Gerard Alessandrini Tag

“White Christmas”: Much More Than Just a Christmas Movie

White Christmas (1954)

Although it may seem almost too obvious to include the 1954 film version of White Christmas on a list of movies to view during the Christmas season, it is nonetheless recommended here, but not for the reason you might think. White Christmas isn’t just a holiday movie but one of the most expertly done films of the 1950s, directed by one of the great studio men of Hollywood’s Golden Age—none other than Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce). Curtiz’ accomplishments are so associated with 1930s and 1940s Warner Bros. classics, that it is often overlooked that he continued to turn out colorful and superb films in the 1950s. He was adept in any genre—adventures, melodramas, film noir,

spectacular epics, and even musicals. Just think of the Oscar-winning Yankee Doodle Dandy.

 

By 1954, Curtiz was freelancing, and his expertise was appreciated by all the major film studios. His genius was subtle but nonetheless ever-present, as he gave each film he worked on the royal Curtiz storytelling treatment. It’s no doubt Paramount assigned White Christmas to him because of the importance of the project.

 

The song “White Christmas” was by then the best-selling record of all time. Some reports say the Bing Crosby version had sold 100 million copies by 1954, while covers by other artists hovered around 400 million. With such a recognizable title, a film version was almost certain to be a major hit; therefore all the stops were pulled out and an “A”-class movie resulted.

 

The perennial Christmas favorite was not written for this film but rather was part of an original Irving Berlin song score for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, a black & white wartime musical that starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. “White Christmas,” which won the Oscar for Best Song for 1942, 

struck a universal chord among thousands of soldiers who profoundly related to its beautiful but slightly melancholy tune and its concise lyric of loneliness and an idyllic dream of home. Its popularity only grew in the post-World War II era. It even took on a nostalgic flavor for the sacrifices of “the greatest generation.” This feeling would be passed on to their children of the Baby Boomer age.

 

Paramount, which had produced Holiday Inn, re-teamed Crosby and Astaire after the war in another Irving Berlin tuner, Blue Skies. This time the great stars were crooning and toe tapping in glorious Technicolor. It was another enormous musical success and Paramount began planning a Technicolor version of Holiday Inn for Bing and Fred but this time with the title White Christmas.

 

It’s unclear if Paramount meant White Christmas to be a re-make or a sequel. But it definitely was to feature Crosby and Astaire with a new Irving Berlin score. Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank were top writers at Paramount and very adept at identifying the zeitgeist of the 1950s. By the early ’50s, they consciously or subliminally knew that the song “White Christmas” had nostalgic wartime edge to it, so they refashioned the Holiday Inn story completely to be about the post-

war era. And unlike, Holiday Inn, it was to take place entirely during the Christmas season. The subtle artistry and genius of Irving Berlin complied beautifully by writing 10 new songs, several of which dealt head-on with post-war soldiers. There is even a subtle but clear political slant to the story.

 

The film’s main point of conflict is that a one-time 

great general has been “put out to pasture” and forgotten by his country. Many today may think of this is a reference to the Eisenhower era (Eisenhower was the U.S. President in 1954) but it’s actually a reference to General Douglas MacArthur, who had been “forced to retire” by President Truman as commanding general of the Korean War. By 1954, MacArthur was, in his own words, “fading away.” It seems clear that even though Irving Berlin loved Eisenhower (he wrote his theme song, “I Like Ike”), he supported MacArthur even more. This might have also been true of the writers Krasna, Panama, and Frank, and even Bing Crosby. They must have been good Republicans all. So, the film White Christmas is not only a perfect time capsule of the political and moral mainstream of the mid 1950s but unabashed American political propaganda.

 

What role Fred Astaire was to play in all this seems unclear, but by 1954 Astaire was having his own career zenith, having a field day playing singing and dancing romantic leads over at MGM, where it was the glory days of the MGM musical. Back in the ‘40s when Astaire had costarred with Crosby, he was cast as “the guy who didn’t get the girl,” a kind of “second banana.” By 1954, Fred always got the girl even if it was a 21-year-old Audrey Hepburn or an 18-year-old Leslie Caron. Likewise, by 1954 Bing Crosby was at his super-stardom peak over at Paramount. Therefore, Astaire, probably sensing that this was a Bing Crosby vehicle, opted out of the project.

 

Paramount then looked to Hollywood’s best and brightest “second banana” at the time—none other than the incredibly talented Donald O’Connor, who had supported Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Ethel Merman in Irving Berlin’s 

Call Me Madam (1953) to spectacular effect. In Call Me Madam, O’Connor was also teamed with Vera-Ellen. The choreography was by Robert Alton. Vera-Ellen was Alton’s protégé, and was generally accepted as the best female dancer in Hollywood—which is quite a compliment considering the talent roster there. If you don’t believe me, just ask Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, if you happen to run into them.

 

Vera-Ellen and Donald 

O’Connor’s dance routines in Call Me Madam are considered by many, such as the musical film historian Miles Krueger, as the best partner dance numbers on film—even surpassing Fred and Ginger! If you pay close attention to their movements in that film you might easily agree. Alton was set to stage White Christmas and the reassembly of the fabulous threesome was all set.

 

Ultimately, however, that was not to be. O’Connor was simultaneously starring in a string of black & white programmer comedies, the Francis the Talking Mule series—a pre-cursor to the TV sitcom Mr. Ed. Unfortunately, according to a video interview with O’Connor, he caught a rare and serious infection from the mule, and it put him out of commission for the period during which White Christmas was being filmed. All the choreography had already been staged by Alton with Vera-Ellen and O’Connor in mind. The production had to scramble to find a substitute. The solution was a big surprise. It was Danny Kaye.

 

At this time, Kaye was a huge solo film star on his own. He was at least as big as Astaire and Crosby. It would be unheard of for him to play “second banana.” But Kaye was savvy as well as fun-loving. He knew the greatness of Irving Berlin’s songs 

and he loved Bing Crosby. In addition, he was an accomplished dancer but had rarely used that talent in his movie musicals (although it might be noted he danced spectacularly well with a chorus girl named Gwen Verdon a couple of years before in On the Riviera).

 

White Christmas offered Kaye a chance to hoof with his old friend Vera-Ellen, 

sing some new Irving Berlin songs, and see if he could tease and amuse the otherwise low-key Bing Crosby. On all three accounts, the results were historically fabulous, and a good case might be made that Kaye never looked so relaxed performing, clowning, and supporting Crosby. Since the pressure was off of him to carry the picture by himself, Kaye seems to have incredible fun and is at ease throughout, allowing his brand of comic genius to shine through. It adds a lightness and joy to his teaming with Crosby that is unique in film.

 

It might be noted here that a recovered and healthy Donald O’Connor appeared later on opposite Crosby in the 1956 re-make of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Their chemistry is rather terrible and the comedic results are insufferable. So thank God Danny Kaye ended up in White Christmas.

 

Rosemary Clooney, the fine and fiery leading lady of the picture, said Danny Kaye would try every day to make Crosby burst into laughter on the set. And by her accounts, he well succeeded. In fact, in one truly wonderful moment of the film, we can actually see Crosby uncontrollably crack up. It’s in their parody of the “Sisters” number. At first he looks very uncomfortable performing in girlie accoutrement. But not Kaye, who pulls out all the stops. By the end of the number, Kaye repeatedly slaps Crosby’s stomach with a blue feather peacock fan. Crosby seems stunned but then is riddled with laughter. It’s a wonderful

"White Christmas": Much More Than Just a Christmas Movie

and rare moment. Film musicals are so carefully planned and meticulously staged that you almost never see any improvisational moments. It’s so fresh and delightful here, you’ll be giggling, too. Michael Curtiz knew what a gem of a take he had and bravo to him for yelling “Print it!”

 

Later in the film, there is another comic gem of a 

scene when Danny Kaye resists Vera-Ellen’s romantic advances. Not only is he brilliantly funny, but the scene takes on a very modern context. It’s now quite clear to most people that Kaye had a mile-wide gay streak. It’s hysterical to see him avoid Vera-Ellen and cower like a cornered gay rat while being attacked by a beautiful blonde who, by the way, was the uncredited prototype of the original Barbie Doll. But the quasi-gay content makes you wonder if in 1954 everyone subliminally knew what was going on and it was just as funny then as it is now. The truly remarkable question is “How did they get away with it?” All this and in glorious and hyper-clear Technicolor, too!

 

Speaking of clear, it’s important to remember that White Christmas was the first film to be photographed in VistaVision, which was Paramount’s answer to the widescreen process CinemaScope developed at 20th Century-Fox. VistaVision was the

the smartest and most economically effective widescreen process of that era. Instead of using an anamorphic lens that squeezed the picture like CinemaScope or using an expensive 70mm film negative like Todd-AO, VistaVision ran 35mm film horizontally through the camera, similar to a still camera. Therefore, the image was photographed on a negative area twice the size of a normal motion picture. The clarity and depth of vision were also doubled. The cinematographer could move and focus the picture in many more ways than were previously possible. Additionally, the print could be projected in a variety of formats. It could be cropped for widescreen or projected as a square “Academy ratio” image. Because of this, theaters didn’t have to have any kind of special equipment to exhibit a VistaVision film. In rare cases, VistaVision could even be blown up to 70mm and retain utmost clarity. White Christmas was a perfect introduction to the new process and Paramount used it for over 60 films during the next decade.

