Greetings and all sundry!
Please allow me a few moments of your time to broach a topic that has through the years has shown a minute, yet steady degradation from its heydays of the 1940s through mid 1960s. To present day. Where once reigned clever, slyly written, often melodic dialogue. Only to be replaced with sloppy, lazy double entendres and inevitable toilet, in jokes and gastric humor. In plots whose outcome is designed by committees.Instead of a clutch of writers throwing out sometimes raunchy first drafts. Then through repetition and variants, polish their work to a high gloss.
To that end. I have a selection to proffer. A film that is equal parts superb period piece. Augmented by a cast of unknowns and up and comers orbiting around proven Jack of All Trades from across the pond and you have…
Comedy Done Right: My Favorite Year
A near anomaly that arrived with little fanfare in early 1982. Directed with pleasantly detailed love and reminiscence by one time page at 30 Rockefeller Center. Turned comedic actor and given the reins of a project near and dear to his heart. The live, make or break variety and comedy shows that filled weekend night during the infancy of some newfangled thing called “Television” in the early 1950s. Spearheaded by vaudevillian and schlock meister, “Uncle Miltie”, Milton Berle. Whose direct and steadfast competition was Sid Caesar and ‘Your Show of Shows’. Upon which this marvelous, compact gem is based.
Any good director worth his salt knows that a film’s opening scene should be its most important and focused. And here it is writ large with the voice of intern writer, Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) explaining why 1954 was his favorite year. As he makes his way along with a crowd of pedestrians across intersections jammed with battle ship sized Buicks and Lincolns and Chevys and into 30 Rockefeller Center. Where he is bursting at the seams over the arrival of his childhood hero, Allan Swann (Peter O’Toole playing Peter O’Toole playing Errol Flynn) being the show’s scheduled guest star. Who arrives very late after being diverted by a pair of Trans Continental stewardesses.
Visibly drunk, though hiding it well enough when not impressing the show’s head writer, Sy Benson (Bill Macy. Never more blustery and spineless). Who makes a bet that Benjy cannot baby sit Swann through the week and until the show. Swann stands erect, and sneers, “Treble the bet, you toad!” the way only O’Toole can and Benjy and Swann are off to the races. First to Swann’s suite. With the aid of a hand truck and Swann passed out atop a stack of luggage. Where Benjy and Swann’s chaffeur, Alfie (Tony DiBenedetto) pull Swann and the had truck up a curved staircase and Swann suddenly keeps time with “The 1812 Overture” as the hand truck clears each riser. From there to the bath. Where Alfie opens Swann’s “Drunk Suit” as Swann ad libs to beat the band. Suspended in the shower. Then lowered into the bath tub. Further inspector reveals many bottles of Pinch scotch as Alfie explains that Swann is broke and is doing King Kaiser’s ‘Comedy Cavalcade’ as a way to pay back taxes.
Bathed and refreshed, Swann and Benjy head to the Stork Club. Where mayhem ensues and destruction surpasses Swann’s last visit a year and half earlier. The following morning, King Kaiser (Joe Bologna playing Sid Caesar) has a visit from Karl Rojeck (A grunting, gravelly voiced thug, Cameron Mitchell) and his lawyer complaining that Kaiser’s popular character, “Boss Hijack” is a bit to close to home for the well dressed gangster. The confrontation between Kaiser and Rojeck is wonderful to watch. As a smiling and cheerful Kaiser blatantly steals and mimics each one of Rojeck’s gestures, shurgs and grunts. From the way Rojeck sits to the way he rolls his cigar. Stakes escalate as Rojeck tosses Kaiser’s logo placard out of the open office window. Kaiser throws Rojack’s cashmere coat moments behind it. And Rojeck hints at “accidents” before slapping on Kaiser’s largely over sized Fedora and leaving.
In the interim, Benjy is trying to make time K.C. Downing (Jessica Harper) who is very easy on the eyes. Cannot tell a joke, but comes up with some good writing and script ideas. And reads Benjy like a book. Sharing take out Chinese food that ends well for both. Better than a dinner with Swann being invited over to Benjy’s mother and her Filipino husband out in Brooklyn. And Swann and Benjy crashing the very upscale and WASP cocktail party thrown by K.C’s parents. Via an unreeled fire hose secured on the roof above.
