Posts Tagged ‘Jack Nicholson’


* We* are the music makers… and *we* are the dreamers of dreams.

  

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971). Directed by Mel Stuart. Screenplay by Roald Dahl (and an uncredited David Seltzer), from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, others.  100 minutes.  ***

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Christopher Lee, Helena Bonham Carter, James Fox, Deep Roy, others. 115 minutes. * 1/2

Let’s get this out of the way, right at the beginning.

Despite a lifetime of voluminous reading that began in childhood, I have never actually picked up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I have read some of that master’s short stories, notably the grisly and often-filmed modern “Lamb To The Slaughter” and “The Man From The South,” but I have never actually read Charlie.  I therefore come to Willy Wonka’s factory with no preconceptions, no fidelity to a version that exists between pages. Anything I might say about one version’s faithfulness to its story is knowledge I might have picked up by osmosis. Unlike  our previous two part essay on films starring the Three Musketeers, this one will not and cannot refer to a ‘definitive’ take, based on the characters originally portrayed in a beloved book; it can only talk about what works best on screen.

There is, as we’ll see, enough to note on that basis alone.
  
Both Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory deal with the adventure of an impoverished young boy named Charlie Bucket, who lives in a hovel with an extended family that includes two sets of bedridden grandparents, perpetually sharing the same king-sized mattress in an arrangement that must lead to any number of broken noses whenever one of them kicks suddenly in the middle of the night. Charlie is a paragon of virtue, given his circumstances; he works to support his family, endures a ridiculous host of deprivations, and never complains, mever even seems to think of complaining.

Then one day, the reclusive but world-famous candy maker Willy Wonka, master of a factory that continues to churn out delicious confections decades after firing all its workers and shuttering its doors, announces that he will open his doors to five children lucky enough to find the golden tickets that have been inserted into five Wonka bars, worldwide. Each child will be able to take one adult family member and each one will win a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. The first four tickets go to kids who are all truly rotten, for one reason or another; the fifth lands in Charlie’s hands, and he takes the tour along with the other winners, their equally terrible parents, and his own suddenly – one would almost say ‘suspiciously’ — ambulatory grandfather.

(Watching the film as an adult, reality intrudes and it’s hard not to feel suddenly angry at Charlie’s grandpa, who has been lying in bed for years, while his family rotted in poverty and his grandson grew up eating weak cabbage soup for every meal. Talk about lazy bums who needed to go out and get a job. This is not a profitable train of thought, though, any more than it’s profitable to despise Willy for firing all the local workers and bringing in a tribe of little people willing to live in the factory and be paid in cocoa beans. Right there, you have both the rationale behind Occupy Wall Street and the response of the opponents who tell the demonstrators to stop whining. In either case it’s not something you want to think about very much. As we’ll see in our discussion of the first film, this is a fable, that exists in an isolated moral universe.)

In any event, all of Charlie’s fellow winners, and their parents  and the other winners, are driven by their own individually awful brands of awfulness to meet whimsically horrific fates in a factory that has certainly never been inspected by OSHA. And in the end, it turns out to all come down to Willy’s desire for a deserving heir, to carry on his confectionary work.

Both films stick to this skeletal plot very closely, but in practice they couldn’t possibly be more different.
 

 

Two Willy Wonkas

The key difference is in the character of Willy Wonka himself.

He makes no sense viewed in grown-up terms. A genius businessman who lives by himself in a factory that seems to run on whimsy, its only current employees a diminutive race of men who sing germane songs while they work, he is clearly a fantasy figure, a magician, a wizard whose magic manifests as chocolate instead of bright bolts of light. Any real attempt to deconstruct him makes about as much sense as trying to reverse-engineer the Easter Bunny.

The key to recognizing why one Willy works and why the other does not is examining the context.
 
In both films, Willy Wonka exists in a universe where access to his factory is the most important thing in the entire world. It’s just about the only thing that anybody talks about, the only issue that matters. The first film has some fun establishing that this extends, to a ridiculous degree, to adult society, where one newscaster confesses that there must be stories more important than Willy’s contest but that he honestly cannot think of any; where an auction house sells off the last box of Wonka chocolate in England at a highly inflated price; and where a woman whose beloved husband has been kidnapped needs to think before giving up his box of Wonka chocolate bars as ransom. This is absurdity, but it’s absurdity that sets up the laws of its fantastical universe, that establishes Willy Wonka as, really, the most important man who ever lived. In this context, he’s not just some rich guy, exploiting the workers and running a scam contest. In a child’s terms, he’s not Donald Trump. He’s Santa Claus: the god, or perhaps Mephistopheles, of chocolate.

