today is the 70th birthday of actress Adrienne Barbeau. Considering how this woman almost singlehandedly got me through puberty, I would be remiss to let this milestone go unheralded.

In the pre-cable-TV days of the 1970’s, possibly the most astounding sight on national TV was to see Adrienne Barbeau on Monday evenings, bouncing across the set of the sitcom “Maude,” gloriously bra-less. By the time “Charlie’s Angels” and other such “jiggle-TV” shows made it to the air, Barbeau watchers sniffed in disdain. We’d already seen the finest.

And yet, the most amazing part of this national display is that Adrienne herself seemed quite unaware of it. Regular viewers of “Maude” could cite any number of scripted instances that make jokey references to Adrienne’s hefty chest. And yet, in her own memoir, Adrienne noted that it took her second husband to point out to her that, whenever she was making an entrance on the show, the cameramen took great pains to focus on her bosom as she was, say, walking down a staircase. She really didn’t think anyone would notice her unencumbered 36C bust entering the room before she did??

Adrienne’s unawareness of her own physicality continued right through her movie career, where she briefly appeared topless in the campy sci-fi movie Swamp ThingThe American version of the movie showed just a brief side glimpse of her toplessness, but the European version showed a full minute of her in full-frontal glory. This version later made headlines when it was released on video in America, and a Texas mother was horrified when she innocuously rented the PG-rated movie for her two young sons, only to have them treated to Adrienne’s eye-popping double feature in the comfort of their living room. After the mom complained, all such copies of the video were recalled and deleted, much to the regret of film historians.

My point is that, as gratified as millions of American males were to see Adrienne without benefit of brassiere, one wonders how she could have been so unaware of her effect on viewers. However, there’s no doubt that she’s aware of it now. In a self-questioning Q&A session in her memoir, Adrienne asks, “Are they real?”, and she answers herself, “Yes, just sitting a little lower than they did 20 years ago.”

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Popeye and Olive Oyl in WIMMEN IS A MYSKERY (1940) – So is conception, in this instance

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Popeye proposes marriage to Olive Oyl, and she tells him she will give him an answer the next morning. While Olive sleeps on it, she has a dream of domestic life with Popeye’s offspring.

This cartoon introduces the bratty, Popeye-cloned quartet that served as the Fleischers’ answer to Donald Duck’s roguish nephews. (Here, the boys are named differently from later cartoons; they’re Pep- , Pup- , Pip- , and Peep-Eye.) By any name, they ought to be enough to induce Olive to purchase a lifetime supply of birth control.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCan

Popeye and Bluto in CAN YOU TAKE IT? (1934) – Hand over fist, a first-rate cartoon

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Popeye sees a sign for the “Bruiser Boys Club – Can You Take It? – We Dare You To Join.” Inside, Popeye sees muscle-bound men doing their best to bludgeon each other into hamburger. Then he finds that the club’s president is Bluto. So, ya think Popeye would want to join this place? The only thing missing is a free can of spinach to new members.

Bluto derisively shakes Popeye’s hand and gives him an enlarged, sore thumb. Popeye responds by turning his other hand into a vice when he shakes it with Bluto’s.

That would be enough for most he-men, but not for Bluto, who puts Popeye through a club initiation that looks like The Ninth Circle of Hell Amusement Park. When Popeye ends up in a hospital bed and is told by Bluto that he can’t “take it,” well, it’s all over but the spinach. Popeye finally becomes president of the club, but that’s pretty easy to do once you’ve decimated all of the other members.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCanCan

An examination of Sandy Bates in Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES (1980)

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The following is my entry is the “White Swan/Black Swan Blogathon,” being held through Apr. 30 by the movie blog Cinematic Corner. Click on the banner above, and read bloggers’ takes on movie and TV characters with seemingly dual personalities!

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For this blogathon, I chose Sandy Bates for two reasons:

  1. Woody Allen is the first to tell anyone who will listen that his films are not autobiographical. Then he leaves overt autobiographical clues in his films that are just begging viewers to find them. Stardust Memories is the most obvious example.
  2. This movie was so polarizing that the White Swan/Black Swan motif might be the only fitting way to examine it and its main character.

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Stardust Memories is modeled after Italian director Federico Fellini’s autobiographical 8 ½ (1963), in which a Fellini-like, successful film director reconsidered his life and lovers. In Woody Allen’s version, Allen plays Sandy Bates, a filmmaker who wants to put his serious take of life on film, a stand that is dismissed by his movie-executive bosses as well as most of his fans, who make a point of preferring his “earlier, funnier” comedies. The movie’s two main plot points are:

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1)  Bates is being honored at a weekend film retrospective similar to those that were once held by film critic Judith Crist (who does a brief cameo in the movie). We see, variously, clips from Bates’ (i.e., Allen’s) “earlier, funner movies,” and Bates being heckled and tormented by a variety of strange fans. (One fan asks for an autograph and says, “Would you please sign it, ‘To Phyllis Weinstein, you ungrateful, lying bitch’?”)