Undaunted, hung over and stranded. Swann and Benjy wander around Central Park as Swann slowly bares his soul. His career, bad habits and daughter Tess are revealed as a New York Mounted Policeman is spotted riding in the distance. Swann, in a pique of bold swashing of buckles decides to steal the horse. As rehearsals quickly beckon. Swann claims the horse. Grabs Benjy on the fly and the two ride off.
Rehearsals for ‘The Three Musketeers’ skit go very well before show time. When Benjy off handedly mentions that the show will be done live. Which sends Swann into a stammering panic attack and into the night. Benjy chases Swann, finding solace in a bottle. As a crew of Rojeck’s men sneak inside the studio and plan an intervention with King Kaiser. It’s Benjy’s turn to bare his soul. Explaining that Swann was always been his bigger than life hero. In whatever film Swann happened to be in, Benjy believed. He had to, because no actor is that good! And Benjy needs that real life hero right now!
Whjich would be good, because the show has begun and Kaiser has already fended off one attack from Rojeck’s goons. Decking Sy as an unintended after thought. A triumphant shrug brings a second wave as the ‘Boss Hijack’ skit begins. Hangs for a moment and picks up as King falls through a flimsy prop wall with goons attached. Up in the camera booth, K.C., the writers and directors watch King fends off the goons and Swann appears still in his Musketeer costume up in the balcony.
Spotlights and camera follow as the audience erupts in applause. Swann grabs a cable and swings down onto the slug fest set. Landing atop two thugs and evens the score with fists, slashing sabers, brass pommels and whatever is handy. The audience is none the wiser and responds with a thundering standing ovation. As Benjy finishes up his soliloquy with Alfie’s line about “With Swann. You have to forgive a lot, you know?”
What Makes This Film Good?
Superb on location shooting for many key scenes. And near complete overall attention that lulls you into believing you are in 1954. Huge, chrome adorned cars. White wall tires. Wide ties. Modest, below the knee, often pleated skirts. A plethora of sensible shoes for the ladies.
Occasional seamed stockings beneath over sized dancing cigarette packs. Amongst glimpses of the monstrous anachronistic revolving sized and lensed cameras of that time. All aid often rapid fire dialogues and occasional arguments. Especially amongst the writers. Where Bill Macy’s Sy bullies one moment. Then caves spinelessly and kowtows once Joe Bologna’s King Kaiser enters the room. In a close environment seething with Testosterone and inner adolescence. Where the ladies in attendance have to be as quick, clever and funny as the men.
Also the often sub rosa advice given by Mel Brooks. Who helped produce the film and gave its writers and director insights and perspectives into its leading characters.
What Makes This Film Great?
A cast of mostly then unknowns working with a well written, fairly family friend script. And given time to develop and get comfortable with their character’s quirks, (Especially Basil Hoffman’s who whispers to co-writer Anne DeSalvo to deliver his snide comments to Sy) tics, gestures and habits. Joe Bologna is a treat to watch as the father figure of this near insane asylum. Constantly doubting himself. Then making amends for imagined slights. On the cheap.
Also a notable first big screen role for Mark Linn-Baker as Benjy. Possessing a better than decent sense of timing with either glib, off hand remarks. Or coming close to losing it as Swann disappears from an apartment building roof and the fire hose Swann holds onto quickly unreels. High marks also for the just being recognized Jessica Harper’s K.C. Downing. Who’s worked hard to get where she is and has distinct plans for the future. Which may or may not include Benjy.
Peter O’Toole being given the chance to play himself. Eloquent. well versed. A very credible substitute for the usually bigger than life Errol Flynn. Asked to join this project just after his madcap director’s role in ‘The Stunt Man’.
Cinematography by Gerald Herschfeld is top notch. Following director Richard Benjamin‘s penchant to draw back within a set to capture the sense of tension and claustrophobia. While keeping close ups to a minimum and allowing the cast to be an ensemble. Set design by Donald Remacle varies from minimalist in the studios and offices. To cramped and a bit spartan in Brooklyn. To downright opulent for the Stork Club, Swann’s suite and of course, Central Park in shadowy sunlight.
Kudos also to May Routh‘s spot on costume design and composer Ralph Burns’ original, definitely of-its-time soundtrack.
All culminating in a film that is rarely rushed. Has no weak or lagging spots. Tells a story very well and has a happy ending!
Well, what do you think of Jack’s pick of comedy done right? Thoughts on ‘My Favorite Year?’