Saturday, January 18, 2014

There's Money in This For All of Us

There's a scene in Stanley Kramer's 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? where Christina Drayton, as a young white woman who has fallen in love with and plans to marry a black man (Sidney Poitier), is telling her mother, played by Katharine Hepburn, how she and the man met.  It's a thoroughly uninvolving story, but as this is not what is meant to be communicated by the scene, Hepburn acts as though what her daughter is telling her is not only interesting but also funny.  So she laughs at things that aren't funny, so not funny that it's tough to tell if they were ever intended to be funny, or it would be tough to tell if Hepburn didn't keep laughing.  In any case, Hepburn plays the scene well, but because she's responding to essentially a blank fog it plays as good acting coming off as bad acting, and the emotion instilled in me was one of unease.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? is typically billed as drama, but a lot of it shoots for a kind of warm humor.  By my count, it only comes close to that once, when Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, as Drayton's father, are getting ice cream and Tracy keeps politely bothering their waitress with questions she couldn't possibly know the answer to, and with observations that couldn't possibly amuse her.  It's funny -- well, sort of funny -- because Tracy's performance as, in this scene anyway, a kind but slightly distracted and rambling old man pretty much on the money.  It may not inspire actual laughs, but it's amusing because we've all met a guy like that.  The comedy comes from humoring the character (please note that I avoided the obvious pun).  Outside of that, though, you get scenes like a delivery boy performing what I can only describe as a "funky and with it rock and roll dance" as he approaches a house, and all throughout the rest of his scene, or the family priest (Cecil Kellaway) doing the not-with-it old man version of same when he simultaneously mocks and reassures Tracy, teetering on the precipice of Good Liberal Hypocrisy, by singing the refrain of The Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" albeit with a completely different melody, and moving about in a way that youngsters at that time most assuredly did NOT when those lovable mop-tops etc., etc., rock and roll music, etc.  That sort of thing.

All of which might be regarded as what you should probably expect in terms of a sense of humor from a guy like Stanley Kramer, a director and producer who was once quite the big deal but has since fallen quite drastically out of fashion, largely due to the fact that he was an "art is about delivering messages and teaching lessons" kind of filmmaker.  His approach can perhaps best illustrated by the opening of his film Ship of Fools, from 1965.  The very first line of that movie, delivered by Michael Dunn from the rail of ship and directly into the camera, is "This is a ship of fools." Oh okay, I think I get it.  He was nevertheless a big deal at one time, but tastes change, and Kramer, as I've said, has become something of a punching bag by film critics and even filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino has taken shots at him at least a couple of times).  I think it's just this side of possible that the terribleness of Kramer's films is a little bit overstated.  Not that this is what's typically criticized, but for one thing as a producer Kramer shepherded along some really good stuff, like The Sniper, or The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, which is far more aesthetically adventurous than anything he directed himself.  But also, as a director, though I found it quite frustrating, I think The Defiant Ones is generally solid -- it ends well, at least -- and I remember quite liking Judgment at Nuremberg. That one seemed to hit the right seam for a morally serious message film, the morality being inextricably tied up with the drama, and the sprawling cast of stars kind of being justified, but either way who cares about that part.  Still, as Mark Harris points out in Pictures at a Revolution, his book about the making of the the five films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1967, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? being one of the five, the moral questions of that and other Kramer films weren't anything anybody either needed to be persuaded about or, to go in the other direction, could be persuaded about.

At his worst, though, Kramer was almost indefensible:  Ship of Fools is numbing, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? is blundering and actually kind of thoughtless, and his nadir, 1957's The Pride and the Passion, is not only ridiculous at its base, but at times just as inept as many films of about the same era that are routinely regarded as the worst films ever made.  In this sense it's at least more interesting to watch than Ship of Fools, which floats along on a hazy and dissipating cloud of general competence that, to that film's detriment, remains intact until the end.  But The Pride and the Passion is bad enough to explain Kramer's name becoming something of a punchline.  Harris quotes Kramer as arguing "All the people who say 'Messages are for Western Union' don't really mean it.  They mean, 'Messages that don't make money are for Western Union,'" and I'd say Kramer probably has a point about the hypocrisy of certain critics and Hollywood, but even if he does it's still no good because he's only dinging the hypocrites, not the ones who mean it, whose arguments remain unaddressed. Harris also quotes Pauline Kael's 1965 takedown of Kramer at length, and her line about his approach resembling "original sin meets Mr. Fixit" strikes me as not only withering, but more than fair.

