Sunday, August 18, 2019

Hauer vs. Stallone in "Nighthawks"

Rutger Hauer & Sylvester Stallone
Rutger Hauer is best known for his portrayal of the replicant Roy Batty in the classic science-fiction film Blade Runner. He actually helped write part of the character’s memorable and oft-quoted “tears in the rain” speech, which was featured in the film’s climax. Hauer, who passed away in July, was a versatile actor, adept at playing both heroes and villains. He was featured in a variety of films, such as Ladyhawke, The Hitcher, Blind Fury, Confessions of A Dangerous Mind, and Batman Begins. Hauer also appeared in quite a few made for television movies and series, including Escape From Sobibor, Fatherland, Smallville, True Blood, and Galavant. He was born in the Netherlands, and began his career acting in Dutch films, most notably Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange and Spetters, often working with director Paul Verhoeven, who later cast him as a mercenary in the medieval adventure Flesh & Blood. Hauer made his American film debut in the 1981 thriller Nighthawks. The movie is about a pair of New York City cops (played by Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams) who match wits with a wily terrorist named Wulfgar, portrayed by Hauer.

NYPD detectives Deke DaSilva (Stallone) and Matthew Fox (Williams) are re-assigned to a newly created task force when international terrorist Heymar Reinhardt (aka Wulfgar) goes rogue and is reported to be in New York. DaSilva and Fox are tasked to work with Scotland Yard Inspector Hartman, who has been tracking Wulfgar for years. The driven, obsessed Hartman tries to impress upon the detectives that Wulfgar is an amoral, cold-blooded and violent killer, and they’ll have be just as ruthless as he is in order to stop him. As Wulfgar cuts a violent path across the city, DaSilva, Fox and Hartman hunt him and his partner, Shakka. The cops and the Scotland Yard inspector tangle with them at various locations, including a disco, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in an exciting sequence, the Roosevelt Island tram system. But Wulfgar continues to evade capture, taunting our heroes and escaping them at every turn. It all culminates in a climactic showdown between DaSilva and Wulfgar when the villain threatens the detective’s estranged wife, Irene.

Nighthawks had a troubled history. The film’s initial director was Gary Nelson, who helmed the original Freaky Friday and The Black Hole for Disney. Nelson was fired from the project early on, and replaced by Bruce Malmuth. According to some sources, Stallone also directed a number of scenes during production. The movie was also re-edited before release to focus more on Stallone’s character, and to tone down some of the more graphic violence. On the plus side, film was made before the digital age, so what you’re seeing on screen is real, not CGI. Stallone actually did most of his own stunts. The movie also benefits greatly from Hauer’s intense, chilling performance as Wulfgar. He and Stallone make great adversaries, and you can feel the sparks fly between them onscreen. The rest of the cast is also very effective, including Nigel Davenport as Inspector Hartman, Lindsay Wagner as Irene and Persis Khambatta (Lt. Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture) as Shakka. Character actor Joe Spinell (who often played mobsters and villains) appears as the detectives NYPD boss, Lieutenant Munafo, and Catherine Mary Stewart (Night of the Comet) has a small role as a salesgirl in a sequence set in London early in the film.

Nighthawks is a riveting, fast-paced thriller. The location filming, strong performances and the exciting action sequences add to the film’s gritty, realistic tone. The pulsating score was composed by Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame. The movie was modestly successful on its original run, but gained more fans when it was shown regularly on cable and broadcast television during the 1980s. Hauer’s career in the United States took off after his roles in Nighthawks and Blade Runner, and he worked steadily in film and television until his recent passing. He also founded an AIDS awareness organization, The Starfish Association, and supported several environmental groups, including the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Nighthawks has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnvbtAoucPU.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Remembering David Hedison in "The Fly"

David Hedison, who passed away in July, is well known to genre fans for his role as Captain Lee Crane on the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. The show, created by producer Irwin Allen, originally ran from 1964-68, and was very popular in syndication during the 1970s and 80s. In addition to his role on Voyage, Hedison played James Bond’s friend and ally, CIA agent Felix Leiter, in two 007 adventures, Live and Let Die and Licence to Kill; he was the first actor to portray the character more than once. He also starred in the eerie 1973 television film, The Cat Creature, written by Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, and appeared opposite his Live and Let Die co-star Roger Moore in the high seas action adventure film, ffolkes, also known as North Sea Hijack. Hedison guest starred on a plethora of TV series in the 70s and 80s, including Charlie’s Angels, Hart to HartSimon and Simon and The A-Team.

