The People Versus William Blake Crump

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Why don’t I just watch DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES or BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S or something else that people like? Why do I relentlessly trawl through Blake Edwards’ worst films? It isn’t masochism — I find some pleasure hunting for truffles in his late-career garbage. An erratic talent, Edwards could get it wrong even in his prime — THE GREAT RACE is not just bloated, it’s embarrassingly hammy, with Jack Lemmon giving one of his periodical shrill performances that are all the more painful because you remember how much you normally like him. But Natalie Wood is good — not only lovely whether in Edwardian lingerie or slathered in cream pies or both — but funny, deploying a declamatory, silent-movie performance style with a lot of pose-striking, which serves the double function of embodying her character’s suffragette politics as well as a stylised, period flavour. And she does this WITHOUT being too loud or inducing cringes with over-effort.

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It’s probably to the best that Edwards changed his name from William Blake Crump to become a D-list leading man before he started writing, producing and directing. Crump is a great name for a comedy director but would sit awkwardly on something like EXPERIMENT IN TERROR or GUNN.

But as the career goes on, comedy predominates. It’s comparable to Billy Wilder’s oeuvre, where a versatile filmmaker began to increasingly focus on one side of his output, perhaps because of box office concerns: if a drama flops, run for cover and make another PINK PANTHER. If that’s successful, why take a risk and jump back to the serious stuff? Depressingly, Wilder once said that when he was feeling good, he’d make a drama, and if he was a little low he would be more in the mood for a comedy. That suggests those last decades were largely kind of downbeat. I hope it’s not true.

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27 Responses to “The People Versus William Blake Crump”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    When I read “Crump,” at first I thought you were referring to Owen Crump who directed THE COUCH (1962). That’s a melodrama with none too good a rep starring Shirley Knight. He also wrote ALEX IN WONDERLAND … the 1940 short with that title.

    Actually, Blake Edwards co-wrote THE COUCH (I discover), and Crump was involved in a quasi-producer fashion with several Edwards pictures. I throw up my hands! Lemme out of this LADY FROM SHANGHAI-style hall of mirrors …

  2. I like Blind Date (1987), though it’s heaviy predicated on the idea that drunk people behaving badly are funny. (Which they sometimes are, providing it’s not your life they’re wrecking.) Also contains a prime instance of people falling fully-dressed into swimming-pools, which I suspect might be one of Blake’s recurring motifs, though I’ve never actually examined this idea.

  3. Owen Crump — have we uncovered an idiot brother? Seemingly not — just a case of Crumps sticking together. OC was apparently a nephew-in-law of Fairbanks and Pickford.

    Falling fully-dressed into swimming-pools is certainly a screwball motif. Herbert Lom has various swimming pool disasters in Trail of the Pink Panther, and there’s a pool that foams up, as I recall, in The Party.

  4. Natalie Wood is an Axiom of the Cinema. Andre Techine WORSHIPS her; going to far as to include Quine’s Sex and the Single Girl on hi CdC Ten Best list of that year purely because of her presence. Robert Bresson seriously considered dropping his “no professional actors” rule and casting her in his “passion project” Lancelot du Lac back in 1961, opposite (wait for it) Burt Lancaster. But it was not alas to be. There was indeed something magical about her as everyone from Mart Crowley to every director who ever employed her can testify. Even her brief appearance as Gene Tierney’s daughter in Mankiewicz’s (superb) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is special. I met her once and can testify that she Glowed in The Dark!

    Edwards and Wilder make a great compare/contrast in that their interest were often almost identical. Both used jack Lemmon (his performance as “Professor Fate” in The Great Race is marvelous) and one can easily imagine a Wilder version of S.O.B. (a documentary disguised as a satirical comedy. Darling Lili and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes match up too.

    The big difference is Edwards talent for slapstick — which is all over the place in The Great Race, climaxing in its overwhelmingly funny last shot.

  5. I think the reliance on large apparatuses is what kills the gags in The Great Race. They all seem lumbering and mistimed. What he could achive with a couple of able comedians and a few props was astonishing, and it seems to desert him entirely here.

    Wilder once noted that by the late eighties, Richard Lester and Blake Edwards were the only people working who could do visual comedy.

  6. True, Edwards is at is best when the gags are simpler — like the cockroach let loose in the restaurant in Victor/Victoria.

  7. It’s been a long time since I saw The Party, but I don’t remember laughing at anything except — very loudly — when a shoe ricochets off a waiter’s head (his non-reaction really got me). Though none of the Pink Panthers is exactly a great movie, most of them do have a few imperishable bits of business.

  8. The Partyis Edwards’ closest approach to Tati — whose comedy doesn’t produce belly-laughs either.

  9. Tati sometimes does make me laugh quite loud. Edwards lacks his generosity (or one could as well say Tati lacks Edwards’ acerbity).

  10. I find that the concept of comedy done on an epic scale as something that rarely works. I think most successful in that realm was Keaton in his silent films. The sixties did seem to have a run of spectacular comedies (MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, THE GREAT RACE, HALLELUJAH TRAIL, etc) which were not all that funny. I would agree though probably Lester and Edwards were among the last to know how to do visual comedy effectively. Tati definitely does not do belly laugh movies…. even if PLAYTIME is epic in its externals, even the most elaborate gags are really about human behavior.

