Posts Tagged ‘Comedy’


Feed me, Seymour. Feed Me All Night Long.

The Entire Movie

      

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Little Shop Of Horrors (1960). Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, and Jack Nicholson. 70 minutes. **

Little Shop Of Horrors (1986). Directed by Frank Oz. Written by Howard Ashman, based on the musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, itself based on the original screenplay by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, Bill Murray. 94 minutes. ***

*

Your name is Seymour Krelboyne. You are a born nudnik working a dead-end job in the worst part of town, in an florist’s shop about to go under from lack of customers. But you believe you have the solution: a strange, sickly potted plant with an egg-shaped gourd that somewhat resembles a head. You’ve named it Audrey II, in tribute to your co-worker, a sweet airhead with a knack for mangling the English language. Surely, you tell your abusive boss Gravis Mushnick, putting this discovery on display must be a great way to attract new customers. He is dubious, to say the least. But within minutes of your big unveiling, customers start swarming in, and the future employment seems assured. The only problem is that the plant is carnivorous, malevolent, and so hungry that your gardening hobby soon acquires its own body count.

The original Little Shop Of Horrors, imbedded in its entirety above, was made on a lark, by folks who never expected it to be anything, and who were in fact daring themselves just on general principle to come up with a movie that could be shot on sets built for another movie, on a two-day filming schedule. (It actually took three weeks, if you count the two it took to write the screenplay, the three days the cast spent on rehearsal, and the final two-day frenzied production.)   It was such a surprise success, and object of cult adoration for over the years that followed, that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken used it as the basis for a hit off-Broadway musical, that inevitably brought the story back to Hollywood. 

The 1986 version, made at a budget of approximately 750 times the budget of the original — literally, on such a scale that the moviemakers could have made the original all over again on about the same amount the money the new movie spent on any particular shooting day, before breaking for lunch — is the one that most casual moviemakers know now. Close examination reveals that the new version is, songs and all,  if anything, a smaller-scaled story. But is it a more focused one?

Little Shop of Horrors (1960): Dedicated Weirdness

As often occurs with remakes, the partisans of this version regard the remake with open contempt, treating it as a bastardization of the original work of genius. They call the 1986 version overblown, obvious, and spendthrift of the original’s charms.

One can only wonder if they’ve seen the original lately.

It’s not a bad film (though the wife is – spoiler warning – about to take violent exception to that assertion). In fact, considering the conditions under which is made, it is a surprisingly good film, with clever dialogue, and some remarkably witty character bits. It certainly serves up a lot more incidental weirdness than the 1986 version, providing us in addition to the sadistic dentist and masochistic patient a number of eccentrics that don’t make it to the 1986 film at all. They include Siddie Shiva (Leola Wendorff), a perennial customer who arrives every single day to announce the death of yet another of her poor relatives; Seymour’s crazy hypochondriac mother Winifred (Myrtle Vail), whose mania includes a revolting form of down-home cooking that utilizes patent medicines as food staples; and Burson Fouch (invaluable b-movie veteran Dick Miller), an awfully nice guy who buys up flowers so he can snack on them in the store. There are also a pair of deadpan Homicide detectives, who between them offer an outrageous parody of Jack Webb’s Dragnet that could have been, and in fact eventually was under other hands, a workable premise of a full-length movie all by itself.

”How’s the wife, Frank?”

“Not bad, Joe.”

“Glad to hear it. The kids?”

“Lost one yesterday.”

Lost one, huh? How’d that happen?”

“Playing with matches.”

Well, those’re the breaks.”

“I guess so.”

This is funny stuff now. Audiences in 1960, with Jack Webb’s intonations still in recent memory, would have found it even funnier.

The constant malaprops uttered by both Audrey and Mushnick – neither of whom seem to have ever met a sentence they didn’t have serious trouble crossing intact — are another fine element. And so’s the brief visit from the masochistic dental patient (played by a young pre-stardom Jack Nicholson, who is of course given star billing on every public-domain VHS and DVD pressing of the film). Nicholson had yet to learn most of what he eventually knew about acting, and he was still a hoot and a half as a pervert experiencing heights of sexual arousal while reading a medical journal:   “The patient came to me with a large hole in his abdomen, caused by a fire poker used on him by his wife. He almost bled to death and gangrene had set in. I didn’t give him much of a chance. There were other complications. The man had cancer, tuberculosis, leprosy, and a touch of the grippe. I decided to operate.” Hee hee!

