Monday 1 August 2016

On DVD - renewing acquaintance with Blake Edwards

This started with a throwaway line on a Facebook post drawing attention to a review  by  David Hare of the new Blu-ray of Blake Edwards Victor/Victoria (USA, 1982). I suggested Edwards was the great comedy director of the second half of the Twentieth century. This drew a response  from the esteemed professional Eddie Cockrell which suggested I might be somewhat over-enthusiastic on Edwards’ behalf. Eddie suggested a bunch of alternate selections for the title of ‘greatest’ and as well suggested that Edwards’ ‘great’ comedies consisted of just four movies- VICTOR/VICTORIA and S.O.B., the first PINK PANTHER film and THE PARTY. Which left out BREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS plus a whole host of others that clearly aren’t held in universal high regard. For starters there is A SHOT IN THE DARK (better than the first Pink Panther film) and the other PINK PANTHERS which are potboilers but which have the value of relying ever more on repetitive bits of comic business with the supporting players most notably Herbert Lom and Burt Kwouk where slow burns work just as much as mayhem.

So, what was sitting on the shelves just waiting for attention? Four films all up including two for which I had to take the cellophane off so purchase had been followed by distinct lack of interest. They were Blind Date (USA, 1987) and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (USA, 1966). Then there was Darling Lili (USA, 1970) and one of the designated hits The Party (USA, 1968). I’m not likely to change anybody’s mind as to whether The Party is funny, whether the joke stretches out too long as Tom Milne advised in The Time Out Film Guide, (the only critical manual close at hand and much lamented since its cessation) or whether it’s a timeless comic masterpiece. The DVD I own also has a second disc and for the first time I ran through its contents as well. Therein, mostly from recordings made in 2004, are some most insightful commentary from Edwards himself, from his Associate Producer Ken Wales, from the great comic actor Steve Franken and most especially from Walter Mirisch, one of the three brothers who were The Mirisch Corporation and who, according to Walter’s most articulate responses, ran the company like some cultured salon where Hollywood’s elite directors just got to make films their own way without studio bureaucracies interfering. Mirisch talks of his stable of talent, very impressive and lead by Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Robert Wise and John Huston, his working methods and most particularly the fact that the company had its own dining room where the talent assembled simply for the pleasure of each other’s company.  Who knew Hollywood could be so civilized.

What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? is another of Edwards’ military comedies. His first big hit, he explains on the other disc, was Operation Petticoat, a movie produced by and starring Cary Grant, and he returned to the subject on several occasions. Daddy  was a flop and no amount of support will ever resurrect it to the front line of the director’s achievements. Still it has its moments and Edwards and his scriptwriter, the youngish pre-The Exorcist William Peter Blatty did some inventive stuff. Blatty worked with Edwards on four movies, or at least four that were made. Most of the invention revolves around the last third of the picture when the various elements have been assembled inside the Italian town - Americans, Italians, Germans, the locals including the mayor and his luscious daughter, and American officer Harry Morgan who has been imprisoned in the town’s catacombs and has gone troppo after he escapes. Meanwhile two local reprobates have spent the entire picture ignoring the military manoeuvres outside, prowling the catacombs trying to get a fix on the floor of the local bank so that they can detonate it and make off with the contents.

I looked especially here for what Eddie calls Edwards’ leering take on women and sex. I guess what some call bawdy comedy is a leering take but I didn’t get it here.

Which brings Blind Date front and centre. Edwards comic specialty is calamity comedy where things go bad and the audience’s expectation is met only for events to get worse…and worse….and worse. His ability, and that of his writers, is to pile on escalating humiliations. Blind Date seems exemplary in this respect alone. Early on, it sets up Kim Basinger’s Nadia as dangerous when drunk. As we all know, a single drink sets an alcoholic off but nobody suspects how quickly she degenerates into total vulgarity and total loss of dignity. It manifests itself first in brutal honesty. A workmate of her date, the put upon Walter (Bruce Willis), hits on her in a restaurant when she’s already drunk and her response starts a chain reaction of humiliation and then mayhem. From there she remains drunk for much of the next hour or so, ultimately transferring her humiliation to Walter who succumbs into a psychotic episode. Funny. Yes, very and Edwards timing, particularly with the appearances of Nadia’s ex-fiance (John Laroquette) who manically pursues her and makes it known on every occasion that he is not happy at the prospect of Walter ‘drilling’ his old girlfriend. The ex-boyfriend’s several car crashes into shop frontages are funny. Or, I guess some may find in them a leaden approach to slapstick. So, yes, among the smaller movies that Edwards has made, this one is good, funny and not a little touching.

Blind Date also has another of those set-pieces that Edwards does well. Here, as per usual trailing all the way back to Feydeau, is another of his sequences where large numbers of characters are trailing through large houses, keeping out of sight, diving into hiding places, slipping on roofs or trellises and in this case making slapstick gags, after a long set up, with stray golf balls. The opening sequence in A Shot in the Dark is a high class exemplar of the art.

Which brings me to Darling Lili, a big budget musical starring the director’s wife Julie Andrews, a frequent casting decision which even Edwards aficionados generally regret. David Hare finds it of some interest in Victor/Victoria but in general Andrews sweet expressionlessness and perfect but bland voice, does not serve the director well. Compare her alone with the luminous Gloria Paul in Darling Lili, the latter having a single sequence as the gorgeous Crepe Suzette, and you get the idea of just how bland Andrews is. Compare her to Marlene Dietrich in Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg, USA, 1931) and you understand how ineffective Andrews can be. This is despite the one really brilliant moment of the film, the Oscar-nominated opening song which you can find here on Youtube, a  single shot sequence involving Andrews moving in and out of shadows and light, dancing a few steps, before revealing her on the stage of a large Edwardian theatre in war time.

Andrews presence is not aided by male lead Rock Hudson at his most wooden and unconvincing as the American airman Larrabee. I wondered what casting might have made a difference and produced some erotic fizz. Maybe a major script rethink before casting Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. (In case you worry about Schneider’s musical abilities, Marnie Nixon was still alive and well at the time the film was made.) So, big budget but clunky and no indication at all that Edwards would later make one of the great Hollywood musicals, something to rival the achievements of the Arthur Freed factory at MGM.

I’m still thinking that Edwards is the man of comedy for the second half of the Twentieth century. More to come….

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