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Preston Sturges gave us of the most cleverly crooked film openings and
one of the most cleverly crooked endings of all time.
For the ending, see "Palm Beach Story;" I'll say no more. For the opening, see this.
I envy anyone who gets to see "The Great McGinty" with no idea what it's about. It starts out as the story of a hapless banker on the lam and a cute barfly who takes pity on him. Just when you are getting to know the pair enough to be interested in them, Sturges swings you into a tale told by a wisecracking bartender (Brian Donlevy) with a past. This brings you into the actual story, which leaves the banker and the dame on the sidelines for the rest of the film, listening to the bartender with glazed expressions of disinterest.
This bartender, McGinty, used to be somebody, rising from the ranks of a crooked political machine to become a mayor and, eventually, governor of a state which is unnamed but, with mention of a lakefront and "Big Wind," seems to have been Illinois. As a crooked politician, McGinty was great indeed, but as the opening titles tell us, lost it all in "one crazy minute" when he decided to play it straight. That'll learn him, as Sturges regular William Demarest would say.
As Sturges films go, "The Great McGinty" isn't great. It is quite good, with its clever framing structure and its gently subversive take on American politics. It won Sturges his only Oscar (a year before Orson Welles won his in the same category, for a similarly satiric take on American politics with a clever framing structure) but it's something short of a classic. Donlevy's central performance lacks warmth and the various characters around him are too broad and cartoony, except for Akim Tamiroff's "Boss" character, which ironically was made into an iconic cartoon character years later on "Bullwinkle."
There is much to like in this movie. Sturges fills the frame with subtle jokes throughout, whether it be the crazy cocktails we see McGinty serving at the beginning (something called a "Maiden's Prayer" apparently involves two squeezed lemons, egg yolk, Tabasco juice, and fruit garnishes) or the use of an Abe Lincoln desk bust as a weapon. Tamiroff warns McGinty about the perils of being led by a woman with the line: "Did you never hear of Samson and Delilah, or Sodom and Gomorrah?"
"McGinty" suffers for being a bit too serious in places for prime Sturges, and a female lead (Muriel Angelus) who plays her role too straight. You need her and her cutesy kids to justify McGinty's road to "ruin," but the less you see of them, the better "McGinty" works as a comedy. Unfortunately, they are in a lot of the film. Sturges would never lose his love for overly broad characters (overusing Demarest for example, though he's fine here), but he did make his movies play faster and lighter over time.
The politics here are barbed but not ideological in their delivery. When he is told about shoddy tenement housing, McGinty points out: "Give them a bathtub, they put coal in it." The corrupt political system McGinty comes to blows with involves both sweatshop labor (a point for the left) and needless public works projects (a point for the right.) Perhaps the lack of banner-waving made "McGinty" more palatable to the studio system than something like "Modern Times."
Some risqué bits sneak past, too. The Boss tells McGinty a husband and wife go together like "a pig and a poke." McGinty also shacks up with a woman, though the lines are blurred here because he's already married to her (out of political convenience though, not, at first, love.)
One great thing about "McGinty": It moves fast, just 81 minutes to tell a lot of story. Sturges would move even faster telling more complex stories in his later films, but he was off to a fine start.
Watching "The Comancheros" is a lot easier than trying to make sense of
Okay, so there's this gang of bad guys in the Old West, whites and Mexicans who form a secret colony from which they help renegade Comanches attack isolated ranches and steal cattle. Only Texas Ranger John Wayne can stop them, but he keeps getting sidetracked by the clever Louisiana gambler he's bent on getting hung. Fortunately, he's armed not only with anachronistic weapons but the fact the Comancheros' preferred form of attack involves riding around heavily-armed adversaries over and over until they get shot off their mounts.
It's pretty silly stuff even before it works its way to a cringe-worthy slipshod ending, but in the meantime you are having fun, especially if you are a John Wayne fan, watching his Big Jake character growl and deliver the kind of comebacks you wish you could pull off in the heat of the moment.
"You killed him?"
- Seemed like the thing to do at the time.
"How d'ya know you killed him?"
- Wasn't time not to.
"You're all fools!"
- Well, it's fun sometimes.