Patricia Owens & David Hedison
One of his most fondly remembered roles is as the star of the 1958 sci-fi thriller, The Fly. The actor, then billed as Al Hedison, stars as scientist Andre Delambre. He has a loving wife, Helene, and a young son named Philippe. Andre is working on an invention that can teleport matter from one place to another, much like the transporter device later seen in Star Trek. The problem is the machine has some kinks in it. During test runs, it reverses the logo on a plate, and seemingly sends the family cat to another dimension. Delambre presses on with his research, and eventually tries the device on himself. That turns out to be a very ill-advised decision, as a fly gets into the transport chamber with him, and Delambre and the fly swap body parts. Now Andre has the head and arm of a fly, and vice versa. Andre eventually reveals his condition to Helene, and asks for her help. The race is on to locate the half-human fly so the process can (hopefully) be reversed. 

The film is structured like a mystery and begins in the aftermath of Andre’s death. The story is told in flashback, as Helene tells the fantastic tale of Andre’s scientific mishap. As she relates the events leading up to her husband’s death to police Inspector Charas and Andre’s brother Francois, the men feel certain that she’s gone mad. Then the terrible truth is revealed in the movie’s terrifying conclusion. Hedison is quite good as Andre, and he and Patricia Owens (who plays Helene) have a nice chemistry portraying the couple, who clearly have great affection for one another. The character of Andre is less stuffy than the typical movie scientist, though he’s still quite obsessed with his research. By the way, that's Hedison, not a stand-in, in the fly makeup throughout the film. The moment where Andre's "fly" head is revealed is one of the more iconic moments in 1950s sci-fi,  along with the terrifying finale. Anyone who saw the film in their younger days, either in theaters or on TV, remembers the chilling words “Help Meeeee!” 

The Fly is based on a short story by George Langelaan, which was adapted by James Clavell. Yes, the same James Clavell who later wrote Shogun. He was a busy screenwriter during the late 1950s and early to mid 1960s, working on films such as The Great EscapeThe Satan Bug, and To Sir, With Love. The literate script, solid production values, and excellent cast, which also includes Vincent Price as Francois and Herbert Marshall as Charas, help elevate the film's quality. It's also in color, like the similarly A-level productions Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth, a rarity for 1950s sci-fi and horror films. The film was directed by Kurt Neumann, who also helmed Rocketship X-M and a trio of Tarzan films starring Johnny Weismuller. Originally, Michael Rennie (Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still) was offered the the part of Andre, but declined to take on the role.

The movie spawned two sequels, Return of the Fly (without Hedison, but with Vincent Price reprising his role) and Curse of the Fly. The film was remade (or perhaps, it's better to say re-imagined) by director David Cronenberg in 1986. That creepier, more graphic version starred Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. Also titled The Fly, the success of the new version also begat a sequel, The Fly II, featuring Eric Stolz in the title role. But for a whole generation of baby boomer and Gen X kids brought up on Saturday afternoon and late-night showings of the original on TV, David (Al) Hedison will always be The Fly. By the way Hedison and co-star Vincent Price later appeared together on an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea entitled "The Deadly Dolls," featuring Price as a (what else?) villainous puppeteer. The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray. Here's a link to the trailer for The Flyhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hdv4QA-O1bg.