On the story’s chosen level, it therefore makes more moral sense that he should damn well act that way,

And while both Willy Wonkas are colorfully-clad eccentrics with childlike priorities, strange hair and an impatient streak that sometimes bubbles over into cruelty, they otherwise couldn’t be farther apart.

Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka is, among other things, an adult. He is charismatic, and he is charming. He is enough of a showman to enter with a painful limp and then reveal with a flourish and somersault that he’s just kidding.. When the contest winners enter his gates he is friendly enough to share introductions with both the children and their guardians, and to give them all the benefit of the doubt until they rapidly prove themselves to be a bunch of intolerable creeps. Even though disaster repeatedly strikes along the way, there is never any doubt, at any point, that he’s ever in less than full control. When he assures Charlie, at the end, that the kid who drowned in chocolate and the kid who went down the chute to the incinerator and the kid who was turned into a giant blueberry and the kid who was shrunken to infinitesimal size will all be restored to full health, there’s no doubt that he’s telling the truth, and that there was never any real danger, to any of them, at any point. The sense is that he was always testing Charlie, and – though this is not stated aloud, it is my personal interpretation – that he somehow arranged for Charlie to get that last golden ticket in the first place. We trust and like that Willy Wonka. It’s a happy ending, for Charlie to end up with him.

Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka is not only manifestly not an adult,  but he’s a pale, nervous, infantile, disturbed, broken caricature of a man, twisted by childhood trauma, and so asocial that he nervously resists being introduced to the various kids  who have come to tour his factory. There are times when he seems downright evil. Some of this is actually fun – it’s amusing, for instance, that he always accuses Mike Teavee of “mumbling” whenever that boy points out something that doesn’t make logical sense. But the movie doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind whether this Willy Wonka is taken aback when disaster befalls the various nasty children, takes pleasure in it, or has maliciously planned it. There’s a genuine qualitative difference between Wilder’s Wonka, a man who doesn’t dwell in the real world but who seems to exist on some plane superior to it, and Depp’s Wonka, a man who has retreated from that real world in fright. Wilder’s Wonka is the ultimate prize Charlie wins: a magical friend, an understanding father. Depp’s Wonka is a good reason for a restraining order.

Nor is this a subtle thing. Tim Burton’s Chocolate Factory  builds up a substantial amount of good will with its visual wit and flawless pacing, up to the moment that the contest winners enter the factory. It is, to this essayist’s eyes, actually a substantially better film than the original for as long as the opening act lasts, in that it’s better at establishing the mystery of the factory, smarter when it comes to dramatizing and visualizing the squalor of Charlie’s everyday life, more impressively photographed, and – though this may get some hate mail – more merciful in sparing us a couple of songs that are difficult to sit through today. It seems poised to enter classic territory. Then Willy Wonka enters and opens his mouth. And he’s so bloody wrong, less P.T. Barnum than Boo Radley…if Boo Radley were not, at heart, a good neighbor, but a predatory one…that in less than a minute, the quality trajectory is recognizably steered toward the abyss. It’s hard to remember the last time a great actor sabotaged a film so quickly. Unless you remember, let’s say…Jack Nicholson and that previous Burton film, Batman.

The history of movies is a history of great directors who have forged lasting partnerships with great actors, and who did their best work with those actors; partnerships where both were better together, than they usually were apart.  John Ford made classics with John Wayne. Akira Kurosawa made more than a dozen all-time classics with Toshiro Mifune. Martin Scorcese had such a partnership with Robert De Niro and has started another one, almost as fruitful, with Leonardo DeCaprio. Tim Burton’s actor of choice is Johnny Depp. And though it has been profitable for both, the sad fact is that it has also been intensely limiting for Depp, in that Burton seems determined to always cast him as twitchy, pale-faced, freakish child-men…and that, between his collaborations with Burton and his success in the Pirates Of the Caribbean series, Depp has made a disproportionately large number of films where he played cartoons and disproportionately few where he played recognizable, nuanced human beings. It’s repetitive, and disappointing…and in this version of the Wonka story, downright unpleasant.

But that’s not even the main problem.
  

The Quality Differential In Oompa-Loompas
 

Roald Dahl’s original book was subjected to charges of racism because of its Oompa-Loompas, who were specifically African pygmies, and therefore by implication slaves being exploited in Wonka’s factory. (Dahl therefore changed a few things, in subsequent editions.)

