Screened January 30 2010 on .avi downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn, NY
TSPDT rank #763 IMDbWiki
As with my previous entry on Douce, the only print of this film that I could access has no subtitles. My original plan was to enlist a Spanish-speaking friend to watch it with me and offer live translation. But having watched the film, I wouldn't wish to force anyone to help me through the muy rapido Spanish dialogue. Just listening to it recalls the breathless banter of 30s screwball.
The online synopses I could find (most of them posted after the break) offer only cursory summaries of the plot, leaving much of what transpired onscreen lost to me. So much the better to appreciate the film's cinematic qualities. As I mentioned, the film's spitfire dialogue recalls the comedies of Capra and Hawks; some associate the film's Christmas setting and main plot (a guy desperately trying to save his livelihood after the bank calls in his loan) to Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Others connect the film's subplot about the rich townspeople's bogus, self-serving acts of charity towards poor people during Christmas with that other great Spanish film of 1961, Bunuel's Viridiana. But the film's satirical depiction of people engaged in a manic farce while hosting out-of-town visitors had me thinking of another great comedy of the same year, Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three.
Watching the film, despite feeling that the film moved at a brisk clip thanks to the speedy dialogue, I began to notice how long the takes were, with many shots lasting over a minute or more. I went back from the beginning and counted no less than 25 shots, each lasting one-to-three minutes long, which altogether account for over a third of the film's 80 minute running time (title credit sequence not counted). There are roughly an additional 17 shots lasting 30-59 seconds. Overall, there are a total of 158 shots in 80 minutes, averaging 30 seconds a shot.
Why does Berlanga rely so much on long takes? On the practical side, it's simpler, faster and more economical to set up a single master take than to do multiple camera set-ups for a given scene. But Berlanga is no slouch. Just watch this one-take scene. Clocking in at almost 3 minutes, it's one of the longest shots in the film. Try to figure out how many actors are in the scene, and how many camera positions he's able to achieve in one take:
By my count I have a dozen characters, and about half a dozen unique looks at this one room. Berlanga is very resourceful, relying on what I think is a single dolly track to roll the camera up and down the room , rotating the camera horizontally so that it captures a total of about 120 degrees of the room over the course of the scene. But perhaps what's most impressive is his staging of actors in several different configurations so that there's an exceptionally dynamic sense of dramatic movement as well as shifting social dynamics from start to finish. Masterful use of foreground and background, not to mention lateral movement, to emphasize contrasts between divisions of people within a single room.
Believe it or not, this scene is preceded by a one-shot scene lasting 80 seconds, and followed by another one-shot scene lasting three and a half minutes. This dynamically staged long-take technique pretty much dominates the middle stretch of the film, where in one scene after another, people are thrown into different, contentious combinations, their fortunes and emotional states apparently in constant flux.
But Berlanga is no one-trick/ long-take pony. In other scenes, he'll incorporate flash cutaways lasting just a second or two. There are a couple of sequences that use this technique liberally: the arrival of the charity benefactors at the town's train station; and a charity auction where a man appears to be pressured to bid for something he doesn't want to save face. Interestingly, both of these scenes amount to public ceremonies, as if to suggest that they elicit heightened states of excitement and anxiety.
Berlanga's filmmaking was already quite deft 10 years earlier when he made Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!, employing freeze frames, fast motion and other comic editing tricks at a level on par with Preston Sturges. But his handling of dialogue scenes catered more to conventional Hollywood decoupage techniques. Compare what goes on in the above clip from Placido with how the following stills, captured from one scene in Bienvenido Mister Marshall!, cuts from master shot to individual close ups before returning to the master:
As another point of comparison to Berlanga's shooting and in-camera editing technique, I pulled up Wilder's aforementioned One, Two Three and played through the first half of the film, as well as the famous extended climactic sequence whose energy and incredible use of interior spaces to move action along is worthy of comparison to those in Placido. Scanning through about 80 minutes of footage, only once did I find a shot that lasted more than one minute. Here's a representative capture from that sequence:
Even though the pacing is manic, the space isn't nearly as compressed as the interiors in Placido. This film is set in large modern office spaces whose expanse suits a wide Scope frame. Some of the energy is conveyed from a host of characters rushing in and out of Cagney's office with their crises of the moment, with Cagney riding the eye of the storm. For the most part the The film employs an arsenal of shots at different lengths (wide/ medium / close-up), tracking shots, shot/ reverse-shot dialogues, woven seamlessly and coherently even as it conveys the chaos at hand.
Interestingly, despite an ensemble of over a dozen characters interacting with Cagney over the course of this sustained climactic act, there are hardly ever more than two or three characters engaged with him at a given moment, which allows for Wilder to parse the manic activity he's concocted into a coherent stream. Compare this to the above shot in Placido, where a dozen characters appear in one shot and alternate in their interactions, no one of them dominating the proceedings.
Wilder's approach creates a more adversarial feeling between characters, setting up clear oppositional dynamics, mostly between James Cagney's blow-hard Coke executive and everyone around him, with whom he dispatches one at a time. Berlanga's technique of shooting dialogue scenes emphasizes more of a holistic social environment. Even as people contend with each other inside the frame, the camera acts as a needle to weave them together into a tapestry of comic dysfunction.
Interestingly, Berlanga's film El Verdugo, made two years after Placido, employs a widescreen camera approaching the Scope compositions of One, Two, Three. While Berlanga largely retains the use of long takes often exceeding a minute, instead of compressed compositions of people, he more frequently exploits the wide screen to emphasize distances between people, especially with the main characters, who are undertakers, and thus relatively ostracized within society:
Thinking further on my account of Berlanga's work in Placido, I'm now curious to compare his approach to ensemble scene-making to that of perhaps the most famous American ensemblist, Robert Altman. I don't seem to have a DVD of Nashville or Short Cuts on me (!), but I would wager that even Altman doesn't let his shots go as long or involve as sophisticated blocking as you see with Berlanga. Altman, a TV director, relied on multi-camera setups that he could use to cut from shot to shot, always looking for a shot to materialize (as in a sports event) rather than constructing it through blocking and framing.
Speaking of sports, I was playing with this sports analogy: that Wilder shoots dialogue like a lightweight boxer, dancing quickly across the canvas of his wide shots before settling into a series of shot/reverse shot flurries; while Berlanga is more akin to a heavyweight, lumbering steadily across the canvas, pushing you around the ring. Not sure how well this holds up, but it gives me an excuse to put up this clip:
Finally, I would like to say that I think enough of this film after one impaired viewing that I'd like to see it again with subtitles. I'm hoping someone might come through and offer timed fansubs. In fact, I'm willing to offer $140 US (which translates to about 100 Euros) to the first person who can provide timed fansubs for this film.
To take part in the Shooting Down Pictures Fansub Challenge, all you need is a copy of the movie Placido, which you can find via torrent, and a PayPal account for me to send the money if you're the first one done. If you're interested but don't know how to access the movie via torrent, send me an email or DM me on Twitter (at alsolikelife) to let me know you're interested, and I'll hook you up. Offer good only until February 28, so better get cracking!
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Placido among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Antonio Gimenez-Rico, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Fernando Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Jose Luis Garci, Nickel Odeon (1998)
Montxo Armendariz, Fotogramas (2006)
Pedro Crespo, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Dirigido Por, Best Spanish Films (1992)
Fotogramas, The 100 Best Films in the History of Cinema (1995)
Nickel Odeon, The Films of Our Life (1994)
Nickel Odeon, Spanish Canon (1995)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Film
Nominated for the Best Foreign Language film award at that year's Oscars, Plácido—a Christmas movie—has a direct relationship with the work of Frank Capra and in particular It's a Wonderful Life (1946), albeit with none of Capra's sentimentality. Meanwhile, if Plácido unmasked the dominant discourses surrounding the traditional family and Christian charity, El verdugo, arguably his finest film, struck at the very heart of the repressive Francoist state. El verdugo tells the story of a man who, on marrying the daughter of the state executioner, is condemned to inherit his father-in-law's job. This is a story that interrogates and unveils the anatomy of Spanish society at an historical turning point. The film, for example, unpicks the reality of the country's 1960s tourist boom that would, on the one hand, help consolidate the revived fortunes of the Spanish economy, while on the other, would bring with it the unwanted 'foreign' values of liberalism and sexual freedom.
Mr. Berlanga's 1961 film, "Placido," (...) is a chattery comedy about an impoverished man who spends the day before Christmas trying to avoid foreclosure on his motorbike. The character's frantic dealings with bankers and lawyers are set against the film's satirical canvas of a provincial town putting on a showy Christmas campaign called "Seat a Poor Man at Your Table." With its harshly funny portrait of the penny-pinching gentry, of greedy nuns and aggressive salespeople pushing pressure cookers as miraculous kitchen tools, the film offers a scabrously mocking portrait of officialdom putting on a display that is as grotesque as it is hypocritical.
As is almost always the case with the films of Berlanga, this film is a comedy on the surface, which hides a very hard and crude criticism of the situation of Spanish society during the dictatorship. In those years, Spanish filmmakers couldn't speak freely and openly about the dismal state of their country, so they had to pass their message to the audience between the lines. Berlanga was a master at doing this, and Plácido is one of his finest examples. The abysmal differences that existed between the very poor (the majority of the population at the time) and the very rich, who treated the rest with utter contempt and ridiculous condescency, is portrayed with such strength that it can't leave anyone indifferent. But it is done in the form of a comedy, and a very funny one, full of absurd situations and memorable dialogues, but also a very black one, with some scenes, especially near the end of the movie, which are on the edge of the truly macabre. A true masterpiece from one of the greatest Spanish directors.
The atmosphere of this film took me back to another time and place, to a very naive and innocent Spain. This film is Garcia Berlanga's incursion into his own brand of neorealism. The music keeps evoking the scores of the great Italian masterpieces of that period.??Placido, the hero, in a way, is everyman caught in a web of bureaucracy where he has to fight against all the odds to keep his vehicle in order to survive. He does whatever he can in order to pay the draft, but all conspires against him. Placido is a decent working person, a man of honor who has to fulfill his obligations, in this case, paying the draft that is due on the day the story unfolds. Everything is against him. We see him fighting his way to do so, in this, his long journey into the Christmas Eve celebration.??Cassen was a marvelous and charismatic actor who was very convincing as Placido. He's always at the center of the action, and at times, he is even at the center of some of the other characters conflicts. Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez, is very effective as Gabino, the photographer. The rest of the ensemble cast perform very well under the direction of Garcia Berlanga.
In a small town of Spain, on the eve of Christmas, some ladies are invented the Christmas campaign "dine with a poor", so that the poorest people, enjoyment by a night of warmth and affection that do not have, sitting at the table of the rich families. In the middle of the preparations is "Plácido", (Cassen), which is hired to participate with his motorcar in the cavalcade organized for the campaign, but there is a small detail which prevented him from devoted solely to his task: the same day of Christmas Eve, defeats him the first invoice of motorcar, his sole means of livelihood.??It is one of the masterpieces undisputed and fundamental filmography of Luis Garcia Berlanga. Filmed at the time summit of their creativity, in a period cultural difficult, where the enormous censorship of the political regime, exacerbated the ingenuity and imagination of the scriptwriters. A script, with malevolent intent, of own Berlanga and Rafael Azcona and under the direction of Berlanga very far from the tenderness that taught in previous work, make a comedy coral with a bitter, pessimistic reflection on the Spanish society of the time.??It is a acquired late, both in the form as in the fund and a portrait heartless and merciless of a society hypocritical, petty with double standards, where the most important are the appearance, and that preaches charity but not the practice, which is bothering him poverty but that does nothing to eradicate and that it needs to launch a cruel farce, in the form of Christmas campaign.??The movie has breakdown unrepeatable major players in their best performances, which would have to be stressed in all. It's full of memorable sequences, grotesque, surreal and the time dramatic It's especially unforgettable which develops in the public toilet. And the long scene, genial sequence in which the sudden deterioration of the state of health of one of the poor, seriously ill, triggers a situation comic-pathetic which shows all the miseries of that society amoral??The film has a indent brilliant, and the dialogs never ebb, are kept in a high level of ingenious humor . It has nothing to envy Italian masters such as De Sica or Fellini and that in movies such as "Placido", is even better.??I think it is my favorite movie.
Screened December 22 2009 on .avi downloaded from the Website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn, NY
TSPDT Rank #955 IMDbWiki (German)
Considered the pinnacle of '30s Austrian cinema, Maskerade embodies much of the best of 30s European filmmaking, in which the camera dances to a distinctly musical rhythm of movements and countermovements. It sits comfortably among the '30s films of Rene Clair, Max Ophuls and Jean Renoir, as well as Ernst Lubitsch's work in Hollywood. Compared to most of those films, its topic may seem relatively fluffy: an artist creates a minor scandal by painting a masked nude suspected to be an aristocrat's fiancee; when he names an innocent girl in an attempted cover-up, it leads to unexpected romantic entanglement. Willi Forst takes a well-worn continental costume milieu as a starting point, doing everything he can to breathe life into it. The camera darts with ease through ballroom scenes, connecting the eyelines of characters as they scope each other's movements. He laces the film with clever tricks both visual (dialogues filmed in silhouette) and aural (a montage of citizens making animal sounds while reading the gossip pages). Driving everything is a buoyant soundtrack of 19th century waltzes and opera, whose lilting rhythms can be found in the film's pacing even when the music subsides. The film itself feels like a symphony of varied movements: robust allegros, minuet-like montages, and a climactic rondo that brings everything to full circle. Overall, life is presented as an irresistible society ball, governed by status, gossip and decadent desire.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Maskerade among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Friedrich Luft, Sight & Sound (1952)
Hans Schifferle, Steadycam (2007)
Ludwig Gesek, Sight & Sound (1982)
Kazakh Cinematheque World Poll - 100 Best Films (2006)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
It is unfortunate that we should have seen "Escapade" before having had an opportunity to admire "Masquerade in Vienna," the Viennese film which Metro copied in 1935 when it sought an introductory vehicle for Luise Rainer. "Escapade," we now realize, was a rather bad imitation. Like most copies, it tended to exaggerate the distinctive qualities of the original, understating one, overemphasizing another and throwing the entire theme slightly out of focus. "Masquerade," which opened yesterday at the Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse, has none of "Escapade's" defects. It steers a deftly guided course between farce and drama and it emerges as a frivolous, yet tender, romantic comedy.
Willy Forst's direction has kept his narrative spinning gayly, and an engaging cast, headed by the charming Paula Wessely in the Rainer rôle, has enlivened it with a series of deftly executed character studies. Miss Wessely, more self-contained than Miss Rainer, is wholly attractive as the shy little person innocently drawn into the spicy scandal of the lady in the mask. Particularly captivating is she in the scene where she timorously enters the artist's studio, expecting to find cushions, incense and drugged wine, and is, instead, subjected to a growling bullying by the conscience-stricken painter. I cannot find much virtue in Anton Walbrook's portrayal of the artist Heideneck, but Walter Janssen is knowingly comic as the badgered conductor whose wife has been indiscreet, Peter Petersen is excellent as the gruff Dr. Harrandt, and Olga Tschekowa, Julia Serda and Hilde von Stolz are faultless.
Maskerade (Masquerade) (1934), secured his reputation as a significant director and gave him the international recognition he did not quite have as an actor. It also made an instant star of Paula Wessely in her lead debut. A foremost figure in German language motion pictures and theatre for five decades and the wife of Attila Hörbiger, Laurence Olivier considered her to be the greatest film actress of the twentieth century, and Bette Davis was known to have studied her performances. Her role as the impoverished but morally upright art student Leopoldine in the decadent atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Vienna, set the tone for the female lead (along with Luise Ullrich in Lieder) in the Viennese Film, and it also typecast Wessely as the innocent or “good” woman for most of her work in the 1930s and '40s. The centrepiece of Maskerade is Leopoldine's meeting with the society painter Heideneck (Adolf Wohlbrück) at a lavish carnival ball. Its strikingly romantic-decadent, even erotic mood can be credited to the soft camera work of Franz Planer and to the seductive music arranged and composed by Willi Schmidt-Gentner. Maskerade received an award for best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival and ultimately proved to be so successful internationally, that Hollywood “borrowed” the story for a new, but less welcomed version entitled Escapade in 1935, with Luise Rainer.
Anton Walbrook, young and elegant, plays the artist who sketches the wife of a prominent Viennese surgeon in nothing but a mask and a muff, and then is forces to invent a model. Paula Wessely is the girl he invents. Walter Reisch's light, romantic screenplay is an almost perfect example of writing for the screen.
A specific blend of historical and aesthetic sensibilities melded into a unique style in Austrian cinema during the early sound period in the 1930s. It soon became known as an entirely new and geographically focused genre in European cinema, the Viennese Film. The artist responsible more than any other for this concept was Willi Forst. He began his career at age 16 as an actor on the provincial stages in the Austria–Hungary and the German Empire, and appeared as a featured performer in the post World War I operetta theatres of Vienna and Berlin. His early career in Austrian silent film ranged from being an extra in Michael Kertesz's (Michael Curtiz) monumental Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) to a notable second lead in Gustav Ucicky's Café Elektric (1927) opposite a pre-Blue Angel Marlene Dietrich. He made his sound and singing film debut in Atlantic (Germany 1929) and soon became known for his distinctive velvety voice and “charming Viennese” persona (1) in German films usually directed by Geza von Bolvary. He subsequently appeared in two of the best Austrian comedies of the early 1930s: with the first-lady of the Viennese stage, Hedwig Bleibtreu, in Karl Hartl's Der Prinz von Arkadien (The Prince of Arcadia) (1932), written by his future production partner Walter Reisch; and in what Forst considered the best learning experience for his future role as director, So ein Mädel vergisst man nicht (Unforgettable Girl) (1933) directed by expressionist film actor-turned-director Fritz Kortner. Forst actively developed his reputation as a great screen lover, but his directorial debut in Leise flehen meine Lieder (The Unfinished Symphony) in 1933 brought to Austrian and Central European cinema one of its greatest filmmakers and influential industry figures, whose lack of presence in the international film “canon” of important directors today is one more casualty from the negligence that has greeted Austrian cinema since the collapse of its commercial film industry in the 1960s. International attention to New Austrian Film since the 1990s has also helped bring Austria's film heritage art to the fore, and Willi Forst is now gaining a very belated “comeback” with world cineastes.
Willi Forst to date is the greatest talent in Austrian film history, with the possible exception of Billy Wilder, who had to emigrate.
Together with Walter Reisch, an Austrian scriptwriter in Berlin who had tailored nearly all of Willi Forst's German roles for him, Forst coauthored the screenplay for the Schubert film Leise flehen meine Lieder (1933). Thus was the "Viennese film" born, with its inimitable blend of music and action. The film was romantic, but Forst did not dwell on a sugary Biedermeier image, but also showed the poor living conditions and class barriers. In 1934 he produced and directed the big production, Maskerade (1934), the film which launched Paula Wessely on her way to film stardom and Hans Moser as comic. This social comedy set in turn-ofthe-century Vienna featured the big ball scenes of which Willi Forst became the unsurpassed master, and a frivolous love story ending very conservatively: the famous painter (Adolf Wohlbrück) chooses not the jaded, elegant society lady (Olga Tschechowa) as his wife, but the plain, wholesome poor girl (Paula Wessely), thus reflecting the contemporary ideological attitude toward women in the Austrian corporate state. Beginning with this big success Forst as actor, director, screenwriter, and producer dominated the Austrian filmmaking scene for the next fifteen years. In life as in film, he was the quintessential elegant Viennese gentleman. As a film maker he aimed at perfection.
Wiener Film (German; plural: Wiener Filme; literally, "Viennese film") is an Austrianfilm genre, consisting of a combination of comedy, romance and melodrama in an historical setting, mostly, and typically, the Vienna of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Wiener Film genre was in production between the 1920s and the 1950s, with the 1930s as its high period.
These films are always set in the past, and achieve a high emotional impact by their oscillation between extreme emotional states, between hope and suffering, for example, or pleasure and loss. Most of them are set in the Vienna of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when as the capital of the multiracial monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it had its greatest social and cultural significance. The protagonists belong to a variety of social classes, which adds to the interest of the relationships between them. The concepts of honour and morality of the period are often of great significance in the development of the plots. The Wiener Film is almost always happy, life-affirming and relaxed. Music and song feature prominently, either in the form of orchestral and musical scenes or as interpolated songs by the characters. Humour often arises from misunderstandings, mistaken identity, misadventures and the resultant efforts to restore order, with often farcical consequences.
Dramaturgically the Wiener Film generally contains several principal characters and several more subsidiary characters, all of whom recur frequently throughout the film as the action develops. They do not always all know each other, but are nevertheless connected by the plots and sub-plots running in parallel. The action mostly centres on love affairs great and small, often with elements of the comedy of mistaken identity. The films are generally unchallenging in terms of the contemporary socio-political issues and environment (for some rare exceptions see below).
The first films that can be classed as Wiener Filme were created in the 1920s, in the days of the silent film. The genre trached its full potential however with sound film, when the specifically Viennese dialect (see below), verbal dexterity and the characteristically Viennese acid wit (Wiener Schmäh) were able to come into their own and made the genre popular not only in Austria but also in Germany. Willi Forst's production Leise flehen meine Lieder, a biography of Franz Schubert, was so successful that an English-language version was made, under the title Unfinished Symphony. Willi Forst is one of the most significant directors of Wiener Film, and made what is generally reckoned to be the best of the genre, the 1935 film Maskerade.
One: Is it backhanded praise to say that One, Two, Three is a movie you don't even have to look at to enjoy? For the first half hour I just wanted to close my eyes and let the non-stop flow of dialogue carry me along. While Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond are known for their wit ("You will send papers to East Berlin with blond lady in triplicate." "You want the papers in triplicate, or the blond in triplicate?" "See what you can do.") it's the musicality of the banter that captivates me: the compulsive clicking of a subordinate's heels, Cagney's numerical method of dictating agendas to associates, and countless little moments where the words turned against their speakers, batted around like a beach ball.
That's not to say the film lacks for visual interest. Cagney's office is an expansive executive space over which looms a global map of Coca Cola conquest; it's stately and big enough to contain Cagney's booming voice, and eventually becomes a staging ground for one of the most breathless one-set slapstick routines of post-30s Hollywood.
Two: Somewhere around the half hour mark, the non-stop stridency of Cagney's delivery starts to wear on the ears; and when it's doubled by Horst Buchholz' angry young Communist, it's like listening to two bugles blasting at each other over the Berlin Wall. Arlene Francis plays it a little too straight as the hapless wife. The whole middle section feels like an extended set-up for the next set piece, a late night negotation between East and West set over heavy cigar smoke, dishes of caviar and a table-dancing barefoot blonde in a form-fitting polka dot dress. The whole bar starts shaking to their gyrations, ideology coming undone under pure sexual lust.
Three: Back to that finale, a bravado sequence that moves at the speed of thought, as Cagney's McNamara improvises his way to transform Horst Buchholz from a wet-behind-the-ears Communist to a spit-polish Capitalist in under 40 minutes. Well, at least it's supposed to be improvised, but it doesn't quite feel that way - it sounds and looks thoroughly written every step of the way. All the same, it's a jaw-dropper, the way it summons every plot and subplot laid throughout what preceded it and weaves it into a three ring circus with Cagney the ringmaster-standin for Wilder. It's an awesome, relentless juggernaut of a sequence that, allegorically speaking, combines Soviet unilateralism, American showmanship and German efficiency. Looking at it meta, it also evokes the Hollywood studio system at the peak of its creative and collaborative energies; as such, timed at the demise of that same system, it makes for a fitting swan song.
Below: Poster mural inside the Delphi Filmpalast in the former West Berlin, taken during the 2009 Berlinale
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of One, Two, Three among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They:Fernando Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Helmut Fiebig, Steadycam (2007)
Katja Nicodemus, Steadycam (2007)
Lars-Olav Beier, Steadycam (2007)
Rob Blackwelder, BobSassone.com (2003)
Bertrand Tavernier, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)
HISTORICAL REVIEWS, PRESS AND PRODUCTION INFORMATION
IT is too bad the present Berlin crisis isn't so funny and harmless as the one Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond have whipped up in their new movie, "One, Two, Three." And it is too bad it can't be settled so briskly and pro-Americanly as James Cagney settles the one in this picture, which came to the Astor and the Fine Arts yesterday.
But the sharpness of wit and satire is less conspicuous than the magnitude and speed of the obvious jokes and comic action as they pour through the film like a cascade. There is nothing subtle about it, least of all about Mr. Cagney's role, which is that of the deus ex machina (or "mein fuehrer," as his wife refers to him). It is simply a matter of moving very fast and getting lots of things done, from sales pitching for Coca-Cola to an automobile chase through East Berlin.
With all due respect for all the others, all of whom are very good—Pamela Tiffin, a new young beauty, as Scarlett; Horst Buchholz as the East Berlin boy, Lilo Pulver as a German secretary, Leon Askin as a Communist stooge and several more—the burden is carried by Mr. Cagney, who is a good 50 per cent of the show. He has seldom worked so hard in any picture or had such a browbeating ball.
His fellow is a free-wheeling rascal. His wife (Arlene Francis) hates his guts. He knows all the ways of beating the rackets and has no compunctions about their use. He is brutishly bold and brassy, wildly ingenious and glib. Mr. Cagney makes you mistrust him—but he sure makes you laugh with him.
And that's about the nature of the picture. It is one with which you can laugh—with its own impudence toward foreign crises—while laughing at its rowdy spinning jokes.
WEST BERLIN -- Billy Wilder, producer-director, strode out of his Hilton headquarters here the other day, took a quick look up at the clearing skies and said, in his nervous, impatient way: "Okay. Get your steel helmets, everybody. We're going back to the Gate." And with that he jumped into a waiting car and sped to a location site on the Strasse des 17 Juni, near the Brandenburg Gate, followed by the cast and crew of his new comedy, "One, Two, Three," which he is making here for United Artists release late this year.
While the armament was strictly a figure of speech, it did fit the situation. Ever since Wilder placed the picture before the cameras in early June, he has been engaged in a private war with the East Berlin authorities over permission to shoot a sequence through the gate, which lies entirely within the Soviet sector of "Splitsville," as the divided city is known to the company...
The project represents the Viennese-born director's return to his old home grounds. In 1934, carrying a half-filled suitcase, he fled Berlin one step ahead of the Gestapo. Eleven years later, he was back as film chief of the American Information Control Division in Germany. Those experiences inspired the memorable comedy "A Foreign Affair," with Marlene Dietrich as postwar Berlin's most attractive commodity.