Sunday, August 4, 2019

"Legends" Brings Fun to the Arrowverse

Legends of Tomorrow, which premiered during the 2015-2016 TV season, began as a dual spinoff of the CW network's Arrow and The Flash, featuring characters introduced on both of those series, as well as some additional heroes and villains from the DC universe. The team included White Canary, The Atom, Captain Cold and Firestorm, as well as Hawkman and Hawkgirl. The first season of the show saw the super-team, led by Time Master Rip Hunter (played by Dr. Who veteran Arthur Darvill) face off against Vandal Savage, an immortal villain who is manipulating the timeline so he can control the world. They chased Savage across time in order to stop him, having adventures in both the past, present and future. The series was generally well-received by fans, but many felt the main storyline was weak, and that a subplot regarding Hawkman and Hawkgirl's reincarnation (and their connection to Savage) was never properly developed.

For its second season, the series re-tooled a bit, dropping some cast members and adding a couple of new ones. The show also brought in some villains from the other "Arrowverse" series, including Damien Darhk and Malcolm Merlyn, who team up with the Reverse-Flash to form the Legion of Doom, a nice in-joke for Justice League fans. As the villains searched for the mystical artifact known as the Spear of Destiny, which has the power to re-write the timeline, the team followed them across history, interacting with real life figures like George Washington, Al Capone, and in an inspired and very funny episode, a young filmmaker named George Lucas! Legends of Tomorrow really hit its stride in its second year, playing to its strong points; the dysfunctional family aspect (and offbeat chemistry) of its rag-tag cast of heroes, a healthy dose of humor, a devil may care attitude regarding the rules, and a stylish sense of adventure amid the science-fiction and fantasy elements.


For year three, the series continued embracing its strengths, as the team searched for disruptions in the timeline which had been caused by their actions in the previous seasons, running into characters like P.T. Barnum, Blackbeard the Pirate, Elvis Presley and Helen of Troy. The main villain or "big bad" this time out was a powerful demonic figure known as Mallus, which allowed the team to bring in John Constantine (a DC Comics magic-based character who had appeared in a short-lived NBC series) as a recurring member of the team. The show's playful sense of humor, and the series writers penchant for a host of meta-textual references continued as actor John Noble (of Fringe and Lord of the Rings fame) played himself in a terrific episode entitled "Starring John Noble!"

The fourth season of the show, which completed its run this past May, featured the Legends' wildest adventures yet, as it showcased the team searching for magical creatures who have been displaced in time, and allowed the characters to visit Woodstock, the Salem Witch trials and even pay a visit to 1950s Japan, where they met up with Ishiro Honda, the legendary director of the original Godzilla. This past season's main storyline allowed the show's writers to pen some marvelous parodies of Disney's fairy godmothers, Charlie's Angels, The A-Team and even turn our heroes into singing puppets at one point - yes, you did read that right. And to add to the fun, Tom Wilson (Biff from the Back To The Future films) appeared as the father of one of the team members, and he even got to sing a James Taylor song - you'll have to watch to find out how that figures into the plot!

All in all, Legends of Tomorrow is a whole lot of fun. It's certainly the wildest, most inventive and pop culture aware of the CW series. The cast is terrific, anchored by Caity Loitz as Sarah Lance/White Canary, Dominic Purcell as Mick Rory/Heat Wave and Brandon Routh as Ray Palmer/The Atom. Routh (who portrayed Superman in the 2006 film Superman Returns) has a nice sense of comic timing; he's perfect in the role. The concept of keeping the core of the team intact while bringing in new characters and guest stars from across the DC Comics Universe really works in the show's favor. If you're looking for some light-hearted superhero action with a touch of the offbeat and bizarre, Legends of Tomorrow is worth a try. The series is currently streaming its past seasons on Netflix. Here's a link to the trailer for season four: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqRZJgA_IqM. The show returns next year, and will be part of the epic "Crisis on Infinite Earths" cross-over on the CW superhero series in the upcoming season.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Robert Cummings, Peter Lorre and Steve Cochran Take a Wild Ride in "The Chase"

