In Praise of Comedy Films That Aren't Funny
A look at the rather funnily not funny films, Blast-Off and Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood.
Blast-OffDirector: Don Sharp
Cast: Burl Ives, Troy Donahue
Distributor: Olive Films
DVD Release date: 2017-03-21
Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved HollywoodDirector: Michael Winner
Cast: Bruce Dern, Madeline Kahn
Distributor: Olive Films
DVD Release date: 2017-03-21
Two recent Blu-rays, released on the same day and by the same company, coincidentally fulfilled a childhood yearning that's lasted for more than four decades. That's how long I've waited to see these wacky comedies and I'm so glad finally to watch them. They aren't funny.
Let me explain. As a child, I made it my vocation to watch any movie that was supposed to be funny. I scanned the TV listings and I called the local theatre's recorded schedule. If it was some kind of comedy, I was there. According to my memory, I enjoyed every one of them. I enjoyed Disney fantasies about football-playing mules and pirate ghosts, and I enjoyed PBS showings of Major Barbara (1941) and Ingmar Bergman's The Devil's Eye (1960). I enjoyed the elegant Ealing comedies of Alec Guinness and I enjoyed people falling into pools and getting pies in the face.
I enjoyed Laurel & Hardy shorts and silent masterpieces like The Gold Rush (1925) and The General (1926). I enjoyed Gene Wilder, not just for the obvious Mel Brooks or Willy Wonka pictures, and not to mention Silver Streak (1976), but for less famous delicacies such as The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) and Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970).
I enjoyed pictures with Abbott & Costello and pictures with Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, even though childish adults rubbed me the wrong way. I preferred sophisticated grown-ups like Martin to idiots like Lewis. What was the point of growing up if you had to act like a backward child? I wanted to grow up swanky so I could live in apartments and drive limos and rob banks.
Thus, comedies with Cary Grant, David Niven and Doris Day really lit my fire, as did those cool cats Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford in Salt and Pepper (1968) and One More Time (1970), not to mention James Garner getting mixed up in spy stuff and learning A Man Could Get Killed (1966). Spy stuff was always good for a romp, as witness those 1966 epics The Last of the Secret Agents with Allen & Rossi (who?) and Nancy Sinatra, and The Spy With a Cold Nose (what?) with Laurence Harvey and Daliah Lavi.
I was convinced that What's New Pussycat (1965), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and the endless chase of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) were among the greatest movies ever made. So was Million Dollar Duck (1971), with the great Sandy Duncan and Dean Jones, the first new film I ever saw in a theatre. Another incandescent masterpiece was some show on The Wonderful World of Disney where a neighborhood of kids rolled tires down a hill to stop the bad guys. That one had me jumping on the couch.
I was hopelessly enamoured of the supposedly chic, adult, farcial bedroom comedies in which everyone huffed and puffed over the possibility of having sex and nobody ever had it. I have since dubbed these No-Sex Comedies, and I still hold a perverse affection for these bright, perky and relentlessly unfunny specimens with such titles as Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and The Swinger (1966).
I was tickled beyond measure by Prudence and the Pill, a 1968 British movie where people really did, you know, do it. It was shown on network TV with a parental warning, but my parents were out of the house. If Shirley MacLaine played a prostitute, as she did so often, I was a willing customer. She gloriously outlived her husbands in What a Way to Go (1964), and my bliss was Mrs. Blossom.
What a star Tony Randall was in my galaxy! He moved his family underwater in Hello Down There (1969), and he rubbed elbows and even knees with Doris Day and Rock Hudson. He flirted with Debbie Reynolds in The Mating Game (1959) and Jayne Mansfield in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), and he too got dragged into spy larks via Bang Bang You're Dead (1966).
Peter Sellers, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Paul Lynde, Dick Van Dyke and Kurt Russell also glittered in my constellation, and of course Fred MacMurray was equally at home flying a car or inventing flubber as The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) or being First Husband to first woman Chief Executive Polly Bergen in Kisses for My President (1964).
Amid these frothy antics, I was just as pleased with the satirical grimness of Little Murders or The Hospital or Cold Turkey (all 1971) as I was with the colorful farce of the Pink Panther series.
On TV, this was the sophisticated era of adult sitcoms like All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H, which I imbibed like champagne, recognizing at some level that I liked them better than, say, The Brady Bunch, which I nevertheless also watched into the ground. Laugh-In and Monty Python, Flip Wilson and Barney Miller, Carol Burnett and I Dream of Jeannie, all propelled me into comedy heaven.
My point is that although some things struck me more forcibly than others, I still watched it all more or less uncritically and, to my way of thinking, liked all of it. All of it. It never occurred to me that I shouldn't, that I wouldn't. If it was somehow some way some form of "comedy", I liked it, and that was it.
