TCM Classic Film Festival 2017: Part Two, by David Bax

After yesterday’s witheringly anti-romantic Red-Headed Woman, I needed a good, old-fashioned happy ending romantic comedy. Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth fits the bill… eventually. For most of its running time, though, this divorce comedy is hilariously cynical about romance in general and marriage in particular. When the couple (Irene Dunne and Cary Grant) call their lawyer to begin the proceedings, he attempts to talk them out of it with an impassioned plea for matrimonial bliss that he repeatedly interrupts to tell his own wife to shut up. Later, when Dunne recounts the story of how the two met, she concludes with “Happily ever after, until now.” It’s both a laugh line and an incredibly sad one which Dunne, the true MVP of the picture, sells beautifully.

As a side note, The Awful Truth also belongs in the hall of fame of animal movies. The couple’s dog, charmingly named Mr. Smith, is played by the same wire fox terrier who played Asta in The Thin Man and appeared in countless other films, including a reunion with Grant in 1938’s Bringing Up Baby. For equal measure, there’s also a very cute cat who ends up a part of both a significant plot point and a fantastic visual gag.

Speaking of gags, Carl Reiner’s The Jerk is essentially nothing but. That doesn’t keep it from being a masterpiece, though. Reiner himself, at all of 95 years old, participated in a pre-screening Q&A that was often as funny as the film that followed. “They did the first preview screening somewhere where they don’t speak English. I think it was Florida,” is just one of the many zingers he blithely tossed off.

The Jerk more or less a collection of things Steve Martin finds funny wrapped around a rags to riches to rags narrative. From smart/dumb conceptual goofiness like Pizza in a Cup and cat juggling to supremely silly dialogue like Martin starting a conversation with a priest by saying, “Father, you seem like a religious man…” Reiner and Martin together create a singular world in which everyone knows how much of a buffoon Martin’s Navin R. Johnson is but no one breaks the spell by winking at the audience about it. Sure, he’s a jerk but everyone eventually comes around to liking him.

I broke the comedy spell on Saturday evening with King Vidor’s Street Scene, a 1931 stage play adaptation screened from a 35mm print and introduced by the great Leonard Maltin. This the second TCM Fest in a row in which I’ve seen Maltin intro a movie by praising its brevity. “Shakespeare said brevity is the soul of wit,” he said, “which is why we have so many half-witted movies these days.” Maltin is truly doing the Lord’s work.

Street Scene is, to put it mildly, a revelation. Its reputation as an antecedent to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is established from the opening shots, which quickly make it clear that the film’s New York City setting is a hot and humid one. Ice melts on the sidewalk, a horse swishes at flies, a dog pants, an electric fan does what little it can. Even in my air-conditioned theater seat, I began to feel a bit sticky.

Street Scene takes place almost entirely on the front stoop of a Brooklyn apartment building, as working class men and women of various religions, ethnicities and political leanings cross back and forth through one another’s lives (weird sign of the times: some characters are anti-semitic and some aren’t but all of them use the word “kike). Vidor’s cinematic touches, subtle and unsubtle alike, break things up and keep the single location story from becoming too staid. Most notable are the extreme low and high angle shots he employs when folks on the sidewalk converse with those in the windows above. But most elegant are the cutaways that never let you forget this is but one stoop in the midst of many on a busy street. Cars and trains rumble by; strangers embroiled in their own lives come to and from work; time passes. And a movie that is often a conversation between socialist and religious conservative politics becomes a fierce, living thing.

For the final slot of my Saturday, I had many options. Should I catch the 50th anniversary screening of The Graduate? Or a rare nitrate screening of one of my personal favorite films, Black Narcissus? No, there was one movie whose call I heard above the rest. I closed out my night with a viewing of the director’s cut of Top Secret!, with directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker in person.

True to their unpredictable form, the filmmakers (hereby referred to as ZAZ) turn in a director’s cut that is shorter than the original. Apparently, after a screening of the film at a recent San Francisco Sketchfest, ZAZ decided it could use a little tightening up.

I trust that they made the right decisions but Top Secret! was always a work of genius. Whereas most “spoof” movies try to stick to send-ups of a particular genre, this one tosses World War II movies, spy movies and 1960s teen musicals (Elvis, Frankie and Annette, etc.) into the mix together, resulting in a superlatively ludicrous affair that also reaches new heights for ZAZ in cinematic adventurousness and formalist prankishness. It’s not just that the movie occasionally breaks out into musical numbers (most of them Elvis songs) or even that these sequences are expertly staged, filmed and edited. No, there are also jaw-dropping moments like the scene that unfolds in a single shot that was filmed backwards and the climactic fistfight in an underwater Old West saloon.

Top Secret! is perhaps the best argument for why a festival that treats comedy with so much respect is necessary. I can’t wait to hear some more of them.

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