Saturday, October 24, 2015


Were I to try to pinpoint the origin of my lifelong indifference to silent films, my best guess would be my traumatized reaction to the opening sequence of that '60s TV show Silents Please, when I was just an impressionable tyke. Silents Please was a half-hour TV program highlighting films and stars of the silent era. It ran in reruns on Sunday afternoons but never, it seems, at scheduled times I could avoid. It always popped up as a time-filler following a football game or (most terrifyingly) at night when I least expected it.

I don’t recall ever seeing an entire episode all the way through, for each episode began with a startling command from an unseen announcer intoning "Silents Please!" (a pun I didn’t appreciate then and don’t appreciate now), which was my cue to high-tail it out of the living room before the unspooling of the opening montage of silent movie clips which featured a quick “reveal” of Lon Chaney in full The Phantom of the Opera drag. It scared the hell out of me. The nightmares it inspired kept even comic silent movies off my radar for much of my childhood, an antipathy that stayed with me well into maturity.
The Three Silent Stooges
Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise), Mel Funn (Mel Brooks), and Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman)
In later years, when I was going to film school, my wholesale disinterest in classic films of the silent era made me a majority of one among my peers. I saw and studied a great many silent movies in Film History class, but in the end, I remained impressed, yet unmoved. I appreciated what they were able to achieve with no dialogue and such low-tech equipment, but I never responded to the films themselves, finding the silence to be distancing, not engaging.

It was during these college years that Mel Brooks released Silent Movie, a contemporary silent film fashioned as a Hollywood spoof and affectionate homage to the films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Mack Sennett, and Hal Roach. Child of '70s cinema that I am, naturally this was the first silent film I remember ever taking a liking to. 
Touted as the first feature-length silent film to be made in over forty years, 20th Century Fox released Silent Movie at the height of Mel Brook’s popularity. Following the blockbuster success of Brooks’ western spoof Blazing Saddles, and his horror spoof Young Frankenstein, former television gag writer Mel Brooks, was hailed by critics and audiences alike as the king of motion picture comedy. Rather remarkably, both films (directed and co-written by Brooks) came out in the same year. At the close of 1974, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein occupied the  #1 and #4 slots, respectively, on the list of the year's top boxoffice moneymakers.
Prior to his late-blooming emergence as the comic voice of the '70s, my only familiarity with Brooks was as the writer/director of one of my favorite comedies - The Producers (1967); the co-creator of one of my favorite TV shows - Get Smart; and for that 2000 Year Old Man skit he performed with Carl Reiner that I never really thought was all that funny. Anyhow, by the mid-'70s, EVERYBODY was talking about Mel Brooks, and at 50 years of age, he was suddenly a hit with the hip, college crowd. Naturally, with such a high degree of success, Brooks could virtually write his own ticket when it came to his next film. Sort of.

When Brooks announced his follow-up project was to be a silent film, the natural assumption was that it was to be a film in the vein of its predecessors—a period-accurate recreation of a 1920s-era silent film with doses of irreverent, slightly raunchy, contemporary comedy. Perhaps because director Peter Bogdanovich had already begun production on his own comic film set in the early days of silent movies (Nickelodeon - 1976), Brooks opted to make a contemporary silent film set in the Hollywood of 1976. Its objective: to poke fun at the motion picture industry and gently spoof the comedies of yesteryear. 
Vilma Kaplan: A Bundle of Lust
Bernadette Peters, in what could be called the Madeline Kahn role, as the seductress
hired by Engulf & Devour to corrupt Mel Funn

Since Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein had each successfully launched two of the most valuable players in the Mel Brooks repertory off into careers of their own (Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn), their inability to participate in Brooks' follow-up project was a hurdle audiences were eager to see if Brooks (casting himself in his first lead role) could surmount.

Silent Movie’s premise casts Mel Brooks as Mel Funn, a once brilliant movie director whose career has hit the skids due to alcoholism. Hoping to make a comeback, Funn pitches his idea of making a modern-day silent movie to the head of Big Pictures Studio (Sid Caesar). After initially rejecting the suggestion, the failing studio, desperate for a hit to avoid a takeover by NY conglomerate Engulf & Devour, relents after Mel promises he can fill his movie with big-name stars. Funn, with the help of his two associates Bell & Eggs (DeLuise & Feldman), thus embarks on a slapstick quest to secure the biggest names in Hollywood for new his silent movie.
Art Imitates Life
Silent Movie actually spoofs Mel Brooks' real-life efforts to get a studio
 interested in his making this silent movie

As a follow-up to the phenomenon that was Young Frankenstein, the level of anticipation and expectation surrounding the release of Silent Movie was both its blessing and its curse. Folks expecting the envelope-pushing effrontery of Blazing Saddles or the technically impeccable lunatic genius of Young Frankenstein were forced to content themselves with a genial, sometimes hilarious, mostly hit-and-miss, comedy that delivered a good time, but not really much else.
There were gentle jibes at silent movies (verbose exchanges translated in terse title cards); satirical jabs at the movie business (a sign on an executive's door reads "Current Studio Chief"); and sight gags galore. But it was all rather safe and old-fashioned. In fact, none of the jokes would have looked out of place on a typical episode of Get Smart, and that had gone off the air in 1970.