 

Strangely enough, however, early VistaVision didn’t employ stereophonic sound. It had “enhanced” monophonic “high-fidelity” sound but not true left or right separate channels. Presumably this was because the image was not as wide as Cinemascope or Todd-AO and there was no need for an 

"White Christmas": Much More Than Just a Christmas Movie

actor’s voice to follow the image on screen. Therefore, you won’t find any prints, videos, or audio of White Christmas in true stereo. And that’s a shame since musically the film is so well scored and sung.

 

In fact, it’s the excellence of White Christmas as a musical the truly elevates it above other Yuletide cheer. The mostly original (10 of the 13 songs) score makes it a true original film musical—written directly for the screen. This is a rarity in Hollywood musicals and Irving Berlin’s last original film score. Add to that the superb choreography, a tight and witty screenplay, and of course the sublime vocal talents of Bing and Rosemary Clooney (just watch “Love You Didn’t Do Right by Me”), and it’s up there with The Band Wagon, An American In Paris, Funny Face, and the other top film musicals of the 1950s. And that makes it one of the best film musicals of all time—so much more than a pretty Christmas card.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche, and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades, including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Sean Connery: Bond and Beyond

Sean Connery: Bond and Beyond

Sean Connery may be gone, but thanks to the magic of cinema his star will always burn bright. And quite a star he was. Connery was a classic leading man, akin to those from another era like Clark Gable or John Wayne. This, of course, is due in large part to the seven times he starred as James Bond. But he also sustained a long and successful film career beyond the Bond films. He remained a leading man for 10 or 15 years following Diamonds Are Forever and after that he became the go-to character man for another 15 years.

 

Whether he liked being associated as Bond or not, the perennial popularity of his 007 films kept his name well known to several generations of filmgoers. Featuring Sean Connery in your cast always indicated to the public that the film was an “A”

production. Just think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

 

Although he always had a trace of his Scottish accent, the public easily accepted him in international roles. In The Hunt for Red October, he was Russian; in The Wind and the Lion, Muslim; in The Untouchables, he played Irish-American. This is no small trick, if you think about it. The reason audiences were willing to accept him in multi-faceted roles all through his career was that he simply possessed the charisma of a true movie star. Like Gable or even Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck, everyone accepted 

Connery as an archetypal hero. In the era of the anti-hero, more modern audiences could also find him believable as a well-meaning protagonist because he possessed a dark side that kept him from appearing too righteous or goody-goody.

 

In most of his best roles (including the Bond films), you were never quite sure if he was on the verge of violent action. This probably had more to do with his tough and rough upbringing in Scotland than acting chops. But the combination of great

looks, hyper masculinity, and innate intelligence made him the perfect leading man for the mid and later half of the 20th century.

 

Even though his films were mostly mainstream and action-driven fare, you felt a suggestion of classical stage training. It seems a shame he never made a film that was Shakespearean or more literally epic. In that way, he never came up to the likes of Sir Lawrence Olivier or Richard Burton. Perhaps he never found faith in the right director to venture into more challenging territory. Or perhaps the era of the sophisticated epic or truly literate cinema had passed. If he had made A Man for All Seasons-type film or even his own film version of Macbeth, he might have won a Best Actor Academy Award. It seems he never found the definitive power role that would surpass his James Bond image. But as it is, he did manage to land a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Untouchables. It was certainly a well-deserved Oscar considering his lifetime of fine and varied performances.

Sean Connery: Bond and Beyond

He did work steadily with director Sidney Lumet and their five film collaborations produced some fine features and performances, most notably The Hill, The Anderson Tapes, and Murder on the Orient Express.

 

It must be noted that in 1964, during his James Bond era, Connery also starred for Alfred Hitchcock in Marnie. It’s a good fit, and it’s a shame they didn’t try another project together. It’s easy to see why Hitchcock cast him, especially after viewing From Russia with Love. Released in 1963, a year before the Bond formula was firmly cemented with Goldfinger. From Russia with Love is the most Hitchcock-like of all the Bond films. It’s a bit short on action, but it’s layered deep with suspense, romance, and mystery.

 

Another film from that era that shows a unique side to Connery is the nearly forgotten A Fine Madness. It’s a gorgeous Technicolor black comedy. The cinematography is by Ted McCord just off his The Sound of Music job and Greenwich Village 1966 looks fabulous! In it, Connery portrays Samson Sillitoe, a nearly insane poet genius. The role enables him to cut loose in a very non-Bond way.  His co-stars are Joanne Woodward, Jean Seberg, and Colleen Dewhurst, and there is no Pussy

Sean Connery: Bond and Beyond

The Man Who Would Be King (with Michael Caine)

Galore in sight here! Today, it’s great fun to watch because of its zany mixture of genres, but in 1966 it was just a little too anti-Bond to be accepted by the critics and public. But it’s a superb example of Connery’s untapped acting range.

 

Speaking of comedy, Connery’s wry sense of humor, which comes through in most every one 

of his films, is one of the characteristics that made him unique as a leading man. Seldom does someone so masculine and sure of himself let his sense of humor shine through so effectively. That rare mixture of physical threat, sexuality, and humor is what has made him, for many, the cinema’s first and only true James Bond. Even though for years Connery resented the super-spy image he created, it did allow him to play many varied roles including Robin and Marian opposite Audrey Hepburn.  Some of his most successful films like The Man Who Would Be King and The Name of the Rose prove that he had as amazing a film career as any great star from Hollywood’s Golden Era. In fact, you could say he was a “Platinum Era” star. Darker, sexier, more knowing than his predecessors but nonetheless made up of a sturdy and rare precious metal.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche, and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades, including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Reviews: The Masque of the Red Death (1964) & The Raven (1963)

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

For special Halloween viewing, you can always depend on a Vincent Price/Roger Corman movie such as The Fall of the House of Usher, Tales of Terror, and The Pit and the Pendulum. They are dusted off every year for cable streaming and home video viewing. But this year, one Roger Corman film takes on an added dimension of horror.

 

The Masque of the Red Death, loosely based on the short story by—who else—Edgar Allan Poe, has a special modern application in 2020. The film itself is a heightened and slightly campy tale of a pandemic plague that sweeps medieval Italy. The city-state is cruelly ruled by an egotistical Satan-worshipping prince. The bombastic and obnoxious ruler is played with 

wild abandon by Vincent Price. He is loud and vicious and will listen to nothing or no one.

 

Recklessly deciding he knows best how to handle the “Red Death” plague, Vincent simply locks up his castle door and throws a big masked ball for his recklessly hedonistic upper-class friends. All must come in masked costume, but The Prince is convinced he needs no mask since the Devil himself will protect him and him alone from the gruesome pandemic. But (spoiler alert!) neither his power position or evil protector can keep him from catching The Red Death, 

RED DEATH & RAVEN AT
A GLANCE

It’s hard to beat a Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe/Vincent Price mashup for Halloween thrills, both schlocky and legit, and Corman’s over-the-top take on Poe’s year-of-the-plague Red Death has 2020 written all over it.

and by the end of the movie not only does Vincent have blood poring out of his pores as he shrivels up and dies but so do all his upper-crust guests. Only three people are left alive in the entire Kingdom by the time the credits roll: An innocent young lover, a baby, and an old man.

 

Any other year, this over-the-top horror story might seem broadly campy, but in 2020, it is indeed as horrifying as Roger Corman may have intended it to be back in 1964. It may seem even more disturbing!

 

Many now consider this the best of the Corman/Price/Poe movies. It’s more literate than most of its predecessors and with its devious “Little People,” animalistic partygoers, and deviant sexual innuendos, it is genuinely macabre. Add to that the committed performances from Price and his fabulous leading lady Hazel Court, who always adds a good measure of superb British articulation and Hollywood glamour, and you have a horror movie that’s a cut above. The verbiage even has a touch of the tragic tone of a Shakespearean play.

 

The production quality is also a cut above other Corman creations. It’s filmed in vivid Pathécolor with an intensely multi-colored production design (perhaps to make up for the fact it’s not in the lush and more subtle Technicolor.) The movie is also quite authentic-looking—supposedly because Red Death was filmed on left-over sets from the historical epic film Becket, also released in 1964. Corman must be given an “A” for effort and “A+” for inventiveness for bringing a good-looking production in under budget. However, it is still a budget horror film from the 1960s, and its pacing and lack of a great music score (Bernard Herrmann was not in the budget) make it hard to take as an authentic film classic.

 

Yet, all entertainment changes from year to year, and right now this spooky tale might just put you in a real Halloween mood. And, beware—when you watch it with friends, don’t be a fool like Vincent Price—wear your mask to the Masque.

The Raven (1963)

While we are on the subject of Roger Corman and Vincent Price, let me recommend their 1963 entry, The Raven. This film had no intention to be authentically scary in any way. Peter Lorre plays the Raven in bird and human form in a highly comedic performance. And it has a fabulous supporting cast: Boris Karloff, a very sexy 

Hazel Court, and a very young JackNicholson—in tights, no less. It’s all tongue-in-cheek and wryly funny. Again, the garish Pathécolor livens up the dreary plaster-of-Paris castle walls. There’s also a good amount of animated sorcerer’s magic rays to add to the fun. Unlike The Masque of the Red Death, this film survives solely as camp. But Halloween is also a time for kitschy fun and macabre frolic.

