Dead Pigeons Make Easy Targets: THE CHEAP DETECTIVE (Columbia 1978)

THE CHEAP DETECTIVE could easily be subtitled “Neil Simon Meets MAD Magazine”. The playwright and director Robert Moore had scored a hit with 1976’s MURDER BY DEATH, spoofing screen PI’s Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, and Nick & Nora Charles, and now went full throttle in sending up Humphrey Bogart movies. Subtle it ain’t, but film buffs will get a kick out of the all-star cast parodying THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA , TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and THE BIG SLEEP .

Peter Falk  does his best Bogie imitation as Lou Peckinpaugh, as he did in the previous film. When Lou’s partner Floyd Merkle is killed, Lou finds himself in a FALCON-esque plot involving some rare Albanian Eggs worth a fortune. Madeline Kahn , John Houseman, Dom De Luise , and Paul Williams stand in for Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr, respectively, and they milk it for every laugh they can get, especially Kahn as the mystery woman who continuously changes her name and personality!

There’s a CASABLANCA subplot with Louise Fletcher as Lou’s former flame, now married to French resistance fighter Fernando Lamas, getting an opportunity to show off his comic skills. Nicol Williamson plays Colonel Schissel, leader of “the Cincinnati Gestapo”, with young James Cromwell as his aide Schnell. James Coco and David Ogden Stiers are café waiters, and since you can’t have CASABLANCA without Sam, we get Scatman Crothers as the piano player who’s told not to play that song again… “Jeepers Creepers”!

Eileen Brennen mimics Lauren Bacall as a sultry saloon singer who calls Lou “Fred” (he in turn dubs her “Slinky”). Ann-Margret channels THE BIG SLEEP’s Martha Vickers as the oversexed wife of ancient, decrepit Sid Caesar , Simon’s old YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS boss. Marsha Mason, Simon’s wife at the time, plays Merkle’s cheating widow Georgia, who accidentally flushes the dead dick’s ashes down the toilet! Stockard Channing’s on hand as Lou’s handy, virginal secretary Bess, and Vic Tayback, Abe Vigoda, and Carmine Caridi are the overbearing cops on Lou’s case ( at one point, Tayback tells Vigoda to “stop leaning” on Lou… literally!). Funnyman Phil Silvers , who Simon also worked with on the SGT. BILKO sitcom, has a cameo as a cab driver.

DP John Alonso, who shot the neo-noir CHINATOWN (and there’s a CHINATOWN gag in this, too), gives us a fog-shrouded, sepia-toned San Francisco setting. Simon goes back to his SHOW OF SHOWS roots with all the puns, word play (“Hello, Georgia. I just had you on my mind”), and wacky sight gags. It’s obvious Simon has an affection for these films as he lampoons all the Bogart movie tropes, and the cast seems to be having a ball. There are plenty of guffaws to be had viewing THE CHEAP DETECTIVE, a Bogie devotee’s delight, and fans of film parodies like AIRPLANE! and THE NAKED GUN are sure to get a kick out of this one.

 

Cockeyed Caravan: SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (Paramount 1941)

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I’m no expert on Preston Sturges, having seen only two of his films, but after viewing SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS I now have a craving to see them all! This swift (and Swiftian) satire on Hollywood stars Joel McCrea as a successful slapstick comedy director yearning to make important, socially conscious films who gets more than he bargained for when he hits the road to discover what human misery and suffering is all about.

John L. “Sully” Sullivan sets his studio bosses on their collective ear when he tells them he wants to film an adaptation of ” O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a serious novel by ‘Sinclair Beckstein’. The head honcho balks, wanting Sully to do another comedy, but Sully’s not dissuaded, deciding to see what life among the downtrodden is first-hand. He dresses in rags and sets out on his quest, followed by a gaggle of PR flacks in a bus. Somehow he keeps winding up back in Hollywood, where he meets a girl (her name is never given) in a diner, a disillusioned young actress about to leave Tinseltown behind.

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After the pair get arrested for stealing a car, which is actually his in the first place, Sullivan reveals his true identity to her, taking The Girl to his palatial estate. She’s angry at first, having thought him a real hobo, but when he’s determined to continue his odyssey she becomes equally determined to join him. From there they hop a freight train and live among the homeless souls, dining in soup kitchens and sleeping in a crowded shelter, learning how the poor and desperate souls live. Having gathered enough material, the director decides to hand out $1000 in fives to the street people in gratitude.

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Then the film takes a turn to the dramatic, as Sully gets rolled by the same bum who previously stole his shoes, and dragged onto a train leaving the station. The unfortunate crook drops the ill-gotten dough and is run over by an oncoming locomotive. The studio execs believe the dead man is Sully, who wakes up concussed and confused, charged with trespass and atrocious assault, winding up in a prison work camp run by a brutal overseer who doesn’t take any guff.

