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!
Check out Jack’s other posts and reviews
Well, what do you think of Jack’s pick of comedy done right? Thoughts on ‘My Favorite Year?’
30 thoughts on “Comedy Done Right: My Favorite Year (1982)”
Love this movie. Grand and personal performances all around, and with a rich cast. One of the best films actor-writer-director Richard Benjamin ever did. Great highlight, Kevin.
Thanks for a great conversation starter!
There’s so much about ‘My Favorite Year’ that just clicks. Sharp, clever writing when and where it’s needed. Masterful direction, cinematography, costuming and set design. A cast completely comfortable with their quirky characters. And an occasionally swashbuckling tale well told and executed.
One of the few films to rate 100% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes. With good reason!
I don’t know if you saw this tidbit on Facebook today re: this post of yours from Edward Copeland: “Because he was uncredited, I never realized that Mel Brooks actually was the film’s executive producer until I listen to his Blazing Saddles commentary and he mentioned his input to its screenplay.” This film’s pedigree only gets better.
Wasn’t aware of that very cool Facebook snippet. Though I have been aware of Mel Brooks dabbling in and around films other than his own. Brooks had a production hand in ‘The Elephant Man’ from 1980. ‘Frances’ in 1982. And ’84 Charing Cross Road’ in 1987.
Brooks’ perspective and advice does nothing but buff and shine even more a polished gem!
That first paragraph had me amening from my office. I love good comedy. Sadly there’s hardly any of it anymore and if you want good laughs and not formulaic and raunchy garbage you have to look back in time.
That said, I’ve never seen this film. It sounds like something I would really appreciate and I’m surprised I haven’t caught up with it. But now you have me excited because, like I said, I love a good comedy and now it looks like there’s one can check out. Good stuff!
“…if you want good laughs and not formulaic and raunchy garbage you have to look back in time” You hit the nail straight on the head, Keith! I feel that *comedies* these days are so crude! I mean, they’re full of disgusting jokes and euphemism that make your skin crawl, either that or they’re mean-spirited 😦
It seems that raunch is a crutch that takes the place of comedic creativity today. Really frustrating for someone who enjoys good comedies.
I know! But seems like people do go watch those so they only get raunchier and pushing the envelope in place of good storyline and characters.
I think a comedy can have a good storyline and characters along with raunchy humour.
Some comedies do work well with raunch. ‘Where the Buffaloes Rome’, ‘Where Dies it Hurt?’ ‘Freebie and The Bean’, ‘Busting’. ‘The Choirboys’ and even Paddy Chayefsky’s ‘Hospital’ are good examples. As are ‘The Hangover’ and ‘Project X’ to some extent.
The marketing demographic has changed and has been targeted towards ever younger audiences. What was once used sparingly has become a staple. And more’s the pity.
Thanks for the great intro and comment.
I, and I’m sure many others take their comedies seriously. And ‘My Favorite Year’ is one of the best. Not for straight beginning to end laughs, like ‘Airplane’. But in telling a story well between laughs. With great fidelity to detail and best efforts from all involved.
Definitely worth checking out!
Thanks for bringing this to my attention Kevin! How could I not seen this before?! I saw the trailer of this last night and I REALLY want to see this. I could see Peter O’Toole doing fab in comedies, seems like Errol Flynn is a great character to spoof on, as Timothy Dalton was channeling him in Rocketeer as well. Can’t wait to watch this one!
You are more than welcome.
Look for ‘How to Steal a Million’ with a very debonaire Peter O’Toole as a art thief/cat burglar opposite Audrey Hepburn as the daughter of famed artist and forger, Hugh Griffith and O’Toole next contracted target. A very stylish and elegant comedy from 1966.
What’s cool about O’Toole’s performance, is that he plays Allan Swann’s Errol Flynn indirectly. As the audience would perceive and want Peter O’Toole to play him. Relaxed, confident and sometimes goofily. Which add immensely to O’Toole, Swann’s and the film’s charm.
I’ve been wanting to see ‘How to Steal a Million’ for a long time! Sounds like Mr. O’Toole did a lot of comedic roles, I thought he was more of a serious actor.
‘How to Steal a Million’ was released in 1966 and his full of Merry Olde England and French Mod designs. Also elegant dinner attire for Mr. O’Toole and Ms. Hepburn. A neat little art theft, forgery and insurance scam comedy. Another 100% Fresh rated film over at Rotten Tomatoes.com.
Mr. O’Toole leans more towards drama than comedy. Though he’s superb in either.
This is one of my favorite comedies–Mark Linn-Baker is underrated in general, and especially here. But it’s also one of my two or three favorite Peter O’Toole roles. He’s so good in this, so funny, and so natural. He’s a joy to watch. He also has one of the greatest entrances of a character ever in this film.
The dinner sequence is still one of my favorite comedy scenes from any film.
