Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category


A movie with a sequel with a remake that had a sequel remake

 

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

 Father Of the Bride (1950). Directed by Vincente Minelli. Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, from the novel by Edward Streeter. Starring Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joan Bennett. 92 minutes. ***

Father’s Little Dividend. (1951). Directed by Vincente Minelli.  Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, from the characters created by Edward Streeter. Starring Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joan Bennett. 82 minutes. ***.

Father of the Bride (1991). Directed by Charles Shyer. Written by Nancy Myers and Charles Shyer, from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich and  Albert Hackett and novel by Edward Streeter. Starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Martin Short. 105 minutes. ** 1/2

Father Of the Bride Part Two (1995). Directed by Charles Shyer. Written by Nancy Myers and Charles Shyer, from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hacker and novel by Edward Streeter. Starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Martin Short. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

This one’s a bit convoluted, we’re afraid. A movie with a sequel that was remade that had a sequel that was itself a remake of the first movie’s sequel, although by then fidelity to the original story was limited to the sheer phenomenon of human reproduction. It is also an interesting cultural phenomenon for its own sake, as it presents snapshots of the American family – or at least the way the American family wanted to see itself – at two different points in history, forty years apart.

The originals came from a time where it was polite to pretend on screen that all married couples slept in twin beds, and where suits and ties were so much the official uniform of the American male that Spencer Tracy’s character even bothers to get dressed up while rushing to the hospital in the middle of the night, to attend his first grandchild’s birth. (Imagine a modern grandfather donning more than a comfortable pullover and a pair of jeans for the same occasion, and it’s likely that you’d consider him ridiculously anal.)

The 1990s versions presented a different kind of froth entirely, of the sort all-too-common in its particular era of moviemaking: in that its family seems not just comfortable but ridiculously well-off, and money isn’t even a problem for the young couple, since the future groom and son-in-law is a “consultant” whose services command such a high price that, we’re told, no company can possibly afford his services on a permanent basis.  (And Steve Martin’s character still grumps that he’s not good enough for his daughter.) Indeed, it is hard to watch the scenes where he appears, and not remember another Spencer Tracy uncomfortable-engagement movie, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1968),  which brought race into the equation and where the black man who wants to marry Tracy’s daughter is not just a thoroughly respectable fella but a doctor and a world-class  philantropist and an important man and possibly a great one and in all ways so perfect and iconic and perfect and Poitier that, race aside, there is absolutely no remaining room to object to him. Just as that movie would have been a little bit better, a little less like a gift-wrapped sermon, had there been some aspect of the Poitier character  that rendered him a little less of a sterling catch, the Steve Martin Father Of The Bride would have been better if the young man had possessed some attribute, aside from a penis and designs on Daddy’s little girl, that gave Martin’s character some greater reason to be ambivalent about him. Or maybe that’s part of the joke.

Beyond that, there is little in any of these four films worth waxing eloquent about at any real length. They are sitcoms; fun sitcoms and for the most part resonant sitcoms, in that they deal with life’s most important passages and for the most part do so honestly, inserting complications whenever the story needs to be prolonged. In all four films the chief dramatic concern is not how the daughter feels about any of these tremendous changes in her life, but about how her father George deals with them; how he resents the alteration in the universe he knows and comes only slowly to the realization that it’s a good thing. All four films benefit from the presence of a leading man with a special talent for a slow burn.

Father Of the Bride (1950), Father’s Little Dividend (1951)

The chief treasure of this one is Spencer Tracy, long regarded one of the all-time great American film actors, here ably supported by the luminous Elizabeth Taylor as his daughter.  She, however, is not so much playing a character as a MacGuffin: the reason for her father to go so crazy, and to wax rhapsodic with voice-over speeches like, “Who giveth this woman? “This woman.” But she’s not a woman. She’s still a child. And she’s leaving us. What’s it going to be like to come home and not find her? Not to hear her voice calling “Hi, Pops” as I come in? I suddenly realized what I was doing. I was giving up Kay. Something inside me began to hurt. “ It is that, the kernel of human truth, that gives the emotions their weight, and the comedy the resonance of human truth, even when the screenplay is contorting itself into knots to keep the story going; i.e. the rather bloodless crises in the relationship of Kay and her beau, that arrive at key moments in both the first and second films.

Much of the comedy in the first film comes from Tracy’s realization that the wedding he’s expected to pay for has spiraled out of control and the 140-guest relatively intimate occasion he’s hoped for has become a 240-guest extravaganza. But this is not a mere “Money Pit” situation. The increasing size of the occasion is not only an insult to his pocketbook but also an external manifestation of his realization that he’s no longer in control, period. Much of the comedy in the second film comes from his determination to treat the birth of his grandchild as not such a big deal, even as the other grandparents and his wife twist his world out of all recognition in preparation for its arrival.

The one scene we’ll point to in the original is the hidden gem of a dream sequence, which afflicts Tracy on the night before the wedding and which the apotheosis of all anxiety dreams centered on social occasions. In it, Tracy cannot seem to get down the aisle to join his daughter. The floor rebels under his feet, the clothes fall to pieces on his body, and the assembled guests all stare at him with aghast mortification, while he struggles in vain. Who has not experienced a phantasm like this, on the night before a big day? And how perfect is it, that upon waking, he has to be the source of comfort and confidence for his daughter, who is also suffering the pre wedding day jitters?

The one scene we’ll point to in the somewhat more awkward sequel is the climactic crisis, in which the less-than-doting grandfather misplaces the baby and after a suitable interval of panic finds him, and finally bonds with him as a result. Need it be said that the disappearance of a child, due to a grandfather’s momentary negligence, does not play exactly the same way today?

Father Of the Bride (1991), Father Of the Bride Part Two (1995)

Respect for what came before led this viewer to scorn the first of these films in 1991, but let’s be honest: it plays the same notes, and it plays them in pretty much the same way. See, for instance, this voice-over quote from the first film of this incarnation, where Steve Martin expresses the same thoughts Spencer Tracy had forty years before. “Who presents this woman? This woman? But she’s not a woman. She’s just a kid. And she’s leaving us. I realized at that moment that I was never going to come home again and see Annie at the top of the stairs. Never going to see her again at our breakfast table in her nightgown and socks. I suddenly realized what was happening. Annie was all grown up and was leaving us, and something inside began to hurt.”

Steve Martin is as good at a slow burn as Spencer Tracy ever was, and while, as we said before,  the film bends excessively backward to make the prospective and then actual son-in-law the absolute best catch in the history of the universe, it’s nice that some lip service is given to daughter Kay also being an accomplished professional herself. As much as she is expected to support her husband in his career, he will also be expected to support her, in hers. It may be lip service, but it’s also a clear illustration of the changes this sorry old world has seen since 1950, and is not at all a bad thing. In this spirit, I actually like the first film’s pre-marital crisis, which has to do with the “uneasy sexual politics” of buying your bride-to-be a blender as present; after all, anybody who’s ever been in a relationship has also had the well-meaning gesture given the worst possible interpretation at the worst possible moment, and it’s more antidote to any narrative subtext presenting Kay as just a commodity to be given away.

Regarding Father Of the Bride Part Two, we must say: Part Two? Really? You couldn’t do any better than Part Two? You couldn’t figure out some other way to let your audience know that this was a sequel to a remake and a remake of the sequel? Do you really think the audience is that stupid? Granted that Diane Keaton’s first major role in the Godfather movies also involved a “Part Two,” we must express, and express again, our growing disdain with sequels that cannot even be bothered to provide the audience with some form of new title.

The innovation of Part Two, such as it is,  is contriving for Diane Keaton’s fifty-year-old Nina Banks to get pregnant at pretty much exactly the same time that her daughter Kay does. This pushes biological plausibility, but is not outside the realm of human experience, and doubles down on George’s anxiety as the twin blessed occasions approach.

Three things need to be noted about this. First, there is a law, pretty much inviolable, in movie comedies where more than one woman is pregnant: they must always go into labor at the same time, and if possible give birth mere minutes part. That’s a given. and anybody watching this movie who fails to expect it has never seen a movie before.

Second, the movie goes to extravagant and downright embarrassing lengths explaining just how George and  Nina came to conceive the child, treating their lovemaking session as an unusual and surprising development so remarkable that they experience jaw-dropping epiphany of the “you mean, that night…” sort,  when Nina’s pregnancy comes to light, weeks later. Really. The movie comes within a gnat’s eyelash of actively apologizing for any implication that a couple this old might regularly have sex; it certainly treats the occasion as a somewhat embarrassing fluke.

Third, while the sentiment in a sitcom this contrived is certainly easy for someone of sufficiently cynical bent to mock, this viewer falls apart, absolutely falls apart, when both Nina and Kay have been taken away to have their babies, and George bares his heart to the obstetrician, saying, “These women are my life.” There is no apologizing for this.

As for Martin Short’s flamboyant, english-mangling wedding planner, Franck Eggelhoffer, who gets all the outrageous moments in both films: you might find him painful, or you might find him hilarious. I ‘m staying out of it.

The Vows

The originals: dated classics, with a splendid lead performance by Spencer Tracy. The remakes: not quite as good, but not as inferior to the Tracy version as many seem to think.

And now, the wife submits her catering budget…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

 Father Of the Bride (1950). Directed by Vincente Minelli. Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, from the novel by Edward Streeter. Starring Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joan Bennett. 92 minutes. ***

Father’s Little Dividend. (1951). Directed by Vincente Minelli.  Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, from the characters created by Edward Streeter. Starring Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joan Bennett. 82 minutes. ***.

Father of the Bride (1991). Directed by Charles Shyer. Written by Nancy Myers and Charles Shyer, from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich and  Albert Hackett and novel by Edward Streeter. Starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Martin Short. 105 minutes. ** 1/2

Father Of the Bride Part Two (1995). Directed by Charles Shyer. Written by Nancy Myers and Charles Shyer, from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hacker and novel by Edward Streeter. Starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Martin Short. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

The greatest compliment I can lend to any film is that I can see a reflection of my life in in its situations and characters. 

This having been said I was not even a wisp of a dream to either of my parents in 1950/1951 and by 1991 they were resigned that I would never marry(oops fooled them). Yet somehow, Father of the Bride (both versions) seemed to play on an unending mindloop throughout 2002 and the year of wedding over-planning. (I challenge all of you to plan a traditional Jewish wedding, outdoors on Christmas Day with a Science Fiction theme that stays under budget!)  Oh: and did I include the fact that I was recovering from major surgery and am highly allergic to many foods and inhalants, especially flowers?  Compare that to the challenges faced in the films and you may begin to see why I hold both films close.