When Mel falls off the wagon, his friends embark on a search for him accompanied by the usual cliche dissolves of neon-lit nightspot signs. Only this time capped with a Brooks-ian touch of the unexpected

People went to see Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles multiple times, wanting to relive favorite comic moments or catch bits of business missed the first time out. Conversely, Silent Movie was a pretty straightforward affair. All the laughs are accessible, obvious, and intentionally broad. Much in the same way that suspense in a horror film can be sustained even after multiple viewings, while “gotcha” scare moments in horror are effective only once; Silent Movie’s funny but unsubtle slapstick and vaudeville-level mugging didn’t invite a lot of repeat business. 
While failing to live up to the success of its predecessors, Silent Movie was nevertheless a sizable hit, ranking #11 on boxoffice charts at the close of the year. Citing the silent movie angle as more gimmick than legitimate satirical target, critical and popular opinion varied as to the relative merit of the enterprise as a whole. Most willing to forgive the film's elemental inconsequence in favor of applauding what clearly was a labor of love for Brooks; an affectionate valentine to the comics and style of comedy that inspired him in his youth.
Sid Caesar as The Studio Chief
Mel Brooks got his start as one of the staff writers for Caesar's 1950s
variety program Your Show of Shows

I’m from the generation raised on Laugh-In style blackout comedy. I remember when it was business as usual for corny variety shows to encourage their movie star guests to “let their hair down” in groan-inducing, out-of-character skits and musical numbers. I grew up at a time when stand-up comics all had pseudo-ethnic, faux chummy/hilarious names like Shecky, Totie, Marty, Sandy, and Morty.
In short, I came from the era that produced Mel Brooks.

Hilarious in 1976, but meh in 2015
Now that ALL major movie studios are owned by conglomerates, this jab at the 1967 acquisition of Paramount by Gulf & Western Industries barely rates a smile 

Because my personal comedy tastes run towards the cornball and old-fashioned, I was perhaps less disappointed than many when Silent Movie came out and proved to be a film so tame it could have been made before The Producers. But even I had hoped for something more, even while acknowledging that Brooks’ experiment with the genre was largely successful and good for a few laughs. Not particularly memorable, retold over the water cooler at work, laughs...but laughs.
With its excellent wall-to-wall score (John Morris) of jaunty, amusingly responsive music;  hyperactive grab bag of exaggerated sound effects; and its non-stop barrage of sight gags, blackout skits, and slapstick physical comedy; Silent Movie is as much a send-up of those old Warner Bros. cartoons as it is a take-off on silent-era comedies. 
"Poverty Sucks!" - "Yea for the Rich!"
Ron Carey as Devour / Harold Gould as Engulf

With Silent Movie, Mel Brooks’ usually behind-the-scenes talents (with the occasional voiceover or cameo) are for the first time placed front and center, and, at least for me, the movie suffers for it. Brooks is an undeniably funny writer, gagman, and skit performer; but he’s no actor. And I don't think I ever grasped or appreciated how significant a role a good comic actor plays in making a motion picture work (Gene Wilder is the all-time best) until I watched what happened when a talented Catskills standup comic cast himself as a leading man. 

As an actor, Brooks is very much in line with the borscht belt comic Ernie Bernie (Sid Gould) from That Girl, or the woefully schticky comic played by Johnny Haymer in Annie Hall. They do bits of familiar comedy business and make with the funny faces, but they don't know how to bring a character to life. Brooks is the worst thing in the film. As cute as he is, every moment he's on is like when you're at an office party and the boss comes in trying to show you what an average Joe he is. Brooks plays his material almost like he's patting himself on the back for coming up with it.
Mel Brooks is too likable to actually spoil the film for me, but his lack of...what is it, lunacy? abandon?...seems to have the effect of muting the talents of Feldman and DeLuise. As much as I admire Mel Brooks as a comedy genius, I can honestly say Mel Brooks' films only began to suffer after Mel Brooks began starring in them.

The star cameos in Silent Movie are a great deal of fun and a major part of the attraction when the film was released (remember, this was the era of the disaster film, star casting was all the rage). Back in the 1970s, it was exhilarating to see these celebrities poking fun at their images. Now, I watch these sequences filled with a great deal of nostalgia. Not just because so many of its performers are no longer with us, but because the film is brimming with familiar faces. Comics, character actors, and TV personalities whose faces you recognize, but whose names you often don't know.

Ranking of celebrity cameos. Favorite to least-favorite:
1. Surrounded by gigolos, Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Mel Brooks for any youngsters out there) looks to be having a great deal of fun playing herself as a haughty movie star (she was the original choice to star in Mommie Dearest, and would have been great). Not only does she get to dance, but she dazzles us with her ability to cross her at a time! 
2. Oddly enough, Burt Reynold's egotistical movie star bit plays much funnier now than it did in 1976. Back in the '70s, Burt was something of a male Jayne Mansfield and seemed to be on everything from Hollywood Squares to Johnny  Carson, nonstop. In each instance overworking the "egotistical star" bit to death. Fresh off the flop Lucky Lady with Liza Minnelli, Reynolds was nevertheless a really hot property at the time, with two other films in release in 1976 and Smokey and the Bandit just a year away.
3. Liza Minnelli, the star I most wanted to see in a Mel Brooks movie, is pretty much wasted in a segment requiring her to do little but react to the slapstick antics of Brooks, Feldman, and DeLuise (or their stunt doubles). Decked out in a costume from her Vincente Minnelli-directed flop-to-be A Matter of Time and rebounding from the debacle that was Lucky Lady, the Cabaret star wouldn't appear in another hit movie until 1981s Arthur. And she was only the co-star in that one!
4. What's Marty Feldman looking at there? Tough guy James Caan plays off his macho but dumb image in a brief physical comedy sequence involving an off-balance dressing room trailer. The sequence is cute, but doesn't have much impact.
5. A wheelchair-bound Paul Newman, looking ridiculously gorgeous at 50, spoofs his love of auto racing by leading Mel and his associates on a high-speed chase. Once again, an amusing sequence, but so reliant on stunt doubles, Newman winds up making a cameo in his cameo.
6. The use of legendary French mime Marcel Marceau in a silent movie is inspired and provided the film with one of its biggest laughs. But I'm afraid his brief sequence (whimsically involving walking against the wind to answer a phone) only reminds me of how simultaneously terrifying and annoying mimes can be.

I don’t pretend to know how or why comedy works, but I know that a great many fondly remembered sequences from comedies work well for me precisely because they are silent. I’m no fan of Jerry Lewis, but his 1960 directing debut, The Bellboy, is a favorite because he keeps his mouth shut in it for all but the last scene. And while no one should be deprived of hearing Peter Sellers saying, “Birdie num numin an Indian accent, Blake Edwards’ The Party (1968) is at its most uproarious when it’s silent.
Another Brooks-ian Sight Gag
When it comes to updates of the silent movie, Mel Brook’s Silent Movie doesn’t come anywhere near approaching the comic eloquence and grace of Michel Hazanvicius’ Oscar-winning silent film The Artist (2011); but Brooks gets points for being the first out of the gate and for succeeding in achieving what I honestly think were his modest goals. He made a funny little movie that said “Thank you” to the silent comics and filmmakers who inspired him to become a comedy legend himself. 

As for me, know I’ve grown fonder of silent movies over the years (Metropolis-1927, is a favorite), but I’ve still yet to garner the courage to watch  Lon Cheney's The Phantom of the Opera.

I worked at a Honda dealership for a time in 1979, and Mel Brooks came in to the service department to pick up his car. I remember asking a co-worker for permission to temporarily hijack his job (escort the customer to his car) so I could talk to Brooks for a while and get his autograph.

Here's the intro to the TV program, Silents Please.  I guess I scared easily as a kid.

Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2015

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


As a huge fan of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, I harbor a special weakness for romantically rendered, period-precise ruminations on the post-war decline of Britain’s aristocracy and the erosion of its class system. There’s that and much more in Alan Bridges’ (The Return of the Soldier) superb adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s (The Go-Between) 1957 novel The Hirelingwherein the tentative reformation of a shell-shocked England serves as backdrop and counterpoint to the unorthodox relationship forged between a hired limousine driver and his society-class employer.
Sarah Miles as Lady Helen Franklin
Robert Shaw as Steven Ledbetter
Peter Egan as Captain Hugh Cantrip
Elizabeth Sellars as Lady Franklin's Mother
The first time we see Lady Helen Franklin, she appears to be lost in an absent-minded daze, staring blankly out at a pond from behind a chain-link fence surrounding what looks to be a home in the British countryside (people peering from behind barriers will be a recurring motif in the film). It is indeed a home, of sorts, as it turns out Lady Franklin is a patient at a “rest cure” sanatorium for the rich and titled. It's a sprawling, mental-health facility whose tasteful opulence adheres to British “keeping up appearances” standards of discretion by not betraying its true function; the grounds more resembling a country estate than a hospital.

Lady Franklin is recuperating from a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt brought on by the deathssuffered over a brief but unspecified period of timeof both her father and her husband. Deaths over which she feels so much guilt and remorse, life has virtually ceased to exist for her. 
Little is known of Lady Franklin at this point, but from our short acquaintance, it's clear this woman is among the walking wounded. A fragile, ragdoll of a figure who appears distant, distracted, and barely able to keep it together. In spite of all this, her doctor (Lyndon Brook) insists the time has come for her to return to “normal life,” and so with brusque solicitude, he discharges her into the temporary care of chauffeur service driver Steven Ledbetter (Shaw), the titular hireling enlisted by Lady Franklin’s mother (Sellars) to transport her daughter home to London.

