Friday, January 25, 2013

cinema obscura: two with tony

I admit it. I miss the comedies of the '60s. They were breezy and stress-free and there was nothing mean-spirited about them. Yes, times have changed. Either that, or I've become way too old.

The average modern film comedy leaves one feeling battered and worn out, even the so-called "chick flicks" and romantic comedies. Face it, the romantic comedy died in that Rob Reiner-concocted scene in which Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in a deli/restaurant.

Today, there is no more exposition - nothing is set up as modern comedies come barreling at us with veritable cattle prods in hand, zapping us every five seconds or so with dubious double-entendrés and CG-enhanced pratfalls.

The problem with all of this? Most of the time, it simply isn't funny - just strained.

Which brings me to two minor gems from the 1960s, both starring the ever-underrated Tony Curtis.

1964's "Wild and Wonderful," directed by Michael Anderson ("Around the World in 80 Days," "All the Fine Young Cannibals"), is a nifty take on the eternal triangle. Only in this case, it's a dog - a handsome white French poodle - that comes between a man and a woman.

Monsieur Cognac is a national celebrity in France, the star of his own TV show, as well as films, and he's completely in love with his owner Giselle Ponchon (Christine Kaufmann, Curtis's wife at the time), obsessively so. Giselle has an acting career of her own, but Cognac always comes first.

One day, Cognac disappears and goes on a bender. He meets Terry Williams (Curtis), an American musican performing in Paris, and in one of the film's more hilarious scenes, Terry and Cognac indulge in a drinking spree. True to his name, Cognac loves alcohol. When Giselle tracks down her dog and meets Terry, she falls madly in love - much to Cognac's chagrin. The rest of the film is about how a disapproving Cognac sets up roadblocks for Terry and Giselle, feigning illness and even abuse (supposedly at the hand of Terry) and generally acting out.

"Wild and Wonderful" is effortless fun. George Clooney should do a remake (with Marion Cotillard, perhaps?). And Universal should release the original on DVD already.

A year earlier, in 1963, Curtis made an affable Universal comedy for a first-time director named Norman Jewison - "40 Pounds of Trouble" - about a casino manager who gets stuck with an orphan as a marker.

Sound familiar? Jewison's debut film is, of course, based on the famous Damon Runyon story, "Little Miss Marker," which has inspired at least three other film versions - Alexander Hall's "Little Miss Marker" (1934) with Adolphe Menjou and Shirley Temple; Sidney Lanfield's "Sorrowful Jones" (1949) with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, and Walter Bernstein's "Little Miss Marker" (1980) with Walter Matthau, Julie Andrews and, again, Tony Curtis.

In Jewison's version, Curtis plays Steve McCluskey who manages a Lake Tahoe casino for Bernie Friedman (Phil Silvers). He's trying to juggle his job with his attempts to evade the private eyes hired by his ex-wife to collect past alimony.

Complicating matters are (1) Bernie's niece, Chris Lockwood (Suzanne Pleshette), who arrives to sing at the casino and who Steve thinks is actually Bernie's mistress, and (2) a 6-year-old named Penny Piper (Claire Wilcox), who has been abandoned by her father who owed the casino money. When Penny's dad ends up dead, she ends up with Steve.

It all culminates in an antic chase through Disneyland, with Steve trying to evade his assorted pursuers, using Chris and Penny to pose as the perfect family. Pure pleasure.

The exceptional supporting cast includes such pros as Silvers, Kevin McCarthy, Howard Morris and Edward Andrews. Better yet, Pleshette matches up well with Curtis - they make a hugely attractive couple - and she gets to sing in a few scenes.

Jewison followed "40 Pounds of Trouble" with Doris Day's "The Thrill of It All," made the same year and directed from a great script by Carl Reiner. A year later, in '64, Day recruited Jewison to direct her and Rock Hudson in the best of their three comedies together, "Send Me No Flowers," based on the Norman Barasch-Carroll Moore Play.

Next for Jewison came "The Cincinnati Kid" and "The Art of Love" (both 1965), "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" (1966) and then his Oscar winner, "In the Heat of the Night" (1967).

A nice, steady rise.

Note in Passing: Thanks to my friend Marvin for sending me a rare VHS copy of "40 Pounds of Trouble," taped off of television when it was still possible to see the film. I'm in heaven.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

cinema obscura: Harold Prince's "Something for Everyone" (1970)/James Lapine's "Impromptu" (1991)

Theater directors rarely get any credit when they venture into film. Case in point: I loved what Morton DaCosta did with the film versions of plays that he originally directed on stage, "Auntie Mame" (1958) and "The Music Man" (1962). Both are noteworthy for their fidelity to their stage predecessors and yet are impressively cinematic.

DaCosta would direct only one other film - 1963's now-forgotten "Island of Love," starring Robert Preston, Tony Randall and Walter Matthau.

You could say, "That was then, this is now." But matters haven't changed.

Harold Prince made what I thought was an auspicious film directing debut with the delicious 1970 Angela Lansbury-Michael York black comedy, "Something for Everyone," one of those sophisticated sex comedies in which the randy young hero (York) sleeps his way through every member of a family (shades of Pasolini's "Teorema" with Terence Stamp).

The film is just about impossible to see nowadays, although Prince's second (and last) film, a truncated version of the Sondheim musical, "A Little Night Music," has been available on DVD.

The estimable James Lapine, meanwhile, made one of the best films of 1991 - now also forgotton, of course - with "Impromptu," a randy farce about the affair between Frederic Chopin (Hugh Grant) and George Sand (Judy Davis, alas, in oneof her last great film roles). Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Emma Thompson and Julian Sand round out the cast.

I can't think of anything wrong with this film.

Lapine subsequently filmed the Michael J. Fox-Nathan Lane show-biz comedy, "Life with Mikey" and the Anne Tyler adaptation for HBO, "Earthly Possessions," sarring Susan Sarandon and Stephen Dorf.

If rep houses still existed and had resourceful bookers, "Something for Everyone" and "Impromptu" would make a great double-bill.