Duke's right; this is foolish stuff, but still fun most of the way. Wayne has a terrific cast working under him, led by Stuart Whitman as the gambler Regret, playing the angles while working our sympathies. Nehemiah Persoff is the Comancheros' cagey, somehow respectable leader; Guinn Williams is a gunrunner who with hilarious ineptitude tries to demonstrate how rehabilitated he's become after a couple of hours in a cell; and Lee Marvin is even more dangerous and drunk than usual, not to mention funnier than he ever was in "Cat Ballou."
There's also a goodly amount of tension, much of it set around various unstable partnerships, dances of distrust and mistrust that define this film. Big Jake and Regret have a lot of stuff to work out, even beyond the fact Regret doesn't quite go along with Big Jake's plans for hanging him. Big Jake, working undercover, teams up with the evil Lee Marvin character for a while, who rightly doesn't trust Jake but can't quite catch him out. Whitman gets involved with a beautiful, mysterious woman (Ina Balin), who may reciprocate his feelings or just want a few hours' amusement before hanging him up like a butchered steer. And so on.
Balin's fine, too - for the first half of the film. Then the script goes wobbly and she goes from fiery and independent to dumb as a post, forcing you to focus on the actress's lovely cleavage instead of her lines. It's not the worst trade-off, but it still leaves you wishing James Edward Grant, Wayne's usual scribe at the time working here with Clair Huffaker, had avoided his usual tendency for lazy endings. With just a little work, this could have up there with Wayne's best.
Michael Curtiz called it a career here, a fitting swansong for one of Hollywood's greatest action-film directors ever. "Comancheros" gets the blood going anyway, and showcases the stars, two things that made Curtiz Curtiz. I have a feeling the horses didn't miss him, but this time at least the many wild falls seem to have been non-lethal.
Overall, this is a solid crowd-pleaser with more than its share of memorable highlights to remember long after you forget the weaker moments. I just wish they weren't there.
A powerhouse action-thriller packed with blood and practically every
human body part imaginable, "Planet Terror" is a surprisingly savage
joy. It not only works its exploitation genre literally inside-out, but
does so with considerable cleverness and humor.
One foggy Wednesday night, a number of apparent gangrene victims flood a Texas hospital. Could this be related to some bad goings-on at an abandoned Army base some miles away? Is humanity's one hope a mostly silent man who goes by the name "El Wray" and his one-legged girlfriend? Should viewers be ready for some surprise cameos and shameless gross-out gags?
Originally partnered with Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof" under the title "Grindhouse," as a double-feature celebration of '70s Grade-B hardcore action movies, "Planet Terror" gives you a gripping story that features a diverse array of characters and several subplots, all of which mesh together very well while keeping the ultra-violent action flowing.
Even when Rodriguez doesn't have an idea completely worked out, he manages to cover for it cleverly by exploiting the exploitation genre itself, serving up a "missing reel" to fast-forward the film through what might well have been a tedious explanation phase.
"Thank you for telling me about you know," says a sheriff (Michael Biehn) who had previously been suspicious about El Wray's true identity.
"Don't mention it," El Wray (Freddy Rodriquez) replies.
I don't usually like splatter films, and there's no question "Planet Terror" is firmly in that camp. There's one scene in a doctor's office featuring a projection screen I honestly have to look away from whenever I watch it, but the rest of the film is so good I just wince through it. While many scenes have shock value, there's also a comic quality to them, particularly when you watch them again. If "Planet Terror" has a moral, it might be that while watching one human die is deeply tragic, watching them die by the scores can be a hoot.
The film is also rich with great one-liners, many of them delivered by Rose McGowan as the very arch and pliable Cherry Darling. Two lines now have worked their way into becoming mantras for my workday: "It's go-go, not cry-cry," and "No dead bodies for Da-Da tonight."
The vibe is very '80s John Carpenter, including some electronic music elements lifted from Carpenter films and a spooky hospital that looks right out of the first "Halloween II". You got fog, shambling mounds of human flesh, and sudden musical stings employed as false alarms. I don't think the Carpenter movies were as consistently fun as this, though.
If there's a legitimate criticism of "Planet Terror," it is that it plays things a bit too cute at the expense of developing its characters. But even that can be argued as a necessary evil in order to give the film its fast tempo. Since what you are watching is a salute to a type of film that was often unapologetically cheesy, even "Planet Terror's" minor flaws in storycraft and technical effects work to sell the larger whole. The result is a film that not only gives you quite a ride, but makes you want to get back on when it's over.