So what happens when this guy decides to loosen up and have some fun?  Well.  And so to my subject.  On Tuesday, Criterion is releasing on DVD and Blu-ray It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, one of Kramer's most famous films, and the one most likely to survive with any amount of goodwill from its audience. But those generous people do not speak for all of us. The film is famous because it has a classic premise, devised by screenwriter William Rose (a veteran of Ealing Studios who wrote The Ladykillers and would go on to write Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?) -- the idea is, a gangster (Jimmy Durante) dies in a car accident, but before he dies he croaks out to a bunch of witnesses a series of clues regarding the location of a stash of money.  The instructions are very incomplete but just specific enough to inspire the witnesses, and any attendant family members, to try and find the loot and from here on out it'll be easy street.  Also part of the premise is the fact that the five witnesses are played by Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Jonathan Winters, and Mickey Rooney. Spencer Tracy is there, too, as the cop who's been working the crime that produced the hidden money in the first place (it was a tuna factory robbery, guys), and along the way Kramer adds Phil Silvers as a particularly venal and duplicitous fellow who learns about the money and makes his own way towards it, Ethel Merman as Berle's mother-in-law, Terry-Thomas as an English military man who teams up/spars with Berle, William Demarest as Tracy's chief, and he wedges in cameos, both brief and extended, by Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, Carl Reiner, Don Knotts, The Three Stooges (as they then existed) and others.  The theatrical cut of the film runs 163 minutes long.  The roadshow cut ran quite a bit longer than that, and while some of that footage is apparently gone forever, Robert Harris has restored a cut, which Criterion has included in their package, that runs 197 minutes.  It is this version that I watched today.  And goddamnit.  Jesus Christ.  Shit.

I do like the general concept of the film, which has been ripped off numerous times (this claim presupposes that it was original to Kramer and Rose, and I can't say for sure it was), and I also enjoy the early going.  Though with the overture and extensive Saul Bass-designed opening credits the actual film doesn't begin for almost seven minutes, when things do get rolling, Kramer and Rose dive right in.  Durante's car accident is the first thing that happens, and the gathering of Berle, Rooney, Winters, Caesar, and Hackett is fun, reasonably funny, and well-played all around.  I would say that pretty much all the main performances are quite good, with my favorites being those given by Silvers, naturally, and Mickey Rooney who, while decked out like a 1960s or 70s NFL coach enjoying some downtime, gives some hint at the seemingly natural on-camera skills a lifetime of hard and near-constant work in the film industry can provide.  But everyone's good.  Everyone showed up.  The fact that I can't stand Dick Shawn, who plays Merman's son and who I neglected to mention earlier, doesn't mean he didn't come to work.  That he basically plays that groovy delivery boy from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? for roughly two hours doesn't negate the fact that he did the job he was paid to do.  It was that he was paid to do it that I take issue with.

The issue, really, is the sense of humor.  And again, I think you have to question how funny can a guy be who thinks of art the way Kramer did.  In his autobiography A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World:  A Life in Hollywood, Kramer writes:

I have often been accused of making message pictures, and in a way [with It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World] I found myself making another.  This one I suppose you could call a satire on greed, though I never called it that.  (I learned from my first picture that even if you do create a satire, you had better call it something else, and comedy is the word I prefer).  In It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, all the conspirators end up in the hospital, swathed in bandages, without the treasure and header for long prison terms.  The picture says that, in one way or another, greed leads to no good.  I won't apologize for its message.  Every picture worth watching says something.

This quote is both instructive and troubling in a number of ways.  For one thing, to Kramer "greed isn't any kind of a good thing everybody" counts as a message, one he thinks it's meaningful and brave to not back away from. More alarming, obviously, is the idea that "saying something" is the only measure of artistic worth.  In the past, I've regarded Stanley Kramer and the rise and fall of his reputation as rather touching, but them's fightin' words.  That's appalling.  I would point out that it's probably also not that rare, but this makes it no less appalling.  But as they often say about large budgets, it's all up there on the screen.  Not the message so much, which is unmissable but not actively obnoxious as a sermon, but it's there in the way someone like Kramer approaches comedy.  After maybe a half hour or forty-five minutes, an air of desperate mania takes over, one further contaminated by an almost complete absence of imagination.  It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World could almost be said to have been constructed from a series of shots through windshields of comedians driving and yelling.  Sometimes gas stations made of notebook paper fall down, and sometimes cars crash, but other than that Buddy Hackett and Milton Berle in the driver's seat yelling, that's your movie.  It's run-time being anywhere between 163 and 197 minutes long is something that cannot go unacknowledged, because this thing grinds you down.

Typically nowadays you'll hear people complain about comedies being too long, brevity being the soul of such films, or so they say. I've never been convinced by the truth of hard and fast rules about any genre or form, and indeed the idea of an epic comedy is appealing to me, but only if you can pull it off.  If you can't, I almost don't even want to know about it. On their extremely informative commentary track on the Criterion disc, fans and historians of the film Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scarbo at one point try to argue the idea that It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a very funny movie but must be seen with an audience to fully appreciate it, because audiences laugh more than people watching a comedy by themselves, the whole thing feels more like an event, and so on.  I've heard this sort of thing before, and I don't doubt that there's some truth to it -- hell, I've laughed at comedies I couldn't get through a second time because I first watched them with my wife and we were both happy to be sitting there together, watching a comedy we hoped would be funny.  But I don't buy this is as a case for genuine quality.  "If it's funny, I'll laugh," Rex Reed can be heard saying at the beginning of the actually, truly funny comedy Lost in America, and he was specifically refuting the "comedies need a big audience" argument.  What he didn't add was "If it's not funny I might also laugh, if I'm with an audience, or just happy to be there."

This is a strange phenomenon that I don't claim to understand, but I think it's a real one.   Whatever's behind it has helped to fuel the currently popular bit of received wisdom that comedy is somehow more subjective than any other art form.  If you laugh, it's funny, even if I don't laugh.  Laughter being spontaneous.  You can't explain to someone who didn't laugh at a joke why the joke was funny and expect them to laugh.  It's like getting a boner, I believe someone once said, in those exact words. But of course you can't argue anyone into having any sort of emotional or spontaneous reaction after the fact, and comedy is no more or less subjective than anything else someone might wish to criticize.  And I hate the idea that it is, because it presumes -- and by the way, you get this from actual respected comedians, too -- that there is no such thing is a well-made joke, or rather that there is essentially no difference between a good joke or a bad joke.  You might as well say there's no difference between a good song or a bad song, but no one would ever say that -- they'll say it about jokes all day and night, though.  Meanwhile, there aren't a lot of good jokes in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and the film as a whole rather neatly illustrates that there is a difference, time and again.  To name but one, rather illustrative, example, take Jerry Lewis's seconds-long cameo.  In 1963 Lewis released a film of his own, his classic The Nutty Professor, and let's just say that the differences between the two films is rather illuminating, but anyhow Lewis never mugs so egregiously, or at least with so little purpose, in his own films as he does during his five seconds on screen in Kramer's.  I think explaining why Lewis is, or was, or could be (he doesn't always turn my crank either, I'll admit) funny is probably more useless than any other type of comedy criticism, mainly because it's my guess that the notion that he wasn't came from not ever bothering to watch him in the first place, but Kramer, with this wildly popular film, certainly gives the Lewis naysayers ammo.  Because all Lewis does is make a face.  Kramer reduces Lewis to making a face.  "Hey Jerry Lewis, come down here to the studio and make that face for me, that funny one, yeah that one." Lewis cashed the check and why shouldn't he, but whether he got Lewis or not, Kramer's use of him in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World betrays a misunderstanding of him, and of comedy.  Comedy is funny faces.  Here's three hours of that.


Greg F. said...

If you could see the funny face I'm making now you'd laugh your ass off. It's hilarious!

I watched this again with my youngest about three years ago and we didn't hate it. We also didn't love it and I'd be surprised if it ever gets mentioned again over the course of her entire life. I also struggled to remember scenes from the movie as I read your piece. I vaguely recall thinking Terry-Thomas was very funny with Ethel Merman but what I recall most was thinking how many great comedic actors didn't really get the opportunity to do anything very comedic.

I remember, for instance, asking myself why Jonathan Winters was in it because he didn't seem to have much of anything to do, comedy-wise, that required Jonathan Winters talents. It seems like any actor with SAG could've been hired and done much the same work.

Also, I recall that there were plenty of setups that had no punchline. I can't remember anything specifically at this point except Sid Caesar and Edie Adams in the basement trying to get out and how it seemed to be setting itself up for a big delivery, even if just a stupid one (like after all their work, someone just opens the door or they discover the key or even a really stupid payoff, like the dynamite blows up too much in the room and they get covered in molasses or something) but, no, nothing. There's no payoff at all. It's like punchlines, beyond that "kick the bucket" joke, were forbidden, like that was the challenge issued by Kramer ("Okay, boys, let's see if we can do this without a single punchline! I bet we can!").

