Friday, January 25, 2013

cinema obscura: two with tony

I admit it. I miss the comedies of the '60s. They were breezy and stress-free and there was nothing mean-spirited about them. Yes, times have changed. Either that, or I've become way too old.

The average modern film comedy leaves one feeling battered and worn out, even the so-called "chick flicks" and romantic comedies. Face it, the romantic comedy died in that Rob Reiner-concocted scene in which Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in a deli/restaurant.

Today, there is no more exposition - nothing is set up as modern comedies come barreling at us with veritable cattle prods in hand, zapping us every five seconds or so with dubious double-entendrés and CG-enhanced pratfalls.

The problem with all of this? Most of the time, it simply isn't funny - just strained.

Which brings me to two minor gems from the 1960s, both starring the ever-underrated Tony Curtis.

1964's "Wild and Wonderful," directed by Michael Anderson ("Around the World in 80 Days," "All the Fine Young Cannibals"), is a nifty take on the eternal triangle. Only in this case, it's a dog - a handsome white French poodle - that comes between a man and a woman.

Monsieur Cognac is a national celebrity in France, the star of his own TV show, as well as films, and he's completely in love with his owner Giselle Ponchon (Christine Kaufmann, Curtis's wife at the time), obsessively so. Giselle has an acting career of her own, but Cognac always comes first.

One day, Cognac disappears and goes on a bender. He meets Terry Williams (Curtis), an American musican performing in Paris, and in one of the film's more hilarious scenes, Terry and Cognac indulge in a drinking spree. True to his name, Cognac loves alcohol. When Giselle tracks down her dog and meets Terry, she falls madly in love - much to Cognac's chagrin. The rest of the film is about how a disapproving Cognac sets up roadblocks for Terry and Giselle, feigning illness and even abuse (supposedly at the hand of Terry) and generally acting out.

"Wild and Wonderful" is effortless fun. George Clooney should do a remake (with Marion Cotillard, perhaps?). And Universal should release the original on DVD already.

A year earlier, in 1963, Curtis made an affable Universal comedy for a first-time director named Norman Jewison - "40 Pounds of Trouble" - about a casino manager who gets stuck with an orphan as a marker.

Sound familiar? Jewison's debut film is, of course, based on the famous Damon Runyon story, "Little Miss Marker," which has inspired at least three other film versions - Alexander Hall's "Little Miss Marker" (1934) with Adolphe Menjou and Shirley Temple; Sidney Lanfield's "Sorrowful Jones" (1949) with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, and Walter Bernstein's "Little Miss Marker" (1980) with Walter Matthau, Julie Andrews and, again, Tony Curtis.

In Jewison's version, Curtis plays Steve McCluskey who manages a Lake Tahoe casino for Bernie Friedman (Phil Silvers). He's trying to juggle his job with his attempts to evade the private eyes hired by his ex-wife to collect past alimony.

Complicating matters are (1) Bernie's niece, Chris Lockwood (Suzanne Pleshette), who arrives to sing at the casino and who Steve thinks is actually Bernie's mistress, and (2) a 6-year-old named Penny Piper (Claire Wilcox), who has been abandoned by her father who owed the casino money. When Penny's dad ends up dead, she ends up with Steve.

It all culminates in an antic chase through Disneyland, with Steve trying to evade his assorted pursuers, using Chris and Penny to pose as the perfect family. Pure pleasure.

The exceptional supporting cast includes such pros as Silvers, Kevin McCarthy, Howard Morris and Edward Andrews. Better yet, Pleshette matches up well with Curtis - they make a hugely attractive couple - and she gets to sing in a few scenes.

Jewison followed "40 Pounds of Trouble" with Doris Day's "The Thrill of It All," made the same year and directed from a great script by Carl Reiner. A year later, in '64, Day recruited Jewison to direct her and Rock Hudson in the best of their three comedies together, "Send Me No Flowers," based on the Norman Barasch-Carroll Moore Play.

Next for Jewison came "The Cincinnati Kid" and "The Art of Love" (both 1965), "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" (1966) and then his Oscar winner, "In the Heat of the Night" (1967).

A nice, steady rise.

Note in Passing: Thanks to my friend Marvin for sending me a rare VHS copy of "40 Pounds of Trouble," taped off of television when it was still possible to see the film. I'm in heaven.


Dos Chicos said...

Down here in Argentina, we love old movies. This is a great one and we are so happy we found your blog.

Pat said...

I was ten years old when I first saw "Wild and Wonderful". I vowed I would own a standard poodle someday. Best pet I ever had, thanks to this movie. SO wish that this was available in DVD. It would be so great to see it again.

Eve Demian said...

Two others that you'd like are 'Boeing, Boeing'(Thelma Ritter very funny as stewardess-monger Curtis' much put-upon housekeeper) and, I think the sharpest, of the lot, 'Arrivederci, Baby' - wickedly funny!

Kevin Deany said...

I've never seen either of these, but since I agree with you on the state of today's comedies, I will probably enjoy them.

Carrie said...

Oh, Joe, "40 Pounds of Trouble" is so terrific, As I remember, for complicated reasons (maybe alimony?) Tony Curtis ran a Cal-Neva hotel on the California /Nevada border and ciuldn;t cross over the California line. It was a great gimmick in, as you say, a breezy comedy where the only thing at stake was a laugh.

joe baltake said...

Carrie! Movies, among other things, were so much simpler then, eh?

jbryant said...

I've somehow missed those (and haven't even heard of "Wild and Wonderful"!). I do rather like another Curtis 60s title though, Alexander Mackendrick's "Don't Make Waves."

j kaiser said...

Speaking of Curtis, I just watched "Sweet Smell of Success" for the first time yesterday. Damn good performance by Curtis.

Rebecca said...

I'd love to see the two movies you discussed, since I have soft spot for those 60's comedies. My favorite Tony Curtis 60's film is "Sex and the Single Girl" with Natalie Wood--the mass car chase at the end is so silly, and he even makes a self-referential "Some Like it Hot" joke. Lots of fun.

If I'm not mistaken, I think Tony Curtis was signed to Universal for a period of time in the 50's, although he kept doing work at the studio. They're really good at releasing reasonably priced box sets and I wish they'd do one for him. I have the Jimmy Stewart, Rock Hudson and Preston Sturges one, and they're all terrific since they include both big and lesser known films.

You've got an interesting blog. I like it!

michael lallis said...

I have the movie poster for 40 Pounds Of Trouble. Its hung in front of The The Sunny Side Center for New years Showing. I would like more info on the Poster. I can't find one like it enywhere