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2) In his mind, Bates is juggling past, present, and potential relationships with three women. Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) is a French-speaking women who has taken her two children and left her husband to be with Bates. Bates meets Daisy (Jessica Harper) at the retrospective, regards her as an oasis of sanity in the craziness of the retro weekend, and flirts with her throughout the movie. The woman with whom Bates is primarily obsessed is Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), Bates’ beautiful but highly neurotic ex-lover, who has since been committed to a mental institution.

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The entire movie is, rather claustrophically, told from Bates’ point of view. The fans who helped to make Bates’ career are shown visually as large-nosed and ugly, and mentally as either ignorant or pretentious. Bates’ movie-executive bosses are shown as ignoramuses who don’t appreciate Bates’ move into serious dramas.

(Allen has spoken little publicly about the commercial and critical drubbing of his first foray into drama, Interiors [1978]. Allen’s depiction here of the unfeeling movie execs would seem to be Allen’s most obvious answer to Interiors’ critics.)

No matter what the setting, the deck is always stacked in favor of Bates. At the retrospective, he is unfailingly patient to an ever-escalating scale of crazy fans who want something from him (an autograph, a charity appearance, and in one scene in the movie, a one-night stand).

When clips from Bates’ comedies are shown at the retrospective, we hear laughter that doesn’t sound pleasurable, more like hyenas’ howlings. It’s as if Woody Allen is saying, “I’ve moved on from my comedies, well-done though they are. Why do these Philistines continue to laugh at them?”

One scene shows Allen visiting his sister (Anne DeSalvo) in New Jersey. When the sister opens her front door, Bates is greeted by another gathering of smudgy-faced people — in this case, some women who have gathered for his sister’s exercise class. One woman’s face is beaten, and the sister tells how this woman was repeatedly raped. Yet the rape victim, a heavy-set woman, is inexplicably wearing a T-shirt labeled “Sexy.” Allen seems to be eerily suggesting that this self-obsessed woman got what she deserved.

All of this culminates in a scene where Bates loudly and whinily tries to escape from the shrieking harpies at the retrospective, only to be confronted by a fan who says, “Mister Bates? You know, I’m your biggest fan,” before shooting Bates. There follows a long scene where Bates is transported to the afterlife (only to be harassed by more people who dislike his serious movies) before we find out that the shooting incident was merely a fantasy Bates was having before he collapsed from nervous tension.

The movie’s finale seems to make an attempt at a happy ending: Daisy is never heard from again after the shooting “incident,” and Bates has purged Dorrie from his mind and is content to settle for domestic bliss with Isobel and her bratty kids. Yet Allen has one more (dirty) trick up his sleeve. It turns out that the previous 90 minutes was actually Sandy Bates’ newest movie, about which the “real” movie’s stars and fans make still more derisive comments at movie’s end.

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Not surprisingly, critics and moviegoers alike reacted harshly to Allen’s depiction of them as uneducated savages, and Stardust Memories barely earned back its $10 million budget at the box office. Allen’s major fan base seems to have parted ways with him at this point, and he spent the 1980’s making quirky movies that did their major business overseas, before he again hit box-office gold with Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).

Since 1980, Allen has repeatedly stated that Stardust Memories was never intended as a poison-pen letter to his fans, and that even if he really disliked his fans that much, he would never explicitly say so in a movie. Yet the evidence against this benign viewpoint is Stardust Memories in its entirety.

Critic John Simon might have been onto something when he quoted Sandy Bates’ one-liner from the movie: “You can’t control life, you can only control art. Art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an absolute expert.” Simon riposted, “I say there is no doubt about it — he just has difficulty figuring out which is which.”

Laurel & Hardy in ANY OLD PORT (1932) – Not quite a knockout comedy

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

There’s something about Walter Long and seediness that just go together. In Any Old Port and the later The Live Ghost, Long comes off as so snaggle-toothed and unscrupulous, he seems to bring his own ugly surroundings with him to dress up the set.

Here, Long is the proprietor of a rundown hotel. His very first scene shows him trying to “marry” his bedraggled servant girl (Jacqueline Wells), whom he picked up from God knows where. One is sorry that Stan and Ollie even have to sully their innocent hands on his registry book (though this does allow for Stan and Ollie’s always-reliable signing-the-book routine). Eventually, they help the girl escape Long’s gnarly clutches.

The film’s second half always leaves me uncomfortable. Ollie runs into an old friend (Harry Bernard) who is now the proprietor of a fight ring and says he’ll throw some money Ollie’s way to participate in a boxing match. Ollie then goes off with Stan to a fancy restaurant and orders an elaborate meal. When Stan tries to do the same, Ollie blithely tells Stan he can’t eat because he’s the one who will be boxing that night. Stan’s usually comical cry doesn’t win much laughter in the face of Ollie’s callousness.

It only gets worse when it turns out that Long is Stan’s opponent. Despite some clever gags by Stan reminiscent of Chaplin’s similar turn in City Lights, one can’t help but feel for him rather than laugh at him (especially when Ollie re-emphasizes his lack of sympathy for Stan in his final line of dialogue).

There are times (as in his addressing Stan as “stupid” in The Music Box) where Ollie’s bullying goes beyond condescending to downright brutish. Unfortunately, the last half of Any Old Port is one of those times.