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Everything turns out okay in the end, as Sullivan finds a way to be freed and discovers making comedies isn’t so bad after all. Joel McCrea is flawless as the idealistic, earnest director, whose journey of self-discovery leads him to this conclusion: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan”. Sturges punctures the pretentiousness of Hollywood elitists who think they can save the world, suggesting that maybe what the world needs more of is a good, hearty laugh. The fact remains while comedies do big box-office, they get very little love come Oscar time. The great screen comics of their respective eras have rarely been rewarded for their efforts, usually settling for a lifetime achievement award after they’re way past their prime, while “relevant” dramas get all the accolades. Myself, I’d rather be entertained than preached at.

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Veronica Lake  shines as The Girl, showing a flair for comedy as the struggling starlet. She’s the perfect match for McCrea, with comic timing that’s just right. Tons of Familiar Faces parade on the screen, like William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn,  Porter Hall Byron Foulger , Eric Blore, Torbin Meyer, Esther Howard , Almira Sessions, Frank Moran, Chester Conklin, and Dewey Robinson, many of whom appeared in subsequent Sturges films as a sort of stock company. A shout-out goes to Jess Lee Brooks as a black preacher who allows the prisoners to attend his church for a movie, leading the congregation in a stirring rendition of ‘Go Down, Moses” (that’s Madame Sul-Te-Wan  at the organ). Ray Milland also appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.

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SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is social commentary disguised as screwball comedy, or maybe vice versa. Its rapid-fire dialog, great sight gags, and satirical skewering of Hollywood makes it a must-see for film fans. It carries a timeless message, and that is, as Donald O’Connor would say, “Make Em Laugh”! I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for more Preston Sturges films in the future, because we all need to stop and have a good laugh these days.

No Safe Space: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon (2015, directed by Douglas Tirola)

National Lampoon was the most outrageous satire magazine in history, and this excellent review is reblogged courtesy of Through the Shattered Lens:

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Drunk_Stoned_Brilliant_Dead_PosterThe documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead pays tribute to National Lampoon.  Founded in 1970, National Lampoon was published for 28 years and, at the height of its popularity, its sensibility redefined American comedy.  When it came to National Lampoon, nothing was sacred and nothing was off-limits.  The success of National Lampoon led to a stage show called Lemmings and The National Lampoon Radio Hour, which featured everyone from John Belushi and Bill Murray to Chevy Chase and Harold Ramis.  Michael O’Donoghue, famed for his impersonations of celebrities having needless inserted into their eyes, went from writing for the Lampoon to serving as Saturday Night Live‘s first head writer.  National Lampoon’s Animal House, Vacation, and Caddyshack are three of the most influential film comedies ever made.  Everyone from P.J. O’Rourke to John Hughes to The Simpsons‘ Al Jean got their start at National Lampoon

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Have a Bucket of Fun!: THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977)

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Satire ran rampant in the 70s. Magazines like MAD and NATIONAL LAMPOON were eagerly devoured by hungry youth disillusioned with the status quo, while SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS kept us glued to our TV sets for must-watch comic nonsense. Moviegoers were treated to such farcical fare as THE GROOVE TUBE (1974), TUNNELVISION (1976), and LOOSE SHOES (1980). But without question, the side-splittingly funniest of them all was THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE.

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KFM (as I’ll pretensiously call it) was the brainchild of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, those geniuses behind AIRPLANE! The trio of comic terrorists first got together as college chums in a theatrical troupe known as The Kentucky Fried Theater. Making a name for themselves as unbridled smart-alecs taking potshots at everything in sight, they developed this hilarious gumbo of outrageous skits with the help of a young director named John Landis, whose only previous credit in the director’s chair was the horror spoof SCHLOCK! (1971), which I’ll get around to viewing sooner rather than later (I know you’re all excited about that!)

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THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, like everything the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team does, takes guerilla comedy to the extreme. A series of unrelated events, KFM skewers local news, commercials, PSAs (Henry Gibson in a United Appeal for the Dead), TV shows, and movies. There’s some Previews of Coming Attractions thrown in, touting “Samuel L. Bronkowitz” producions of R-rated titillation pics (CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS IN TROUBLE), disaster movies (THAT’S ARMAGGEDON!!), and Blaxploitation (CLEOPATRA SCHWARTZ). The big set-piece is A FISTFUL OF YEN, a pitch-perfect kung-fu parody with leads that can’t pronounce their R’s (“Total consentwation”), cheesy sound effects, an evil villain bent on world domination, and an insanely funny conclusion.

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Filled with groan-inducing puns,non-sequiturs, ethnic humor, questionable taste, silly cameo roles (Bill Bixby, George Lazenby, Donald Sutherland, Tony Dow, porn star Uschi Digard, FAMOUS MONSTERS editor Forrest J Ackerman) and lots and lots of bare boobs, THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE is as edgy as it was when it was first made. It wouldn’t go over well with today’s easily offended, politically correct crowd. The film was a big hit with the “party animals” of the day. I remember seeing it at the movies stoned out of my gourd, like I was most of the time back then. But that was many moons ago, and today I’m…..

Nahhh, I’ll save the true confessions stuff if I ever want to start one of those “personal recovery journey” blogs. THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE  still makes me laugh my ass off! Stoned out of your gourd or stone-cold sober, just watch it and see. Unless you’re one of those overly sensitive types. Maybe you should go watch THE NOTEBOOK or something.