Farce Among Equals

lester ritz from David Cairns on Vimeo.

The penultimate outtake from my second video essay on Richard Lester. Someone complained that THE RITZ always gets left out, which is true. It’s not that it isn’t good — Rita Moreno as Googie Gomez makes it a near-classic — but it doesn’t fit the overarching narrative of the second phase of Lester’s career — the period movies and explorations of heroism. I wonder if, having been part of the Beatles’ public image machine gave Lester his fondness for peeping behind the curtain and exposing the feet of clay or whatever mucky body parts are involved. Or possibly his work in advertising — if you spend a lot of time erecting a pristine edifice, there’s probably pleasure to be had in iconoclasm. Here’s a bit of a 1969 interview I found in a book called Directors in Action (bought in Toronto) —

“But I’m quite proud of some of those early commercials. The After-Eights Chocolates, for instance. I did all of them from the beginning and I was faced with a new project and an image which needed to be put over. This is what pleases me–when a problem is present and solved.

In the After-Eights the problem was: these things are going to cost four shillings a packet and are bloody expensive! How are we going to sell it? In terms of making a film image, we decided to go for the fake classy stuff–dinner jackets among the pseudo-luxury. It was half a dream world, and half what people had no money imagined luxury to be. It was a callous attempt–and it worked. They sold out after the first commercial!”

I have no idea if this is one of Lester’s After-Eights ads but it fits the pattern — and the feather boa matches the one’s worn by Julie Christie in PETULIA and Shirley Knight in JUGGERNAUT… (This sort of thing is why Ken Russell found he couldn’t work in ads. He did one for a new washing powder where the advantage was supposed to be that the suds drained faster from the old-fashioned washing machine. But they didn’t — they just clogged the bottom up completely. Ken suggested starting with a clean, empty machine and then pumping a lot of suds in, then running the film in reverse. Everyone was delighted with this solution, and Ken was guilt-stricken and stayed out of ads from then on. There’s an echo of this in  when Ann-Margret is bathed in the products of various commercials as they spew from her TV set.) Rita Moreno and Treat Williams in The Ritz, 1976.

Anyhow, THE RITZ — Lester here talks about the difficulties of filming farce, which I think are a more intense version of those involved in filming any play — you are faced with a bunch of limitations, usually, which are essential to the theatre and irrelevant to movies. Do you cling to them, or explode them, or what? Farce as a form can be highly successful in cinema, but it’s notable that Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME, which has many aspects of farce, was an original work for the cinema and indeed could hardly be more cinematic, using a different set of limitations — the limits of what the camera can see of a bunch of complicated simultaneous events. Fun fact: Renoir was a big fan of Lester’s HELP! Buy: The Ritz Rules of the Game

5 Responses to “Farce Among Equals”

  1. There was a special screening of The Ritz at the Castro theater in San Francisco (where else?) mounted as a tribute to Rita Moreno (who attended and was duly worshipped by all elda Zander fans.) Terence McNally’s pay was inspired by New York’s legendary “Continental Baths” — where Bette Midler made he famous debut. I was an attendee and always thought the Baths — with its many rooms and doors — would be an ideal setting for farce. But it took McNally to make it happen. The Ritz was a minor hit on stage. Lester’s film is quite good, but suffered from the fact that “mainstream” audiences wouldn’t be ready to truly embrace TEH GHEY until Victor/Victoria

  2. I’m inordinately fascinated by anecdotes of ad campaigns ever since stumbling across Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders” in my teens; I guess we all know it’s fake already but it’s fun to find out exactly how artificial is the artifice. I can’t make up my mind whose attitude I like better now: Richard Lester’s pride in solving a knotty problem in selling a rubbishy product, or Ken Russell’s shame at having done so.

  3. Heh! There are filmmakers like Ken Loach who make ads for MacDonalds, which always seems wrong, whereas Alan Parker and the Scott brothers could do it all they wanted. Critics looked down their noses but I think the ads were just a stick to beat them with — they’d have beaten them with something else if it wasn’t ads.

    Lester is sincerely baffled by the critical hostility to The Ritz in America: he doesn’t think he got the tone wrong, he knows the cast was great, and he doesn’t think his being straight prevented him from understanding the milieu (I was searching for the still of him in puttees and riding boots on the set — he was in character alright). It seems possible to me that the cries that the film portrayed gay life inaccurately or condescendingly really came from a discomfort about seeing a gay farce at all.

  4. If there’s anything “off” it’s probably more to do with the film having been shot in the UK. But thanks to that choice, we get expats George Coulouris and Bessie Love!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: