[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
Death-wish mechanic Michael Winner first made his name as a director of comedies (You Must Be Joking, The Jokers, I’ll Never Forget Whats’isname)—a fact one remembers only with some straining, and without the assistance of his latest film. James Agee once suggested that really bad movies should go about tinkling a bell and crying “Unclean! Unclean!”; it’s getting so that the bell these days is the cutesypoo title (cf. The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday). Won Ton Ton, played engagingly but not brilliantly by Augustus Von Schumacher, is intended as a surrogate of Rin Tin Tin, no matter what the lawyers say, and his rise to superstardom is the pretext for a crassly comic view of the Film Capital in the Twenties. An index of Winner & co.’s sense of film history: at the world premiere of the new Rudy Montague (Rudolph Valentino by way of Ron Leibman) picture, the image on the screen is blocked-up, ultracontrasty, and scratchy (“Gee, didn’t old movies always look like that?”). Their notion of film comedy is scarcely more astute—as lowbrow as a dachshund and as funny as a dead rat. One of the better lines: landlady Joan Blondell to nude, sunbathing three-year-old after a talent scout has left: “All right, Norma Jean, you can put your clothes on again!”
It’s a moot question how much more affectionate the filmmakers were toward the 60some senior citizens of the silver screen who creak by in cameo roles: on the one hand, they’re exploiting their sagging flesh and quaking voices; on the other, they’ve provided the opportunity for one last stand under the lights that at least some of the participants must have delighted in. (Victor Mature, for one, is authentically funny as a greasy hitman hired by petulant Rudy Montague to rub out his scene-stealing co-stars.) Indeed, the film’s point of view on Hollywood in general is perplexing in the extreme, since the makers of this exercise in venality enjoy a lot of digs at the venal stars, directors, and studio heads of yesteryear. Bruce Dern tries hard as a tourist guide who wants to turn director, flogging surefire scripts about a white shark terrorizing a New England resort town, a little girl possessed by the Devil, and so forth, but manages at best to look like an innocent victim of the screenplay and direction. Winner and cameraman Richard Kline (who worked with him on The Mechanic) occasionally frame ostensibly comic interviews with a floor-level wide-angle lens that works fine for hallucinatory melodrama but only adds a note of stylistic bewilderment to what is already a mishmash of a film.
WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD
Direction: Michael Winner. Screenplay: Arnold Schulman and Cy Howard. Cinematography: Richard H. Kline. Art direction: Ward Preston; set decoration: Ned Parsons. Editing: Bernard Gribble. Music: Neal Hefti. Production: David V. Picker, Arnold Schulman, Michael Winner.
The players: Augustus Von Schumacher, Bruce Dern, Madeline Kahn, Art Carney, Ron Leibman, Teri Garr, Phil Silvers, and 66 survivors of Hollywood’s past.
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson