Double or nothing

“I got a great idea! Two movies in one — like an old double feature, get it? And make it in the old style, and even have trailers in between ’em!”

The Amazing Two Headed Transplant

No. It’s not the misbegotten GRINDHOUSE, it’s the misbegotten MOVIE MOVIE (1978), an earlier attempt to create a faux-double feature experience, directed by Stanley Donen from a script by the great Larry Gelbart and the less-renowned Sheldon Keller. The flick consists of two parody ’30s Warner Bros type stories, a crime/boxing melodrama and a backstage musical. Harvey Weinstein, if he’d remembered or even heard of this one, might have had second thoughts about commissioning a two-parter from his wunderkinds Tarantino and Rodriguez. Like it’s 21st century equiv, this film sank without trace.

I stumbled across a cheap copy of this on VHS and thought I’d give it a go. It represents Donen’s last stab at directing musical numbers in a feature film, numbers choreographed by Michael Kidd (who also appears) so it seemed it would be of some kind of interest.

Ho hum

It was, but mainly in a sad way. The first section of the film, a boxing yarn, has some moderate funniness, mostly in the form of strange verbal non sequiteurs meant to imitate the clunky writing of a weak ’30s melodrama. “I saw what I saw! It’s a wonder my eyes didn’t throw up!” cries a pretty young Harry Hamlin. His presence made me feel about 17% more gay than usual. This section is shot in luminous black-and-white, very flattering to HH, and helpful to the period feel. Unfortunately, Donen has no idea how to direct period pastiche, as becomes clear by the way he begins nearly every scene by ZOOMING OUT from a detail. I know he wasn’t directing in the ’30s, but he must have noticed that the zoom wasn’t a common piece of kit when he got going in the late ’40s, surely?

Anne Reinking is around to dance one number — not very ’30s but fun, and introduced by Donen himself, and act in a pleasingly plebeian Warner Bros dame kind of a way. Asides from that, miscasting reins.

George C Scott is the star of both movies. He’s very funny in STRANGELOVE but here he’s too heavy and too SLOW. It feels like a rehearsal for a Warners Film, before they got things up to speed. Art Carney drags his heels too. Rather oddly, Eli Wallach is more suited to this period, and actually makes underplaying work.

Part 2 begins, and is massively underwritten. Did Gelbart wrote the first half only? Of did the pair just run out of jokes? If the musical is supposed to be amusing through the sheer gusto of the players, its out of luck. Worse, Donen assassinates the supposedly Busby Berkeley-esque numbers by zooming in and out like he’s rehearsing for VAMPYROS LESBOS. Abandoning the silvery monochrome of part one, this has to make do with a vague attempt at period colour. The real work is done by Jack Fisk’s production design and, as we know from his turn as “the man in the planet” in David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD, Fisk can work wonders.

I presume the inspiring demon here is Mel Brooks, who’d recently shown that parody could be very successful, and that a black-and-white film could be very successful. MOVIE MOVIE proves the opposite by hiring the wrong people and giving them the wrong guidance. Only pride could have kept Donen from hiring the likes of Madeleine Kahn, so instead we get a Kahn-like broadway diva played by… Trish Van Devere.

This was the problem faced by anybody hoping to employ George C Scott in the ’70s. He would tend to bring his lovely wife along. Somebody (John Simon?) said she was “never more tha n a smiling hole in the air” and while that’s unkind, it hits on something inescapable. Far from being a terrible actress, TVD simply lacks the force of personality to make an impression next to someone like GCS. Where he has great presence, she has great absence. It’s unfair, but there it is.

Les Guys

I was curious (wary, but curious) about MOVIE MOVIE because of the great time I’d had recently with IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, a Donen-Kelly movie from 1955 — 23 years, and a projillion centuries, before MOVIE MOVIE. Apart from the amazing song-and-dance numbers and the breathtaking vituperative bitterness of the narrative, what wowed me there was the long take style. The whole movie is master shots! No coverage, no protection, Donen and Kelly apply the same aesthetic to every scene that they apply to the rigorously planned dance routines. The editor would have had little to do but cut off the clapperboards.