 

As a nine-year-old boy, I loved the silly satirical suspense, and it had just enough scary moments to amuse but not disturb me. It even made me a fan of Edgar Allan Poe. Inspired by the film, I tried making a couple of Corman/Poe type “Grand Guignol” horror movies of my own with my Super 8 movie camera. But years later, I realized I must have loved Poe even more that I thought. When I grew up and moved to New York, my apartment on West 84th Street was built on the site where he wrote “The Raven.” In the 19th century, the address had been his family’s farmhouse! Now it’s “The Raven Court Apartments.” It still has a big black stone raven right outside. My apartment looked right over the statue. But just as Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “Quoth the Granite Raven ‘Nevermore.’”

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche, and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades, including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Olivia de Havilland–The Golden Era’s Last Star

Olivia de Havilland--The Golden Era's Last Star

It’s very sad to say goodbye to Olivia de Havilland, who passed away yesterday at the age of 104. It’s a melancholy goodbye not only because she was a great lady of talent and grace, but because she was the last remaining star of Hollywood’s Golden Age. By that, I mean the era before World War II. It’s subjective, of course, if you choose this as the greatest era of filmdom, but the term is generally accepted to mean the years when seven major film studios produced hundreds of movies every year for a ravenous, loving film public that devoured all sorts of genres. The output was unsurpassed, and production values often outlandish.

 

At the center of this unabashed era of entertainment were several top actresses, which included Olivia de Havilland. She possessed a superb speaking voice and a lovely face that exuded warmth, deep concern, and romantic depth—in short, all 

the qualities perfect for leading ingénues of the 1930s. Her coloring also had a beautiful “blush” that was perfect for Technicolor. Indeed, she was the leading lady for several early Technicolor spectacles for Warner Bros.: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gold Is Where You Find It (1938), Dodge City (1939), and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

 

In 1939, she connived and convinced Jack Warner to loan her to the independent film company of Selznick International Pictures to play the part of Melanie Wilkes in the biggest film production of the year, Gone with the Wind. However, it must be remembered, Dame de Havilland had 

a very formidable film career beyond her lovely performance as Melanie. In fact, her best performances are in The Snake Pit (1948) and The Heiress (1949). By 1950, she had won two Academy Awards (for The Heiress and To Each His Own) and was the reigning queen of the dramatic cinema.

 

Her road from sweet ingénue to fine dramatic actress was long, frustrating, and professionally dangerous. And the reason for her respect from her peers in the Hollywood community includes three great achievements that had nothing to do with her film

performances.

 

The first and most famous was her courageous stand against Jack Warner and the studio contract system. In the ‘20s, ’30s, and ’40s, it was common practice for studios to sign stars to a seven-year contract. The studios would then assign roles to the actors. Supposedly actors had some choice of roles but in truth, very little. This worked very well for the stars for whom the Havilland be bound to his studio. Warner underestimated de Havilland’s determination to advance her art with better roles of more depth. She sued Warner Bros.—an action that made all other stars in Hollywood tremble in fear. The case dragged on for a year and a half but she finally 

Olivia de Havilland--The Golden Era's Last Star

This was Olivia de Havilland’s favorite dress from Gone with
the Wind—
but you never get a good look at it in the film

won out over Jack Warner when the California Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling in her favor in 1945. What became known as The De Havilland Law established that a studio could not arbitrarily extend an actor’s contract.

 

It was a courageous move that made life easier for other stars as well, but in doing so she put her own career on hold for a good amount of time—a time when she would otherwise have been at her peak artistically.

 

But after she won the case, her career did resume and she did her most outstanding work in Hollywood. She appeared in several excellent films in rapid succession, all released in 1946. In The Dark Mirror, she played twins, one good and one evil. In Devotion, she played Charlotte Bronte, and in her first Oscar-winning performance in To Each His Own, she was an unwed 

Olivia de Havilland--The Golden Era's Last Star

De Havilland in The Snake Pit

mother who gave up her infant son. Not only was her career back on the rise, but she had garnered the respect and gratitude of the entire film industry.

 

As her brilliant career continued, she did two other history-changing things. In 1951, because she had recently won her two Academy Awards, Warner Bros. offered her the type of role she had only several years before fought so hard for. She was to play Blanche DuBois in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. After a read-through of the screenplay with the original Broadway cast (Brando included) and for the original director 

Elia Kazan, she turned to Kazan and reportedly said, “I can do this part and I can do it very well, but I’ll never be able to do it as well as Vivien. I saw her do this role on stage in London. You should call her right now and asked her to do this film.” Vivien Leigh did star in the movie of A Streetcar Named Desire and not only won her second Oscar but became as indelibly associated with Blanche DuBois as she had been with Scarlett O’Hara.

 

By doing this, Olivia de Havilland demonstrated one of the greatest things an actor can be—sure of what they can and can not do, but also able to put their own ego aside so that true art can be created.

 

The third wonderful thing Olivia de Havilland achieved involves another great actress: Grace Kelly. By 1955, Olivia was out of the Hollywood rat race and only occasionally making pictures while she lived full-time in Paris.

When Grace Kelly was taking a European tour, she stopped by to give her regards to Olivia. (Their film careers must have given them a lot in common.) Grace mentioned to Olivia that she was having a lot of trouble meeting Eligible Bachelors in Hollywood—someone she could marry and raise a family with. Olivia suggested that she and Grace take a little trip down to Monaco where she knew someone Grace might like to meet. Of course, the man was Prince Rainier, who Grace married, raised a family with, and stayed with for the rest of her life. So, it appears Miss de Havilland was as supreme a matchmaker as she was an actress, legal eagle, and casting director.

 

But when thinking of her achievements, we must not forget her vast and varied film career. Some of her other great performances that I personally love include The Strawberry Blonde (1941), In This Our Life (1942), My Cousin Rachel 

Olivia de Havilland--The Golden Era's Last Star

Grace Kelly and Olivia de Havilland

(1952), The Proud Rebel (1958), The Light in the Piazza (1962), and last but definitely not least, all the epic romantic films she made with Errol Flynn, including Captain Blood (1935), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and the magnificent The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Can Live Theater Thrive Online?

Inside "Forbidden Broadway"

In Part One, I talked to Tony-winning writer/director Gerard Alessandrini about the genesis of Spamilton, his highly acclaimed spoof of the megahit musical Hamilton. Here we discuss the challenges of getting his show in front of the massive audience that was introduced to Hamilton when it appeared on Disney+, the prospects for touring the latest edition of his legendary revue Forbidden Broadway, and the impact the pandemic is having on the theater world in general.

—Michael Gaughn

It seems like a missed opportunity that you can’t have Spamilton on tour now that everyone’s seen Hamilton.

We’re a little disappointed that theater isn’t happening around the country, because we did have a tour of Spamilton out that was going to many of the cities where Hamilton had already played. Now that Hamilton has been on Disney+, I’m sure we 

would have been getting a lot of bookings and having a lot of fun touring.

 

One thing that bodes well is that Hamilton will probably remain in cycle on Disney+ or elsewhere, so there will still be interest in the show when you do get a tour out.

I absolutely think that’s true. It’ll still be there and everybody will know it from the point of view of the original cast, which is how I wrote Spamilton. So, yes, hopefully down the line, it’ll really make Spamilton more accessible and topical.

 

There is an interesting dynamic now in that Hamilton will still be prohibitively expensive to see when it gets to go back on tour—balcony seats were selling for more than $700 for the Atlanta dates—but you now have a mass audience that’s been exposed to the show through Disney+ that would probably be eager to see Spamilton live—partly because your ticket prices aren’t stratospheric.

That’s exactly right. But, of course, Hamilton is on hiatus, too—there’s no Hamilton in New York; there’s no Hamilton on tour. I’m sure they must be frustrated also.

 

Which of the other recent Broadway shows would lend themselves well to a broader audience via video?

The only show that followed Hamilton that sort of had a freshness and depth to it was Dear Evan Hansen. But I don’t know if they’ve done a video of that. The Hamilton video was done well because they had the money and the opportunity. The show was already a huge, huge hit. But 

most shows don’t have the budget to do a high-quality video production. Rather than record a performance, most producers were probably thinking in the old tradition of “Oh, this will be made into a movie.”

 

But a few other shows besides Hamilton have done high-end videos that are enjoying broadcast. One I saw was SpongeBob: The Musical on Nickelodeon—don’t laugh—and they did an excellent video of it. It was very fun.

You also had a cast for Forbidden Broadway all ready to go out on tour when this hit, right? So, now you’ve got two shows that are sort of sitting in limbo.

We had three or four individual productions of Forbidden Broadway planned for the summer. I know we had one in San Diego, and the San Francisco Gay Men’s

Can Theater Thrive Online?

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical

Chorus was going to do a special and hysterical version.

 

There’s a wonderful regional theater down the street from where I live in Connecticut that’s been celebrated for decades—The Ivoryton Playhouse. We were all ready to do Forbidden Broadway Comes to Ivoryton. I was directing it and writing special material for The Playhouse. We got right up to dress rehearsal. Then we had to stop. All those productions got either postponed or are indefinitely up in the air. So, we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen.