So this is all good. What’s not? Well, to be frank, Jonathan Haze as Seymour, attempting to channel Jerry Lewis and failing miserably. (It’s not funny as intended, in either film, when Seymour trips while running into the store and smashes a bunch of flowerpots while Mushnick rages at his incompetence, but the difference between the first film and the second is that when Rick Moranis gets up, he goes back to being funny, and Haze seems to leave his comic timing in the debris.) The encounter with an insistent prostitute is just plain embarrassing. The plant itself is not nearly as interesting, in that it’s not the voluble chatterbox of the remake but instead a vegetable of few words beyond the insistent, “Feed me!” The plot doesn’t manage to achieve any real comic velocity but instead comes down to a series of strange things happening, until a dull final chase scene that consists of Mushnick and the two cops chasing Seymour around a tire yard. And, finally, there’s ending: a tragic death for Seymour that consists of him deliberately climbing into the plant’s mouth and ends as a bud with his face cries, “I didn’t mean it!”  Today, it gives the impression of being what it likely: a hasty wrap-up by moviemakers who never thought their two-day production would form the basis of an ongoing franchise, and who just did whatever would get them to the title card THE END as soon as possible.

The first film is in short the product of a generous posterity. Its best moments are remembered with fondness, and its worst forgotten or forgiven.

 

Little Shop of Horrors (1986): A Stage-Bound Epic

According to producer David Geffen, the first director approached for this remake was Martin Scorcese. Think on that a bit. What he might have made of it!

It’s actually fortunate that he didn’t, as the team put together by Frank Oz, in adapting the stage hit, made about as good as movie as anyone could have made from the material.

Part of it involves what novelists call “killing your darlings,” the fine art of jettisoning those favorite bits of business that we might recall with affection but which really don’t do all that much in terms of servicing the story. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the writers of the musical, had every reason to do this, because any Off-Broadway production lives and dies by narrative economy and therefore can’t survive much in the way of incidental characters who add nothing but oddness. So farewell, alas, to Burson Fouch; we’ll miss you, but you distracted from the stuff we needed to heed. Farewell, Siddie Shiva; we enjoyed your perpetual state of mourning, but it was really only one-joke and you can serve the same purpose as an unseen presence on the other side of a phone.

Most importantly, farewell, Winifred Krelboyne: getting rid of you, and making Seymour an orphan who has lived all his life as Mushnick’s virtual slave, serves several purposes. First, it means we lose that interval when Seymour has to travel across town to get the plant, and return with it; Second, it makes him even more put-upon and therefore sympathetic than he was before; third, it increases the stakes, from Seymour losing a job that wasn’t any good anyway to losing the only home he’s ever had, and then to finding a happiness he’s never known

All of this leaves more room for the character of the sadistic dentist, who is here positioned closer to the concerns of the plot. In the original, he’s just another odd element, incidental to Seymour’s life until Seymour needs a tooth looked at. In the musical, and subsequently in this film, he’s the human Audrey’s ridiculously abusive boyfriend, a guy who really does look to the far from murderous Seymour like one of those people who (as both Seymour and the plant declare in song) might as well become plant food.

This change moves the love story closer to center stage,  increasing our empathy for everybody involved (and making way for one of the funniest Ashman / Menken songs, “Be A Dentist”). Even the appearance of Bill Murray in the masochistic-patient part once played by Jack Nicholson is rendered material; sure, it pops in out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly, but in context it serves as the unsatisfying office visit that stokes the dentist’s rage and prompts him to seize on Seymour as a patient who will react properly to the agony he inflicts.

The increased attention to the Seymour / Audrey I dynamic gave the musical something the original didn’t have: narrative momentum. The original  doesn’t so much build in tension as stagger its way through a series of incidents. The musical makes it a comic race between Seymour getting everything he’s ever wanted, and damning himself beyond redemption. (The fact that in the stage musical and in the original cut of this film, he loses the race, as both he and his girlfriend are eaten, and leave the carnivorous plant to further threaten the world, is immaterial; a disastrous test of that apocalyptic ending led to the happier resolution it enjoys now; and it would be true in either case that it’s the tension being played with.)
  
Your friendly analysts have seen the stage musical – not the original, but a subsequent revival – and must report that the movie accomplishes things it does not. It is perfectly acceptable, on stage, for a soloist to just stand in one place, and belt out the entirety of a song – that is, assuming that it’s a good song, that it advances the story and illuminates character, and that the performer can sing it. A movie musical where most of the story is conveyed via the songs must do a little bit more, and we happily report that the imaginative staging of the songs in the film give them all significant visual power. “Skid Row,” for instance, is here an epic production number detailing exactly why Seymour’s life sucks and how much he’s aware of it; it places him in a milieu where everybody feels the same way, and motivates him about a hundred times better than anything seen in the original film.

“Be A Dentist” not only tells us that Orin Scrivello is a dirtbag who deserves to die, as the play does, but here shows us (with one eye-popping within-the-mouth shot).Giving the plant the power of song as well as the power of speech (both Levi Stubbs) underlines just how Mephistophelean the deal offered by that mulch-fed maniac is, and why Seymour responds to it as he does. Hell, despite the silliness of the proceedings, this viewer always mists up, badly, during the declaration-of-love song, “Suddenly Seymour.” He honestly cannot help it.