In many respects, Wilder is a bigger star on his own pictures than any of his actors. Something of an aggressive imp, he achieves his results with a steady barrage of bubbling comments, most of them derogatory, many of them unprintable, but all of them highly quotable. Speaking of one of his associates of some twenty years, for example, he said, "Obviously the man has no talent but I'm used to him." Another time, after one of the rebuffs at the gate, he commented, "I wonder if they'll let us shoot there if I have the musical score written by Irving East Berlin."
Though some of the action of the story, which is an outrageous attempt of American big business to penetrate the Iron Curtain market, takes place in East Berlin, none of the film will be shot there. Thanks to Berlin's sense of history, there are many places here that have been left just as they were when the Third Reich fell. Some of these areas, particularly those centering on Margareten and Victoria Strassen and the Anhalter railway station, are dotted with gutted buildings and piles of debris and look for all the world like most of the Soviet sector.
Playboy: Though it certainly didn't dwell on the subject of human meanness, One, Two, Three was an incisive satire of both sides involved in the Cold War. Were you concerned, while filming in Berlin, that the authorities on one side or the other might cause trouble?
Wilder: We got to Berlin the day they sealed off the Eastern sector and wouldn't let people come across the border. It was like making a picture in Pompeii with all the lava coming down. Khrushchev was even faster than me and Diamond. We had to make continuous revisions to keep up with the headlines. It seemed to me that the whole thing could have been straightened out if Oleg Cassini had sent Mrs. Khrushchev a new dress. But we weren't afraid of creating an incident like Mr. Paar. We minded our manners and were good boys. When they told us we couldn't use the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, we went to Munich and built our own.
Playboy: Was there any negative reaction to the picture as a flip treatment of a serious subject?
Wilder: Of course. There is a little group of people who always say I'm not Spinoza. The thinner the magazine, the fatter the heads of the reviewers. They were shocked because we made fun of the Cold War. Others objected because it was very quick-paced and they could not catch everything. People either loved it or hated it.
- Interviewed by Richard German, Playboy, June 1 1963
Wilder's constant obsession with pace in screen comedy found its own answer in ONE, TWO, THREE - a rapid, brutal and over-wrought comic statement on the Cold War. How fast is fast in comedy, Wilder asked himself. Can you machine-gun audiences with sound track satire? Do audiences have the stamina to pay close attention continuously, or must they come up for breath now and then? In London for the British premiere of ONE, TWO, THREE, he remarked that the tendency in contemporary films is length and slowness: 'I think because the critics think highly of European directors like Antonioni who have gotten away with it - the idea that slowness and solemnity are the same thing as profundity.' But he wondered if in ONE, TWO, THREE he hadn't gone too far with his 'experiment in keeping up the tempo the whole time.'
The plot of ONE, TWO, THREE is borrowed from a one-act play by Ferenc Molnar, who would be astonished to think that any hero of his could turn up as the manager of a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Yet that is what the picture's hero is. 'It is a farce that intentionally mocks and reverses every conventional attitude we have, or think we ought to have; virtue is punished, corruption and stupidity are rewarded and the whole German people, as if in a trifling aside, are indicted as lickspittles or martinets, and we sit watching and roaring with delight,' is the way Brendan Gill described the film. 'For this tour de force of fratricidal subversion, we have to thank not only Mr Cagney who makes it shamefully attractive, but, again, Mr Wilder, who produced and directed the picture and who could, no doubt, wring a hearty yock from bubonic plague.' (New Yorker, 6 January 1962) Reflecting on Wilder's ability to make bubonic plague into comedy, Pauline Kael felt that, execept perhaps in a different way in Ace in the Hole, Wilder had 'never before exhibited such a brazen contempt for people.' (I Lost it at the Movies,1965)
Wilder's direction is sharp and so furious that the Variety reviewer wondered if even the cream of an audience would catch more than seventy-five per cent of the significance of the dialogue at first hearing. (Variety, 29 November 1961) Cagney, who suffered from acute homesickness during the shooting in Germany, proves himself a good, snappy farceur with a glib, full-throttled characterisation. The staccato delivery wasn't always easy to film, and one speech during a shoe-shine session required fifty-two takes - only seven short of the all-time record with Marilyn Monroe on Some Like It Hot. While Buchholz and Pamela Tiffin fail to register much, Arlene Francis is just right as Mrs MacNamara, and some of the supporting roles are brutally in focus - Howard St John as the tycoon of Coca Colonisation, and Hanns Lothar as a heel-clicking right-hand man. Trauner's art direction contributes importantly to the comedy, notably in a scene set in a smoky East Berlin nightspot, and Andr? Previn incorporates period pop themes like 'Yes, We Have no Bananas' with incongruous effect into his score.
ONE, TWO, THREE was shot in Berlin during the autumn of 1961 at a time when the East-West climate deriorated daily, and before Wilder could yell 'Cut!' the last time, the Berlin Wall was under construction. Permission to shoot in East Berlin was revoked three weeks into production, forcing Wilder to have Trauner build a full-sized replica of the East side of the Brandenburg Gate on the back-Iot of the Bavaria Studios in Munich.
Wilder managed one little revenge. He made a dry run of a shot up to the boundary-line, and then sent word to the heavily armed East German police that they were in the picture, and while it was all right with him, he was afraid it would give audiences the impression that East Berlin was a Police State. That cleared the gate for several hours.
One, Two, Three is the smoking gun that proves Diamond did it. That is, ruined Wilder by downgrading his work to processed shtick. Today, One, Two, Three is as dated as a rerun of Pete and Gladys. It was just as dated when it came out, at least according to Pauline Kael. Reviewing it in 1961. she wrote, "It was shot in Berlin and Munich, but the real location is the locker room where tired salesmen swap the latest variants of stale old jokes. " A typical howler: The Russians reject a shipment of Swiss cheese because it's full of holes.
The reason why One, Two, Three, set as the Berlin Wall was going up, seemed crass to Pauline Kael in 1962 is that its manic scenario exploited a situation which had complex political dimensions. With distance, Sinyard and Turner in 1979 read the film as mirroring America's evolution from Virgin Land to Superpower. With greater hindsight, this dynamic screenplay not only simplifies the ragged conflicts of German and American history, but recalls the most manic of '30s Hollywood screwball comedies. As is usual with Wilder, no distracting camerawork or cutting is allowed to stand in the way of dialogue, which cuts its cloth to fit MacNamara's (and Wilder's) myopic odysseys.
Though it was rumored that Wilder and his "One, Two, Three" star James Cagney didn't get along, [Charlotte] Chandler [author of Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography] says they liked each other, though the veteran actor didn't like the rapid-fire dialogue he had to deliver. "I remember when I spoke with [the film's costar] Horst Buchholz, he said he found James Cagney dancing one morning as fast as you can imagine. Cagney said he was dancing that fast because it helped him get up to speed verbally."
>An odd combination of fast-paced screwball comedy and political satire, the movie offered director Wilder (who fled Germany in 1932 as Hitler ascended to power, several members of the director's family later perishing at Auschwitz) an opportunity to poke fun at Berlin's volatile politics and take a few swipes at his home country's post-Nazi culture; the movie also afforded the 62-year-old Cagney the chance to sink his teeth into one last meaty role while making a few sly jokes about his own public persona in the process...
As the hot-headed young Red, Bucholz seems hell-bent on acting Cagney off the screen through sheer volume and fury; years later, Cagney would remember that this was the only time in his entire career he ever worked with a competitive, uncooperative actor, saying that Bucholz resorted to "all kinds of scene-stealing didos, and I had to depend on Billy Wilder to take some steps to correct this kid. If Billy hadn't, I was going to knock Bucholz on his ass — which at several points I would have been very happy to do."
Revisited today, Billy Wilder's 1961 farce One, Two, Three is a Cold War poltergeist, rattling chains in the vanished spook house that was West Berlin. Indeed, this artifact from the era of geopolitical competition and nuclear crisis, sufficiently prescient to conjure the idea of Soviet missiles in Cuba, was actually in production when the Russians and East Germans sealed the border and ringed Berlin's western zone with a double-tiered wall...
Wilder never made a movie with more one-liners, and Cagney never had to talk faster ("put your pants on, Spartacus," he snarls at Buchholz during a marathon fitting session). But while the jokes are largely verbal, One, Two, Three is not without its visual treats. A onetime Berliner, Wilder makes better use of the dead zone around derelict Potsdamer Platz than any director before Wim Wenders. The entropic mise-en-scéne of East Berlin's imagined Grand Hotel Potemkin suggests a red Sunset Boulevard: An ancient dance band plays a German version of "Yes We Have No Bananas" while a couple of Rosa Klebb clones crowd the floor and a few bewhiskered comrades contemplate their chess games.
Not so far from the contemporary worldview of Mad magazine, One, Two, Three was essentially good-natured. By the time it opened in late '61, however, the nation was gripped by war panic. The New Yorker nervously suggested the filmmakers had pitched their "circus tent on grounds that threaten to become a cemetery," and other reviews were notably hostile. Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (the season's other cine-statement on postwar Germany), deemed Wilder's jape so tasteless, he felt obliged to apologize for it at the Moscow Film Festival. Such publicity notwithstanding, One, Two, Three proved a financial disappointment.
The movie may be manic, but it lacks the sustained velocity to be a great farce. Still, One, Two, Three looks forward to the 1960s' two great black comedies, anticipating Dr. Strangelove in its cynical realpolitik and The Producers in its relentless Nazi baiting. Adapted for the stage in West Berlin and re-released in West Germany during the mid '80s, it even became a cult film—something to hang on the still-extant wall.
Certainly there are other films that Billy Wilder made that I love more than One, Two, Three (Sunset Blvd. is in my all-time Top 10), but the more I see it, the more I realize that Wilder may never have made a movie that's as much fun. James Cagney may have achieved stardom in gangster films, but if you put all those together, I doubt the machine gun fire contained within would come close to equaling the speed of the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue that he fires in this Cold War (and cola war) comedy. No wonder Cagney decided to quit movies for 20 years after this — he must have been exhausted and needed that long to catch his breath...
No Wilder film moves like One, Two, Three does with pacing that is downright remarkable. On top of that, there are subtle messages about capitalism, communism and just about everything in between. When a jaded Otto realizes that one of his communist comrades is ready to leap to the west side of Berlin, he asks, "Is everyone in the world corrupt?" to which the defector replies, "I don't know everybody." With One, Two Three, Wilder bottled a concoction with more fizz than any bottle of Coke. Really, it was Wilder's last truly great film, yet many people haven't seen it. They don't know what they're missing. One, Two Three is the real thing.
James Cagney is the whole dynamic show in this hilarious Billy Wilder satire (1961) on Coca-Cola diplomacy in divided Berlin. The plot is something about a Coke executive (Cagney) who has to chaperone the boss's daughter (Pamela Tiffin), who is infatuated with one of Berlin's ever-present communist students (Horst Buchholz), who is in turn dedicated to destroying everything symbolized by Coca-Cola, etc, etc. The pace is blistering, and Wilder's deep-seated hatred of Germans has never been put to more comic use.
I suspect that One, Two, Three fizzles out frequently for younger audiences. So much of the humor is topical, referring to events that were current in 1961, or have a cultural frame of reference for adults of that era. While it is fascinating to see a film that takes place in a divided Berlin before the wall went up, gags about Nikita Kruschev probably require explanation for some. Jokes about Adlai Stevenson and Chet Huntley may seem obscure. Too many of the jokes concerning Pamela Tiffin's ditzy character of Scarlett refer to Gone with the Wind, although the jokes about Southern contempt for Yankees are still funny. Lilo Pulver, the tall, blonde, gum chewing secretary, remains sexy and funny, periodically recalling Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot, especially in a scene where Hanns Lothar has to wear her clothes for a temporary disguise.
This is the featherweight comedy film on the Cold War that James Cagney decided to end his illusturious film career on, only to come back twenty years later to make in 1981 Ragtime. Billy Wilder ("Avanti!"/"Buddy Buddy"/"Irma La Douce") directs this zany but heavy-handed sitcomlike comedy that's based on an obscure play by Ferenc Molna. It's cowritten by Wilder and regular writer I.A.L. Diamond. Despite being fast-paced, hard-hitting, and filled with topical gags, it's creaky as the targets of Wilder's satire--a vulgar American capitalist culture and an outdated Russian Communist culture--are too obvious to be that funny. It's a futile attempt at farce to return to Ninotchka territory, that drags its heels through an overlong hardly funny middle-part and a crudeness that is hard to overcome. Cagney as the harried but crafty executive is splendid, delivering one-liners with machine-gun rapidity and being the entire force of the film.
One, Two, Three is Billy Wilder’s most consistently hilarious and most gorgeous comedy... The breakneck pace conforms to the instruction that heads the script: “This piece must be played molto furioso.” The underpinning delight, on the mark (a double-meaning there), is how Otto’s ideological resistance flows into complicity with the effort to turn him into a rich capitalist. Horst Buchholz is spectacularly funny as Otto.
You really can’t say enough about James Cagney’s performance here. While he will always be remembered for the gangster films, where he was usually riveting and added a dimension to the characters that other actors almost never could, Cagney was an extremely versatile performer who was adept in musical and comedic roles as well as drama. In One, Two, Three, he really excels and is able to give full justice to the madcap lunacy found in the screenplay written by Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor who could pull off this role half as well as Cagney. On the surface, MacNamara is not a likeable character, but Cagney manages to make him simply gruff and grumpy in a way that the viewer can’t help but like the guy regardless of whether you like what’s he doing, reminiscent of the persona Walter Matthau later would adopt in many films. The rapid-fire delivery Cagney uses to such good effect here is a logical continuation of the style he developed in his gangster roles.
The set piece of the film is an eight-minute stretch where MacNamara does a high-toned makeover on the beatnik Piffle, bringing in a parade of tailors, barbers, haberdashers, etc., and rattling off pages of exacting dialogue with perfect articulation and precision - precisely as Wilder wrote it (it reportedly took many takes and some strained tempers). This dovetails into a mad car chase to the airport and a sharp finish. Audiences laugh - and then quiet themselves to not miss out on the next joke - Wilder's pace leaves little room for reaction time, just a raised eyebrow or a quick breath.
The best-looking disc in MGM's "Billy Wilder DVD Collection" and the second-most handsome of the Wilder titles available on the format thus far (edged-out by Sunset Blvd.), One, Two, Threepreserves Daniel L. Fapp's Oscar-nominated cinematography with tremendous clarity of detail and contrast. (Sadly, Fapp received the film's only Academy nod.) Ignore the pan-and-scan side of the disc in favour of the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer; I just wish I knew why MGM keeps replacing original logos with the '90s-era growling Leo: it makes no sense to introduce a b&w movie with a splash of colour, for starters. Source material is in excellent condition with the exception of irregular blotches that could be water damage. (It's doubtful the immersed viewer will notice them, anyhow.) The 2.0 mono soundtrack potently reproduces Wilder's sixties composer André Previn's riffs on Richard Wagner and Aram Khachaturyan, and Cagney's voice lacks the shrill quality one anticipates from previous viewings. One, Two, Three's theatrical trailer rounds out the disc.
The writer-director Billy Wilder, impressed by the skits Diamond wrote for a Writers Guild dinner, asked him to cowrite a screenplay. Wilder had worked with several writers since his breakup with the writer-producer Charles Brackett, but had failed to find the ideal collaborator. Though their personalities were dramatically different, Diamond's withdrawn, introverted qualities proved to be the perfect balance for Wilder's extrovert nature. They not only shared a common European immigrant background, but the same dry sense of humor.
Beginning with Love in the Afternoon, their partnership spanned 25 years and a dozen films. While popular and critical reception of the pictures varied, their combined talents created some of the best and most enduring comedy/dramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Witty dialogue and sophisticated sexual situations marked their stories. They openly challenged the long-standing assumption that allHollywood productions should be family oriented, and provided moviegoers with tasteful, adult entertainment. Their most satisfying pictures combined cynicism with sentiment, playing the two extremes against each other until the softer side of human nature won out. Frequently focused on illicit sex, their scenarios were also about love and the emotional vicissitudes of intimate relationships.
For Diamond and Wilder cynicism knew neither sexual nor age boundaries; it belonged to the middle-aged male (Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon and Fred MacMurray in The Apartment), to the youthful bachelor (Curtis and Lemmon in Some Like It Hot), and to the simple working girl (Shirley MacLaine in The Apartmentand Irma La Douce). They poked fun at modern mores (Avanti!), at the American Dream (One, Two, Three), at ambition (Kiss Me, Stupid), and at greed (The Fortune Cookie). Their repeated casting of stars such as Lemmon, MacLaine, and Walter Matthau gave an additional continuity to their work. Particularly effective was the teaming of Lemmon and Matthau in a series of films (The Fortune Cookie, The Front Page, and Buddy Buddy) focusing on male relationships.
Maybe it's only in America where a man can act like an unrepentant juvenile and become a multimillionaire megastar... and a master filmmaker. Moreso than Spielberg, Lucas or early Judd Apatow, Jerry Lewis takes the boy-in-a-man's-world ethos to heart, and it powers his moviemaking at every level: not just in his performance, but in the very way his films are constructed. Here his trademark nebbish cowers in a boarding house full of women; it's less a coherent story than a series of one-offs riffing on Lewis' klutzy gynophobia. While the results range from flat misfires to riotous genius, the relentless repetition of these set-ups amount to as much of a compulsive ritual as Wile E. Coyote's pursuit of the Road Runner, and just as captivating in its flurried variations.
But unlike the Coyote's Sisyphean purgatory of ambition-cum-self-torment, what gets Lewis enacts again and again is a spasmodic rebelliousness that champions the eternal wellspring of boy-like wonder. It's a world where adult concerns for structure and story give way to childlike free play with objects in a seemingly elastic space. Something as rudimentary as narrative is regarded like a rigid schoolmarm that both threatens and gives form to Lewis' playtime. And for all his undeniably male preoccupations with the terrifying spectre known as woman (in this instance, an entire house full of them), the fact that Lewis' legendary million-dollar set amounts to a super-sized dollhouse suggests a boy who likes to play with dolls. The libido on display isn't hurtling towards manhood; it's actively resisting the obligation to fall into the pigeonhole of masculinity.
That said, there's plenty of male scopophilia on display, with the two knockout musical numbers near the beginning and end expressing breathless pleasure at watching how women move, set to vivacious jazz. It surprises me that in all the articles I've dug up about Jerry Lewis and The Ladies Man, not once do I find a reference about Lewis possibly being the most jazz-informed filmmaker of his time. Again, it's the sense of taking a bare-bones theme and freestyling it to the rafters, unafraid of hitting false notes (and there are not a few in this film) for the sake of striking golden ones (and there are not a few in this film). When Andrew Sarris complained that Lewis "never put one brilliant comedy from fade in to fade out," he missed the point entirely. Being a Hollywood classicalist, Sarris couldn't entertain the notion of a post-narrative comedy in the John Coltrane/Ornette Coleman era, where story comes second to the revelations of a spontaneous, inspired moment, as eruptive and unexpected as laughter itself.
Now, four decades later, Lewis' filmmaking feels even more apropo to the digital age, when classical storytelling, both in Hollywood and the arthouse, is yielding to the impulse for immediacy that rules the day, for better (e.g. Public Enemies) or worse (e.g. Transformers). But championing The Ladies Man as a template for a Cinema of Our Time doesn't mean we write a blank check to slack, formless filmmaking trying to catch cinematic moments with a torn butterfly net. Ultimately, The Ladies Man does have a profound reverence for form - though it's not classical story form, but the form of the two-dimensional movie screen. Like a pre-Columbian cartographer, Lewis accepts that the world is flat, but he takes that and goes the distance with it, with brilliant gags that open up new pockets of space within the frame (i.e. falling through his "bunk" bed; the play with non-existent mirrors in the girl-crazed morning number; encased butterflies that come to life). Working within limitations, his revelations hint at limitless discoveries, as well as a few paradoxes. His megalomanical control of spatial and character interactions explodes into a comic free-for all. Likewise, he validates his auteur status, a self-proclaimed "total filmmaker," by regressing wholeheartedly into a terminally narcissistic childhood.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEARN MORE?The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Ladies' Man among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Bettina Thienhaus, Steadycam (2007)
Hans-Dieter Delkus, Steadycam (2007)
Michael Althen, Steadycam (2007)
Charles Tesson, Nouvel Observateur: Best Films 1953-2002 (2002)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Alternative 100 American Movies (to the AFI
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
Slant Magazine, 100 Essential Films (2003-2007)
Various Critics, Book - 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
"THE LADIES MAN," with Jerry Lewis, needs more than just an apostrophe. As Mr. Lewis howls at one point during this color comedy from Paramount, "Boy, what a little imagination can do!" Boy! He can say that again.
Now, in all fairness to a frankly light-headed vehicle that dies on its feet, Mr. Lewis' latest gets off to a fresh and really funny beginning. And offhand, especially after those early bright moments, it would certainly sound as promising as any Lewis package in a long time...
But after half an hour it all folds like a tent. The remainder of the picture, with everyone else firmly relegated to the background, has Mr. Lewis shuffling and stumbling in full view, as if he and the movie were merely improvising.
The film's greatest fame rests not in the slim script nor in the inventive set-pieces, but in the set itself: a massive construct that swallowed up two soundstages at the Paramount lot. Lewis the director shows remarkable patience as he slowly reveals the magnificent construction to the audience over the morning routine of the household. The camera glides from room to room and cranes down the staircase as the girls rise and make their way down to breakfast, the trickle of individuals gathering into a herd of females. Finally Herbert awakens, gawking at the magnificent mansion on his way downstairs while the camera (mounted on a camera crane so big it took up another soundstage) slowly pulls back to fill the screen with the sprawling four story set, a life-size dollhouse with cutaway walls revealing a warren of bedrooms and hallways.
More than merely a visual inspiration, it was an engineering marvel: 60 rooms, each wired for sound with built-in mikes and individually illuminated with hidden lights, on the largest indoor set built up to that time. It gave Lewis the freedom to choreograph action through multiple rooms and follow it with fluid, unbroken camerawork, or to pull back to show the hive of activity in the honeycomb of a house.
Lewis was so proud of his accomplishment that he posted a sign outside the stage door: "This is NOT a closed set." He even erected bleachers for visitors to watch the shooting. "This was the film that Francis Ford Coppola visited," remembers Lewis (Coppola was an intern at Paramount at the time). "He was on the set almost every day of the shoot. He loved the set, he loved the girls, he loved the idea, and he was enamored with what I did with the video assist and the shoot." The video assist was a pioneering idea and Lewis was the first to make use of the technology on the film set. (Coppola took the video assist into the next generation when he brought video technology into his fledgling Zoetrope Studios decades later.) There was no videotape in 1961 but through the placement of monitors around the set, Lewis could see the camera eye while performing.
The ensemble scenes are choreographed (with the help of Bobby Van) as much as they are directed, with numerous scenes playing out wordlessly to the brassy swing soundtrack. Like much of the crew, composer Walter Scharf was a longtime Lewis collaborator and his energetic score helps set the pace and tone of the film. In one stand-out scene, a forbidden door opens into the all-white room of a seductive dancer who descends from the ceiling and as the walls expand and Harry James and his Orchestra perform on a balcony that doesn't exist anywhere but in Lewis' imagination. In another hilarious sequence, Herbert drives tough guy Buddy Lester into a quivering mass of jelly, creating a classic twist on the slow burn. Lester was subsequently cast as the bartender in the unforgettable Alaskan Polar Bear sequence of The Nutty Professor (1963).
Lewis bragged about the savings that his technological innovations brought to the ambitious production, but the film still finished over schedule and over budget, costing over $3 million. The set itself cost $1 million, according to Lewis. It was money well spent. American critics were (for the most part) impressed and the French were ecstatic. Yes, the cliché about the French proclaiming Lewis a genius was born here, but there is justification for the claim. While some may cringe at his spastic performance and baby-talk dialogue, it's hard not to be awed by the technological leaps of this production, and at their best his gags delve in to the realm of the surreal last visited by the Marx Brothers.
It's widely known Jerry Lewis hates to do multiple takes in his movies; if for no other reason, he feels it impedes the spontaneity of the work. This approach is very evident in The Ladies' Man.
There are frequent camera bobbles and hesitations as the operator fights to anticipate and follow the hyper comic.
At the tail of a ballroom dance number, strangely coupling Herbert and dapper screen legend George Raft (as himself), Jerry takes off goofily around the set, leaving an unprepared spotlight technician with the actor in the dark.
In the movie's running gags involving a ferocious pet named Baby, Herbert drags a whole side of beef from the kitchen to the animal's quarters. In the close-up, H. H. H. struggles to push the carcass through the doorway to the waiting beast, although we see Lewis is only pretending to hold the meat. His hands are empty, inadvertently caught in the picture.
In a ballet sequence, clumsy, energetic Herbert prances with several ballerinas. He slips and takes a comedic pratfall. We see (but not hear) Jerry the director switch gears to yell "Cut!" to his crew at the same time a ballerina also falls down; his head jerks around to her in complete surprise. It's obviously a blooper, but the ballerina's stumble helps the scene, nonetheless.
I enjoy this looseness. What's important to me, first and foremost, are the laughs. Everything else is secondary. Besides if Lewis had deleted all the blemishes, we might not have the funniest sequence in the movie.
Hard-faced character actor Buddy Lester appears as tough guy Willard C. Gainsborough (the "C" is for "Killer"). Willard intimidates Herbert, until our hero accidentally sits on the man's hat. Herbert tries to repair the damage and reshape the brim after he places the hat on Willard's head. Lester's blank, exasperated facial expressions and delivery are hysterical as Jerry manipulates the hat and restyles the gangster's hair into as many unflattering positions as possible.
The camera is shooting over Lewis' shoulder, so we see most of this footage from the back of his head. The amazing thing to note is Lewis breaks character, cracking up at Lester's performance. We see and hear Jerry snort as he struggles to continue with the scene. Then, regaining his composure, Herbert plucks a thread dangling on Willard's forehead. He tells the man he's removing the thread. Willard deadpans, "That's my eyebrow." Jerry goes off again, expels air through his nose in burps and blatantly turns his face further away from the camera in a desperate attempt to save the shot.
All of this action is quite hilarious -- but, hey, we're looking at an A-list major motion picture. What other director would be so bold as to include a crack-up outtake? And get away with it!
With Jerry, these blemishes are business as usual. One of his strongest lures as an entertainer is danger, not playing by the rules. His meteoric, literally overnight, rise to stardom and cultural sensation with former partner Dean Martin was heavily indebted to frequent breaking of the "fourth wall" between the performers and their audiences, wherein lurked the tantalizing promise and fulfillment of uproarious ad-libs and asides. This device alone made him a household name and put untold millions into his pocket.