It's in this scene that The Hireling’s narrative theme exploring the contrast of pragmatism vs. emotionalism as survival skills is first introduced. We first see it dramatized in the air of exasperated impatience the doctor and hospital staff displays toward their wealthy clientele. A gently condescending attitude indicative of the pervasive working-class belief that nervous breakdowns and the coddling of psychological maladies are luxuries only the well-to-do can afford.
Dr. Mercer (Lyndon Brook) expedites Lady Franklin's sanatorium release a little too eagerly

The drive to townover the course of which, images of poverty and post-war squalor are glimpsed from behind the polished panes of Ledbetter’s pristine Rolls Roycefurther emphasize the film’s themes of class division.
Foreshadowing later events, Ledbetter and Lady Franklin’s labored initial exchanges across the glass partition separating driver from passenger, display a sympathetic commonality, yet are fraught with caution and misunderstanding.
Ledbetter, a former sergeant major in the army, finds security and a sense of purpose in conforming to the arbitrary formalities of his station. Well-mannered and polite, he speaks only when spoken to, peppers his responses with “Milady,” and is not above fabricating a backstory (he lies about the scope of his driver-for-hire business and makes up a wife and children) if it results in engendering client faith in his stability.
Ledbetter’s unquestioning acceptance of his lot, indeed, his appearance to have made the most of it, appeals a great deal to the floundering Lady Franklin, who has come to view her society life as both directionless and empty. As they drive, Ledbetter’s matter-of-fact directness has the effect of bringing Lady Franklin out of her shell. Enough so that she has the bravery to request he drive past the cemetery containing the bodies of the two most important men in her life, and just enough to prepare her for her impending reunion with her flinty mother (Sellars).
Lady Franklin suffers another small breakdown, but her mother is more concerned
that the window washer will witness this unseemly lapse of decorum
Almost as a form of therapy, Lady Franklin hires Ledbetter to take her on drives twice weekly. His pragmatism inspiring in her a newfound independence, simultaneously, her taking him into her confidence serving to thaw his formal facade and disarm his firmly-rooted hostility toward the upper classes. Of course, their ostensibly professional arrangement is clearly one forged of a mutual rapport and affinity extending far beyond the boundaries of employer and hireling, yet it remains one neither party feels disposed to examine in depth until it’s too late.

Too late rears its head in the form of Lady Franklin’s emerging self-reliance colliding with Ledbetter's rapidly accelerating infatuation with her. Too late also manifests in the triangular intrusion into their twosome of the louche Captain Hugh Cantrip (Egan); a former political ally of Lady Franklin’s late husband and, naturally, a gentleman of more appropriate social stature for Lady Franklin's company. Like all the characters in The Hireling, Cantrip is struggling with readjustment to life after the war. But the ease with which he insinuates himself into Lady Franklin’s life (coupled with a level of deception inarguably more injurious than Ledbetter’s) underscores Ledbetter’s deepest resentment: that the wealthy classes have always had an easier go of it, and that he is doomed to forever be on the outside looking in.
Lady Franklin's unorthodox request to sit in the front seat with Ledbetter dramatizes both the casual familiarity the wealthy feel towards those in their employ, and the lack of equal license afforded the working-classes

In speaking of The Hireling at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 (where it shared the Grand Prize with Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow), actress Sarah Miles described it as “A tragedy of miscomprehension.” And indeed, The Hireling is at its most compelling when exploring the ways in which the rigid constraints of Britain’s class system perpetuate emotional and sexual repression. Set in 1923, The Hireling presents a world in which human beings reach out to one another from within the socially imposed/self-imposed cages of class and station. Behavior and motivation are clogged up in ritual, and emotions are caught up in antiquated modes of conduct which make it next to impossible for anyone to authentically convey to another how they really feel. In situations where a person’s passions are as opaque and inaccessible internally as they are externally, human contact inevitably loses out.