While the earlier films are charming but dated, they reflected much of my parents’s views of life, parenting and the responsibilities of the poor bride’s parents.  The 90’s era films were more frenetic.  The runabout pacing giving less chance for character, but more for Steve Martin fumbling at being dad.  Both Fathers are there for the traditional role of open wallet/shut mouth.  My question, if the 90’s film were such an update, why didn’t daddy’s little angel just move in with the guy?  Why the need for the overwrought garden wedding?  I guess much like my case, it was someone’s dream. (Let Adam tell you my original plans for our marriage).

In the sequels we see the difference in attitudes towards pregnancy over a 40 year span.  In the 1951 film mommy to be is pushed into a larger home, help is volunteered and parties are thrown.  She is not to get overworked, stressed or upset, all of which she does so daddy can come to her rescue.  In the 90’s ,both mother and daughter are going through the joys together.  We see them shopping, comparing notes and harassing their husbands into submission.  The old guy (Martin) nearly collapses under it all and the young father to be heads out assured that all will be taken care of.  Huh?  Of course both must deliver within minutes of each other or the “comedy” falls short.  Huh? again.  What was wrong with the grandparents becoming grandparents?  When my sister had her children, we all crowded out the waiting room.  2 sets of prospective grands, one set of great aunt/uncle, 2 aunts and 2 uncles all to be.  Wouldn’t that scene have been enough fodder for the film?

And of course, they had to add the teary ending to remind you how funny everything was before this point.  PUHLEEZE!

That being said.  I actually enjoy watching the Martin films.  He and Diane Keaton are fun even in the implausible sequel.  But no one can replace ultra father(even without the priest collar) Spencer Tracy.  He made me believe that he was Elizabeth Taylor’s dad  for both films, His rough gruff 50’s guy is just like my own Pop: loud when warranted and soft when needed, just like these films.

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We agree that half the people at the party are idiots. But which half?

A new height in “explaining the premise.”

 

“I Have Laid Eggs Inside Your Brain.”

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Dinner Game, originally released in France as Le Diner de Cons, literal translation The Dinner Of Cunts (1998). Directed by Francis Veber. Screenplay by Francis Veber, from his play. Starring Jacques Villeret, Thierry Lhermitte, Francis Huster, and Alexandra Vandermoot. 87 minutes. ** 1/2

Dinner For Schmucks (2010). Directed by Jay Roach. Screenplay by David Guion and Michael Handelman, from the French original by Francis Veber. Starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Bruce Greenwood, Zach Galifianakis. 114 minutes. ** 1/2.

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, the Hindi Film Bheja Fry (2007); the Malayam film April Fool (2010); the Kannada film Mr. Garagasa (2008). Veber’s play has also been translated and produced in China.

*

There’s a bunch of well-to-do guys. They are privileged and they are arrogant and they consider themselves Masters of the Universe. For fun they get together for dinner parties centered around a cruel game: the feting of people far below their station, whose sole sin is their personal enthusiasm for some endeavor these well-to-do guys consider beneath them, an endeavor that the presumed guests of honor can be invited to defend at length while their hosts secretly laugh at them. The “idiots,” as they are called by the men who throw this party, never learn that its sole purpose is mockery.

Our protagonist is one of the men in on the joke, who finds himself a grade-a, first-class shmuck to parade about: a fundamentally sweet man who is otherwise so socially clueless and so emotionally invested in the absurd hobby that takes up all his spare time that he will certainly be the hit of the party. Unfortunately, our “hero” makes the mistake of allowing this guy to meet him beforehand, at his home…and not just on any random day, but on the day when the love of our protagonist’s life gets so fed up with his heartlessness that she’s stormed out in a huff.

Worse, the dim guest is so grateful to be invited to the party that he resolves to do whatever he can to “help” his suffering host…and winds up making matters worse, reducing the man’s life to an utter shambles in record time.

This is the premise of a minor international phenomenon, spawned by a French play and remade multiple times around the world. Most people will only be familiar with the most famous of the adaptations, which stars a sitcom star who rose to fame playing a different kind of socially clueless cretin on the American version of The Office (which is itself a remake).

We don’t make the argument that any of them are great movies. Of the two we’ve seen, The Dinner Game is consistently funny but stage-bound, and doesn’t so much reach a recognizable conclusion as flash to a freeze-frame just as the madness starts all over again; while Dinner for Shmucks is so desperately over-the-top that for much of its length that it often buries the comedy, just barely achieving a checkmark in the Win column only through the performances of its leads and the late appearance of genuine inspiration at the titular event. But it’s instructive to examine exactly how the two versions under discussion today differ and how, despite substantial similarities,  they wind up occupying entirely different moral and narrative universes.

The Dinner Game (1998)

The protagonist of the French original is Francois Pignon (Villeret), a wealthy publisher very much invested in his vile “game,” who jumps at the chance to invite one Pierre Brochant (Lermitte), a tax worker infatuated with building matchstick sculptures of world monuments.

Brochant is a fascinating comic creation. Small, lumpy, with frizzy male-pattern baldness that make him look a little like a gnomish Chia-pet, he is a desperately lonely fellow abandoned by his wife who has subsequently found the one thing he is good at. Like many one-trick ponies, he is a bore on the subject, and delights in the opportunity to regale others with recitations of just how many matchsticks he used to build his Eiffel Tower or Golden Gate Bridge. A little child-like smile appears on his face when he accidentally-on-purpose drops one of the photographs he has taken of his work in the lap of a fellow commuter, and is thus afforded the chance to box a total stranger’s ears off with an unwanted discourse on his work. He is a true innocent, a man incapable of guile, whose subsequent efforts to “help” Pignon with improvised lies constantly fall victim to his inability to remember exactly why he adopted those lies in the first place.

Brochant means well when he invites Pignon’s old girlfriend over, and when he subsequently mistakes Pignon’s wife for her and sends her storming off in renewed fury by telling her that the affair must end; and he’s certainly not entirely responsible for the further disasters that ensue when an increasingly desperate Pignon goes along with inviting over another tax-assessor who just might know the address of the secret love nest belonging to the local rake with whom Pignon’s wife might have sought refuge. He has a knack for exposing all subterfuge at the worst possible moment, multiplying the complications for Pignon, who needs his complacency shattered in any event.

Still, he’s a relatively low-wattage source of outright idiocy, compared to the heights of insanity to be found in the Carell film. So is the only other “idiot” we get to see in any real detail, a fellow whose passion is collecting and throwing boomerangs. It is (by design) possible to watch this film and feel real contempt for the throwers of the party, and the absolutely unforgiveable disdain they harbor for people who simply have interests different than their own. (And it’s not just because I’ve been a boomerang fancier as well, though I haven’t collected any or thrown mine in years; after all, I’m also a science fiction writer, who has from time to time had to deal with dullards who think it the height of wit to ask me, always with a look of unearned superiority, where I keep my Spock ears. Ha-ha, that’s really funny, nobody ever said that before. And seriously, fuck you.)

Pignon is very different from the version of him Paul Rudd plays in Dinner for Schmucks. Unlike Rudd’s character, he’s not a nice man. He deeply loves the idiot dinners and has been attending them for years, despite his wife’s revulsion for their cruelty. We also learn that he wooed the woman he’s so desperate to keep from his erstwhile best friend, Just Leblanc (Francis Huster), a man who he has been estranged from ever since, and who turns out to still harbor substantial friendship for him despite the damage done. The crazy girlfriend Brochant invites over may not be an ex, but Pignon’s actual current mistress. He deserves everything that happens to him…and when he is finally moved to call himself an idiot, after watching the entire house of cards he has built fall apart as much due to his own dishonesty as Brochant’s force-of-nature interference, it has the weight of a personal epiphany. 

Leblanc, who despite the weight of the hurt his friend has done him still shows up to help, is a marvelous subsidiary character. Not only does he give the story added heart, but he also makes the chaos sowed by Brochant much funnier, by his constant silent eruptions of schadenfreude-laden laughter. He’s glad to have his friend back. He doesn’t want anything bad to happen to the guy. He actually does want to help. But can anybody blame him for so deeply enjoying the spectacle of the man who hurt him so much, suffering so much tsuris from the interference of a helpful idiot?

The stage-bound story offers only a glimpse of the dinner party, at the opposite end of a phone call; it indeed only briefly leaves Pignon’s apartment. It ends with Brochant, who has by now learned why he was invited in the first place, picking up the phone, speaking from the heart to Pignon’s estranged wife and almost fixing Pignon’s marital woes. It ends with a freeze-frame just as another break sends Pignon’s life spiraling into chaos again. Still, by that time, Pignon has taken a step toward becoming a better person.

Even so – and this is a huge “even so” – it would take an extreme act of audience generosity to interpret the brief interval of apology on Pignon’s part as evidence that the two are destined to become friends. The class divisions between them remain in place. Whether Pignon’s marriage gets patched together or not, whether he applies the lesson he has learned or not, he will ultimately manage to get Brochant out of his life and never, ever invite him back.

This is not the direction taken by Dinner For Schmucks. 

Dinner For Schmucks (2010)

Translate the Yiddish term that has entered English usage and the French Dinner Of Cunts becomes the American Dinner of Dicks, which has the nice effect of turning the title around on itself and referencing not the dinner guests, but the party throwers.

This is only appropriate in that the very first move the American version makes is softening its protagonist, who here becomes Timothy Conrad (Paul Rudd), a rising young executive desperate to ascend to the top level of management, who has finally impressed the evil boss Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) only to find out that participation in the board’s occasional feting of idiots a requirement for advancement in the corporate culture. Unlike Pignon, a rotten guy who might be induced to become a better one, Conrad is a decent guy repelled by the premise of the party – he calls it “messed up” – but his ambition makes him temporarily lose himself, especially when he happens to, literally, run into  one Barry Speck (Steve Carell), whose eccentricity is extreme enough to make him a hit at the party.

Barry’s hobby is taxidermy. He searches for dead mice, mostly road-kill, then stuffs them, dresses them like people, and arranges them in wildly elaborate scenic dioramas that define the borderland between absolutely fetching and genuinely creepy. The set-piece is a bucolic study of young lovers at play in the countryside, complete with one pair meeting in a gazebo, another pair boating, others strolling or playing, and all, pretty much, illustrating a dream of peace and company that we rapidly come to understand Speck has lost. It is downright beautiful, in a way that may qualify as genius.