The Oompa-Loompas of the 1971 film are little orange men with green hair, a visual design that happens to have two benefits. First, it frees them of any accidental insulting similarity to an existing race. Second, it eliminates their humanity. Some lip-service is given to them being an isolated tribe from Oompa-Land, but that might as well be Oz; what they are, really, is a magical race  like elves or dwarves; why not put them to work in a factory? They’re not serving mammon, they’re serving Willy’s perverse take on virtue.

The 2005 film makes the mistake of showing the Oompa-Loompa tribe in their homeland and dramatizing the contract negotiations where Wonka arranged to have them stay in his factory and be paid in cocoa beans. They all have a recognizable human skin tone and they are, in close-up at least, recognizably people. The racism is subtly restored.

(And while we’re on the subject, let’s be clear on this. In 1971, it was just barely acceptable that all the children who found golden tickets were white. In 2005, that story element is significantly more uncomfortable. If it can be forgiven at all, that’s because it’s hard to imagine any race feeling slighted in not having one of their own cast as one of the other, awful alternatives to Charlie. How racist would it be to have a fat black kid as Augustus Gloop, or a Japanese kid obsessed with video games as the Teavee brat? Let us shudder, and move on.)

The means the two films use to bring their Oompa-Loompas to the screen are also completely different.

The 1971 film made do with a bunch of authentically little men in costumes. The 2005 film used CGI to multiply actor/musician Deep Roy into dozens of simulacra of himself, performing in synchronized dances. It’s an impressive trick, but a grotesque one, in that the 2005 Oompa-Loompas are not little people but shrunken ones, who look disconcertingly unreal whenever they are made to appear beside actors of normal dimensions.  There are also, as a result, any number of scenes where the film seems more interested in showing off the cleverness of the technique than in serving the needs of the story. This is nowhere more true than in the scene where obese kid Augustus Gloop is sucked into the transparent tube; dozens of little Deep Roys perform an Esther Williams water ballet in the chocolate river around him, which is a) deeply unfunny, b) intrusive on the actual meaning of the moment, and c) a pop-culture reference so dated that it’s designed to sail over the heads of not only the kids watching the film, but also their parents and in some cases their grandparents. (It’s, as we shall soon see, a pervasive problem.) Six orange Oompa-Loompas popping up and down on their knees has infinitely more charm than dozens of CGI Oompa-Loompas performing overelaborate production numbers that only serve to make an already noisy film even noisier. It’s one of the many places where the advances in technology and the deeper pockets of the production actually betray the 2005 film. (The extended sequence aboard the glass elevator would be another.)

But that, also, is not even the main problem.
   

Another Problem: Overindulgence in In-Jokes and Self-Referential Humor 

The 1971 Chocolate Factory was the product of a less cynical, less media-savvy age, and exists entirely within its own universe. No other pop culture intrudes. No winking intrudes.

Since then we have have had pop-culture spoofs and Shrek movies and any number of other films that congratulate the audience on its familiarity with pop-culture precedents (though, of course, that knowledge is ankle-deep, as the references only rarely flag stuff more than a decade old). And it is now common, indeed almost expected, for a movie to step away from itself and comment on the action, in effect reminding us that it’s a movie, which in effect diminishes it.
 
This is why the 2005 Chocolate Factory has dialogue pointing out that the Oompa-Loompas seem to have a song pre-written for every occasion, and how forced this is. That is also why the Teevee brat gets to snarl, “Why is everything (in this factory) completely pointless?”, a line of dialogue of the sort that resonates deeply in any movie that has long since outstayed its welcome.

That’s why Tim Burton includes that parody of an Esther Williams water ballet, which is a fine thing if you think the kids in the audience will point and hoot, “Look! A parody of an Esther Williams water ballet!”

This is why there’s dialogue talking about how unlikely it is that the Oompa-Loompas have songs pre-written for every occasion. (Ha ha. A musical, pointing out how ridiculous musicals are. Ha, ha, ha. That is hilarious. Actually, it can be. See Urinetown. But it’s just forced, here…and it comes off as the movie, trying to be superior to itself.)
 
That’s why there’s a painful joke involving the supposedly world-traveling young Willy Wonka parading proudly past a montage of flags of the world, that suddenly becomes literalized when we are told that it’s not filmic shorthand but actually the young Willy, marching through a museum exhibit of flahs of the world. (Ha-ha.)

