“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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.