  11. henryholland666 Says:

    A few months ago I saw two Billy Wilder movies I’d never seen before: “One, Two, Three”, which I loathed with the fire of all the suns in the Orion nebula and “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”, which I liked.

    “One, Two, Three” was apparently a nightmare of a shoot, it pretty much drove James Cagney from The Business for over 20 years. I just got bored quickly with the manic-ness of it all and Horst Buchholz’s antics especially drove me nuts. Only part I liked was Berlin itself, I loved the city the two times I’ve been there. Of course, the movie was filmed under very different circumstances.

    His Holmes movie is kind of loopy in a good way and I loved Christopher Lee as Myrcroft.

    Not sure where both of these fit in to the Wilder happy/sad timeline. :-)

  12. I love The Great Race to bits – but then I first saw it on its first cinema release, and everything about it appealed to the 10 year old me – Jack Lemmon being fiendish (first time I’d ever seen him in anything), Tony Curtis’s sparkling teeth, Natalie Wood’s corset, and The Sweetheart Tree song with the lyrics and the bouncing ball (first time I’d seen anything like that). When I first watched Columbo, I was like, oh wow! Maximilian Meen!

  13. Big comedy is tricky. A lot of the comedy in THE GENERAL is small-scale Keaton; when big machinery figures it’s often to contrast the tiny figure trying to control the situation. The famous reaction shot of the officer after the bridge collapse has become almost a genre unto itself: Large-scale chaos, mayhem and/or destruction, followed by deadpan guy.

    I still enjoy MAGNIFICENT MEN; the planes are nifty (and mostly real) and most of the comedy is small vignettes of national stereotypes cleverly laced together in an agreeably cheesy farce. The sequel is dire, despite choice individual ingredients. The story, presumably modeled on an actual race, keeps most of the characters completely separate until a few contrived scenes near the end. And the automotive stuff is somehow less convincing than the aerial stuff in the previous film.

    THE GREAT RACE is the definitive Great Big Comedy, perhaps even more than the would-be epic MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD. For me, it loses its way between the Wild West and the Zenda parody. Here and there they try to make the scale itself a joke; they fail with the pie fight but succeed with the saloon fight to end saloon fights; perhaps because saloon fights are usually taken semi-seriously. Problem was, you really can’t sustain one-joke characters that long; the attempts to flesh out the characters are uneven. Tony Curtis’s persona as a pushy, self-invented star makes “The Great Leslie” less a Dudley Do-Right than a canny promoter playing a part (it also justifies his Casanova tendencies; which go against a genuine “Great Leslie” type). Wood’s Emancipated Woman mocks the stereotyped heroine, while parodying the mocker at the same time (Wimmin’s Libbers! Am I right, guys?). Lemmon’s snarling Fate demands the respect due an evil super-genius, but never gets it (no wonder he has such a short fuse). Even his doggedly loyal flunkey (Peter Falk) can’t help but undermine his dignity. Problem is, they all flatten into cartoon characters for the sake of a gag and then try to click back into personalities.

  14. Spielberg came a cropper with large-scale comedy in 1941 and hasn’t made a comedy since. The problem with guys like him and Stanley Kramer is they can’t JUST make a comedy, it has to be enormous. Keaton could work on a large scale but he always knew his priorities: getting a laugh trumped everything else.

    Visual gags, in my limited experience, are quite hard. That Tati challenge of framing a shot that’s just the right size while making the essential details clearly visible: it may be the most demanding thing, outside of maybe musicals.

  15. 1941 is a very frustrating experience, as there are parts of it (like the big dance/fight) which are brilliant and you can see the care with which it was made. It is interesting that Spielberg has never tried doing a musical…. wonder if he will before he packs it in.

    I agree though that visual gags are quite difficult to pull off. Framing is important…. and of course Tati designed PLAYTIME to be seen more than once and for a huge image. Somewhere I read a quote where he said people sitting in different parts of the theater would see different things and he expected people to come to see it several times. But probably the hardest thing to direct is a movie musical…. given the many talented people who had hit a wall trying to direct them.

  16. “1941” is a Maudit Masterpiece and far and away my favorite Spielberg film. A musical comedy about rape (not the first — see “The Fantasticks”) it had the bad luck to open during the Iran Hostage crisis.

  17. I ADORE One Two Three ! A big hit it was considered “daring” to send up the Berlin situation at the height of the (utterly phony) “Cold War” But Billy knew what he was doing> James Cagney Save the World in the same style he used in Footlight Parade with Lisolette Pulver as Joan Blondell.

    All this and my favorite 60’s tootsie Pamela Tiffin: “And then I saw THIS BOY!”