The Clangers

This kind of filmmaking is rare in the commercial cinema because all it takes is one little flaw in one little shot and the scene is unusable without reshooting. But on an old-style studio film with a decent budget and schedule, the expense of reshooting is minimal, since everybody’s on contract anyway. Might as well make them work.

The only other film that springs to mind, apart from experiments like Hitchcock’s ROPE, to commit itself fully to master shots, is THE GENERAL by Buster Keaton. Keaton’s other work is very rigorous too, but in THE GENERAL you literally can’t remove a single shot without collapsing the scene it’s part of, and you certainly can’t remove a scene without damaging the beautiful symmetry of the story structure. It’s like a maginificent house of cards. And again, since everybody was on contract all year, reshoots were not too onerous. Of course, if you’re going to collapse a burning bridge with a steam train on it you might want to cover that with a spare camera or two, but apart from that, there’s an awesome economy to the filming of massive spectacle.

The Train

Which brings us back to MOVIE MOVIE, which is all coverage. No one shot feels like it had to end up in the final cut, every decision has been postponed until the edit. Which is what happens when a filmmaker loses their courage. What needs to be said in Donen’s favour is that when he lost that courage, he lost more of it than most filmmakers ever have.

11 Responses to “Double or nothing”

  1. Haven’t seen it since it came out but I’m a tad more kindly disposed to Movie Movie than you are. It gets a Big “E For Effort” from me. You do, however, hit the nail on the head — this should ahve been a Mel Brooks project starring the great (and much missed) Madeline Kahn.

    As for It’s Always Fair Weather it’s one of The Most Important Films of My Life — being a Dolores Gray obsessive. How well I recall when it premiered. For MGM was on budget-saving kick and “broke it wide” instead of Radio City as usual. I saw it at the Valencia in Queens! Inspired by Alexander Dumas’ Vingt Ans Apres/i> it was then and is to this very day a devestatingly honest look not only at post-war America but the very meaning of friendship, especially in relation to class. The war brought our heroes together. Peace tears them apart. Bitterness abounds. Not only in the script but between Donen and Kelly who were so at odds at this point in their long personal and professional friendship that they barely spoke.

    Incredibly influential on Sondheim. His great maudit musical Merrily We Roll Along took TONS from it. Except of course Dolores Gray. She, as I’m sure you know, appeared in the London production of Follies singing Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” as only she could.

  2. MM gets an “I for Idea” and the gobbledygook dialogue in part 1 is nice — the Dr, diagnoses “Your sister’s eye muscles are too weak to hold up the things she sees,” for instance. But Donen seemingly can’t decide whether to go for period or prove he’s still “modern”. So this efforts are damagingly divided.

    The big Dolores Gray number in IAFW is amazing — apart from anything else, for the JUMP CUTS, which suggest that Donen was way more modern then than he became later. Vingt Ans Apres may well be a jinxed book, the only other version I know being the ill-fated Return of the Musketeers. Little wonder most adaptors turn straight to The Man in the Iron Mask.

    Co-directing without speaking…that must be TOUGH.

  3. Indeed it was. Gene Kelly was, as the saying goes, “a real piece of work.” Over th years I’ve spent in Holywood whenever the subject of Kelly came up (and it sometimes would — right out of the blue) them’s that kenw and worked with him had a horror story to tell. Arthur Laurents’ invaluable Original Story By has a rather memorable passage about Kelly, that makes him sound quite like a singing, dancing Daniel Plainview.

  4. The Laurents book sounds like a must. What a career he had!

  5. I stand with David Ehrenstein in my abject love of “It’s Always Fair Weather” — *especially* its Dolores Gray number. I even wrote updated lyrics for it, which I’ll share at the drop of a Carol Haney reference.

    Recently, thanks to seasonal TV scheduling, I joked that everything I know about sex I learned — Robert Fulghum fashion — from Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter in “The Ten Commandments.” The rest I probably learned from Gray singing “Thanks A Lot, But No Thanks.”