 

What’s your guess about how this is going to play out for those productions?

I think it’s going to be a long time. They’re going to have to have a vaccine before people go back in the theater. Even if the government lets us open these theaters, who wants to risk their lives to see any kind of musical comedy or even a good play? I think theater has been sort of damaged and may have to reinvent itself from the ground up.

 

But I do want to make a guess that the smaller, Off-Broadway theaters and smaller shows like Spamilton and Forbidden Broadway will come back first, because to make a big show work financially, you have to pack a 2,000-seat theater, whereas with Off-Broadway, believe me, we can run with a small audience and make it work. We can even take away seats and make

room.

 

I think the tourism of theater is pretty much going to be on hold for a long time in New York, but New Yorkers are actually going to want to go see something. Ergo, Off-Broadway may have a resurgence.

 

And it’s a lot easier to shoot a smaller show for streaming than a big Broadway show.

We do have some good video of Forbidden Broadway and Spamilton. In the old-school tradition, we also have terrific cast albums that are very professionally done. Cast albums are still viable entertainment.

 

If there’s one good thing for me about Broadway ending or freezing it’s that now neither Spamilton or Forbidden 

Can Theater Thrive Online?

Broadway: The Next Generation are dating in any way. They’re still right up to date.

 

One of the problems with New York theater being closed through at least early next year is that the talent is dispersing out of economic need. It’s too expensive to stay hunkered down in Manhattan. Actors traditionally make money as waiters but the restaurants only have limited service.

Right. Restaurants are attached to theatergoing in New York. And you’ve got to remember that an actor’s range of talent is time-dependent. In other words, you want to see young, beautiful people in a show—and in the movies as well. A lot of talented younger actors are missing their window of opportunity.

 

For example, they were planning to do that big revival of The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. But now the stars might be too old for the parts by the time they get around to doing the show. The same is true in sports. Even with the most talented player, that physical prowess and ability to do those wonderful things only lasts a few years where they’re at top peak. By the time they’re in their thirties, they’re too old.

 

There might be a similar problem with hanging onto movies to release them in theaters instead of taking them straight to streaming. Given how quickly everything is changing in society, they could feel out of date by the time they’re released.

How true! I saw a questionable post online that said even Hamilton is out of date because it’s from a different, pre-coronavirus era. I don’t know if that is exactly true but all this has sort of put the kibosh on me as a writer because I write topical humor. So, how do I know something’s going to be funny in six months? I don’t. So, there’s no sense guessing. In the meantime, I’ll stay home and enjoy watching Hamilton and Disney+, and TCM On Demand.

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

How “Hamilton” Became “Spamilton”

the original cast of Spamilton (l to r):
Nicholas Alexander Rodriguez, Nora Schell, Chris Anthony Giles, Juwan Crawley, Dan Rosales

Nothing is sacred for Gerard Alessandrini. The various editions of his Forbidden Broadway have been skewering New York theater’s best and brightest for more than 30 years. So of course Hamilton—the most successful Broadway show by far in decades—was way too big a target for him to pass up. But rather than take a single jab at it as a number within Forbidden Broadway, Gerard decided to turn his affectionate but incisive lampoon into an entire show. And thus Spamilton was born.

 

The full-length Hamilton parody was not only a success in New York but spawned both national and international productions. In Part 1 of this interview, I talk to Gerard about Spamilton’s genesis and reception. In Part 2, we’ll discuss the challenges the pandemic poses for getting his acclaimed show in front of the vast new audience created by Hamilton’s airing on Disney+ and about how theater in general is faring in a locked-down world.

—Michael Gaughn

As a parodist, what was your initial reaction to Hamilton?
Hamilton was the biggest new hit show to arrive in New York since I’ve been here, so I thought, “Well, I have to spoof this.” I quickly jumped into learning the show and learning more about Lin-Manuel, who was just an acquaintance at that time.

 

Not really knowing him very well, I thought, “I’ll make this a complete fantasy of what might have been going through his mind at the time he wrote Hamilton.” It was a silly but effective idea. I then mixed in my ideas regarding the show’s effect on Broadway. One of the main thrusts of Spamilton is showing you how Hamilton changed Broadway forever. What would new 

musicals be like? What about all the older divas like Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters and Liza Minnelli? Would they be able to work after Hamilton?

 

Now that they’ve shown the video of Hamilton on Disney+, people know what it was like to see the show with Lin-Manuel and the original cast—which, of course, is what Spamilton is spoofing. So it makes Spamilton more relevant or topical, and it remains topical even though things have changed on Broadway in the performance or monetary sense.

 

Is this the first time you’ve parodied a complete show?
The closest thing I ever did by way of spoofing a whole show was Les Misérables. When it opened in 1987, I immediately included it in Forbidden Broadwaybecause what better thing to spoof than a serious musical about one of the French Revolutions.

 

So, from 1988 to 2015, I kept adding different spoofs of Les Mis. Christine Pedi—a dear friend who was in Forbidden Broadway and has a radio show about Broadway on Sirius/XM—kept saying, “Oh, you have so many Les Misérables parody numbers, you should put all of them together in one evening.” It’s true, and that may happen yet.

 

Other full-length parodies I mounted were a show I created with Robert Hetzel called Madame X—The Musical, which was performed at NYMFThe New York Musical Festival. It was a very clever spoof on the genre of “women’s pictures.”

In 2010, we presented The Singing Nutcracker with a book by Emmy-winner Peter Brash. Since then, I did a parody of La La Land, which I think has a lot of potential as a spoof of movie musicals through the decades.

 

When Spamilton opened, did people get what you were doing out of the gate or did it have to develop an audience? And did the show appeal to more of a Hamilton audience or more of a Forbidden Broadway audience?

Well, I must say, our timing was perfect. I said, “Let’s do this in July 2016, after the Tonys are over and Hamilton has won all the awards.” It was also the second anniversary of the show premiering downtown, so I thought that gave them plenty of time to celebrate the great thing they’d done. So, by July, it was time to make Hamilton and Lin-Manuel a comedic target. It seemed the All-American thing to do. So, voila! Spamilton: An American Parody.

 

We first presented it in a cabaret, which was small and informal. We didn’t even take out an ad, but as soon as we just put a poster in the window of the Triad Theater, we completely sold out. The audience was full of Hamilton lovers—and, believe me, they clearly knew what we were doing. Everybody already loved all the songs, because the Hamilton cast album was out. So, it was a bullseye, based on timing and place.

 

By the end of 2016, we moved to the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater on West 47th Street—a block away from the real HamiltonIn total, we ran for over a year and a halfan amazing run for a parody show. Our producers included John Freedson, the producer of Forbidden Broadway for the past 30 years, and David Zippell, the great Broadway and film lyricist. They also mounted a production in Chicago.

 

After that, we had a wonderful and lauded production in LA at the Center Theatre Group in Culver City. Next came a spectacular production in London at The Menier Chocolate Factory. David Baboni and The Chocolate Factory had mounted three very successful productions of Forbidden Broadway before. So doing Spamilton went very smoothly and was delightful fun.

 

Then, we came back and launched a national tour, hitting the cities where Hamilton had already played. Of course, Hugh Fordin of DRG Records also recorded an excellent cast album, which is still very popular.

 

I would say more people who love Hamilton are interested in Spamilton than Forbidden Broadway fans. It’s Hamilton lovers who are coming to hear the songs they love turned inside out.

How "Hamilton" Became "Spamilton"

What was Lin-Manuel’s reaction?

He’d come to Forbidden Broadway to see In the Heights spoofed twice, and that was very flattering. He’s a good sport and he’s got a great sense of humor.

 

I think he had been a fan of Forbidden Broadway since he was young. He told me once that, in 1996, he got up very early in the morning to run down to

Sam Goody’s, the record store, to buy the first release of the Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back cast album. He was excited because it contained an extended spoof of Rent, which he loved.

 

So, when we were doing Spamilton, I emailed him and said, “Come see it.” And he came with Tommy Kail and Alex Lacamoire, his superb director and fabulous musical director. It was such a thrilling evening. People knew who they were, so the audience was psyched. And the cast knew they were there because the Triad is only 30 feet deep, so you can see

everybody in the audience.

 

That’s got to be intimidating.

It was a little intimidating for some of the younger cast members, but everybody delivered an excellent performance. You could just see Lin-Manuel laughing hysterically. After the show, he was very attentive to the cast and me. He said, “How did you know all that stuff about me? Now I have to go to therapy after seeing what you put on the stage. ” And I said, “Well, I didn’t know anything, really. I looked everything up on line and made up the rest!”

How "Hamilton" Became "Spamilton"

Gerard and Lin-Manuel

He was just a doll. They stayed and talked with us for maybe over an hour. The cast—they are very young, talented people—they were just so thrilled to meet him. He was very generous to them. He said, “Have you seen Hamilton?” Of course, none of those kids could afford to see Hamilton. So, he arranged for everyone to see it, including me and my partner Glenn.

 

And Glenn—who was playing King George in Spamilton and was the stage manager—went down to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to pick up the tickets for everybody. When he came back with them, I joked, “That’s $10,000 worth of tickets. Let’s sell them and run away forever to Rio.” Of course, the truth is we would rather stay in New York and see Hamilton!