What I find most enjoyable about The Hireling (as I do Gosford Park and Downton Abbey) is its evocation of a time when one type of world was on its way out, clumsily making way for a new way of living and interacting. Without becoming heavy-handed, The Hireling uses the interwoven lives of its three main charactersall of whom represent a faction of Britain’s walking wounded, readjusting to post-war existenceto comment upon the failings of the class system.
While our attention is called to the characters’ connection (Lady Franklin and Ledbetter ease each other’s loneliness) and contrasts (She’s more amenable to the dropping of class-based formalities than he); the film makes us subtly aware of the rigid inequities that always linger on the fringes: Lady  Franklin’s wealth and station afford her an interclass autonomy denied Ledbetter.
Lady Franklin asks Ledbetter to be her escort at an amateur boxing match
Time and time again it’s underscored that the working classes, when faced with tragedy and hardship, have no option but to be practical and “Get on with things, ” while the rich are tended to, sympathized with, and are afforded the luxury of breakdowns both emotional (Lady Franklin) and ethical (Capt. Cantrip). For example, Lady Franklin is ignorant of the fact that her maid, Mrs. Hansen (Patricia Lawrence), who appears to have been with her for some time, has a blind son; a fact of life never dwelled upon or grieved over by the devoted servant as she goes about her duties.
Patricia Lawrence as Mrs. Hansen
Similarly, as the film progresses, the once-fragile Lady Franklin comes to rebuild her life just as the life of the stalwart Ledbetter begins to unravel, yet she's not able to be there for him in the same manner he was there for her. Perhaps there is no real way in which she could befor when presented with an opportunity to return his kindness, she does so very graciously and generouslybut (to Ledbetter's dismay) at the cost of having to reveal she doesn't even know his first name. These sequence of events only further serve to solidify the perspective that Britain's post-war resurgence was achieved largely on the backs of its working classes, yet once the rich were reinstated and their lives returned to normal, little in the way of reciprocal attention was given to the labor classes and working poor who made it possible.

I’m afraid I was a little too enamored of fellow Brits Julie Christie and Susannah York to have paid much attention to Sarah Miles during her brief heyday in the '70s. My strongest memory of her (outside of her endorsement of drinking her own urine twice daily as a kind of golden, pee-scented fountain of youth. I've seen recent pictures of her and she looks great, so maybe she's not just pissing up a rope, so to speak) is the hubbub during the filming of the otherwise forgettable 1973 Burt Reynolds western The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. It involved the mysterious circumstances surrounding the on-location death (murder?suicide?) of Miles’ personal assistant/lover. A scandalous event that not only ended her marriage to screenwriter Robert Bolt (Lawrence of Arabia), but successfully stalled her ascendancy as a leading lady of the 1970s.
Over the years I’ve come to enjoy Sarah Miles’ performances in The Servant (1963) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970) a great deal, but in my limited exposure to her work, The Hireling stands out as perhaps her best. 
I saw The Hireling for the first time only last year, but I know had I seen it in 1973, it would have been a lasting favorite. Miles displays an amazing range and brings a great deal of nuance and depth to a role in which her character’s true motivations and feelings are not always clear to herself. 

Two years before his iconic role as Quint in Jaws (1975) made him the late-7'0s man of the hour, Robert Shaw’s appearance in The Sting eclipsed his much finer work in The Hireling, released the same year. As Ledbetter, the brutish but sensitive chauffeur, Shaw carves out a complex figure of concealed motives and glowering resentments. In fact, much of The Hireling plays out like an emotional suspense film in trying to fathom the depth of Ledbetter’s sincerity or the objective of his deceptions. Shaw's is a surpassingly intense performance of brooding insecurity and tortured longing. 
Brooding Brute
Watching Robert Shaw's powerful performance, I couldn't help thinking that outside of Idris Elba and Daniel Craig, contemporary films are lacking in men and overpopulated with boys

I really love the look of The Hireling, with its deceptively lush, romantic imagery and rich period detail. A sense of time and place is conveyed superbly, especially the attention given to differentiating the working-class locations and those of the wealthy. And in this, I mean that there is no heavy-handed condescension favoring the rich; intriguingly, the film captures both social strata in a manner emphasizing the ways in which the characters from both sides are trapped by their surroundings.
Indicative of the repressive nature of Britain's class system The Hireling frequently films the principals in surroundings emphasizing borders and separation. Mirrors, windows, and reflective surfaces abound, conveying characters' dual natures and motivations, along with the inability to sometimes see what is right in front of them.

I've always entertained the theory that Americans eat up movies about class struggles in the UK because it allows certain factions of our population to enjoy narratives of class-based conflict without the guilt.
In America, we still have a long way to go towards being able to present our own class issues (aka racism) in ways that aren't wholly designed to assuage white audiences while reassuring them that things are not "really that bad."  In British films, because the downtrodden classes are white, they are afforded their humanity, allowed to express their rage, and even allowed not to forgive. At its core, The Hireling is pretty vicious to the aristocracy, and with good reason.
Those expecting The Hireling to be a Driving Miss Daisy-esque heartwarmer will be shocked to find it a dark, fairly scathing indictment of the upper class.

Here in the States, we aren't that evolved yet. It's still the duty of blacks in films to take the moral high road and never really express anger or resentment, lest they lose audience sympathy. The status quo can't be sufficiently criticized because business-as-usual in behind-the-scenes Hollywood is reflective of the culture as a whole. The lack of diversity assures that the same race/class fear narratives are repeated and reinforced. So, British films tend to be the spoonful of sugar that helps the class struggle/discrimination medicine go down on these shores.
Personally, I find it cathartic to see movies in which servants and oppressed classes are afforded the dimensionality to view their lot in life in ways far from noble or heroic. I love the potential for conflict presented by the fear the "haves" harbor should one day the "have-nots" get fed up with their lot. It's an opportunity to shed light on the curious symbiosis that exists between the rich and working classes, how one can't exist without the other in a strange and dysfunctional way. As drama it's certainly more authentic, and, as is the case of The Hireling, presents a far more layered and thoughtful examination of the emotional consequence of social structures that are designed to support commerce, labor, and the status quo; yet calls upon people to suppress all that's human and instinctual within themselves.