Winks like this have a way of destroying a story. They don’t always. After all, Tony Curtis’s Cary Grant impression doesn’t ruin Some Like It Hot. But they work best when they’re organic, when they can be glossed over, when they’re functioning parts of a tale that doesn’t stumble over them as if they were speed bumps. The knowing humor in Tim Burton’s film constantly deflates the story being told.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the scene in the 2005 film, in many ways a remake of a scene from the 1971 film, where Wonka demonstrates the invention that transports chocolate via television. As apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey cavort around a monolith on the TV image, the soundtrack plays “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and a huge candy bar becomes a monolith, itself. Ha, ha, ha. As if parodies of the 2001 monolith and evocations of Also Sprach Zarathustra hadn’t become clichés by 1969; as if 2005 kids were going to say, “Ha-Ha, 2001!”; as if many of their parents  were going to get the reference and that most of them weren’t also going to be bored by it; as if this is particular joke (or a subsequent joke about the Psycho shower scene), weren’t less about telling the story than about Tim Burton the film buff evoking movies that were much better than this one – or for that matter any he has made.
  

(Rule of thumb: don’t quote a great movie in your less-than-great film. Especially don’t show us a scene from that movie. The audience will resent it when that much better movie goes away…that is, if they recognize it all.)

The impression this device leaves is that film buff Tim Burton is bored by the movie he’s actually making and had to find some other way to amuse himself. This is never a good impression for any moviemaker to make.

But that is also not the main problem.

Nor is the main problem something the Oompa-Loompas allude to, in the song they sing after Mike Teavee is shrunken to miniscule size; they moralize about how TV brutalizes the imagination, immediately after a film that literalized so much at such high volume that it brutalized the imagination pretty horrifically itself. Though it’s never good for any movie to accidentally critique itself, the problem lies elsewhere.

Other Issues

There is much in the 2005 version worth admiring. The design of the Bucket house, for instance. The performances of such worthies as Helena Bonham Carter and Edward Fox. The performance of its Charlie, who unlike the original actually can act.  (Actually, all the kids were better.) Some of the lines of dialogue. Some of Willy Wonka’s bits of business. The staging of the sad fate of Violet.  2005’s “Bad Nut” joke is no substitute for 1971’s “Bad Egg” joke, but hey, kids in 2005 may not have heard the phrase “bad egg” and something had to be done.  The grandfather does not have the charm of Jack Albertson, but brings his own. And unlike the first movie, which is as flatly and unimaginatively staged as any beloved film can be, it shows a genuine sense of visual flair, though that seems to be Burton’s great skill and is no real substitute for skill at storytelling.)
 
Some of the 2005 version doesn’t work nearly as well as the original. Willy’s chocolate wonderland from the 1971 film is a practical set and not the vast CGI-enhanced locale of the 2005 version, but works about twenty times better. (It, too, represents the difference between teasing the imagination and clubbing it.)

The real problem comes at the point of the story where, in 1971, Charlie has every reason in the world to betray Willy Wonka and decides instead to be true to himself and not go for the quick payday. That’s the key moment of the 1971 story; everything else leads up to it. It is a moment of karmic justice that kids and adults can appreciate. In 2005, Charlie has a much easier decision: not abandoning his family by agreeing to live with this rich but profoundly dysfunctional man instead. It’s a much easier decision, poor as his family is; we can see that they have always loved him, and only a terrible kid who valued money or everything else would turn his back on them.
  
Missing this, the entire point of the 1971 version, the 2005 version decides to hinge on how exposure to this profoundly decent kid improves the broken Willy Wonka for the better; and thus goes on to explain how Willy reconciles with his son-of-a-bitch father (Christopher Lee). But there’s a major problem with that. Lee projects so much stern evil in the prior flashbacks that, frankly, it’s hard not to conclude that this was one of those families that was better off estranged. Christopher Lee may improve any movie he’s in just by standing there, and it may be a real hoot to posit him as Willy Wonka’s Dad, but he’s better, in this film, projecting villainy than he is when reconciling with his wayward, peculiar son.
  
The whole movie leads up to an emotional catharsis it honestly has not earned.

And that’s the fatal problem, the one that ultimately turns it into a colossal bummer.
 

The River Of Chocolate

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a minor classic that soars in the performance of its star, Gene Wilder. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, a movie that for a long time also seems poised for greatness until the moment its star walks on screen. I’ll see Willy again, gladly; I don’t think I’ll ever want to take another run at Charlie, which earns most of its star grade for its excellent staging of everything that happens before Willy Wonka shows up. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.

And now, eight miniature orange versions of the wife march in singing, “Oompa-Loompa, Oompaty-Ooh, I’ll Critique This Movie For You….”

