Thursday, February 5, 2015

Encores! Presents: Lady Be Good

What a joy it is to live in near the good people at Encores!  As readers of this column know, Encores! is dedicated to recreating vintage musicals that have not seen the light of day for decades.  The team, led by Jack Viertel, resurrect book, orchestrations and choreography of these lost treasures, and the result is often nothing less than magical.

That alchemy was in evidence this week when the team recreated Lady, Be Good, with score and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, and a book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson.  The original Broadway production opened in 1924 – a 90 year old musical! – and starred the team of Fred and Adele Astaire.

The story is gossamer thin – brother and sister Dick and Susie Trevor are evicted, leaving them on their bed in the street.  In order to eat (and find a rich wife for Dick), they crash the garden party of socialite Jo Vanderwater; however, Dick really loves Shirley Vernon and wonders if he can sell his affections for money.

Meanwhile, Susie meets a charismatic hobo back from Mexico, who may (or may not) be heir to a fortune.  Add to that a scheming lawyer, mistaken identity and comic hijinks both high and low, and you have the makings for one of the first Broadway musical comedies.

Where to begin?  The cast that Encores! has managed to gather is marvelous.  Danny Gardner and Patti Murin star in the roles originated by the Astaires, and they consistently hit just the right note of light screwball musicality.  They open the show with the delightful Hang On To Me, a song that has fallen into some undeserved obscurity, but is quite special in its lilting beauty.  Also terrific is their syncopated number, Swiss Miss, which guys everything Swiss, from chocolates to cheese.  (Good thing the Swiss are not currently protected by the P.C. police…)

Jeff Hiller and Kirsten Wyatt shine incandescently in the supporting comedy roles, and sell We’re Here Because in a manner to bring down the house.  Watch for both Hiller and Wyatt in the future … they are meant for great things.

Douglas Sills has the plum role of shyster lawyer J. Watterson Watkins.  Sills – his slick 1930s handsomeness working to good effect – has a wonderful voice and superb comic timing.  The Encores! performances are really staged readings, and Sills manages to milk the necessity of holding bound copies of the play’s book for maximum laughs.  He nearly walks away with the show tucked neatly in his jacket pocket, along with his showy pocket square.

Colin Donnell shines as Jack Robinson (yes, that’s the name), the hobo who may also be an heir.  A sweet-voiced juvenile, he shows to great effect both musically and comically.  His duet with Patti Murin, So Am I, is a charmer.

Special mention must be made of Broadway legend Tommy Tune, in a special cameo as the Professor.  In a medley of rich, primary colored costumes, the leggy Mr. Tune comes onstage whenever the plot needs a lift – age has not withered Tune, and his smiling interruptions are great fun.  Even today, Tune radiates good cheer.

Rob Fisher is the guest conductor of this edition of Encores! and Lady, Be Good was directed with a deft and light touch by Mark Brokaw.

As always with Encores!, the show is open only a brief time.  The last performance of Lady, Be Good is February 8.  Buy, steal or beg a ticket – it’s not to be missed.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Party (1968)

I had so much fun reading American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller, that I decided to briefly write about some of my favorite comedies.  So it was a double bit of serendipity to learn that the 1968 cult hit The Party recently made its way to Blu-Ray and DVD.  If you have not seen this film – and it’s unlikely that you have – get yourself a copy.  You will not be disappointed.

The Party is the only collaboration between Peter Sellers (1925-1980) and director Blake Edwards (1922-2010) that was not a Pink Panther film.  In fact, after shooting the second Panther film, the hilarious A Shot in the Dark (1964), both men vowed never to work with one-another again.

Edwards then conceived a film that would be a tribute to the great silent clowns of his boyhood.  According to Edwards, his childhood was largely an unhappy one, save for the moments of transcendence afforded by such clowns as Buster Keaton (1895-1966) and Harold Lloyd (1893-1971).  He often allowed this silent-screen era slapstick sensibility to creep into his work (look, for instance, at the epic pie fight in The Great Race), but a strictly silent film was a challenge he wanted to set for himself.