Lin-Manuel saw Spamilton again a few months later with his wife and in-laws. When he first came to see it in July of 2016, everybody certainly knew who he was, but when he came back the second time, he had just been the host on Saturday Night Live the night before, right? And it was like the Beatles were coming to see the show. There was a huge crowd outside the theater just because Lin-Manuel had walked in.

 

After the show, he was again being nice to the cast, but people were coming up from the street and crowding onto the stage and bothering poor Lin-Manuel and his wife. People who hadn’t even seen the show were asking for his autograph and things like that. He had become a superstar in just six months.

 

I sent him the cast album when we recorded it, and he let us put his quote, “I laughed my brains out,” on the front cover. In order to tour the show, we had to get permission from him and his producers because a good three-quarters of the show is real music from Hamilton. We do have some restrictions. We have to do Spamilton in small theaters—we can’t park it in a huge theater. But we’re happy to do that because it’s the kind of show where you should have a drink in your hand.

 

It feels like a much bigger show than it is. The choreography seems to have a lot to do with that.

I’ve worked with Gerry McIntyre before on Forbidden Broadways and Forbidden Hollywoods as a performer, but he’s also a great choreographer. He’s like top, top notch. He should be choreographing Broadway shows, and maybe he will when theater returns. He did a fantastic job with Spamilton, because he knows all the great Broadway choreographic styles through the decades. Add to that his great sense of humor and unabashed showmanship. Having done Forbidden Broadway and Forbidden Hollywood, he knew it had to be funny as well as really sharp.

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I presented five films, ranging from the silent classic Metropolis to possibly the greatest musical ever, The Band Wagon, that have been restored with questionable results. Here, I will tackle some more recent films—if you consider the period from 1954 to 1972 recent—that weren’t necessarily improved by the efforts of the restorationists.

A Star is Born (1954)

The 1954 A Star Is Born ranks with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed as one of the most ruthlessly cut films of all time. When missing songs, footage, and soundtracks were found in the early 1980s and restored for a 1983 re-release, it was all quite exciting. Since two of the songs—“Lose That Long Face” and “Here’s What I’m Here For”—had been included on the best-selling LP soundtrack album, everyone knew something was missing, and a whole generation of Judy Garland fans had wondered where the footage could be.

This was finally and blissfully restored. However, there was also about 15 minutes where only the soundtrack existed, so production photos were shown over the audio to suggest what had once been there. At the time, this was fascinating and

lovely. However, the stills now look grainy, blurry, antiquated, and sometimes tasteless. But we are stuck with them.

 

In truth, A Star Is Born feels about 20 minutes too long anyway, and the “talking stills” only make that worse, interrupting and dismantling the fine dramatic story. Recently investigating this myself, I became suspicious that the scenes represented by these added black & white sections may have only been part of a preview print, not the opening-night presentation.

 

As regards the trimming of the film, one must remember that almost all road-show versions of films—which typically included an overture and intermission—were trimmed for general release. Only a handful of very popular epics like The Ten Commandments and musicals like The Sound of Music were never trimmed. Even Ben-Hur was trimmed by 1969. All films were trimmed of at least their intermissions and overtures.

 

So the actual problem with the butchering of A Star Is Born is not that it was cut down, but how and when. When Rodgers & Hammerstein movie musicals such as South Pacific, The King and I, and Carousel were trimmed, special versions were prepared in pre-release so, one, dramatically nothing was compromised; two, no songs were cut without approval from R&H; and three, you would never even notice anything was missing.

 

The producers of A Star Is Born should have prepared a 150-minute version for general release. It might have made 

it a better film, and Judy could have won her Academy Award! As it is now, we all have to suffer through the antiquated 1983 restored version, which now looks messy and choppy. Can’t the fascinating extra “stills” footage just be an addendum to the live-action version? We have all the songs now—that’s all we really want.

Touch of Evil (1958)

This oddball crime drama was seen for decades in a somewhat conventional 93-minute version that Universal-International prepared. It was always fascinating because of its set of major stars: Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, and Marlene Dietrich. And, of course it was directed by Orson (Citizen Kane) Welles. Universal’s version contained a jazzy score by Henry Mancini and a few additional scenes that were shot without Welles on hand. Directed by Harry Keller, these were primarily shot to clarify some of the more ambiguous plot points.

 

Because of the film’s team of stars, and Welles’ appeal to a growing audience, in 1976, Universal released a 108-minute version to cinemas and later issued it on video, billing it as “Complete, Uncut, and Restored.” In fact, this print was not a restoration at all but a preview version.

 

By 1998, interest in the film had developed to the point where a full restoration was produced, based on Welles’ 58-page memo to Universal on how to re-edit the preview version. This version is certainly more complete, but eliminates Mancini’s music over the credits. This is a valid choice, meant to showcase Welles’ celebrated long take, but the opening isn’t as exciting sans the excellent score. Some of the scenes shot by Keller for clarity were also removed.

 

Today, the film makes less sense than it did in 1976. While it is fascinating to see what Welles’ envisioned, the more conventional Universal version is easier to follow. What went wrong is not that the 1998 restoration was done (or whether it is better or worse than the Universal version), but that it is now considered the only valid version of the film.

 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

True, this was one of the greatest films of all time. And it still is. But, thanks to its restoration, it’s not quite as much of a great film as it was in the 1960s. Some footage was added in the 1990s, and the resulting edit was deemed to be the “Director’s Cut.” However, I suspect this was done to create a new copyright, and even to compensate David Lean financially. This longer version may have indeed been what Lean handed over for the film’s premiere, but the subsequent cuts made it much tighter and smoother.

The footage restored for the current version includes a shot of Lawrence’s motorcycle goggles in the bushes. Lean uses the same exact shot in Dr. Zhivago when Tom Courtney’s eyeglasses are flung into a snow drift during a World War I battle. Would he really have wanted to restore this shot once it had been seen in Zhivago? (Or would he have used it in the later film if Lawrence’s goggles were actually in the first road-show version?) The next restored scene is in front of a marble bust of Lawrence. This seems a bit campy, and I’ll wager Lean was happy to see it go in 1962.

 

The second half of the film suffers from the restoration of several scenes. This is exactly where Lawrence does not need to be longer. The lengthening of Lawrence’s torture by Jose Ferrer as the Turkish bey is slow, moody, and also a bit tasteless. But the scene that is simply overly long is the political discussion between Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal and Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley. Peter O’Toole as Lawrence is far away. We wait patiently (or not) as we watch Alec Guinness in brown face affecting a singsong phony Arab accent. Add an always less-than-stellar Arthur Kennedy with his one-expression disgruntled face and you have a scene that looks straight out of South Park. Further add to this embarrassment overdubbing done by an older Alec Guinness in 1992 (that is noticeably dropped in) and the scene becomes a blot on the film.

 

I think the trims done in 1962 were all wise, meant to keep the film moving and word-of-mouth excellent. I’m suspicious someone at some point said, “Hey, if we can find 15 minutes to expand the film with, we can re-release it in 70mm again and market a new video!” I’m glad they found this footage, but can’t both versions be available in 4K HDR instead of only the overly long, questionable one?

 

My Fair Lady (1964)

This is one of the greatest movie musicals of all time based on probably the best Broadway musical of all time. It’s all expertly done, because as Bette Davis said to George Cukor: “You’re directing My Fair Lady? You’d better do it right or they’ll shoot you.” Every detail is meticulously done—even right from the first frame of the main titles. “Wait! What’s this?” you say. “All they do is flash grainy photos of flowers under the hard-to-read script credits?” Well, do you think in 1964 George Cukor really wanted to be shot? No! What you see in this most recent restored version is not the original main title!

 

Now remember, My Fair Lady was a very important film and it had to look that way from the top. Whether it was George Cukor’s idea or perhaps art director Cecil Beaton’s, here’s how it originally looked, as designed by Wayne Fitzgerald (The Music Man, Imitation of Life). The movie fades in to a picture of a beautiful rhododendron. It’s clear, detailed, and gorgeous. It then dissolves to a picture of a delicate carnation—but we begin to realize these are not freeze-frame pictures but actually live flowers filmed in 70mm! There’s another dissolve to another gorgeous flower! It seems to breathe as it sways in the soft breeze. The next set of flowers subtly waft in the wind. In Super Panavision and widescreen, it was glorious! After a while, you could swear you could smell the flowers’ perfume. The title card “My Fair Lady” appears over the soaring bridge of “On the 

The title sequence from the restoration

Street Where You Live” as the flowers seem to open up right in front of you.

 

It’s a very different and entirely special way to start a film. It says. “This is important. We spent a lot of extra money to do this ‘live’—and, like the story you are about to see, it’s subtle and intelligent.” That’s 1964 to 1993.

 

Now fast-forward to 1994 when the film is being restored so CBS can take back control of it from Warner Bros. Probably to save costs, it was decided 

to dump the old main title and create a new freeze-frame version rather than restore every frame. Presumably, no one would notice. Who would? Well, the answer to that is, yes, you don’t really notice outright, but (as with any brilliant detail) you do subliminally. Think of all the subliminal visual elements of, let’s say, Citizen Kane. Who really notices those shots that include a ceiling? Hmmm?

