A Dozen Undervalued Movie Satires

 Posted by DVD Beaver in January 2007 (http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/dozen_undervalued_movie_satires.htm) .  — J.R.

One reason why I haven’t gone earlier than 1940 in this chronological list is that satire depends on a certain amount of currency in order to be effective, and the further off we are in time from a given movie, the less likely it is to affect us directly. This isn’t invariably true, and it certainly doesn’t apply to literature: think of Voltaire’s Candide, first published in 1759, which probably seems more “up to date” today than Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy, first published in 1958. But it’s also important to realize that one of the best ways to understand a historical period is to discover how it was ridiculed by its contemporaries.

With some significant exceptions—-Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is one of the most striking—-satire, as playwright and Algonquin wit George S. Kaufman once put it, is what closes in New Haven, and this is especially true of most movie satires. Apart from the studio fodder (the first two items here), and discounting the arthouse features of Buñuel and Kiarostami, all these movies were either flops or at most modest successes, and some were resounding flops. No matter how hilarious it looks today, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (see below) was such a resounding commercial flop when it came out in 1957 that it nearly destroyed Frank Tashlin’s career. But The Girl Can’t Help It, another Tashlin satire with Jayne Mansfield that preceded it at the same studio, did pretty well (no doubt in part because of its generous offerings of rock-n-roll), and a similar contrast can be found in comparing such uncommercial (albeit great) Charlie Chaplin satires as Monsieur Verdoux and A King in New York with his earlier The Great Dictator (the biggest hit of his career). Maybe this has something to do with how willing audiences are at certain periods to hoot at themselves, but even here no hard and fast rules seem to apply. It’s a matter of historical record that Adolf Hitler, the major target of The Great Dictator, was sufficiently amused by the film to see it twice.

  1) Christmas in July (1940). For all the rising popularity of Preston Sturges as a master writer-director of screwy, satirical, all-American farces, his second feature continues to be one of his most neglected, even though its story about winning a contest to furnish a band of coffee with the best advertising slogan is among his most memorable. In fact, the office clerk (Dick Powell) at the company who believes he’s won the contest with his own jokey slogan (”If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk”—-a sentence the movie employs like a crazed, tribal mantra) is actually the victim of a practical joke, a hoax concocted by his fellow workers. But after he runs off and spends a fortune purchasing gifts for himself, his fiancée (Ellen Drew), and his neighbors, believing that he’s struck the jackpot, his coworkers grow increasingly reluctant to inform him about their prank. Despite the apparently contemporary setting, this manic comedy has a great deal to do with the desperate fantasies of opulence developed during the Depression, with especially fragrant moments of eloquence and bluster from a few of Sturges’ favorite bit actors–Raymond Walburn, William Demarest, and Franklin Pangborn.
2) Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942). To cite a fairly primitive but none the less enjoyably unpretentious example of satire, check out this mainly routine romp directed by Richard Thorpe in which Boy (Johnny Sheffield) gets kidnapped from the African jungle by circus animal hunters (including Charles Bickford and Chill Wills), and Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) have to fly to New York in order to rescue him. “We’re going into places that are more tangled than the worst underbrush in the jungle,” Jane cautions Tarzan before they depart for the urban jungle, suggesting that Myles Connolly and his screenwriting cohorts were perfectly aware of some of the ironies involved—-although I suspect that Tarzan getting routinely fingerprinted at U.S. Customs wasn’t intended as a gag. If you aren’t too distracted by Tarzan speaking pidgin English (“Jane beautiful—-Jane good”) while Jane and Boy talk like ordinary suburbanites, you might be amused by the way New York–and, more generally, modern technology and appliances–gets interpreted by Tarzan.

(For a far more sophisticated version of the same kind of humor, check out Jean Rouch’s 1969 Petit à petit, unfortunately available only without subtitles, in which the black hero from Ghana comes to Paris and winds up measuring the skulls and pondering ethnographically the quaint folkways of white Parisians.) Otherwise, this is mainly notable for superb stunts by Cheetah the chimpanzee and various elephants—-the true stars of this movie, and in some respects the most intelligent characters.

3) Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) Along with Chaplin’s A King in New York, made the same year, this Frank Tashlin comedy about Madison Avenue, the media, and Jayne Mansfield, starring Tony Randall in his most brilliant performance, is the most devastating satire about 50s America to be found anywhere. But whereas the Chaplin comedy was made by necessity in exile (since Chaplin had been officially barred from re-entering the U.S. at this point, and had to simulate his New York in London) as well as independently (like all of Chaplin’s other features), Tashlin’s far more avant-garde masterpiece was actually produced at 20th Century-Fox, apparently when no one was looking. A scathing look at the success ethic, bursting with audacious formal conceits–starting with the opening precredits sequence, when Randall is seen single-handedly performing Fox’s opening logo theme on various instruments –this is characterized throughout by Tashlin’s affection for all his characters, a trait he basically shares with Chaplin. (There’s no such thing as a real villain to be found in any Tashlin film, despite the ferociousness of the cultural critique.)
4) Lord Love a Duck (1966). George Axelrod, who wrote the stage comedy that Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? was at least putatively based on, made the first of his two memorable features with this caustic, black and white satire about southern California youth culture in the mid-60s—-a comedy so dark and morbid in its view of sexual hysteria and the American dream that it probably comes closer to approximating the work of novelist Nathanael West than any other movie. (It certainly comes a lot closer than the would-be movie versions of West’s two best and best-known novels–the horrendously compromised 1958 Lonelyhearts and the diluted and sentimentalized 1975 The Day of the Locust—-not to mention the contemporaneous and somewhat better black and white movie about southern California adapted from Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, released in 1965.)
I don’t know anything about the Al Hine novel that Axelrod and Larry H. Johnson adapted for this movie, but there’s no question that Axelrod and his star Tuesday Weld bring their own unmistakable stamps to this special material. One delirious scene in which Weld’s character goes shopping with her father for sweaters is so audacious about sexual and incestuous delirium that one can hardly believe one’s ears and eyes. Among the other fine actors here are Lola Albright (the heroine’s mom) and Roddy McDowell (her Mephistophocles).
5) The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Three weeks before Luis Buñuel won his first and only Oscar for this avant-garde comedy, he was asked by Mexican reporters, shortly after the film’s nomination, if he thought he might win. “Of course,” was his deadpan reply. “I’ve already paid the $25,000 they asked for. Americans may have their weaknesses, but they do keep their promises.” In point of fact, some critics concluded that the Oscar proved that Buñuel was something of an artistic and political sellout, even if he won the prize fair and square. But I wonder how many of them would argue the same thing today, because it’s hard to think of any other Oscar winner that’s quite as subversive, either as narrative or as social commentary. Admittedly the three upper-crust couples he focuses on, all of whom spend the entire movie trying unsuccessfully to have a meal together—-Fernando Rey and Delphine Seyrig, Stéphane Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel, Bulle Ogier and Paul Frankeur—-are shown as imperturbable, despite all the countless interruptions and various contemporary horrors invading their lives.

But Buñuel’s somewhat resigned view of these charming monsters is far from being a simple endorsement. Insofar as he’s equating these characters with the seductive charms of commercial narrative cinema, this becomes a pretext for lighting the fuses of various bombs under their—-and our–seats.

6) The Long Goodbye (1973). The late Robert Altman’s funniest as well as most nightmarish feature is in part an eerie send-up of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe ethic in relation to what was then present-day Los Angeles. It moves periodically beyond satire in various ways—-in its continuously moving camera, which sets both viewers and characters adrift, in its shocking and/or tragic dislocations (such as a Jewish gangster played by director Mark Rydell smashing his girlfriend in the face with a Coke bottle for no good reason, or an alcoholic novelist played by Sterling Hayden steadily unraveling before our eyes), and in Marlowe himself, a mainly dysfunctional gumshoe who loses his cat, movingly portrayed by Elliott Gould. Still, it’s largely the goofy satire here that keeps this going, extending to such facets as Marlowe’s stoned-out neighbors and the endless variations that we hear in the movie’s title tune.
7) Real Life (1979). Producer-director-cowriter-star Albert Brook’s first feature–a withering send-up of the 1973 PBS series An American Family (which might be described as the original Reality TV)—-is still in many ways the funniest, as well as his all-around best (with the possible exception of his second feature, Modern Romance— the second time he plays a filmmaker). But don’t think you have to have seen An American Family to appreciate any part of this. (I never even sampled the series myself, since I was living abroad at the time.) Brooks does more hilarious stuff with show-biz vanity than anyone else in the business, and the fact that he’s playing himself—-as he subsequently does in his most recent feature, Looking For Comedy in the Modern World—-only adds to the impertinence. This time around, he’s making a (fictional) documentary about a supposedly typical family, that of a veterinarian (Charles Grodin) in Phoenix, Arizona.

