They All Laughed (1980): Peter Bogdanovich’s Melancholy Screwball

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A version of this review was published over at Film Inquiry.

I recently watched an interview between Peter Bogdanovich and Wes Anderson reminiscing about the film. One of the most striking suggestions is the inferred sadness in “They All Laughed.” It takes its title from a song but while we think of laughing as an action full of joy, the past tense of the word sets it off. It is something transient — bound to change at any time. Unwittingly it becomes the perfect encapsulation of this most intimate project.

To describe it as a private investigator infused screwball romance is merely confining it to typical genre fare. Realistically, it is none of the above. At least not in the sense we might expect.

We have to play catch up with most of the story although we do settle in eventually. What helps are not only the characters but the actors themselves who are of a generally affable breed. We like getting to know them even when we don’t quite grasp their circumstances.

Also lets clear this up. This is not What’s Up, Doc? (1972). It’s lacking all the goofy witticisms of screenwriter Buck Henry or the wonderfully epic set pieces. Many have probably written it off because of this; furthermore, it was not very commercially successful upon its initial release (this must come with an asterisk).

However, They All Laughed is a surprisingly good-natured effort and some of the same cadence can be found, especially in Charles (John Ritter) and Christy’s (Coleen Camp) conversations, mirroring Howard and Eunice from the earlier picture. Names are swapped with every other sentence while their patter is frantic and harried in a similar manner.

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Is it wrong to see a bit of Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) in between the lines as well? Perhaps it’s the obvious strain of country music that cuts through the New York scene, of all places. If anything, it is a condensed version of the former film shot on the streets of New York with a skeleton crew and fewer actors. The same fresh near-improvisational feel is present with interweaving narratives.

Camp probably gets her best scenes not with dialogue but when she’s singing and simultaneously giving people wandering by an evil eye or a wink of acknowledgment. Like The Last Picture Show, we have another musical collage of classics composed of Jazz tunes of Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Sinatra with the more earthy diction of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. It just works.

It’s not executed in the same fashion as Nashville, with fewer moving parts and lacking the same brand of weighty commentary underneath the humor but nevertheless, there’s something here. It’s memorable just for the characters and moments and themes of love Bogdanovich seems to be having a grand old time playing around with.

The relatively plotless meanderings might test the patience of some viewers, but if your itching for authentic views of New York and a handful of hi-jinks and neurotic characterizations, you will get some.

Ben Gazzara is the quintessential dashing philanderer who holds something quietly mischievous in his eyes while still providing a sense of regret. He has two young girls from his first marriage and rarely sees them. We understand the scenario.

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John Ritter exerts his comedic chops as a gutless private eye on a tail. From a purely visual likeness, he can easily be seen as a stand-in for our director who was himself in love with Dorothy Stratten. Like Antoine Doinel’s attempts at private-eyeing, he seems like a hopeless case, but once again, the film is hardly about his day job. Nor is it about Gazzara, another P.I., or their partner in crime, the frizzy-haired, roller skating, joint -smoking pick-up artist Arthur (Blaine Novak).

It’s all merely a pitch-perfect excuse to further complicate the scenario by throwing all sorts of situations together. And if there are glimpses of Doinel in Ritter, by transitive property there must be Tati-like scenarios as well, not least among them positioning the viewers on the outside looking in at apartment buildings seemingly made entirely of glass.

Like the worlds of these French filmmakers (Jacques Demy included), the version of New York depicted here verges on the most agreeable of romantic fantasies where relationships are forged in meaningful even momentary encounters. There is a sense of preordained fate wafting through the air even as a wistful malaise lingers too.

Dorothy Stratten manages to be an ethereal beauty of simultaneous youth and maturity. Bogdanovich’s obvious affection for her is on display in every scene she is in front of the camera.  Meanwhile, Patti Hansen — Mrs. Keith Richards — has a part to play as “Sam” the cabbie, which is no less charming. It does appear as the world is made up of attractive women although she is someone with a different type of experience. She’s been around and you cannot phase her. There’s something simultaneously charming and disarming about her self-assured confidence.

