Tomorrow on TCM: Slapstick in the ’70s

Tomorrorow, Turner Classic Movies will be continuing their slapstick series by pressing farther into the future than you might have thought possible.


8:00pm (EST): Bananas (1971)

To appropriate a line from Stardust Memories, this is one of Woody Allen’s “early, funny” comedies. And for many of us, this was indeed Allen’s best period, the pre-Annie era when his movies, his stand-up, and his humor stories were all of a piece: crazy, absurd, imaginative parodies and flights of fancy, not miles away from Mad magazine. And it is appropriate that the title of this film evokes early Marx Brothers titles; it would certainly live harmoniously on a list that includes Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business and Duck Soup. (Allen was literally palling around with Groucho at the time, and the elder comedian’s influence makes itself felt). Bananas has the most in common with Duck Soup, having dictatorship in a fictional country as its theme. Allen plays one Fielding Mellish, a product tester for a sporting goods company who somehow finds himself embroiled in revolution in a Latin American banana republic. That sounds heavy but it ain’t. The gags fly fast and furious, scarcely a second goes by without a verbal or visual joke happening, sometimes both. Allen’s ex-wife Louise Lasser (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) co-stars.  One of the funniest aspects of the film for me is that the bulk of the cast are native Spanish speakers with minimal to no English skills. That would seem mean-spirited, but the humor is much more abstract than that. It’s funny not because they are “foreign” or “inferior” or something, but simply because it is absurd to hear Allen’s smart-ass New York one liners delivered in this way. One thing I’ll add: we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of Allen as an “intellectual” and “verbal” guy. But his pre-Annie films are all full of genuine physical comedy, real slapstick. And Allen was good at it. Any of Allen’s pre-Annie films would haave fit into this program just as well


9:30pm (EST): Young Frankenstein (1974)

My second favorite Mel Brooks film (after The Producers) and easily the greatest cinematic parody of all time. Co-scripted by star Gene Wilder, the plot borrows heavily from Son of Frankenstein, and is in fact so knowingly made that it practically deserves a place in the Universal Frankenstein cycle canon as a legitimate sequel (a lot of people think of it that way; at the very least it’s mentally tagged on as a bit of “fan art”) The cinematography, score, sets, and costumes are all uncannily accurate, as are the performances of the crowd extras and bit players. The primary cast however is pretty Borscht belt, including Wilder himself, Marty Feldman as the hunchbacked Igor, Cloris Leachman, Terri Garr, Kenneth Mars, Gene Hackman, and for some reason I’ve never quite understood or properly appreciated I guess, Peter Boyle as the Monster. (To me it’s the film’s weakest link. It doesn’t strike me as funny. Something to do with his baldness, I guess? Against type, as Wilder was in Blazing SaddlesI intellectually understand it, but it doesn’t make me laugh. I’d much rather see someone like Ted Cassidy, Richard Kiel or Andre the Giant play the role.


11:30 (EST): Foul Play (1978)

A terrific romantic suspense comedy, written and directed by Colin Higgins during which might be called his “Hitchcock phase”. Higgins had earlier written the North-by-Northwest influenced buddy comedy Silver Streak for Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Foul Play, with its climax of a murder plot set during an orchestra concert invokes The Man Who Knew Too Much. I love this movie, and consider it Chevy Chase’s only really great starring comedy. It showed great potential for leading man stardom. But within a very short time he started making very stupid comedies, spoiling the trajectory. The beauty part is that Foul Play also includes some of his best slapstick, which he’d honed played Gerald Ford and other characters on Saturday Night Live during its first season. Adding to the romantic magic is Goldie Hawn, who would later be reteamed with Chase in the much weaker Seems Like Old Times. Plus Burgess Meredith, Billy Barty, an albino and a snake! And the hills of San Francisco used for car chase comedy in much the same way as Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1973) and it’s totally okay because it works!


1:30am (EST): The Three Musketeers (1973)

Very astute to put this romp in the line-up. Ostensibly a historical adventure film, it was directed by Richard Lester (of Beatles movie fame) who totally understands slapstick. The film is full of bawdy humor and cheeky, ludicrous physical comedy, some of it, yes, in the context of sword fights, but some of it farcical stuff in boudoirs — because this is France. Read much more about this film (and other versions of Dumas’ tale) in my earlier post here.


3:30am (EST): The Gumball Rally (1976)

I don’t hate ALL car race comedies, only most of them. This is among the latter.


5:30am (EST): The Frisco Kid (1979)

A terrific idea wasted. Gene Wilder as a rabbi in the old west — how could it lose? It does, on just about every level. It fails as both a comedy and as a western. The premise is that it’s 1850 and that Gene Wilder is hired from his village in Poland to be the rabbi for a congregation in San Francisco. When he gets to Philadelphia, he has missed the boat (the best way for getting cross country at the time) and so must go by land. He has mishaps along the way: some guys steal his money and dump him off in western Pennsylvania. He is nursed by some Amish people. Then he hooks up with Harrison Ford, a bank robber, who sees him across the continent. Indians, mountains, deserts, etc. They become friends. When they get to the coast they encounter the bad guys from the beginning of the film and have a run in. The Rabbi takes a life. In the end, he becomes the rabbi AND runs the last bad guy out of town, AND marries a pretty girl.

The arc of the story is fine. Here’s where it fails. Director Robert Aldrich, usually a workmanlike director of action films and the like,  has a tin ear for comedy. He has what I think of (rightly or wrongly) as a German sense of humor — a weird lack of compassion. I felt this above all in the early scene where the rabbi is stripped, beaten and thrown off the back of a wagon. It is played for wacky comedy, as though we are supposed to laugh along with the thugs who are doing this cruel thing. And while the scene comes across as anti-Semitic I think that’s accidental. The real issue is a lack of sensitivity which would make one notice the wrongness right off the bat. The whole movie is like that: very clumsily and clunkily — indifferently — shot and edited. Wilder’s performance, though humorous and touching, is lost and wasted.

Equally unforgivable is the historical ignorance that subtly undermines the whole thing. We are accustomed to westerns taking occasional historical liberties. In such cases however we get the sense that the authors have at least had a grammar school education in American history and are simply toying with facts to make a better story. Here, it seems like the writers have not only never been near a classroom but have probably never seen a western! Set in 1850? They did this I guess because the “gold rush” is on, presumably the motive for lots of people going west. Since it plays no role in this story, they should have thrown it out and set it at a later date because every single aspect of the production has more to do with the 1870s or ’80s, from the clothes they are wearing, to the fact that the rabbi is familiar with western lore and “cowboys”, to the fact that San Francisco is already a big flourishing city with a fancy hotel (the boom only started in 1849). Furthermore, along the way, they are attacked by some vague group of people called “Indians” See above for my problem with THAT. It’s rare to find film-makers so slipshod and inexpert that they wouldn’t identify what tribe was attacking, and that they wouldn’t put some knowledge of the tribe into to the supposedly knowledgeable character’s (Harrison Ford’s) mouth. “Indians”! What is that? It’s like saying “Europeans”!

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