For a man who liked to play with meanings, Lewis Carroll (a. k. a. Rev.
Charles Dodgson) might well have enjoyed the riddle he has become to
posterity. "Alice" is an attempt at delving into that riddle that
leaves you as befuddled as you began.
The teleplay focuses on Dodgson's difficult relationship with the world around him. We first meet him on a train ride, a brusque, unhappy figure known for writing "Alice In Wonderland." A young woman, newly married, spots the man who once told her stories and asked her to consider him "your very special friend," a memory which seems to gnaw at the good reverend. We then travel back to his days as a young teacher at Christ Church, Oxford, where he met the girl behind his most famous creation.
Written by Dennis Potter and first aired on the BBC in 1965, "Alice" presents Carroll as something of a walking conundrum. He's archly conservative in manner, a bit of a stick, yet given to whimsically loopy behavior. As played by George Baker, he's also rather keen on young girls, particularly the title character (Deborah Watling). Is the Reverend a closet perve, or just emotionally frustrated in his hyper- Englishness?
The best that can be said for "Alice" is that it leaves room to wonder. The worst that can be said is that it is rather dull and insular that way, focusing on Dodgson as victim and shortchanging the joy of his creation in favor of the oddity of the person. Here, more attention is given to the worried expressions of Alice's dour mother (Rosalie Crutchley) than what it was Alice and her sisters might have found charming in this clenched, morose, haplessly stammering man.
The teleplay is set around three July days set exactly three years apart from one another. The first, in 1862, involves a picnic when Dodgson told his Alice story to Alice Liddell and her two sisters. In 1865, we see Dodgson presenting a distracted Alice with a first edition of his published work. Finally, in 1868, there's an awkward picnic with mature Alice, now more interested in her boyfriend than those "Wonderland" stories.
While the surface story might seem the passage of time as reflected by Alice's jaded ingratitude, the pedophilia angle gets much play. It's hard not to cringe at Dodgson's attempts at endearment with Alice. "I do love to hear you laugh, Alice," Baker says, his strong stammer in overdrive, "it's the prettiest sound I know." He's so sheepish with her it's pretty uncomfortable watching.
Yet Potter doesn't go all the way with the notion of something indelicate underfoot; instead it's suggested more by Baker's sometimes heavy manner and how director Gareth Davies goes for a pregnant close-up of Alice's mother whenever the matter of Dodgson's activity around her daughter is raised.
"Alice" can also be read as Dodgson's problems with the rampage of time, both on girls who become women and on institutions like Oxford, which Alice's father is hard at work trying to modernize against Dodgson's hidebound wishes. Here Baker seems to play Dodgson more as the injured party, particularly after his attempt to dedicate his "Wonderland" book to Alice directly is rebuffed by her family.
Ultimately, the riddle of Lewis Carroll here gets a bit of teasing but no solution. "I get the impression he is harboring some great and secret disappointment," says Alice's father (David Langton, giving the best performance here), regarding Dodgson. That disappointment seems to permeate the entire teleplay, leaving one feeling a bit let down at the lack of closure.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A light-hearted, quick-paced comedy of charm as well as many laughs,
"Sherlock Jr." is better known today as a showcase of technical mastery
by its director-star, Buster Keaton.
That's kind of too bad.
Yes, the film is innovative. But it deserves to be celebrated and enjoyed for what it is, a merry farce where bending cinematic rules is just one aspect of a larger game. To celebrate "Sherlock Jr." merely for the trick of seeing a lead character enter a movie and interact with its players is like celebrating "The Wizard Of Oz" just for the moment the screen goes from black-and-white to full color.
The character Buster plays here is a shy fellow who works at a movie house but dreams of becoming a detective. When he is falsely accused of stealing a pocket watch from the father of his would-be girlfriend, Keaton tries to use his budding detective skills to solve the crime. Then, falling asleep in the projection booth, he imagines himself as the title character in a movie about the theft of a string of pearls.
Watching Buster at work in a world created for his amusement is like everything else he ever did, only this time the humor of it is laid out much more boldly, more broadly. Like when "Sherlock Jr." first enters the scene of the crime and shushes the victim by saying: "Don't bother to explain. This is a simple case for me."
