November 9, 2010
The Film Society at Lincoln Center is wrapping up its superb Stanley Donen retrospective this week, and beyond the established masterpieces like Singin’ In the Rain lie charming curiosities like 1978′s Movie Movie. I missed the screening, but fortunately it is available to purchase from Amazon On Demand for $9.99. Structured like a 1930s Warner Bros. double bill (the on-screen production company is “Warren Brothers”), it pairs two hour-long features: the boxing melodrama “Dynamite Hands” and the backstage musical “Baxter’s Beauties of 1933″. Scripted with loving exaggeration by Larry Gelbart (still cranking out MASH episodes at the time) and Sheldon Keller (a veteran TV writer who started with Sid Ceasar), it’s both a parody of and an homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Complete with faux flyboy trailer for “Zero Hour” (“War at its best!”), it’s a similarly nostalgia-soaked recreation of past movie-going experiences as Grindhouse, with an equally poor reception at the box office.
It received generally positive reviews at the time, from Richard Schickel at Time Magazine (“an expert send up”), Pauline Kael at The New Yorker (“a pair of skillful parodies”), Vincent Canby at the NY Times(“sweet, hilarious and very witty”) and Dave Kehr at the Chicago Reader (“clever, insightful and genuinely funny”). The only negative response I could find is from Variety (“a flatout embarrassment”). But after its limited release in November of 1978, it disappeared from cultural memory, existing as a marginal cult item (the VHS is selling for $55 on Amazon, and good luck finding any images on-line). But as with Quentin Tarantino’s vastly underrated Death Proof, Movie Movie is ripe for re-evaluation.
The actors, led by a mis-cast but game George C. Scott, play everything with earnest intensity. There is no eye-winking to stifle the comedy. “Dynamite Hands” has Scott portraying grizzled boxing coach Gloves Malloy, who targets wide eyed, pretty boy slum kid Joey Popchik (Harry Hamlin) as his next star. Luckily for Gloves, Joey’s sister Angie needs $25,000 for eye surgery (Joey: “You know what they charge for an eye? An arm and a leg”), and the plot machinery clangs wondrously into motion. Subplots proliferate, including the schemes of a shady promoter (Eli Wallach) and the designs a mobbed up Barry Bostwick has on Angie. It even finds time to morph into a rapid fire courtroom drama. It combines and amplifies every cliche in the genre’s life, since The Champ kicked it off in 1931.
The dialogue is the star, a barrage of contorted working class argot, producing winners like, “Funny, isn’t it? How many times your guts can get a slap in the face.” Many of these, wrung out by Hamlin with an angelic straight face, wouldn’t seem out of place in a Zucker Brothers comedy – Leslie Nielson could wring similar effects from the lovingly absurd script. Another gem comes from the femme fatale, Troubles Moran (Ann Reinking, a dancer making her debut here, she appeared in All That Jazz the following year): “Joey, after a girl’s had a taste of mink, she can’t go back to pastrami.” Words to live by.
Donen pushes the pace relentlessly to mimic these Warner quickies, and is very sparing with close-ups, keeping the camera at the waist-up distance favored by classical practitioners. It’s questionable whether his use of zoom-ins are truly authentic for the period he’s aping, but the effect is hoky enough, along with the irises in and out, to fit the overall light comic tone.
The “Zero Hour” trailer is a delirious bit of WWI propaganda, with George C. Scott’s heavily waxed moustache playing power games with Eli Wallach, as Art Carney’s “priest with a heart” gives bad advice at home.
Then the segue into a Busby Berkeley-esque backstage musical, 42nd St. spliced with Gold Diggers of 1933. Barry Bostwick plays the Dick Powell role with what Kael called Powell’s “candied yam cheerfulness”, and Rebecca York takes on the small-town aw shucks innocence of the Ruby Keeler part. Scott plays the Warner Baxter role of overtaxed, death courting director Spatz Baxter, a flamboyant character not really in his macho wheelhouse, but his caked on makeup carries him through. Art Carney’s doctor tells Baxter that he has “6 months to live…from your last visit 5 months ago.” Wanting one last hit to guarantee a future for his estranged daughter, he employs a promising unknown to write a score: Bostwick’s gangly klutz Dick Cummings. Replete with showgirls in undergarments, last minute catastrophes and a drunken, difficult lead actress, it has all the hallmarks of those snappy Busby Berkeley classics.
Bostwick does a fine bumbling job as Cummings, a slapstick version of the Powell character, all arms and legs careening through the frames. His voice isn’t as sturdy and true as Powell’s, but he makes up for it in pratfalling intensity. Troubles Moran gets a mini-nightclub number in “Dynamite Hands”, but Donen really cuts loose in the finale of “Baxter’s Beauties”, in which him and the great choreographer Michael Kidd (whom he worked with on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)) and DP Bruce Surtees do their version of a Berkeley routine, complete with a birds-eye view of a human roulette wheel. They bring back the impossible spaces of his routines, sets which could not fit on a stage and perspectives that audiences could never see. The cut-ins to the programs, supposed to connect one back to reality, only go to show how spectacularly unrealistic the dance sequences are. And in this, Donen and Surtees honor their subject admirably: an energetic erotic spectacle that any Depression-era viewer would gladly plunk down their money for.
For a negative take on the film, David Cairns wrote a straight up pan for his great Shadowplay blog.