The Chase (1946) is an offbeat, twisty thriller which tells the story of Chuck Scott, a down and out war veteran who’s drifting around Miami looking for work. He finds a lost wallet, and after taking out just enough money to buy himself a meal, returns it to its owner. It turns out that owner is Eddie Roman, a hot-tempered “businessman” (aka gangster), who’s duly impressed by Chuck’s honesty when he admits he removed some money before giving back the wallet. The volatile Roman offers Chuck a job as his driver, and he accepts. He learns how just crazy the gangster can be when Eddie uses a device in the rear of his car to assume control of the vehicle while Chuck’s driving, and pushes the car to high and very dangerous speeds. This act frightens both Chuck and the car’s other passenger, Gino, Eddie’s bodyguard and associate. Chuck later meets Eddie’s wife, Lorna. She appears to be a virtual prisoner of her husband, and is kept locked up in the house, except when Eddie requires her to appear with him as arm candy at social events. The one exception is when Eddie allows her to take a ride in the car every evening. Chuck drives Lorna to the beach, where she confides in him that she’s tired of her lonely existence, and Eddie’s violent mood swings. Chuck is attracted to Lorna, and immediately agrees to help her escape Eddie’s clutches.

Robert Cummings, Peter Lorre & Steve Cochran
are out for a little spin in The Chase
The couple flee to Havana, but while they are dancing in a nightclub, Lorna is stabbed and killed. Chuck is blamed for the crime, and apprehended by the police. All the available evidence points to him as Lorna’s killer. At the same time, Eddie dispatches Gino to find the runaway lovers. Chuck realizes there is a piece of evidence that may help clear him; a photograph taken at the club. He evades the police and searches out the photographer, but Gino finds Chuck and kills him. Or does he? Suddenly, Chuck wakes up, and we learn that much of what we’ve seen since just before the trip to Havana was a dream. Not only does Chuck suffer from what we’d now call PTSD, he’s having memory issues as well. It turns out he suddenly quit his job as Eddie’s driver earlier that evening, leaving Lorna to wonder what happened to him. Chuck can’t remember anything, and visits his military doctor, Commander Davidson, asking for help. Meanwhile, Eddie and Gino are wondering why Chuck has suddenly disappeared, and they think it might be best to permanently remove him from the picture, especially if he’s overheard anything about Eddie’s shady business dealings. That’s when things get even more interesting. To say too much about what occurs would ruin the effectiveness of the film’s third act twists and surprises. Suffice it to say that everything that’s been building in the plot up to this point comes to a head, as the intertwined fates of Eddie, Lorna and Chuck are decided once and for all.

The Chase is a fast-paced thriller that is a combination of “wrongly accused” man dramas, gangster stories and noir-infused tales of lovers on the run. The movie is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, whose work was adapted for a number of films, including Phantom Lady (one of the finest noirs ever made), Black Angel, and the Val Lewton produced thriller The Leopard Man. The screenplay by prolific scribe Philip Yordan (The Black BookThe Big Combo) alters some elements of Woolrich’s original novel, The Black Path of Fear, adding in the “war veteran with amnesia” angle featured in movies like The Blue Dahlia and High Wall. The effective direction is by Arthur Ripley, who was actually best known for his work on Mack Sennett comedies. He brings a nice aura of impending doom to the proceedings, and the excellent cinematography by Frank F. Planer gives the film a closed in, claustrophobic atmopshere. As for the cast, Robert Cummings is quite good as the perplexed hero, and Michele Morgan (a French actress who never quite got her due in the United States) adds an ethereal air to the somewhat under-written role of Lorna. But it’s the villains who steal the show here. Steve Cochran gives a full throttle performance as the edgy, unpredictable Eddie. The part feels like a template for some of the tough guy roles Cochran would play throughout his career in crime dramas such as Private Hell 36. Peter Lorre is genuinely creepy as Gino, adding real depth to what could have been a second-rate henchman part. Jack Holt and Nina Koshetz are also memorable in supporting roles.