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But, of course, I must save the best (subjectively speaking) for last — it’s time to talk about Audrey — who gets top billing, understandably so. Though I barely recognized her at first behind her shades, she still maintains the same congenial elegance, even in eighties attire. If anything she’s more grounded. Somehow she almost doesn’t belong but she didn’t belong in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) either and yet her warmth made the movie special.

In fact, it struck me momentarily, this picture is a full 20 years after Tiffany’s and New York, while it has evolved, still holds a nostalgia about it. Because looking back in time with rose-colored glasses, we cannot help seeing it in such a light — not like the grungy, noisy dump of the here and now.

With every one of these characters, there manages to be utterly transparent shades of reality. The details are there if you’re willing to look at them in the most personal light possible. It’s a prime case of when real life seeps into fiction and they feed into each other in a continuous loop. Where one ends the other seems to begin and vice versa.

Take each character and examine their reality and see what sings with the sound of truth. I think Bogdanovich would heartily acknowledge the best films and the best actors are in some way, shape, and form audaciously personal — in this way, they bear something and offer it to the audience.

But even in its themes of infidelity, heartache, and loneliness, They All Laughed somehow manages to cling to the humor found in its title. There is a pervasive conviviality that might feel counter-intuitive to both our plot and the location our story takes place. But it’s indisputably light.

Due to a lack of commercial success — Bogdanovich tried his luck distributing the film himself unsuccessfully — They All Laughed is considered to be one of the ending markers of The New Hollywood Era instigated by a generation of dynamic, young American directors. No one can completely blame him for his decision as he was stricken with immense grief at the time. Because of course, the aftermath of such a warm picture was marred with a tragedy of the worst kind — the murder of rising talent Dorothy Stratten. It proved to be the darkest possible closing note on this story.

Then, for New York a full 20 years after this film came out, The Twin Towers (visible in the opening credits) would be gone. There is so much suffering visible and yet invisible at the same time. Because They All Laughed is a film managing to capture a happy time even if a sobering road was waiting up ahead. Sometimes we need light, frothy movies to remind us of such things.

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When Peter Bogdanovich revisited the film at a public screening, he was openly emotional to the point tearing up. One can gather it was not simply because of the pain at the loss of someone dear to him, but also because those were happier, dare we say more innocent years. We can never have them back as they were before. Still, no one can take away the memories.

For others on the outside looking in, The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, or even What’s Up, Doc? might ring of superior film stock but it’s not too difficult to understand Bogdanovich’s own sentiments. This is about as personal as a movie can come even as its weaved into a hybrid private eye screwball tale. It’s not the content speaking, but the moments and happy accidents with friends and people he deeply cherished.

This palpable exuberance exuded by the director and his cast is infectious if also a bit doleful. Bittersweetness has to be one of the most maddening of human emotions. It points to something not yet satiated within us. We are always waiting for the next time we will laugh again or better yet when we never stop laughing.  The tears won’t hurt as much then.

4/5 Stars

Review: What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

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I’ve always been fascinated with individuals who have blurred the line between the film critic and actual contributors to the industry. Notable examples, of course, being the boys at Cahiers du Cinema, Frank S. Nugent, James Agee, Paul Schrader, even Roger Ebert, and certainly Peter Bogdanovich.

It’s this bridge between the intellectual and the actual practicality of the craft that seems so crucial. Because Bogdanovich might come off as an erudite individual who would end up making stuffy philosophical pictures. But What’s Up Doc is nothing like that. He loves the cinema and it shows.

Yes, this movie becomes a tossed salad of cinematic references and yet in the midst of the chaos, there is the finest rejuvenation of the screwball genre we’ve probably ever received. If neo-screwball were to be readily adopted in academic circles, you just might have to start the conversation here. It’s crazy; it’s destructive; it goes careening out of control. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it genuinely uproarious like a sprawling sitcom episode. It’s what the genre was made to be.

“You’re The Tops” plays, as the credits roll, sung by Barbra Streisand in a very casual manner that hints at the enjoyable jaunt we are about to undertake. Using the most basic terminology to break down the picture, What’s Up Doc is essentially a comic shell game. Except the shells are replaced with four identical plaid overnight duffles and the con is simultaneously being pulled on everyone on the screen and in the audience alike.

One bag holds the prized rocks of a musicologist Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) who is traveling to San Francisco from his conservatory in Ames, Iowa to vie for the prestigious Larabee Grant. If he is lucky enough to reel in the award, it will help fund his research on the musical properties of igneous rocks. Don’t ask me to explain.

The other case comprises the possessions of one Judy Maxwell (Streisand). It’s not the contents of her bag as much as her whirlwind personality that will wreak havoc on the picture. Then, a third bag holds one lady’s prized collection of jewelry and the fourth holds secret government documents. Again, don’t ask.

But everyone seems to have a shtick. That’s a product of a screenplay crafted by Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton. There’s a repetition to the script’s comedic cadence that puts an indelible stamp on the material. Coming from such people like Madeline Kahn it can almost drive you insane while O’Neal is playing a stereotypical sterile intellectual type that generally goes against his well-suited image.

Still, with some people playing the film straight, or at least as flat and square as they come, it makes other people pop even more. Is that Barbra Streisand I hear? She drives us crazy but in a different way — arguably a much better one.

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She throws the anal Eunice (Madeline Kahn) off the scent and winds up accompanying Howard to his important dinner to schmooze Mr. Larabee (Austin Pendleton) and outfox the competition represented by the snobbish Hugh Simon (Kenneth Mars). Alone Howard wouldn’t stand a chance but taking on the name Burnsy and masquerading as his fiancee, this intolerable girl who accosted him in a gift shop essentially wins him the grant.

Pendleton is an utter dork but there’s also something personable about him. He finds Burnsy to be just delightful and soon they’re on a first name basis. Howard’s trying to explain all the mix up as the real Eunice attempts to claw her way into the affair putting on a hissy fit. Meanwhile, Howard doesn’t know what to do because Burnsy’s got him all turned around amid the ruckus.

Various side plots continue crisscrossing as people sneak around the periphery involving the aforementioned travel packs. A concierge and the house detective are in cahoots to abscond with the priceless treasure trove of glittering gems. Meanwhile, a mysterious man is tailed every which way by another man saddled with a golf bag as a measly attempt at a disguise. It would be astoundingly absurd if we weren’t already distracted by everything else going on in front of us. As it is, these diversions only succeed in adding to the cacophony of it all. A perfect visual articulation comes in the form of a hallway lined with doors, leading to rooms, and the people inside.

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It comes to an abrupt end when they all wind up in Howard’s room with one girl out on a ledge, his outraged Fiancee asking him to turn the TV down, and everyone else making a cameo appearance. What follows is the total annihilation of a hotel room suite, a fitting foreshadowing of coming attractions.

Even if it can’t quite reach the same heights, What’s Up Doc is unabashedly homage to Bringing Up Baby (1938). We have a man’s coat being ripped, dinosaur bones being traded out for rocks, and the similar antagonizing relationship between our leads. However, I didn’t realize that we also have much of the character dynamic from The Lady Eve (1941) because Streisand like Barbara Stanwyck before her has an incredible aptitude for manipulating her male conquest. Katharine was the whizzing hurricane of constant disaster. Stanwyck was whip-smart. Streisand channels a decent dose of both legends.

The Larabee Gala hosted at Frederick’s estate proves to be the beginning of the floor show as the camera leaps into action and the final act kicks into a frenzy of slapstick, flying pies, and all sorts of comedic violence.

This might be blasphemy, but as much as I admire Bullitt (1968), Bogdanovich’s film might feature my favorite car chase through San Francisco. It involves a famed giant pane of glass, wet cement, offroading down stairs, a Chinese dragon, and a big splash in San Francisco Bay among other visual kerfuffles. We even have a courtroom drama on our hands!

The laundry list of other references is nearly endless from Cole Porter to nods to Bogart and “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca. Ryan O’Neal even drops a fairly inconspicuous “Judy, Judy, Judy” in the airport terminal, no doubt a nod to Cary Grant’s misattributed catchphrase.

His plane is leaving to return him to his life of everyday tedium. But between in-flight Bugs Bunny shorts and one lethally pointed barb aimed at Love Story (1970), there’s also one final smooch. And we’re done. This is a movie you’re lucky to survive. It’s certainly laced with references, and, more importantly,  it’s a successful giggle fest. The screwball comedy proves to be alive and well in San Francisco.

