My Favorite Year (1982): Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard.

my favorite year

This is my entry in CMBA’s Fall Blogathon Laughter is The Best Medicine!

In the old days, if you wanted to see actors, you’d go to the stage. Hollywood was the place for movie stars. Lucille Fay LeSueur was given a new name (and a new birth date) only to become one of the most luminary stars of all time: Joan Crawford. Publicity columns were milked for all they were worth and scandals hushed up in equal measure. Archibald Leach donned the much more becoming pseudonym Cary Grant. In fact, he famously said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

Allan Swann (Peter O’Toole) is a creation born of the same dream factory. He is a larger-than-life figure with a fictitious biography and a stage name befitting a gargantuan figure such as himself. He’s entered the twilight years, fading away, and still living off the laurels of his illustrious career. It allows him to maintain mythical stature in the present.

However, he’s allowed himself to become a carousing idol, who’s let himself go. He used to be big. Or maybe it’s the pictures that got small. Because in 1954 everyone is watching TV.

Is this too much like Peter O’Toole already? Although he’s cast more in the image of Errol Flynn or maybe a John Barrymore. Lest anyone misconstrue something, Peter O’Toole was an actor first and a personality second, though he is admittedly an indelible one on par with some of his most prominent predecessors.

My Favorite Year is the kind of movie that plants its flag with nostalgia and if you don’t like it, it’s not going to win you over. For everyone else, there’s time enough to drift back into yesteryear for an hour and a half. It’s altogether contented with its sentimental sense of antiquity be it Buicks or Milton Berle. Because in 1982 and certainly now, there’s a romantic patina about the times. Far from realism, it is most importantly an affectionate send-up.

It imagines a story at the crossroads of the newfound TV generation and the swashbuckling serials of old. When television, as a medium, was still in its infancy and live — more like the theater and radio than film — and you had personalities that existed in people’s living rooms. Comedy Calvacade could be any of a number of shows that were popular at the time most obviously Sid Caesars’ Your Show of Shows.

This is a writer’s room at 30 Rock decades before Liz Lemon. Two of its resident denizens are Alice and Herb. She acts as his comic mouthpiece. Their target is always that eminent tower of jello, Cy Benson, who more than deserves their continual ribbing. Lowest on the staffing totem pole is Benjy Stone and, fittingly, he becomes our willing surrogate.

He’s living the dream in the middle of all the magic, picking up the lunchtime bear claws, and romancing the pretty production hand K.C. (Jessica Harper), who rebuffs all his grandiose come-ons. But he’s not one to give up easily. It’s at the heart of his character.

He wouldn’t be working here rubbing noses with the likes of resident prima donna King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna) or program stalwart Leo Silver (musical legend Adolph Green). You have to believe in the power of entertainment to be there on the ground floor of such an operation.

Thus, when the iconic screen icon Allan Swann agrees to guest on the latest episode of Comedy Calvacade, it seems like the perfect task for Benjy. The bet he has going with Sy makes it personal. He will act as attache — the notorious talent’s constant companion — making sure he makes it to rehearsals and telecasts in one piece.

Swann famously evokes another actor when he says, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Regardless, this is a part made for O’Toole to fill up and make his own, bringing his Shakespearian bravado and genial wit to a world that otherwise feels twee and conventional. He positively bursts forth with all sorts of magnanimous energy.

The triumphant return of Swann is befitting his reputation. He takes his young guardian under his wing, as it were, returning to the old haunts like the Stork Club. It doesn’t matter that he once got thrown out of the place. He’s shameless enough to grab his old table and pick out the prettiest girl in the place. However, he still finds time for the public, graciously dancing with the lady (Gloria Stuart) enchanted by his romanticism.

It’s this kind of urbanity that sweeps Benjy off his feet as well, informing his own lackluster attempts to woo K.C. And yet over a humble dinner of Chinese takeout in the projection room, there is a chemistry in the air. Watching them watch O’Toole in what very easily could be a scene plucked out of Robin Hood, there’s a light in their eyes. We can sense the suspension of disbelief and the kind of awe movies could engender in a different, simpler time.