Always contemptuous of the Hollywood scene, Edwards conceived of a silent film about an incompetent and accident-prone actor, blackballed by Hollywood but inadvertently invited to a swanky soiree where he wreaks havoc.  The initial screenplay was little more than 60 pages long, and was mostly the set-up for gags that would be improvised on the set.

But who would star in it?

After much internal debate, Edwards decided to bring the project to Sellers, who instantly fell in love with it.  Edwards encouraged Sellers to create a character – a fish out of water who was basically decent, but inherently accident-prone.  Out of whole cloth, Sellers fashioned Hrundi V. Bakshi, the world’s worst actor.  The Party opens with Sellers as Bakshi starring in desert opus Son of Gunga Din, ruining take-after-take and unexpectedly demolishing the key standing set. 

However, his ends up on a party list rather than a kill-list, and from that simple premise, Edwards and his cast improvised the movie, shooting in sequence to ensure that the story flowed properly.

The Party is a remarkable film for its time, and for ours, as well.  The story is so lose and improvisatory, and the narrative arc, such as it is, so fluid that one could easily mistake it for a French comedy of the era.  That Edwards was able to get away with such a high-cost gamble is quite an achievement, and it seems unlikely that something similar would happen again today (unless it involved ray guns or superheroes). 

In addition, it is, for all intents and purposes, a silent film.  Though there is dialog, very little of it moves the story forward, and most of it would take up some three single-spaced pages of text.  It’s not surprising that so many people have been either confounded or disappointed in The Party; it’s the world’s only all-talking silent movie. 

The root of its genius is that both Edwards and Sellers understood on a deep and profound level physical comedy.  They were able to mine gold from simple set-ups.  Here is perhaps my favorite sequence in the film:  Bakshi desperately needs to relieve himself, and finally finding a lavatory, struggles with his environment:

The film resided in limbo for a while, never really finding its audience.  I was lucky enough to see it on late-night television in my boyhood before it seemed to vanish completely.  Since its release, it has acquired something of a cult following, with many ardents of both Sellers and Edwards championing it as their best film.  We wouldn’t go quite that far, but it is something very special, off-the-beaten-track, and splendidly funny.

Happily, Sellers is surrounded by a talented supporting cast.  Special kudos must go to Steve Franken (1932 – 2012) as the drunken waiter – who nearly steals the film with hardly a word spoken.  Franken was a familiar face in both movies and television, and this film will make you wonder why he was never a bigger star.  His comedic timing is flawless, and one wishes a follow-up movie would be built around his character.  Former screen Tarzan Denny Miller (1934 –2014) is especially fetching as cowboy-western star “Wyoming Bill” Kelso, and J. Edward McKinley (1917 – 2004) as the host deadpans superbly.

Fans of period cinema would find much to savor, as well.  Few films scream a 1960s sensibility more than The Party.  Its Henry Mancini (1924-1994) score will either charm or repel you; in addition, the romantic lead is Claudine Longet (born 1942), who is one of the great mysteries of the 1960s.  Quite popular as a singer and actress, she has evaporated into well-deserved obscurity.  Why was she so popular?

Though not to all tastes, The Party comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller

We started the year dipping into a delightful surprise – American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller.  Arranged alphabetically, Miller enumerates the countless tropes so frequent in American comedy circa 1900-1966, and why they were funny and what they tell us about Americans of old.

Miller creates an artificial cutoff of 1966, citing anecdotally that the upheavals of the 1960s resulted in a seismic change in what America meant and, consequently, what it meant to be an American.  One would think that this is an invitation for Miller – a professor at Bennington College in Vermont and the author of Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects – to take potshots at the Great American Century.  However, such is not the case at all, as Miller rightly sees the downside of our social “progress.”  More often than not, it would seem to Miller that the America of the 1920s, 30s and 40s was a funnier, and perhaps, better place than the country we know today.  (A sentiment with which we here at the Jade Sphinx are in full agreement.)

The book has entries on a wide array of laugh-getters, including falling safes and anvils, pratfalls, milquetoasts, flappers, hash, hobos, outhouses, rolling pins, castor oil, dishwashing husbands, nosey neighbors and noise – and that is just scratching the surface.  Miller also talks about many of the formerly great venues for this humor, including full-page comic strips, radio comedy, silent movies, and of course, joke books. 