Let us look briefly at that extraordinary tour de force of mise en scene, The Ladies' Man. Here, Jerry Lewis — Herbert Heebert — is kept prisoner in a spectacular set of his own making. He has built his maze, even employed video cameras behind the scenes (a Jerry Lewis invention) to spy on his every move. As in The Bellboy, he is here too a victim. But rather than being set in the swanky resort location of the Fontainebleau — the stomping grounds of Jerry Lewis the star — The Ladies' Man occurs clearly on a Hollywood set. Were this a populist film, we would expect to find in the cross-sectioned set a representative sample of humanity. But this cross-section is uniquely "Lewisian" in being a glossy, plastic house full of aspiring performers (into which walks George Raft, as he does also in The Patsy, a film directly about Hollywood). Herbert Heebert compulsively remains on this set with these Hollywood people. He is even drawn to the lair of the ultimately dehumanized performer — the woman in black. He is, in short, a prisoner of his own fascination with this extraordinary make-believe world.
The Ladies' Man shows Hollywood the trap once removed in the fictional context of Helen Welenmelon's house/set. It is a gigantic distortion of reality, threatening to consume and destroy the mild-mannered guy who cannot leave it.
Anyone wondering why Lewis is often cited for his technical prowess with a camera and a crane need only look at The Ladies Man to determine the filmmaker's dexterity with a dolly. Lewis's lens moves in and out of his man-made half-mansion, passing around absent walls and shooting through glassless mirror frames to give the story a kind of crazy, fairytale quality. Combining primary colors with intricate artistic touches, The Ladies Man is a marvel to behold, a film rich in visual flair and even more powerful production value.
Combined with the massive amount of narrative and visual invention is that same old Lewis desire to entertain and enliven. There is very little dead space in The Ladies Man, as if the filmmaker was trying to cram as much craziness into the story as he could. From the hilarious joke names given to the cast (Herbert Heebert, Helen Wellenmellon) to the reliance on cameos (by the likes of George Raft, oddly enough) and that comedy mainstay, drag (Jerry is one fugly female as Herbert's beloved "MA!"), this is a master class in old fashioned Hollywood hijinks. Add in the brilliant supporting performances (opera diva Helen Traubel is just terrific, as is Lewis regular Kathleen Freeman) and Jerry's own unique brand on brainless mugging, and you've got a sight gag filled frenzy that barely lets us rest.
There will be some who point out that Lewis never gives us a clear set of characters here. Performances are driven by personality quirks (the quiet girl, the lazy girl, the eccentric girl, the musical girl) and that the comic's typical overt sentimentalism is surprisingly kept in check. But the reality is that these are elements that actually make The Ladies Man a better movie. As long as we are centered on Herbert and his quest for perpetual bachelorhood, this film is a bright breeze of buffoonery. But the minute we drift off into to heart-tugging territory (for a couple of brief minutes at the end), the movie seems to go sour, if only for a second. It is this last-second dash for the melodramatic that keeps The Ladies Man from launching into a stratosphere of pure comic bliss. Unlike The Nutty Professor, which gave us a romance to root for in Professor Kelp and Ms. Purdy, Herbert has no such honey to hope for. Instead, he wants to avoid all the women in the hostel. So when Pat Stanley's Fay finally makes her play, it's far too little, way too late. Thankfully, Lewis avoids the obvious love affair to keep the film focused on the crazy and the crackpot. The result is something both sincere and very silly. Right up there with his best, more beloved works, The Ladies Man is pure, potent Jerry Lewis.
It opens in a studio re-creation of tenuous order ("a very nervous little community") razed by a daisy-chain of comic catastrophes -- Jerry Lewis's forthright declaration of modernism is further elucidated at the graduation-day assembly, a composition unsettled by the spazzing Jerry. As Herbert H. Heebert, he declares everlasting bachelorhood after seeing his beloved with another; Lewis on a red bus-stop bench wearing a gray suit that shows a good few inches of socks and cuffs is a grand sight, thrown into the world after a Freudian embrace from his mother (played by the total filmmaker himself). As if in danger of focusing exclusively on performance, Lewis rolls out his technical marvels: A jerky zoom that steers the protagonist towards the boarding house evolves into the tilt up Mona Freeman at the door and, finally, into the quicksilver floating crane that surveys the vast edifice as an ocean of femininity fills it. Herbert gazes at the 30 shapely occupants in horror, but the tears of the trilling owner (Helen Traubel) convince him to stay, next he's being spoonfed porridge in a high chair. Buddy Lester supplies a fearsome deadpan under a crushed hat and George Raft flubs his coin-flip yet aces his tango, but the majority of the gags are aimed at the estrogen overflowing in every room, and only Fellini and Peckinpah can rival Lewis as artists working through their misogyny via their art. Even after its transparency as a movie set is foregrounded when the TV crew crashes its atrium, the boarding home remains a dollhouse of the mind, its screens-within-screens hiding audacious sexual routines -- the offscreen, roaring pussy(cat) that splashes Herbert with milk and chews his offer of meat till there is only bone left, as well as the forbidden chamber where bat-laaaaaady Sylvia Lewis welcomes him with Gothic slinkiness and Harry James's orchestra. Pat Stanley spells out the treacly moral ("how nice to be really needed"), but this masterwork of demasculinization hinges much more trenchantly on the subversive despair of the Lewis schnook, always "alone with noise."
In a career with its fair share of public relations blunders, probably the most notorious faux pas made by Jerry Lewis was his 2000 proclamation that he has never liked any female comedians and that he considers women's function in the general scheme of things "as a producing machine that brings babies in the world," either the woeful words of a severely disillusioned man battling various physical and mental ailments or a misguided, Andy Kaufman-esque attempt at performance art stand-up. At any rate, the comment isn't so radically out of step from the Jerry Lewis who made the masterpiece The Ladies' Man, which even though it could undoubtedly be taken as a manifesto on machismo, also happens to be a bizarre, sexually ambiguous, cantankerously skeptical burlesque on the ascent of feminine independence and the resulting commodification of masculinity, especially of the domesticated variety.
Lewis stars as a disconnected graduate from Milltown ("a very nervous little community") magnificently named Herbert H. Heebert (more than once, the shrill manner in which some of the female characters yell out his name ends up more closely resembling the epithet "pervert"). After discovering his girlfriend making out with a letterman, Lewis seems to regress on the spot into a total presexuality, an adolescent form of misogyny that dictates that he can't be around women, period. (Ten minutes in, Lewis is already wallowing in a Freudian quagmire of repressed homosexuality, amplified by Lewis's one-shot cameo in drag as his own mother.)
So where does he find his first job? In a women's boarding house, naturally. Lewis (the director) effectively validates Herbert's mistrust of women by having the boarding house's owner, the regal Miss Wellenmellon (Helen Traubel), and maid, Katie (Kathleen Freeman), go out of their way to obfuscate the nature of their establishment during Herbert's "job interview," which consists mainly of an impromptu psychoanalytical session wherein Herbert gets his disappointment in women off his chest. (It's worth noting that both women are portrayed as being emphatically past their sexual prime, so Herbert isn't threatened.) They hire him and sneak him up to his room through the back hallways. It isn't until the next morning that Lewis reveals not only the throng of 30 gorgeous women with whom Herbert will be sharing living space (the film's on-screen universe), but also the mind-bogglingly immense dimensions of the ant-farm set that is meant to represent Wellenmellon's mansion.
Lewis pulls the camera out as far as it will go while keeping the strutting lines of women in perspective, but he also cannily reveals the edges of the set to accentuate its artificiality, in effect showing the audience that the on-screen space isn't meant to be taken concretely, but also as an extension of Herbert's entrapped psychological state. There are basically two rooms that are emphatically privileged as "off-screen space," the room in which Wellenmellon and her girls keep "Baby," a roaring, unidentified creature (which almost surely represents its namesake: the consequences of heterosexual discovery), and a mysterious room belonging to a "Miss Cartilage" that Freeman nebbishly demands Herbert never enter.
From its very first scene, depicting a mechanistic causality in which everyday life is figured as a linkage of moments of chaos and catastrophe, The Ladies Man signals its status as a calculated and rationally built object. Quickly, this depiction of the constructed nature of the narrative universe becomes a full-fledged self-reflexivity in the famous shot where, to a musical fanfare, the camera pulls back and reveals the ladies' boarding house as a large-scale cutaway. The set manifests itself explicitly as a set: lateral to the camera, the rooms of the boardinghouse are sliced open so that we can see into each and every one of them at the same time. This set, legendary in its status in film history, speaks of the act of creation in several ways. First, obviously, its artificiality and unreality signal the constructed nature of this narrative universe: this is decidedly, emphatically, a set. Secondly, the resemblance of the set to a dollhouse resonates with the thematics of the latter: the dollhouse is a form of creativity in which its owner manipulates reality as a godly figure lording over a controlled universe. The dollhouse set of The Ladies Man speaks not only of the creation of its narrative world but of the omnipresence and even omnipotence of its creator, the auteur who generated this fictional universe.
In keeping with these larger functions of the cutaway set, the division of the boardinghouse into a series of individual rooms allows for a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of narrative. As Herbert enters each room, a new story, a new sketch, can begin and signal the constructed nature of all such scenes, the way they are called into being by a narrational agent. (The set here bears obvious comparison to one used by another famous director whose films are often also about the director as a veritable authoring god: the courtyard of Hitchcock's Rear Window, where what Jeffries peers into is the world of narrativity itself, each window that is facing him a mini-story of life, love, or death.) Additionally, the multiplicity of rooms goes beyond narratological function to enable formal experimentation: each room has its own look, its own design, and its own coloration arranged according to unique and irreducible palettes. At the same time, it is important to note that each of the bedrooms reveals not any-story-whatsoever but stories or scenes specifically connected to a world of spectacle and showmanship, thereby signaling self-reflexively the film's emphasis on a world of performance: for example, in one room a woman auditions for the theater, while in the strangest of rooms, Herbert dances with a batlike woman while a band plays hip music, all of this in a decor that is highly stylized, offering hyperaware commentary on its own constructedness. When, toward the end of the film, a TV crew comes to the boardinghouse to film a documentary, the self-reflexive function of the set comes full circle and we participate in a film filming a filming (with Herbert Heebert then mimicking Jerry Lewis when he looks through the viewfinder and plays with the sound-recording technology).
Two moments of fantasy in The Ladies Man are prime Lewis. In one scene, Herbert, dusting a living room, opens a case displaying a group of exotic butterflies, which take wing and vanish past the camera. Conscious of having done a bad thing, he whistles them back; miraculously they return to their places, and he shuts them back in their display case. This scene is a great metaphor both for the story of The Ladies Man and for Lewis' own activity as a director: a discoverer of beauty, he animates beauty by beholding it, but this animation is loss, so he summons the beautiful objects back to their place and resolves to keep them there.
Later in The Ladies Man, Herbert enters the forbidden room of the mysterious Miss Cartilage (Sylvia Lewis). Within the artificial universe of the boarding house, this room is a universe unto itself, with its own all-white decor; it also has its own spatial laws, since it proves to contain not just Miss Cartilage's bedroom but a vast ballroom with a bandstand, on which Harry James and his big band are gathered to give a private concert. Lewis reveals the ballroom to us by a cut that transforms not only space but costume: Herbert leaves one shot wearing his usual casual attire, to emerge in the next shot wearing a snazzy suit. The Miss Cartilage sequence encapsulates the whole film: a private episode for Herbert, self-contained and without antecedents or consequences in the narrative; a dangerous encounter with the figure of Sexual Woman, from which he has been in flight since his sweetheart's traumatizing betrayal; and a fantasy in which he momentarily asserts a mastery of performance (and a slick wardrobe) not revealed in the rest of the film.
This fantasy reveals Lewis' cinema as one of pure pleasure, expressed through the control of colour, decor and camera movement in a studio environment, and expressed also through dance and through the indulgence of his love of big-band swing (which features in many Lewis films, notably Cinderfella[1960, produced by Lewis and directed by Frank Tashlin], The Errand Boy and The Nutty Professor). In Lewis' work in general, all these elements are linked to the free exercise of the imagination, and they point to a conception of film as a medium of transformation and escape, aligned with a tradition of Hollywood luxury and artistry – a conception that prevails from his first film, The Bellboy, to his last feature to date, Cracking Up.
The characters of The Ladies Man have no exit from the film's world, and yet the exit is available at all times to the audience, who are granted the privilege of perceiving the constructedness of this world: it's a stage set, a doll's house, a charged space of libidinal drives surrounded by an emptiness that Lewis sometimes pulls his camera back far enough to let us see (as he nearly does again in the astonishing overhead crane shot in Kelp's laboratory in The Nutty Professor – in which the camera reaches a distance hard to reconcile with the supposed real dimensions of the space, letting us know explicitly that this is a fantasy space, a movie set, a space of transformation).
In the films of Lewis, the carefully delineated narrative situations and conflicts that constitute the logic of the syntagmatic chain inevitably fall victim to a degeneration into a series of isolated sketches unrelated to the main narrative. The discursive operations of these films are dominated by digression and repetition, rather than by causal logic and narrative closure, and are thus more easily linked to the associational language of the patient than to the telos of the narrator. This tendency is most emergent in Lewis' most "total" productions: the carefully prepared scenario of The Ladies Man, with gradually introduced characters, settings, and conflicts, disintegrates into a series of blackout sketches unrelated either through chains of causality or the impetus of narrative functions. In The Ladies Man, architectural structure replaces narrative structure, as the massive cutaway house (which is simultaneously open and closed) operates as the merest gesture of containment toward the multitude of frenetic actions taking place within.
Jerry Lewis' second film as director is one of his greatest, with its star almost overwhelmed by his one major set, the split-level interior of a Hollywood boarding hotel for aspiring actresses, where one Herbert Heebert, practising misogynist, has been taken on in all innocence as a houseboy. Lewis' camera performs some virtuoso movement around the rooms (Jean-Luc Godard and Julien Temple were to borrow this device), and the ultra-loose plotline allows for some hilarious sequences, and even a touch of surrealism in one entirely white interior. Highlights include Lewis breaking up a television show and dancing a tango with George Raft.
Jerry Lewis conjured up one of his simplest concepts for this 1961 hit, but it required a lot of scaffolding. The Ladies Man puts love-scarred Jerry (who has sworn off women) in an all-girl boarding house, infuriated by the constant temptation. Except for the opening sequences, the film is entirely shot in the four-story-high, cut-away set of the boarding house, one of the most elaborate indoor sets ever made in Hollywood up to that time. Lewis, as director, finds dozens of angles to shoot within the set; this movie is one of the reasons the French are always talking about his directorial genius. (Jean-Luc Godard, who once called Lewis "the only one in Hollywood who's doing something different, the only one who isn't falling in with the established categories," borrowed the cut-away building idea for his film Tout va bien.) There's some great physical stuff, such as Lewis trying desperately to save the crushed hat of visiting tough guy Buddy Lester, plus a lot of Lewis vocal whining, especially concerning his name: Herbert Heebert, not Herby Heebert. The film has its share of gags falling flat, but for Lewis fans it's prime stuff, not far from the high-water mark of The Nutty Professor.
Never mind that The Ladies Man isn't all that funny. (And to be fair, it's much funnier than anything else so far in the Paramount collection.) A gag involving Herbert destroying a visiting boyfriend's hat goes on so long and is so demeaning that your eyes pop out of your head, while a sequence involving a black-clad resident and her all-white apartment (with accompaniment by Harry James) is so deeply strange that you can't believe it's from the same guy who does that telethon every Labor Day. Colour is used sparingly but shockingly, and I swear that the wide shots of the cross-sectioned house were the inspiration for the opening of Tout va bien. For once, Lewis himself is calling attention to the jokes instead of himself, making even the de rigueur saccharine interludes inoffensive. Weirdo cineastes, your ship has come in; see this one twice for sure.
Jerry Lewis' The Ladies Man (1961) is yet another work of genius, featuring Lewis as a girl-hating bachelor who winds up working in a boarding house packed with sexy, available young women. Most of this virtually plotless film is set in the astonishing three-story set with open walls and winding staircases and Lewis' camera glides freely up and down, in and out all the rooms. Some of the gags go on too long, notably one in which Lewis deals with a tough guy gangster waiting for his girlfriend in the lobby, but others are pure delight. Lewis even plays a touching scene in which he cheers up one of the girls, depressed after a failed audition. As with The Nutty Professor, the richness of color makes this a visual feast.
The film ran out of gas well before the finish line, ending in Jerry's usual sentimentality--this time he must get confirmed that all the gals really needed the nebbish around because he's such a nice feller and not just to run errands. The episodic film had much energy early on and scored well, even though the gags were uneven, which showed me if you can reign Jerry in he could be funny without being too annoying. But for me, too much of Jerry is not a good thing; he does wear out his welcome, even in this above average Jerry film.
In Lewis's work, identity is always performed; there is no private self, and an audience is always present. In The Ladies Man, Herbert refuses to believe guest star George Raft's claim of who he is and demands that Raft prove his identity by, in effect, playing Raft. Lewis uses Raft as an ideal masculine image in order to show that the image is not just "only" an image but first and foremost an image, one that not only the Lewis character, but George Raft himself, has trouble living up to. Lewis's direction of actors insists on an exaggeration that implies the awareness of an audience, suggesting that his characters (like those of John Cassavetes) are constantly involved in performances of themselves.
ABOUT THE DVD
Video & Audio
Originally printed by (though not filmed in) Technicolor, Paramount's DVD of The Ladies Man looks very good, well above average, with great color and a sharp 16:9 anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) image. The Dolby Digital mono sound is likewise very strong; English and Spanish subtitles are included, as well as an alternate French audio track.
Something of a disappointment on this disc is the remarkably dull commentary track from Jerry Lewis and Steve Lawrence. Lots of silent gaps (I think at one point they may have left), and the conversational tone is very, very low key, with Lewis interjecting very little of substance. A few bits of salient insight on the large supporting female cast, but overall a snoozer.
Under the heading of Archival Materials Paramount has gathered up a curious mix of old promotional and studio footage that while low on content is at least interesting to look at. Included is a pair of deleted scenes, including a nearly nine-minute opera selection from Helen Traubel that is played completely and utterly serious. There is also a shorter scene entitled "Jerry Rains Confetti on Girls" (01m:27s), in which the female cast gets a mountain of torn paper poured on them by a very spastic Lewis. Outtakes has a couple of pure space fillers in the form "Jerry Asks Helen About Opera" (01m:44s) and Jerry Demonstrates the High Chair (:53s), two bits of behind-the-scenes clips that are essentially pointless aside from getting a quick glimpse at Lewis the director. A fast-motion Construction of The Ladies Man Set (:54s) shows the creation of the memorable dollhouse set, and an MDA Public Service Announcement (01m:52s) that features the same locale with Lewis using a stopwatch to make a genuinely heartfelt 60-second plea. Dance Rehearsal (:37s) shows Lewis hoofing it with one his co-stars, while the Auditions segment has the on-set tests for Pat Stanley (01m:03s) and Sylvia Lewis (03m:28s).
Jerry Lewis' favorite films, according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They:
The Adventures of Robin Hood
An Affair to Remember
All About Eve
Breakfast at Tiffany's
On the Waterfront
Shadow of a Doubt
Was there ever a man or movie star less ordinary than Jerry Lewis? Even among screen comics, he would win few votes if we were electing that personality who best incarnated the common man. His public image is that of a gargantuan mutant outgrowth of the hot-house borscht-belt world of stand-up comedy. Listed in critical ledgers as either a sanctimonious retardate or an inspired genius — or both — Jerry Lewis is clearly and self-consciously extraordinary. But somewhere between the infant-fool and the towering renaissance film-man (both images that Jerry Lewis himself has promoted) is the notion of Jerry Lewis the average guy. And central to an understanding of his work is the myth that threads its way through his films with Frank Tashlin in the mid-1950s, and is developed with parabolic dynamism in his first five self-directed films, from The Bellboythrough The Patsy. That is the myth of the ordinary man in an extraordinary world — more specifically, of Joseph Levitch in Hollywood.
Because he did learn so much during the 1950s, it is worth a brief examination of Lewis' most fortuitous apprenticeship with Frank Tashlin. It is in Hollywood or Bust and Artists and Models, coming at the end of his partnership with Dean Martin and the start of his collaboration with Tashlin, that the dominant Jerry Lewis myth begins to clearly emerge. Jerry the simple idiot-boy of films like Scared Stiff orJumping Jacks starts to develop a self-consciousness. In Artists and Models he is — if only in his dreams — a creative comic book genius. And in Hollywood or Bust, the awareness he reveals of Dean Martin's duplicity is not merely a revelation pulled from Tashlin's hat. It is a sign (albeit still submerged) of an increasing self-awareness and distance from his stereotyped screen persona. Placed in Tashlin's surreal universe, where everything is a caricature of itself, Jerry's increased consciousness serves to reveal the world's (Dean Martin's) hypocrisy.
It is as commentaries on psychological dementia in the 1950s (bosom fixation, infantilism, obsession, regression, popular culture) that Tashlin's films succeed where Jerry Lewis' personal directorial efforts only tangentially venture. Although a wide range of socially determined targets is set up and blasted in Jerry Lewis' movies, it is Jerry who becomes the center of interest and the raison d'etre of his own films.
The central, developing issue in the self-directed films, from The Bellboy through The Patsy, and even to Which Way to the Front?, is the main character's attempted "normalization." Each film is an elaborately choreographed movement around the problem of Jerry's uncertain relationship to the world around him. It is revelatory to see this man's grappling with his own being in each film in terms of the conflicting concepts of Jerry the ordinary guy — or extraordinary genius — in a Hollywood world of complete insincerity — or of noble aspiration. The complexity of the problem assumes schizophrenic dimensions when, in order to deal with the extremes of self-awe (for his genius) and self-hate (for his insincerity), as well as sanctimonious self-love (for his ordinary humanity), Jerry Lewis begins to spin off personalities — up to seven in The Family Jewels — each of which forms one perspective on the central structure of his films — the dilemma of a life-sized man trapped on the larger-than-life Hollywood movie screen.
In American Cinema, in a section titled "Make Way for the Clowns," Sarris compared Lewis unfavorably to Blake Edwards, whose "The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark, and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy are funnier than all the Lewis-Tashlin movies." Among the twelve reasons for his skepticism about Lewis' "talent as a creator" Sarris listed that Lewis' "aspirations exceed his ability;" that his work reveals a disjunction between a "verbal sophistication in nightclubs and sometimes on television and... [a] simpering simplemindedness on screen;" and that his comedy lacks "verbal wit" and appeals mainy to "audiences in the sticks and to ungenteel audiences in the verbal slums." Sarris faulted Lewis for his weaknesses of narration and found "the feature length film an appropriate vehicle for farce," also commenting that in Lewis' remakes he has played "the innocent" with themes of "effeminacy and transvestitism." Critical as well of Lewis' "conformist, sentimental, and banal dialogue," he suggested that "he has never put one brilliant comedy together from fade in to fade out."
Gerald Mast wrote in The Comic Mind, "Jerry Lewis' primary failure is that he never discovered who he was." His gags "do not flow from any human or personal center" and he "cannot manage a plot." In one sense Mast's comments, and Sarris' even more, are neither wrong nor arbitrary. Rather, they are indicative of the substitution of judgment for analysis. They stop at evaluation where they should begin with examination. As John Russell Taylor summed up "Anglo-Saxon" critics in the 1950s, "When they were not moralizing about the overstressed sexuality of Elvis Presley and the dangers of his effect on the young, [they] were likey to be tut-tutting about Jerry Lewis' spastic humour and claiming that his moronic screen persona made cruel fun of the afflicted."
The philosopher Gilles Deleuze has written eloquently on Lewis' ingenious and unique contributions to the cinematic image, particularly pointing to the ways in which the comedian's films can be seen to belong to the post-World War II regime of the "time-image." Here, "the image no longer refers to a situation that is globalising and synthetic, but rather to one that is dispersive. The characters are multiple, with weak interferences and become principal or revert to being secondary." This cinema of the time-image no longer expresses the character to determine and overcome situations. Instead, character and situations constantly splinter (as in a dream) and metamorphose into different perspectives and mlieux. Deleuze also sees Lewis taking up "the classic figure of American cinema, that of the Loser, of the born loser, whose definition is 'he goes too far.' But it is precisely in the burlesque dimension that this 'too far' becomes movement of a world which saves him and will make him a winner." The new burlesque with which Deleuze associates Lewis belongs not to the Bergsonian comedy of the mechanical but to the electronic world: it "arises from the fact that the character places himself (involuntarily) on an energy band that carries him along... The comic is no longer something mechanical." Lewis is situated not as a star, personality, or individual but as a process. In comparing Lewis' films to those of Tati, Deleuze - like Bergson - seeks to identify the character of this new automatism that seems to transcend a national context. For him, Lewis becomes post-modern; his work precludes certain kinds of analysis (e.g., psychoanalysis) where unconscious motivation continues to play a role and reveals a dream world where boundaries between the real and imaginary dissolve. This regime of the time-image is symptomatic of a different form of cinema that exposes, if not undermines, the classical cinema of action and character of the pre-World War II era.
What is it, then, that Jerry Lewis contributed to show business? I wouldn't deny that his ability to cause irritation is part of what he is doing as a comedian. Even back when I was a kid, Jerry's funny voices and facial contortions had the rare power to drive my parents out of the room. What grated on them, as it still does on viewers today, was the relentless infantilism of Jerry's act. Think of a small child's short attention span, its underdeveloped motor skills, its manic hyperactivity, its lack of inner restraint, its inability to acknowledge the needs of others or to resign itself to deferred gratification. These are the very elements that make up Lewis's comic persona. His slapstick routines have none of the grace and elegance that we find in the work of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or for that matter Jackie Chan. Instead, Lewis wallows in klutziness. He has a very strange relation to machines and other physical objects. The slightest touch is enough to make everything go awry. The effect is always wildly disproportionate to the cause. Jerry pushes a button, and triggers an alarm clock that won't stop ringing. He pulls at a loose thread, and an entire fabric unravels. He sings a wrong note, and glass shatters everywhere. He takes a photo with a flashbulb, and night is suddenly transformed into day. I find these routines funny, but I suspect that they are also the very thing that many people find excruciating. Because they depend on a set-up in which everything is ever-so-slightly off. Lewis is a master of doing things just precisely at the wrong time. His body seems to flail about at random, triggering chain reactions of chaos in his surroundings. His personality, just like his body, has no center. Jerry is always teetering on the brink of complete disorganization.
