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Madeline Kahn

Review: Paper Moon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Though hardly perfect, Paper Moon is more satisfactory than What’s Up, Doc? because this time Peter Bogdanovich has found, or conjured up, a comparatively rich setting for his comparatively modest comic sense to work in. Paper Moon may not be funnier than its predecessor, but it has more feeling for people and places: the result is fewer jokes but better comedy. An elaborate, richly detailed sense of period (the 1930s) and a half-dozen good performances succeed in making this lightly picaresque tale of a con man’s adventures with a precociously shrewd little girl (and orphan) quite appealing. A good deal of the humor comes from various surprises and reversals in the relationship of man and child—with the question of whether he adopts her or adapts to her being a subject for debate as well as amusement. Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum play the lead roles, with the chemistry of the performances enhanced considerably by Tatum’s possession of a screen presence that is more genuinely self-assured than her father’s. The elder O’Neal still does a decent job, and the film’s populace gains from the presence of Madeline Kahn as a stripper whose flamboyance is balanced precariously between pathos and the ridiculous, P.J. Johnson as the stripper’s stubbornly illusionless black maid, Burton Gilliam as a flashy provincial hotel clerk, and John Hillerman in a dual role as a sheriff who is both menacing and neighborly and as his brother, a sedentary sort who runs the local bootlegging business from a small hotel lobby. Hillerman is probably the most accomplished of the players here—Tatum’s effect has more to do with sheer uniqueness as a movie child, and Kahn’s tour de force ends up seeming a shade too calculated.

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Review: Blazing Saddles

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

The first wave of reviews said it was hilarious; the second, that it wasn’t that funny. I caught it on the third wave and it was almost that funny—assuming, that is, that you have a stomach for unrelenting bad taste, dirty jokes, and goodnatured, let’s-be-egalitarian-and-offend-everybody racist references. That wasn’t structured as a putdown—I have one of those stomachs myself. But halfway through Blazing Saddles I suddenly realized I’d guffawed good and hard at quite a few things along the way, but I could call almost none of them to mind. Like Friedkin and Blatty in their department, Mel Brooks tends to shock and run. I’d probably laugh a second time at Slim Pickens’s riding up and demanding “Whut in th’ wide wide world uh sports is goin’ on here?!” because, although it’s a dumb joke, it and Pickens were both funny the first time and Pickens would still be delightful the second. I wouldn’t be caved in a second time when John Hillerman pretentiously invokes Nietzsche and David Huddleston responds, “Ah, blow it out your ass, Howard!” with a ten-gallon scowl, because that gag lacks even the whimsy of “wide wide world of sports” and depends purely on surprise to work at all. Both Hillerman and Huddleston have done fine comic turns in the past (for Bogdanovich in What’s Up, Doc? and Newman-Benton in Bad Company, respectively; and there was also Hillerman’s truly menacing job as the sheriff—and his bootlegger brother—in Paper Moon), but Brooks encourages them to turn in only the broadest, most insubstantial, TV-variety-sketch performances.

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Review: Young Frankenstein

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

If I suggest that Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein is more fond than funny, I don’t mean at all to imply that it isn’t funny. It is. But the first response of any devotee of classic horror films, especially the cycle out of Universal Studios in the Thirties and early Forties, must have to do with Brooks’s—and Wilder’s, but especially director Brooks’s—conspicuous scrupulousness about and passionate love for the old films he’s remembering and celebrating. No opportunistic schmuck out to poke facile fun at antique movies is going to bother setting up his camera in such a way that it will observe Frederick (Froedrich?) von Frankenstein carefully framed at his breakfast table by two gracefully curving chairbacks; in such niceties of style even more than the restoration of the “original” laboratory equipment does Brooks reveal himself a true obsédé and an honorable heir to the eerily delicate comic-horror tradition of James Whale.

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Review: ‘At Long Last Love’

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

By no stretch of the critical imagination can At Long Last Love be deemed other than a bad film but, even allowing for an outspoken desire to “get” Bogdanovich, the negative reaction has been extreme—as if the director had set The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Cole Porter, whereas all he’s done has been to turn loose a few of his vehemently unmusical movie-actor friends and let them stumble through a multimillion-dollar home movie. I know that people are starving, and yet I can’t subscribe to the rites of excommunication.

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Videophiled: ‘Blazing Saddles’ at 40 and ‘Thunderbirds’ are Blu!

BlazingSaddlesBDBlazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary (Warner, Blu-ray)

Years ago, when singer Frankie Laine was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, he confessed that when he was engaged to record the theme song to Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), he was not told that the film (and the song) was a spoof. He simply thought it was a bad song that he gave lines like “He rode a blazing saddle” a gravity that defies the painful lyric. Which was what Brooks wanted all along. It’s my favorite story behind one of the funniest movies ever made (it was in fact voted the sixth funniest movie of all time in an AFI poll) and one of the most audacious satires of racism to come out of Hollywood.