My only disappointments were the ones that got away, which brings us circuitously to Don Sharp's Blast-Off (1967) and Michael Winner's Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1975), the items under discussion today as some uncomplicated stratum of my brain checks them with satisfaction off my list.
Blast-Off had the longest trailer any of us at the Saturday afternoon matinee had ever seen. It seemed to go on forever and get stranger and stranger. The only moment I retained (to this day) was a scene of an old lady, whom I now understand to be Queen Victoria, cutting a ceremonial ribbon between two large stone columns, whereupon they collapsed to the ground. It's a great visual gag, and it happens in the first five minutes with little to equal it thereafter.
Naturally, I kept my eyes peeled for this movie, but it never arrived in the neighborhood theatre where they showed the trailer. I know now that Blast-Off has masqueraded under several titles, including Those Fantastic Flying Fools and in England as Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon, but any of these titles would have attracted my hawklike attention as a boyish connosseur of comedy, not to mention rockets. I'll swear it just never showed up.
Claiming to be "inspired by the writings of Jules Verne", the plot is simply a riff on From the Earth to the Moon, which had been filmed seriously in 1958. The script is by Dave Freeman, a prolific name in British TV comedy associated with Benny Hill and many other comedians, and there are some nice one-liners in what proves to be a very digressive, skit-like, shaggy dog of a story.
Burl Ives phones it in as American huckster-showman P.T. Barnum, who flees to England from financial unpleasantness in the States along with General Tom Thumb (Jimmy Clitheroe, too tall at over four feet). Not unlike the way Ives is lending his name as a marquee American star to this project, Barnum lends his name to promoting a trip to the moon via rocket fired from a cannon, and the entire plot concerns the clash of personalities and preparations for this trip.
American inventor Gaylord Sullivan (Troy Donahue, another Yankee import) takes the lead on the project amid distractions from his girlfriend Madeleine (Israeli actress Daliah Lavi in her 15 minutes of stardom), whose romantic ideas are very modern for Victorian England. She believes in Free Love, although that idea isn't named as such, as she says she can love both Gaylord and her rich French fiancé, kissing them equally in each other's presence. She reasons that she can marry the rich one and see Gaylord in the afternoons. She's French, so that explains it. By the end of the film, the various romantic entanglements aren't quite worked out.
Also present are a gaggle of fuddy-duddy toffs getting in each other's way: Gert Frobe as the mutton-chopped German cannon inventor who keeps blowing everything up, Dennis Price as the English duke who starts the ball rolling, Terry-Thomas as his caddish scoundrel of an embezzling brother-in-law, Lionel Jeffries as a jealous rival engineer, and Hermione Gingold as apparently the madam of a brothel masquerading as a girls' school. For some reason, she has to be secretive when receiving a visiting sailor in the night, or Madeleine "will tell". Tell whom what?
Watching this for the first time with the eyes of a mature connosseur of cult cinema, I perceive it as a colorful, widescreen, lumbering would-be lark made by people known for very different things. Director Don Sharp specialized in Hammer horror. Producer Harry Alan Towers made horror and erotic exploitation films shot in locales whose natural production value belie very modest budgets, yet here he's handling a star-studded spectacle modeled upon the period slapstick epics The Great Race and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, two hits of 1965. Following in a few years would be the best and least known of these, Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969).
Sharp, Terry-Thomas and Frobe had worked on Flying Machines, so audiences would have expected something similar, especially with this ad campaign. Further, the space-race '60s saw any number of off-planet comedies. The Duchy of Grand Fenwick made the lunar scene in The Mouse on the Moon 1963), also starring Terry-Thomas, in the same year when Tom Tryon took off with an extraterrestrial bombshell in Disney's Moon Pilot. Even Don Knotts made it into space as The Reluctant Astronaut (1967).
The great problem with Blast-Off, whatever its name is, is that it doesn't really believe in getting to the moon. As its cumbersome digressions become the plot, the story remains cynically earthbound, which isn't much in line with the writings of Verne or the tenor of the times. Despite the presence of the rocket and a hot-air balloon, the proceedings rarely feel lighter than air.
American International picked this up for US distribution, shortening its two-hour running time and calling it Blast-Off, which this print isn't. It's the complete thing, prepared for US sale with the title Those Fantastic Flying Fools, as opposed to the UK's Rocket to the Moon moniker. The trailer also uses the Fools title, so it's not the endless Blast-Off trailer I saw as a child. In other words, nothing in the actual product ever calls it Blast-Off except the package.
At least the film is complete, and we can well understand why AIP thought it needed trimming. Alas, it didn't do well in any form, no matter how handsome its Irish widescreen location work and how willing its veteran cast. Critics and audiences thought it more leaden than an aeronautical adventure ought to be, and time hasn't much softened that judgment.