(It helps, of course, that they’re for the most part great songs, and that the greek-chorus narrators have a presence that restores much of the strangeness the removal of so many incidental characters has taken out.)

The set is a marvel: one of the largest New York City sets ever built, taking up much of London’s Pinewood studios, it is clearly not a real place but a fine stylized approximation of one. And the plant is terrific. Just the statistics are impressive: for the various incarnations of Audrey II, fifty thousand fake leaves, eleven miles of cable, design assistance from the Atomic Energy Commission, and fifty puppeteers operating it during the finale. None of this would be even remotely enough if it didn’t actually come off as a living thing, but Audrey II does; he’s malicious, cajoling, self-satisfied, evil AND charming, all at once. If you want to be absolutely terrified, reflect that today, he would almost certainly be rendered by CGI…and imagine just how lame that would inevitably be. 

Some enthusiasts believe it a betrayal of the source material (both prior film and stage show), that Seymour and the human Audrey go on to live their happily-ever-afters, and I’m afraid that’s an argument that can’t be won. It degenerates into, “Yes, It is! No, it’s not!” I can only suggest that if the preview audiences were outraged at the original ending where Seymour and Audrey died, it must be because that by then the couple at the center of the proceedings had such genuine chemistry…and that, by itself, speaks volumes.

Neither Rick Moranis nor Ellen Greene went on to the lasting screen stardom they deserved – in Moranis’s case by choice, as he eventually took some personal time off from acting and realized over time that he didn’t miss it at all; and in Greene’s case because the couple of headlining roles she received on screen afterward didn’t achieve anywhere near the same impact. (Unlike Moranis, she’s still performing, and was prominent as an eccentric aunt in the cult TV series Pushing Daisies.) It remains the best film either one has ever been involved with.
 
There have been some vague noises about yet another remake, including from one guy who says he wants to go back to the source material and make a straight horror movie. We are not eager to see the result.

The Leaf-Cutting

1960 version, a remarkable achievement on a shoe-string, but one with dead spots that weaken its flashes of genius. 1986 version, a terrific movie musical, that manages human feeling despite the campiness of its story.

*

And now, the wife plants her own seeds.

Second Commentary by Judi B Castro

Little Shop Of Horrors (1960). Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, and Jack Nicholson. 70 minutes. *

Little Shop Of Horrors (1986). Directed by Frank Oz. Written by Howard Ashman, based on the musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, itself based on the original screenplay by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, Bill Murray. 94 minutes. ***

I was eager to see the 1960 Little Shop of Horrors.  I had heard how this cult classic was completed in a few days, on borrowed sets and less than a full shoestring of a budget.  It was a horror/sci-fi/love story supposedly filled with just the right amount of “black humor” to at least get a chuckle or two.  Supposedly.

Then I watched it.  While I can admire the accomplishment I can not tolerate the horrible anti-semitism throughout.  If was just the caricatured characters, I could shrug it off, but no!  This hatred permeates every moment of film.  The language, the mannerisms the set decorations!  They took one really bad Jewish joke and stretched it to a full hour of pain. Do only Jews populate this particular part of skid row?  I did find myself horrified, but not by the sf/horror alien plant taking over the world, that could have been fun!

Move ahead to 1986.  I’m already a fan of this musical and I can’t wait to see what the film brings out.

This film is fun.  The music is catchy, the characters are mostly likeable, and  Audrey II is amazing!   This film never slows down.  It’s a cannon ball shot towards a heavy magnet.  Even by the CG driven films that can wow me today, these effects still play well.  Audrey II’s movement and lip synch are near perfection, but I expect that from a crew run by Frank Oz(whose puppet Yoda still far excels the CG one)!

Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene are the dufus couple you can cheer for.   The chemistry seems natural and even the singing fits the character moments.  This movie had me on the lookout for both these actors for quite some time after.

Steve Martin’s leather clad, sleaze ball, sadistic dentist is so much fun especially when played off of Bill Murray’s masochistic patient.  And, while Jack Nicholson in the same basic part was one of the few bright spots of the earlier attempt, Mr. Murray’s turn just tweaks it up a notch.

Gone from this version is the yidenglish signage, the spinster jewess with the constantly dying relatives (mass murderer???) and the over eager flower muncher.  None of these are a loss felt deeply and the changes actually lighten the entire tone.

As to the SF/Horror elements.  Well they are played out here as before.  Not actually central but not secondary either.  At its heart this remake is a love story, plain and simple.  Who really needs more than that?

 

 

 

 


Bridezillas on the Rampage

Sheer Epic Hilarity

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Seven Chances (1925). Directed by Buster Keaton. Screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A Mitchell, from a story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Buster Keaton. 56 minutes. ****

The Bachelor (1999). Directed by Gary Sinyor. Screenplay by Steve Cohen, from the 1925 screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell, from the story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Chris O’Donnell, Renee Zellwegger, Edward Asner, Peter Ustinov, Hal Holbrook, Brooke Shields, Sarah Silverman. 101 minutes. * 1/2

Other Notable Versions: Unseen by us, two short subjects by The Three Stooges both made during the Shemp era,  Brideless Groom and Husbands Beware. The latter, made at a time when the Stooges were forced by budgetary considerations to cut costs in humiliating ways, recycled much of its action footage from the earlier film.

*

This is it, folks: the single greatest span between original film and its first major remake that this blog has ever featured, or will likely ever feature. A child conceived on a date night that began with a night out at the movie theatre watching Seven Chances would have been about 74 years old as a grumpy old person catching a twilight matinee of The Bachelor.

Both films are about respectable young men with commitment issues, who have been been stringing along the same young woman without ever quite bringing themselves to declare their love or pop the question.

Both protagonists find themselves faced with professional ruination if they don’t collect the fortune promised by a grandfather’s will, provided the young man is wed by a certain birthday (27 in Seven Chances, 30 in The Bachelor).

Both leave that young man with little more than a day to arrange matrimony.

In both, turned down by the girl he really loves because he blows the proposal miserably, he must propose to a succession of others; in Seven Chances to a succession of vague acquaintances and distant strangers, in The Bachelor to the ladies he used to date, with whom things never quite worked out.

Both films turn toward disaster with a front-page newspaper story, that explains the fortune at stake, attracting hundreds of predatory women in bridal gowns to the church where this marriage of convenience must take place.

And both climax with our hero running for his life as a vast mob of scorned harpies pursue him with murder on their minds.

And yet Seven Chances is still remembered, closing in on ninety years after its initial release, as one of the greatest comedies of all time…while The Bachelor was forgotten even before it left the multiplex.

Maybe we’ll figure out a reason after we first cover the movie it’s trying to emulate.

Seven Chances (1925)

Of the three great silent-film comedians (the other two being Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd), Buster Keaton had the shortest golden age and the most difficult life. Chaplin continued to make great films well into the age of sound. Lloyd made a number of sound features that may have been inferior to his silent work and were certainly underappreciated, but are nevertheless amusing; and when it became clear to him that his time had passed, he stopped with plenty of money in the bank. Keaton, on the other hand, was plagued by alcoholism, a couple of spectacularly bad relationships with women, studios that refused him control of his own work and forced him into deals like acting as straight man to Jimmy Durante, financial woes, and decades of believing that he had been forgotten. (Fortunately, he lived just long enough to see his work re-discovered by a new generation.) Though he continued working until the 1960s and was permitted during those decades a few moments to show his genius, he was by any real standard pretty much over as a comic titan by the end of the 1920s.


 

Seven Chances is not his best film (that would probably be The General), but it’s a remarkably fun hour at the movies, and early on shows one of the elements that distinguished him from Chaplin and Lloyd:  his genius for concocting gags that could only be possible on film. Early in his career, he took apart a motion picture camera to determine exactly how it worked, and he was known for experimenting with special effects techniques that neither of his two great contemporaries would have tried. With one early film, The Playhouse (1921), he managed to appear on-screen as nine separate characters, in the same shot, using matte techniques that were unheard-of at the time and that he did not reveal for years. In another, the dazzling Sherlock Jr. (1924), he leaped from a movie theatre audience and onto a screen showing a feature, where he suffered a succession of indignities caused by scenery that insisted on quick-cutting from one environment to another. Moviemakers and film buffs still  examine these sequences frame per frame, to determine how he pulled off these sophisticated and hilarious effects with no tools but a technology still in what we could consider its infancy.

Though largely a straightforward narrative, Seven Chances still shows some of this kind of technical wizardry, with a scene where Buster’s character gets behind the wheel of his roadster, puts his hands on the wheel, and then, without moving a muscle or turning over the engine, arrives at his destination anyway, because the setting changes around him. The movie does this twice, and it remains a dazzling bit of stagecraft even in the age of CGI. (These days, the effect could be achieved digitally; then, it required meticulous planning, with the position of the camera in relation to the car, and Buster’s position inside the car, controlled to the millimeter.)

There’s a similar bit of virtuoso storytelling at the very beginning, where we’re treated to a succession of shots detailing the more than a year Buster has been spending time with his lady fair without quite getting around to telling her how he feels. We see the pair, and her dog, framed by her front gate, in a gloriously full technicolor summer scene. Then we get fall, and winter, and spring. The seasonal weather around them dictates the passage of time…but so, more hilariously, does the growth of her dog, which at first barely comes up to Buster’s ankles and then, over the course of a year, becomes a behemoth. It’s not just a great gag; it’s a vivid metaphor for the elephant in the room, the extent of this young man’s inability to open his mouth and say what he clearly wants to say.