All this is to say that Lewis's humor has a high discomfort factor. Often I laugh, but just as often it makes me nervous. That Jerry is infantile also means that he's excessive. Anything goes, without regard for norms of intelligence or taste. Even when Lewis has a good comic idea, you get the feeling he doesn't know when to stop. He pushes everything just a little too far. This excess is not an artistic mistake; it's the very point of Lewis's act. Most comedians create a sort of magical world, in which their particular brand of insanity rules. Such is the case for film comedy on nearly every level, all the way from the Three Stooges to Woody Allen. Lewis is nearly alone as an exception to this rule. His persona is never able to rearrange the world to his own liking. As a result, you don't get a sense of freedom from his films, the way you do, for instance, with the Marx Brothers or Monty Python. You never escape from that voice in the back of your mind that keeps on telling you how stupid this all is. There's always an air of shame and embarrassment to Lewis's films. The nerdy, wimpy Julius Kelp of The Nutty Professor can only escape his sense of inferiority by turning into something yet more obnoxious: the conceited bully Buddy Love. In Smorgasbord, Jerry's character is so messed up and so incompetent that he cannot even kill himself successfully. The film's a series of gags built around the fears and humiliations of an unsuccessful psychoanalytic treatment. But it is precisely this sense of discomfort, of being a square peg in a round hole, that Lewis' comedy captures so successfully.
To note that the films of Jerry Lewis are a rich, pleasurable and endlessly fascinating meditation on their medium is to say little. With Lewis, it's necessary to specify which medium. Film, of course; but this is a medium that Lewis' work has changed and redefined – through such inventions as the video assist, which he introduced in 1960, and through the inventions of sound, image and performance that proliferate in his films. Then there's the medium of selfhood; and as Lewis' selfhood is public, intensely so, as well as private, his films meditate deeply on (and through) celebrity. He himself is a medium, a total one, to borrow the adjective he placed so significantly in the title of his book The Total Film-Maker, and no director has done more than Jerry Lewis to exploit the meaningful possibilities of that medium.
Isolating for commentary Lewis' work as a director is no simple procedure. Complications arise, in part, from Lewis' multiple status as actor, comic, entertainer, humanitarian, writer and producer; and trying to determine where Lewis leaves off in one of these roles and where he begins in the next can seem a pointless task. Merely establishing the corpus of Lewis' directorial work is difficult. If we see (as much urges us to) the Martin and Lewis films, though signed Marshall, Walker, Taurog, Pevney or even Tashlin, as having been co-directed by Lewis, we can't exclude the probability that Lewis also co-directed Martin and Lewis' many appearances on The Colgate Comedy Hour. If we hear “direction” as synonymous with “authorship”, then Lewis is, by his own completely credible claim, the director of the duo, having come up with its formative conception (“a handsome man and a monkey”) and guided its development. Moreover, after the break-up of the team, Lewis exercised creative control over his innumerable film, television and stage projects at a level evidently deserving the name “directorial”, even though frequently the credit, and many of the functions, of director were delegated to others. Who will deny that Lewis is the creator of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon which, despite advanced age and a raft of health problems, he continues to host every Labor Day? Is not then each Telethon part of Lewis' directorial work?
Jerry Lewis was born into a world of cinema, of images that fascinated him. Brought as a performer and star to the place where films are made, he learned film as a child learns the ways of the world. Like a child, obsessed with finding out things, he took apart the toys he was given, trying to see what was inside them and how they worked. When he won the chance to direct his own films, he used the opportunity to launch a relentless examination of his own relationship with filmic and verbal language.
Taking his curtain call (in character as goofy Professor Kelp) in The Nutty Professor(1963), Lewis stumbles and falls into the camera lens. Lewis's understanding of film is such that the lens is never merely a point in space, an abstract function that organizes images, or a metaphor for consciousness grasping the world. The lens is a physical thing, part of the great big mess of material existence. In The Family Jewels (1965), the photographer Julius (Lewis) repeatedly presses his finger onto the lens of his camera, to show his niece (Donna Butterworth) where she should look ("You'll have a face full of fingers," he even remarks). In The Bellboy (1960), Stanley (Lewis), realizing on entering a room that he is surrounded with female models in negligees, crosses to the foreground and prudishly covers the camera lens with the palm of his hand. In the ball sequence in One More Time (1970), the eruption of a long-suppressed sneeze causes Charlie (Sammy Davis Jr.) to lurch forward, Kelp-like, into the camera lens. The cut shows a reverse field where already—in the instant of the cut—the exaggerated force of Charlie's sneeze has toppled a group of party guests, who slowly start picking themselves up from the floor, like the animated suits of armor in a magnificent gag in The Errand Boy (1961).
In all these scenes, Lewis is concerned with two fundamental questions of cinema: How to see? and What should be seen? He uncovers the logic that makes seeing aggression, the logic of the look that topples the object (like Kelp's out-of-focus look in the bowling alley inThe Nutty Professor, when he mistakes a group of people for bowling pins) or of the object that topples the look (Herbert [Lewis] witnessing the infidelity of his beloved Fay in the graduation-day sequence of 1961's The Ladies Man). The look confronting its object (taking or mistaking it, or being taken by it) is one of the basic structures of Lewis's work, from which he forms spiraling long-term patterns of conflict, avoidance, and reversal, welcoming or ignoring contradiction, violating the premises of a scene or even a whole film in search of new experimental truths (as in the classic hat scene in The Ladies Man, the nightmarish Copa scene in 1964's The Patsy, or throughout the breathtaking entirety of 1970's Which Way to the Front?).
Lionized by the French critics as a comic auteur equal to Chaplin and Keaton, Jerry Lewis has seldom found much favor with critics in his own country. While other comedians such as Abbott & Costello (even The Three Stooges) who were similarly dismissed by contemporary reviewers but have since achieved a degree of artistic respectability—in some quarters, more than that—with the passage of time, Lewis has yet to experience such reappraisal. He remains more honored in Europe—especially France, although Germany and Spain have showered him with honors, too—than at home despite a career as prolific in its output as those of his more esteemed comic colleagues.
The reason for this may be that Lewis's style of comedy—which, in its post-Dean Martin period, focused almost exclusively on Lewis himself, almost never the characters or events surrounding him—strikes people as self-indulgent, self-centered, even egotistical; this is a major turnoff, particularly to critics. Also, the screen character he created and lavished so much attention on—the child who never grew up, a mugging simpleton Lewis dubbed "the Kid"—is very much an acquired taste. Children, especially young tots, find the character amusingly simpatico. But many older viewers, from age 20 on, find it forced, grating, shallow, stupid, and excruciatingly witless.
In 2003, in Bertolucci's The Dreamers, there is a discussion on films between the French and American boys. At one point, the Frenchman says, "You Americans don't understand your own culture. No wonder you never got the point of Jerry Lewis." The American replies, "Don't even get me started on Jerry Lewis." This exchange crystallises the dichotomy that is supposed to exist between the attitudes of anglophones and francophones towards Jerry Lewis: American no-bullshit pragmatism v pretentious French theorising, or American philistinism v French enlightenment.
In fact, it was the critics of the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema who first directed Americans' attention to Lewis as an auteur. It was also this same magazine that alerted Americans to the value of their own directors such as Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and Nicholas Ray. Plus, it must be remembered that when Francois Truffaut's extended interview of Alfred Hitchcock was published in 1967, the director, with his best work behind him, was greatly underrated especially by American critics. Gradually, perceptive American and English critics have begun belatedly to reassess and credit Lewis's work.
As Gilbert Adair, who wrote the screenplay for The Dreamers, argued in his book Flickers, "For heaven's sake, how can Jerry Lewis be Art? And yet exactly as if a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell were to be exhibited in the Prado, where its usurped prominence would take some getting used to, but once you have got used to it, why yes, yes! It didn't seem at all incongruous beside the El Grecos and the Goyas and the Velasquezes."
In 2006, Lewis was presented with the Legion d'Honneur in France on his 80h birthday. But, as the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has written: "Lewis's popularity in America is far greater than any French love of Lewis ... American denial of the American love of Jerry Lewis is pathological." In a way, Lewis receiving the Jean Hersholt award at the Oscars could be seen as a back-handed compliment rather than an honour.
It suggests that Lewis, who has never been even nominated for an Academy Award, is being recognised for his annual telethons rather than for the films that made him famous enough to do them in the first place.
Beneath the struggle to control body, speech, and desire, there exists in Lewis' work an ongoing but finally failing struggle to control identity itself. Here lies the interest of the career of Jerry Lewis, in both its successes and failures. If the characteristic banality of Lewis' rhetoric on "love" and "being a somebody" suggests the presence of a recuperative function (which perhaps reaches its apotheosis in Lewis' role as a healing and uniting force on his annual telethon broadcast along the Love Network), a positivistic attempt to contain and define the subject then the maze of internal contradictions, displacements, and transformations that crosses these texts continually subverts such a function in a deeply and successfully ambivalent manner...
It is now a staple of cinematic theorization that the movie screen serves as a Lacanian mirror, providing the spectator with an ego-ideal. Our experience before this mirror reassures and resituates us at the perfect center of a stable world. The Lewis film, it should now be clear, often presents something quite different, and perhaps it is here that the American resistance to Lewis (text and figure) has its genesis. Jerry, far from the idealized and coherent self we are encouraged to see, is instead more closely aligned with the image of the infant, as Lacan put it, "still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence." An image of motor incapacity, sexual ambiguity, and unfixed identity: surely these are the precise phenomena that must be denied by the ego craving reinforcement. And so the spectators are palced in the radical position of searching into the mirror's depths, only to find reflected back the incoherent and fragmented, multiplied yet elusive image of Jerry Lewis.
1926: Born Joseph Levitch on March 26 in Newark, the only child of vaudevillian Danny and wife Rea.
1946: Teams with singer Dean Martin for the first time on July 25 at Atlantic City's 500 Club, becoming an overnight sensation in the second show after bombing in the first.
1949: Martin and Lewis become contract players at Paramount Pictures, leading to 16 phenomenally successful movies.
1950: On TV specials with Martin, Lewis begins his crusade on behalf of the recently formed Muscular Dystrophy Association.
1956: Wacky road pic Hollywood or Bust released, but partnership with Martin dissolves during final week of July, nearly 10 years after their teaming.
1960: Lewis' first directorial effort, The Bellboy, premieres in July, earning him previously eluded international acclaim.
1963: Jekyll-and-Hyde high jinks in The Nutty Professor, universally regarded as Lewis' best movie, which opens in June.
1965: Falls during a performance in March, injuring his spinal cord and leading to "37 years of pain."
1970: Appears in his last movie for 11 years, the poorly received Which Way to the Front?
1976: In a surprise arranged by Frank Sinatra, middle, Lewis is reunited with Dean Martin on live TV.
1977: Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with muscular dystrophy.
1983: Receives critical acclaim for his dark role as TV talk-show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy.
1995: Premieres on Broadway in a revival of Damn Yankees, leading to a nationwide tour.
2002: Credits a surgical implant and its hand-held controlling device with making him pain-free for the first time since 1965.
Though he has long been chided for being abrasive and egomaniacal, Lewis can be uncommonly gracious and outgoing. He has finally reached that stage in his career when he can reflect and inspire others to do the same.
"From 1936 on," he explains, "I have taken more falls than any other 20 comedians put together. From the time I was 21, I've taken them on everything from clay courts to cement to wood floors, coming off pianos, going out a two-story window, landing on Dean, falling into the rough. You do that and you're gonna have problems. I had pain during the last eight films; I've had pain in 37 straight telethons. I've never had a day without pain since March 20, 1965."
That's when he took a professional fall that chipped a piece of his spine "that would have paralyzed me if it had been another 15th or 16th of an inch." As it was, the chip led to a much-publicized Percodan addiction at its worst in the early '70s — and more recently a domino effect of afflictions, including nerve damage and the pulmonary fibrosis that has mandated his taking of the steroid prednisone. The drug contributed to his 45-pound weight gain. Lewis says his longtime friend, famed heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, calls prednisone the "greatest worst drug in America." This is all atop past double-bypass surgery, prostate cancer, spinal meningitis and pneumonia.something like a TV remote. Manufactured by Minneapolis-based Medtronic, it's the controlling component of a surgically inserted battery pack that one can see vaguely outlined in his left side when he lifts up his shirt. ("I hate to show you this because I'm so fat," he says, "but look — see it?")
Doctors cut bone out of his spine and replaced it with two large electrodes. From the battery pack, he says, "the two electrical leads lock in and are naturally covered with scar tissue. I'm sitting here in pain, but in a minute, I'm not going to have it. When I turn it on like that (beep), I'm vibrating like a vibrator within my skin. I raise the level if it's not working totally. ... I've had no pain since April 20.
"It also opens my garage," he deadpans.
Earlier in the conversation, Lewis has been asked to name the biggest misconception people have of him. The question throws him, but later he returns to it. He doesn't quite answer it head-on, but what he says reveals something about the struggle to be a professional child but also an adult.
"My misconception," he explains, "is that I want you to remember I'm a monkey and that Martin and Lewis were 'sex and slapstick' unequivocally. That's my title, I wrote it. But Jesus, both men can have sensitivity, a brain, a point of view and certainly a component that made them say, 'I am here and pay attention.' All that is gone if you're a monkey with a banana on a chandelier. That's the misconception that bothers me. I'll be the monkey if you want. But you asked to meet the man, so I'll give you what you want."
Did this confuse the public for a while?
"Of course. Terrible confusion. Because when I would be myself, I was being big-headed. I was being egotistical. I was a megalomaniac, when it really was just having not to be a monkey for a few hours a day. And fulfilling the need to be a man."
A few years ago, I thought I might open a chain of eulogy stores where you could go in off the street and, for twenty bucks, they'll tell you all the nice things they're going to say about you after you croak.But I don't want people to say wonderful things about me when I can't hear them. Tell me now, while I'm still here.
- Lewis, Interviewed by Amy Wallace, Esquire, December 31, 2005
This autobiographically intoned life account of America's most genteel philanderer amounts to a series of paradoxes: a World War II production touting an unheroic, passive cad; the director who practically invented Hollywood urbane sophistication and suavity applying his trade on quaintly mannered, occasionally rustic Americana; and the famous "Lubitsch Touch" applied so gently here as to be almost touchless. The three paradoxes are linked by Lubitsch's desire to make a film both celebrating and sending up the moral absurdities of his beloved adopted country while having to toe the puritanical line of the Hays Code. It amounts to a celebration of obliqueness, where the offscreen shenanigans of Don Ameche are perpetually alluded to but never shown, leaving the portrait of this Gilded Age Casanova vaguely sketched. We can't tell to what degree he's successful at his romantic pursuits, or how much of it is a vain attempt to inflate his ego. Of course Lubitsch is all about reading between the lines, but almost too much here needs to be inferred by verbal references and the reactions of characters to unseen events. In other words, it's the first Hong Sang-soo movie ever made.
All the same, there's plenty of fun to be hand in the innuendo of Samson Raphaelson's screenplay ("Here was a girl lying to her mother. Naturally that girl interested me at once"). And they find a priceless visual counterpart in two moments where Lubitsch lets his actors' eyes do the describing of what they're seeing, and the spectator watches through them with heightened emotion. There's also a pleasant musical incorporation of sneezes, coughs and hiccups that convey the inner states of characters where words can't. Generally Lubitsch moves the proceedings in an ambling, almost plodding style that saps the film of forward momentum; on the other hand seems to anticipate the static, almost non-narrative tableaux of late Carl Dreyer and some Terence Davies. It's a rhythm that seems to resist moving forward, which fits a film that's about a man gently coming to terms with his advancing age, the futility of his sexual exploits, and the eternal embrace of family love.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Heaven Can Wait among The Shoot Pictures Don't They's 1000 Greatest Films:
Guillermo Altares, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Lorenzo Codelli, Positif (1991)
? Bertrand Tavernier, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Cahiers du Cinema, Best American Films of the Sound Era (1963)
? Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book - 500 Great Films (1987)
? Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films
? Francois Truffaut, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Gavin Lambert, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
? Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005)
? Jonathan Rosenbaum, 100 Favourite Films (2004)
? Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)
? Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
? Leslie Halliwell, A Further Choice of Entertainment Movies From the Golden Age (1986)
? Luc Moullet, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Marcel Ophuls, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Peter Bogdanovich, 52 Classic Films for One Full Year (1999)
? Taschen, Books Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007)
?? They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films
It is an amusing anomaly that Twentieth Century-Fox displays a particular fondness for the nineteenth century and wolves. Never is the studio quite so profligate as when it has a film in which the background is fin-de-siècle and the hero is a lady-killing blade. The settings then ooze a horse-hair flavor and Technicolor rainbows the screen. And the hero has a patent-leather polish that would have dazzled Delmonico's.
No wonder, then, that the studio has been chortling with so much advance glee over its latest package of entertainment, "Heaven Can Wait," which came to the Roxy yesterday. For here is a shined and scented chromo which Ernst Lubitsch has produced for it with all the ornamental excess of the period so dear to the heart of the studio. Here is a nostalgic nosegay in which the hero is quite a wolf, indeed. And here is a comedy of manners, edged with satire, in the slickest Lubitsch style. The Twentieth Century-Fox has got a picture about fin-de-siècle conduct which rings a bell.
For this time Mr. Lubitsch (and his playwright, Sam Raphaelson) is not concerned with the present, as he was so embarrasingly in "To Be or Not To Be," but is poking very sly and sentimental fun at Eighteen Nineties naughtiness. He—and Mr. Raphaelson, who based the script on a Lazlo Bus-Fekete play—are laughing with gentle affection at the pruderies of yesterday. Their picture has utterly no significance. Indeed, it has very little point, except to afford entertainment. And that it does quite well
Heaven Can Wait was praised by a large cross-section of critics, but the most sensitive notice was from James Agee, who wrote that, while it was not up to Lubitsch's best (he preferred the silent Lubitsch, "It has a good deal of the dry sparkle, the shrewd business, and the exquisite timing... It brought back a time when people really made good movies... the sets, costumes and props are something for history... [and] the period work, in these respects -as in Lubitsch's modulations in styles ofposture and movement - was about the prettiest and most quietly witty I had ever seen." Even D.W. Griffith put aside his old jealousy to pay tribute when he told Ezra Goodman that "I liked the way Lubitsch used color in Heaven Can Wait. And the way he used sound, too."
As Andrew Sarris has observed of Heaven Can Wait, "the timing of every shot, every gesture, every movement was so impeccably precise and economically expressive that an entire classical tradition unfolded... Contemporary sloppiness of construction brought on by the blind worship of 'energy' as an end to itself make it almost too easy to appreciate Lubitsch's uncanny sense of the stylized limits of a civilized taste. Almost any old movie looks classical today: Lubitsch's movies are nothing short of sublime."
- Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch. Published by JHU Press, 2000. Page 319.
WONDERFUL TRAILER PRODUCED BY FILMBUFF2000 ON YOUTUBE
Ernst Lubitsch's only completed film in Technicolor (1943), the greatest of his late films, offers a rosy, meditative, and often very funny view of an irrepressible ladies' man (Don Ameche in his prime) presenting his life in retrospect to the devil (Laird Cregar). Like a good deal of Lubitsch from The Merry Widow on, it's about death as well as personal style, but rarely has the subject been treated with such affection for the human condition. Samson Raphaelson's script is very close to perfection, the sumptuous period sets are a delight, and the secondary cast--Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, and Spring Byington--is wonderful. In many respects, this is Lubitsch's testament, full of grace, wisdom, and romance.
Centered in a Fifth Avenue mansion left over from 19th-century New York, the film is Lubitsch and writing partner Samson Raphaelson's valentine to "an age that has vanished, when it was possible to live for the charm of living." Spanning more than half a century, it chronicles the high points of Henry's life so delicately that--in a variation on the strategies of Lubitsch-Raphaelson's risque '30s classics--it leaves some of them entirely offscreen, their emotional impact measured by what the characters feel and say about them afterward. We'll leave it to you to find out what they are. Suffice it to say that Ameche and Gene Tierney--as Martha, the love of Henry's life--give performances far subtler than anything else in their Fox contract-player careers, and there are sublime opportunities for those peerless character actors Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, and Marjorie Main.
For once, it seems that Lubitsch - who prided himself on never having vulgar run-ins with the censors and on outsmarting them more consistently than almost anyone else - had outsmarted himself. He set out to make a case for a kind of life that everything in the climate of American piety around him seemed to be discounting. But Heaven Can Wait is the story of a philanderer in which no philandering ever occurs, at least so far as we can tell. If it had, the hero would have been required to be punished in some way (the Production Code) - which was not the kind of movie or moral that Lubitsch had in mind. Since he means to forgive, even to eulogize, this amiably lecherous hero, he has to seem at least to deny the lechery. And so a pattern is set up. From the French maid to the Follies girl, Henry always turns out to be innocent, in spite of initial appearances. The only one he seems to make any real headway with is his wife. And he seems indeed a very contented sort of husband. And yet the implication of adultery - of even a habit of adultery - is clear, if carefully handled. Martha discovers a bill for a diamond bracelet and leaves him. And we discover in the scene that follows that there have been many such quarrels before this. But when? And over what exactly? We know even less about Henry's infidenlities than he contrives to let his wife know. But since this is a problem the film is importantly about, the effect is of a peculiar smarminess: as if there were things you never discussed, no matter how insistent or obtrusive they became. Lubitsch and Raphaelson undoubtedly felt that their techniques of eloquent reticence would carry the day. But never before had these techniques been required to carry so much - so much necessary meaning and information left out. The film gives less a feeling of double entendre than of massive denial.
Amazing what Lubitsch could get from actors who seldom shone as bright elsewhere. Kay Francis gave the performance of her career in Troublein Paradise; Jack Benny, so great in radio and TV, never equalled To Be Or Not to Be on screen. The immensely likable Don Ameche was a second-string star all his life, but in Heaven Can Wait you could swear you were watching one of the greatest light comic actors of all time. Gene Tierney, young and a bit tremulous as Ameche's great love, still manages to show her character's gathering strength.
There is Laird Cregar, the sinister detective in I Wake Up Screaming, here playing a Satan so sophisticated and well-dressed that the Siren's host asked, "is that Anton Walbrook?" Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) goes to Hell (and a very elegant Hell it is, too, decorated in what appears to be Deco's Last Gasp) and attempts to explain to His Excellency why he deserves eternal damnation. His Excellency, for his part, sits down to vet Henry, since he doesn't want the place getting all touristy. "Sometimes it seems as though the whole world is coming to Hell," he laments.
Charles Coburn plays Hugo Van Cleve, living vicariously through his grandson's peccadillos; and Allyn Joslyn is Cousin Albert, in looks and demeanor rather reminiscent of Ralph Reed. Excellent exchange, mid-movie:
Albert: The family understands your humor, but it's a typical kind of New York humor.
Hugo: In other words, it's not for yokels.
We have Eugene Pallette as Tierney's Kansas City pa. The Siren hereby issues a big mea culpa for not mentioning Pallette in her post about voices. There is no one, absolutely no one with a voice like this actor's any more. If you put a double bass through a cement mixer, you might get the voice of Eugene Pallette. He and Marjorie Main have the Siren's favorite scene in the movie, a fierce dispute at the marital breakfast table over who gets to read the Katzenjammer Kids. The butler, forced to mediate between the warring funny-paper fans, was played by pioneering actor Clarence Muse. Mercifully, he has no "humorous" dialect tics or cutesy gestures.
Films like Heaven Can Wait make us think about our own lives and legacies. The introspective viewer sees the life of Henry Van Cleve and starts to wonder how his own would measure up if such a devilish meeting ever took place. Van Cleve’s ultimate fate in Heaven Can Wait makes us feel better about ourselves and our lives. If you believe in an afterlife as a reward for the life lived on Earth, it’s nice to have movies such as this one to reassure us that no one’s perfect and we’re not expected to be either.
Lubitsch manages to wedge in a few funny scenes among the supporting players, including one about Eugene Pallette and the Sunday funnies. But his famous "touch" seems to have dulled here while dealing with the stagy material, and while patiently filming Ameche in various layers of makeup representing the passing years. As beautiful and colorful as it is, Heaven Can Wait has an overwhelming despondency, dealing as directly as it does with old age and death. Those things, it seems to me, would make a crackerjack comedy, but this time Lubitsch merely wallows in them.
Don Ameche is nothing short of wonderful, and it's a shame that postwar fashion would push him aside in favor of a diet of he-man types and younger blood. That makes his late-career return almost forty years later all the more pleasing. Gene Tierney is appropriately ravishing and handles her comedy well. Her incredible looks got her through a few ordinary pix until a couple of positive hits like this one led to Laura and mainstream stardom. Coburn is a hit as the randy granddad and Spring Byington cute as Henry's mom. Allyn Joslyn makes a perfect dullsville cousin, the kind who can be cruelly cheated and we don't care a bit. He has a nice scene where he re-proposes to Martha by describing himself as an old suit of clothes. Martha smiles, but cousin hasn't a prayer.
The film itself is nimble, spry, and as effervescent as an Alka Seltzer thrown into a champagne cocktail. But I don't want to mislead you into thinking it doesn't pack some powerful emotional punches. Henry Van Cleve is a man who is railing against time, and trying hard to bury his pain inside the women he comes across in his time. The love affair between him and Martha is compelling, probably because the Gene Tierney character is allowed to see her husband's faults. She knows exactly what he is, and loves him regardless of it. If the movie were made today it would probably fall apart, because it would show sordid details of an over-sexed man cheating on his beautiful wife. Luckily, because of the extreme censors of the '40s, the story is made more palatable. We never get the impression that anything sordid is happening—but here's where Lubitsch is sly and crafty. He insinuates more with a look or a closed door than most modern filmmakers can with an outright fleshy orgy of sweaty close-ups made up of select body parts. It's a thinking man's comedy; an exemplary personification of the "Lubitsch touch." He finds a way for us to root for the callow man, and even root for Martha and him to find happiness any way they can. He's tricking America into opening its peculiar Midwestern morality and trading it for a more permissive European sensibility. It's a deep, beautiful film masked in a light, airy comedy, and it's wonderfully subversive.
Ernst Lubitsch's comic fantasy begins with a cheery conceit, but underneath lingers a fear of loss. Guilt-ridden Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), newly deceased, bypasses heaven for hell, where he finds a skeptical Satan. In lusciously restored Technicolor, Henry recounts his mottled life from the 1870s to the 1940s, as he woos and betrays his wife, Martha (a radiant Gene Tierney), and wins her again. Lubitsch nimbly conveys the passage of time (whiskers change; elderly characters disappear and children arrive), but the chuckling humor is sometimes too genteel for its own good. Although Henry is referred to as a ''Casanova,'' the light ''Lubitsch touch'' and period censorship never let his lechery register as a serious blot on his character.
