Sunday, June 08, 2008

cinema obscura: Dick Shawn (& Ernie Kovacs)

In his weekly DVD report for The New York Times, Dave Kehr writes about the new DVD of Blake Edwards' sadly neglected 1966 wartime comedy, "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" (Actually, Edwards' film is more than just a comedy.)

Dave jogged my memory with his generous mention of Dick Shawn in the film: "... the picture really belongs to the innovative stand-up comedian Dick Shawn, here in his most significant movie role." Yes, his most significant movie role - sadly.

Shawn, who died in 1987 at age 65 of a heart attack, was yet another example of a talent criminally misused by Hollywood, wasted in small roles that starred other people - supporting Natalie Wood in "Penelope," Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in "The Producers" and the sprawling ensemble cast of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" where, stripped down to a vintage red squarecut bathing suit, Shawn did a wild twist with that eternal dish, Barrie Chase.

He never quite made the leap to the kind of name-over-the-title parts that went to Jack Lemmon, whose roles Shawn could have handily played. ("Some Like It Hot"? "Mister Roberts"?) Both he and Tony Randall pretty much lived in Lemmon's shadow, perhaps getting Jack's castoffs. They were the same and yet each man was different.

Jack was the normal everyman, Tony the urbane neurotic and Dick the sexy cool cat.

After years doing stand-up in clubs and on television, Shawn made his movie debut - "and introducing Dick Shawn" - for director Mervyn LeRoy in Columbia's pleasing "Wake Me When It's Over," based on Howard Singer's 1959 novel about military bureaucracy and the teasing, newly-found sexual freedom being tested at the time.

The great cast, which LeRoy reportedly selected to closely match the characters in Singer's book, includes Ernie Kovacs, Jack Warden, Don Knotts, Marvin Kaplan, Raymond Baily, Nubu McCarthy and Margo Moore.

"Wake Me When It's Over" is yet another Columbia title that has evaded every form of home entertainment. It seems only the lesser titles that Shawn made later in his career ever made it to video or DVD.

Anyway, his next film came three year's later - Stanley Kramer's thudding "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," followed by Michael Gordon's 1965 "A Very Special Favor," with Rock Hudson and Leslie Caron, Edwards' "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" and two more 1966 films, Arthur Hiller's "Penelope" and Gordon Douglas's Jerry Lewis film, "Way ... Way Out." He gave a rare dramatic turn in Richard Brooks' "The Happy Ending" in 1969 and, of course, there was Mel Brooks' "The Producers," but the remainder of his filmography is negligible. His movie career should have been better.

Minor film roles and a lot of forgettable TV monopolized the rest of his career. Shawn's last film, released in 1988 after his death, was "Rented Lips" for Robert Downey, Sr. Martin Mull, Jennifer Tilly and Robert Downey, Jr. co-starred.

In 1964, Shawn interrupted his then-young movie career to do the stage comedy, "Peterpat," written by Enid Rudd, co-starring the also much-missed Joan Hackett and directed by Joe Layton. Dick Shawn and Joan Hackett? Together. On stage. Sure "Peterpat" flopped and closed after 21 performances, but it sounds like it was heaven to me.

Getting back to Ernie Kovacs, this late, great comic actor is also long overdue for a rediscovery. Sure his TV standup routines have been showcased on DVD but how about the other films that he made for Columbia? In addition to LeRoy's "Wake Me When It's Over," there's Sir Carol Reed's "Our Man in Havana" (1959), which at least pops up on Turner Classics occasionally, and Irving Brecher's "Sail a Crooked Ship" (1961), with Robert Wagner and Delores Hart. Kovacs' 1960 film for Columbia, Richard Quine's "Strangers When We Meet," is available on DVD and, thanks to its recent exposure on Turner, has undergone a deserved rediscovery and re-evaluation.

Note in Passing: Check out Dave Kehr's blog for more on "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?"

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Dick Shawn gets groovy with that dish Barrie Chase in Stanley Klramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"; Shawn with Natalie Wood in "Penelope"; the poster art for "Wake Me When It's Over," Shawn's debut movie; the comic actor in something he did on TV with David Hartman; the Playbill for "Peterpat," and the late, great Ernie Kovacs.)


Alex said...

Thanks for the post on Dick Shawn.

Janice said...

Thank you for putting a spotlight on Dick Shawn. He truly was a unique talent and I for one miss him very much.

A.N. said...

Thank you for your post. Iloved watching these movies with my mom. I have been looking for films like these because I consider them funnier and more entertaining than some of the garbage that is being served to us as entertainment. I liked both Dick Shawn & Ernie Kovacks back in the 60'S. Genuine comics without the need to swear to seem funny.

david said...

He always struck me as an unfunny loser. Annoying and deserving of his relative obscurity. =D

A.S. said...

Hey David,
Are you a Jerry Lewis impersonator?
Dick Shawn just wasn't your thing but
other comics loved him.