The other marvel is, of course, Keaton himself. He was called the great stone face, because once he developed his persona he rarely reacted to anything except with his eyes;  and I have heard a number of people who don’t appreciate him opining that this meant he couldn’t act. Nonsense. He focused his attention through his eyes, which were as expressive as any pair of orbs every seen on film. He could express sadness, interest, happiness, embarrassment, terror, confusion, discomfort, and horror just by altering that focus. And there is never any doubt, at any point in any of his films, just what his characters are thinking and feeling. There is thus no doubt that his character in Seven Chances is gloriously in love, gloriously bereft when his love has said no, and then gloriously imperiled when the army of belligerent scorned brides chases him through the city streets. Even allowing for movie magic, he is also an astounding comedic athlete, one reason why the more contemporary folks who consider him a role model include one Jackie Chan.

And finally, there’s the avalanche sequence, excerpted above: product of a test-screening where the chase seemed to lie flat, until the audience laughed uproariously at a divine accident: three tiny rocks pursuing Buster down the side of a mountain.

Keaton listened to that test audience, re-thought the climax, and filmed one of the great wowsers of silent film: his characterpursued down the mountain by boulders of steadily increasing size, bouncing around him and dislodging still more as he gallops like mad to stay ahead of them. It doesn’t hurt the effectiveness of the sequence one whit to note that one “boulder” his own size actually strikes him and bounces off, revealing itself as a lightweight prop; you’re not supposed to notice that, and your enjoyment  and admiration for the sheer bravura of the action will not diminish one millimeter. The timing is perfect, and he’s still one of the great runners in movie history.

Not everything he does requires thrills to be effective. There’s a great sequence on a curving staircase where Keaton follows one strange young woman up to the second floor and, without a pause, follows another coming down, getting a no each time. There’s a bit involving a hat-check girl who has been observing the madness and doesn’t even allow him to blurt the big question out.

But it’s that whole last twenty minutes that amount to one of the great races to the altar in movie history, the chief reason why this movie is now considered a classic.

(One caveat: there are also a few uncomfortable gags involving black people, who are in a few cases presented as incredibly funny just because they’re black – but this was almost a century ago, and it takes up very little of the film. We note this with a level of forgiveness born of posterity, though your mileage may vary; in the meantime, we note it for the record, note also that some filmmakers of the time did far worse, and move on.)

 

Not nearly as good.

The Bachelor (1999) 

The Bachelor raises the stakes in a number of ways. The length of the movie balloons from almost one hour to almost two. The fortune at stake, adjusted for inflation, balloons from the original’s seven million to a hundred million. The lives at risk of ruination if our hero cannot get married by the deadline are not just the two owners of a small investment firm but the hundreds of workers who will lose their jobs if its protagonist cannot hold on to his pool-table factory. The action is moved from the still very rural Los Angeles of 1925 to the hills of San Francisco in 1999, which is not in and of itself a bad idea, as the hundreds of brides chasing Chris O’Donnell up and down those steep slopes should provide opportunities as fascinating as a mob the same size going after Buster Keaton on flat streets.

In addition, the terms of the will are far more stringent. The bequest that bedevils Buster Keaton in Seven Chances requires only that he get married by his 27th birthday. Nothing is said about him remaining married. He is shown, at one point, with two sets of train tickets, one to Niagara Falls and the other to Reno. His intentions couldn’t possibly get any clearer than that. In The Bachelor, the will specifies that any woman he marries must live with him in the same house for ten years, never spending more than one day a month apart from him…and establishing that she must, must, produce an heir. The ball-and-chain becomes weightier. Except for one key scene involving Brooke Shields, the comedy somehow diminishes.

The bride-search follows a different tack. In Seven Chances Keaton’s romantically clueless character popped the big question to a succession of women he barely knew, or didn’t know at all. It was a series of confrontations that began with, “Hello, will you marry me?” and always ended with disaster. The comedy comes in large part from the humiliation attendant on being forced into this impossible situation and doing it all wrong.

In The Bachelor, Chris O’Donnell’s Jimmy Shannon is a lifelong lady killer who has had a series of shallow relationships with women who he was never serious about. He is such a commitment-phobe that when he finally does meet one capable of capturing his heart (Renee Zellwegger’s Anne Arden), he blows his big proposal by summing up with a defeated, “You win.”

He’s thus less likeable right from the start…and when Anne says no and he finds out he must be married by Six O’clock the next day,  our empathy for him is diminished still further by this film’s admittedly more sensible but considerably less funny strategy of having him approach, not strangers, but women he’s actually dated.