Coming in at 544 pages, one would think that American Cornball more than overstays its welcome; however, one wishes the book was longer and some of the entries more detailed.

Miller’s particular genius is not just in enumerating instances of a comedic trope, but wondering why they were (or are) funny in the first place.  Miller has keen insight into the human condition, and finds many of his observations in the arena of the ridiculous.  Though not a philosopher like G. K. Chesterton (quoted, incidentally, in this volume), Miller’s worldview is that of an expansive humanist with a predisposition to the comic rather than the tragic. 

The encyclopedia format keeps the observations loose and light, and this also proves to be one of the few flaws in the book: when Miller really has something to say (which is often), he is hamstrung by his format.  One hopes that he will follow-up American Cornball with a collection of essays of greater depth and fewer topics, as there is much more for him to say.

But what he does say here is terrific and to be savored.  I read through the volume with a goofy smile plastered on my face – and how could anyone resist a book that cites the Three Stooges, W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers a source material?

Here is an example of Miller at his best, rifting on the subject of pain:  There is, as far as I know, not one scene in all of Henry James where a character of either sex sits on a thumbtack.  I haven’t read everything by Henry James, but I’ve read enough to know what the rest must be like, and nowhere do I see a thumbtack penetrating an unsuspecting buttock.  Stubbed toes are also few and far between, if they occur at all.  And unlike all those hapless dads on America’s Funniest Home Videos, the males in James’s arcadia never get it in the balls.

Good stuff, that, but better still, here he is midway on his discussion of morons:  In our culture, “That’s not funny” really means “It’s wrong to laugh at that,” which is why we sometimes say it even while laughing.  “That’s not funny” is only secondarily a report on the speaker’s true reactions, though it can be an effort to train those reactions.  If you strongly disapprove of something and therefore insist it isn’t funny, that isn’t quite as dishonest as insisting that O.J. Simpson was never a great running back because you hate the psychopathic asshole he later became.  No, it’s more like refusing to find an actress beautiful because you hate her personality.  Given the determination, you really can suppress your sense of humor, like your sense of beauty.  But if you say, “There’s nothing funny about mental retardation, and for the life of me I’ve never understood why anything thinks there is,” you must be either a hypocrite or a saint.  Either way, you’ve clearly forgotten the jokes of your childhood…..

Then there is this, on farting:  Before it became permissible to discuss farts openly, our forebears relied on all kinds of substitutes— from ducks to tubas, from foghorns to balloons. It may be that the fully lifelike simulation of farts became possible only with later improvements in sheet rubber, but in the pre-whoopee epoch it wasn’t necessary or even desirable for a noisemaker to sound exactly like the real thing; it just had to sound like something sometimes used to symbolize the real thing. Novelty makers are always boasting about how “realistic” their products are, but in this case, realism wasn’t wanted.  Instead, aspiring practical jokers were offered a range of metonymies and metaphors.  Even in our unembarrassed age, the whoopee cushion itself still claims to imitate a “Bronx cheer” or raspberry—not a fart but the imitation of one made by buzzing the lips in what linguists call a bilabial trill. (The reason that sound is called a “raspberry” is that it is or was cockney rhyming slang for “fart,” via “raspberry tart.”) The sound is the best simulation of a fart we can produce with our normal speech apparatus.  In the early 1930s, when whoopee cushions took the world by storm, raspberries too were in fashion, at least on the funny pages—both Dagwood and Popeye had recourse to them now and then.  A little later, Al Capp gave us Joe Btfsplk, the world’s biggest jinx, easily recognized by the small black cloud—a personal fart cloud? —hanging over him at all times. When asked how to pronounce Joe’s surname, Capp would respond with a raspberry, adding, “How else would you pronounce it?”

I loved American Cornball, and spent much of the past few weeks reading it aloud to all and sundry.  This is a treasure for anyone interested in humor – and a perfect gift for those without a sense of one.  Highly recommended – and Mr. Miller, more, please.