"We all have our place in life."

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2015

Friday, October 9, 2015

MAGIC 1978

Richard Attenborough’s atmospherically tense adaptation of William Goldman’s 1976 bestseller, Magic, doesn’t seem to come up much in conversation these days; although when it does, it’s inevitably in reference to those nightmare-inducing, kindertrauma TV ads that ran at the time of its release. There’s scarcely an adult of a certain age who can’t be reduced to a quivering mass of jelly upon hearing this poem recited (preferably in a shrill, nasal voice with a New Yawk accent):
I sit on his knee.
Presto chango,
and now he is me.

Hocus pocus
we take her to bed.
Magic is fun;
we’re dead.
Being 21-years-old at the time, I was (alas) too old to be frightened by those TV commercials. I only remember being so taken with the eerie effectiveness of the ad (even if you weren't watching the screen, that weird voice seriously sent chills up your spine), I could barely wait for the movie to open. 
A masterpiece of minimalism, the entire 30-second teaser-spot consisted of nothing more than a slow zoom into the face of an intensely demonic-looking ventriloquist’s dummy whose dead eyes stared maniacally into the camera as it recited the above poem in a high-pitched, not entirely human-sounding voice. Without showing a single frame of footage from the film, this unsettling confluence of dramatic lighting, ominous music, and the built-in necromantic creep-out of being confronted by an animate inanimate object, incited the outcry from concerned parents of traumatized tots across the nation, to have the ads taken off the air.
I’d read Magic sometime in college when it was still on the bestseller list, but only because I’d read in the trades that producer Joseph E. Levine (Harlow, The Carpetbaggers) had secured the film rights for the tidy sum of $1 million, enlisting Goldman to adapt his novel to the screen. What excited me was the early talk citing Roman Polanski as director and Robert De Niro starring as the magician/ventriloquist with the dark secret. After Polanski bailed, Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, and Norman Jewison were each attached to the project at various times, with actors as disparate as Jack Nicholson, Chevy Chase, Gene Wilder, and Al Pacino considered for the lead.

Ultimately, directing chores went to British actor/director Richard Attenborough (Séance on a Wet Afternoon), with the lead going to Welsh actor, Anthony Hopkins. After several years in the business, Hopkins was suddenly very hot stateside, appearing in several major films in rapid succession: Audrey Rose (1977), A Bridge Too Far (1977), and International Velvet (1978).
William Goldman has always maintained Magic’s central female character, high-school dreamgirl Peggy Ann Snow, was inspired by and written with Ann-Margret in mind. So when it came time to cast the film, I’m not sure if any other actresses were considered, but it didn’t hurt Magic’s boxoffice chances any that the '60s ingénue was experiencing a career resurgence at the time, thanks to her Oscar nominations for Carnal Knowledge (1971) and Tommy (1975). With Burgess Meredith (The Day of the Locust) on board as the Swifty Lazar-like talent agent (a role once slated for Laurence Olivier) and $7 million allocated for the budget, advance buzz on Magic augured a Hitchcockian psychological thriller with an A-list pedigree.
Anthony Hopkins as Charles "Corky" Withers 
Ann-Margret as Peggy Ann Snow-Wayne
Burgess Meredith as Ben Greene
Ed Lauter as Ronnie "Duke" Wayne
That 20th Century Fox was able to successfully market Magic on the strength of a single, non-disclosive graphic, is only in part attributable to the popularity of Goldman’s bestseller. The other contributing factor was audiences already knew what to expect simply because the story involved a ventriloquist and his dummy. Magic’s boon and bane have always been the fact that any thriller with a ventriloquist at its center is bound to utilize one of two fairly standard and overused plot possibilities: 1) The deranged ventriloquist who schizophrenically imagines his dummy to be real (The Great Gabbo, Dead of Night); 2) The supernatural take on the same theme, in which case the dummy indeed proves to be a sentient being (Devil Doll, The Twilight Zone episodes, “The Dummy” & “Caesar & Me”) usually of malevolent motive. Magic falls into the former category. 