The focus then becomes less the urgency of getting a woman, any woman, to say yes…but just why none of these previous relationships worked out. We learn that one of the women was too clingy, another downright boring, one too strident, and so on…and all of this requires a series of consecutive scenes that flirt with being amusing but fail to build tension. The problem is not just any resentment we might feel for being asked to feel pity for the plight of a good-looking, and soon to be rich, guy who has bedded and ultimately rejected all of these beautiful women – itself a far cry from the plight of the Keaton character who can’t even get to first base with the woman who he loves and who reciprocates his feelings; it’s that there’s no gathering momentum. The need for a separate scene with each woman reduces the rhythm of the film to stop-and-start, stop-and-start.

The Brooke Shields sequence deserves some props, mostly because the ex-girlfriend she plays, Buckley Hale-Windsor, is clearly the bitchiest and most unpleasant of the lot; of all of them, she clearly hates Jimmy the most, will be most intolerable living under the same roof with him, and is the one most equipped to feel the enormity of what she’s being asked to do. Agreeing to the marriage for reasons as mercenary as his, she nevertheless interrupts their wedding ceremony three times, to storm away and contemplate the awful price through furious clouds of tobacco smoke. This is as far as it goes a highlight of the film, and shows comic chops that, in 1999, few people knew Brooke Shields had. But it’s rueful-grin funny, not clutch-your-sides funny…and when that’s as funny as the film gets, you have a major problem.

The thing is, there are an awful lot of talented people in front of the camera, doing whatever they can to enliven a story that never sparks. This is a movie with a dream cast. Peter Ustinov, Ed Asner, Hal Holbrook, Sarah Silverman, Renee Zellwegger, Brooke Shields, and James Cromwell are all given funny stuff to do and say. Even O’Donnell, the weakest link, is not actively bad. The problem is that none of it sticks. It’s all stuff that you can look at and appreciate for being theoretically funny, without ever once feeling the need to laugh out loud. There’s a nice bit about the rapid notoriety of Jimmy’s horrifically failed proposal to Anne, and how it becomes famous city-wide…and yes, this is amusing enough, in a theoretical sense, but not funny. There’s another nice bit where Anne storms home afterward and starts preparing comfort food without quite looking at the ingredients, and yes, what she makes is so disgusting that it, too, should be funny…but again, what we get is the sense that it should be amusing, and not the actuality.  And there’s the visit to Anne’s parents, who are still so much in the throes of passionate love after a lifetime of marriage that their daughters can barely stand them…which again, is recognizably humor without quite achieving that lofty state.

And all of this is before Jimmy’s trapped in a church with hundreds of increasingly hostile brides, forced in an interminable scene to defend his taste in women to them. That is as leaden as it gets. It is the only identifiably awful scene in the movie.

And even that  is before Jimmy being chased through the city streets by an army of those brides. The sequence duplicates a little of what Keaton did, by having Jimmy approach an intersection with hundreds of pursuers behind him, only to find his situation worsened as more brides pour in from the cross-streets. But it doesn’t approach one-tenth of a ghost of a scintilla of a shadow of the epic nightmare of the same shots from the earlier film. Nor does it even attempt to match the earlier film’s cliffhangers and hair’s-breadth escapes. There’s of course no avalanche.

The closest thing the film comes to actually adding to Keaton’s vision is the moment where Anne joins Jimmy on a fire-escape, over a vast field of brides in white who have just been calmed by the realization that they have not been scammed and that an actual wedding is in fact taking place; she looks down on all those ladies dressed in bridal gowns, as far as the eye can see, and murmurs, “It’s so beautiful.” A nice moment. Which she then has to ruin by making a speech to underline it. Feh.

All in all, there’s activity, but no energy.

You could, of course, note in fairness that the films occupy different comic universes. Seven Chances intends to be over the top slapstick. The Bachelor aspires to be a romantic comedy and date film. The two subgenres have completely different priorities. But two of those priorities are making us care and making us laugh. Buster Keaton’s film has been doing both jobs for what is fast approaching a century. It transcends its time.  The Chris O’Donnell version? For whatever mysterious reason, it’s inert. And it had us checking our watches before the end of the first hour.

The Vows

There’s a difference between being engaged and wanting an annulment.

*

And now, the furious wife races down the center of the street, waving the brick she took from the construction site…

Second Commentary by Judi Castro

Seven Chances (1925). Directed by Buster Keaton. Screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A Mitchell, from a story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Buster Keaton. 56 minutes. ***

The Bachelor (1999). Directed by Gary Sinyor. Screenplay by Steve Cohen, from the 1925 screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell, from the story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Chris O’Donnell, Renee Zellwegger, Edward Asner, Peter Ustinov, Hal Holbrook, Brooke Shields, Sarah Silverman. 101 minutes. **

Other Notable Versions: Unseen by us, two short subjects by The Three Stooges both made during the Shemp era, Brideless Groom and Husbands Beware. The latter, made at a time when the Stooges were forced by budgetary considerations to cut costs in humiliating ways, recycled much of its action footage from the earlier film.

Never watch a film you really need to see with a fanatic who has already seen it a bazillion times!

