Today is Jackie Gleason’s birthday – – a fitting time to talk about his most unique film, which is really saying something since his career also included Skidoo.
The ultimate flowering of Gleason’s Poor Soul character was his 1962 film Gigot. Gleason wrote the story (turned into a screenplay by John Patrick, author of The Teahouse of the Augist Moon), which transplants his mute imbecile character to France in the 1920s, mashing up elements of numerous Chaplin and Tati films with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Gleason originally wanted Orson Welles to direct it, but Welles was still anathema in Hollywood and 20th Century Fox would not endorse the idea. It would undoubtedly have been a better film if they had done so. Instead they gave the reins to Gene Kelly, who was living in Paris at the time. Kelly allowed Gleason to give full vent to his self-indulgent instincts. There is very little humor in the film; most of it is maudlin kitsch, with Gleason constantly striving for our sympathy in a misguided effort to be Chaplinesque. Gleason does some of his funny dancing, and gives us a few slapstick moments, but most of the time he is busy being ridiculed and taken advantage of by cruel people, even as he cares for animals, a small child and a woman of the streets. It’s hard to be a Saint in the City. Gleason ought to be applauded for his ambition, but his notion to make the story French should set off alarm bells. The self-conscious bid to be “artistic” backfired with both press and public. Gleason was a great artist, but he made much better art when he stuck to what he knew, which was what went on at a tenement on Chauncey Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
For more on classic comedy don’t my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.