Corky Withers (Hopkins), a failed, personality-minus magician, finds success when he adds a foul-mouthed ventriloquist’s dummy named Fats to his act. An act in which the outspoken, self-assured Fats (who resembles a grotesque caricature of Corky) hurls comically lewd, X-rated invectives at the audience while his mild-mannered human half engages in minor feats of legerdemain.
When savvy theatrical agent Ben Green (nicknamed “The Postman” because he always delivers) lands Corky an opportunity to crack the big time, the sheepish showman balks at a TV network’s request for a physical exam and hightails it out of New York. He finds refuge and an indelible part of his past when he checks into a rundown Catskills lake resort belonging to unrequited high school crush, former cheerleader Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret), now a sad-eyed hotelier unhappily married to one-time high-school sports hero, “Duke” Wayne (Lauter).
15 years has served to narrow the gulf once dividing Corky and Peggy, mutual discontent now inflaming a mutual attraction brokered on the unexpressed hope of rescue and reclamation.
But for Corky’s long-nurtured, once-thought-impossible dream to come true, he has to overcome a few obstacles. Peggy’s husband isn’t a problem, for although he still loves her, Peggy has grown tired of his drinking, philandering, and verbal abuse. And Corky’s agent, nosy and over-protective though he may be, really only wants what’s best for Corky. Doesn’t he?  
No, there is really only one obstacle standing in Corky’s way...but it’s a big one.
Fats won’t like it.
Yes, Corky is mad as a hatter. And his schizophrenia has taken the form of seeing Fats as a separate, possessive entity out to control his life and force him to do very bad things.
"You can't believe how much people want to believe in magic."

Ventriloquist dummies are so inherently creepy I’m certain a fairly terrifying horror film could be made simply by training a camera on a roomful of them for 90 minutes. If you doubt it, try doing a Google Images search of “ventriloquist dummies” sometime. You’ll be sleeping with the lights on for a week. 
That’s why given Magic’s overall impressiveness as a taut psychological thriller wrapped in a character study; it’s so frustrating Attenborough & Co. weren’t better able to capture that unsettling aspect of magic and ventriloquy which seems to intentionally flirt with the bizarre and grotesque. Between the dark demons fueling Corky’s madness (the novel hints at Corky being a serial killer) and the mysteries shrouded in the truth/illusion world of magic, the story offers ample opportunity. But the filmmakers are content to rely on Fats’ spectacularly chilling puppet design to do all the heavy lifting, horror-wise.
In a way, Magic, by virtue of being yet another reworking of the predictable “ventriloquist with a split-personality” plot device, is forced to wring suspense out of audience concern over whether it will add anything new to the over-familiar mix. While Goldman’s script dutifully takes us through updates of dominant dummy vs. overpowered ventriloquist sequences we’ve seen countless times before; suspense is generated by a wishful certainty on our part that a cast this stellar and production values this first-rate cannot possibly yield a retread of material Michael Redgrave and his dummy, Hugo, fairly nailed back in 1945.
Yet that’s precisely what Magic does. I saw Magic when it opened in 1978, and when I first saw it, I tied myself in knots waiting for it to live up to those TV ads (it didn’t), and wondering how Goldman was going to handle the novel’s “big reveal” (It's jettisoned. The book is told from Fat’s perspective, so we don’t even find out until near the end that what we thought was a two-person narrative is actually a memoir). My expectation of what I hoped the film to be blinded me to what it was.
Only after returning to see Magic again was I able to appreciate how well William Goldman adapted his novel in cinematic terms. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s an engrossing--albeit familiar--story very well told and exceptionally well-acted. The Catskills setting has a chilly foreboding about it that is significantly enhanced by Jerry Goldman’s (Coma, The Omen) ingeniously spooky score, and the character conflicts are skillfully buttressed by several nicely-realized suspense set-pieces.
"Kid, I have lived through Tallulah Bankhead and the death of vaudeville. I don't scare easy."
After a string of eccentric roles, it was nice to see Burgess Meredith playing a regular person again

Anthony Hopkins gives a remarkable performance in Magic, virtually flawless in its versatility and depth. He brings a modulated authenticity to a character we have to simultaneously dread and sympathize with. His character runs the emotional gamut from cripplingly shy to theatrically assured; from touchingly vulnerable to deviously maniacal. He has a full-tilt mental breakdown scene that could easily have veered into camp or ridiculousness, that instead becomes an object lesson in how to ground extreme behavior in something real (Faye Dunaway would have done well to take notes before doing Mommie Dearest).
All that being said, Hopkins is terribly miscast. Instead of casting for Corky’s stage persona and wresting a tortured performance out of a charming showman whose stage charisma blossoms in the presence of his wooden alter ego, Attenborough seems to have cast for Corky: the mental case. Hopkins is great as the haunted, hunted Corky, but I don't buy him for a minute as a successful stage performer. As Pauline Kael perceptively wrote, “Hopkins has no light or happy range and doesn’t show a capacity for joy.” Comics are often said to be exceedingly dark personalities offstage, but you never could guess it from watching their act. I think Magic would have been far more chilling were there a clearer sense of Corky having a deceptively light side to mask the dark.
One of the very few scenes in Magic to feature Hopkins smiling
When looking back and taking the entire film in, for me Magic's most valuable player is Ann-Margret. The role of Peggy Ann Snow may have been written expressly for the talented actress, but Goldman doesn't exactly give her a lot to work with. What she does with it is a thing of beauty.
In the manner of many male writers who betray with each female character they write, just how little they know about women; Goldman's way of letting us in on Corky's deep feelings for Peggy is to have him reference her physical beauty, ad nauseam. Her breasts, specifically. 
And true to the adolescent roots of Corky's/Goldman's infatuation, the breathtakingly lovely Peggy doesn't think she's beautiful at all and clings to male reassurance. Yeah, that happens a lot.

