It's just this little chromium switch, here... (derspatchel) wrote,
It's just this little chromium switch, here...

nothing portentous or polite

TCM last night ran a three-film set featuring Zero Mostel. First was The Producers, which I've seen a zillion times and could see a zillion times more because I absolutely adore it. Mostel and Gene Wilder are perfect together, even though they both play patently manic characters: Zero's Bialystock is right upfront with his mania, but Gene Wilder, as zhym mentioned a few entries ago, plays a character desperately struggling -- and usually failing -- to repress his mania, a character type he was always so very good at. (In the musical version, Bloom's toned down almost to the point of milquetoastness in order to provide more contrast between the two leads, make him the earnest, sympathetic character, and give him the love interest. Still, he's got his neuroses, and they do send him batty from time to time.)

And while I recognize Dick Shawn's hippie character was a product of its time and embarassingly so (the "Love Flower" audition song brings the movie to a halt and is all the more stilted once you realize that Shawn's three-piece go-go girl combo seems to be playing more instruments than they have) he pulls off one of the best Hitler lines ever: "Oh, but I liebst ya, baby, I liebst ya!" He's not missed in the musical versions, but I do enjoy his sly character bits (wearing a Campbell's soup can on a necklace) over the completely unsubtle ones ("The name's Lorenzo St. DuBois, but everybody calls me LSD") which no doubt gave Brooks considerable chagrin later on.

Next up was The Front, a 1976 film I'd never seen before and was actually pretty glad to have had the opportunity to see. The film's set in the 1950s during the US entertainment industry's "Red Channels" blacklisting period, where writers, directors, actors and others were denied employment due to their involvement -- proven, insinuated, or even unsubstantiated -- with "Communist sympathizers" or leftist groups. Put it this way: There was at least one person who was blacklisted when another "suspect", speaking before the House Un-American Activities Committee, simply mentioned they knew the person in question. No question was asked about the poor bastard's political affiliations; the fact that the pinko knew the guy was proof enough to deny him work. In order to save their own careers, some artists played ball and named all the names they could, causing tremendous rifts and ruining both friendships and careers.

It's pretty rare, then, to have had a film about the blacklisting in the late 40s-early 50s made in 1976 when those wounds were still fresh and painful. Zero Mostel himself was blacklisted in 1955 and, a decade later, when tapped to play Pseudolus in the new Broadway show A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (stage productions were, for the most part, unaffected by the scourge) was asked if he would be okay working with Jerome Robbins, one of those who had named names. "Of course," Mostel courteously responded. "The Left doesn't blacklist." (This gracious attitude, however, did not stop him from greeting Robbins the first day on the rehearsals with "Hiya, Loose Lips!")

However, the rifts were still open even forty years later; when Elia Kazan (who also opted to name names) accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1999 Oscars, a number of celebrities refused to applaud and the cameras recorded their grim faces as they sat on their hands. (However, the majority of the audience did applaud Kazan, however politely and restrained.)

The Front was written and directed by two blacklisted men, and featured other blacklisted actors in roles, giving the film not only somewhat historical accuracy but a way to present their personal feelings and frustations as well. (Each blacklisted artist was noted in the closing credits.) Zero Mostel shows up as an old, beloved comedian who is ultimately done in by the stigmata forced upon him by the HUAC and reduced, as Mostel must have been during part of the 1950s, to performing small-change gigs in, say, the Catskills for $250.00 a go. But he's not the focus of the film. The film stars Woody Allen as an uneducated mensch, a cashier at a local lunch counter who's approached by an old school friend, now a blacklisted television writer, and given a proposition: If Allen submits his friend's work under his own name, he'll get a cut of each sale.

The film starts out, then, as a typical impostor comedy. What will happen when Allen's forced to meet with the television producers after his scripts go over well? What will happen when the producers sit him down at the station and force him to make re-writes with minutes to spare before a live broadcast? And what about the woman he falls in love with at the network, who may be falling in love with him for his work? Will success change him, especially when other blacklisted writers decide to use his services as well? You know, all that rot. To his credit, Woody Allen plays his usual nebbish very low-key, retaining some of his neuroses and lines ("Swimming's not a sport, it's what you do so that you don't drown") while trying quite hard to play it straight for the most part. I was impressed.

But then the film takes a serious turn and dives into the dark comedy. Mostel's character is assigned by the "Freedom Information" chairman (Joseph McCarthy is not named in the movie and I think the HUAC is also very rarely mentioned by name) to befriend Allen and dig up dirt on him. Allen is moved to do something after a blacklisted actor commits suicide, and he watches with amazement and fearful disbelief as HUAC agents actually take clandestine photographs of those who attend the funeral.

The blacklisted writers become conflicted when Allen is eventually subpoenaed -- they want him to stick to his principles and involve the Fifth Amendment to protect himself from self-incrimination, but on the other hand, if he plays ball and reads a prepared anti-communist statement, he may be allowed to continue "writing" those scripts, keeping everybody in the green. Allen eventually turns in a brilliant display of doubletalk and confusion when speaking before the committee while neither confirming nor denying anything ("Do you know an Alfred Miller?" "Well, uh, the way I see it, uh, how well can you really know someone?") and some of his exchanges pretty much echo actual transcripts as actors did their best to confound the committees. Zero Mostel's actual deposition contained an unbelievably surreal semantic argument with a HUAC member over how and when he could hypothetically perform "an imitation of a butterfly at rest" and was told not to "...have such an urge to put the butterfly at rest by putting money in the Communist Party coffers as a result of that urge to put the butterfly at rest."

The film is not perfect -- the blacklisted, of course, are all noble men, while the HUAC goons are all complete and utter slimy bastards. I know in real life there must have been at least one HUAC member working full in the knowledge that while he was ruining lives and careers, he was also firm in his belief that he was actually doing good for his country and not just getting his jollies by bullying people around and having entire networks do his bidding. But that would create sympathy for the character, and sympathy, the screenplay deemed, would not be for them. It's just as well, for the whole point of the piece, as Allen begins to realize near the end, is that these men were indeed bullying around the mass culture of an entire nation on such little to go on and precious little authority to begin with. "And it only takes one person," he says to the network producer in an attempt to stave off interrogation, "to just stand up and say no, I'm not going to do this."

The producer tries his hand at that and, well, ultimately, it's Allen to gets to stand up and say no, and does so with an incredible parting shot which starts off as a normal denial and, in the space of just a few brief words, turns into a swift knockout blow. The subsequent closing sequence (no dialogue, just set to Sinatra singing "Young At Heart") is also brilliantly executed, making me almost think it was a Rupert Pupkin-esque fantasy from The King of Comedy when, in reality, it mirrored similar scenes that actually happened during the blacklist era. Again, I'm glad to have watched it.

The third film was indeed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and I must confess it started so late that I couldn't watch the entire thing, not as sleepy as I was. Richard Lester's a brilliant comedic director but there are parts of Forum where he makes zillions of quick split-second cuts all in a row in the hopes that it'd gain a laugh, and maybe it did to an audience which was mostly awake, but to me it was irritating. I do enjoy watching Mostel, Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton and Jack Gilford in whatever I can see them in (and, indeed, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is playing tonight at the Brattle and I may just go if I can convince myself to stay awake) so it was nice to see them do their thing in Roman getup, even if most of the schtick in the film is now dated in that Las Vegas/Catskills/Va-va-va-VOOM sort of way (a light shade of misogynistic, let's say.) I think I got as far as "Everybody Ought To Have A Maid", not Sondheim's finest hour, and Keaton's character returning from his "long journey in search of his children who were kidnapped by pirates at an early age" before I hit the remote and rolled over, but not before realizing--

--why did Pseudolus, in soothsayer's garb to distract Keaton, require Jack Gilford's character covertly coaching him on Keaton's backstory during his soothsaying ("I see you were... searching! Yes, searching for two... two babies! One was a... a boy! And the other ... the other was ... a strange boy! No, a girl!") when he already knew the story and had told it to us during the "Comedy Tonight" prologue?

No matter. Zero could get away with anything anyway.

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