Then he mugs ferociously while quizzing the suspects, looking them up and down with beady eyes protruding from his famous stone face. Is he parodying "The Great Profile" John Barrymore's famous performance as Sherlock Holmes from a few years before? Certainly his abilities at billiards mocks some heroic movie trope; beyond the brilliant technique on display, the gag seems to be that no one can possibly be this good. Yet, when you think about it, he really is that good here. Everything about that sequence is so brilliant in its own right it exists in its own place out of time.
As David Kalat points out in the Kino DVD commentary, one odd aspect of the movie is that the real-life crime, meaning the theft of the watch, not the pearls, is actually solved 15 minutes in, no thanks to "Sherlock." Kalat suggests this was done so the audience could relax and enjoy the comedy that follows; I think it was another of Keaton's many meta gags.
When you write about things like "meta-gags," you run the risk of consigning "Sherlock Jr." to the art-house icebox, where it doesn't belong. There's a lot of pure pie-in-the-face comedy, including a number of mustache gags that get funnier every time I see them.
The only real drawback is the time: Just under 45 minutes. I'm glad they didn't waste more time on the romance between Kathryn McGuire (who is seen to better effect in "The Navigator"), but it seems a shame that the concept wasn't stretched out enough. I suspect Keaton understood better than we can how much he had to offer and just how long a time he should ask us to spend on it; still, you end up with a film that is too long for a short by 20 minutes and too short for a regular feature by about as long.
But the positive is you get a film that takes the quicker pace and restless imagination of a short and stretches it out into what is, at least for a short, something of epic length. That's how I like to think of "Sherlock Jr.," as an epic comedy short. It's also one of my favorite comedies, period.
Just like everyone is Irish when St. Patty's Day rolls around,
everybody's Italian when it comes to watching this pleasant charmer, no
matter if it's written by an Irish American, directed by a Canadian
Jew, and stars the world's most famous Armenian-Native American.
Loretta Castorini Clark (Cher) is not a lucky woman, it seems. Widowed by a freak bus accident, she wiles away the shank of her thirties as a self-employed accountant who lives with her aging family under the skyscrapers of the Big Apple. Just as she readies herself for a loveless marriage with the sweet-but-simple Johnny Cammarini (Danny Aiello), love strikes in the form of Johnny's bitter brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage). Can Loretta do the right thing, even if she doesn't quite know what that is?
"Moonstruck" is a comedy that works in serious themes, like death, infidelity, faith, and hopelessness. Writer John Patrick Shanley operates with a deft hand and an ear for how people say what they really mean even when they try to say something else, like when Loretta's cheating father Cosmo (Vincent Gardinia, along with Cage one of the authentic Italian-American cast members) warns her against marriage because, well, he's cheap and doesn't want to pay for it.
Seeing her ring from Johnny is just a pinky ring (Johnny wasn't prepared when he popped the question), Pop complains when she tells him it's temporary: "Everything is temporary! That don't excuse nothing!"
Cher won an Oscar for her performance, which wasn't maybe the best of all performances that year but carries the film ably. I'm not a Cher fan myself, but it's hard not to admire the way she plays Loretta against expectations. She's quiet and subtle when you expect big and loud. Even late in the film, when she undergoes her expected transformation into a glamour queen, she doesn't go all diva about it.
"You look beautiful," Ronny tells her. "Your hair."
"Yeah, I had it done," she says with a shrug.
Cage is the other over-the-top actor here, but he succeeds with that by playing his part more for laughs. He blames Johnny for the loss of his hand and his fiancé, not that it's fair of him and he knows it. "I ain't no freakin' monument to justice," he exclaims.
Cage's best work in the movie comes at the end, when he's not talking so much as listening in the background while the other characters have their big confessional moments at the breakfast table. That concluding scene is a showcase of fine comic acting and writing, which director Norman Jewison (another guy who liked to go big in other productions) plays very lightly and well, working the silences as much as the speeches to wry effect.
Even the secondary performers, like Feodor Chaliapin as Cosmo's confused father, and Julie Bovasso and Louis Guss as Loretta's aunt and uncle, make their marks. This is a film about family that celebrates all its members.
I don't quite buy a central premise of the film, that a man cheats on his wife because he's afraid of death, and feel some of the secondary scenes take up too much time, but there's a simple joy even in those scenes which sticks. Olympia Dukakis, the other Oscar-winner in the cast, has a great scene with Aiello which justifies his character's somewhat superfluous presence.
To be in love is to die a little, but dying seems like a small price to pay for the pleasure of love. Such is the simple magical lesson on offer in "Moonstruck."
Look out, world! Jimmy Cagney's coming to Hollywood and whether they
use bullets or make-up the con artists haven't got a chance, in this
raucous send-up featuring a New York crime boss who lands himself where
the real action is on a theater marquee.
Cagney is a wise guy named Dan Quigley who can't make it as a movie usher, so he raises his sights from lavatory dice games to breaking into rich folks' homes with the help of a nasty gang. When that goes bad and the gang leaves him flat, Quigley finds a new line in Hollywood, first as an extra, soon after as a "Famous He-Man of the Screen." But what will happen when the old gang shows up for a piece of the action?
The marquee in lights near the start of the film advertises someone called "The Prince Of Pep." He might as well be Cagney in this streamlined star vehicle, written entirely to showcase his fast patter and easy charm. Cagney's so good they don't even bother to build a coherent film around his character, and it hardly matters.
If you want to see a great Cagney film, there are perhaps a couple dozen better candidates. But if you want to see why the guy clicked so hard in the days of early sound, and still packs a punch 80 years later, this should be on your short list.
Cagney's lines here are priceless. To a dog being held by a theater manager who just fired him: "Listen, Fido, this guy's got a wooden leg. Try it sometime!"
To a group of card sharps who just cleaned him out: "I think I'll stick to checkers."
To the same group, after he's figured out their scam: "You kick back with my fifty bucks, or I'll fold your joint like an accordion!"
Just seconds later, he proposes a partnership. "You got a sweet racket here. Maybe I can show you a few new wrinkles."
"Lady Killer" was made just before the Hays Code was seriously enforced, which makes for interesting viewing. Reviewers here have already pointed out a scene when we see Quigley sneak Mae Clarke's character Myra a peck on the breast. The film takes even greater advantage of the liberal mores then still in effect by letting Quigley get away with his crimes. Sure, he goes straight, sort of, but only because he finds a better racket than potentially homicidal B&Es. There's no moment of Quigley coming to regret his wicked past, as censors would have required just months later.
That makes for a more entertaining Cagney vehicle, but a somewhat disjointed film. Director Roy Del Ruth keeps things moving quick, but in odd directions in tone, turning "Lady Killer" from a semi-serious gangster story to a genially goofy Hollywood satire. In his DVD commentary, Drew Casper calls "Lady Killer" a "shyster satire." It might also be called a "crooked comedy;" no one is on the level, whichever side of the law they're on.
So in Hollywood, we see Quigley break big after really slugging an extra in a mock prison break scene, and further his path toward stardom by faking fan letters. It's shallow stuff, but fun, especially as it all plays so fast. Other than the star, pacing is "Lady Killer's" ace in the hole.
Clarke should have graduated from the grapefruit league with this performance. She and Cagney resume their fireworks from "Public Enemy," this time with even more outrageous stunts, but Clarke, here the first- billed female, does wise work making sure we enjoy her comeuppance. Even her catty asides to Cagney, or the way she shamelessly plays with her hair while shaking him down for (more) dough, is on par with Barbara Stanwyck's star-making wickedness.
But make no mistake, "Lady Killer" is Cagney's baby, and he makes it work, despite the tone shifts and the odd title (Quigley's not a killer himself, and doesn't play with women's affections). You root for the guy despite his crookedness, and that's all that matters in the end.
As famous cinematic turkeys go, "John Carter" is an odd duck. It's
actually entertaining, even rousing in spots, visually attractive, and
well-stocked with fun performances. It's not even that long.
The problem is just that it plays long.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a disillusioned veteran of the American Civil War who goes to Arizona in search of gold. He finds instead a portal that transports (or "telegraphs", as he puts it) him to Mars, a desert planet nevertheless full of sentient life. On Mars, Carter has the power to alter the outcome of another civil war; can he be persuaded to overcome his bitter reluctance to help?
The main problem with the movie is labored exposition. After a brief taste of Martian battle, it's ten minutes before you begin to hear John Carter's Earthly backstory, and ten more before you get to the part about him coming to Mars. Ten minutes after that, he's captured by a warlike alien race called Tharks; ten minutes after that, he overcomes the language barrier and starts to adapt to his new world's culture, although it's another ten minutes before he actually inserts himself in Martian affairs, literally by leaping on a flying ship in mid-battle.
After that, "John Carter" is rather fun. It just takes too long getting to the starting gate.
Director Andrew Stanton, a fan of John Carter since it was a Marvel comic-book series in the 1970s, works hard at getting the world-building right. The spaceships here work like sailing ships on Earth, except they sail on light, and the fighters use guns and swords rather than lasers. Burroughs originally wrote the John Carter stories nearly a century ago, when lasers weren't part of the equation. After some adjustment by the viewer, this rather different take on sci-fi/fantasy begins making sense, but like everything else with "John Carter," it takes time.
About the only thing in the movie that has any kind of immediate impact is Lynn Collins' performance as the Martian princess Dejah Thoris. More than just being attractive and underdressed, Collins makes her character the gateway for the viewer to begin caring.
The other human performances are mostly lost in the mix. Kitsch struggles with a gruff lead role, but has his moments. Willem Dafoe does a fine job as the voice of Thark leader Tars Tarkus. I would have liked to have seen James Purefoy more in the role of Kantos Kan, one of Dejah's allies, but his character only registers on screen for a couple of scenes. Mark Strong is more memorable as a mysterious Tharn, a race of immortal beings who enjoy making Martians and humans suffer toward his own inscrutable ends.
"John Carter" kicks into gear in its second half, with a couple of big battle scenes as well as a fight in a Thark arena which is a terrific stand-alone setpiece, with Carter chained to a rock and fighting two giant, blind white apes. By the time you get to the end, the film becomes a lot of fun, to the point where you get an itch to see more of this after the credits finish rolling.
This may not happen, since "John Carter" flopped in the U. S. and only just made up the difference overseas. It's a shame; "John Carter" did a lot of the work toward building a diverting franchise for fantasy film fans, and it's a shame to leave that on the table. Perhaps "John Carter" will build up enough of a home-video fanbase to get a second chance, and a somewhat leaner, quicker-paced sequel?
By all rights, "She Fell Among Thieves" should fall flat on its face.
It has a convoluted plot, overbaked performances, and period atmosphere
so thick you might almost choke on it. The first time I saw it, I
wondered how talented people could produce such a silly show.
Then I saw it again, and realized I had missed completely a delightful period send-up, droll and knowing yet not without sympathy for the mores of a bygone day. Stick with this one through its abrupt plot twists and deliberately oddball moments, and you get a clever mystery/comedy that manages to deliver excitement and suspense.
Richard Chandos (Malcolm McDowell) is an English country squire on a fishing vacation in southern France's Gave de Pau valley when he spots a body in the river. Because he somehow recognizes the corpse as that of an Englishman, he goes to the British consulate rather than the French police. There, a secret agent recruits him to infiltrate a château occupied by master criminal Vanity Fair (Eileen Atkins).
While McDowell is first-billed and the biggest name in the cast, Atkins is the star here. Her Vanity Fair is the tipping point for whether one enjoys "She Fell Among Thieves" or not. The first time I saw it, I found her character too much, like a whacked-out Bette Davis impersonation by Carol Burnett. But watching her again, I realized how she was giving it up in two directions, playing the comedy for suspense and the suspense for laughs. She's so lively she brings up the level of engagement for everything around her, from her big entrance at the film's start to her unforgettable last line at the close. In short, she's totally nuts but a lot of fun.
A straighter production would likely fall afoul of the casual racialism and class distinctions found in Dornford Yates's source novel, a classic of 1920s adventure fiction that's rather dated now. Instead, director Clive Donner employs Atkins and the other outré elements to play up the disconnect between then and now, finding subtle avenues for comedy while introducing an element of real suspense. You know a character like Vanity Fair wouldn't stand a chance in a Boys' Own adventure story like the original novel; what could happen in this 1977 adaptation seems anyone's guess.