 

To make matters even more disturbing, the newest video restoration of My Fair Lady seems to have redone the credits yet again. There is still no live footage of the flowers, but now the timing of the dissolve between the names is slightly off, probably because it was done with video instead of real film. Each credit comes up a split second too fast so you can’t clearly read them. For the generation that isn’t used to reading (or writing) in script, the credits must look like strange markings in Sanskrit. As for the music, it’s mixed rather strangely too. The strings are too soft and fairly far off in the background.

 

In addition, on my video version, more than a few of the songs are out of sync with the actors’ lips. Now, this could have been a sound/sync problem with my home theater, but I have never noticed it on earlier video versions of My Fair Lady, or any other musical for that matter. Most egregious was “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Now I know Audrey was dubbed by the great (and better) singer Marni Nixon here, but other songs were out of sync as well—even songs performed by actors who did their own singing, like Stanley Holloway, and at times, even Rex Harrison, who sang all his songs live on the set! I’ve seen this film over many decades and it’s never been out of sync till now.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2
1776 (1972)

This movie was originally filmed as a very straightforward adaptation of the Broadway blockbuster hit from 1969. It was planned to be a road-show presentation like My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof—a film over two hours long, presented in two “acts” with an intermission. It also was the last film produced by Jack L. Warner, although it was filmed and released by Columbia Pictures.

 

But by 1972, road shows were a thing of the past. Either Jack L. Warner or Columbia decided not to present the film in that format, which meant it needed to be shortened and given a more modern or “cinematic” feel. Having witnessed that first version, I can attest it was quite excellent, and exactly the right choice. Even though I am a fan of the Broadway show (which, by the way, was originally performed in one act), I found the more cinematic version snappier and more contemporary for the 1970s.

 

In the 1990s, all the missing footage was added back in for home video. The additions include the second chorus of “Piddle Twiddle and Resolve,” the entire “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” two reprises, and a “new” (or perhaps original) main title that looks like a ripoff of the main title of Oliver! In this case, longer is not better. The songs now prove why the original producers eliminated them.

 

As far as stage-to-screen photographic efforts, these are the stodgier stage-bound segments, and, in the case of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” very bizarre. It has been said this number was cut by Warner at the request of then President Nixon because the lyric makes unflattering references to the political “Right.” However, on viewing the film version of the number, it is strangely overly stylized and doesn’t fit with the more realistic look of the rest of the film. My guess it was cut because it didn’t come off well and was an easy edit to shorten the film for general release.

 

The main title sequence the film was released with in 1972 is inventive. The film begins with founding father (“hero”) John Adams in contemplation beside the Liberty Bell. When the Continental Congress convenes, he rushes down the long staircase from the bell tower as the credits roll. He then begins “Piddle Twiddle . . .” It’s quite stylish and cinematic. Both versions are available on the 4K Blu-ray, which means you can enjoy it all and decide for yourself.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

Film is a living art form. Even though we may think a movie is a photograph frame permanently set on film and will exist as such forever, that isn’t actually true. The film frames and sound may stay exactly the same but how they survive is always an issue.

 

Beyond technical deterioration, there are other factors that influence how we view or comprehend a film from another era. How we perceive a film changes as much as society, morality, and language change for us day to day. A film from the 1930s is viewed quite differently by contemporary audiences than it was by an audience watching it in 1935. Of course, some films transcend time while others become dated, confusing, and sometimes even incomprehensible.

But there is another kind of aging, beyond physical decay and changing times, that might alter a film, decade to decade. What did the movie actually look like to the first audiences that viewed it? How did the creators intend it to look? What was the original (intended) length? Now that technology has progressed so much with digital photography and editing, many film distributors, creators, and owners have come up with various ways to “restore” a film. But that is a very broad term. What is being restored? A director’s vision? The color? The sound? The length? If so, is a preview print of a film as valid as the version shown when the film was released?

 

With the arrival of home video, and the potential for an older film to be financially lucrative, there has been a trend to restore classic films. Often this is done out of love of the art form, but sometimes financial issues play too big a role in the process. To be sure, most older films are beautifully presented for home video, but there are more than several classic films where the restoration effort may have gone wrong.

I am going to take a look at 10 films that have yielded questionable results, beginning with five from 1927 to 1953. In Part 2, I’ll consider some more recent classics like the 1954 A Star is Born and Lawrence of Arabia.

Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang’s incredible German Expressionist science-fiction film was trimmed substantially after its opening. It’s this shorter version that has been admired for decades. A damaged full-length print was found in a museum in Argentina in 2008. A long restoration was begun, and additional footage was found in New Zealand. The film now runs 148 minutes (still shy of the original 153-minute version). Length aside, the restored material is so damaged and scratchy, you are taken right out of the story and plunked down in a photo-lab class. Certainly, the power and horror of this masterpiece is diluted, not improved. This super-long version should be an extra on any video release of the film, not the feature presentation.

Lost Horizon (1937)

This classic Frank Capra film of James Hilton’s classic novel was a critical if not financial success in 1937. For years, many film lovers enjoyed the 118-minute version. Then, perhaps in an effort to mine more cash out of the film, a new video version was released with 14 extra minutes from, presumably, the original, extended “road show” version or possibly from a preview print. But not all the footage still existed, so some scenes consist of only audio tracks playing while production stills are shown. The footage that did exist was not from the exciting Tibetan or Shangri-La sections, but conversations on a small airplane. In both 

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

cases, the additions very much slow the action of the film. The shorter, more concise version should be made available. While it’s fun to see what’s missing, that material should only be included in the extras.

 

The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

This is certainly one of the greatest movies of all time, and it’s a Technicolor triumph. However, in order to return it to its true splendor, so many “restorations” have been done that we are further from the truth than ever. Since the Technicolor company

of 1939 isn’t doing the restoring, what we have now is only a Technicolor simulation. As with The Band Wagon (see below) and other MGM musicals, the imaging is often too bright with low contrast, and more pleasing to the high-def generation’s eye than representative of what was originally there. In fact, the film is so clear and sharp now that all the sets look ridiculously phony.

 

That look isn’t so far off the mark for a film fantasy, so it is tolerable—except when 

Judy Garland turns into Rita Hayworth. Judy’s hair is now unabashedly red, but if you look at any color still of the film (shot on Kodachrome, etc.), she is clearly a brunette.

 

Another issue is the new “sepia-tone” wash on the film, which doesn’t come close to sepia. Just go find a photo of your grandparents from 1940 to see what sepia really looks like. In the current Wizard of Oz restoration, the front part of the picture simply has an orange-brown wash over everything. There are no true blacks or soft flesh tones.

 

In the color segments, the colors are bright, vibrant, and fun, but where are the subtle pastels? The last time I viewed an original color nitrate print of the film (made in the film’s premiere era), it was notable how the process could capture pastel colors side-by-side with the more vivid primary colors. The newer version is simply more saturated, so the pastels are no longer soft.

The Red Shoes (1948)

The great Pressburger/Powell film from 1948 certainly deserves to be transferred to home video with great care. But this magnificent and important movie has been so cleaned up, it looks like a vibrant video today. A lot of the scenes (for example, on the balcony with the train smoke blowing by) look positively phony. It seems reasonable to surmise this is not what the creators were going for. Also, the watery softness of the original British Technicolor is now bright, harsh, and cartoonish. I would much prefer to see a dusty (or even scratchy) old, true Technicolor print of this masterpiece.

 

The Band Wagon (1953)

This is one of the great MGM musicals, produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minelli. It famously stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in their peak years in glorious Technicolor. The film has always been treated with great care by MGM (and by WB, the company that currently owns it). However, the art of restoring Technicolor can be a very tricky and 

subjective job. Since the process used to create Technicolor prints no longer exists, a restoration isn’t really a restoration but a simulation of “the Technicolor look.”

 

Most of the color looks fine today, except for one key scene: The “Dancing in the Dark” number is too brightly lit and with low contrast. The great dancing couple, who are dressed in white, are now upstaged by a very phony-looking backdrop. Originally, as it was processed by 

Technicolor, the company was able to add deeper black tones and more contrast to the background so the New York City skyline viewed from Central Park actually looked quite true to life.

 

The original designers, D.P., and colorist knew what they were doing. I saw one of the last new prints made by Technicolor in the mid ‘70s in a screening hosted by Vincente Minelli, who explained how he requested Technicolor to make the soundstage set look like an actual location shoot. The version we see today is so bright and digitally cleaned up that Fred and Cyd look like they are “Dancing on a Community Theater Stage.”

 

If one wants proof of the restoration mishap, one need only look at the original trailer for The Band Wagon. If you find a print of this from 1953, you’ll see the difference in color contrast. By the way, if you look at most of the trailers of color musicals of the 1950s, you can see what the original Technicolor looked like.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Screwball Odds & Ends

When writing up the best classic screwball comedies and their modern counterparts, I knew I was likely overlooking some films that arguably belonged on the list. But how could I forget . . .

Screwball Odds & Ends
10

(1979)

This is the ultimate Blake Edwards screwball comedy. Most of Edwards’ comedies contain elements of classic screwball, certainly always slapstick. Films like The Pink Panther, The Great Race, and even Victor/Victoria qualify as terrific films that use the best of all comedy elements. Edwards even has a later film entitled Blind Date that is an over-the-top and dark screwball comedy. But 10 is a small masterpiece of insane comedy and slapstick.