My viewing of Seven Chances came with a home-made commentary track supplied by my husband.  Not as much of a problem here as it could be with a sound film, but still VERY distracting. Now you may ask why is this my opening salvo for my half of this piece?  Simply put, the one thing that stands out in my mind about the 1925 version, was a chance viewing of two license plates on the cars in one of the proposal scenes and noting that they were sequential.  Call me a heretic or a non-believer, but this was not a great film!  It was very good.  Entertaining for its time.  Incredibly naïve by todays jaded standards, but not great.  The story line once again left me feeling (as many Keaton stories did) what an easily manipulated fool this man let himself be portrayed on screen.  I tend  not to enjoy the bumbling do-gooders who win in the end since usually some jackass relative or friend is made better too!And these are the typical Keaton film characters.  So this film’s unspoken, long-term love match and dire economic (criminal) plots just remind us of the used and abused fool the man always played.  If I need a bumbler to win I prefer Chaplin any day.

Now, the 1999 rom-com had nothing intrinsically wrong.  The casting of this film was great (with one HUGE exception), but did they bother to check for on-screen chemistry? I felt more of an emotional tug during the scene in the boat between O’Donnell and Cromwell, than any of the scenes with O’Donnell and Zellwegger.  I’m sorry if this film is any reader’s idea of great, but it really never elevated above sweet.  And why (here’s the aforementioned exception) did they cast Artie Lange?  His comedy act is playing obnoxious, and he carries that forward into this film.  Chris O’Donnell’s best friend and wingman would never be this shlub.  The sidekick should have been more snake oil salesman able to drag his buddy through this long night’s charade, while still keeping his spirits up.

Oh, and one quick mention how everycharacter is once again in it for themselves.  They need the poor groom to get hitched to save the business and their jobs and their lives.  What about his life?  His happiness?  What the hell’s wrong with wanting to stay single until you know you’re ready?  What’s so romantic about rushing to the altar?  Divorce lawyers love it, that’s all.  There should have been some out that any good lawyer could have found, especially since they never completed viewing the taped will. Didn’t anyone consider the timing factor?  When was the will taped?  How many years were then available to Jimmy?  None of this is considered just the rush to what is supposed to be hilarity and instead invokes sighs of indifference.

Since neither film ranked high on my rush back for another viewing meter and I need a palate cleanser, I’ll go back and watch Notting Hill for the umpteenth time and try to remember what rom coms are like.  As to Mr. Keaton, I feel the need to rewatch One Week and remind myself of the wonder of his physical comedic timing.

 

 

 


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.


A Blog Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

One of the occasional “extra” posts, mostly reprinted, that I upload here from time to time, to help fill the space between “Remake Chronicles” posts. This was originally posted on Unca Harlan’s Art Deco Dining Pavilion in 2008, and is also available in different forms on my Facebook site and on my Harper Collins author site. I have edited the essay slightly for this republication. I am aware that some people have been vocal about opining that I must have made this up, that it cannot possibly be true. I swear to you, these events occurred exactly as related. My astonishment is palpable and still entirely justified.

In 1995 the company I worked for at the time decided to move its main corporate office from Larchmont,  New York, to Boca Raton, Florida. I was one of the employees offered an opportunity to move with it. Circumstances made keeping the job a better option than staying in New York, so I agreed to make the move, finding an apartment and arranging for a professional moving company to ship my belongings. I brought everything I could carry with me in my car, and spent 10 nights in a barren apartment sleeping on an air mattress while I waited for my things to arrive.

On the day the truck arrived, I took the afternoon off so I could meet the moving men, whom I had never met before, at my apartment in Fort Lauderdale.

The first thing that happened is that the truck got lost and arrived three hours late. The driver had to call me three times to get directions—at one point reporting a current location some 45 minutes farther away than any I had directed him to — but he ultimately zeroed in on the correct address, and I ran down to the apartment complex parking lot to meet the two guys with the truck.

I must now tell you that though I’d never met the two guys in the truck, I recognized them at once.

They were both clad in overalls. The shirts underneath were neat button-downs, and they were wearing thin black ties and brimmed painter’s caps.

The driver was a chubby guy on the wrong side of 260 pounds. He wore a hat and had a little moustache. He was tremendously exasperated over getting lost for so long, a circumstance he blamed on his assistant, whom he had foolishly placed in charge of reading the map.

He asked me if my apartment was on the ground floor. I told him no, it was on the second floor, up a flight of exterior stairs. He rolled his eyes with exasperation. “Well, I’m sorry,” I said, “It is.”

His coworker was his physical opposite: a very thin man with protruding ears and a broad, amiable smile, charming in its sincerity but simple-minded in its affect. He may have been borderline retarded. I liked him at once, without speaking a word to him.