8) The King of Comedy (1983). I didn’t warm to Martin Scorsese’s own poisoned valentine to the world of show biz the first time I saw it, but it’s grown steadily in stature ever since. Working with a brilliant script by the late film reviewer and film journalist Paul D. Zimmerman, it focuses on a pathetic wannabee TV comic named Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) who buttonholes a Johnny Carson-type host (Jerry Lewis) and eventually, with the help of another deranged fan (Sandra Bernhard in her sizzling screen debut), kidnaps him as a ruse for breaking into show business. In many ways the evil twin of Scorsese and De Niro’s earlier poem about the humiliation of New York failure, Taxi DriverThe King of Comedy actually moves beyond it in unsentimental candor–especially when it comes to Jerry Lewis’s frightening, deliberately unfunny performance, and, more generally, the movie connecting an all-American hatred for one’s family with a love for celebrities. (Listen closely to Pupkin’s climactic comic monologue.)

9) Ishtar (1987). The most despised movie on this list is actually a very prescient (meaning extremely up-to-date) satire about the bumbling idiocy of the U.S. in the Middle East, brokered by the C.I.A. (Charles Grodin again, even funnier than he is in Real Life), fed by escalating cluelessness, and helped along by a Reagan-era mentality in which a peace settlement can be arrived at only with the help of a show-biz agent (Jack Weston, hilarious). It’s also a surprisingly sweet-tempered farce about lovable lunkheads (Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman), both untalented New York songwriters and singers, who eventually find themselves, along with Isabelle Adjani, in the midst of a war in the Middle East. In fact, the bad reputation of this movie has relatively little to do with the brilliance of its writer-director, Elaine May, in her last feature to date—-apart from the vindictive behavior of the studio about the movie going way over budget because of her perfectionism–and quite a lot to do with the high-handedness of its producer-star, Warren Beatty, in dealing with journalists, who found in this movie a perfect means of exacting their revenge.
(Anyone who witnessed Beatty publicly humiliating Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in the midst of a tribute to him at the Toronto film festival, for instance, is apt to be unsurprised at the vituperation of both critics towards Ishtar.) But now that all these old grudges have become irrelevant, what remains is a pretty wonderful comedy. If you don’t believe me, check it out for yourself..

10) The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). My favorite feature by Abbas Kiarostami—-the most beautiful and profound, and in many ways the funniest–is a not-so-veiled autocritique about how Kiarostami himself deals with poor peasants, played out mainly as comedy. The fact that Kiarostami is an innovative Iranian filmmaker who works without scripts in the usual sense is interesting, but ultimately less important than the universality and topicality of his theme, which satirizes the short-sightedness of big-city media types around the world-—the hero’s mobile phone is a major prop–who feel lost as well as stranded when they’re in the sticks, living in a separate time frame from the locals while waiting restlessly for something to happen. To get a better sense of how Kiarostami is satirizing himself and his own methodology, check out Yuji Mohara’s 90-minute A Week with Kiarostami, available in the English-subtitled French edition of this feature, which reveals startling as well as fascinating details about how this film was made.

11) Down with Love (2003). Peyton Reed’s hyperbolic and inventive parody attempts to satirize three comedies with Doris Day and Rock Hudson that I couldn’t care less about–Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964). To tell the truth, I’m actually glad that the filmmakers, too young to have experienced this period directly, get most of it wrong–from the credits to the gigantic Manhattan penthouses (cf. How to Marry a Millionaire and The Tender Trap) to the “think-pink” advertising décor (cf. Funny Face and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?), all of which date from 1953-1957—-because the fact that they believe in all this matters much more than what they believe. Furthermore, the visual and verbal double entendres, antismoking gags, and overt references to feminism and homosexuality all clearly come from after 1964.
No cause for alarm. The filmmakers’ giddy collapse of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s into a hyperbolic dream of a dream speaks volumes about who we are today, expressing a yearning for what’s wrongly perceived as a less cynical and more innocently romantic era. Preoccupied with a trio of hypocritical comedies as if they contained awesome, precious secrets, Down with Love offers many creative and poetic insights into some of the more tender aspirations of today.

12) Find Me Guilty (2006). This courtroom comedy—-perhaps the most entertaining feature that octogenarian Sidney Lumet has ever made, based on a true story about what was reportedly the longest trial in U.S. history—-came and went so fast that you might never have heard of it. It’s about the trial of New Jersey mobster Giacomo DiNorscio, who acted as his own attorney, and is played with rare charismatic brio and a great deal of grandstanding by Vin Diesel. What makes it for me so timely and relevant a satire is what it demonstrates about our unacknowledged complicity with criminals—-how much we enjoy them and how much we forgive them for their crimes, at least if they put on a good show for us, regardless of what we claim. Lumet, who coscripted this subversive tale himself, forces the issue by making this thug so likable and the forces of law and order so corrupt that we constantly have to reflect upon what we’re actually buying into. There’s also a dynamite sequence when DiNorscio is visited by his estranged wife (a terrific cameo by Annabella Sciorra) that’s guaranteed to knock your socks off.
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