Balancing that, Barry is far more aggressively stupid than Brochant, to the point of seeming borderline dysfunctional, but like Brochant there is nothing vicious in him, nothing but insistent and destructive helpfulness as he shows up at Conrad’s apartment a day early and rapidly dismantles his poor host’s life.

The next hour or so pretty much echoes the events of The Dinner Game, complete with painful back injury, a much-beloved woman storming away from her man in disgust, and the use of tax records to find the love nest where Conrad’s missing girlfriend might be. It is all, however, played at a level far more elaborate, and crazier, than anything that happens in The Dinner Game.  This is for much of its running time not particularly a compliment. The makers didn’t trust the Barry/Timothy interplay to be funny enough, and populated the film with such a broad variety of grotesques that it seems odd for Conrad to have expressed so much dismay at the mere prospect of even finding a good idiot, when the world he inhabits is so overpopulated with them that he should merely have to reach out for the nearest person at random.

Thus, it is not enough for Barry to be clueless; he must be such an idiot that he rarely speaks a sentence without exposing his stupidity. It is not enough there to be another woman, who Barry can mistake for Conrad’s girlfriend and vice-versa at the moments when each misunderstanding will cause the greatest possible damage; she must be a shrill, psychotic stalker, who runs violently amuck when she doesn’t get her way. It isn’t enough for Barry to have a colleague at the tax bureau who causes trouble; that colleague must be a megalomaniac who has long tormented Barry (by among other things taking his wife and controlling him “with the power of (his) mind.”) It isn’t enough for Barry to wreck Conrad’s life; he must also wreck Conrad’s belongings. 

(I would almost include the character of Kieran (Jermaine Clement), the pretentious artist Conrad’s art-gallery girlfriend does business with, as one of the problems, but I actually find him a delightful comic creation, who is simply too much for this overstuffed movie. Kieran’s artwork consists of tributes to his own allegedly seething sexuality, and his conversation includes deep questions like “Have you ever lived among a herd of goats, for months at a time, as one of them?” and blather like,  “Sometimes I’ll be working on a piece, and I’ll think, “No, this is bullshit.” So I will literally rub bull excrement on the piece as a metaphor.” Kieran is hilarious. And the screenplay actually gives him a moment where he sadly recognizes his own absurdity, a sad moment of self-awareness where he labels himself a goat in the act of self-cannibalism. Charlie Sheen could use that kind of self-awareness.)

The movie is exhausting and only fitfully funny for most of its length, often descending to that point no-longer funny that is reached by many sitcoms (including, at times, Carell’s The Office) where we simply feel embarrassed for the characters. Then it gets to the titular dinner, as the original does not. At this point the anarchic nature of the enterprise takes over, and the comedy suddenly takes off.

I won’t cover the craziness in any real detail, except to note the chief difference that most makes the earlier parts of the film worth sitting through. When Barry presents a parade of elaborate dead-mouse dioramas to the assembled smirking zillionaires, his pretentious descriptions of his work awash with malaprops and terribly, terribly misunderstood summaries of the depicted historical events, we get, among all the reaction shots of Greenwood and others barely able to contain their mirth…

…close-ups of Conrad…

…who has come to feel for this lonely man…

…and who is against all odds, against all his expectations, and against all his will…

…charmed by what he sees.

Conrad gets it. And that’s a moment of personal epiphany far greater than the passing remorse his equivalent shows in The Dinner Game.

When, a couple of scenes later, Conrad prepares Barry to confront his “mind-controlling” IRS nemesis by telling him, you’re a telepath yourself, you’ve moved into my mind and taken up permanent residence there,  it’s an unlikely, but still effecting, emotional payoff that in context feels perfectly real. It is Paul Rudd, not Steve Carell, who has the responsibility of selling this, but he manages the trick, and it feels entirely earned.

There’s more insane havoc to follow, not to mention the scene wrapping up Conrad’s troubles with his girlfriend. But we have already passed the true emotional climax.

Unlike Brochant, Barry will be coming to dinner with Conrad again, this time as a friend.

The After-Dinner Mint

The Dinner Game, a stage-bound French farce that steadily builds in hilarity, but fails to provide a satisfactory ending. Dinner For Schmucks, an often-frustrating film that takes a long time to deliver the goods, but ultimately does.

*

My wife, who wouldn’t throw such a dinner or be invited to one, hereby offers her two cents from a nearby diner.

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Dinner Game aka Le Diner de Cons, literal translation The Dinner Of Cunts (1998). Directed by Francis Veber. Screenplay by Francis Veber, from his play. Starring Jacques Villeret, Thierry Lhermitte, Francis Huster, and Alexandra Vandermoot. 87 minutes. *

Dinner For Schmucks (2010). Directed by Jay Roach. Screenplay by David Guion and Michael Handelman, from the French original by Francis Veber. Starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Bruce Greenwood, Zach Galifianakis. 114 minutes. *

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, the Hindi Film Bheja Fry (2007); the Malayam film April Fool (2010); the Kannada film Mr. Garagasa (2008). Veber’s play has also been translated and produced in China.   

I objected to Dinner for Schmucks from the first time I heard the title.  My parents had drilled it into me from childhood that one of those words (and it must be stated here that it is not dinner as my round, youthful figure can prove) was VERY BAD!!! and should never, ever be used under any circumstances.  Now, I must admit that my current vocabulary does tend to run along the lines of what used to be called a bit salty , and my current common cussiage is something four lettered and malleable, I still carry that childhood aversion to the word chosen for the American title.

Now that I have that off my chest, I can begin my rant on how I hate the glorification of stupidity.

Both films, at the core, are about how evil and vile these so called superior beings are in relation to the poor, dumb and actually naïve shmoes they trick into their dinner party.  We are supposed to feel sorry for the poor abused “idiots” (none of which actually are), and feel contempt for the guys who have made it and are amusing themselves at the poor folks’s expense.  Isn’t this most of the NERD films?  Let the underdog show how he is truly the better person by dint of his kind and virtuous nature.  Bull hockey!!  What happened to social Darwinism?  That’s what we see here, but the writer has decided that good MUST triumph and in the American version allows for the happy ending.

Before you folks believe that I would be one of the evil overlord types, I was the invited dog at a frat party once in college.  And, no, I didn’t catch on for many hours.  But I’ve grown and moved on.  So when I see Barry/Brochant not catching on at any point, and in fact stumbling even harder down that same loser path, I feel no pity or sympathy.  In fact, I just want to kick them and wake them up to the reality that they so desperately hide from. Is this supposed to be the humor?  I sincerely doubt it.

There is little I can say that would reflect well on either film.  Both “fools” were set up as talented artists, more savant than genius.  With the lack of social skills one often associates with autism they stumble through their daily grind, with few friends,  desperate for attention.

The real difference between the French film and the American is in the take on the “user” .  Pignon is left virtually unchanged emotionally by his encounters with Brochant, while Conrad is awakened to how horrible he is and rallies to Barry’s side.  While this change was made to give the upbeat ending Americans supposedly desire, I found the redemption neither truthful or uplifting.  It was a cheat.  Both men should have been left ruined by the experiences, or untouched by them, and then, oops, no story.  How sad.

So, now you ask, how is either film the glorification of stupidity?  Simply put, in each film, the naïve fool is left the final heroic moment and therefore given to glory.  To this I object!   I can tolerate a lack of knowledge, that can allow for growth.  I can allow for youth/old age because not all is available to their minds. But, I can not stand when a human being refuses to see the facts when placed gracefully before them.  That is the fool. The purposefully blind. There are your dinner guests.


An author’s intent, an actor’s fragile ego, a genial shambles and cruelty to testicles 

*

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Casino Royale (1967). Directed by Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, and Richard Talmadge. Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Additional screenplay contributions by (take a deep breath), Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Billy Wilder, and Peter Sellers. Starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, and Orson Welles. 131 minutes. ** 1/2

Casino Royale (2006). Directed by Martin Campbell. Screenplay by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with Paul Haggis, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Madi Mikkelson, Judi Dench, and Giancarlo Giannini. 144 minutes. *** 1/2.

Other Known Versions: Seen by us but not reviewed for this essay, “Casino Royale,” episode of TV-anthology series Climax! (1954), starring Barry Nelson as “Jimmy” Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre.

*

The James Bond films have become so cemented in their formula for success that their various inevitable ingredients sometimes make them seem less like individual stories than the same story, told and retold with only a few particulars changed. Such elements as the enemy stronghold that blows up in the action climax, the empty badinage with poor pining Miss Moneypenny, the give-and-take with his weapons master Q, the ordering of a martini (shaken not stirred), the final scene where Bond ignores a congratulatory message from his superiors in order to pursue celebratory sex with the rescued lady of the day, the McGuffin that often involves hijacked nuclear weaponry, and (most relevant to today’s examples), the gambling match with the villain where Bond beats the bad guy at the game he is enough of a cad to cheat at, are such series mainstays that they all appear, with only minimal variation, in most of the franchise’s outings. It’s more surprising, overall, when a Bond film chooses to omit one, let alone several.

Sometimes, the newest Bond film seemed less a separate entity than a de facto remake of the Bond film before it (as with The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker).

Under the circumstances, any talk of remakes seems so superfluous that it’s almost startling to note that the series has already known two complete sets.

One involved a twisted saga of the disputed rights to Bond and his supporting cast,  some of whom were concocted by a screenwriter who wrote a spec script for Ian Fleming. A couple of rancorous major court cases led to a settlement that ultimately deprived the main movie series of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the recurring villain who had dominated the Sean Connery era and who became the model for the Austin Powers villain, Dr. Evil. It was this very situation that led to Thunderball being remade, also with Connery, as Never Say Never Again.

The same consortium responsible for that one, hoarding its one treasure like a certain ex-hobbit mutated into Gollum by years of exposure to the ring of power, later tried to make the same basic story a third time, with yet another Bond reprising his role. They didn’t get backing again, but you really can’t blame them for trying.

And then there’s this, relic born of the one Bond novel adapted for television before the movie series, the same one that Howard Hawks once considered filming with Cary Grant. (‘Twas not to be, but seriously, consider Cary Grant as James Bond, and sigh.)

Casino Royale, which was not included in the package deal procured by the Broccoli family, was first filmed in 1954 as a not especially-distinguished episode of a TV anthology series, featuring an American “Jimmy” Bond who needed to win a card game against a Le Chiffre affiliated with french socialists. Copies of that production were lost for decades, but were eventually located and released on VHS (where this reviewer saw it, though it was also included as a DVD extra with the 1967 version).  I can report that it features Barry Nelson as a not-especially charismatic Bond and Peter Lorre as a Le Chiffre who doesn’t lend the play much more than his bored presence. It does, however, hew to the premise of Ian Fleming’s first Bond story, which has the super secret agent obliged to prevent the bad guy from winning a game of Baccarat that will replenish the funds he has embezzled from the Soviets.

(Thus leading to the pithy observation that while other Bond villains had grandiose ambitions, like extorting billions with nuclear terrorism, cornering the world heroin market, starting World War III, or wiping out most of humanity in order to establish a despotic rule over the survivors, this guy is motivated by nothing more than getting his hands caught in the till. In all filmed versions of Casino Royale,  Le Chiffre’s poor money management has gotten him into debt with the wrong people and he wants only to cover his own ass. It’s almost possible to feel sorry for him. In essence, he’s a somewhat more competent version of William H. Macy’s put-upon car dealer from Fargo.)

As in Ian Fleming’s novel, Bond wins the game, only to find himself captured, tied to a chair, and tortured at length by Le Chiffre: a scene that figures prominently in both the movie versions to follow, and which features something relatively rare in the Bond films: 007 completely helpless, and almost broken. It is one of the few scenes that make it into both the 1967 and 2006 versions, a key point of congruence in two productions that are otherwise as different from one another as two motion pictures can be.

The 1967 Version: A Genial Shambles

When the sixties spy craze was at its absolute peak and Bond in particular was a genuine pop culture phenomenon, possessing the rights to a Bond novel not procured by the Brocollis represented a grand opportunity that the makers of the spoof wished to exploit in grand style. They made all the smart opening moves, first by distinguishing their version from the series starring Sean Connery by deciding in advance by planning a farce with only limited fidelity to the Fleming novel. They also cast David Niven, Fleming’s own original choice as the best possible actor to play his character, and in one of the lead female roles Ursula Andress, who had made a splash (ha-ha) as the hot girl in the swimsuit emerging from Bahamian waters in Dr. No, and who is here given dialogue directly referencing her fate in that original film.

They had an explanation for the differences in their Bond written into the screenplay. Their Bond is an aging gentleman, retired from spying, dedicated to a vow of celibacy, and utterly resentful of his namesake replacement, who he calls “that sexual acrobat who leaves a trail of dead beautiful women like so many blown roses behind him.” It turns out that Niven’s Bond was such a force for good that the Brits and their various allies thought that the absence of a James Bond, any James Bond, so destabilizing to the world order that somebody named Bond had to remain active at all times.

This happens to be the exact same theory that some fans still embrace to explain the periodic replacement of the leading men in the regular series. That’s right. James Bond as Job Title was invented here, and it certainly beats the somewhat geekier theory, also popular, that James Bond is a Time Lord who stays young by “regenerating” like the protagonist of Doctor Who.

Circumstances compel him to take over the job previously held by M (here played by John Huston, who isn’t around for long), and support a training program that installs other Bond surrogates in trouble spots throughout the world. Beyond that, the plot defies description, largely because there isn’t one. This Casino Royale wanders all over the map, with plotlines initiated and then dropped, important characters introduced and then dropped, and the many scenes of sixties sexual innuendo (with entire mobs of sixties beautiful women) interposed with scenes that not only fail to make sense but were apparently never intended to make sense. Any attempt to describe the story will inevitably arrive at the phrase, “for no reason whatsoever.” Much of it is very funny, though it needs to be said that a lot of it is just as irritatingly tiresome.

If its contempt for coherent narrative reminds modern-day viewers of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, another film that (somewhat more successfully) feels like it was being made up on the fly, be apprised that one of the 1967 Casino Royale’s early sequences, involving the determinedly chaste Bond’s unnerving night at a castle populated entirely by aggressive young women in heat, was cited by the Pythons a s a direct inspiration for their use of pretty much the identical situation in their film, where the sweaty celibate was played by Michael Palin and the name of the edifice became Castle Anthrax.

It is difficult to tell how much of the chaotic plotting was originally intended, but one of the factors that contributed to it was a very troubled production, caused in no small part by conflict between Peter Sellers (here playing one of the replacement Bonds, a card player whose real name is Evelyn Tremble) and Orson Welles (here playing Le Chiffre). Sellers, who was never the easiest man to work with, took an instant dislike to Welles, exacerbated when Princess Margaret visited the set and fawned over Welles while ignoring Sellers. (It didn’t help that Sellers had just been trying to impress one and all with detailed stories of his friendship with the woman.) Welles responded in kind, deriding Sellers as an amateur.

Sellers was also desperately upset that Casino Royale was a silly comedy, as he’d wanted to play Bond straight – as is evident during the baccarat scene, where much of Tremble’s baiting of Le Chiffre could almost be transposed to a serious Bond film without alteration. As for Welles, it appears to have been his idea to have Le Chiffre regularly stop the game to perform elaborate stage magic at the table – again, for no reason whatsoever — behavior that would less than kindly looked upon at pretty much every casino I’ve ever known. It fits here only because nothing else in sight makes sense.

The two men ultimately refused to act in any scenes together, a snit that the film covered by pretty much never showing Sellers and Welles in the same shot at the same time, even during the card game. Their direct conversations at the gaming table are conveyed by close-ups and the backs of heads. Later, the “torture” of the faux-Bond by Le Chiffre is conducted with Le Chiffre an absent figure mocking the Sellers character by remote control, and torturing by methods that include (what seems to be) a wood-chipper in his chair and an orchestrated hallucination that includes marching men in kilts and a cameo appearance by Peter O’Toole, for (all together now) no reason whatsoever.

Eventually Sellers was either fired or allowed to storm off the set for good, with most of his scenes unfilmed. This included a great deal of necessary connecting material, which is a key reason why he rushes off to rescue Vesper Lynd and is next seen unconscious as Le Chiffre’s prisoner, with no actual scene where he is caught; he refused to film one. A number of his other scenes, including the one where he treats Ursula Andress’s leg as a piano keyboard, and the one where he hops into a race car, were not scripted parts of the film, but joking around on the set, reshaped as narrative.

One early cut of the film actually resorted to using a cardboard cutout of him during the climax, to cover his absence; it was replaced with other junk footage.

So the shamblicious nature of the narrative, ultimately filmed by six different directors and written by a small army of astoundingly distinguished film writers who seem to have been working during production to shape a film that had already spiraled out of control, was in large part a desperate improvisation, to cover for a star who was originally supposed to be a much more substantial player, and was unavailable for much of his intended screen time. What remains is, to an unclear extent, a film stitched together out of spare parts and desperate improvisation as the folks behind the production gave up on any pretense that any of this could ever make sense, even within the context of a silly comedy.

Some of the pieces are insanely brilliant, among them an extended sequence which has Mata Bond (the daughter of Bond and Mata Hari, played with substantial comic chops and what seems to be deep personal enjoyment by Joanna Pettet), on assignment in Berlin running around gloomy German Expressionist sets while still (for no reason whatsoever) wearing the same jewel-encrusted indian dancing costume she was introduced as wearing in an ashram (or whatever) several scenes earlier. Some are messed up, like Mata subsequently changing her accent and personality for no reason whatsoever. Some are just strange, like Sellers dressing up as Adolf Hitler for no reason whatsoever.  And some are just insane, as in the big action climax where old-west cowboys and indians invade the casino for no reason whatsoever, George Raft (who got star billing for less than sixty seconds on screen) shows up and dies for no reason whatsoever, a murdered character played by William Holden is revealed to have faked his death for no reason whatsoever, the Frankenstein monster shows up for no reason whatsoever, a chimp grins at the camera for no reason whatsoever, and main bad guy Woody Allen – who has been fed a nuclear potion – hiccups his way to the massive explosion that kills everybody for no reason whatsoever.

The movie is a mess, but a genial one, dull at times but hilarious at others. It was popular enough to emerge as the third biggest hit of its year.

And its fidelity to the source material amounts to this: A guy using the name of James Bond plays a game of baccarat with a guy named Le Chiffre to prevent him from replacing embezzled funds. Le Chiffre retaliates by kidnapping the girl, Vesper Lynd. Bond is captured trying to rescue Lynd and endures a brief interval of testicle torture (here presented in the most cartoonish manner imaginable).  Then Le Chiffre is killed, which only seems to resolve everything, leading to a false ending before the other shoe drops and the action resumes.

The 2006 Version: Bond Bleeds

The makers of the mainstream James Bond movies finally acquired the rights to Casino Royale in 1999, midway through Pierce Brosnan’s tenure in the title role.

Of Brosnan, who is not material to today’s discussion, let’s be content to say that he’s proven himself a terrific actor, better than the material he was given as 007 usually merited. The World Is Not Enough was likely his best Bondian outing, although, as usual, your mileage may vary.

The problem was not his, really. The problem was that the cartoonish heroics of the sixties Bond had ceased to impress in an era when other film franchises could compete with and wildly surpass the Bond movies in terms of wild action, sexual intrigue, and over-the-top violence. Worse, the Bond films had become so formulaic that other filmmakers had realized that they could do just as well with characters of their own creation, in films that were otherwise note-by-note recreations; and not in the manner that the imitators of the 1960s managed to present their own raft of respectable but second-tier Bonds, but with outings that easily matched the Bond films in extravagance of action. When James Cameron has made True Lies  and Vin Diesel has been in XXX and Tom Cruise has a thriving Mission: Impossible franchise and Matt Damon has the same with his Jason Bourne movies and Bruce Willis can boast the multiple variations of Die Hard, a James Bond movie no longer qualifies as an event just by showing up; it has to excel, to make us care about it, or it’s just redundant.

The people behind the franchise have been accused of “Bourning Up” the Bond films – this being an actual understood reference now – but the truth is more simple than that. With the 2006 Casino Royale, they stripped the character to his essence, removed the gadgetry, tortured quips and descents into campiness that now render some of the earlier incarnations all but unwatchable, and devoted serious thought as to what makes this guy tick and why anybody would give a damn about anything that happens to him. It re-started the series with a pre-credit sequence detailing Bond’s first kills for the 00 branch, which were not made to look jokey and lighthearted but instead ugly, brutal and sordid. One of them is a thug beaten to a bloody pulp in a bathroom, the other is a traitor shot dead while sitting in a desk chair; there is nothing at all glamorous about either of these kills, nothing to match the comfortable distance of that moment in Moonraker where an ambulance employed in a chase scene speeds past three separate billboards hawking commercial products that helped to underwrite the film.

It is only after the usual title song that we get the over-the-top action sequence that usually begins a Bond film. This one’s a parkour chase in Madagascar, set in and around a construction site where Bond pursues a terrorist-for-hire. This tour-de-force, the reviewer’s personal favorite action sequence in any of the Bond films, is to put it mildly not at all free of silliness; it employs, for instance, Roger Ebert’s famous fallacy of the climbing killer, the guy whose attempts to get away amount to scaling an edifice from which he will eventually have to climb down. It is, much of the time, silly of the heroes to even bother to chase them.  What redeems the sequence is its sheer bravura, the terrorist’s mad ricocheting off walls and girders, and Bond’s success at equaling him with blunt force and superior cleverness. If Buster Keaton had choreographed a Bond chase, it would be this one.

The set piece leads to a bad end for the terrorist and Bond in trouble with M for disgracing British Intelligence, from there to another action sequence in Miami that is almost as spectacular, and from there to the murder of a woman Bond had just callously seduced and abandoned in order to follow a lead. M (Judi Dench, who joined the series during Brosnan’s tenure and is another fine addition) back-handedly praises Bond for not caring, and he actually doesn’t seem to: but the moment is sufficiently well-written and performed to make it clear that Bond is not unaware of the human cost.

That brings him to Casino Royale, the introduction of Vesper Lynd, and the poker game played against Le Chiffre (who, here, is a banker for terrorists, who has invested heavily in the fallout from the act of terrorism Bond foils in Miami). At which point the film does something remarkable for the series, which is to say slow down; it spends almost an hour in the deepening of the relationship between Bond and Lynd and in intrigue at or surrounding the game.

The sexual tension between Bond and Lynd is remarkably adult, for the series, which at its worst saw Roger Moore seducing women half his age with no more than a raised eyebrow and a moron double intendre. By contrast, Lynd and Bond are presented as a pair of intensely guarded people, who acknowledge their mutual attraction right up front but also see through one another with a depth that keeps either from wanting personal involvement. His moment of compassion for her, during a moment of post-traumatic personal vulnerability, feels more real than anything that happened in some prior decades of the series.

The film’s Le Chiffre is not entirely devoid of Bondian silliness either; he has a “malformation of the tear duct” that occasionally causes him to weep blood, a physical condition with absolutely no referent in medical science, given that the integral nature of human anatomy is that any wound that bleeds will eventually scab. It’s there to make him look less than human. In truth, though, his nastiness does not exempt him from human vulnerability, brilliantly revealed during one scene where he and his lover are confronted in their hotel room by assassins sent by one of the terrorist leaders whose funds he misspent. Le Chiffre is reduced to a weeping, terrified mess, helpless as a knife is brandished against a woman he may or may not love, but at least likes enough to sleep with. This does not stop him from reverting to murderous type after he returns to the poker table, or has Bond strapped to that chair, but it gives him a depth no James Bond villain has had, before or since. The man may deserve to die, by the logic of the series, but it’s impossible not to understand that he knows he’s drowning.

His subsequent torture of the captured Bond is also more graphic, more genuinely painful, than anything ever seen in the series before. There is no gimmicky threatened castration of the impeccably dressed hero by laser, as in Goldfinger; no civilized gourmet meal before fight to the death, as in The Man With the Golden Gun.  (Brosnan’s Bond was captured by, and tortured by, the North Koreans for a full year, but his ordeal is shown during the usual a jazzy credits sequence, and has all the emotional impact of a music video.) Le Chiffre just tells the shivering, naked, helpless, and terrified  Bond – brilliantly played by Craig — that there’s  simply no point in  sophisticated torture techniques when it’s downright easy to cause a man more pain than he can possibly stand.  And then he whips Bond’s bare testicles with a knot tied in a heavy rope. There are no saucy quips, no insouciant gestures of defiance; like Le Chiffre only a few scenes earlier, Bond is quickly reduced to a despairing shell.

Following Bond’s subsequent deliverance from that predicament, his long recovery and his decision to abandon his secret agent ways for a life spent with Vesper – who in this context represents more than just a woman he loves, but an actual route back to humanity – makes perfect sense.

This is not the only time the movie Bond ever genuinely loved a woman for what promised to be longer than the interval between one mission and the next; the Bond played by George Lazenby loved, married, and tragically lost Tracy, the leading lady of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The difference, in retrospect, is that it’s a little hard now to see why that Bond fell for Tracy when he’d easily abandoned so many who were just as formidable. It’s easy to see why Craig’s Bond makes the decision he makes in Casino Royale. He’s been hurt, this time, more than he’s ever been hurt before. He already cared for the lady. His heart is open.

That it goes badly, indeed tragically, is just as inevitable. The series does need to continue, after all. But in this context it feels even worse when he angrily sums up his loss by telling M, “The bitch is dead.” At that point, something has clearly died in him too. It’s an emotional origin story, so much beyond the usual Bond material that it almost feels like a different genre. That it was immediately followed by Quantum Of Solace, which sought to continue the story but was because of many failings (not least among them an incompetent approach to its action scenes), one of the worst films of the entire series…a heady statement for anybody who’s seen Moonraker…is not its fault.

As for Craig, this much needs to be said. He is clearly not the most distinguished actor to have played Bond. That would still be David Niven. Nor is he the most iconic. That would still be Sean Connery. But, aided by a screenplay that demands it of him, he gives the all-time finest performance as Bond, ever: but for the few flashes the other actors have been allowed, it is pretty much the only time that the character on screen was ever recognizably and consistently a human being affected and scarred by his violent world. Contrasted with some of the campier outings in the past, it’s understating the case to say that it’s barely recognizable as being about the same character, and more accurate to say that it barely seems to belong to the same genre.

Intelligence Analysis

The 1967 film: an insane, out-of-control farce that, at its best moments, lampoons the silliness of the Bond universe about as well as any film possibly could. It’s more talent than usually appears on screen at the same time, all the more fascinating for the misfire. The 2006 version: a serious take on the same material that contains the best action sequence in the franchise’s fifty-year history, and as close a look into the soul of Bond as we’re ever likely to see. The two movies together: an object lesson on the best way to take a character seriously, and the best way not to.

*

And now, the wife chooses to accept her mission…

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Casino Royale (1967). Directed by Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, and Richard Talmadge. Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Additional screenplay contributions by (take a deep breath), Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Billy Wilder, and Peter Sellers. Starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles. 131 minutes. **1/2

Casino Royale (2006). Directed by Martin Campbell. Screenplay by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with Paul Haggis, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Madi Mikkelson, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini. 144 minutes. ***

Other Known Versions: “Casino Royale,” episode of TV-anthology series Climax! (1954), starring Barry Nelson as “Jimmy” Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre.

Let me get this out of the way first thing.  The 2006 film is a better movie in every way possible, but I still love the 1967 Casino Royale oh so  much more.

Now, I have the hard part, answering the why of the above statement.

The earlier CR is not prettier, grittier, or even close to good story telling.  There are plots and characters left spinning in all directions, and a nonsensical ending that just is. But for all these flaws, it makes me laugh.  Not rolling on the floor holding my belly and crying, just giggles and chuckles that last over the next few hours and days as I remember the silliness.  Yes, even in my middle years, I still crack up over the insanity of the kitchen sink melee and the game of toss.

I could debate over the David Niven vs Daniel Craig, but both are great Bonds.  Craig reinvigorates 007 as a man of action and decisiveness with little humanity or warmth.  Niven plays Bond as a man hurt by his choices, yet emboldened by those same events.  Could Niven have been a good JBond playing it straight?  I believe so, but that market was never tapped since a certain Mr. Connery was busy playing the horn dog version.

Both films attempt to tell a pretty thin tale and both succeed in very different ways.

Villainwise, well come on guys, its Orson Welles playing cards, magic and drugs.  The torture of the mind, so much more elegant than multiple slams to the nads.  Neither is actually much of a baddie.  Both versions are just Ponzi schemers trying to make up losses before they are lost too.  Should I care what happens to these guys?  Not like the old world domination tactics of say Dr. No.  So I say who cares that they get offed before the final scenes?

So, where is the big difference that tilts me back to childhood?  Ahhh…the music.  Burt Bacharach combining with Herb Alpert.  This is what a band parent’s nightmares are made of. I played this stuff day and night for years and claimed I was practicing.  5 years of trumpet solos , guitar riffs, piano banging, and various other attempts usually drifting into some part of this film’s music.  Well, my folks could only blame themselves for letting me see CR so many times.  The theme song is eminently hummable, and the big hit “The Look Of Love”  was heard for years on AM radio (and many weddings I’m sure).  I still love that terrible little mindworm of a theme.

OK, I’ve said it, this film is a childhood fave and as a high school brass playing geek, I adored the soundtrack (and still do!).  Is it a better film deserving of all the praise I can heap upon it.  Hell no!  Its just sheer fun and I will adore it evermore. (But, don’t forget how good the 2006 film is either).


Is there anybody aboard who knows how to fly a plane?

 

 

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Zero Hour! (1957). Directed by Hall Bartlett. Written by Arthur Hailey. Starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Sterling Hayden, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. 81 minutes. **

Airplane! (1980). Written and Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker (with substantial lifts from 1957 screenplay). Starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack. 87 minutes. ***

Other Known Versions: Flight Into Danger (Canadian TV-movie, 1956), Flug in Gefahr (German, 1964), Terror In the Sky (TV-movie, 1971).

Not much in the way of analysis this time. Not much to analyze.

See, this one’s a key reason why we started this blog. The truism “Remakes Always Suck” is not only demonstrably untrue, but also ignorant of the many, many times where the remakes are, by far, better known than the original films that inspired them. In this particular case, the movie that everybody remembers, that hit the pop culture zeitgeist like a lightning bolt, that established some careers and brilliantly revived others, and that continues to be imitated today –  for the most part really, really badly – is not just a remake, but the fifth incarnation of a story filmed and pretty much forgotten four times before. Taking most of its inspiration from the second incarnation, which was written by one of the founding lights of the disaster-movie genre, it may mock that film relentlessly, but also uses its structure and much of its dialogue, verbatim; and before you ask, yes, the makers did pay the copyright holders for the use of the material, though they did their best in the publicity materials to ignore its very existence. So, yes, damn it, it is a remake.

We’re talking about Airplane!,  the perverse Abrahams/Zucker Brothers take on disaster movies, which was written with exacting, intimate knowledge of a prior melodrama meant to be taken entirely seriously. The fidelity to Zero Hour!  is so exact that there are some jokes in Airplane! you won’t completely get until you see moments of unintentional silliness from the earlier film. Light will dawn, and you will mutter, “Oh. So that’s where that came from.” For instance, there is one gag in Airplane! driven entirely by the recognition that a minor supporting actress from the original film, playing the worried wife of a pilot felled by food poisoning, overacts her silent reactions to off-screen events in a scene where she’s supposed to be a wordless, barely noticed presence beside the expert trying to talk down the passenger who has taken the controls of her husband’s plane. In the original, she remains unnoticed, because the man beside her is a powerful presence played by Sterling Hayden, and what he’s saying happens to be important. But if you actually trouble yourself to look at her you will see her hyperventilating like a horse who just completed a five mile run,  in a desperate and failed attempt to steal some of the scene’s attention for herself. In Zero Hour! she gives up after a few seconds,  closes her damn mouth, and lets Hayden do his job. In Airplane!, where she’s standing beside Robert Stack, she erupts into full-scale sexual arousal and – without quite realizing what she’s doing — begins to run her passionate hands over Stack’s chest, until Stack turns toward her in confusion, and she backs off, chastened back into her intended role as the silent worried wife.

Then there’s Johnny, a character from the original who exists only so that the more important players can repeatedly ask him to go get coffee. Abrahams and the Zucker brothers no doubt felt deep sympathy for this put-upon soul when they created their own version of Johnny, a manic zany who leaps in and out of scenes infecting everything around him with his personal brand of insanity.

For someone who had seen Zero Hour! and even read the Arthur Hailey novelization Runway Zero Eight when Airplane! was released in 1980, the parody film played at a higher level; the stunned recognition of the once seriously-intended story, and the lines of dialogue that remain unchanged (but now became wildly funny) when placed in a context of nonstop zaniness, represented one of the movie’s unalloyed pleasures. For someone completely unaware of the prior film who saw Airplane!  enough times to know it by heart, and who only belatedly discovered the film that presented it with most of its source material, the pleasure of discovery is reversed, as a parade of laugh lines are revealed as dialogue lines once seriously-intended. It is a primal case of artistic feedback; each film now enhances the other.

Both films introduce us to one Ted Stryker, a hotshot fighter pilot during the war who made the command decision not to abort a raid when the ground conditions were obscured by heavy fog, and got six members of his squadron killed. Now it’s years later, and the post-traumatic stress of that fateful day have left him a shattered man, drifting from job to job, unable to handle any lasting responsibility. In both cases he has returned home early to find a note from the woman he loves, to the effect that she’s leaving him; in both cases he exhibits prime stalkerish behavior by buying a ticket on the same flight, in the hopes of talking her into returning. (In Zero Hour! she’s his wife, and has taken his son as well; in Airplane! she’s just a long-suffering and scatterbrained girlfriend.) In both cases the airline offers passengers a choice of dinners; in both cases a serious case of food contamination awaits passengers unlucky enough to choose fish for dinner. In both cases, a doctor is in board to treat the afflicted (though he somehow never thinks to induce vomiting). In both cases the flight crew is felled and in both cases Stryker must take his place in the cockpit, fighting his own inexperience at this kind of aircraft while the woman intent on leaving him sits in the co-pilot’s chair, operating the radio and thus getting to see him rise to the occasion. In both cases the chief voice from the ground is an unfriendly acquaintance from his military days and in both cases it is Stryker who decides to try for an immediate landing in open defiance of his old enemy’s advice that he continue circling for another couple of hours.  Each film features a hysterical woman passenger, an old crone self-righteously offended by a seatmate who offers her a drink, and a young boy whose trip to the cockpit brings him into close contact with a pilot whose intentions toward him seem more pedophiliac than paternal.

A look at the dialogue from Zero Hour! reveals how extensively it was quoted (in some of these cases just closely paraphrased) in the later parody. This is by no means a complete list, but it includes many of the moments that viewers of Airplane! took as just part of the silliness.

Little Joey gets to see the cockpit

CAPTAIN  [takes out a toy DC-4] Joey, here’s something we give our special visitors.  Would you like to have it?

JOEY: Thank you!  Thanks a lot?

CAPTAIN: You ever been in a cockpit before?

JOEY: No, sir!  I’ve never been up in a plane before!

Stryker’s Domestic Woes

 

STRYKER: I know things haven’t been right for a long time, Ellen.  But it’ll be different.  Like it was in the beginning, remember?

ELLEN: I remember everything.  It’s all I’ve ever had to go on.  Mostly, I remember … the nights when we were together.  I remember how you used to hold me.  Then afterwards, how we’d … watch until the sun finally came up.  When it did, it was almost like … like each new day was created … only for us.

{…}

STRYKER: Don’t you feel anything for me at all anymore?

ELLEN: It takes so many things to make love last.  Most of all, it takes respect.  I can’t live with a man I don’t respect.

 

The First Signs of Trouble

JANET: Captain, one of the woman passengers is very sick.

CAPTAIN: Airsick?

JANET: I think so, but I’ve never seen it so acute.

CAPTAIN: Find out if there’s a doctor on board, as quietly as you can.

The Introduction of the Doctor

WOMAN: I think the man next to me is a doctor.

JANET: Oh, thank you.  Sir?  Excuse me, sir.  I’m sorry to have to wake you.  Are you a doctor?

DR. BAIRD:That’s right.

JANET: We have a passenger who’s very sick, could you come take a look at her?

DR. BAIRD: Yes, yes, of course.

The Diagnosis

PASSENGER: Oh, stewardess, my wife is very sick, can you do something please?

JANET: Oh, well, the doctor will be with you in just a moment.  One thing … do you know what she had for dinner?

PASSENGER: Oh, yes, of course, we both had fish.  Why?

JANET: Oh, it’s nothing to be alarmed about.  We’ll get back to you very quickly.

{…}

DR. BAIRD: Well, Janet, you’re a member of this crew.  Can you face some unpleasant facts?

JANET: I think so.

DR. BAIRD: All right.  Unless I can get all these people to a hospital quickly, I can’t even be sure of saving their lives. {…} I think you ought to know what our chances are.  The life of everybody aboard depends on just one thing: Finding someone back there who not only can fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.

Stryker has Greatness Thrust Upon Him

STRYKER: Both pilots?!

DR. BAIRD: Can you fly this airplane and land it?

STRYKER: No.  Not a chance.

JANET: Doctor, I’ve asked everyone.  Mister Stryker’s the only one.

DR. BAIRD: What flying experience have you had?

STRYKER: Well, I was a fighter pilot in the war, but I flew little combat planes with only one engine.  This has four.  There’s no comparison.  The flying characteristics are completely different.  It’s a different kind of flying, altogether.  Besides, I haven’t touched any kind of a plane in ten years.

DR. BAIRD: Mister Stryker, I know nothing about flying.  All I know is this.  You’re the only person on this plane who can possibly fly it.  You’re the only chance we’ve got.

An Editorial Comment from Air Traffic Control

This guy doing the flying’s had no airline experience at all.  He’ll be a menace to himself and everything else in the air.

Taking Stryker’s Measure

TRELEAVEN: All right, Harry, let’s face a few facts.  As you know, I flew with this man Stryker during the war.  What you don’t know is, that doesn’t make my job any easier here tonight.  Frankly, I think you’d be a lot better off if you got somebody else who doesn’t know him at all.

BURDICK: I don’t think that has anything to do with it.

TRELEAVEN: It has everything to do with it.  In the first place, I think it’s a mistake if he knows that I’m the man who’s talkin’ ‘im in.  He’ll have a million things on his mind without being reminded of those days when … well, when things weren’t so good.

BURDICK: Right now, things aren’t so good.  And while we’re talking, there are 38 lives waiting on us for a decision.

TRELEAVEN: Let me tell you something.  Ted Stryker was a crack flight leader up to a point, but he was one of those men who … well, let’s just say he felt too much inside.  Maybe you know the kind. {…} Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smokin’. [lights up]

How’s It Flyin’?

STRYKER: Sluggish, like a wet sponge.

ELLEN [on radio]: Sluggish, like a wet sponge.

Stryker Grows Back His Balls, Gets The Girl Back

VANCOUVER RADAR CONTROLLER: Captain, he’s below seven hundred now, and he’s still going down!

TRELEAVEN: Stryker, you can’t come straight in, you’ve got enough fuel left for two hours’ flying.  You’ve got to stay up there ’til we get a break in the weather!

STRYKER: I’ll take it, Ellen.  [to radio] Listen, Treleaven, I’m coming in, do you hear me?  I’m coming in right now.  We have people up here including my own son who’ll die in less than one hour, never mind two.  I may bend your precious airplane, but I’ll bring it down.  Now get on with the landing check!  I’m putting the gear down now.

ELLEN: Ted?

STRYKER: Yes?

ELLEN: I just wanted you to know, now, I’m very proud.

STRYKER: Tell them the gear is down, and we’re ready to land.

ELLEN [to radio]: The gear is now down, and we’re ready to land.

After the Landing

TRELEAVEN: Ted, Ted, that was probably the lousiest landing in the history of this airport.  But there’s some of us here, particularly me, who’d like to buy you a drink and shake your hand.

***

Oddly, given the willingness of the makers of Airplane! to pick up on and amplify the uncomfortable intimations of pederasty that went along with the little boy’s visit to the cockpit, the remake completely ignores the incident that looks creepiest to our modern eyes, which is to say the nightclub performer who entertains Ted’s little boy with a sock puppet. A modern father would dropkick that guy away from his kid at first sight, and it’s almost unthinkable that the Zucker/Abrahams trio would let this particular opportunity go.  (Maybe it would have been too much of a sick thing). Another element that Airplane! fails to mock sufficiently is the original’s inconsistent model work: the make of airplane seen in the exterior shots is not always the same, and indeed the plane even changes its number of engines.

Instead, Airplane! fills out the rest of its running time with bits quoting from Jaws, From Here to Eternity, and Saturday Night Fever, among others. I used to know the name of the World War II melodrama extensively quoted in the scene where a young soldier says goodbye to his girlfriend – again, the dialogue here is almost exact – but that has faded into the mists of memory.  (Maybe a reader will provide it.)

In recent years the Airplane! template has led to a mini-industry of films that ape its attitude and techniques without one-tenth of its wit: Epic Movie, Date Movie, Disaster Movie, Superhero Movie, etc. About all that can be said of these is that they don’t comment on the narrative, as Airplane! did, but limit themselves to the idiot movie references and scatological jokes that it only used as a spice. They have become their own formula, and unlike Airplane!, are more dirges than comedies. The guy who comes up with the response to the response, i.e., Half-Assed Bad Parody Movie,  achieves comedy gold.

The Flight Log

Zero Hour!, a well-meaning melodrama that now seems about as sluggish as a wet sponge. Airplane!, a still-funny laugh machine, the twin that keeps this particular pair of conjoined siblings breathing.

And now, the wife readies for takeoff…

***

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Zero Hour! (1957). Directed by Hall Bartlett. Written by Arthur Hailey. Starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Sterling Hayden, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. 81 minutes.  *

Airplane! (1980). Written and Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker (with substantial lifts from 1957 screenplay). Starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack. 87 minutes. ***1/2

Other Known Versions: Flight Into Danger (Canadian TV-movie, 1956), Flug in Gefahr (German, 1964), Terror In the Sky (TV-movie, 1971).

When Adam suggested Airplane! for this blog I asked when it had been remade. Instead of going into a detailed explanation (as is his wont), he quickly told me that it was based on a film called Zero Hour and we could get it from Netflix. I agreed and put it into the upcoming work queue of  my mind.

Three weeks later, we are back from a short weekend away, the film has arrived and I agree to give Zero Hour! the time it needs to permeate frontal lobe.  I couldn’t figure out why Adam kept one eye on the screen and the other watching me.  Then the film began.

OMG!!!!!  I’m watching a film I know by heart, but it’s not the film I love.  This is the bad older sibling of the comedic young clone.  I had to physically stop the disc more times than I can count to catch my breath.  I sat watching the film in stunned disbelief.  How can so mediocre a movie have become such a comedic masterpiece of my teen years?  Scene by scene, the quotes are there.  Airplane!, which I hadn’t seen in at least 10 years (but could still quote verbatim), was being viewed by me in black and white without the cast I loved and none of the intentional/unintentional humor, and yet there it was in Zero Hour!.  I sat with disc controller in hand and liberally used the pause and rewind buttons .  It took us nearly 2 1/2 hours to get through the old girl because of me.

Is Zero Hour! a great film?  Hell no!  It’s barely an O.K. one, unless you are a true fan of the remake that began a genre of its own.

Oh, hey, in a little aside, if you are ever in a casino, ask if they have the Airplane slot machine.  Its fun and has some great audio clips from the film.


In which two of the funniest screen personalities of all time take one of history’s least funny subjects. Who achieves greatness, and who never rises above kitsch?

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro.

To Be Or Not To Be (1942). Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Written by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justice Mayer, from an original story by Ernst Lubitsch.  Starring Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman. 99 minutes. ****

To Be Or Not To Be (1983). Directed by Alan Johnson. Written by Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan, from the story by Ernst Lubitsch and 1943 screenplay by Melchior Lengel and Edwin Justice Mayer. Starring Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, and Christopher Lloyd. 107 minutes. ** 1/2

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, Maan Gaye Mughal-E-Azam (2008), Bollywood film starring Rahul Bose and Mallika Sherawat. (It does not deal with the Nazi era, but applies the plot structure to a period of civil unrest in India.)

*

A troupe of popular stage performers suffering through the Nazi occupation of Warsaw suddenly finds itself the only force standing between the invaders and the Polish underground. Circumstances force the married lead players into escalating heights of desperate acts of theatrical improvisation in the face of the enemy, as they struggle to retrieve and destroy a valuable list of freedom fighters before it falls into the hands of the Gestapo. The wife finds herself lusted after by powerful men who have the power to grant her favors in exchange for her sexual compliance or exile her to a concentration camp as punishment for refusing. The husband finds himself trapped in the lion’s den, pretending to be someone he’s not, and struggling to fool a brutal occupier with barely adequate lies that could fail at any time, thus leaving him vulnerable to torture or imprisonment or worse. All this takes place as their marriage teeters on the brink,  thanks to the husband’s discovery that the wife, who sometimes feels invisible in the face of his own monstrous ego, has had frequent illicit meetings with a dashing young admirer. In the end, their lives depend on an even more desperate stratagem to get them out of Poland before the Nazis find out what they’ve done and have them shot.

It doesn’t exactly sound like the basis for comedy.

And yet, in the two versions of To Be Or Not To Be, it is: although the four decades that passed between the original and the remake alter the precise nature of the laughter in remarkable ways.

The original was written when the evils committed by the Nazis were current events, well-known in outline to the rest of the world but not yet appreciated to their fullest depths (there are prominent references to concentration camps, but not to mass extermination.) The third Reich was not considered a fit subject for comedy, although Charlie Chaplin had already released his merciless and passionate Hitler lampoon The Great Dictator (1940); critics and audiences were lukewarm or hostile, and Jack Benny’s own father stormed out of the theatre in a rage at the sight of his beloved son in a Nazi uniform. The remake, by contrast, was made fifteen years after its star, Mel Brooks, elicited belly laughs by including a joyous Nazi musical, “Springtime for Hitler,” in his riotous comedy The Producers (1968). Audiences had processed the idea that these profoundly evil people could also be seen as profoundly absurd people, without diminishing or denying their crimes, and screen portrayals of stupid or comical Nazis had become so common by then that they were almost a cliche…perhaps too much of a cliche, as it’s difficult to watch Mel Brooks perform a production number in Nazi regalia during the 1983 version and not immediately wonder whether he hadn’t already gone as far with this particular juxtaposition as he possibly could. (Broadway would someday show that he hadn’t.)

The most obvious difference between the two perspectives is best summarized by words Woody Allen had a schlock producer played by Alan Alda speak in his film Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989): “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” This line is sometimes presented today as genuine received wisdom, by parties who want us to know why certain terrible events are too fresh in our minds to be joked about, but can be fine comedic fodder if you first show the decency to wait fifty or seventy or a hundred years. (Hence the presumed upcoming boom in Triangle Shirtcoat Factory Fire humor.)  The people who treat the axiom as if it makes sense somehow fail to notice that Allen put the words in the mouth of a pretentious jackass who produces nothing but pap, or that Allen’s own character, his mouthpiece, mocks it with unremitting scorn. The truth, difficult as it might be for purveyors of decency to accept, is that worthwhile jokes can be made about anything, very much including the things that should not be joked about. Lenny Bruce brought the house down with a joke about the JFK assassination before the President was in his grave. The satirical newspaper The Onion produced a brilliantly hilarious issue about the 9/11 tragedy before the dust had completely settled on Manhattan. Chaplin’s Dictator was about atrocities still taking place, that he saw with a clarity that still cuts like a knife today. Of course worthwhile (and not just “sick”) jokes can be told about tragedies still fresh, as the proper received wisdom should be, “Comedy is Tragedy Plus Perspective.”  The more wit is applied to the perspective, the more brilliant the comedy. And it just so happens that the contemporary relevance of the 1942 version, a mere footnote to most audiences who view it today, can nevertheless be sensed. The movie still has the air of joking about things that should not be joked about…whereas the 1983 version feels distressingly safe despite the prominence of its well-meaning efforts to bring the Nazi persecution of both Jews and Homosexuals to the forefront. It’s the work of people who have reduced Nazi aggression to shtick.

The Setup

Joseph and Maria Tura (Benny, Lombard) or Frederik and Anna Bronski (Brooks, Bancroft) are the lead actors of a theatrical troupe in 1939 Warsaw. (From this point on, in discussing plot elements common to both films, we’ll use the names the characters possess in the original and thus spare both essayist and reader the tiresome necessity of mentioning both versions every time we compose sentences that reference both versions. They are otherwise the same people. Assume it as given.)

Both Joseph and Maria are, to different extents, ego monsters. Maria wants to wear a slinky evening gown on stage in a scene where she’s supposed to play a concentration camp inmate. Joseph imagines himself a great Shakespearean and can be trusted to milk Hamlet’s soliloquy, which makes that a perfect time for Maria to rendezvous with Lt. Andre Sobinski, a young pilot who adores her (Stack in the first, Matheson in the second). The worsening international situation causes the cancellation of (in the 1942 film) a satirical play attacking Hitler; or (in the 1983 film) a comedy sketch about Hitler presented as part of  a nightly revue.

The aborted Hitler sketch is in both films a splendid example of a plot element that functions equally well as exposition (providing them with all those Gestapo uniforms and one actor who can pass for Hitler), and story (the first stroke of their misfortunes)…nothing we should underestimate given that we live in an era when exposition often arrives with a thud.

Hitler invades. Sobinski escapes to England, where he joins the Polish Squadron and encounters Professor Siletski (Stanley Ridges / Jose Ferrer) a much-respected savant who “lets slip” to the fliers that he’s returning to Poland on a secret mission and compiles a list of their family members, ostensibly in order to pass on messages. But he soon reveals that he’s never heard of the Turas, a virtual impossibility for any residents of Warsaw. Clearly Siletski wanted the names to fuel retribution killings by the Gestapo. On orders from British intelligence, the flier parachutes back into Poland, to stop Siletski before he can pass on the names…but his arrival does not go unnoticed, Siletski has actually arrived in Warsaw ahead of him, and so he has to enlist Maria and then Josef to stop him.

Their various desperate improvisations force the male Tura to first confront Siletski in the guise of the local Gestapo chief, Colonel “Concentration Camp” Ehrhardt (or Erhardt, depending on the film), and when that backfires, to play another version of the same scene fooling the real Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) with his own version of Siletski.

Comparing The Performances

Carole Lombard’s Maria Tura is a luminescent creation who sells the story’s conceit that no man, anywhere, can possibly spend thirty seconds in her company without immediately falling head-over-heels in love with her. Her flirtation with the young pilot is a kittenish crush, driven by a mutual attraction that – as if never less than 100% clear – she never for a moment intends to sully with any actual sex. This is a woman who loves her husband unconditionally but appreciates being romanced by a dashing young hero as long as it never really comes to anything; as it has the moral weight of a daydream, her shock when that pilot comes to believe that she actually does intend to leave her husband for him is genuine.

The role is unfortunately less persuasive in 1983 when she’s played by Anne Bancroft; yeah, yeah, I know, Bancroft was a great actress and a beautiful lady who could exude sex when she wanted to, and whose comic timing was every bit the equal of Lombard’s. But by 1983 she came off as the kind of woman you don’t fall in love with until after you’ve bought her dinner and conversed with her for a while, whereas Lombard was every bit the bombshell capable of making men stupid on sight. (Of course, as with any observation having to do with ineffable questions of sexual attraction, your mileage may vary. Male or female, you might have hot screaming fantasies about Sig (“Concentration Camp Earhardt”) Ruman for all I know.)  For this viewer, at least, the helpless reaction the character evokes in men she doesn’t know makes a lot more sense with Lombard than it does with Bancroft, and functions as a distracting, distancing element in the 1983 version.

Charles Durning bothered this viewer as Ehrhardt, mostly because he wasn’t Sig Ruman. (A remake is often easier to take, for lovers of a classic original, when it’s a substantial re-imagining; a film where many scenes are just acted more broadly invites more scornful comparison.) His immense physical bulk permits some inspired business involving his attempt to perch on the side of the desk. He also unfortunately mugs more, which is saying a lot. He adds an unnecessary, obscene hand gesture to the line, “What he did to Shakespeare, we’re doing to Poland.” Christopher Lloyd is an improvement as Schultz; he doesn’t get any more to do than the 1942 Schultz did, but he is a recognizable actor to us and thus better at setting up the regular abuse his character receives. Tim Matheson is nowhere near as effective in his role as Robert Stack. Jose Ferrer is effective enough in his.

The big problem is really the transformation of Jack Benny’s Tura to Mel Brooks’s Bronski. Brooks can act, but when performing shtick he prefers to go for the rafters. Benny was renowned for his timing and can still achieve huge laughs without a word, just by the fatuous “dramatic” pause he takes before reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy. It’s a much funnier performance than the one we get from Brooks, who doesn’t trust the material and all-too often underlines all the places where he expects us to laugh.

The Bigger Problem: The Odd Narrative Choices of the 1983 Version

Nor is that the only distancing element that damaged the 1983 version. The opening production number of “Sweet Georgia Brown”, sung in Polish, is charming enough…but then you have the characters speaking in Polish when the movie needs them speaking in English. To transition to the desired tongue, the movie could have utilized the device that previously worked to fine effect in, among other places, Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) and The Hunt For Red October (1990), which is to say introducing the authentic foreign language and then fading into a translation, which then persists for the rest of the movie.  The 1983 To Be Or Not To Be makes it a joke, presenting a godlike narrator who interrupts an argument between Brooks and Bancroft to announce that in the name of sanity, the rest of the movie won’t be in Polish. Both leads look relieved and then complete the scene in English. To use a line oft-spoken by one of the original film’s supporting characters, it gets a great laugh. But it also tells the audience, Don’t worry about anything that follows. It’s not real. It’s just Mel Brooks doing more Nazi shtick. The “great laugh” turns all of the story’s dancing on the edge of the precipice into a comedy routine. This is an even deeper mistake because the remake, armed with the benefit of hindsight, adds a band of Jewish refugees and a sympathetic homosexual to the list of people imperiled by the Nazis…touches which are absolutely artistically defensible, but collide with the film’s hellbent determination to remain disposable froth.

The remake adds too many cheap jokes, among them the moment when Bronski almost breaks a leg when somebody wishes him good luck by saying, “Break a Leg!” Even worse than that is the introduction of a stage manager named Sondheim, who will of course within minutes be asked to send in the clowns. Oh, I get it. Ha, ha, ha. Nor is that the only ridiculously telegraphed joke: when Anna’s flamboyant gay dresser is chased into the theatre during a show by Gestapo agents who want to deport him to a concentration camp for the crime of homosexuality, and we cut to Bronski on stage performing a production number that is an ode to the most beautiful lady of them all, we know it’s only a matter of time before…yes…that dresser shows up on stage and in drag in a desperate attempt to avoid his fate. Again: oh, I get it. Ha, ha, ha.

Well-intended though it is, the jiggering with the story adds another serious logical problem. The 1942 version of the climactic escape makes something approaching sense. There, the troupe dons their old Nazi uniforms in order to infiltrates a Reich gathering at the theatre, in order to stage a failed assassination attempt, introduce their Hitler as the real one, and “for security reasons” get themselves aboard a motorcade to the airport. It’s a risky and desperate gambit, but it has the benefit of simplicity, and you can imagine it working.  The 1983 version complicates this elegant and entirely acceptable story device with the astoundingly convenient coincidence that has this very troupe hired to entertain for the Nazis at their old theatre, and the moral imperative to bring the Jewish refugees along. This is accomplished by dressing the Jews in burlesque clown uniforms and making them part of the show on stage, before they join the troupe in marching down the center aisle between rows of hysterically laughing Nazis.  But for the frozen panic of one old woman, and the deft stratagem used to cover it (the only good part of the repurposed climax), this works exactly as planned.

But it shouldn’t. Indeed, it introduces a gaping logical flaw that makes the rest of the story impossible.

In the 1942 version, the troupe is not part of the show on stage and therefore won’t be missed by anybody in the theatre when they leave. In the 1983 version, the entire troupe escapes during a show without any of the guffawing Nazis ever noticing what they should notice, which is that the stage is suddenly empty and that the show has ended without so much as a curtain call. How does this work? At least, in The Blues Brothers (1980), when Jake and Elwood fled their concert carrying all the gate receipts, they left their band playing on stage, so it would be a few minutes before anybody realized that the lead singers had vanished…and even then, the cops, vengeful country music band, Illinois Nazis and Princess Leia still realized right away that the objects of their respective vendettas were pulling a fast one. But the motley gang of the 1983 To Be Or Not To Be left nobody behind. Explain how they got as far as four blocks without the airport being notified and you’re a better man than I am.

Finally, and unbelievably given how much the remake otherwise hews to the original, it inexplicably drops the blackest joke in the classic 1942 film and replaces it with a moment of almost unbearable kitsch. In the 1943 version, the troupe disposes of the Nazis piloting the plane by calling them back into the cabin, where the hatch is now open, and having the false Hitler bark the order, “Jump!” The two pilots happily oblige. It not only gets the biggest laugh in the film, but functions as its most searing indictment of the Nazis, as people willing to do anything including destroy themselves without question if their Fuhrer commands it. The 1983 version simply drops this in favor of a more conventional climax in which the protagonists are nearly captured at the airport. It all, unbelievably, comes down to a not especially suspenseful action climax in which the escaping plane accelerates down the runway just ahead of pursuing Nazis, while Anna Bronski’s pampered little dog races alongside it trying to hop aboard at the last minute. This is not just an inadequate replacement for a classic moment. It is a spasm of mindboggling awfulness. Even audiences who loved the remake booed that scene.

Footnote Facts

Jack Benny never again made another film as good as the 1942 To Be Or Not To Be. For the rest of his career, he derived comic mileage from mocking another, The Horn Blows At Midnight (1945), which though a financial failure that signaled the end of his movie stardom, was nowhere near as awful as he would paint it, forevermore. He would always be at his best on radio and television, playing his own long-lasting comic persona, a ridiculously petty, stingy, and conceited version of himself.

Carole Lombard left the set vocal about finding her work on To Be Or Not To Be the happiest and most enjoyable experience of her acting career. How sad, then, to report that it would turn out to be her last film before her death in a plane crash. She did not live to see its release. Today, it’s probably the most often seen of all her films,though her name remains coupled to Clark Gable’s as common shorthand for a certain kind of old-time Hollywood glamour.

The original film’s portrayal of a “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” as a dangerous fool who, whenever embarrassed by circumstances, immediately shifts blame to his underling by angrily shouting, “Schultz!” may have launched a little mini-meme all by itself. Billy Wilder’s classic POW-camp comedy/drama, Stalag 17 (1953),  featured a Sergeant Schultz who pretended avuncular affection for his American captives but took great pleasure in oppressing them. Popular sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, wrong-headed for more reasons than we have desire to go into here, featured a significantly more harmless Sergeant Schultz whose buffoonish commandant also covered up embarrassments by angrily shouting his name.

The Jewish refugees of the 1983 version include, in an unspeaking role, a young boy played by one Max Brooks, son of the married leads. This is the same Max Brooks who later carved out his own bloody niche with the worldwide best seller World War Z.

Mel Brooks reprised his most reliable shtick, making musical hay of the Nazis, with the hit Broadway musical (and its subsequent film version, and no doubt future Remake Chronicles subject) The Producers.

The Verdict

1942 version, a terrific film that deserves its reputation as one of the greatest film comedies of all time. 1983 version, a flawed and messy re-creation that plays many of the same notes but never manages to achieve the same music.

* * *

And, now, the wife weighs in.

Commentary by Judi B. Castro.

To Be Or Not To Be (1942). Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Written by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justice Mayer, from an original story by Ernst Lubitsch.  Starring Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman. 99 minutes. **

To Be Or Not To Be (1983). Directed by Alan Johnson. Written by Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan, from the story by Ernst Lubitsch and 1943 screenplay by Melchior Lengel and Edwin Justice Mayer. Starring Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, and Christopher Lloyd. 107 minutes.  **

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, Maan Gaye Mughal-E-Azam (2008), Bollywood film starring Rahul Bose and Mallika Sherawat. (It does not deal with the Nazi era, but applies the plot structure to a period of civil unrest in India.)

Wow.  I have just completed watching both versions of TBONTB and while that may have contributed to the raging migraine that delayed my half of this blog, I can’t say I didn’t have a pleasant time.

I’m sure Adam has gone over the basics, and then ripped apart the little changes that Mr. Brooks (I am sure the writers had little say) felt were necessary for his more modern audience, neither version really tipped my scales.

The 1945 version has actors in a contemporary piece, doing what was controversial for the time.  The 1983 version has actors playing history for schtick and just falling flat.  I was however reminded of why “cheese” is used when passing gas. (See Ehrhardt’s favorite joke).  I also rediscovered my contempt for overblown humor (ie. the ongoing overemphasis in the Brooks version) which has always made me feel as if the filmmakers had little regard for my ability to follow the plot or even the simplest of jokes.

As to the casts of each film , with only one exception, they truly gave it their all.  I adore Christopher Lloyd’s  “Schultz”, but I’ll take Robert Stack as the young flyer over Tim Matheson any day.  I can’t compare either leading lady without feeling a bit brutish.  Carole Lombard was THE comic queen with the beauty and brains to match, I only wish we could have been privileged to see more.  Anne Bancroft was a major theatrical threat, talent, brains, beauty and acting ability that proved itself all the way to the Oscars, her downfall here was following her husband’s lack of subtlety.

Finally, our leading men.  The underplayed Jack Benny and the overblown Mel Brooks.  Now, I am not a Benny fan, not even slightly into the old TV bits, but here he wins hands down.  Conversely, I am a Brooks fan and here I find all the Brooksian schtick unappetizing.  When Brooks allows others to do his work, a subtler hammer is wielded.

So, which film comes out on top of this particular romp fest?  Neither.  I declare a tie with a need for a rematch to be held sometime in the next 20 years.