The two men went to the back of the truck and rolled up the gate, revealing an expanse of boxes and padded furniture. The fat man ordered the thin man to get up there and start handing him boxes. This, the thin man did. He moved so industriously, in fact, that he handed the boxes to the fat man faster than the fat man could stack them on the ground.  At one point he put one heavy box on top of another that the fat man was already holding, almost causing the fat man to fall over. The fat man let out a pained “Whoufff!” The thin man apologized, without full comprehension of his trespass.

I objected: “Wouldn’t it be easier to take the big furniture items first, so you won’t have to maneuver them around the boxes that are already in the apartment?”

The thin man and fat man looked at each other. This was a great idea.

They spent several minutes putting the boxes already unloaded back into the truck.

Now the two started carrying furniture out from the parking lot, through an arched gateway, into the apartment complex and to the wing that contained my empty apartment. Once inside t\hey beheld the stairway, two sets of six risers with a bend in the middle, leading up to the second floor walkway where my apartment sat. It was going to be hard to maneuver some of the bigger pieces, a combined cabinet and bookcase, up that obstacle course, but it had to be done. The fat man said to the skinny one, “You pull and I push.”

The thin man struggled mightily with his burden. The effort this took was so hard on him that his legs wobbled like liquid, slipping against the risers as he struggled for purchase. The smile, however, the eye contact with me as he shared that unwavering smile, never left him. It was like he was putting on a show, with me as audience.

After a heroic effort, they reached the first turnaround. The cabinet/bookcase got wedged against the railing, and would not go any further. The fat man said that he needed to get above it, so he could guide its movement past the bend. “Bring it back down!” he ordered.

The thin man started to comply.

I said, “Excuse me, this is silly. Why don’t you just go up the other stairway on the other side of the building, cross over on the walkway, and meet him here?”

The fat man took this as a capital idea. He went around to the other end of the building. Simultaneously, the thin man climbed down the stairs on the outside of the railing, so he could push from the bottom. The fat man arrived at the top of the stairs, did a double take when he saw that the thin man on the ground, and gave me another exasperated look, a look that communicated, again, the message, “See what I have to deal with?”

They managed to get the big item up the stairs with only two or three minor mishaps, each of them involving minor physical injury to the fat man. This involved the cabinet being dropped on the fat man’s foot, the cabinet jamming the fat man’s hand against the railing, the cabinet crushing the fat man against the wall. Each time the fat man let out a horrified yelp, and each time the skinny man apologized, each time with blinking that established a total dearth of comprehension.

The two men reached the second floor railing with the heavy items, breathing heavily from all the effort. I asked them if they’d like some water before they continued. They both allowed as how it had been a long drive and how they would like to use my bathroom. I opened the door for them. The skinny man started to enter. The fat man stopped him by blocking his way with his arm, pointed at his own chest to establish that he took precedence. 

He marched through the door.

Would you believe me if I told you that he tripped at the threshold and went flying?

We skip their bathroom break. They did their business, brought the cabinet into my bedroom with several additional physical insults to the fat man and at least one spat where the fat man cried out in frustration, “Why don’t you do something to help me?”

The skinny man went back to the truck and returned with the frame supports of my bed. He said, “Where do you want this, mister?”

I’m afraid I stared at him for a moment. This was a one bedroom apartment. An idiot could surmise where the bed would go. I said, “The bedroom.”

He took the frame into the bedroom. A few minutes later he returned from the truck with the mattress and asked me, “What about this?”

The fat man rolled his eyes again. I said, “On the bed frame.” The skinny man brought my mattress into the bedroom.

With all the furniture moved, it was now time to get those boxes. A word about how I labeled my boxes. There were 28 boxes. I had wanted to make sure that none were missed, so I wrote on each one of them with thick magic marker, in letters several inches tall.  They were all labeled something like, Castro Box 1 of 28. Or 2 of 28. Or 3 of 28. Et cetera. The skinny man asked me, “How many boxes do you have?” Again I stared, and said, “28.” The fat man rolled his eyes yet again. The thin man went and started getting the boxes, one at a time, in order, actually moving them in the pile on the truck so he could deliver them numerically. I will note again, for the record, that his big broad smile—never showing teeth, but still an upward curve of his lips—remained on his face during all 28 box trips, none of which the fat guy helped him with.

There were no further disasters as the rest of my items entered the apartment. I signed for the delivery and tipped them. The skinny guy reached for the money, but the fat guy pushed him aside and took it all. I thanked them.

The fat guy said, “Service with a smile.” He actually said that.

The skinny guy smiled at me again as the pair went down the stairs. For the first time, he took off his own hat and scratched his head. His hair was, I must report, short on the sides but stood upright when the hat was removed. It was, I swear to God, bright orange red. The only color it could have been.

Feeling like a man in a dream, followed them out, standing there as they drove away.

The first thing I said when they were safely out of sight was an awestruck, “My God, They Actually Exist.”

And since then I have always wondered how often they were recognized.

August 21, 2008


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.

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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.