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971). Directed by Mel Stuart. Screenplay by Roald Dahl (and an uncredited David Seltzer), from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, others. 100 minutes. ***1/2

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Christopher Lee, Helena Bonham Carter, James Fox, Deep Roy, others. 115 minutes. *

Yippee!!!   This set of reviews gave me the grand opportunity to be as annoying to my hubby as he has been to me while rewatching films for these columns.  How so you may ask?  Well, Adam is a lot like those wonderful folks in the theater who already know the story, they don’t exactly give it away, they just throw enormous hint boulders at you. “OOh watch what happens here, you’ll never believe it”.  This time I got to sing along and speak the lines all through the viewing of the 1971 film.  I was sooo darn happy.  Now, he too got into the Oompah Loompah songs, but not nearly as effusively as me. For you see, I have always loved this film!

Now, when the 2005 Tim Burton film was announced, I was a bit worried , but very hopeful.  In the years between, I had read the Charlie books and knew that some differences were to be had from the sweet/slightly frightening Gene Wilder portrayal to the Wonka of the books. I wondered how the overwrought genius of Edward Scissorhands would rework the seminal figure.  YOWCH!!

What Burton and Depp wrought was a savage, over psychological mess.  This man/child twitches and tics his way through his half of the film and leaves the audience wondering why he was so beloved by past employees.  Sure the man makes great candy (not the stuff at out stores, the imaginary stuff of the film), but I can’t see how he could run an internationally recognized snack food corporation with his mind ripped to shreds by parental abuse issues.

What Burton did right was the visualization of Charlie’s impoverished family. The look and feel of the Bucket homestead are nearly perfect. The familial warmth as good as the 1971 film and the feelings evoked from the books.

He ruins the factory by overdoing it.  The initial welcome scene tells the audience that the tour is a nightmare come true, not the dream they are hoping will be.

And, must I mention the horrid Oompah Loompah.  Singular, not plural.   Does Tim Burton dislike little people,  that he could only abide one on set? Or, was this a cost cutting measure gone horribly wrong?  Having one man play an entire tribe of overeager, happy slaves just blew the magic apart of the happy little lessons “they” sing.  I can recite the lyrics of the 1971 Oompah lessons, but I can’t even remember the tune to hum it for the 2005.  Not the best move for posterity there.

Okay, so I’m obviously prejudiced  in this matter.  But I need to assure you, I don’t hate the Burton/Depp mess, I just don’t like it all that much.  And, if you ask me to show a child the movie made from the Dahl books, Well…figure out which I’ll grab every time.


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?

 

 

 

 


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

As we gear up for the next Remake Chronicles essay, we provide this, dedicated to those moments when an actor is all wrong for the part in precisely the right way.

1) James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Yes, one of the great performances in one of the great westerns is actually woeful miscasting. If you actually pay attention to the screenplay, Stewart’s character is a young, idealistic young lawyer who has just recently passed the bar and who comes west an unformed naif with little experience in the brutal ways of the real world. John Wayne’s character regards him with the amusement an older and experienced man would feel for a young whippersnapper who reminds him of his own youth. Stewart was way too old for the part. It didn’t, and doesn’t matter. Stewart still managed to project the youth and naivete the part demanded.

2) James Stewart, again, in The Spirit Of Saint Louis

Again, it’s a matter of age. Charles Lindbergh was in his twenties when he made that fateful flight. Stewart was visibly in his forties when he made the movie. He acknowledged at the time that he was way too old to play the young man of the film. And again, it didn’t matter. At this point in his career, Stewart was any age he wanted to be.

3) Gary Cooper in They Came to Cordura

This insanely brilliant but today little-seen film is about a cavalry officer reviled as a coward who must drag a bunch of angry, unwilling soldiers through harsh territory in order for them all to receive their respective Medals of Honor. It seems they all have pressing reasons for not wanting to go, reasons that make killing him a far more attractive alternative…and he shows far more courage dragging them to the unwanted celebration of their heroism, than they did in earning it. The movie is a hidden classic. But Cooper is far too old for the part. The character he plays is making the discoveries about himself that are more appropriate for young man…and Cooper, near the end of his life, looks not only old, but downright tired. Once again, it doesn’t matter. He gives one of his best and most uncelebrated performances.

4) Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Among the few people disgusted by the casting of Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest was Ken Kesey, author of the novel, whose Randall Patrick McMurphy was a towering redhead, a giant in stature as well as personality. Kesey derided Nicholson as a shrimp. And he has a point…but he failed to reckon that, on-screen at least, anybody is as big as his close-up wants him to be, and personality counts for one hell of a lot.

5) Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List

Oskar Schindler was a charming pudgy man with an amiable way about him. Liam Neeson is a stern tall man with a physique that makes him an apt choice for action heroes. Gert Frobe, who played Goldfinger in the James Bond movies, would have been a perfect physical choice to play Oskar Schindler. Again, it didn’t matter.