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Richard Pryor

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: Uptown Saturday Night

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Uptown Saturday Night would be a lot better film if it kept about the business of portraying Uptown Saturday night. Cram the events of this movie into one zany, frenetic dusk-to-dawn and you might, almost without worrying about it, create enough artificial pressure in space and time to make up for the fact that Sidney Poitier, directing his third feature film, still hasn’t much idea what to do with his camera. Mainly he and the movie try to get by on good faith and the proliferation of talented and likable black players—and good faith is easy to come by with Poitier himself, Bill Cosby, Roscoe Lee Browne, Richard Pryor, and the rest of the cast announced up front. Indeed, for anyone who may doubt that that’s the strategy, there are unabashed recognition shots for most of the players, so that the audience can greet them volubly without missing any exposition in the ensuing dialogue, and a sort of black Quiet Man finale—in which cameo shots of all the colorful characters are strung together in farewell—and to make up for the fact that the movie just lamely stops instead of arriving at an organically satisfying ending. Poitier also borrows a leaf from René Clair for his premise—a poor workingman (Poitier), having bluffed his way into a black gambling den, has his wallet lifted by holdup men and later learns that the numbers ticket inside is worth $50,000—and perhaps his opening, too, though here Rouben Mamoulian aficionados (are there any Rouben Mamoulian aficionados?) might protest that Mamoulian’s stage production of Porgy and Bess in the Twenties anticipated Clair’s early-sound frolics with its rhythmic, stylized-sound awakening of Catfish Row.

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DVD: Classic DeMille, Psychedelic Sexploitation, and the French Disconnection

The Buccaneer (1938) (Olive)

This first version of the historical adventure / pirate movie (it was remade in 1958 by Anthony Quinn) stars Fredric March as Jean Lafitt, the flamboyant French-born privateer (he preferred the term over pirate) who fought side-by-side with General Andrew Jackson against the British in the War of 1812.

The American melting pot of 1814

Cecil B. DeMille plays fast and loose with his history, as usual, but he also has more fun with the story than in many of his big historical spectacles, making Lafitte both a sly scoundrel with a brazen defiance of authority and a patriot who sides with the Americans against the British even though they have put a price on his head. March’s Lafitte may have one of the worst French accents ever heard on screen, but he is a commanding and charismatic leader who rouses his men to the American cause even after they have been double-crossed by the Louisiana Governor. The obligatory romantic subplot has Lafitte courting a high society belle while a cute Dutch girl (Franciska Gaal) moons over Lafitte after he rescues her from a rogue pirate who defies orders and attacks an American ship, a breach that Lafitte ultimately must take responsibility for.

The rest is a paean to the multicultural collection of characters who make up the American melting pot, including Akim Tamiroff’s lovable, loyal rogue of a second-in-command to Lafitte and Walter Brennan as Jackson’s buckskin-clad aide-de-camp. DeMille’s films had a tendency to get bloated and starchy as his budgets and scope grew but this has a lively energy to it, thanks to a plot full of betrayals and battles, a cast of larger-than-life characters (including Hugh Sothern as a hearty, earthy Jackson), and a snappy script full of playful dialogue. It even, dramatic license and romantic fictions aside, keeps to the broad strokes of history. All of which makes for one of DeMille’s more rousing productions. The print shows some wear, mostly light vertical scratches, but no serious damage, and the sound is fine.

Marianne Faithfull is naked under leather

Girl on a Motorcycle (Kino/Redemption)

A very sixties portrayal of one woman’s sexual liberation. Girl on a Motorcycle could be the mod Euro answer to Easy Rider with a sexy young Marianne Faithfull in the saddle. The film was released in the U.S. under the title Naked Under Leather, which is not particularly poetic but is accurate: she climbs naked from the marriage bed and dons the skin-tight leather bodysuit in the opening scene. As she rides her Harley Davidson Electra Glide from her home in France, where she lives with her devoted but dull and unadventurous schoolteacher husband (Roger Mutton), across the border to visit her lover (Alain Delon), a seductive professor of literature who gave her the bike as a wedding gift, her story plays out in a succession of flashbacks, sexual fantasies, and kitschy psychedelic imagery. Those acid-drenched neon video shades of purple and orange and green take over whenever she makes love with Delon, which has the unintended effect of turning sex into a bad psychedelic trip. Stream-of-consciousness narration fills in the rest of her sexual vision quest across the border of conformity. Faithfull is not much of an actress but she is a marvelous presence, not classically pretty yet quite beautiful, slipping between coquettish girl and experienced woman in a matter of seconds.

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Review: The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Like most films with a baseball setting, The Bingo Long Traveling All-stars and Motor Kings is not essentially about baseball. Not that baseball is altogether a bad thing for a movie to be about (though in these days of the once-great sport’s waning popularity a real baseball movie might well die at the box office); it’s just that baseball is so damned useful to film makers as metaphor. One of the most exciting moments in Bingo Long occurs when Charlie Snow, a player on the barnstorming independent baseball team of the title, slips out of the game momentarily to relieve himself and suddenly finds a razor at his throat. The razor belongs to the hired goons of funeral director Sallison Potts, who is trying to intimidate Bingo Long and his team of unaffiliated black players into giving up their enterprise and returning to his Negro National League franchise. A closeup shows us the razor against Snow’s chest; a short cry escapes his mouth before it’s stifled by one of the goons. It’s too quiet just now: Snow’s screams would be heard. “Wait till Leon tags one,” says the second goon; “wait till the crowd roars.” At bat is slugger Leon Carter, whose big hit we have been waiting for and are now dreading. The pitcher winds up and delivers—and it’s a ball. And it’s a breathless moment in the theater. But it’s also essentially a denial of the excitement of baseball. Those who know baseball and consider it important don’t need a man’s life riding on the next pitch in order for it to be an exciting, tense experience.

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