Peter O’Toole delivers in whatever film he’s signed on to. Making his mark early on with his T.S. Lawrence in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and maintaining a high standard of quality throughout.
‘How to Steal a Million’, ‘Lord Jim’ and ‘My Favorite Year’ top my list. And yes, O’Toole understood the power and importance of an entrance and handles them marvelously. I especially like O’Toole/Swann’s failed acrobatic exercise when being introduced to King’s writing staff.
This is a great movie Jack, and one I havent seen in far too long. O’Toole and Linn-Baker play off each other extremely well, and the script is funny and ultimately sweet. I recall some great physical comedy mixed in amongst the madcap antics too.
Thanks for reminding me of this one!
I expected Mark Linn-Baker to be swept up into the high end of films after his debut in ‘My Favorite Year”. Both surprised and a bit dismayed that didn’t happen. He supplied a great foil and straight man opposite Mr. O’Toole. Especially during the fire hose scene. When Swann bares his soul about Clarence Duffy and when Benjy returns the favor before the final fight scene.
The choreography during Swann’s heroic entrance and adding to the final fight is tremendous for its brevity and overall effect.
Just great all around cinema, my friend.
Being a huge Peter O’Toole fan you’re preaching to the choir here Kevin. I’m probably due for a My Favorite Year re-watch. My goodness it’s been about 20 years. Great write-up.
You mentioned The Stunt Man. It’s one of my favorite fun films that’s basically gone under the radar since the early 80’s. It’s a shame director Richard Rush really never did anything after that. It was truly a masterful piece of writing and directing.
A bit off topic but is it me or does Jessica Harper reminded you of Karen Allen? She had quite an eclectic career. From Woody Allen, Spielberg, Garry Shandling to Dario Argento and De Palma. Personally I remember her most in one of my favorite 80’s guilty pleasures… Big Man On Campus. It’s basically a modern day telling of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A very silly 80’s campus comedy but this scene with Tom Skerritt and Allan Katz was quite affecting.
Fun Fact: This was Allan Katz’s (Bob) only acting role. He was more known as a TV writer/producer for Laugh In, Rhoda, M*A*S*H*, Rosanne and even Blossom. Maybe he was lucky enough to write a “very special Blossom” episode.
I remember when many critics and newspapers pooh-poohed O’Toole’s performance in ‘The Stunt Man’. Thinking it was beneath his stead and standing. Which couldn’t have been further from the truth.
In a time when what many considered Peter O’Toole kinds of films were few and far between. He took a chance on a script he thoroughly enjoyed and could bring to life. A detour, if you will. That placed him close to Richard Benjamin and Mel Brooks afterwards, to make magic with ‘My Favorite Year’.
Ooh this one is a blind spot for me. Will have to watch out for it.
I’m very pleased to have you drop by.
‘My Favorite Year’ is one of those films you remember the first time you see it. And wonder where it went afterwards. Superb efforts throughout that is starting to get some notoriety by being recently picked up by Turner Classic Movies.
If it hasn’t had a full blown Blu-Ray treatment, it definitely should have one!
A fantastic film. Great dissection.
Thanks very much.
‘My Favorite Year’ deserves close attention to details. Because it is a full canvas awash and replete with them. A great collective work by director Benjamin on down!
I’m glad you enjoyed it. And hope to see your comments more often.
I have never heatd of this movie before but I like what I read here and would love to see it.
I agree on Keith’s comment there…nowadays comedy is too force up, I dont know the right word, it’s not that good and funny anymore…that’s why I go British now.
ps. answering your question on previous post, Ruth … yes I am job hunting now 🙂 wish me luck
Yeah, I always have a penchant for British comedies myself, Nov.
Best wishes on your job hunt, girl!
It’s always a treat when you come by and opine!
You do have a viable point in regard to British comedy. Many American popular series from the 1970s had their roots in British situation comedies (‘Steptoe & Sons becoming ‘Sanford & Son’. ‘All in the Family, etc). You rarely hear of an American series crossing the pond and becoming a hit.
The Brits often excel in “Making something out of nothing” kinds of comedies. ‘Monty Python’ leaps to mind. Eclectic as and as funny as Hell. ‘Benny Hill’ rates very highly. As does ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘Wooster & Jeeves’ and ‘Are You Being Served’.
Hi Jack, I always love your posts because I often learn something new. Case in point — I hadn’t even heard of this film! Sounds like a great comedy though. Will keep an eye out for it, especially as I have been wanting to see more of Peter O’Toole. Don’t think I have seen anything else with him other than the flawless Lawrence of Arabia.
Thanks so much for the compliment!
It’s always a kick when I find someone who hasn’t seen a film that is the focus of my posts. And this one is certainly worth the time and effort to seek out and enjoy!
Peter O’Toole was fortunate enough to be noticed and mark his mark very early with ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. But what’s cool and interesting about O’Toole is that he has been given many more opportunities to play his craft. And his high standards have never wavered.