  18. henryholland666 Says:

    “it had the bad luck to open during the Iran Hostage crisis”

    No, it had the “bad luck” to be a very poor movie. It’s overlong, overstuffed and way too damn loud, a dire precursor to the comic book movies of today. It’s the movie equivalent of sitting next to a wasted frat brother at a party while watching “Saturday Night Live” and getting jabbed in the ribs every 30 seconds as he yells “See! Isn’t that funny! That’s so funny, see how funny that is?”. That movie has “mounds and mounds of cocaine on the set” written all over it and for good reason.

    Hopefully Toshiro Mifune got paid well.

    “(utterly phony) “Cold War” ”

    Oh for fucks sake. Right, the Berlin Airlift, the 1960 U2 incident, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis and these incidents

    http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/5-cold-war-close-calls

    were “phony”. The planet we live on almost ended up a smoldering ruin on multiple occasions and that was “phony”? While it may have been “phony” to you, for people who lived on military bases like my family and many others did, it was REAL.

  19. While there were attempts to amp up the sense of danger during the Cold War to make the Russkis afraid, I think there was a genuine threat, yes. There was sabre-rattling, but also unstable people in high places.

    I can get a lot of pleasure out of the filmmaking in 1941, as long as I don’t expect to laugh. The funniest people are the few who talk quietly, like Robert Stack.

    Spielberg has complained that the film literally gave people headaches: “I was overdirecting Zemeckis & Gale’s overwritten script, and then I hoped John Williams would help, but he responded to it by overcomposing.” He panicked in the edit and tried to trim it — Dan Ayckroyd complained he took out the quieter character moments.

    Chuck Jones told Spielberg that it fatally lacked a single redeeming, sane character, citing James Donald in River Kwai. That’s not really true. But the scale, the scattershot narrative, and for some reason the diffusion on the lens strike me as counterproductive to comedy.

    I like One Two Three, though. It pummels you a fair bit, and has more volume than laughs, but it’s more genuinely dark-hearted and it comes at the period from a unique angle.

  20. My dear late friend Rick Sandford (cineaste and porno star) had a “day job” or sorts as an extra. All sorts of movies. But 1941 kept Rick employed for nearly a year as there were crowd scenes galore. We got all manner of first-hand reports from him of what it was like on those enormous sets.

    Keep in mind 1941 was before CGI. Everything on screen is real. Spielberg had Hollywood boulevard built to three different levels of “scale” for the big sequences.

    And I ADORE Eddie Deezen and the Dummy!

  21. And Glenn Erickson was working on the miniatures — 1941 had some of the most extensive miniature effects ever, probably unsurpassed.

  22. henryholland666 Says:

    “I think there was a genuine threat, yes”

    I was only 2 at the time, but my Air Force vet Dad has told me that he thought we were all goners during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    “There was sabre-rattling, but also unstable people in high places”

    That’s been the case throughout recorded history, but as that link shows, the difference in the Cold War was stuff like this: “The warning was a false alarm—one of the satellites had misinterpreted the glint of sunlight off clouds near Montana as a missile launch”. Genghis Khan couldn’t have wiped out the entire planet with the push of a button.

    “I like One Two Three, though. It pummels you a fair bit, and has more volume than laughs”

    That’s my problem with it and “1941”, it doesn’t give the audience credit for being able to see the point, it has to punch you in the metaphorical face repeatedly. The phrase “subtle as a train wreck” comes to mind.

    “it comes at the period from a unique angle”

    Huh? Advertising is deceptive and leads the people in that business to do bad things? Been there, done that, see: “Callaway Went Thataway”, “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter” and “Sweet Smell of Success”, to name just a few. Hell, it was a whole sub-genre by the time Wilder’s movie came along!

    That the Russians and Americans often caused more geo-political problems than they solved? “On the Beach”, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, the boring “Strategic Air Command” and so forth. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was a whole slew of movies of that type, it too became a sub-genre.

  23. I think a good case can be made for A SHOT IN THE DARK being a pretty damn good movie. Edwards was certainly uneven, but that one hits more than it misses. And would it be self-serving to mention that, on the night that a very frail Blake Edwards got his Academy Award, I had the privilege of letting him lean on my arm for support during the curtain call? His legs were shaky, and I was standing next to him, so I offered and he accepted. As we walked out, it seemed that the bright lights were impeding his vision. Me: ” Don’t walk out too far, I wouldn’t want you to fall off the stage” Blake Edwards: “It’d get a terrific laugh.”

  24. LOVELY!

    I like The Pink Panther too, Robert Wagner being the only weak element, which doesn’t matter. A Shot in the Dark has no real plot, but somehow uses its weak frame to clamber from one imperishable moment to another with virtually nothing in between or underneath.

    He made a number of good ones — for some reason, I’m hooked on seeing how bad he can get. A Fine Mess beckons…

  25. It should be of great interest to you as it began as a remake of the great Laurel and Hardy short The Music Box — in which the boys try to pull a piano up a large exterior stairway. Nothing of that is left in this misguided effort to make Howie Mandel a major comedy star.

  26. Yes — most of Edwards output in the 80s and 90s has this curious quality of harking back while trying to be modern. I guess this marks his second overt L&H homage — the Clouseau farces come much closer to the boys’ style than anything in The Great Race or, I imagine, A Fine Mess.

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