40 years ago today: the release date of Jim Henson’s modern classic The Muppet Movie (1979).
We’ve previously expressed our love for Henson, The Muppets themselves, The Muppet Show, the original Muppet Movie, and Jason Segel’s 2011 movie The Muppets in these posts here and here and here, and also in my book No Applause. But I want to take this timely opportunity to spread my wings on the subject of this one particular film today.
I know I’m not alone among people my age in having revered this movie when it came out. I was 13 or 14 at the time and I was absolutely transported. Like the popular syndicated variety show it grew out of, it was a love poem to show business itself. But it also possesses the magic of a carefully told origin story, much like the Rankin-Bass special Santa Claus is Coming to Town. The ride includes how the characters (Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzy Bear, Gonzo, Animal etc) all met, and then, as in The Wizard of Oz (my all time favorite movie), they embark on a journey to realize their dreams, with the destination of Hollywood as the new Emerald City. Let it be said; it’s a fantasy, one that happens in a timeless place of the imagination. The hero is a banjo playing frog puppet. Because it happens on that plane, it’s able to transport us to a headspace which movies hadn’t really touched in nearly 50 years by that point. The actual Hollywood of 1979 was a pornographic cesspool. The Hollywood in this movie is Oz. (New York had its equivalent dichotomy at the time — the 42nd Street of 1933 vs. that of 46 years later). Hollywood and Hollywood movie as fantasy, the ultimate dream.
The Muppet Movie is also full of terrific songs by Paul Williams — probably his best work. I wore out the grooves of my LP listening to it. And it’s also full of wocka-wocka vaudeville style jokes, directed without an ounce of shame by the late James Frawley, who’d done a similar job with the Monkees. Naturally, there are villains, played by comic character actors Charles Durning and Austin Pendleton. And maybe best of all, the whole thing is crammed with cameos by show biz legends, some of whom dated from the original vaudeville era and wouldn’t be with us much longer, adding whole new layers of magic and poignancy for old timers like me when watch it now: people like Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), Milton Berle, Orson Welles Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks, Cloris Leachman, Dom DeLuise, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Carol Kane, Elliot Gould, Telly Savalas, etc.
There may be countless films that are technically more brilliant than The Muppet Movie, but none more pleasurable.