Being made in 1943, Heaven Can Wait lacks some of the naughty innuendo of Lubitsch's pre-Code films such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), but it moves far beyond that Art Deco fantasy world to sketch out a gently mocking, yet complex character portrait. In its warmth and humaneness it recalls The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which is to say it's one of Lubitsch's richest and most moving films. I would argue that these two films, together with To Be Or Not To Be (1942), represent the true peak of Lubitsch's career, as much as I love his films from the silent era up to the early Thirties.
Putting his lead foot first, director Ernst Lubitsch saddles his story with a script that never properly uses its complete potential. Henry feels that as part of his interview process, he must go through the story of his life, which would have generally been a decent idea, except that he led a pretty uninspiring one.
This 1943 production from director Ernst Lubitsch's long partnership with playwright Samson Raphaelson has accrued fame for being one of the pair's most enduring collaborations, even though the "Lubitsch touch" is more subdued here than in the pair's Trouble in Paradise and Shop Around the Corner, and barely recognizable from the director's silent works. From the opening scene, where Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) arrives in Satan's executive suite in Hell, this is a decidedly restrained picture for the duo. Besides providing film history with one of its most memorable interpretations of Hell, the scene sets the bar for the movie: witty dialogue is exchanged for witty circumstances; the overt Lubitsch opulence, for discrete indicators of social class; biting sexual humor is given over to a decidedly chaste rendering of pleasure; and homespun Americana, instead of Continental sophistication.
Even the movie's structure is more drawn out and nuanced than the partners' previous pictures. Assuming his wandering eye and lies has warranted eternal suffering, Henry insists to a confused and comically conversational Lucifer he deserves a spot in Hell. He relays his life's story and all its damning events, which provides a fairly original narrative framework. Of course, in each segment he, instead, displays a good-natured and earnest quality that shows why he belongs in Heaven, providing Lubitsch and Raphaelson with a platform to discuss sexuality and morality in subtle and subversive detail.
Much has been written over the years about the "Lubitsch Touch." For a solid example of that touch, look no further than the setup. By beginning his story in Hell, Lubitsch is both endorsing and mocking the idea of Henry's paying for his sins. Then, for the next hour and a half, Lubitsch sets out to prove that no sin was really committed. In Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson's eyes, Henry brought no shame to others while also providing a lot of good clean fun to the many women in his life. In examining this point, the writer and director play with the notion held in society at the time that women may have needed to be chaste within the confines of a relationship but that philandering was merely a part of man's nature. In Heaven Can Wait, such an idea is reduced to what it really is: An excuse for men who've never grown up to do whatever they want and with whomever they please. Here, women represent the maturity of fidelity while men, though charming, wouldn't know maturity if it kicked them out of bed.
On the surface, everything sparkles: Heaven was the first film Lubitsch shot in Technicolor, and cleaned up for DVD, its rich colors and ornate backdrops shimmer like Champagne in crystal; set in the upper class fin de siècle milieu of ball gowns and cocktail parties, the film is beautifully shot and elegantly designed. But, buried somewhere underneath all those portieres and chandeliers a spirited idea was suffocated, and what could have been one of the era's great black comedies, with a premise begging for the acid tongue of a George S. Kaufman or Billy Wilder, settles instead for being a parlor jaunt: badinage in topcoats and tails, jokes about yokels and showgirls. Potentially one of the cinema's immortal comic creations, Henry Van Cleve – a philandering post-mortem playboy so enamored of his own dissipation and amorality he angles to convince the devil to let him into Hell – is reduced to a low-grade rake by the somnolent Don Ameche and the sentimental dialogue of writer Samson Raphaelson.
On an extra feature on the DVD, critic Andrew Sarris notes that light comedies such as "Heaven Can Wait" tend to be underrated. I have to agree with him, but I also must plead guilty as charged. I admire the extraordinary craft involved in making such a film: it requires a lot of hard work to make comedy seem so easy. Raphaelson´s script is tightly structured, snappy and clever; admirable craft, but also part of the problem for me. As in many modern sitcoms, the characters always seem to know how a scene is going to end before it begins, and mug their way through it as they lead up to that oh-so-meticulously timed punch line. There is little attempt to create plausible characters here: it is never Henry or Martha speaking, but always Don Ameche or Gene Tierney winking at the camera as they deliver perfectly written, perfectly-rehearsed lines. I can´t help but see the whole affair as pleasant but rather slight entertainment; in Douglas Adams´ words, the movie is "mostly harmless."
Few of us get to write our own epitaph. HEAVEN CAN WAIT masquerades lightly as the beyond-the-grave recollections of the aged roué Henry Van Cleve, but the film is in fact Ernst Lubitsch's own death foretold, his own life summed up.
It was wartime, and Lubitsch despaired over a Europe in flames. His heart was failing, partially the fault of the gigantic cigars he chain-smoked, partially (his friends believed) the result of his long good fight against studio tyranny and hypocrisy. He realized, he told Samson Raphaelson, his friend and collaborator on nine films including HEAVEN CAN WAIT, that he had made many films about Americans, but none about America, a place he loved even more dearly for all its peccadilloes and false prudery. As the two set about to make Lubitsch's first film in color, Lubitsch suffered a series of heart attacks. Raphaelson was told that Lubitsch could not survive, and so began composing a eulogy. As he dictated, his hardboiled secretary wept. As Raphaelson contemplated the homely German in the ill-fitting clothes whose lacework wit had transformed Hollywood from a provincial town on the edge of a desert into a (at least occasionally) civilized and creative place, the phrases poured like Rhine wine:
"I never saw, even in this territory of egotists, anyone who didn't light up with pleasure in Lubitsch's company. We got that pleasure, not from his brilliancy or his rightness. . . but from the purity and childlike delight of his lifelong love affair with ideas. . . He had no time for manners, but the grace within him was unmistakable, and everyone kindled to it, errand boy and mogul, mechanic and artist. Garbo smiled, indeed, in his presence, and so did Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Mann. He was born with the happy gift of revealing himself instantly to all."
But Lubitsch survived to shoot HEAVEN CAN WAIT, and Raphaelson happily put away his tribute, swearing his secretary to secrecy about his flood of sentiment. For Lubitsch, the film that resulted from this dire period is surely one of his most lovely, an unassuming, casual announcement that death held no fear for him. The amiable, emphatically American Don Ameche as Henry van Cleve stands in for Lubitsch quite nicely, and the ridiculous world over which he presides is a fantasy of provincialism outraged (the preposterous Mr. and Mrs. Strabel, nouveauboors just in from, hopelessly, Kansas), and European sexual matter-of-factness (the worldly Mademoiselle, every adolescent boy's French maid). In Lubitsch's version of the afterlife, everyone is as civilized and expansive as he is; even the devil (His Excellency), as played by Laird Cregar, is a patient sophisticate. The screen directions tell us that Henry van Cleve speaks of death "as if talking about a charming social affair," a typical Lubitsch combination of naiveté and élan.
In the end, heaven could not wait, and the death forestalled during the making of the film arrived to claim Lubitsch in 1947, after his sixth heart attack. Sadly, Raphaelson had reason to bring his eulogy for Lubitsch out of his file cabinet. Only then did he discover that his secretary had broken her vow of secrecy; Lubitsch had read the loving obituary when he had recovered from those first heart attacks, and had been deeply touched. By then he must have known that Raphaelson's feelings for him had already found a lighter but equally powerful voice in the screenplay for HEAVEN CAN WAIT.
To Ameche he was "dedicated"; to Tierney he was "a tyrant." Tierney was seraphically beautiful but deeply closeted emotionally, and invariably seemed to be acting in a glazed trance. Around the Fox lot, she had a reputation for responding to any emotional scenes by going slightly over the top in a cloying, sentimental way. In trying to spark some emotional immediacy out of her, Lubitsch had terrified the actress. The day after their contretemps, Tierney sought him out and explained that "I'm willing to do my best, but I can't go on working on this picture if you're going to keep shouting at me."
"I'm paid to shout at you," he retorted.
"Yes, and I'm paid to take it - but not enough." They laughed and Lubitsch modulated his approach for the rest of the shooting.
- Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch. Published by JHU Press, 2000. Page 319.
EXCERPTS FROM THE ESSAY BY WILLIAM PAUL FOR THE CRITERION DVD
Lubitsch’s comedy had been sufficiently idiosyncratic for him to become a model for other directors, such as Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. Nevertheless, he was not immune to stylistic currents, clearly responding to the ascendancy of screwball comedy with two works that appeared toward the end of that subgenre’s efflorescence: Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) andThat Uncertain Feeling (1941). But screwball was not an agreeable style for Lubitsch, whose work was becoming more contemplative, quieter. It is that thoughtful quality that pervades HeavenCan Wait, inscribed in the flashback structure of its narrative. And this shift was in keeping with other changes in Hollywood movies of the time: with the Depression and the impending political catastrophe in Europe, American high comedy was becoming more realistic in manner, more middle-class in milieu, and more political in its concerns. Lubitsch was deeply affected by these changes.
In this light, then, Lubitsch’s move to Twentieth Century Fox—a studio specializing in historical films and nostalgic evocations of small-town America—is not as surprising as it might at first appear. Lubitsch could never embrace the small town, but he could reasonably make New York the focus of his venture into Americana. And with his very American ordinariness, Don Ameche, then one of Fox’s leading male stars, could help move Lubitsch in this direction.
While eschewing specific historical events, the film finds its own distinctive way of defining how the outside world is developing and how characters are developing in relation to it. Lubitsch’s first film in Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait uses color to record historical change: color grows increasingly muted in the ever-transforming settings and costumes as the film progresses up to the present day of its audience, with bright reds and deep blues, both fairly saturated and vibrant in their contrast of hot and cold tones, yielding to ivories and finally pale whites. The elliptical structure of the film’s narrative never permits us to see characters effecting these changes, and the characters themselves never remark on them. As a consequence, every change seems to happen mysteriously, as if of its own accord. Just as a child may view changes in his universe as miraculously self-generating because he does not have the knowledge or experience to know how they come about, change is presented in this film as self-generating because it is a view that belongs to the narrator, Henry himself.
Like the unacknowledged changes in set design and fashions, the ellipse in Heaven Can Wait take on a mysterious quality, mysterious in the profoundest sense of something great and unknowable. Where the ultrasophisticated characters in Lubitsch’s earlier films have a firm grasp on the world, in the elusive world of Heaven Can Wait, a world beyond absolute understanding, Henry is most blessed by his innocence. Because the individual exists within this larger, impenetrable order, the examination of any individual life, however restricted in focus—and Heaven Can Wait’s is very restricted—must also be an examination of the world in which the individual lives. Henry might be an innocent, but he tells his story to an urbane devil who would be right at home in the world of Lubitsch’s thirties comedies, and, from his knowing perspective, the devil can finally make something different of Henry’s life story than Henry himself. Henry’s innocence, then, is cast within a sophisticated worldview that both echoes and enriches Lubitsch’s earlier work. While the individual life of Henry is unimportant to the course of history, by the simple act of living he takes in the whole world and the history in which he lives. Heaven Can Wait might be nothing more than the life story of a man who did not amount to much, as Lubitsch claimed, but it is also nothing less. Heaven Can Wait brilliantly maintains the exquisite balance between tragic and comic impulses, between shifting views of man as an individual and man as an element of society, that marks Lubitsch’s best work.
ABOUT THE CRITERION DVD
Video *** ½
Heaven Can Wait is presented in its original full-frame, color format.The transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive and encoded on a dual-layer DVD-9 disc.The video bit transfer rate averages 6 Mbps.As with all Technicolor films, the visuals are bright, with vibrant hues that almost leap from the screen.There are some minor emulsion fluctuations and a slight softness of the picture quality, but otherwise, there is nary a dust speck in sight and this film looks quite good for its age.
Heaven Can Wait is presented in English monaural.Dialogue is clear and never muddled without intrusive background noise.The score is by noted composer Alfred Newman and utilizes a plethora of old-time tunes.
Extras Review: A surprising amount of supplemental material rounds out this release. In typical Criterion fashion, an insert containing information about the DVD's transfers and credits starts things off. Featuring an essay by William Paul, the insert is a welcomed addition as the essay gives a good introduction to the film for those who may not be familiar with Ernst Lubitsch's work. On the disc itself, there are a variety of features showcasing 20th Century Fox's publicity campaign for the movie. The theatrical trailer is presented with its original narration by Robert Benchley, who delivers some very clever taglines for the film. Additionally, the Press Book and a Publicity Gallery are included, with still images that are selected via remote control. Neither gallery is particularly engaging, but both are fairly brief and easy enough to navigate through.
A much better supplemental feature is the conversation, Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris (24m:41s). Videotaped for this DVD, the two critics offer many insights into the film and Lubitsch's entire career. Sarris is particularly interesting to listen to, since he attended a screening of Heaven Can Wait during its original release. Practically every element of the film is touched upon here, from Raphaelson's script to censorship to its themes, and both people are very articulate. Following that is a presentation of the PBS broadcast Creativity with Bill Moyers: A Portrait of Samson Raphaelson (29m:07s). Featuring an interview with Raphaelson, as well as clips of him teaching scriptwriting, this is a brief but informative look into the man's life. It chronicles his major career achievements and offers many of his ideas about how to write a script. If you are interesting in screenwriting, make sure to take a look at this feature.
Continuing with Raphaelson, the audio recordings of him and Richard Corliss at the Museum of Modern Art in 1977 are included as well. Corliss gives an introductory lecture (07m:44s) prior to the screening of Heaven Can Wait, but it is the conversation between Corliss and Raphaelson after the screening that is so interesting. Running just over 26 minutes, the conversation covers lots of new information on the script not repeated elsewhere. Raphaelson is full of humor as he recalls his experience with Hitchcock and others. There is also a question and answer session with the audience (18m:12s) that gives more information, although it is difficult to hear what the audience member is asking.
Rounding out the supplemental features is a tribute to Ernst Lubitsch's musical skills. Ernst Lubitsch: A Musical Collage (04m:31s) contains pictures of the man from the set and in his office as a recording of him playing different piano tunes occupies the front sound stage. It's nothing extraordinary, but the introduction to it by his daughter, Nicola, (03m:57s) is a touching addition worthy of a listen.
"As Hollywood recedes, Lubitsch's role as a creative entrepreneur and as the germ of European sophistication becomes more fascinating. Considering the way he was rebuffed by Mary Pickford on his first American film, Rosita, and so wittily mocked for his Teutonic stubbornness, it is remarkable that he achieved such eminence in Hollywood and that his reputation rested on the supposed delicacy of "touch"." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)
"After joining Warner Brothers, he directed five films that firmly established his thematic interests. The films were small in scale, dealt openly with sexual and psychological relationships in and out of marriage, refrained from offering conventional moral judgments, and demystified women. As Molly Haskell and Marjorie Rosen point out, Lubitsch created complex female characters who were aggressive, unsentimental, and able to express their sexual desires without suffering the usual pains of banishment or death." - Greg S. Faller (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)
"Lubitsch was always the least Germanic of German directors, as Lang was the most Germanic. The critics were always so obsessed with what Lubitsch naughtily left off the screen that they never fully evaluated what was left on... Lubitsch was the last of the genuine continentals let loose on the American continent, and we shall never see his like again because the world he celebrated had died - even before he did - everywhere except in his own memory." - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
"The man with the cynical, delightful touch created an aristocratic world of yesteryear, then poked fun at it. Lubitsch could say volumes by implication and innuendo." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
"I sometimes make pictures which are not up to my standard, but then it can only be said of a mediocrity that all his work is up to his standard." - Ernst Lubitsch
"I let the audience use their imaginations. Can I help it if they misconstrue my suggestions?" - Ernst Lubitsch
The most widely imitated comic filmmaker of the sound era, Ernst Lubitsch perfected an urbane, graceful directorial style so original and so distinctive that the phrase "Lubitsch Touch" was coined simply to describe it. Combining elegance and wit to bring a tremendous warmth and humanity to even the thinnest of screenplays, he set a new standard of achievement for the light romantic comedy, largely defining the genre while also helping to revolutionize the movie musical as well as various recording techniques.
In Hollywood’s “golden era,” most directors were considered mere worker bees, not artistes. It was the producer who took primary attribution for a movie, impresarios like Thomas Ince and Adolf Zukor, and of course the stars who claimed primary fan-mag space. Nobody went to a movie because it was directed by so-and-so … because they would be hard-pressed to name one more specifically than, er, “so-and-so.”Ernst Lubitsch was a shining early exception, and stayed one to the end of his career. The famed “Lubitsch Touch” was a catchphrase filmgoers came to associate with “Continental” wit, sophistication and sauciness unique to the director himself. He was imitated but never matched.
In 1932 Lubitsch directed his first non-musical sound comedy, Trouble in Paradise. Most critics consider this film to be, if not his best, then at least the complete embodiment of everything that has been associated with Lubitsch: sparkling dialogue, interesting plots, witty and sophisticated characters, and an air of urbanity—all part of the well-known "Lubitsch Touch." What constitutes the "Lubitsch Touch" is open to continual debate, the majority of the definitions being couched in poetic terms of idolization. Andrew Sarris comments that the "Lubitsch Touch" is a counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film's gayest moments. Leland A. Poague sees Lubitsch's style as being gracefully charming and fluid, with an "ingenious ability to suggest more than he showed. . . ." Observations like this last one earned Lubitsch the unfortunate moniker of "director of doors," since a number of his jokes relied on what unseen activity was being implied behind a closed door.
Regardless of which romantic description one chooses, the "Lubitsch Touch" can be most concretely seen as deriving from a standard narrative device of the silent film: interrupting the dramatic interchange by focusing on objects or small details that make a witty comment on or surprising revelation about the main action. Whatever the explanation, Lubitsch's style was exceptionally popular with critics and audiences alike. Ten years after arriving in the United States he had directed eighteen features, parts of two anthologies, and was recognized as one of Hollywood's top directors.
"The Lubitsch Touch" – it was as famous a monicker as Hitchcock's "Master of Suspense" – but perhaps not as superficial. The phrase does connote something light, strangely indefinable, yet nonetheless tangible, and seeing Lubitsch films – more than in almost any other director's work – one can feel this spirit; not only in the tactful and impeccably appropriate placement of camera, the subtle economy of his plotting, the oblique dialogue which had a way of saying everything through indirection, but also – and particularly – in the performance of every single player, no matter how small the role. Jack Benny told me that Lubitsch would act out in detail exactly how he wanted something done – often broadly but always succinctly – knowing, the comedian said, that he would translate the direction into his own manner and make it work. Clearly, this must have been Lubitsch's method with all his actors because everyone in a Lubitsch movie – whether it's Benny or Gary Cooper, Lombard or Kay Francis, Maurice Chevalier or Don Ameche, Jeanette MacDonald or Claudette Colbert – performs in the same unmistakable style. Despite their individual personalities – and Lubitsch never stifled these – they are imbued with the director's private view of the world, which made them behave very differently than they did in other films.
This was, in its own way, inimitable – though Lubitsch has had many imitators through the years – yet none has succeeded in capturing the soul of that attitude, which is as difficult to describe as only the best styles are, because they come from some fine inner workings of the heart and mind and not from something as apparent as, for instance, a tendency to dwell on inanimate objects as counterpoint to his characters' machinations. Certainly Lubitsch was famous for holding on a closed door while some silent or barely overheard crisis played out within, or for observing his people in dumb show through closed windows. This was surely as much a part of his style as it was an indication of his sense of delicacy and good taste, the boundless affection and respect he had for the often flighty and frivolous men and women who played out their charades for us in his glorious comedies and musicals.
Lubitsch had a terrific impact on American movies. Jean Renoir was exaggerating only slightly when he told me recently, "Lubitsch invented the modern Hollywood," for his influence was felt, and continues to be, in the work of many of even the most individualistic directors. Hitchcock has admitted as much to me and a look at Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise and Hitchcock's To Catch A Thief (both plots deal with jewel thieves so the comparisons are easy) will reveal how well he learned, though each is distinctly the work of the man who signed it. Billy Wilder, who was a writer on a couple of Lubitsch films – including the marvelous Ninotchka – has madeseveral respectful forays into the world of Lubitsch, as have many others with less noteworthy results. Even two such distinctive film makers as Frank Borzage and Otto Preminger, directing pictures which Lubitsch only produced – Desire (Borzage), A Royal Scandal and That Lady in Ermine (Preminger) – found themselves almost entirely in the service of his unique attitudes, and these movies are certainly far more memorable for those qualities than for ones usually associated with their credited directors. (Actually, Lubitsch is credited for That Lady in Ermine, but this was a sentimental gesture since he suffered a fatal heart attack and only shot eight days of it before Preminger took over.)
Lubitsch brought a maturity to the handling of sex in pictures that was not dimmed by the dimness of the censors that took over in the early Thirties, because his method was so circuitous and light that he could get away with almost anything. And that was true in everything he did. No other director, for example, has managed to let a character talk directly to the audience (as Chevalier did in The Love Parade and One Hour with You) and pull it off. There is always something coy and studied in it, but Lubitsch managed just the right balance between reality and theatricality – making the most outrageous device seem natural and easy; his movies flowed effortlessly and though his hand was felt, even seen, it was never intrusive.
After Lubitsch's funeral in 1947, his friends Billy Wilder and William Wyler were walking sadly to their car. Finally, to break the silence, Wilder said, "No more Lubitsch," and Wyler answered, "Worse than that – no more Lubitsch films." The following year, the French director?critic, Jean-Georges Auriol, wrote a loving tribute that made the same point; titled "Chez Ernst," it can be found in Herman Weinberg's affectionate collection, The Lubitsch Touch (Dutton). After comparing the director's world to an especially fine restaurant where the food was perfect and the service meticulous, the piece ends this way: "How can a child who cries at the end of the summer holidays be comforted? He can be told that another summer will come, which will be equally wonderful. But he cries even more at this, not knowing how to explain that he won't be the same child again. Certainly Lubitsch's public is as sentimental as this child; and it knows quite well that 'Ernst's' is closed on account of death. This particular restaurant will never be open again."
Even on brief acquaintance with Ernst Lubitsch’s films, one observes that his actors come to a dead stop after every line, and that a beat of silence separates each bit of dialogue from the next. The actors further emphasize the artifice by using a rise-and-fall delivery that makes every line a set-up or a summation, stylizing any hints of psychology into elements of rhythm. By contrast, directors like McCarey, LaCava or Capra try to preserve psychology, and create rhythm more between lines than within them. Compare, say, the scene in LaCava’s Bed ofRoses (1933) in which Constance Bennett impersonates a journalist in order to seduce wealthy John Halliday, and the scene in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) in which Miriam Hopkins impersonates a secretary to gain access to the house of wealthy Kay Francis. In addition to the startling resemblance of Bennett and Hopkins in their mousy working-girl disguises--was LaCava “quoting” the Lubitsch film?--the dialogue in both scenes snaps back and forth in similar ping-pong style. But the scenes play quite differently: Bennett embroiders her charade with little bits of characterization that take her speech patterns in many directions, whereas Hopkins’ moments of concealment and unwitting revelation are confined within a narrow tonal range that emphasizes the musical aspect of the repartee.
This acting style, which occurs throughout Lubitsch’s sound films (and, in spirit at least, in the silent films as well, where actions and gestures are similarly discrete), reminds us that Lubitsch had his start in the theater. Though Lubitsch the actor eventually ascended to Max Reinhardt's theater company, the acting in his films evokes “lower” forms of comic theater: operetta of course, but also farce and vaudeville skit humor. The resemblance between the measured, often exaggerated acting style found in these comic traditions and in Lubitsch’s films points to a more interesting correspondence: Lubitsch's actors, like their theatrical counterparts, tend to establish a direct relationship with the audience, an understanding based on a shared knowing perspective on the fiction. In the most pronounced instances (such as Maurice Chevalier's characters in the thirties musicals), Lubitsch characters feel free to address the audience directly, and walk through the plot with the smiling detachment of vaudeville entertainers; they are as much narrators of as participants in the drama. One can see the same tendency, in a more restrained form, in other Lubitsch characters--like Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise or Charles Boyer in Cluny Brown (1946)--who remain more or less within the boundaries of the fiction but express the same amused overview on the action that Lubitsch encourages in the audience.
Another example, from a later period of Lubitsch's career: in Heaven Can Wait (1943), Gene Tierney breaks down crying over her imminent marriage to Allyn Joslyn, and tells Don Ameche the story of her engagement. Though she goes out of her way to express her affection for her parents and her home state in the course of this story, she lets slip one phrase after another that shows her true dislike of each.
Tierney: Well, you see, I always wanted to live in New York. I don’t want to say anything against Kansas, but--life on my father’s estate...Don’t misunderstand me, we have all the modern conveniences and luxuries, but...oh, and you don’t know Father and Mother.
Ameche: Well, I’ve only just met them.
Tierney: Don’t you think they’re sweet?
Ameche: Well, yes, very sweet.
Tierney: Yes, they are. But it’s not very easy to live with them. You see, most of the time they don’t talk to one another. And whenever a young man--and there were some very nice ones...
Ameche: Oh, I’m sure of it.
Tierney: ...if one of them asked for my hand, and my mother said yes, my father said no. And when my father said yes, my mother said no. But Albert came at one of those rare moments when they were both on speaking terms. And if I hadn’t said yes, who knows when my parents might have been talking to each other again. I might have spent the rest of my life in Kansas. Don’t misunderstand me--I love Kansas. It’s just that I don’t feel like living there. Besides, I don’t want to be an old maid. Not in Kansas!
As with the scene from The Smiling Lieutenant, there are two usual approaches to such material: Tierney's hostile feelings toward family and home could slip out without her meaning to reveal them; or she could show an awareness of her emotional contradictions by acknowledging them. Instead of either approach, Tierney delivers both positive and negative feelings in identical tones of tearful confiding; she is completely untroubled at moving from one extreme to the other without transition. Tierney the actor realizes the contradictions of which Tierney's character is plainly unaware, demonstrating this by leveling her affect to heighten the contrast between content and delivery. If we look at the scenes discussed above and the three alternative acting approaches that I've suggested--the poles of unawareness and awareness, and Lubitsch's actor-aware/character-unaware strategy--it's interesting to note that, in the context of the scriptwriting, only Lubitsch's approach is obviously comic. Both the other approaches tend to illuminate the character's psychology; if we try to apply them to the scenes in question, the tone moves a notch toward drama, mitigating against big laughs. This is not to say that psychologically oriented acting can't be funny--there are almost as many counterexamples as there are comic directors--but it does suggest that Lubitsch's comic style is built into his material, and that his acting strategies work only because they are set up at the writing stage.