Here, the beautiful girl causing all the trouble (by just being mindblowingly sexy with a corn-row hairstyle) is Bo Derek. And the slapstick prize goes to the film’s star Dudley Moore. By 1979, he certainly was an expert at this genre. (Let’s not forget the original Bedazzled!) And speaking of “Julie Andrews! Julie Andrews!,” Andrews herself is on hand, providing fine support. She also adds excellent contrast to Derek and some much-

needed rationality for Moore. This film also doubles as a classic sex comedy, but since sex doesn’t change much from generation to generation, this film holds up marvelously!

 

When listing the best recent screwball comedies, it’s easy to overlook a great favorite, so my apologies to Blake Edwards and Dudley Moore.

 

In fact, since Peter Bogdanovich’s re-introduction of the screwball comedy with What’s Up, Doc?, the last 50 years of cinema have been laced with all kinds of related comedies. Some are screwball-like, some are “drug comedies” or contemporary 

“sex comedies.” Some are great “genre spoof” comedies like Spaceballs, High Anxiety, or 21 Jump Street.

 

Here’s a comprehensive list of the many other truly wonderful screwball-comedy-like films that also deserve a mention:

 

Animal House

American Pie

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Blast from the Past

Caddyshack

Clueless

50 First Dates

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Groundhog Day

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days

In and Out

Isn’t It Romantic

Legally Blonde

Liar Liar

Napoleon Dynamite

Meatballs

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Splash

Tootsie

Trainwreck

27 Dresses

Weekend at Bernie’s

Wild Child

Zoolander

All of the Mel Brooks genre spoofs like Young FrankensteinSilent Movie, and High Anxiety.

 

Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor I & IIComing to America, and Bowfinger.

 

Will Ferrell movies like Talladega Nights, Anchorman, and Blades of Glory.

 

Chevy Chase movies like Funny Farm and the “Vacation” series.

 

And last but certainly not least . . .

 

Any of Tyler Perry’s “Medea” movies. They are all outrageously inventive and wonderful.

 

So, grab a “screwball” and a highball drink, and look at the world in a whole new and topsy-turvy way. Between all the great comedies from Hollywood’s Golden Age and the contemporary comedies of the last 50 years, you’ll have months and months of laughter at your disposal, so live, love, and laugh with the best!

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

The Greatest Classic Screwball Comedies” highlighted 30 zany gems from Hollywood’s Studio Era. Here, we’re going to trace how the screwball spirit has survived—and even thrived—in the modern era. Of course, these latter-day variations wander into areas their forbears never would have considered exploring. But that basic sense that anything can happen, and probably will, continues to define the genre almost 90 years on. 

The 1970s

What’s Up, Doc?

(1972)

Barbra Streisand, the great actress and film persona (and filmmaker) that she is, uses all her comedy skills, unique beauty, and talents in this revisit to the screwball comedy. Because she can be glamorous and funny (not crass or vulgar), she appears to be at ease fulfilling the classic 1930s role of the sexy girl who makes big trouble for everyone else. Ryan O’Neal is at his Cary Grant best. Madeline Kahn makes her screen debut with her brilliantly funny performance as O’Neal’s rejected fiancée. Indeed, the entire cast (Austin Pendleton, Kenneth Mars, and, in a surprise comic tour de force, Liam Dunn as the night court judge) reigns supreme and the result is a true screwball comedy—and it might just be the best one ever. It has all 

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

the comedic perfection of mix-ups and ridiculous coincidences, but with an added chase scene. By 1971, this could be done realistically full-scale. It’s as thrilling as the car chase in Bullitt (also set in San Fran), but the results are a laugh a second. What’s Up, Doc? was a critical and box-office bonanza and created a whole new generation of screwball comedies.   Gerard Alessandrini

A / G / I / K / VY     

 

Sleeper

(1973)

Woody Allen, the great film historian as well as great writer/director, certainly knew what screwball comedy was, and when the genre became big box office again, he jumped right on the bandwagon with this semi-science-fiction farce that brought back the zaniness of the Marx Brothers. Diane Keaton is his Myrna Loy/Claudette Colbert, and she is as wonderful and crazy as any 1930s movie queen. Although many Woody Allen films contain elements of screwball, Sleeper is his purest one.  G.A.

 

Blazing Saddles

(1973)

Mel Brooks, one of the great kings of satirical comedy, 

crosses the border here directly into the center of screwball-comedy territory. While his Young Frankenstein, The Producers, High Anxiety, and Silent Movie are superbly entertaining, they are parodies of film genres. Yes, Blazing Saddles is a spoof of westerns but it transcends parody with its zaniness and non-sequitur plot. Cleavon Little is Cary Grant to Gene Wilder’s Carole Lombard here (although Harvey Korman is the one named Hedley Lamarr). Inspired Madeline Kahn is the Dietrich-like Blonde Bombshell (who’s a bit “tired”). Near the end when the actors cross from western soundstages into a Dom DeLuise musical, the film really goes screwball. Bravo, Mel!   —G.A.
A / G / I / K / V / Y     

 

Foul Play

(1978)

With the multiple revivals of screwball comedy films, it was inevitable a blonde star should take on the reign of Queen of the 1970s screwballs. Goldie Hawn had already won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her special brand of comedy. In Private Benjamin, she proved she was a formidable comedy force. 

But with Colin Higgins’ screenplay and Chevy Chase as her 1970s Cary Grant, she became the Queen of Screwball Comedy for the next decade. And any film that has the Pope in it has to be considered a screwball comedy.  G.A.

The 1980s

Seems Like Old Times

(1980)

Neil Simon, who certainly knew his comedic genres and classic films, wrote this second screwball for Goldie & Chevy. Simon pays tribute to screwball comedies by putting in a lot of surprise entrances and crazy exits and irrational mix-ups. The result has a good amount of decent belly laughs, even if the film doesn’t add up to be a brilliant work. At the time, critics were only moderately to nonchalantly impressed. But it’s fun all the way, and now that we have some distance from it, we can appreciate this charming film and enjoy the genius of Neil, Chevy, and, as always, Goldie.   —G.A.     A / CGIV / Y     

 

Arthur

(1981)

The breezy and fun-loving 1980s continued to surprise and delight with this box-office surprise. The wonderfully different story about a lovable alcoholic is a perfect fit for the talents of the late, great Dudley Moore. Liza gets one of her few good roles after Sally Bowles in Cabaret as the object of his affection. The music is also appealing and includes

Where to See Some Screwball

Of the 20 films here, only Sleeper, Foul Play, and To Be or Not to Be are currently unavailable on non-subscription streaming. Kaleidescape has gathered 15 of the titles into a “Modern Screwball Comedies” collection. And Crackle offers Seems Like Old Times, Clue, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles for free. (The boldface alphabet soup after each movie description indicates who’s got what.)

 

A = Amazon Prime / C = Crackle
G = Google Play / I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / Y = YouTube

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

the Oscar winner “Between the Moon and New York City.” But the best surprise is the stunt casting of the superb Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud as Arthur’s stalwart butler. His dry performance in this marvelous film did not go unnoticed as Gielgud won an Academy Award for his subversively witty turn here.    G.A.     AGI / KV / Y    

 

To Be or Not to Be

(1983)

Mel Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft finally get to star in a film together in this color remake of the Jack Benny/Carole Lombard gem from 1942. This version is at least as funny as the original, but it also expands (and arguably improves) on 

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

most of the absurd situations. Brooks wrote one or two of his special brand of “Nazi songs,” and they give the proceedings a Producers-type lift. Charles Durning as the befuddled S.S. Col. Erhardt is off-the-charts funny. Tim Matheson as Bancroft’s young paramour has the looks, the tongue-in-cheek delivery, and perfect Cary Grant lightness to give the film a romantic layer. And not to detract from the classic original, it’s fair to say that the arrival of Mel Brooks as Hitler at an English Pub is a terrific addition and a hilarious surprise. (Well, I guess I just spoiled that surprise!) It should be noted that Brooks didn’t direct this jewel of comedy, Alan Johnson did. Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham re-wrote the screenplay of the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch version, so Mel gets to relax and fly to uninhibited heights. It’s particularly wonderful to see Ms. Bancroft sing, dance, do comedy-drama, and use so many of her God given talents.  G.A.