The film’s offbeat blend of styles is intriguing and genuinely compelling. Noir maven Eddie Muller has been quoted as saying that the movie is “the closest thing to a David Lynch film made during the classical Hollywood era” and that assessment is perfectly accurate. The mix of quirky and offbeat characterizations, left-field plot twists, and the surreal, fever-dream structure of the movie definitely feels a bit Lynchian. The film also pre-sages some of the wild, twist-heavy mystery thrillers of the 1980s and 1990s, with a dash of art house style thrown in for good measure. The Chase runs 86 minutes, and at that express train pace, you might just feel like you’re being swept along on Chuck’s dark journey of the soul. The movie is somewhat underrated in the noir pantheon; it’s definitely worth a look for fans of the genre. The Chase had been in the public domain for years, and was often released in awful, unwatchable editions on DVD, but it has now been restored by The Film Foundation, and is available in a fantastic edition on Blu-ray from Kino-Lorber. The extra features include a commentary by filmmaker Guy Maddin, and audio for two radio adaptations of the story. This post is part of the The Noirathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. I want to thank her for letting me take a walk through the shadowy corners of film noir with my fellow bloggers. You can find out more about the blogathon, and check out the entries, by following this link: https://maddylovesherclassicfilms.wordpress.com/2019/03/15/announcing-the-noirathon/.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Yesterday: A Beatles Themed Love Story

The Beatles are one of the best-loved, most influential bands in rock and roll history. It seems like every new generation embraces their music as family members and friends introduce it to them. The Fab Four have influenced countless bands, and numerous books have been written about them. Their music has been featured in movies, television shows and on the Broadway stage. But what if the Beatles never existed, and Beatlemania never happened? That’s the intriguing concept of the movie Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire) and written by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love, Actually). Jack Malik is a struggling musician and songwriter who can’t seem to get his career off the ground. His longtime friend and manager, Ellie Appleton, encourages him not to give up on his dreams, despite his lack of success.

Himesh Patel
One night, while bicycling home from a gig, Jack is struck by a bus during an odd global blackout that only lasts a few seconds. After being released from the hospital, he’s visiting with Ellie and some other friends, who give him a guitar to replace the one that was damaged in the accident. They encourage him to play a song, and he performs “Yesterday.” Everyone thinks Jack wrote the song, and praises him for it. Jack tries to tell them it’s a Beatles song, but they’ve never heard of a group called The Beatles. After some quick internet research, Jack realizes he’s woken up in a world where The Beatles never existed, and he’s the only one who remembers their music.

Jack co-opts The Beatles songs, and begins recording and performing them, claiming they’re his own compositions. Of course, people love the music. Suddenly, he’s a huge star, opening for acts like Ed Sheeran, and being courted by Sheeran’s agent, who wants to take him to Los Angeles to record an album. But Jack’s newfound success is driving a wedge between himself and Ellie, who he’s secretly been in love with for years. Will his fame destroy any chance he had for happiness with her? Is there a chance she’s in love with him, too? And what if someone finds out that he really didn’t write these amazing songs? Everything comes to a head at a huge concert even that could change Jack’s life forever.

The film is a light, enjoyable romantic comedy very much in the vein of screenwriter Curtis’ other work, such as Notting Hill, with the “world without The Beatles” story as a colorful concept to build the love story around. The movie clearly illustrates the enduring power of The Fab Four’s music. Most of the songs are sung and played solo in the film by Himesh Patel (who portrays Jack), and even stripped of the group dynamic, the music loses none of its power. One of the songs that is played in a group setting is “Help!” which is effectively used in a sequence where Jack is clearly at a crossroads, much as John Lennon was when he wrote it. There are some neat Easter eggs for Beatles fans, and there’s a touching cameo at the end of the film that has annoyed some reviewers, who feel it doesn't ring true. I think it works very well within the framework of the story. As a lifelong Beatle fan, it brought a tear to my eye.