Perhaps Lubitsch’s only reason for drawing on the conventions of theater is the opportunity they provide him to insert his overseeing viewpoint into the fiction. His actors acquire an all-knowing aura which is nonetheless curiously life-sized: they sit in the privileged seat of the film spectator.
Samson Raphaelson's great talent was in making true love seem so much more than a boy-meets-girl plot device, while at the same time cherishing the delicate patterns and structures of that device. Music and camerawork celebrate the artifice in One Hour with You and are elaborate in design; the revelation of an affair is given in soliloquy.
They worked most often with a Hungarian play as a springboard and finished with something entirely different, save for the bare bones of the original plot. Raphaelson himself tended to dismiss "writing in the Lubitsch vein," as his theatrical and literary concerns were most important to him, but the two of them (and let us not exclude Ernest Vajda) inspired one another "past all sanity."
Exotically beautiful debutante whose Broadway and then film career was fueled and promoted through a company owned by her insurance-broker father. (He sued his daughter for breach of the family corporation in the early 1940s.) Tierney's best roles include the hauntingly beautiful faux-murder victim in the noir classic "Laura" (1944); the neurotically possessive bride in John M. Stahl's 1945 melodrama "Leave Her to Heaven" (for which she received her only Oscar nomination); Vincent Price's young bride in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's period thriller "Dragonwyck" (1946), and the serene widow in Mankiewicz's lovely romantic fantasy "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947).
Divorced from designer Oleg Cassini in 1952, Tierney fell in love with Aly Khan but suffered a nervous breakdown when he left her during the filming of "The Left Hand of God" (1955). She was promptly suspended by Fox and did not return to acting until "Advise and Consent" in 1962. In 1960 Tierney had married Texas oilman W. Howard Lee, former husband of Hedy Lamarr. She penned a candid autobiography, "Self Portrait", in 1979.
The following is a rough translation of an essay by Stefan Pethke of the Kunst der Vermittlung project. I used Babelfish and Google Translation to stitch together the most coherent translation I could manage; by no means perfect but hopefully you’ll get the idea:
How beautifully the doors fly open, naturally by a spirit hand, when Lee in the opening sequence of this work paraphrases exactly a passage of Evil Dead II, with which it then really enters into the film: a rapid camera movement from an American single family house to the outside. Here upturned: underlaid with the scary sound of the original track we leave sunny New Yorker streets, in time lapse over stairway, dark passage and several rooms on a television zuzustürzen, in which the referenced scene runs. So it could go ever further.
In the television room a young woman lies on the bed, cheaply on dead made up (Cinephilie meuchelt Libido? …). Two sheets of paper lie beside her. In the YouTube dissolution is not to be deciphered, which could stand on them written.
Road - house - room - televisions - the journey goes into an inside. The rerecording into the discussed film is appropriate for arisen door on one rabiat: instead of the screen from glass wood splinters. We penetrate into the film. Interpretation as violent act.
Only after this prologue Lee in the offscreen seizes the word. Its economical comment concentrates on the relationship between comedy and anxiety in EVIL DEAD II; appropriate pairs of opposites pulls through Lees discourse: funny/scary, more laughter/terror, Texas Chainsaw Massacre/TexAvery, Daffy Duck/Jack Nicholson (in Shining).
Lee concentrates also on the main figure. He selected excluding cutouts, which show the actor Bruce Campbell alone. Without expressing it explicitly, Lee formulates so also that it goes in the horror category on most different ways around fights into head and soul, around self-arguments, around disturbances of sensitive internal equilibrium up to the uncontrolled intoxication of the irrational one, to the bad trip.
In addition a remarkable characteristic are Lee’s writing modules. In the telegram style it supplies with their assistance detailed information to special effects. Knowing how it’s made can drive the fright out. The favorite child of numerous DVD bonus distances so in addition, rightfully zurechtgestutzt on footnote dimension.
In Evil DEAD II leads the main figure Ash a war of extermination against his own hand. This war is also then not yet past, when Ash separates by means of chainsaw from the hand. It lives its own life even without a host body, but at the moment of amputation may be the triumph of Ash howling not resist: "Who's laughing now?” It pushes several times out. The question is wrongly posed, it should be: Why? Lee alludes, by reminding us of the abrupt end of his short essay of the uneasiness, which is inherent in our laughter.
A series of loosely connected anecdotes reminiscing over the heyday of radio programs and their effect on a Queens household modeled after that of Woody Allen's childhood, Radio Days resembles a standup routine more than any of the work of this legendary comedian-turned-actor/director. Allen's buoyant voiceover accompanies a wall-to-wall soundtrack of period jazz, a fluid, hard-driving talk-and-tunes narrative approach that anticipates the first hour of Scorsese's GoodFellas [TSPDT #99] by a few years. A third of the anecdotes lead nowhere other than to provide amusing flourishes to this vivid period portrait, but the general narrative disjunction makes sense in a film whose underlying philosophy is to resist the passage of time, though history registers gently with the onset of World War II and its effect on both the family and the radio industry. Its hometown nostalgia owes a debt to Fellini's Amarcord [TSPDT #82] and Allen's cartoonish cast is also Felliniesque, with not one but two Giulietta Masini holy fool types who are the only characters possessing a narrative arc (Mia Farrow as an aspiring radio star and Dianne Wiest as a spinster aunt looking for Mr. Right).
It's typical of the leveling tendency of Allen's social worldview to make the radio stars seem banal in their appearances and concerns, while the humble working class Jewish family and neighborhood denizens carry the aura of genuine experience, especially in a series of coarse but witty family arguments. The stars only matter because of the feelings and fantasies they evoke among family members, leading to some gently lyrical moments such as a girl in a makeshift Carmen Miranda getup doing a bedroom cha-cha while family members look on. Allen's attempt to bridge the gap between the glamorous radio world the outer boroughs comes through Farrow's cigarette girl looking for a break into the studio, a saga whose exaggerated incidents (involving gangster hits and Pearl Harbor) are largely unconvincing despite Farrow's best attempts to channel Judy Holliday. A number of the punchlines are quaintly anachronistic (i.e. one of Wiest's suitors aborting date rape when he hears Orson Welles' panic-inducing War of the Worlds broadcast on the radio) and for that reason a number of them land limply (i.e. one of Wiest's dates turning out to be gay).
But even these anecdotes roll by in a rush of such nostalgic goodwill that it's hard not to embrace its immense charms. Those charms are due in part to fluid camerawork and triumphant art direction, each set filled with loving detail and shot in brown tones as cozy as a hot cup of coffee. Ironically - and fittingly - the lush visual design could vanish, leaving the rich soundtrack of Allen's voiceover, the airtight comic banter and music to thrive as a ninety minute radio program of its own.
Wanna go deeper?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Radio Days among the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Jaume Figueras, Nickel Odeon (1994)Mike Leigh, Empire (2008)Sonke Wortmann, Steadycam (2007)Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987)David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Stig Bjorkman: Was Radio Days a story you'd been planning to make for a long time? Woody Allen: It originated from an idea that I wanted to pick out a group of songs that were meaningful to me, and each one of those songs suggested a memory. Then this idea started to evolve: how important radio was to me when I was growing up and how important and glamorous it seemed to everyone.
SB:It's a very elaborate script, considering all the elements in it: the family, the school, the radio events, the radio personalities..WA: A film like Radio Days presents a particular type of problem. When you don't have a 'What happens next?' story, when you're working with anecdotal material, the trick, I feel, is that you have to sustain each thing on its own brilliance, on its own rhythm, on its own style. So you really have to work very, very hard to make a movie like that, because you have to know that the anecdotes that you're relating to the audience an hour, an hour and a half into the film are not going to bore them. That they're still going to find them fresh and funny. It's a difficult kind of film to do, a non-plot, a non-conventional plot film.
''Radio Days,'' which opens today at the New York Twin and other theaters, is as free in form as it is generous of spirit. It's a chronicle of a family during the radio years, as well as a series of short-short stories. These follow, one after another, like the tales of Scheherazade, if Scheherazade had been a red-headed little Jewish boy in the Rockaways, born poor, star-struck, infinitely curious, and seriously incompetent as a juvenile criminal.
''Radio Days'' is so densely packed with vivid detail of place, time, music, event and character that it's virtually impossible to take them all in in one sitting. Carlo Di Palma is again responsible for the stunning photography, and Santo Loquasto for the production design.
The film is nothing if not generous with - and to - its talent. Miss Farrow is hilariously common-sensical as the ambitious cigarette girl (''Who is Pearl Harbor?'' she asks in bewilderment on Dec. 7, 1941), and Diane Keaton, on the screen only a few minutes, helps to bring the film to its magical conclusion with a lovely, absolutely straight rendition of ''You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to.'' It's New Year's Eve, 1943, and Mr. Allen's radio days are as numbered as those of Proust's old Prince de Guermantes.
At this point I can't think of any film maker of Mr. Allen's generation with whom he can be compared, certainly no one at work in American movies today. As the writer, director and star (even when he doesn't actually appear) of his films, Mr. Allen works more like a novelist who's able to pursue his own obsessions, fantasies and concerns without improvements imposed on him by committees.
At this point, too, his films can be seen as part of a rare continuum. Each of us has his favorite Allen movie, but to cite one over another as ''more important,'' ''bigger,'' ''smaller'' or ''less significant'' is to miss the joys of the entire body of work that is now taking shape. ''Radio Days'' is a joyful addition.
Woody Allen offers brief, casually brilliant parodies of radio performers and formats: an inspirational sports storyteller modeled on Bill Stern; a smarmy counselor like Mr. Anthony; and, of course, a superhero for boys, the "Masked Avenger." The slender thread holding this part of the movie together recounts the rise from cigarette girl to airwaves gossip star of Sally White (played with her customary comic poignance by Mia Farrow).
The other part is about the listening audience. Here Allen finds cross section enough in a single source, an extended lower-middle-class Jewish family in Rockaway, Queens. Among these dreamers by the glowing dial, the most touching and memorable is again a woman, Aunt Bea (played with becoming lack of sentiment by Dianne Wiest). Since this nameless clan lives near Allen's old neighborhood and includes a shy, slender, red-haired boy, the unwary may conclude that Allen is being autobiographical.
But Radio Days has larger ambitions. Rather than a personal history or an exercise in nostalgia, it is a meditation on the evanescence of seemingly permanent institutions. To a child like Joe (Seth Green), it is inconceivable that something as powerful as radio could ever disappear. Might as well tell him that one day his family will cease to be a similarly compelling reality. But here it is, 1987, and Joe is a voice-over narrator of a movie with no coherent narrative, only such anecdotes as groping memory can rescue from the receding past. In the most delicate way imaginable, the snippets drawn from the seemingly great world of broadcasting and those from the little world of listening shed the most affecting and provocative light on each other. Somehow, one thinks of Chekhov, and is once again astonished by the complexity and clarity of Woody Allen's vision.
Allen is not concerned with creating a story with a beginning and an end, and his movie is more like a revue in which drama is followed by comedy and everything is tied together by music, by dozens of lush arrangements of the hit songs of the 1940s. He has always used popular music in his movies, but never more than this time, where the muscular, romantic confidence of the big-band sound reinforces every memory with the romance of the era.
In form and even in mood, it is closest to Federico Fellini's "Amarcord," which also was a memory of growing up - of family, religion, sex, local folk legends, scandalous developments and intense romantic yearn ings, underlined with wall-to-wall band music. In a way, both films have nostalgia itself as one of their subjects. What they evoke isn't the long-ago time itself, but the memory of it. There is something about it being past and gone and irretrievable that makes it more precious than it ever was at the time.
"Radio Days" is so ambitious and so audacious that it almost defies description. It's a kaleidoscope of dozens of characters, settings and scenes - the most elaborate production Allen has ever made - and it's inexhaustible, spinning out one delight after another.
Although there is no narrative thread from beginning to end, there is a buried emotional thread. Like music, the movie builds toward a climax we can't even guess is coming, and then Allen finds the perfect images for the last few minutes for a bittersweet evocation of goodbye to all that.
Didn't Neil Simon already do this? But there wasn't much radio consciousness to speak of in Brighton Beach Memoirs, and anyway Woody Allen's semiautobiographical Jewish family lives in Rockaway, Queens, rather than Brooklyn, so I guess not. The good news is that Allen has returned here to the broad anecdotal sources of his humor (after a dutiful Chekhov vacation with Hannah and Her Sisters); the bad news is that the obligations of being a serious film stylist have taken a heavy toll. Nothing's very fresh and nothing's very incisive, but everything bobs along blandly like a well-meaning exercise in therapeutic remembering (what Allen remembers mostly is a suffocating radio blanket of big band music: even Jesus stations have more programming variety than this). The bed-hopping fate of Mia Farrow's aspiring airwave starlet sums up the film's inconsequentiality: despite her career exertions, she still winds up on the same cabaret rooftop where she started. Plus ca change, Woody, and ho-hum.
While the music gives the film a certain authenticity, it also serves to make one wonder how much of the rest of Allen's material is authentic. Either the radio shows Allen heard on the East Coast were entirely different from those heard during the '40s on the West Coast, or he simply made up a lot of them.
One is forced to think about authenticity after the laughs stop - about two-thirds of the way through the film. That's when Allen seems to run out of comic material, having exhausted the humor inherent in Joe's quirky family: his perennially battling parents, Aunt Bea's unsuccessful search for the perfect husband, Uncle Abe's fondness for fish.
When Allen tries to turn serious, it doesn't really work.
Radio Days followed one of Allen's most ambitious films, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and seemed to be done for comic relief after the emotional complexity of the previous film. Allen himself told interviewer Stig Bjorkman, "I think of Radio Days basically as a cartoon. If you look at my mother, my Uncle Abe, my schoolteacher, my grandparents, they were supposed to be cartoon exaggerations of what my real-life people were like." Allen himself narrates the film, in the first person.
Allen's use of music in his films has always been masterful, and Radio Days is one of the finest examples of his mastery. In fact, he told Bjorkman, music was the original starting point for the film. "It originated from an idea that I wanted to pick out a group of songs that were meaningful to me, and each one of those songs suggested a memory. Then this idea started to evolve: how important radio was to me when I was growing up, and how important and glamorous it seemed to everyone." There are 43 songs used in the film, and some standout musical moments. In one scene, a teenage girl lip-synchs to a Carmen Miranda song, her head wrapped in a towel turban, watching herself in the mirror. Her father and uncle, charmed by her charade, join in. Near the end of the film, it's New Year's Eve 1943. Diane Keaton, in a cameo as a band vocalist, sings (in her own voice) the Cole Porter standard that expresses the longing of a war-weary nation: You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To. Allen says, "I wanted to make sure, since Diane was making one little appearance in the picture, that the song was potent." It was.
Radio Days marks the only time that Allen's two longtime companions and muses - former flame Diane Keaton and his then-current partner Mia Farrow - appeared in the same film. Keaton has remained friends with Allen over the years; Farrow has not. After a bitter, litigious, and highly publicized breakup, Farrow remains estranged from Allen and her daughter, Allen's wife Soon-Yi Previn.
Reviews for Radio Days were mostly raves, although there were a few dissenters, such as the always-acerbic John Simon of the National Review, who called it "really a congeries of blackout sketches barely bothering to make like a connected narrative, scoring now and then and falling flat the rest of the time." But Variety called it "One of Allen's most purely entertaining pictures. It's a visual monolog of bits and pieces from the glory days of radio and people who tuned in.... Radio Days is not simply about nostalgia, but the quality of memory and how what one remembers informs one's present life." Allen's warm, funny screenplay and Santo Loquasto's nostalgic and detailed art direction both received Oscar® nominations.
A trip down memory lane for Allen (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose), who lovingly reconstructs the life and times of growing up during in Rockaway Beach, New York in the Golden Age of radio. Radio Days is teeming with nostalgia value, and even if you didn't grow up in that era, Allen does a masterful job recreating the look and feel of the era, such that you'll also be nostalgic even if you've never lived it.
It's not all sunshine and roses, as Radio Days is more of a bittersweet experience. The radio can bring both happiness, such as remembering a time when life was good, but also sadness, where a song will remind you of a long-gone loved one or inform you of the tragedies of the day. Like many nostalgia films, it is very sentimentalized in its delivery, and as is typical of Allen's storytelling style, real-life events are altered and shaped for purposes of creating a funny scene or poignant dramatics.
You'll love it for the characters, the sweetness and Allen's wonderful blend of humor and heartfelt drama, making Radio Days one of the best films of his career. It's not as substantial as some of his other works, and will probably quickly fade from memory once it's over, but that's ok...like any fond memory, this is the kind of film you'll probably revisit time and again.
Excerpt: Diane Keaton singing "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To"
John Baxter, who has written the definitive biography of Woody Allen, calls Radio Days “Allen’s most logistically ambitious film since Love & Death.” To include 150 performers in an Allen film is almost unheard of, and a daunting task for a filmmaker accustomed to casts numbering fewer than 20. Yet somehow, Allen handles his ensemble with ease and manages to pack the film with a wallop, particularly for a film that runs less than ninety minutes.
The film can loosely be divided into two parts, pre-Second World War innocence and then post-1941 optimism as characters like the Masked Avenger suddenly take on more political and patriotic roles. While I don’t want to give away all the vignettes, I should point out that the “Hitting Rabbi” scene should leave you in stitches and, as with all of Allen’s films, there are priceless one-liners that make repeated viewing a requirement.
To a generation raised in Top 40 and all-news formats, radio is often little more than background noise. But to an older generation, it connotes a magic theatre of sound and incident. Radio Days affectionately eavesdrops on the past and gives everyone a wonderful opportunity to re-imagine what it was like when this communications medium was king.
The film is a series of vignettes, clearly drawn from Allen's days as a youngster, and only tangentially interrelated. It's almost overly upbeat -- to the point where you wish Woody would get a little more miserable from time to time.
Woody Allen has never disguised his love of the thirties and forties nor his love of old-time radio. I´ve never disguised my love of "Radio Days" as one of my favorite Woody Allen pictures. It´s a sweet, lighthearted, nostalgic look back at an era before the tube, when voices were king, when comedy was innocent, and when music was still listenable. "Radio Days" may not have the depth or insight of films like his "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," or "Crimes and Misdemeanors," but blessed with a plethora of fine tunes, fine characters, and fine jokes, it´s one of the most enjoyable things Allen´s ever done.
Radio Days is a warm, sunny piece of American nostalgia told with the visual flair of Fellini, but with all the humor and intelligence of Woody Allen.It’s a film so rich in memory that every time I see it, I wax nostalgic for the times depicted in it, even though they were decades before my birth.
The whole nostalgia theme is beautifully and comically handled.The film is like walking through memories, even to the point of realizing that memories are sometimes even better than the real thing.When the radio stars ponder their futures on New Years’ Eve of 1944, they wonder if they will be remembered.And Allen himself dutifully points out that memories do in fact get fainter and fainter as the years pass.
The radio days are indeed gone forever.But they couldn’t have asked for a better tribute than this warm, funny film from Woody Allen.
Radio Days is not about real history. This is the simplified world of a child's memories -- although Joe is no naïve waif -- and it is largely remembered with fondness. Woody Allen does not seem interested in exposing the "hypocrisy of simulation" or some such cliché about our immersion in popular culture. Frankfurt School theorists may find themselves at a loss at Woody's warm embrace of middle-class capitalist media. The film begins with an amusing story of burglars sidetracked on night by a phone call from "Guess That Tune." The next day, the family awakens to find their house robbed, but a driveway full of prizes won for them by the hapless burglars. In the end, the magic of popular media rewards its loyal followers, and everyone lives comfortably ever after.
Woody Allen has a difficult job in structuring this film around a series of anecdotes only loosely chronological in their order (the film's timeline runs roughly from the late 1930s until New Year's 1944, with the war still raging and the future uncertain), and in the hands of a less-able screenwriter, this film might have been a structural mess. But the rambling nature of the film ties in nicely with the sense that the narrator is merely another storyteller, conjuring whatever ghosts come most quickly to mind. Stories within stories within stories. How many of these things are true? Did Sally White really go from local girl to cultured star? Or does it even matter, if the stories are good enough on their own?
The script is really nothing but a dramatised collection of reminiscences, and as you'd expect from such a setup some are better than others. The biggest challenge of all is to make it hold together as a single entity. It works best as a box of treats to dip into whenever we feel like it, so unlike most films, catching five minutes here and there while channel surfing roughly equates to watching it in an 85 minute stretch. You could probably even watch it backwards, scene by scene, and it would still make about as much sense.
We have come to expect a certain level of performance from MGM on these Woody Allen discs. In this case, the mono soundtrack is perfectly suited to the film, given the predominance of old music and voice-over dialogue. Any radio static or hissy old records that play in the background enhance the nostalgic feel of the film. Unfortunately, the anamorphic transfer seems to have made the film a bit dark and created some muddy and slightly overenhanced coloring (particularly the reds). This may add to the cartoony look of the film, but it does get somewhat annoying. And, as always, no extra content is offered other than some production notes and a faded trailer.
"While most other recent screen comics have aimed their lamebrain, slapdash spoofery at teenage audiences, Allen Stewart Konigsberg, as he was born, has alone been consistent in catering to more adult tastes. His is a comedy increasingly defined by character: notably, his own." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)
"Great comedians almost always portray little men attempting to cope with the trappings of a civilization that is a bit too much for them, and Woody Allen is no exception. His insecurities - physical, sexual and emotional - are truly of monumental proportions." - (The Movie Makers, 1974)
Self-deprecating humor, classicly Jewish, boosts its audience as much as happy endings. Storytellers made self-doubting fools of themselves so their listeners -- other Jews who had no reason to feel better than anybody -- could have someone to feel one-up on, if only for the span of the joke. Similarly, Allen's viewers most likely feel as insecure and inept as his characters, but as he exaggerates his gaffs and lets us laugh at his expense we're assured we couldn't be as awful as that. If you've ever wondered why so much grief and tsuris flood Jewish humor (or why the Holocaust peppers so many of Allen's scripts), it's because, next to all that trouble, how bad could your life be? The Jewish talent for exaggerating life's bumps is the other side of fabricating impossibly smooth endings. Either way, audiences sigh a little in relief. (You'll recognize the sigh, too, as the archetypical Jewish response. Should some dour neighbor or relative sigh too deeply, as if to say life is indeed that bad, the story and the joke fall flat.)...
Allen's twenty-year body of work is a kitsch-en sink of Jewish storytelling, with the self-mockery and the paranoid, hypochondriacal exaggeration of difficulties thrown in, along with a taste for endings where evil is trounced and the good guys win -- even spectacled shlemiels like Allen. These tropes bend the course of the secular "Hannah" and "Another Woman" as surely as they do "Danny Rose" or "Radio Days", but in the former, the tradition and motive behind Allen's impulses aren't explicit. No one turns to the camera in "Hannah" and says, this adulterous mess may end hellishly in life but I need a happy ending onscreen so I'm going to conjure one up.
In her review of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) the late film critic Pauline Kael suggests that the reason New York critics love Woody Allen is that “they're applauding their fantasy of themselves”. In some of his films, including Stardust Memories (1980) and Deconstructing Harry (1997) Allen has explored being a prisoner of his own persona (whilst denying the likeness). Although the persona secured Allen a loyal audience, he has fallen in and out of favour with the film community partly, as Kael suggests, because of his appeal to the urbane quasi-intellectuals who critique cinema; a familiarity that has over time moved from intimate to contemptuous. Too often in recent years 'criticism' of Woody Allen's films has virtually forsaken content wherever it does not fit into a discussion of what seems to have become more important: his scandalous personal life.
With his strong background in writing, Allen's films, particularly the broadly comic ones, are dialogue-heavy (which Allen feels is more challenging than a film without dialogue). He works frequently with master shots and actor choreography, a technique more successfully realised in say Husbands and Wives (1992) than in Mighty Aphrodite (1996). Despite a widely perceived decline in the ambition and accomplishment of his films in the last decade he remains a key figure in the American film landscape. Both academic and popular film criticism on Allen most often employs psychoanalytic theory, as his subject matter corresponds easily to the Freudian concepts of desire, repression, and anxiety and sexuality. The thesis of The Denial of Death (a psychoanalytic text which Alvy buys Annie and reflects on after they separate in Annie Hall) cites as two strategies of evading mortality – sexuality, which Allen has embraced wholeheartedly in both his work and life, and the belief in and service to God, which he has not. Other critics have noted the parallels with philosophers such as Socrates and Jean-Paul Sartre, the latter with regard to the impossibility of authentic romantic commitment.
What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.
– Selections from the Allen Notebooks'
– You have no values. Your whole life, it's nihilism, it's cynicism, it's sarcasm, and orgasm.
– Y'know, in France I could run on that slogan and win.
– Deconstructing Harry
Natasha, to love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But, then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer, to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love, to be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy, therefore, to be unhappy one must love, or love to suffer, or suffer from too much happiness, I hope you're getting this down.
– Love and Death
These quotes encapsulate Allen's philosophy – he undercuts his own existential angst with absurd humour that provides distraction or comic relief and is in its own way an answer to these unanswerable questions. It is almost as if he is sending up the more austere philosophers who formulated these enquiries. His films are largely comedies – but, as one of his characters maintains, what is comedy but tragedy, plus time? (5) The spectre of death haunts many of Allen's films, as thanatos, the essential flipside to the forces of life and love that are irresistible.
Doc: Why are you depressed, Alvy?
Mother: Tell doctor [?] It's something he read.
Doc: Something you read, heh?
Alvy: The universe is expanding.
Doc: The universe is expanding?
Alvy: Well, the universe is everything, and if it's expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
Mother(shouting): What is that your business? (to doctor) He stopped doing his homework.
Alvy: What's the point?
Mother: What has the universe got to do with it? You're here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!
– Annie Hall
Allen appears fascinated by the fact that whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, death's constant presence is manifested in the idea of God and the possibility of moral order in the universe, the afterlife, fate. Throughout his career he has invested a scholar's commitment to the predicament of man in a doomed universe. For Allen these are all inescapable aspects of humanity and it is thus our lot to struggle with the paradoxes of desire and morality, freedom and faith, consummation and reflection. His films explore the perhaps pointless struggle to achieve resolution. Sometimes it appears, as in Annie Hall (1977), as the ironic dissatisfaction that comes when a much-yearned for ideal is attained and the reality is (necessarily) lacking. Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972) Annie Hall and Manhattan (1979) celebrate, nostalgically, the end of love. As a psychoanalytic notion nostalgia is a painful return, an uncanny pathology. In other films like Interiors (1978) Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) death is more patent – a mother commits suicide, a mistress is murdered in cold blood. The fatal aspect of romance for Allen is foregrounded. In Love and Death (1975), an earnest but comic take on the themes of sex, death and the possibility of an afterlife (set against a nineteenth century Russian literary landscape), Allen's character Boris cavorts through the woods with the Grim Reaper, both recalling and parodying the Death figure of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957).