There are the travails of Brooklyn where Benjy takes America’s great hero to meet his unequivocally Jewish family (along with his Filipino step-father Rookie Carocca). It has all the trappings of an awkward evening and yet somehow it’s yet another showcase of people forming connections — of a man coming off the screen and being allowed to be among the hard-working people who love him.

That’s not to say there are no instances where we see the man’s faults laid bare. As a man always good for a quote he says, “You can depend on Allan Swann. He will always let you down.”

In the final act, it threatens to be true as the actor plays out his worse narrative. He is a man notorious for going AWOL at a moment’s notice. Still, while he’s not impervious to scandal or drunkenness, womanizing, or any number of shortcomings, there’s an inherent decency he carries about himself.

my favorite year

His greatest shortcoming is fear. He’s crippled by stage fright — being thrust into the arena of live television where his image cannot be monitored — even as he’s too fearful to speak to his estranged young daughter. Really, he’s a shell of a man. Could it be that the mills of Hollywood were lying all the time? For all these years, he was merely an imposter, done up to be extraordinary.

The live taping is best seen without comment. Just know Allan makes his triumphal entry onto the stage, and it’s a cathartic moment; he is allowed his audience and he lives up to their expectations in the most sincere ways. Many of us know the fictions of Hollywood. Benjy Stone is hardly oblivious to them, and yet for a sparkling minute, they are realized for anyone who was ever enraptured by the silver screen, not least among them Allan Swann.

The reason this was Benjy’s favorite year is obvious. He met his boyhood hero. Not only that but for a few fleeting moments the myth became real and the man was alive and in his life as not simply an idol but also a friend. He lept off the screen and he was real and charming and human, but moreover, he made us believe in the dreams of our childhood for the briefest of moments.

Watching him swoop down from the balcony — cutlass in hand — to vanquish the enemy, affords us the fairy tale ending and deservedly so. What a lovely performance it is for O’Toole, and he turns out in spades.

4/5 Stars

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Blazing_saddles_movie_posterThough it’s easy to be a proponent of Support your Local Sheriff for its sheer scatterbrained zaniness, Blazing Saddles has that and something more to offer, making it arguably the greatest western satire of all time. Brooks took part in all facets of the film as was his normal prerogative and he sets up the introduction with Frankie Laine belting out the main theme with a tremendous gusto that evokes the grandeur of the West. It makes it ten times funnier when the film actually begins to hit its stride. Because it sounds like a western in the beginning, it even looks like a western, and it goes through many of the plot cycles that we’ve grown used to, but in other ways, it’s so fundamentally different.

The most obvious demarcation Blazing Saddles takes in telling its tale of the Old West involves the very fact that Bart (Cleavon Little) is made acting sheriff of the quaint frontier town of  Rock Ridge. In actuality, it’s all part of a nefarious scheme by the local man in black Hedley Lamarr and his right-hand thug Taggart (the iconic Slim Pickens). Hedley Lamarr uses the incompetent, womanizing governor as his pawn to get the new sheriff installed so the town will be sent in an uproar and he can swoop in and buy off all their land. After all, none of the white folk could possibly hope to live in a town with a black sheriff.

So that is the main conflict at the center of Blazing Saddles and it’s absolutely ludicrous and at the same time still somewhat unnerving and telling about American society. Mainstream white society did not really know how to cope with African-Americans and other racial minorities in some ways and even more so they didn’t know what to do with their own amount of messy history. Because it’s true that even in film, the mythic Old West was not very good to Native Americans or Asians and African-Americans were all but nonexistent. And in his film, Brooks takes all of that on thumbing his nose at every archetype as well as political correctness (although that term undoubtedly did not exist as prevalently as it now does throughout our culture).

Supposedly the writer’s room was utter mayhem for this film with Brooks certainly at the center of the mix with the likes of Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman also heavily involved. No matter the amount of chaos, however, the film does come off fairly well. It’s laden with purposely absurd anachronisms like Count Basie’s orchestra, for instance, a medieval hangman’s noose complete with a medieval hangman, and of course, droves and droves of Nazis and other baddies who answer Hedley Lamarr’s call for criminal types of all descriptions.

There’s a local dance hall singer (Madeline Kahn) who does her best Marlena Dietrich knockoff from Destry Rides Again, while Mel Brooks even manages to portray a Yiddish-speaking Native American who allows the segregated black wagon train to pass as the whites get attacked.