To make matters worse, an inordinate amount of Peggy's dialog is relegated to "girl-isms" like "Coffee's on!', "Do you want the asparagus tips or french cut green beans?" By the time she made reference to a bubble bath, I thought it would turn out that Peggy Ann Snow never existed at all, and that she was just a male fantasy figure...another one of Corky's delusions. 
In spite of these hurdles, Ann-Margret gives a movingly sensitive performance that transcends the inanity of her dialog. She turns a puerile fantasy of a woman into a living-breathing person, centering the genre pyrotechnics with an earthy naturalism and melancholy sadness.

I wonder if young people seeing Magic today find the idea of a nationally-famous ventriloquist to be more far-fetched (and terrifying) than a wooden figure come to life? I grew up at a time when ventriloquist acts like Shari Lewis, Willie Tyler, Wayland Flowers, and Paul Winchell were staples of TV variety shows. As were borscht-belt comics with Corky Withers-type names like Shecky Green, Sandy Baron, and Morty Gunty. (I even had a ventriloquist's dummy as a child. I named him Eddie Arnstein because he looked like a cross between Eddie Cantor and Omar Sharif in Funny Girl.)
If magic is problematic on television because you can't misdirect the camera; ventriloquism in the movies always opens the question of post-dubbing.  Much was made at the time of Hopkins learning ventriloquism and doing the voice of Fats. Other sources have since cited Magic's ventriloquist consultant  Dennis Alwood as not only manipulating Fats, but serving as his voice as well.

I bring this up because I think my familiarity with this almost vaudevillian style of show biz act is what makes Magic's nightclub scenes so cringe-worthy for me. William Goldman is a talented writer but he's not a gag-writer. Anthony Hopkins is a great actor, but he has absolutely no comedy timing. This collision of limitations is fine when Corky is supposed to be awful, but when he's supposed to have struck paydirt with Fats, I found myself wishing Goldman had hired a genuine comedy writer to do these scenes. They just sit there...startling in their unfunniness. And the fact that the act is so lousy is only exacerbated by the film constantly cutting away from this terrible act that we can see with our own eyes, and having characters say (not laugh, but say aloud) "Now that's funny!"

I do have to say that Fats did make me laugh, but only once. When introduced to a TV executive wearing a very obvious toupee (David Ogden Stiers), Fats slips and accidentally-on-purpose calls Mr. Todson "Mr. Wigston." I'm laughing just thinking about it.

The set-pieces I made reference to earlier comprise my favorite Magic moments. The collaborative efforts of the actors; director Attenborough; cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (XanaduEyes of Laura Mars); editor John Bloom (Closer); and composer Jerry Goldsmith; represent Magic at the top of its game.
Amateur Night Breakdown
Meeting of the Minds
"Make Fats shut up for five minutes."
The Thing in the Lake
In 1978, audiences were left disappointed by Magic not living up to the horror suggested by the commercials. The audience I saw it with left the film in frustration...all you heard as you filed out the exit was people ask one another "What did she say?"---the film ends on Ann-Margret's near-unintelligible closing line: [Delivered in a voice imitative of Fats] - "You may not get this oppor-fuckin-tunity tomorrow!”
Nowadays, thanks to cable and DVD, audiences no longer coming to the film from being terrorized by those TV commercials seem to appreciate Magic for its modest triumphs. As an entertainingly engrossing, mature thriller effectively employing the rote devices of the genre while providing a moving parable about the cost of using illusions to mask our vulnerability.

Actor Jerry Houser, who made his film debut in The Summer of '42 (1971), plays the cab driver in Magic.

The television spot that launched a thousand nightmares
(reportedly pulled from NYC TV stations after only one broadcast)

Serving as proof that the longstanding narrative tradition of associating ventriloquism with personality displacement has yet to hit dry dock, take a look at Kevin Spacey in the excellent 2012 short film The Ventriloquist.

Jay Johnson, who played ventriloquist Chuck Campbell on the 70s sitcom, Soap, read for the role of Corky in Magic when Norman Jewison was set to direct. And while I have no idea how serious a contender he was, I must confess I find Johnson to better conform to my mind-eye image of Magic's schizophrenic protagonist. Anthony Hopkins, although remarkable in the role, comes across as more than a little unhinged from the start. Johnson, on the other hand, possesses that faint quality of sadness and anger present in so many comics, shrouded by a cheery, superannuated boyishness capable of conveying outward charm masking all manner of internal conflict. I don't know if Johnson could have matched Hopkins' dramatic virtuosity, but I'm absolutely certain his stage act would have been a damn sight more entertaining.
Here's a clip of Johnson from his 2006 Tony Award-winning Broadway show, The Two and Only.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2015