Dino Risi, who passed away this June to little fanfare, helmed nearly 80 features over a career spanning seven decades, the most celebrated of them being this road comedy, one of the early influencers of the genre. A mild-mannered student (Jean-Louis Trintignant, more buttoned-up than usual) has his eyes opened to the excitements and vices of booming 60s Italy when he's taken for a ride by a braggadocio businessman (Vittorio Gassman, whose last name fits his character in terms of his talking and driving). The garrulous script is co-written by Ettore Scola (We All Loved Each Other So Much, A Special Day), and it shows in the story's reliance on broad social types who require a full story arc to acquire dimension and pathos. Trintignant never overcomes the flat naivete of his character, basically a prop for Gassman's blowhard hedonism, which borders on belligerence (not surprisingly, Risi also wrote and directed the original version of Scent of a Woman). But when Gassman points out a family secret to his protege's unbelieving eyes, he gains credibility as a social critic who's not so much an asshole as too smart for his own good, earning the film a rib-jabbing cynicism worthy of Billy Wilder. The sudden, tragic ending feels as arbitrary as the one in Easy Rider [TSPDT #331], a film it allegedly inspired, while other sardonic moments are undercut by the film's essential ambivalence towards its own social critique: a fete full of gum-chewing teenyboppers eager to lose their virginity brims with leering undertones of adult envy; a sun-baked beach party exceeds tourist ad levels of brain-fried fun. The Easy Life's ambivalent worldview may lack the singular formal curiosity of Antonioni (whose L'Eclisse is the target of the film's biggest punch lines) or the carnivalesque lyricism of Fellini, but the way it mixes equal parts hipper-than-thou wisecracks, mainstream morality and tasty dollops of la dolce vita may account for its mass appeal.
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Il Sorpaso / The Easy Life on the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Joaquin Oristrell, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Orlando Lubbert, Miscellaneous (2001)
Paolo D'Agostini, Sight & Sound (1992)
Rainer Knepperges, Steadycam (2007)
CIAK, 100 Capola Vori del Cinema (2000)
Italian Critics Best Italian Films 1942-1978 (2008)
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Vittorio Gassman as a middle-aged playboy who takes law student Jean-Louis Trintignant under his wing, the better to teach him the cynical lessons of modern Italian living. Dino Risi's corrosive social comedy managed to combine the aggressive energy of the French New Wave and the dissipated drift of Antoniennui in a way that seemed fresh and daring in the Italian commercial cinema of 1962. It still holds up today, though Risi's attachment to surfaces (the superficial as corollary of the social) looks less like criticism than complicity. Still, it's an unsentimental vision he offers, edging toward nihilism, with little of the thematic softening and emotional backing off that frequently mar the comparable efforts of Wilder. The cynicism is thoroughgoing and more than a little heartless, but the styling, with its astute balancing of commerce and modernist understanding, is resolutely assured.
DINO RISI, the Italian writer-director known here only for "Poor But Beautiful" ("Poveri Ma Belli"), shown in New York five years ago, has improved immensely to judge by "The Easy Life" ("Il Sorpasso"), which arrived at the Festival Theater yesterday. For his examination of an aimless wastrel and his destructive effect on an idealistic youngster and others, he merely touches on his flight from responsibility in a seemingly simple and obvious, yet sensitive commentary on what certainly are universal faults.
Call this a comedy-drama in which the comedy is only a surface symptom. Basically, Mr. Risi and his scenarists are telling the story of Bruno, a youthful but middle-aged happy-go-lucky type, who adores his fast white roadster as much as he does the girls and the self-indulgent life it symbolizes. This is also the story of Roberto, an ill-fated serious, Caspar Milquetoast-type of Roman law student who is drawn, quite casually, into Bruno's swift orbit for two days during which he loses not only his perspectives and ideals but also his life.
The views and the girls are extremely photogenic and the headlong dash toward fun and games would appear to be obvious and somewhat pointless if they did not add up to a dramatic whole.
But Mr. Risi's fast-paced direction and, more important, the truths he underlines, give his uncluttered film meaning and poignancy as well as mere speed. He is fortunate in his principals, too. Vittorio Gassman makes a superbly brash, coarse, hail-fellow-well-met Bruno who, in one of his rare moments of honest sadness, warns Roberto away from his "easy life" because "I've never had a real friend." As the diffident, introspective Roberto, Jean-Louis Trintignant, who has been seen here in a variety of French films, is excellent as his opposite number, an impressionable youngster whose shame and fears finally turn to admiration of his strange friend's "easy life."
After learning about commedia all’Italiano, I found more to appreciate in The EasyLife. I had always found the film a high-spirited adventure made on a modest budget and influenced by the breezy style of the French New Wave, but now I see it as the embodiment of comedy, Italian style. The deceptively simple story follows the adventures of Roberto, a young college student who is persuaded to hit the road with Bruno, an older playboy. Bruno drives a gleaming white sports way too fast, and he honks the cutesy-sounding horn way too much; the car makes a nice symbol of Bruno’s larger-than-life but invasive presence. My favorite part of Bruno’s car is the tiny record player built into the dashboard. In one scene, Roberto pops in a favorite record as the old man who is their temporary passenger looks on in wonder. (This is the pre-audiocassette era but who knew there were cars equipped with record players!).
The pair whiz past newly built apartment buildings that all look alike, stop by a popular but overly crowded new tourist spot along the beach, talk about modern alienation as revealed in the new Antonioni movie, and listen to new music in Bruno’s high-priced sports car — all the result of the economic prosperity and consumerism foisted on the public by marketing and advertising.
The audience identifies with Roberto, and sometimes the camera is positioned in the car’s back seat, creating the illusion that we are riding along with the pair and are part of the party. Like Roberto, we are repelled by Bruno (the embodiment of the new Italy), who is rude, crass, and disrespectful of religion, monogamy, and other traditional values. But, also like Roberto, we are attracted to this handsome playboy, because he is sexy, fun, and just too hip for the room. Yet, we are right to be wary of him, and at the end of the film, we discover the consequences of his lifestyle and its influence on a new generation. The film’s title, The Easy Way, has a double meaning; it not only refers to Bruno’s preferred lifestyle but it was also contemporary slang for Italy’s economic boom.
There are curves that you cannot fail to remember. We're are not talking about breasts here, we're talking about the Calafuria reef near Castiglioncello. This is where Bruno Cortona (interpreted by Jean-Louis Trintignant) died in a car accident, in the Italian cult movie Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life) by Dino Risi. The shore between Livorno and Rosignano has always been famous as a tourist spot, but after hosting the set of Il Sorpasso, Vittorio Gassman's most popular movie, it turned into a symbolic place, forever branding the Italian cinematographic imaginary.
The movie by Dino Risi - who recently passed away at the age of 91 - was shot in the summer of 1961, casting places like the Pineta Marradi, the Pratovecchio and the Romito on the movie screens, giving a new dimension to the cinematographic holidays. Il Sorpasso pictured the road as a symbolic space, taking place at the end of the Italian boom ruined by the individualism and coarseness of industrial society, turning this movie into a national cultural phenomenon and allegedly inspired the American road movie Easy Rider.
The movie's most memorable symbol is the Via Aurelia, the Roman road which also gives the name to Vittorio Gassman's spyder, the Aurelia B24. The trip starts from the capital's high class quarters, winds down the "borgate romane" (the working-class suburbs of Rome) and runs along the Fregene and Capalbio shores, motoring through places that capture the generational myth of the summer holidays and the awkward euphoria of people who have just discovered the freedom of the open road.
- Martina Magno, Emanuela Marchetti, Check In Architecture. See accompanying video with footage of locations from the film as they exist today:
There is a brief but telling scene in Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life, 1962) that encapsulates his vision as a film-maker. In it, Vittorio Gassman’s playboy parks his racer illegally, and then casually tucks under the windscreen wiper the parking ticket from a neighbouring car so as to avoid getting a fine himself.
The gesture’s mix of elegance, bravado and cunning are for Risi both the best and worst of his fellow Italians’ characteristics, and emblematic too of the country’s postwar transformation from the values of a traditional society to those of consumerism.
This theme supplied the material for the most successful of his 50-odd films, and customarily led Risi to be hailed as one of the chief creators, both as director and screenwriter, of the commedia all’italiana, at once funny and tragic. It might be more insightful, however, to say that the preoccupations of his films simply chimed with his own character — sardonic, melancholic, perpetually unfaithful and disappointed in love. He had trained as a psychiatrist, and his work is notable for its psychological insight.
The title "maestro of Italian film comedy" was one that Dino Risi, who has died aged 91, shared with Mario Monicelli, 18 months older, but still alive. Along with the late Pietro Germi, who made Divorce, Italian Style (1961), they created the genre which became known as "comedy Italian style", a considerable improvement on the average Italian comic films of the time. Even if Risi's 1974 film Profumo di Donna (Scent of a Woman), with Vittorio Gassman as man trying to come to terms with his blindness, was perhaps his greatest international success (winning him an Oscar nomination for its screenplay and a Hollywood remake with Al Pacino) it was his 1962 comedy, also starring Gassman, Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life), which was to become a cult movie. It is among the films that most reflected the mood of its times, in this case the social malaise behind the Italian economic "miracle" of the 1960s.
Like Germi and Monicelli, but also Federico Fellini, of whom he was a friend and admirer, Risi never took part in the militant political battles of those years, and was thus often snubbed by leftist intellectuals, but among his 50 or so features, many were biting satires of Italian foibles in which Gassman, who made 16 films under his direction, and other great stars of those years such as Ugo Tognazzi, Marcello Mastroianni, Nino Manfredi, Sophia Loren and Monica Vitti had scintillating and significant roles.
Risi was the son of a distinguished Milan doctor who was the physician of the La Scala opera house: among his patients was a young journalist named Benito Mussolini. But the Risi family was anti-fascist, and after the armistice of 1943 it refused to become involved with Mussolini's puppet republic of Salò. The family took refuge in Switzerland, where Dino and his brother Nelo, a poet also destined to become a film director, forgot their medical studies and became interested in films.
In Geneva, Risi took a film course with exiled French director Jacques Feyder. Back in Milan after the war, to please his father he got his medical degree, but started making short films. One of these, Darkness in the Cinema, about a man suffering from depression who after an afternoon in the cinema recovers his joy for life, was seen by the producer Carlo Ponti, who bought it and hired Risi as a scriptwriter.
After his first two forgotten features, in 1955 he directed Loren in two films, in both of which she co-starred with Vittorio de Sica. One was The Sign of Venus, the other Scandal in Sorrento, the third of the popular Bread and Love films (Pane, Amore e ...), which the director of the first two films, Luigi Comencini, and their star Gina Lollobrigida had declined to make. These were followed by a series of comedy successes with young stars which were scathingly accused of turning neorealism into "rosy realism", but expanded the possibilities for Risi as a director.
In 1961 he made A Porte Chiuse (Behind Closed Doors) with Anita Ekberg, with whom he had an affair. That same year he made Una Vita Difficile (A Difficult Life), his first cynical look at the "social malaise" of the times, scripted by Rodolfo Sonego, in which Alberto Sordi plays an idealistic communist party follower who finally gives in to the temptations of the new capitalist era only when in desperate economic plight. Humiliated, he makes a pathetic if dignified attempt to save his honour. Recently restored, this film has at last won due recognition.
But it was the clamorous success of Il Sorpasso the next year that finally took Risi out of the "rosy realism" ghetto. Gassman played the phoney playboy driving a sports car around a deserted Rome on a summer's day who induces a studious young man (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) to keep him company, dragging him into an "Easy Rider" trip towards adventures on the road and in seaside resorts, before a reckless "sorpasso" (overtaking) sends the car over the cliffs. Gassman is thrown out of the car and survives, but Trintignant is killed. The producer did not want the tragic end, saying: "This is a comedy!" Risi made a bet with him: "If it rains tomorrow, I'll agree to find a happier ending." It did not rain, and the director's ending was shot as written, without damaging its box-office triumph.
Among his subsequent hits, of varying quality, the one still most appreciated remains I Mostri (The Monsters, 1963), 20 sketches in which Gassman and Tognazzi were given the chance to indulge in grotesque caricatures that ranged from fanatical soccer fans to corrupt politicians, a rogues' gallery that can still make Italians laugh and wince. But Risi would often tackle serious subjects such as in Caro Papà (Dear Dad, 1979), in which Gassman played a businessman former partisan, whose son studies semiotics but is a member of a terrorist group. He discovers too late that his son had been trying to convince his comrades not to execute him.
In 2002 Risi was given the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice film festival. Two years earlier he had already made his last film, a cynical look at the Miss Italy beauty contest which was shown only on television.
He was separated from his Swiss-born wife Claudia, mother of his two sons, Marco and Claudio, both film directors. He is survived by them and by the choreographer Leonice Snell, with whom he has lived for the past 30 years.
In the early 1950s, Italian cinema was turning away from the politically charged movement known as neorealism, with its harsh, documentary-like depiction of daily life. Adding an element of sentimentality and comedy, Mr. Risi joined a group of filmmakers who at first were condemned with the label “rose-colored neorealism,” but quickly earned the affection of an Italian public eager to put war trauma in the past.
Risi is considered one of the prime creators of "rose-tinted" neo-realism ("neo-realismo rosa"), having big box-office hits with Pane, amore e . . . (Scandal in Sorrento, 1955), starring Sophia Loren at her most voluptuous, and Poveri ma belli (Poor But Beautiful, 1956), after which he established himself as a master of caustic Neapolitan comedies that used buffoonery to satirise the often bleak realities of contemporary Italian life. "The Neapolitans say that there is no burial without a burst of laughter," he said. "Life is a mixture of the serious and the comical, the good and the bad, continuously."
Notable among these early movies was the first film he directed starring Gassman, Il Mattatore (Love and Larceny, 1959), and a very funny comedy poking fun at Italy's judiciary, A Porte Chiuse (Behind Closed Doors, 1960), featuring a delightful performance by Anita Ekberg as an amoral beauty on trial for the murder of her wealthy lover. Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life, 1962) starred Gassman as a hedonist travelling around Italy in a sports car with a shy student (Jean-Louis Tritagnant) and was described by the critic Paolo D'Agostini as "a skilful description of Italy's and Rosi's own transition from youthful euphoria to utilitarian cynicism."
Rosi told the French historian Jean A. Gili, "I joined the ranks, not of militant realism, but of those films which later revealed themselves to be perhaps even more politically committed than the ones that claimed to be, in their stressing of the evils of Italian society".
Asked to define his directorial style, Risi replied that it was hybrid. "Critics like classifications, they always want to put you in a compartment. I bring subjects to the screen that I'm interested in and which can be very dramatic, though I always add a pinch of irony in even the most serious stories". Risi was given a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 2002, the year he retired after spending his final years mainly writing for television. In 2004 he published an autobiography, I miei mostri ("My monsters").
Screened December 25, 2008 on MGM DVD in Weehawken NJ
TSPDT rank #796 IMDbWiki
A mellow apotheosis from Hollywood's most celebrated cynic. This gently naughty poke at Sherlock Holmes' emotional life and sexual proclivities reveals an inner desolation in its title character (Robert Stephens) that amounts to the most touchingly humanistic portrait of a human being in all of Billy Wilder's work. The trademark acerbic comic banter of Wilder and longtime co-writer I.A.L. Diamond is evident, but toned to a quaint Victorian repartee between Holmes and Watson as leisurely as a picnic game of badminton. Shot in warm, soft-focus with a loving attention to 19th-century detail, individual frames pop vibrantly like panels from a graphic novel, a visual splendor unmatched by anything in Wilder's career. This unprecdented meticulousness to mise-en-scene mirrors Holmes' fastidious attention to his environs, which the film posits as a byproduct to a yearning for love displaced by an abiding love-hate mistrust in fellow humans, whether his bumbing sidekick Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely, excellent) or in the beguiling charms of a woman in distress (Genevieve Page).
This feast for the eyes and ears was intended to be a 165 minute roadshow presentation consisting of four stories with an intermission, but was cut in half by MGM. The missing episodes, partly reconstructed from existing materials on the MGM DVD, touch pointedly on Holmes' relationship with Watson, his cocaine addiction, and his pained romantic past, adding significant layers to the release version. In all likelihood, this director's version was as destined for commercial failure as the original release, hopelessly out of sync with the openly liberal culture of the 1970s. Today its encapsulation of its own time, space and values speaks vividly for itself.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Adrian Turner, Time Out (1995)
Bodo Frundt, Steadycam (2007)
Frank Arnold, Steadycam (2007)
Hans-Dieter Delkus, Steadycam (2007)
Richard T. Jameson, Steadycam (2007)
Ulrich von Berg, Steadycam (2007)
David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008)
Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)
Martin Scorsese, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
Molly Haskell, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
Time Out, 100 to Watch (2006)
Tony Rayns, Time Out: Regret in 20 Films (2006)
Download the script in .pdf format(courtesy of DailyScript.com)
Billy Wilder's "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" is disappointingly lacking in bite and sophistication, the first two qualities we'd expect from the director of "The Apartment" and "The Fortune Cookie." It begins promisingly enough with Sherlock being offered five pounds to trace six missing midget acrobats and complaining: "That's less than a pound a midget." There are also some sly innuendoes about his relationship with Dr. Watson, introduced solely to be disproved (Sherlock, you'll be glad to learn, is satisfactorily hetero in the Wilder version). But before the movie is 20 minutes old, Wilder has settled for simply telling a Sherlock Holmes adventure...
...The Holmes character, creeping around with his magnifying glass and (Watson tells us at the film's beginning) identifying a murderer by measuring the extent to which the parsley had sunk into the butter on a warm summer day, is a promising subject for the kind of satirical examination we expect from Wilder and his frequent co-author, I. A. L. Diamond. But they pass up the chance and bore us while Holmes laboriously unravels a case involving the midget acrobats, a missing husband, Trappist monks, the Loch Ness monster, dead canaries and a copper ring that has turned green. It takes Holmes about half an hour longer to solve the case than it takes us, and poor Watson never catches on...
The fun of a good detective story isn't in the solution, anyway, but in the complications. My favorite Raymond Chandler novel is "The Big Sleep," which is so complicated that Chandler never does pull the case together. Same thing happens in Howard Hawks' movie version, with Humphrey Bogart. Watch carefully, and you'll discover that the loose ends are never tied up, and the case ends without being solved (and with no one, apparently, noticing). So what?
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Billy Wilder’s excellent extension of Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of popular detective novels, is a risky attempt to transform one of pop culture’s key figures into something a bit more human. On its surface a forgotten entry into the series of the detective’s great cases, the film in many respects plays much like any other adventure that the world’s most filmed character has partaken. It revisits a familiar setting and characters that fans have grown to love, and inserts particularly Holmes-ian touches into its mystery such as the inclusion of the Loch Ness Monster, midgets, and an amnesiac. Still, Wilder is after something more profound than a simple mystery tale here, and to a large extent he succeeds in his quest to cast Sherlock Holmes, the man, in relief when held up against Sherlock Holmes, The Legend. As played by the brilliant Robert Stephens, this film’s Holmes is a mess of contradictions and compromises so convincing that it is likely to make one question the unfettering stoicism that other Holmes films feature.
This Sherlock’s ingrained distrust of the opposite sex and his unwillingness to indulge in anything as reckless as emotional passion make him a great detective (and make the excitable Watson a perfect comic foil), but they also make him eerily similar to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock in the way that he puts his logic before his heart. What’s interesting about this attitude toward the detective are the ways that the mystery that he investigates during the course of the film comment directly on that questionable mindset. Through a series of plot twists, we see how Wilder’s attitude toward Holmes grows increasingly complex. In the very first scenes of the film, Wilder begins what would almost feel like an attack on the character’s character, were it not for later compassion the film shows him. Holmes is not only presented as an inferior version of the figure we know from the familiar stories (he can’t play the violin nearly as well as one might think, for example), but also as a dope fiend who makes excuses for his addiction and, for a moment or two, as Watson’s gay lover. As the story proceeds, he’s blessed with his usual, uncanny deductive skills, but he’s also revealed as man who’s pragmatic to a fault, and his unwavering faith in his logic becomes problematic when he, inevitably, begins to become emotionally involved in an assignment. By the film’s end, his great intellect has become a huge liability, his reputation has turned into an outright burden, his greatest liability becomes a refuge, and his figure can only be looked at with much uncertainty. Yet for all of that doubt, the film doesn’t feel like a nasty look at the beloved character. If anything, its poignancy begs why Arthur Conan Doyle himself hadn’t seen the same dangerous compulsions in his creation and examined them.
...Much like the film that surrounds him, this Holmes is too self-aware to be content with easy answers or simple opinions of people, and that makes him rather fascinating. That the solution to the mystery confirms the director’s cynical worldview, despite any affection toward the central characters or comic bits that were scattered throughout, suggests that the self-reflection should be viewed more as awareness of Wilder’s own predilections and less as an attempt to reform them. Whatever the case, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes offers a compelling what-if that seems much at home in Wilder’s cinema of the ambivalent.
This 1970 Billy Wilder comedy-drama about a major defeat in the career of Sherlock Holmes may have little to do with the legacy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but in its uncut form it happens to be one of the finest films of the decade. Robert Stephens makes a perfectly splendid Holmes, brilliant, sophisticated, and deeply flawed, while Colin Blakely plays Dr. Watson as a drinker and ladies' man with more personality and intelligence than is often granted him by filmmakers. The case (which has some echoes of Doyle's story "The Bruce-Partington Plans") begins with Holmes aiding the distressed Madame Valladon (Geneviève Page), who is searching for her missing husband. The inquiry shifts to Scotland, and despite a stern warning from the hero's brother, Mycroft Holmes (Christopher Lee), Sherlock pursues events that reveal a top-secret government plan. Lush, energetic, funny, gorgeous to look at, and ultimately tragic, the film is layered with Wilder's familiar collision of cynicism and yearning, hope and betrayal, grace and isolation.
Billy Wilder, in an exceedingly mellow mood, portrays Holmes as a tortured man, trapped by his own legend and paying the price for his reputation of invincibility (1970). Robert Stephens is superb as a very real Holmes, and Colin Blakely is equally good as Watson. The cutting of more than 40 minutes from the original film hurts its initial continuity, but once the action begins, this takes on a magical quality that makes it one of Wilder's best efforts. Affectionately conceived, chock-full of marvelous subtleties, this meticulously constructed adventure-romance shouldn't be missed.
Billy Wilder's distinctive, irreverent slant on the world's greatest "consulting detective" holds up reasonably well 32 years on; you wouldn't expect anything directed by Wilder and scripted by his long-time associate IAL Diamond to be anything less than funny and watchable, and this is both.
Yet it doesn't feel like the work of a dyed-in-the-wool Sherlock buff. The heavy-handed opening gag about Holmes and Watson looking like a couple of gays seems grounded in a simple belief in the essential comic effeminacy of all limeys and Wilder's initial inspiration is clearly not so much Conan Doyle as My Fair Lady with Holmes and Watson as Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering splutteringly enduring a mysterious, amnesiac woman in their bachelor establishment. There's a disapproving housekeeper, played by the inimitable Irene Handl, saying "yays" for yes, and Stanley Holloway appears as a gravedigger. There's plenty of fun though, and hints of Buchan and Childers, as the trio pursue their quarry to Inverness, shadowed by some dodgy German-speaking monks. Christopher Lee is a crisply disapproving Mycroft and Robert Stephens, as Holmes, is splendidly debonair.
This is possibly the most gossamer tragedy ever pulled off in a film, one highlighted by Miklos Rozsa’s sublime score. But it’s hardly depressing, as the film’s richly funny texture endures in the heart. It’s worth stating that Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are possibly the best Holmes and Watson ever. Properly, they’re both relatively young, especially Blakely’s Watson, a boyish-at-heart ladykiller and slightly ridiculous, and Holmes, stuck somewhere between Oxford and Bohemia, portrayed with enormous wit and feeling by Stephens. There’s so much to praise in the film it’s almost absurd to say that it’s unsatisfying. You can’t help but wish that three-hour epic with more discursions, more humour, more detail, was extant. As Holmes experiences with Ilse, this film is the beautiful mystery woman you have all too briefly, but it’s somehow enough.
Billy Wilder. Sherlock Holmes. A mismatch of flavours the thought of which doesn't so much turn your stomach as lead to speculation, and the taste of which is soured only by a foreknowledge of missed opportunities. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was to be Wilder's roadshow movie, his intermission film--a "symphony in four parts," as he called it, that would run longer than three hours excluding the break in the middle. The script, written by Wilder and mainstay collaborator I.A.L. Diamond over a period of twelve years as a blend of homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and adaptation of the same, was shot in its entirety, but at some point during post-production, Wilder took off to prep another project, and two of the four "movements" plus a present-day prologue and subheadings (each story passage had its own introductory title card) were lifted out of the film in answer to the common test-screening complaint that it was "too episodic" (well, duh), with only one of the movements preserved (somewhat perfunctorily, because it had nice imagery of an ocean liner) for possible inclusion in a TV version that never materialized. It's important to note that editor Ernest Walter and producer Walter Mirisch liquidated parts of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes with Wilder's blessing, though Wilder seems to have regretted the decision in his late-life conversations with Cameron Crowe.
What remains is a perfectly-cast film that doesn't quite hold up its end of the bargain made by an opening voiceover that states we're about to see a potentially unflattering portrait of Holmes (Robert Stephens) courtesy anecdotes Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) hadn't the wherewithal to publish in Strand Magazine when his super-sleuth partner was alive. Though the picture is ultimately too prosaic to be confidential, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes might have been the first Holmes interpretation for the screen since 1939's The Hound of the Baskervilles to acknowledge the detective's taste for a seven-percent solution of cocaine. The film feels like a work in progress, even if its bittersweet bookends give off a convincing illusion of completeness and Watson challenges Holmes' claims to heterosexuality often enough to add a sardonic humour typical of Wilder that consolidates the title character's dalliance--which wasn't built to support the picture, as became expected of it--with Madame Valladon (Genevieve Page), the aristocratic femme fatale whose husband has vanished, with the rest of the proceedings. That alliance of comedy and drama which proved so pivotal to the success of Wilder's The Apartment keeps The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes afloat through the sinking realization that we are watching the I'll Do Anything of its generation (and I would argue that I'll Do Anything's director James L. Brooks, much more than Brooks' protégé Crowe, is the modern Wilder), a feature-length retraction of romantic ambition too poignant in its own right to discount.