McDowell does a fine job playing Chandos as a kind of eager-beaver who puts his life on the line to protect British currency and save people he doesn't know. You buy his innocence as much as you do Atkins' saucier cunning; when he catches some bounder fondling a struggling maid's thigh and tells the guy what he'll do if he catches him again at his "filthy tricks," his granite indignation is almost enough to forget McDowell probably shot this scene before jetting off to Rome to shoot 70 more hours of "Caligula."
The movie does take too many quick liberties with exposition, with Chandos entirely too eager in his mission and Vanity Fair too careless in hers. But because this is a send-up as much as it is an adventure, there's license here to play around. You enjoy the characters, the scenery, and the witty dialogue by Tom Sharpe too much to mind the gaping holes. It's almost like part of the game ignoring that they are there, a game I didn't mind playing once I realized it was on.
Good art may be said to be a matter of appreciating one's betters and
then ripping them off, but even rip-offs require more intelligence,
wit, and craft than "Ça c'est du cinéma" (a. k. a. "The Slappiest Days
Of Our Lives").
Imagine a film featuring silent-comedy stars Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Jimmy Finlayson, and Laurel & Hardy (both together and apart), all at the peak of their craft. Further imagine this film pioneering a kind of meta-cinematic style of snarky voice-over, e. g. Woody Allen's "What's Up, Tiger Lily" and "Mystery Science Theater 3000," with the majority provided by Peter Sellers, not yet at the peak of his craft but coming into his own.
Should be funny, huh? At least interesting? Think again.
The root problem with "Slappiest Days" is that it's a collage of silent bits that pretends to be linked together, albeit in Frankenstein fashion. The plot, a singularly convoluted yet dull story, involves reporter Stan Laurel traipsing across the United States while FBI agent Jimmy Finlayson chases after him, somehow thinking he is the enemy spy K2. This provides an excuse for linking together bits of films from various silent-comedy shorts under the guise of Stan checking out this or that for his article on America and Finlayson popping up occasionally to try and catch him. Most of the time, even this frail guise of a plot proves too much.
For example, Sellers narrating as Laurel tells us he went to visit a dressmaking shop, which cues a few minutes of material from a short starring Billy Bevan as said dressmaker, with no sign of Laurel. Then he talks about checking into a hotel, which cues a bit with Harold Lloyd acting the role of a man about town to impress a lady. On their own, these bits seem delightful, but weighed down by the jigsaw plot and often extraneous voice-over work by Sellers and his frequent collaborator Graham Stark (who does Finlayson's and Lloyd's voices among others), they flop every time.
It seems Sellers in the booth didn't have enough material for five minutes of this, let alone the 75 we have. As Laurel the reporter, he tells us he was "the biggest drip on the daily splash," and cracks about an inventor: "They say necessity is the mother of invention. In that case, this fellow must be an orphan."
The high point of wit may be Sellers/Laurel's comment about New York City being the home of the world's most beautiful women accompanied by a vintage shot of frowning suffragettes on parade. "Yes, they even had jets in those days," Laurel adds. Sellers got 200 quid for his work here, and sounds in a hurry to go out and spend it.
The oddest duck in this movie is Buster Keaton, whose footage is not from his silent period at all but from sound-era shorts, specifically "Palooka From Paducah" (where he's a referee in a wrestling match gone awry) and "The Gold Ghost" (a western where he's involved in a shootout). Here they just turn the sound down while Sellers narrates in his Laurel voice how wacky a guy Keaton is. None of this appears too disrespectful, as another reviewer here seems to feel. It's just so frightfully unnecessary, like kazoo interjections on Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
The film begins with a dedication by producer Arthur Dent (not the one in the bathrobe) who calls it "a tribute to one of the greatest pioneers of this industry," specifically Mack Sennett. This is odd, since many of the films we see are Hal Roach comedies rather than Sennett ones.
IMDb tells us this film debuted in France in March, 1951, which would have made it Sellers' feature-film debut. Probably the French version didn't include Sellers' English dubbing, so that honor is shared by the weak-but-less-dire "Penny Points To Paradise" and "Let's Go Crazy." Here, other than Sellers trying out a Laurel voice that would return to much better effect in "Being There," and some tantalizing bits from silent shorts, what you get is a waste of your time.
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