Gene Wilder takes on a typically understated role as the town drunk and deputy who shares some traces of Dean Martin’s role in Rio Bravo. Meanwhile, the locals (all named Johnson) gather at their place of worship to have a plaintive dialogue about what they are to do to protect their good names a la High Noon. So there you have it. That’s the film in a very small nutshell as Bart must try to calm the townsfolks fears and quell his enemy all the while trying to not go crazy with all the racist white folk.

Be warned that this film does have funny segments but it also happens to be fairly crude which is not necessarily a surprise. Still, it’s obviously something to consider before watching. But it does seem that sometimes comedy such as this is able to enter territory that we’re squeamish to go in our everyday conversations and more serious moments. Because in some sense maybe comedy can poke fun at all the things we take so seriously — the things we need to lighten up about and connect over by the very fact that we’re all human beings.

However, it can also be pointed, ribbing its audience as it highlights the very things problematic not only in our past but in our present too. And that’s one of the most redeeming things that can be taken out of Blazing Saddles. Sure, you can take it simply as a raucous, inane, often vulgar western comedy from the estimable nut Mel Brooks, but it also speaks a little bit to film’s ability to enter into areas that we as a society still need to address.

The use of the “N” word throughout the film personally makes me tense as that word has so much history and a racial charge going through it. But when Brooks used it, apparently with the vehement backing of Cleavon Little and Richard Pryor, you could even argue that its very use takes some of the power away from those who wish to use it perniciously. But that’s necessary dialogue to have.

The best scene in the film has to be near the end, at the studio, as the camera pulls back and we realize we’re only on a film set. An absolute doozie of a pie fight ensues at the commissary to punctuate the utter tumult that is going down thus far and Hedley is pursued by Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid to the film’s premiere. In the end, they get their man and ride, err, are driven off into the sunset. The fitting ending to arguably Mel Brooks greatest cinematic achievement.  If John Wayne’s any litmus test, Duke famously told Brooks being in the film didn’t fit his image, but he would be the first in line to see it. That gives you a good idea of what you’re in for.

4/5 Stars

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Directed by Mel Brooks and starring Gene Wilder with Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, and Teri Garr, this comedy films parodies old horror films like the original Frankenstein. However, it also functions as a drama in its own right much like the original Frankenstein films. Wilder is a professor and the grandson of Victor Frankenstein. The thing is, he wants nothing to do with his infamous relative, even going so far as pronouncing his name differently. However, when he inherits the family estate he must face his ancestry head on. There temptation takes over and he begins to build a creature of his very own, with horrifyingly funny results. This film has memorable moments including “Putting on the Ritz” and the Inspector’s arm. I still cannot believe that Feldman’s eyes get that big either! Wow. Wilder plays well off his Creature and Garr and Cloris Leachman both have important roles in Mel Brooks’ comedy.

4/5 Stars

The Producers (1968)

425cf-the_producers_1968Directed and written by Mel Brooks and starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, this satirical comedy revolves around a producer and a lowly accountant who scheme to produce a flop so they can run off with the production money. The plan quickly develops thanks to the enthusiasm of Max Bialystock because he is fed up with romancing elderly women for money. They wade through numerous scripts finally settling on one titled “Springtime for Hitler.” They get the rights from the deranged writer, find their equally odd director, and a groovy hippie is cast as Hitler. Everything seems set for failure on opening night when the audience appears aghast. However, when the two producers go to celebrate the reaction changes and the crowd misinterprets LSD’s portrayal of Hitler as satire. The show is a success so in one last ditch effort they destroy the theater. Bialystock and Bloom finds themselves injured, arrested, and finally tried in court for being incredibly guilty. Despite an impassioned entreaty by Bloom the two men find themselves in jail but it isn’t so bad because they go back into the production business and they are up to the same old tricks again. This film was important as Mel Brooks’ first great triumph. True it is vulgar, irreverent, and in bad taste but I think that is exactly what Brooks was going for to get a laugh. And I have to say “Springtime for Hitler” has to be one of the most annoying songs I have ever heard. Aside from that I suppose this movie does have some funny parts.
 
4/5 Stars