Deception painstakingly unmasked, and casual decadence as a way of life: these have been Billy Wilder's twin obsessions as a filmmaker from his days as screenwriter among the lavender excesses and delights of Weimar Berlin. In THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, his last great film, Wilder found a way to combine these two themes in a film that seems sweet and perverse at the same moment, a valentine with a syringe in its hand.
Wilder had been fascinated with Conan Doyle's urbane, obsessive sleuth since childhood. Several of his first films as a screenwriter, such as THE MAN WHO MURDERED HIMSELF (1931) and EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES (1931), were films of crime and detection. But Wilder's affections for Holmes went much deeper than a respect for the famously relentless Holmesian logic. Wilder saw Holmes as at least as complex a personality as himself, a singular creature of many more moods than Basil Rathbone had dreamed of.
As with almost all of Wilder's films, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES underwent a complete makeover. He began tinkering with a Holmes project as far back as 1957. The first intriguing idea was to mount a Holmes musical on Broadway, starring Rex Harrison. Moss Hart and Lerner and Loewe were briefly enlisted as collaborators, but Wilder's great run of film successes -- SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT, IRMA LA DOUCE -- intervened. Next, in 1963, there was the idea of a film musical, now with the remarkable cast of Peter O'Toole as Holmes and Peter Sellers as Watson. But what really stymied Wilder was the matter of plot. For virtually the only time in his career, Wilder had a shelf full of engaging characters -- the brooding genius Holmes, the genial, loyal Watson, and the marvelously arch stock Holmes villains -- and no plot that he felt could adequately service them. Wilder went through several collaborators, including his long-time alter ego I.A.L. Diamond, Hollywood veteran Harry Kurnitz, and British playwright John Mortimer, before he resettled on Diamond, and work on the screenplay began in earnest. Still lacking a plot, they went ahead anyway. Wilder and Diamond didn't feel the whodunit nature of most of the Doyle stories did justice to the subtleties of Holmes' character. (Wilder was most fascinated by those rare cases Holmes was not able to solve, such as "A Scandal in Bohemia.") He determined to write new capers for the Baker Street shamus which would show off the dark pools at the core of his personality, rather than rehash the parlor tricks of Holmes' ratiocination that previous Holmes movies had doted on. The conceit they chose was the discovery of several "unpublished" Holmes tales: "The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room," "The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina," "The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners," and "The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective," all stitched together in omnibus format. Wilder purposely chose as the film's stars the sterling theatrical actors Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely because he did not wish to associate his Holmes and Watson with the characters of well-known Hollywood leading men.
Wilder & Diamond conceived The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as a 165-minute epic that would include an intermission and tour the country as a roadshow. This meant that the film would be screened at only one of the best movie palaces in each city it played in, charging a higher admission price, but offering moviegoers souvenir programs and reserved seating. Lawrence of Arabia and My Fair Lady were among the many films presented in this format during the 1950s and ‘60s to great success.
Wilder described the 220-page screenplay he and Diamond spent over a year writing as “a symphony in four movements.” A modern day prologue featured Dr. Watson’s grandson (also played by Blakely) arriving in London to open a lockbox containing four Holmes cases unpublished by the doctor due to their personal nature. “The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room” concerned Watson concocting an odd crime scene to distract Holmes from his cocaine habit.
In “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners,” Watson investigates a murder abroad a cruise liner, while Holmes observes the disastrous results. “The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina” toyed with possibility of Holmes’ homosexuality. All three episodes were intended to be humorous, followed by an intermission and “The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective,” a mystery that leads to Loch Ness and Holmes’ feelings for Gabrielle Valladon, concluding the film on a more serious note.
With a budget of $10 million, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was Wilder’s most ambitious film to date. Shooting commenced in May 1969 in Pinewood Studios outside London and lasted through November. Wilder then screened his symphony to United Artists. It clocked in at three hours and twenty minutes. In the time since Wilder had conceived of his roadshow, one Hollywood extravaganza after another had flopped; Star!, Paint Your Wagon, Doctor Doolittle. Believing the roadshow was out of fashion with audiences, UA urged Wilder cut the film down to two hours.
The director was so discouraged by the reception that rather than insist on his contractual right of final cut, he departed for Paris to work on another project, entrusting editor Ernest Walter and producers at The Mirisch Company to make the necessary subtractions. The prologue, two of the first three episodes and a flashback to Holmes’ college days at Oxford - which illustrated his distrust of women - were all left on the cutting room floor. Wilder was left despondent. “When I saw the way they had cut it, I had tears in my eyes. It seemed longer when they had made it shorter.”
Released November 1970 in the wake of Easy Rider and M*A*S*H, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was dismissed by critics at the time, many who felt neither the plot, nor the postmodern take measured up to Doyle’s literary mysteries. Wilder’s confidence that youth audiences would embrace a great story - regardless of the changing times - never panned out. The film was a box office failure. In ensuing years, some critics and scholars have rediscovered it and hailed the film as an overlooked masterpiece.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes cost more than $10 million to make. A film for which Wilder had such great hopes, it's failure was a blow to his career and to his pride. Usually he avoided indulging in regrets or self-recrimination, but he felt that only he was responsible for Sherlock's failure, though even with hindsight, he wasn't certain exactly what he had done wrong. He did regret being timid about going father into the exploration of Holmes' homosexuality and he wished that he had been able to stay and cut the film himself, but as he told me, "Even hindsight isn't 20/20."
The lack of success of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes certainly meant something far more serious for Wilder than "the occasional failure" which according to Holmes we all experience now and then. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the only commercial failure Wilder was never able to leave behind, the only film about which he regretted having been forced into making changes. Yet in the long run, the film has recovered in cultural capital what it failed to secure at the box office at the time of its release. For many of Wilder's critics, the film counts today among his most accomplished achievements, combining an elegiac and romantic tone never seen before. Andrew Sarris has called it a "mellow masterpiece," while Stephen Farber similarly praised its "mellow, autumnal mood, unusual for Wilder." Kevin Lally has claimed that the film may visually be "the most handsome film of Wilder's career," and Leland Poague has written that it "has grace and style beyond all power of description." Sinyard and Turner, who can still claim to be the most astute critics of this particular film, conclude their insightful analysis by calling it, "the very essence of a mature masterpiece. Breathing a serenity without sloppiness, a melanchoy without rancor, a mellowness without sentimentality, its very defiance of modishness makes it one of the most beautiful of modern films."
Several of Wilder's films are famous for scenes that were shot but not included (most notably Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard), but in these cases the cuts were the director's choice, who felt the film would be stronger in the shorter version. Indeed no other Wilder film has been as seriously mutilated by the studio as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (clearly also a sign of his diminishing authority), and there is no film about which Wilder has felt greater disappointment for not having been able to show it the way he had planned. In his conversation with Cameron Crowe, Wilder who is usually not one to dwell on commercial failures, was uncharacteristically candid about the film's lack of success, reminiscing that it was "a very, very well-done picture. It was the most elegant picture I've ever shot" - only immediately to fall back into character by adding, "I don't shoot elegant pictures, Mr. Vincente Minnelli, he shot elegant pictures." What a pity indeed, then, that the one film Wilder considered worth of that praise did not survive in the form the director had planed.
Hungarian born composer Miklós Rózsa was a giant talent in Hollywood for decades and penned some of the biggest scores to burst out of the silver screen. His robust orchestrations and refined melodic ability, coupled with a tenacious romantic sensibility, brought to life a string of biblical ‘epics’, thrilling noirs and much more besides, earning himself many admirers and three academy awards along the way. With April 18th 2007 marking the centenary of his birth, much focus will be on his biggest and most celebrated achievements, particularly the likes of Double Indemnity, El Cid, Ben-Hur, Spellbound and Soddom and Gomorrah, many of which will be re-issued or re-recorded for a new generation of fans to embrace. One score from the latter period in the composer’s career deserves as much attention and Tadlow Music have made that happen with their world premiere recording of Rózsa’s complete score for Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
It’s not a title that would immediately spring to mind when thinking of Rózsa, the aforementioned works so famous in comparison; however, this score is an important entry in the Rózsa canon and a must-have for fans as it represents an interesting convergence of the composer’s musical identities, that of his film and concert music. Billy Wilder had always wanted to use Rózsa’s 1956 ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra’ on film as the work was one of his favourites. With the appearance of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes the director could think of no better opportunity to use it, what with the fictional detective’s own love of the violin. Rather than simply use a recording of the concert work, Wilder approached Rózsa, with whom he had already worked numerously, with the idea of writing a score with the violin concerto at its heart… and so he did.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has too long been an unreleased jewel; it has all the dramatic fire and flair of Miklós Rózsa’s Golden Age works but with a distinctive and legitimately classical heart at its centre, and what a beautiful heart it is.
The music itself is simply wonderful. While Rozsa's scores are admittedly all cut from a very similar cloth, he still managed to apply them very well to a wide range of films, and there is a slightly lighthearted sense of adventure here which is pitched perfectly. Several themes are introduced in the wonderful main title piece, including a stately theme for Holmes himself and an exquisite love theme. That love theme is one of the composer's most expressive and rewarding, working beautifully when played by solo violin ("Gabrielle" could bring a tear to the eye), but equally when taken up by the full orchestra. It is truly one of Rozsa's greatest creations.
With a world class film score such as this, accompanied by informative, interesting liner notes (a short note from the composer's daughter Juliet, a biography of Rozsa by Steve Vertlieb and lengthy analysis and information from Fitzpatrick himself), given such a fine performance - it's already hard to imagine that too many film music releases in 2007 could be in the same league. The disc is dedicated to David Wishart, the pioneering film music album producer who tragically died earlier this year. The album is available from the usual online retailers, and also from Tadlow direct.
The album kicks of with the "Main Titles" which very much has a traditional overture structure introducing some of the main themes. After a brief fanfare opening, it launches into the Main Theme which seems to capture perfectly the outward character of this great detective and the times in which he lived. A secondary adventure theme takes over for a while and then leads into the Love Theme with its sumptuous solo violin, before returning to the main detective theme in the "221B Baker Street" section. The "Smoke Machine / Concerto / Cocaine" track is darker and more mysterious though flowing into a middle section of unaccompanied violin solo for "Concerto". The next track is a good workout for the whole orchestra written for scenes removed in the final cut of the film, and "Moving Out" continues the violin concerto in a sequence also cut from the movie. "Watson's Rage" is moody and more reflective in nature and then "Von Tirpitz" introduces another important theme which we've here labelled the Monastic Theme. The "Gabrielle" track is the heart of the whole soundtrack, a slow movement based on the violin concerto's love theme but clearly slightly troubled. This describes Holmes infatuation for a mysterious lady and must surely represent an important aspect of his "Private Life".
The adventure continues over a series of tracks which takes us to a number of London-based locations including "The Diogenes Club" with its Elgarian Pomp & Circumstance Theme before heading off to Scotland. In "To Glenahurich" Rozsa treats us to an arrangement of the well-known melody for the Scottish song "Loch Lomond". Other tracks make reference to other Scottish folk material and carry the adventure to other other Scottish locations, through a number of action oriented scenes like the rhythmic train ride of "Castles of Scotland", and even an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster, before thematically tying up a number of lose ends and final mysteries in the story. In the final "Auf Wiedersehen / The End" track the violin leads us one last time through the key themes in a grand symphonic coda, but the album doesn't end there. A total of four bonus tracks illustrate the evolution of the finished music with alternative versions which were recorded but ultimately not used in the final film.
The comprehensive sleeves notes tell us how this re-recording came about as a filler recording session because the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra had originally been booked for another project which had fallen through. However in one of those rare fortuitous sequence of events, they managed to secure not just the music from the film itself but also a number of cues written for the film but not used in the final cut, and all this in the centenary year of the composer's birth. The CD has a total running time of 78 minutes including 20 minutes not used in the film. This album, a Limited Collector's Edition, is only available online or through mail order - see www.tadlowmusic.com for more details.
As in Some Like It Hot, Wilder is certainly more interested in suggesting the possibility of a homosexual relationship rather than presenting irrevocable facts; ambiguity is clearly more titillating than certainty. It is furthermore safe to assume that the heirs of Conan Doyle, from whom the right to use his characters were purchased, kept a close watch over the kind of image Wilder and Diamond portrayed of the famous detective and his companion. As it stands, the ambiguity surrounding Holmes' possible homosexuality provides a most fitting subtext for a film about two males involved in an obsessive yet futile search for clues and certainties, in the course of which they repeatedly misread evidence, both conclusions, and face sudden, unexpected revelations. Thus, the desire for detecting evidence becomes an allegory for indecipherability itself, which is part of a larger critique of instrumental reason and rationality that has tragic consequences for all characters in involved. Even though The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is Wilder's only film that uses as protagonists famous characters created by another author, it can be seen to be one of his most personal films, providing a captivating and emotional reflection on his own career at a moment in his life when he is ready to draw the sum of his existence.
"I wanted to show Holmes as vulnerable, as human. He falls into an emotional dither over a woman and so his mind does not function as well; and actually, you see, in my picture, he does not solve the mystery. No, he is deceived. Sherlock Holmes has failed to be Sherlock Holmes precisely because he has fallen in love, and yet he is a better human being than he was ever before."
When Billy Wilder saw Sherlock Holmes in his mind's eye he saw a character who was almost a mirror reflection.. Wilder himself. His intention was to probe the detective's psychology and motivations. He intended to delineate a Holmes who was at once cerebral and passionate; a man with a compulsion to work; a man with a cynical view of the world and human nature, aware of the depravity of the soul and the dark side of life, of murder and deception; a man increasingly prone to boredom and mental fatigue, seeking escape in music and drugs; a man with an ambivalent attitude toward women - attracted to them yet careful to detach himself from them - his most powerful desire having been for that clever and egotistic career lady, Irene Adler, "the most wicked woman in Europe." If we were to substitute an addiction to athletic sports for cocaine, and a predilection for compulsive shopping for violin playing, we would have almost a portrait of Billy Wilder in Sherlock Holmes. In the original planning, Wilder wanted, as he once told me, to show a lonely and troubled side in Holmes. There certainly was one in Wilder. But the fictional hero and the real one disguised their loneliness.
The Holmes here is ultimately a failure at the hands of technology, bested by his brother Mycroft, who, in turn, suffers a major miscalculation of his own. So is it the dissolving of myths that Wilder is interested in? Is this his Liberty Valance? Yeah, I sort of think so. Though he was only 64 at the film’s release, and would churn out four more pictures afterwards, Wilder created his definitive “old man” movie here. The call-backs to a more classic style even than in his previous few efforts and the patience of experience he displays are both important elements to bridging the old with the new. Even when Wilder was younger, he didn’t normally employ the classical and calculated sense of purpose seen here. The structure is considered and nearly perfect. This is part of why it’s so incredible to think that the film was initially envisioned as much longer. The existing version feels appropriate as it is, only marred, in my opinion, a little by the first part of the Loch Ness Monster bit.
When Sherlock Holmes fails to really do much of anything right, despite his predictably shortsighted detective work, it’s at the expense of volumes of lionizing literature. The film thus works as a warning against the perils of smug overconfidence. For Holmes, the sticky truth isn’t that he’s a failure (something he seems to be fighting against throughout), but that a promising opportunity for romance has been squandered. It’s a slow realization, but by the end it’s obvious that he’s in movie love with the not-really Belgian Gabrielle/Ilse. The sexuality aspect here is interesting because Wilder and Diamond put it at the forefront for the viewer. Holmes’ reluctance to declare his heterosexuality to Watson early on seems to be due to one of three reasons: 1.) He’s being coy; 2.) He’s unsure himself as to his current feelings; or 3.) He’s so desexualized as to make it seemingly irrelevant. I think any of these three explanations work perfectly fine. With any of them, Holmes makes it obvious that he’s not actively searching for female companionship, making the presence of Gabrielle/Ilse a difficult situation.
The forced push at the end, when Holmes seems to realize his feelings for her just when she’s no longer attainable, serves as another reminder of how empty his life is. Watson and his silly stories are just about all the character has going for him. Then when it looks like the audience will be treated to the usual ending wrapped in sentimentality, Wilder continues the film and, in so doing, removes any trace of happiness. Watson is little more than a hyper-intelligent canine with a medical bag and Holmes the junkie can only shoot up and pass out (off-screen, of course). In essence, this is Wilder’s most daring film since Ace in the Hole, and it appeals to generally no one outside the director’s most devoted followers. He was able to completely demystify a legendary character with a huge following, using a fully sincere approach, while also putting together a deceptive genre story that proves quite entertaining. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is destined to remain largely unappreciated because it has few of the attributes Wilder is most known for, but it’s nevertheless an atypical slice of brilliance from the director.
MGM offers The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes on DVD individually or as part of the 8-disc (not 9, as announced--Witness for the Prosecution was mysteriously dropped) "Billy Wilder Collection", and granted the studio's stabs at reconstruction and their decision to at long last present the film for home viewing in its original aspect ratio therein, this is an essential platter. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer bears a seventies mien in its low-contrast mistiness, and the source print, though fresh-looking, is not pristine, but the restored compositions contribute a sense of scale and improve the film's humour, particularly a sight gag involving Watson dancing in a chorus line that was overreliant on our imagination in pan-and-scan. While the 2.0 mono soundtrack is inoffensive, nothing more or less, the extra features provoke unbridled enthusiasm. For starters, there is "Christopher Lee: Mr. Holmes, Mr. Wilder", a 15-minute featurette that doesn't get around to the Wilder portion of the conversation until the 9-minute mark, but nonetheless imparts an impressive amount of Holmes arcana in a short period. (Lee has thrice played Holmes on-screen and appears as Sherlock's "smarter" brother Mycroft in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.) His posture occasionally defensive, Lee barks, "People who say that I'm typecast shouldn't be in the business," referring to having logged so much time outside the gothic horror genre.
Meanwhile, the "Interview with Ernest Walter" (29 mins.) is bound to be a difficult watch for some film fans, as Walter effortlessly--with the Diamond/Wilder screenplay on his lap--itemizes his alterations to the The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes' intended structure, and the nature of the piece (Walter addressing an ancient video camera impersonally mounted on a tripod) lends it a strangely confessional quality not unlike the recent Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary. Nevertheless, this is an invaluable historical document (especially given Wilder's notorious stinginess with the details of the film's bowdlerization) that pre-emptively answers questions raised by the section of "deleted scenes" regarding their context and how they may have impacted the material in the final film. MGM's search for the lost footage turned up only the aforementioned sequence set aside for television ("The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners" (12 mins.)), albeit without a dialogue track (necessitating subtitles) and with nudity blurred out. The other omissions--the prologue (9 mins.), "The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room" (25 mins.), and "The Adventures of the Dumbfounded Detective" (4 mins.)--are patchworks of script pages and production photos that push Holmes closer still towards the archetypally paper-tigerish Wilder hero. A backstage gallery 47 slides strong (a few of which are inexplicably cartoons) and the film's theatrical trailer round out The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes DVD.*** (out of four) | Image: B+, Sound: B, Extras: A| English Mono | CC |English, French, Spanish Subtitles | DVD-9 | 125 minutes
MGM's hotly-awaited DVD of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes isn't as dazzling as it should be. It's perfectly acceptable in general terms - the jokes certainly aren't any less funny - but it can't touch the memory of the beautiful theatrical prints. The transfer is from an element with colors that are always slightly 'off'. The opening reels tend to be reddish. The biggest casualty is the ballet scene, which was stylized with beautiful hazy pastels, that now seem ordinary. Finally, many darker scenes have film-sourced halation effects in the blacks, a problem more often found in bad prints of much older films. It's very distracting.
The extras on this disc center on the famous unreleased roadshow version. In the early 90s, Image and MGM released a laserdisc that had the two major missing scenes, but only parts of them: The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room, a comic attempt by Watson to cheer up his bored friend, was audio-only; and The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners, where Watson takes a turn at playing detective, was picture-only. The laser played an interview over the audio track of one, while subtitling the other.
There were other alterations for which no film survived. The lost opening had Watson's grandson claiming the box of precious artifacts left in charge of bank manager John Williams. A key flashback on the train to Inverness told the story of the collegiate Sherlock's encounter with a dream-girl sweetheart - who turned out to be a prostitute and warped his perception of women forever. These were barely covered on the laser, but the DVD uses script excerpts and some newly-found stills from the AMPAS ... although photos for the prostitute scene are still very thin. Robert Stephens at age 19 has the same problem his wife Maggie Smith had two years later in the flashbacks in Travels With My Aunt - he can't possibly look young enough.
Some of the text accompanying and explaining the lost version seem to be 'borrowed' from the Sergio Leeman liner notes from the old laser. There's an interview with the editor of the film, Ernest Walter, taken from the laserdisc. Holders of the laser might want to hang onto it, because there's some incidental nudity in one of the recovered scenes that MGM has this time chosen to digitally blur. The DVD department has a rule not to show any nudity in added value material unless a waiver is obtained from the actor involved.
Christopher Lee is interviewed for this disc, and he covers his brief participation in the film very quickly, giving thanks again to Wilder. Then he drones on forever about the Doyle character and his personal appearances in Sherlock Holmes films. Lee can be a charming interview subject (see Anchor Bay's The Three Musketeers), but fan-oriented interviewers repeatedly allow him to wear out his welcome.
The old laser also has a discrete music track for Miklos Rosza's score. I received a letter claiming that the new DVD should have had the laser disc's stereo track. My copy of the laser has the mono mix on the left linear and digital channels, and the stand-alone mono music on the right linear and digital channels. I'm also informed that there is at present no stereo music master for the film, which explains the non-appearance of a soundtrack album. It certainly is one beautiful score.
The package illustration is not only tacky (Stephens' head is pasted onto a weirdly-angled silhouetted figure) but totally misleading. Colin Blakely glares soberly from an inset photo. Anyone buying this disc based on the cover art, won't be expecting a comedy.
From the late 1930s to the early 1960s, Billy Wilder dominated Hollywood’s Golden Age. With over fifty films and six Academy Awards to his credit, he is one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest directors, producers and screenwriters. His films range from stark melodrama, like DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), to antic farce, such as THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955) and SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), to satiric comedy, like A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948) and THE APARTMENT (1960). Billy Wilder has had a powerful creative influence on both the experimental and traditional film industries in America.
Bridging the transition between the studio system and the rise of independent producer-directors, and still active in the 'New Hollywood' era, Billy Wilder was a key player in the American cinema throughout the postwar period. A '30s screenwriter who became a contract director in the '40s, by 1950 Wilder had come to be regarded as a consummate studio auteur. Producing from the mid-1950s, he and his co-screenwriters were renowned in front office and fan magazine for making money, teasing audience sensibilities, and pleasing the critics. If the early-1960s saw a critical downturn, by the mid-1970s Wilder's reputation led to accolades and awards.
[Director of Photography] Christopher Challis felt that Wilder was more interested in what he was shooting rather than in how he was shooting it:
"He had a different approach. I don't think he was a great visual director. By that, I mean he knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew how he wanted it to look, but he wasn't sure whether he'd got what he wanted until he saw the dailies.
"He had certain things that he liked. I mean, he liked rather long takes, and I was amazed. He once said to me quite early on, 'You know, I hate this modern method of filmmaking. I don't like all these hundreds of huge close-ups," and of course now, it's got very much worse. He said, 'The close-up is a jewel. It should just be set in the right place in the overall picture, and it shouldn't be used indiscriminately, or it loses all its impact.' Well, now, that's typical of Billy, and I think he was absolutely right.
"Another thing that I found very interesting with him was that he was primarily a writer. I think the written or the spoken word was all-important to him, and the actors had to do it his way. I mean, he didn't let them have a lot of freedom. He insisted on them playing lines the way he wanted them played. He would play quite important dialogue on people's backs, with them walking away from you, because he knew exactly what the impact would be, whereas most directors would go around the other side and cover it the other way in case it wasn't right. Well, Billy didn't do that. He didn't cover things. It had to be right, the way he did it, and that was it. He was quite unique like that."
As one considers the entire body of Wilder's work, as a whole, as an expression of his ruling obsessions, one sees him carefully threading his way through the labyrinthine maze of the Eternal Woman. His films are studies in the varieties of women. A man's yearning for a woman after whom he lusts or whom he loves is counterpointed against his equal and powerful compulsion to do his work, the masculine hunter in the primitive jungles bringing food for the mate. Freud had said, towards the end of his life, that he still did not know what women wanted. And this is one of the riddles of every man's existence, being confounded by a woman's soul and body and mystery from the hour of his birth and his first taste of mother's milk. The Wilder complication was the dilemma of the whore. The presence of woman in one or another variety of independent, self-sufficient role was a dilemma. In a Foreign Affair, the "good woman was posed against the "bad." In Lost Weekend the "good" woman was posed against a compulsion. In Double Indemnity, the woman is venal, she is evil, she is the corrupted, playing her classical role as the devil's assistant, the temptress, as she does in Ace in the Hole - though in both these films the hero is either the willing partner or the leader in the evil. Sunset Boulevard was the turning point in Wilder's evolution: the force of the woman, a real woman, is defeated by the "bad" woman, but she is not really "bad"; she symbolizes, as I believe, Wilder's own idea of the movies and how they almost kill him. Audrey Hepburn twice played innocent girls who studied to be sophisticated independent women so they could manifest their true beings to the men they loved. And Shirley MacLaine on two occasions, and Marilyn Monroe on two occasions, also impersonated women who were beyond any simple labels marked "good" and "bad." They were individual persons. Sometimes they were forced to play a charade which a man compelled them to play and sometimes they won their freedom to be who they were. The answer Wilder learned to the riddle of women was that it did not consist in attempting to decipher her inscrutable mysteries, since these varied from one woman to another, but in looking into oneself.
In asking himself, "What do I want from a woman? What do I want from this woman? How can I be of service to this woman? What can I give to this particular woman whom I love?" When a man once looked into himself and dedicated himself to pleasing a woman he loved, as Billy had come to do with his Audrey, suddenly the old mystery of Woman with the capital W, woman as unscrewable and inscrutable, vanished, and you were face to face with your own mystery as a man, which was even more frustrating because you discovered how little you knew about yourself, and that was the resolution of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. You were given the choice of being a worse detective - and a better person - or a splendid detective and a crippled human being. In the end, Holmes gets Ilse von Hoffmanstal her freedom. He gets his brother to release her and he receives a final and beautiful letter from her as she is about to be executed as a spy in Japan.