But, generally, the film is innocuous. I guess that's its greatest sin: It's not entertainingly bad or hilariously good. It's just a really long series of fairly competent shots that amount to nothing.

bill r. said...

Yes, that's about right, although with the added bonus of understanding that for Kramer, "yelling" *was* a punchline.

What you say about Winters you could pretty much say about Caesar, too, and others, although as I said I think everybody gives a good performance. With Winters, I guess because he does an accent? And Winters did lots of characters with accents and funny voices? So he does a fairly plausible Southern accent as a joke?

But yes, no payoffs. I can't remember how the whole bit with Caesar and his wife in the hardware store ends, and I just watched it!

I also forgot to mention the...strangeness of Eddie Anderson being catapulted into the lap of a bug-eyed Lincoln statue. Ah well, another time!

Greg F. said...

Well I completely erased that from my memory and I'm probably a better person for it.

If I recall, Sid and Edie blast the dynamite and get out, exactly as would expect with no punchline. You think, "Oh, so that actually is how they got out. They blasted the door. They didn't go to all that trouble and then comically find an open window after they'd blown the whole basement up. They got out exactly as they would in a non-comedic setup. Oh. Um... okay."

And yes, the Jonathan Winters thing applies to everyone. The whole movie is made on the premise that just having funny, familiar names in the movie would make the movie funny. When, in reality, none of anyone's comic talents were needed for any of it.

bill r. said...

I would argue that Phil Silvers' were, to a degree.

John said...

Laughter isn't exactly an emotion, though. It's more of a reflex, and like any autonomic process its logic, what there is of it, may be entirely unrelated to the emotions. Genuine laughter, that is, not the forced variety.

I don't agree this necessarily leads to the idea that there is no distinction in quality between different styles of humor. But of course there are more factors to be considered than simply "good jokes" vs "bad jokes". What makes us laugh in comedy comes down to lots of factors, not just the material itself, but the delivery, the comic timing, the broader context it's part of. A dumb routine/line can be made funny by a good performer/comedian and a bad one can stomp the life out of a good one, and so on.

Andrew K. said...

First off, this s a really, really good piece of writing Bill. I like Kramer, I don't know why, and I haven't seen some of his "important" pieces but I like him even though I almost always am no fan of didactic filmmaking and art and artists who argue that art must have a message do trouble.

That said, I love the points you make about GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER even though I like it much more than you. I think it gets to two reasons why I like him in that scene with Christina and Joey and that ice-cream scene. The sort of very easy, flat normalcy of it is the main thing that's effective about the scenes. (And about the entire film.) These things don't feel seismic, just regular, and sort of silly in their own way which does make me remember at as a comedy, not a riotously hilarious one but a comedy. And, yes Katharine Houghton is giving the movie's worse performance so bigger credit to Hepburn for acting off of her so well.

All that preamble to say though the points you mention on IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAN WORLD do suggest that major issue which comes with defining what comedy is. Arguments as to what constitutes true comedy seem endless and there's always this burden of justification each comedy has to go through whereas "drama" films are never asked to be dramatic, just not a comedy.

(Oddly enough, despite the way it's been well remembered and despite liking Kramer I have never seen It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.)

bill r. said...

John - Well, laughter is partly emotional, at least, and it's also a spontaneous reaction, as I said in the piece. Your point about other factors playing into inspiring laughter is fair enough, but it's all part of the same thing: if you're laughing at performance, then there is a level of quality being unconsciously assessed, the same as if that performance was making you cry.

bill r. said...

Andrew - Thanks for commenting! Other than Drayton and some of the supporting actors, I like the performances in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER. I think the film, which I don't like very much, still gets unfairly dinged because people come after it from all angles, as if Hepburn, Tracy, and Poitier were somehow flailing about hopelessly. They're all very good, and I think that's pretty clear.

"Arguments as to what constitutes true comedy seem endless and there's always this burden of justification each comedy has to go through whereas "drama" films are never asked to be dramatic, just not a comedy."

That's true. I often hear people complain about comedies they didn't like by saying "There weren't any jokes." I may not like the movie either, but it's always very plain to me where the humor is supposed to be coming from, so I'm usually left wondering what these people mean by "jokes." Do they mean dialogue that begins "Two guys walk into a bar, one has a duck on his head..."?

As John says, the humor can come from the performance, and so the "jokes" are in the acting. GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER is, I suppose, what people at one time would have called a "dramedy"; that's a terrible word, but it does describe certain kinds of movies fairly well.