    The Cyd Charisse role is thankless, the telephone reconciliation for Dan Dailey is awkward, but … I continue to love “Fair Weather.”

    *

    On a different note, I was looking at YouTube footage of the Trish Van Devere/George Segal meeting in “Where’s Poppa?”, and she’s rather good in that scene. Or at least better than your “smiling hole in the air” quote would imply.

  6. For some reason these oddities are reminding me of the curious jewel that is Nothing Lasts Forever.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nothing_Lasts_Forever_(film)

    From the opening scene where Zach “Gremlins” Galligan’s tumultuous piano recital disintegrates and the action moves to the moon it becomes a strange cross between Eraserhead, The Mighty Boosh and a Judy Garland movie. I’d be interested to hear what you make of it. It’s not quite chills material. Maybe more quizzical.

  7. Nothing Lasts Forever sounds remarkable! No idea when I’ll get a chance to see this, it seems to be languishing in limbo.

    Chris, share those lyrics!

    I was going to argue that the Dan Dailey unconvincing reconciliation is part of what makes It’s Always FW interesting — other things make it GREAT — but that has to wait until I can put my hands on a certain Kurt Vonnegut book…

    Actually, TVD is really good in Where’s Poppa? It may be that she just requires a less heavy and dominant leading man to shine next to. In all those GCS films she’s overbalanced, but Segal allows her more room to shine.

  8. Here’s that updated lyric I wrote for the Dolores Gray song. The perceptive will see that it was written in 2001, as I’ll clarify later …

    THANKS A LOT, BUT NO THANKS

    I’m watching and waiting,
    (Spoken) Hello Sean, hello Tom.
    I’m waiting and watching,
    (Spoken) Hello Burt, hello Kurt.
    I hope and I yearn,
    (Spoken) Hello Bill, hello Phil … hello Leo!
    Just for his return.
    (Spoken) HIYA FELLAS!

    [refrain]
    Thanks for the PETA-sanctioned, self-skinning furs;
    Thanks for the castles marked “His” and “Hers”;
    Thanks for the pistol that was once Aaron Burr’s —
    Thanks A Lot, But No Thanks.

    Thanks for the silver case of special Zoloft;
    Thanks for that bus’ness they *called* Microsoft;
    Thanks for the poster signed by Seals and Croft —
    Thanks A Lot, But No Thanks.

    For I am just a faithful dude-ette,
    Waiting for her faithful dude;
    And there’s no means, however crude-ette,
    By which this dude-ette can be wooed.

    Thanks for the membership at Aspen’s best gym;
    Thanks for the lightbulbs that never go dim;
    But I’m the schnook whose sole address-book is *him* —
    Thanks A Lot, But No Thanks.

    [tag#1]
    Thanks for the news;
    And thanks for the oilwells that ooze;
    And thanks for those Savion Glover shoes —
    Thanks A Lot, But No Thanks.

    [tag#2]
    Thanks for last year’s best stock;
    And thanks for the key to your lock;
    And thanks for that X-rated photo of Ethan Hawke —
    Thanks A Lot, But No Thanks.

    [tag #3]
    Thanks for losin’ your mind;
    And thanks for Fort Knox, sealed and signed;
    But I got a guy who’s Johnny Depp and V.S. Naipaul combined!
    Thanks A Lot But No, No Thanks!

    (copywright 2001 Chris Schneider)

    *

    2001 was the year that Naipaul won his Nobel and Ethan Hawke won his Oscar nomination for “Training Day.” Hence their presence among the names.

    You can find this lyric posted, plus a comment or two, in Bill Reed’s blog “The People Vs. Dr. Chilledair.”

  9. Thanks (a lot)! I can see we’re going to have another songwriting competition here!

  10. […] For a negative take on the film, David Cairns wrote a straight up pan for his great Shadowplay blog. […]

  11. […] For a negative take on the film, David Cairns wrote a straight up pan for his great Shadowplay blog. […]

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