Mel Brooks came to Blazing Saddles on the success of The Producers, a film that also flirted with bad taste close to edge of offensiveness, but for this spoof he charged over the line with a brilliant staff of co-writers, including Andrew Bergman (The In-Laws), Norman Steinberg (My Favorite Year) and Richard Pryor (who was originally cast in the lead by Brooks but nixed by the studio, apparently nervous over the comedian’s reputation). They stirred racial humor into a broad parody of western movies with satirical lampooning, cartoon slapstick and bathroom humor. The sheer energy and anything-goes inventiveness of the film—quick costume changes, exploding candy boxes and a hulking brute named Mongo (Alex Karras)—suggests at times a live action Tex Avery cartoon. It was comic gold and a smash hit for Brooks.

Cleavon Little is a quick-witted railway worker saved from the gallows by corrupt governor’s aide Hedy (“That’s Hedley!”) Lamar (Harvey Korman) only to be offered up for a sure lynching as the sheriff of a conservative western town under siege from the Governor’s own gangsters. Madeline Kahn is a scream as a lisping Dietrich-like entertainer (she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance) and Gene Wilder provides amiable support and crack timing as the alcoholic ex-gunfighter who joins our stalwart hero. Brooks himself co-stars as the Governor and as a kvetching Indian chief in a brief flashback and Frankie Lane indeed sings the brilliant theme song without a trace of camp (it also received an Oscar nomination). Campfire meals have never been the same since. Watch it. You’d do it for Randolph Scott!

It’s been on both Blu-ray and DVD a number of times already but it turns 40 this year and that calls for an anniversary edition. New to this release is the half-hour featurette “Blaze of Glory: Mel Brooks’ Wild, Wild West,” built around a new interview the Brooks and featuring archival interview clips with Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn, and a collection of postcard-sized stills with comic-strip bubble lines from the film.

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Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, and music scorer John Morris notwithstanding, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is no Young Frankenstein. What’s been crucially left out of the mix is virtually any feeling for those literary and cinematic forebears all but the most couthless of viewers must have in the back or front of mind. The Mel Brooks film’s attention to the traditions from which it sprang supplied it with not only resonance but also more sheer utilitarian structure than its catch-all creator had ever managed to come up with before. Lacking such scrupulousness, Wilder’s own directorial debut (he did help write Young Frankenstein) is reduced to a series of skits and skips—or hops, as it would musically have it—which stand or stumble according to the sweetness and sureness, or vagrancy and lameness, of the momentary shtick. Only one moment early in the film suggests a commitment to comedic extrapolation and embellishment of Conan Doyle’s abundant narrative quirks: As a menacing—and very literal—heavy (George Silver, the Fat Man of Gumshoe) crouches outside Sherlock Holmes’ door, Holmes (Douglas Wilmer) apprises Watson (Thorley Walters) of the fact by way of flashcard—then proceeds to run through a series of cards anticipating Watson’s ensuing reactions and questions.

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Review: Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood

[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!”

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Review: High Anxiety

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

The consistency of Young Frankenstein and Silent Movie have served to make us forget how embarrassingly unfunny Mel Brooks can be when he’s off his feed. It’s a long, hard road to the first genuinely good laugh in High Anxiety; and, though the film picks up after that, it never gets consistently good. In this heavily promoted Hitchcock sendup, Brooks is on safe ground only when specifically kidding Hitchcock’s camera style—like the low-angle camera that watches two characters through a glass coffee table, but keeps losing them amid a jungle of cups, saucers, and trays; or the overhead shot that ends with everyone suddenly looking straight up at the camera; or the shot-for-shot parody of Psycho’s shower scene. There are a half-dozen or so delicious moments like these in the film; but when Brooks relies on dialogue for laughs he goes juvenile on us, choking off most of the laughs. In attempting to lampoon Hitchcock’s plotting and thematic content, all Brooks is able to do is reduce the elegant, dry wit of the Master of Suspense to pasty, cream-pie level. Typical of the film’s ubiquitous failures is the climactic scene, a fusion of the tower scene from Vertigo with the return of John Ballantine’s memory in Spellbound: the way the scene is shot—with an impossibly blond Madeline Kahn and an impeccably dressed Mel Brooks caught on the ancient stairs—is hilarious; but the dialogue is so absurdly puerile that the comedy is diluted to water-thinness. At its unfunniest, High Anxiety is embarrassingly, even boringly limp; at its funniest, it’s never as funny as Hitchcock’s own work. “A Mister MacGuffin called,” indeed!

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