Allan Mott was once accused of being a narcissistic goth lesbian by a disgruntled Amazon reviewer. That pretty much sums up his writing career (which includes 12 and 1/2 books and frequent contributions to such sites as xoJane, xoJaneUK, Canuxploitation, Bookgasm and Flick Attack). His most personal writing can be found at VanityFear.com, where he uses the subject of B-Movies to mostly talk about boobs and stuff. Tweet him on the Twitter at@HouseofGlib.
In the annals of film history, I don’t think the team of Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks properly get their due. Both are justly considered comedic legends, but I seldom see it specifically pointed out that their best work occurred in collaboration with each other. Young Frankenstein especially serves as proof of what they could do while working as true creative equals and it makes sense that neither truly ever matched its quality once they went their separate ways.
That said, there’s a lot of joy to be found in this, Wilder’s first film as writer/director/star. Its tone is quite similar to his work with Brooks, but it avoids feeling derivative, instead coming across as an unfiltered reflection of his own sensibility for good and ill.
In it he plays the titular character, Sigerson Holmes, the youngest of the Holmes boys, who insists he’s the smartest of the bunch, but who hasn’t had the good fortunes of “Sheer-luck”. The plot involves a lovely music hall performer played by Madeline Kahn (who’s amazingsublimegorgeousfantasticawesome) and the fiendish machinations of Leo McKern’s Moriarty and DomDeLuise’s Eduardo Gambetti.
The film’s best moments are its silliest—where Wilder stops giving a fuck and fully embraces being the dude who had to convince Mel to film the “Putting on the Ritz” sequence in YF (Brooks—of all people—was convinced it was too ridiculous). Anyone who has seen the film and doesn’t smile at the thought of “The Kangaroo Hop” probably has something wrong with them.
While his follow-up The World’s Greatest Lover also has its moments, Wilder found less creative success with The Woman in Red (a dated sex comedy that would be forgotten today if it weren’t for the hotness of Kelly LeBrock and Stevie Wonder’s Oscar-nominated theme song) andHaunted Honeymoon (which actually has been forgotten by all except us hardy few). Because of this TAoSHSMB bears the slight ignominy of serving as a promise that wasn’t ultimately kept, but it’s still a film all fans of film comedy should seek out.
I’ve always thought that Michael Ritchie had one of the odder film careers out of the directors who came to full creative fruition in the 70s. He seemed to make threedifferent kinds of films—trenchant social satires, broad fantasies and sports movies. Often he would combine these elements and sometime wonderful like The Bad News Bears would result, but my favourite of his films are those that fit in that first category. And out of his satires, Smile is easily my favourite.
As satires go, it isn’t a particularly savage film. It treats its characters with affection even as it mocks them. It’s not the kind of film that points a finger and says, “Hey, get a load of these assholes! Aren’t you glad we’re nothing like them?” No, it’s one that points a finger at us and says, “Admit it, you’re just like this too.”
It sets its spotlight on that year’s California finals of the American Junior Miss beauty pageant, held—as always—in Santa Rosa and sponsored by the local Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees), run by popular local businessman Big Bob Freelander (Bruce Dern) and organized by former beauty queen, Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon).
Written by sitcom veteran (and future director of Jeckyll and Hyde… Together Again) Jerry Belson, the film follows a large group of characters as the pageant is put together and finally held. The girls range from pure innocents like Robin (Joan Prather) and seasoned veterans like Doria(Annette O’Toole, who steals every scene she’s in) who despite her youth has already seen it all at least three times.
It’s a film of little moments, some victorious, others sad and borderline pathetic. And it works because it is devoid of villains and monsters and presents even the smallest of roles as three dimensionally as possible. To me, the spirit of the film is best summed up by the character of Tommy, played by choreographer Michael Kidd (in his first film role since It’s Always Fair Weather from 20 years earlier). Tommy’s job is to make the girls look like professional performers for the opening number, even though most have no training and even less rhythm. He’s angry and impatient and barely tolerant of their incompetence, but when he’s told that a part of the stage he knows has to be there for their safety must be sacrificed for additional seats, he fights for them and ultimately agrees to sacrifice his fee to keep them from getting hurt.
It’s a moment of everyday heroism from someone we’ve seen presented as a jerk and its gets to the heart of what makes Smile such an essential film experience. Instead of using its cynicism to make us hate the people around us, it uses its cynicism to remind us that all of us are capable of doing good and that we’re all just trying our best.
Here is where I admit that I’ve never actually seen the version of At Long Last Love that played in movie theatres in 1975. That’s the version that earned the film its status as one of the biggest fiascos of the 70s and its documentation in those Medved brothers books that helped to create the world of bad movie fandom even as we eventually grew to see what huge assholes they were once we were older.
And because I’ve never seen that version I have to admit that it could very well be as terrible as its reputation suggests. But the version I have seen allows for no such conclusion. It is as fun, vibrant and charming as its creator intended—even if he wasn’t actually responsible for its success.
Instead credit here has to go to studio editor Jim Blakely, who—after Bogdanovich panicked after two negative studio previews and hacked apart his original cut—decided there was a film worth saving based on the shooting script and that first cut. He worked secretly and substituted his version of the film for home video and television (which in this case made him a hero, but could have easily made him a monster in the case of another film). And that’s the version I’m praising here.
It’s hard to reconcile this version of film with the one described in reviews from the period. One almost wishes the studio would release Bogdanovich’s original cut if only for comparison purposes. There’s no doubt that it remains a light, utter trifle of a film, but in that lightness there is much to love, especially in the performance of Madeline Kahn (making her second appearance on this list) as musical star Kitty O’Kelly.
And for all the mockery Cybil Shepard and Burt Reynolds received at the time of release, it’s hard today to not enjoy their imperfectly charming rendition of Cole Porter standards.
As a deliberate invocation of classic 30s musicals, the film never quite rises to the level of what it is honouring, but in its own way it manages to be something unique and special.
It’s become fashionable—in some misbegotten and ignorant circles—to dismiss the work of Richard Lester purely on the basis of the paycheques he collected working on the Superman franchise. In some misguided zeal todefend the efforts of Richard Donner, Lester’s contributions to Superman II and his work directing Superman III are often dismissed as the effort of a no talent hack who didn’t “get” the character and thus ruined the franchise.
This is, of course, bullshit. In terms of overall influence and contribution to the history of cinema, Richard Lester—if only for A Hard Day’s Night alone—stands over Donner like a colossus. While it’s true that Lester’s idiosyncratic humour is at times at odds with what Donner filmed forSuperman II, it’s completely in step with the anything-goes spirit of the comic book silver age, where Superman capturing villains by throwing his emblem at them would have been accepted without question.
So, obviously, I’m a big Lester defender and my loyalty and enthusiasm is clearly based on the great work he did prior to his Salkind superhero antics. And though my favourite of his 70s films are his two Musketeer films, third place has to go to the film relevant to this list, which like those two films was adapted for the screen by George MacDonald Fraser.
Based on his novel of the same name, the film depicts the nefarious adventures of the cowardly and craven Captain Harry Flashman, one of literature’s most popular anti-heroes. As played by Malcolm McDowell (literally the only actor from that period who would have been acceptable in the role), Flashman is a Victorian-era British soldier who is esteemed at his vocation despite the fact that his only loyalty is to his own self-interest and preservation.
Loosely based on The Prisoner of Zenda, the film finds Flashman at odds with Otto von Bismarck (played by Oliver Reed, who reportedly enjoyed terrorizing McDowell on set), who forces him to impersonate a prince as penance for stealing away Bismarck’s mistress Lola Montez.
It’s all shot with Lester’s distinctive comic style, feeling very much like a third film in the Musketeer franchise, but it failed to capitalize on the success of those films and largely remains forgotten today. That seems to fit the pattern of his 21 features, which zigzags from star-studded blockbusters to much more personal efforts that didn’t quite seem to connect.
Perhaps it’s this pattern that explains why many are quick to dismiss his genius today (with notable exceptions like Steven Soderbergh, who published the book-long Lester interview Getting Away With It). Whatever the reason, you Donner defenders out there need to learn more about the dude you’re so ready to slag off.
I can’t really defend my appreciation for this one, beyond the fact that it’s a movie where Joan Collins plays an ex-stripper who pisses off a dwarf named Hercules after she turns down his lascivious advances, compelling him to curse her future child, which then causes said child to become the world’s most adorable serial killer.
Beaten to the screen by Larry Cohen’s killer baby classic,It’s Alive by a year, The Devil Within Her manages to be as ridiculous and absurd as Cohen’s film proved clever and frightening. It helped that Cohen actually made his murderous infant an actual mutant monster, while in PeterSasdy’s film we’re dealing with a completely normal baby possessed by the evil spirit of a still-living dwarf who is somehow capable of acts of strength and violence that would tax most adults, much less a newborn.
But as someone who thinks ridiculous absurdity is a quality often highly underrated by critics and viewers alike, I gottaadmit that its this very incoherence and ruthless abdication of logic that makes it my favourite between the two films.
Also, It’s Alive doesn’t have a clearly dubbed Caroline Munro in it, so that’s another reason to love The Devil Within Her just that little but more.