Danny Boyle’s direction is excellent, and he gets good work from the cast, with Patel as Jack and Lily James as Ellie offering strong, affecting performances. Ed Sheeran shows he has a good sense of humor while spoofing himself, and Kate McKinnon is deliciously nasty as the agent who wants to exploit Jack. The screenplay by Richard Curtis, from a story by Curtis and Jack Barth, maintains just the right balance of lightness with a touch of drama. It’s never fully explained just why the strange blackout happens, but I think the story is meant to be viewed as something of a lighthearted fantasy. In fact, it reminded me a bit of one of my favorite films by Boyle, 2004’s Millions, which is worth checking out if you haven’t seen it.

Yesterday is a delightful film with a soundtrack chock full of Beatles classics, strong direction, a clever story, and solid performances. The film never takes the music of The Beatles lightly, and uses their unforgettable songs to tell an enjoyable, lighter than air tale about love, fame and music. The film is finishing up its run in theaters, and a video release should be announced soon. Once it is released on home video, I’d suggest a double feature with Robert Zemeckis’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), about a group of friends trying to see The Beatles first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, to get the flip side of what Beatlemania was like. Here’s a link to the full trailer for Yesterday: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HY0GBmOxyYY.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Little Steven's Rockin' Soul Power

Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul - photo by John V
Little Steven, aka Steven Van Zandt, is an iconic figure in the New Jersey rock and roll scene, thanks to the unforgettable music he’s created with Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny. He’s also an actor, best known for his role as Silvio Dante on The Sopranos. Van Zandt’s output as a solo artist is also worth noting; his powerful work has often raised awareness on political issues like apartheid as much as it’s dealt with matters of love. On Tuesday night, Van Zandt and his band, The Disciples of Soul, strode onto the stage at New Haven’s College Street Music Hall and treated the audience to an amazing show. Kicking things off with the love and brotherhood anthem “Communion” from his latest album, Summer of Sorcery, Little Steven and the band blazed through almost two and a half hours of thrilling rock and soul, tossing in a dash of funk and reggae for good measure.

The concert was a fantastic trip through Van Zandt’s catalogue, combining a generous helping of cuts from Summer of Sorcery with music from throughout his career, including a stunning take on  “Los Desaparecidos.” One of the high points of the show was a three-song salute to Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, featuring “Little Girl So Fine,” followed by “Trapped Again” and a terrific run through of “Love on the Wrong Side of Town.” That tasty trio of classic tunes brought the audience to their feet, on a night where the crowd sang and danced along for much of the show. Van Zandt followed those songs with a knockout version of “A World of Our Own,” one of the best tracks on Summer of Sorcery, which recalls the Phil Spector Wall of Sound and the girl group-style harmonies of the 1960s.

Van Zandt said during the concert that he was mostly staying away from politics this time out, as he wanted the audience to enjoy themselves for a couple of hours, and forget about their troubles. But he did take some time out to praise teachers for their commitment (and apologized for everything he put his own teachers through in high school) just before performing the song “Education” and spoke briefly about women’s rights and the true nature of patriotism. Van Zandt and the band also treated us to a reggae-infused take on “I Am A Patriot,” a song that was famously covered by Jackson Browne. Other high points in a show filled with them were a down and dirty version of “I Visit The Blues” and the gloriously funky numbers “Gravity” and “Vortex.” Van Zandt’s vocals sounded great, and he provided some excellent guitar work as well.

Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul - photo by John V
The super-sized band was top notch, featuring a wide array of guitarists, horn players and percussionists, as well as a terrific trio of backup singers. Van Zandt took an extra moment to introduce keyboard player Lowell Levinger, a veteran of the 1960s band The Youngbloods. Little Steven then led the crowd in a brief sing along of their hit “Get Together,” and urged everyone to get their hands on a Youngbloods album by “downloading it, no streaming!” Little Steven is a music lover and fan (he has his own Sirius XM channel, the Underground Garage) and he spoke throughout the night about the artists who inspired him and the songs that shaped his generation. He's a rocker with the heart of a soul man who's truly passionate about his music.

As the incredible evening of music edged toward its climax, the band ripped through the guitar-energized rocker “Superfly Terraplane” and slowed things back down for a lovely version of “Forever” to end the night. But that wasn’t really the end of the show, as the unbelievable encore included some dancing (on and off stage) for the enjoyable “Soul Power Twist” and a passionate audience sing along on “Sun City” a song that Van Zandt said “helped bring down an evil empire,” when it was originally released in 1985. The outstanding and dazzling night of music ended with a soulful version of “Out of the Darkness.” College Street Music Hall (one of the best music venues in the New Haven area) was the perfect place to see Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. I encourage you to check out other shows there, and to see the Little Steven and band on the road this summer. It's a rock and soul filled musical experience you won't soon forget!

Monday, July 15, 2019

Looking Back at "Caddyshack"

Caddyshack was only a modest hit at the time of its original release, but it’s now considered a comedy classic. The R-rated movie about the hijinks at the fictional Bushwood Country Club has a ton of quotable dialogue, several funny set pieces and a terrific cast featuring Chevy Chase, Ted Knight and Rodney Dangerfield. Oh, and there’s that ongoing (and escalating) battle between Bill Murray’s volatile groundskeeper and an animatronic gopher. The film was part of a cycle of genre-redefining comedies that were released in the late 1970 and early 1980s, which also included National Lampoon’s Animal House, Meatballs, Airplane! and The Blues Brothers. The fascinating behind the scenes story of the film’s creation is chronicled in Chris Nashawaty’s marvelous book, Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story.

In the 1970s, things were changing in the world of comedy. The old guard, personified by long-time icons such as Bob Hope, was giving way to a new era, energized by the inventive work of up and coming comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor. On television, Saturday Night Live and SCTV were breaking ground with their go for broke sketches and harder-edged content. On the big screen, a little movie called National Lampoon’s Animal House had scored big at the box office by appealing to a younger audience with its lowbrow humor and goofy but lovable ensemble, featuring John Belushi, Tim Matheson and Peter Reigert. One of the writers of that film, Douglas Kenney, had co-founded the original National Lampoon magazine, and was looking to work on other big-screen projects.

Along with Harold Ramis and Brian Doyle-Murray, Kenney wrote the screenplay for Caddyshack, which was largely based on the experiences of Doyle-Murray and his brothers working as caddies in their younger days, with additional input from Ramis and Kenney. Originally the story was about the misadventures of the caddies, but as time wore on the focus shifted to the characters that were eventually played by Ted Knight, Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield. In the original script, the Bill Murray character didn’t even exist; he was added later as the writers expanded the plot, adding more over the top humor and a “snobs vs. slobs” vibe to the story. Nashawaty deftly covers the full span of the film’s journey from its inception to the chaotic production of the movie, a drug-fueled party that was apparently as wild and anarchic as the antics depicted onscreen.

Another intriguing aspect of the book is the look at the interactions of the movie’s stars and production crew. Chase, Dangerfield and Murray were improvisational in nature, a trait which rankled the by the book Knight, who was also less than thrilled at the party atmosphere on (and off) set. Nashawaty also offers incisive mini-biographies of Chase, Murray and Dangerfield, all of whom had a lot riding on the film, for different reasons. He exhaustively covers the post-production phase of the movie, detailing how the initial four-hour cut was re-shaped in the editing room by first-time director Ramis and several collaborators, resulting in the memorable comedy that has gone on to a long life via cable showings and home video releases. There are revealing interviews with the cast and crew, offering frank and honest recollections of the film’s production. They provide some great stories regarding a wild and wooly time in Hollywood that doesn't exist anymore.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book is the story of the rise and fall of Douglas Kenney, a brilliant, haunted individual who desperately wanted to succeed as a writer and filmmaker, but was eventually consumed by his own demons. Nashawaty gives the reader an insightful look at Kenney, seen through the prism of his time at the National Lampoon, and his brief tenure in Hollywood, working on Animal House and CaddyshackKenney's story is entwined with a perceptive study of how the world of comedy changed in the 1970s and 80s, culminating in a spate of films like Caddyshack. This skillfully written book is a thorough, comprehensive look at how a film is created, from the early versions of a story, right on through to its final release in theaters. Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story is an enjoyable and illuminating read.