4/5 Stars

What’s Up, Doc? (1971)

What's_Up_Doc_posterA nod to the 1930s screwball comedies, this hilarious film is directed by Peter Bogdanovich and stars Ryan O’Neil and Barbra Streisand. It opens with the prologue, “Once upon a time there was a plaid overnight case,” however very soon it becomes obvious that there are four of these cases! 

One belongs to the bookish Ryan O’Neil who is going to a musicologist convention with his annoying fiancée Eunice, the other to the free spirited Judy, one has top secret information, and the last is full of jewels. This dramatic irony is set up early on for the audience and things really get chaotic when Judy tries to pick up Howard. She masquerades as his fiancée and creates a good impression with a Mr. Larabee who is in charge of giving out the grant. However, later, Judy succeeds in completely destroying Howard’s room while causing more problems for Howard with Eunice in the process.  

The next day Howard is invited to a party at the home of Mr. Larabee and he is instructed to bring his charming “fiancée.” That’s where the mayhem hits its peak. All four bags end up together. There are gangsters, government agents, guests, servants, and Judy and Howard all a part of the chaotic ruckus. The unlikely couple finds themselves on the run through the hilly streets of San Fran where an epically frenzied car chase takes place. Put together a pane of glass, some bumpy steps, three cars, a parade, and a large body of water to add up to some hilarious moments. The bedlam carries over into the local courthouse where everything is eventually figured out. Everything is back to equilibrium and Howard flies off into the sunset with his new love and an in flight Bugs Bunny short.

4/5 Stars

Paper Moon (1972)

463f4-paper-moonDirected by Peter Bogdanovich and starring the father, daughter pair of Ryan O’Neil and Tatum O’Neil, this film is set filmed in stark black and white and set during the Depression. 

Addie Loggins is a little girl who has just lost her mother and her closest relation is the shifty Bible salesman Moses Pray. Reluctantly he agrees to take Addie along to some kin in St. Joseph’s Missouri where she can be cared for and he also pockets $200 which is rightfully hers. Sparks fly from the beginning between the perpetually grouchy Addie and the constantly annoyed Moze. However, with the tricks of Moze and the cuteness of Addie, this unlikely pair is able to sell numerous Bibles all over the state to hapless widows. 

However, all that is put on hold when they stop at a carnival and Moze becomes infatuated with a high maintenance, exotic dancer named Trixie (Madeleine Kahn). Trixie and her young maid tag along and Addie becomes annoyed with all the attention Trixie now receives. Addies devises a plan with Imogene and it results in a disgusted Moze heading back on the road with Addie. 

Their next job includes taking a store of whiskey from a bootlegger so they can sell it back. However, they run into trouble with the local sheriff, who just happens to be the bootleggers brother! They escape thanks to Addie, pawn the car, and get across to Missouri. There everything catches up with Moze and he gets beat up and all their money is stolen. Soon after, he and Addie finally part ways. But in the end this rag tag pair realizes they actually care for each other and they head out to pull more cons all across the country… so Moze can pay Addie her $200. 

The strained relationship between the two leads unfortunately reflected the real relationship of father and daughter. In the film however, they were great together adding both humor and drama to this bleak story. As always Bogdanovich loves his nostalgia and there is plenty of it here to be enjoyed.

4/5 Stars

The Last Picture Show (1971)

df52d-the_last_picture_show_28movie_poster29Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybil Sheppard, and Ben Johnson, with director Peter Bogdanovich, the film revolves around young people in a small Texas town during the early 1950s. Although at first glance it seems simple and innocent, there is another side to the town, full of romantic entanglements, fights, and even deaths. Sonny (Bottoms) and Duane (Bridges) are best friends without any real parents, only each other and some of the town folk. They have a falling out over a girl (Sheppard) and then Sonny sees the girl go off to college while Duane returns shortly only to ship out to Korea. However, Sonny is able to make amends with his friend and they see the last picture show. In the absence of his friends, Sonny is left in need of someone to fill the void. This film is interesting because it is shot with black and white cinematography and it only uses period music. This effectively creates a setting that appears to be very realistic.

4.5/5 Stars