 

Trading Places

(1983)

Directed by John Landis and starring Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy, this is the story of an upper-class commodities broker and a homeless street hustler whose lives cross paths and switch places when they are unknowingly made part of an elaborate bet. It’s a classic 

screwball comedy setup worthy of Preston Sturges from 40 years earlier. Murphy and Ackroyd are both at the top of their comedic game. And most appropriately they are joined by Jamie Lee Curtis, herself an expert screwball comedienne. The production values are wonderful. Elmer Bernstein’s Academy Award-nominated music score is perfectly period. And Landis certainly knew he was making a 1940s-type comedy by casting true Hollywood screwball veterans Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy in the senior roles.   G.A.     A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

Clue

(1985)

This comedy mystery film based on the popular board game by Parker Brothers initially did poor business at the box office but has since gained cult status. In a similar vein as the 1976 film Murder by Death, it is an all-star-ensemble whodunit where a

bevy of guests is invited to a big mansion, a murder occurs, and the suspects have to figure out which among them committed the crime. Where Clue and Murder by Death differ however is that the former is filled with much more slapstick and silliness, albeit with a less witty screenplay, catapulting it into the screwball comedy genre. With a tour de force performance by Tim Curry

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

as the butler Wadsworth and brilliant comedic turns by Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren, this film is notably quotable, with my personal favorite being Kahn’s line “Flames, on the sides of my face!” To add to the fun, there are three different endings!   Glenn Bassett     A / CG / I / K / V / Y     

 

Overboard

(1987)

Starring real-life power couple Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Overboard was neither a critical or commercial success, but has become a cult classic screwball comedy. Hawn, the queen of ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s comedy films, seems to be having a ball here playing Joanna, a rich, uptight snob who gets amnesia and is tricked by her carpenter, Dean (Kurt Russell), into believing she is his wife and mother of his four boys. The down-and-out Dean does this as payback for her refusal to pay him for work done and for throwing his tools into the ocean. The premise is ludicrous but in the hands of the charming and sexy Goldie and Kurt, as well as director Garry Marshall, the film manages to be heart-warming and witty amidst a very silly plot.    G.B.     AI / KV    

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

(1987)

Steve Martin has his own niche in the modern screwball comedy. Roxanne, The Jerk, and L.A. Story are just a few. But Planes, Trains and Automobiles has a special place in the hearts of screwball-comedy lovers. Of course, adding the genius of John Candy doesn’t hurt this wild road-trip romp. Here, Candy‘s obnoxious but lovable behavior comes across so effectively that it adds a certain dramatic layer to the film. John Hughes (Home Alone), at one of his peaks, wrote, produced, and directed this perennial holiday favorite. It has been noted that Hughes wrote his films quickly, and perhaps in doing so he gave them a driving urgency. Of course, this is always good for any film but even better for a comedy. Planes, Trains, and

Automobiles all takes place in a 24-hour period, and the unity of time adds excellent momentum to this “Traveling Home for the Holidays“ roller-coaster ride.    G.A.

A / CGI / KV / Y    

 

A Fish Called Wanda

(1988)

A Fish Called Wanda stars John Cleese (who also wrote the 

screenplay), Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin. I remember first seeing this movie when it had just come out, not knowing anything about it or expecting anything special. Well, what a surprise. Cleese’s screenplay is comic gold, as are his and all of the performances. It’s hard to pick a favorite among the leads as they are all doing their very best onscreen work here. And although this is a heist comedy, the hilarious situations, endless slapstick, and a trouble-making femme fatale (Curtis) at its center make it a screwball comedy classic. Deservedly nominated for three Academy Awards including Director (Charles Crichton) and Original Screenplay (John Cleese), Kevin Kline won for Supporting Actor in perhaps his funniest role to date.   G.B.     AGI / KV / Y     

The 1990s

Soapdish

(1991)

What a screwball brilliant cast this film has. Sally Field, who is always at ease in improbable screenplays, and modern comedy masters Kevin Kline and Whoopi Goldberg are just the headliners. Add in Elisabeth Shue, Carrie Fisher, Robert 

Downey Jr., and Cathy Moriarty in exquisitely broad comic performances, and it’s a star-studded screwball treat. The screenplay by Robert Harling and Andrew Bergman is as wild and improbable as it gets (but then again aren’t TV soap operas, too?) It’s exceptionally well directed by Michael Hoffman with just the right amount of frantic abandon. Also, the “look” of the whole film is

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

terrific and matches perfectly the outrageous tone. “The Look” is a great time capsule of life in glamorous 1991 New York City. Those were the candy-colored days!    G.A.     AGIV / Y    

 

Housesitter

(1992)

This is one of my personal favorite screwball comedies. It pairs the incredible comic talents of Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin, with Martin hysterical as Newton, an architect who has built a dream house in his small hometown for his girlfriend Becky (Dana Delaney) as a wedding-proposal gift, only to be turned down by her when he pops the question. He leaves the house abandoned and ends up having a one-night stand with a supposedly Hungarian waitress, Gwen (Hawn), to whom he tells the story of the house. An artful opportunist and a compulsive liar, Gwen hunts down the house, moves right in, and soon has Newton’s parents and the whole town convinced she is Newton’s new wife. Screwball comedy heaven ensues when Newton returns to his hometown and realizes this unorthodox arrangement may be the only way of winning Becky back. This is an absolute must-see Goldie Hawn performance!   G.B.     AGI / KV / Y     

There’s Something About Mary

(1998)

Everything about this escapade into romantic obsession screams “True Screwball!” With Cameron Diaz as Mary, the carefree and unaware blonde center of attention, and her three crazy suitors (Ben Stiller, Matt Dillon, and Lee Evans), every bizarre plot

twist and slapstick ballet is a set up for provoking laughter, just like the broadest and best of the 1930s screwballs. But the big difference here is that now a comedy like this can use sexual situations, crude language, and politically incorrect setups. The result may be a bit crude, but it’s always hilarious. It’s all so well directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly. And you’re sure to notice this film has a small, very drugged-up but indestructible cute little dog in it, so very Awful Truth-like!   —G.A.

AGI / KV / Y     

 

Runaway Bride

(1999)

Runaway Bride was a commercially successful re-teaming of director Garry Marshall and his two mega-stars from Pretty Woman (1990), Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. With a similar premise as It Happened One Night (1934), this screwball comedy has New York columnist Ike (Gere) traveling to small-town Maryland to write a factually accurate article about Maggie Carpenter (Roberts), whom the tabloids have dubbed “The Runaway Bride” for leaving numerous men at the altar. A somewhat cliche story, Roberts and Gere manage to rekindle some of the magic that made them box-office gold, and with a supporting cast including Joan Cusack and Héctor Elizondo (also of Pretty Woman), it has enough charm and laughs to entertain and amuse more than 20 years later.   G.B.     AGI / KV / Y    

The 2000s

Superbad

(2007)

After 30 years of screwball-revival films, a new type of “buddy” screwball emerged. In these comedies, the crazy female figure is nearly non-existent and the boys take the irrational behavior lead. There are some elements of the “Drug Comedy” in this

film, although the culprit here is alcohol rather than drugs. The “Drug Comedy” is actually its own sub-genre (Up in Smoke, Dazed and Confused) but in Superbad, the string of outrageous situations comes so fast and furious, it feels screwball throughout—at least till the end, when it very satisfyingly slides into a real and moving friendship story. By the way, this sentimental friendship has been used effectively again and again, and in other Jonah Hill films like 22 Jump Street.   —G.A.     AGI / K / V / Y 

 

The Hangover

(2009)

You could classify this hysterical adventure as a “Drug Comedy,” however it has a certain layer to it that is rather like a Billy Wilder movie. Rather than sit back and be amused, we are asked to participate in solving a certain mystery. What did happen “the night before”? This quality of “we need to do a little brain work here” is a sure trademark of any Wilder film, comedy or otherwise. It adds a certain wit and wryness to the proceedings, and elevates this bachelor-party flick. Of course, the fabulous and frantic direction by Todd Phillips of the Jon Lucas/Scott Moore screenplay

doesn’t hurt! This is the movie that catapulted Bradley Cooper to stardom. Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, and, yes, Mike Tyson and a friendly but man-eating tiger (shades of Bringing Up Baby?) add toothy support.   —G.A.     AGI / KV / Y     

The 2010s

Bridesmaids

(2011)

Not since The Women (1939) has there been an all-female ensemble comedy as hilarious or as much fun to watch from start to finish as Bridesmaids. Directed by Paul Fieg with an Academy Award-nominated screenplay by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, this screwball comedy about a woman named Annie (Wiig) who has lost everything and is about to lose her best friend is not only chock-full of slapstick, the troubled-woman trope, and witty dialogue, it also has enough raunch and ridiculousness to make modern audiences laugh till it hurts. The outstanding cast includes Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi 

McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Chris O’Dowd, Jon Hamm, and Melissa McCarthy in a shameless, uproarious Oscar-nominated performance.   G.B.   

AGI / KV / Y     

 

 

Walk of Shame

(2014)

Although this isn’t a film that’s on everyone’s most-famous list, it nonetheless is an undiscovered gem of screwball comedy. Like 

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

many (or most) of the great screwball comedies, it has a beautiful but screwy blonde in the central role. Elizabeth Banks is perfect and superbly comic as a TV news anchorwoman who has a wild night of fun, but through improbable circumstances has a lot of trouble getting home to change her clothes. Improbable is right, but writer/director Steven Brill pulls all the terrific fun off breezily and hysterically. Some critics found the story laced with broad caricatures and broadly drawn stereotypes. But should true screwball comedy do it any other way? This is uproarious fun.   —G.A.     AGI / KV / Y     

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton
. He has been the
lyricist (and sometimes 
composer) 
for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker
& I, Scaramouche, and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. 

Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. He was set designer for
a production 
of On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Connecticut and
for the Salt Marsh Opera’s 
production of Pagliacci. He also did the production design for the
independent shorts 
Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner. Current writing projects include
a mystery 
novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical thriller, Dig a Little Deeper.