* * *
How my ten-year-old self wanted to see Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood based on its ads promoting a galaxy of comic "guest stars" in a parody of silent canine star Rin Tin Tin. I can assure you now that if my inchoate filmic sensibility had been able to catch this critical and commercial flop in theatres, I would have enjoyed it thoroughly for the same reasons my unreasoning mind would have enjoyed Blast-Off. It's a colorful production featuring simple characters in a clear story dotted with slapstick and dashes of the naughtiness that passes for sophistication among the immature. And that dog is a real charmer.
Just as the aforementioned '60s period chase epics rode a wave of Victorian/Edwardian nostalgia in the midst of the space race and sexual liberation and the decline of civilization, so did the socially relevant and groundbreaking '70s cinema foster a flipside of nostalgia for the '20s and '30s, especially the history of classic Hollywood. This impulse encompassed everything from The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) and the biopic Gable and Lombard (1976) to The World's Greatest Lover (1977), with Gene Wilder mocking Valentino, and the double-feature Movie Movie (1978), also freshly available on Blu-ray.
Madeline Kahn Estie Del Ruth in Won Ton Ton (1976)
The most important practitioners of this roaring nostalgia were Peter Bogdanovich, with the hit Paper Moon (1973), the flop At Long Last Love (1975) and the shouldn't-have-flopped Nickelodeon (1976), and the more successful Mel Brooks, who understood that he could affectionately parody old-school genres while updating them with modern vulgarity and profanity. He even made a silent movie, Silent Movie (1976).
Won Ton Ton reunites two stars of Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974), Madeline Kahn and Terri Garr, though audiences expecting that level of cleverness likely felt burned. Garr especially doesn't have much to do, while Kahn plays the aspiring starlet whose ability to control the titular German shepherd lands her success under the uncertain tutelage of a largely incompetent director (Bruce Dern).
The alleged comedy comes in three forms. There's the visual slapstick, for which British director Michael Winner shows less of a penchant than he does for the equally blunt action of the Death Wish series. He chooses to shoot much of it with a wide-angle lens, giving a curvy swing to the image while Neal Hefti's ragtime-ish theme pounds away on banjo (or ukelele?) and brass. It's always nice to see someone going for old-fashioned knock-the-place-down shenanigans, and the script by Arnold Schulman and Cy Howard could have used more of it.
There's the verbal humor of occasional clever lines. Some of this is on the level of Dean Stockwell calling the dog a "son of a bitch". Some of it comes in now-dated references to ideas for movies that the studio chief (Art Carney) is sure will never fly, like a shark attacking people at a summer resort, or a girl possessed by a devil.
There's a parodic moment when the pseudo-Valentino (Ron Leibman) gives Kahn, Dern and the dog the "kiss of death" while Nino Rota's "Godfather theme" plays on the soundtrack and somebody calls Liebman's character a "fag". That's part of the movie's contemporary sense of shocking adult humor, which generally comes across as intrusive within a more conceptually innocent movie.
The most distasteful example is a mercifully brief interlude when Kahn and Garr's characters are so desperate for work that they shoot what's apparently a Mexican porn loop and try to work the street as hookers. "I'm a prostitute!" Kahn has to shout at a deaf old duffer, before the dog starts chasing him like a Benny Hill skit. This was cutting-edge humor, as are the bits where the dog attempts various forms of slapstick suicide.
For the most part, however, story and wit are crowded and quashed by the third source of fun, which is the notion that every supporting role, bit part and even extra is played by a "guest star". Many of these people were minor figures in 1975, and today you'd need to be watching the movie with a program and an open line to Wikipedia to explain why the camera glances at this autograph hound (Rudy Vallee) or that stage hand (Johnny Weissmuller) or that pretty woman (Gloria DeHaven, Ann Miller, Janet Blair, Cyd Charisse, etc.).
Do you recognize or care that the angry cook is Keye Luke, or that the dancing butler is Stepin Fetchit, or that the barely glimpsed drunk in the alley is John Carradine? If so, this is the picture for you, but that makes it more of a celebrity sudoku puzzle than a movie. The film's concept distracts you from anything else going on in it, such that the distraction becomes the movie.
For the record, some of those stars are Phil Silvers, Virginia Mayo, Milton Berle, Victor Mature, Rory Calhoun, Nancy Walker, Ethel Merman, Aldo Ray (especially embarrassing), Joan Blondell, Dorothy Lamour, Tab Hunter, Henny Youngman, Edgar Bergen, Rhonda Fleming, the Ritz Brothers, Billy Barty, William Demarest, Andy Devine, Jackie Coogan, Ricardo Montalban, Fernando Lamas, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Broderick Crawford, Alice Faye, Fritz Feld, Dennis Day, Peter Lawford and Walter Pidgeon, and that ain't the half of it.
Speaking of puzzles, it's taken a long time for these missing pieces of my covetous childhood's desire for comic mayhem to fall into place, and I can't help my entirely personal reasons for being glad they have. I've been patient, and they're slowly wending their way to me in digitally mastered splendor. Next, dare I hope for Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx?