By Richard Winters
My Rating: 3 out of 10
4-Word Review: Two movies in one.
Initially, the unique concept for this film seems intriguing. The idea was to recreate the movie viewing experience of the 30’s and 40’s by having a double bill feature along with theatrical trailers in between. The stories would have all the clichés, storylines, and characters from films of that era, but done with a tongue and cheek approach. The same core performers including: George C. Scott, his actress wife Trish Van Devere, Red Buttons, Art Carney, and Eli Wallach would play different characters in all the stories much like doing skits on a variety show. Legendary director Stanley Donen, famous for such films as Singing in the Rain, Royal Wedding, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, would direct and the screenplay would be written by Larry Gelbert best known for writing Oh God! and Tootsie.
Unfortunately, it never really takes off. Part of the reason is that the parody is too restrained. There are a few funny lines here and there, but that is about it. This was released two years before the Zucker brother’s groundbreaking hit Airplane that redefined parody and still stands as the standard today. This film doesn’t even come close to that. In fact certain audiences that saw this movie in other countries didn’t get the wry, gentle humor at all and took it seriously. I got the feeling that Gelbert and Donen had gone to the theaters as kids and watched these same types of films. Their affection and nostalgia for this stuff is clearly evident and prevented them from unleashing the over-the-top, in your face farce that would have really made this hilarious and is what most audiences of today expect.
The first feature is entitled ‘Dynamite Hands’ and is a story about a young boxer from the 30’s named Joey Popchik (Harry Hamlin, in his film debut) who becomes a prizefighter in order to pay for his kid sister’s (Kathleen Quinlan) eye operation. This segment features all the expected clichés, but the subtle humor that is injected fails to make it seem fresh or interesting. It was shot in color, but I felt black and white would have been better. The one thing I did like was Hamlin who these days seems pretty washed-up as he appears almost exclusively in direct to video fare, or dumb reality shows with his fat-lipped wife. Yet here he is right on target with his portrayal of the naïve, wet-behind-the-ears, All-American kid and I enjoyed it. Wallach is also fun as the heavy.
The middle segment is a mock theatrical trailer called “Zero Hour” that features Wallach, Scott, and Buttons as WWI flying aces. This was shot in black and white, but is brief and unexceptional. I was disappointed that there wasn’t any silly newsreel footage as this was also a mainstay in theaters during the time and could’ve been a riot.
The third part is a send-up of all the old Busby Berkley musicals and is entitled “Baxter’s Beauties of 1933”. Scott, who is nicely hammy, plays a famous Broadway producer named Spats Baxter that finds out he is dying from a very rare illness and has only a month to live. He decides to go out on top by putting on the most lavish musical show that he can. Again, like with the others, this segment is a disappointment. The musical numbers, which were choreographed by Michael Kidd, are poorly photographed and with the exception of one routine done on a giant roulette wheel fail to match the spectacular and extravagant quality of Berkley’s. Van Devere’s kitschy performance as an alcoholic, tyrannical leading lady is the only thing that saves it. Gifted actress Barbra Harris is completely wasted in a thankless role of one of the chorus girls that doesn’t take any advantage of her talents.
George Burns, who is credited as the film’s ‘host’, appears only briefly at the beginning, but I would have liked to have seen more of him.
The cast and crew clearly had more fun making this than the viewer had in watching it. The formula is followed too closely and the result is tedium. Even if you are a fan of films from that period I would still not suggest this as the originals are far better.
My Rating: 3 out of 10
Released: November 3, 1978
Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes
Director: Stanley Donen
Studio: ITC Entertainment
Available: Amazon Instant Video