Saturday, December 17, 2011

Movie Movie (1978)

          A gently satirical tribute to the corny double-features of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Movie Movie begins with a short introduction from George Burns, continues into a boxing picture called Dynamite Hands, shifts gears for a fake trailer, and concludes with a showbiz-themed musical called Baxter’s Beauties of 1933. Replicating the way contract players were rotated through interchangeable roles during the studio era, many actors appear in both features (and the fake trailer), with George C. Scott playing all the lead roles. As written by comedy pros Larry Gelbart and Sheldon Keller, Movie Movie cleverly spoofs every contrivance common to movies that were cranked out a weekly basis, from plots predicated on absurd coincidences to completely implausible happy endings.
          Many of the subtler jokes, like the gimmick of having the same actor (Art Carney) open both features by giving a dour medical prognosis that triggers the plot, may be lost on viewers who aren’t steeped in old-school Hollywood cinema. However, the very funny dialogue, which riffs on the way studio hacks used to jumble clichés and metaphors into a stew of verbal nonsense, is terrific even without knowing the context. One example: “It’s funny, isn’t it, how many times your guts can get slapped in the face.” Or: “With the woman you love at your side to stand behind your back, a man can move mountains with his bare heart.” One gets the impression Gelbart and Keller spent their youths groaning through lines like these every Saturday at the local movie palace, only to hurry back for more the next week; whereas some cinematic satires falter because contempt for the subject matter makes the comedy seem mean-spirited, Movie Movie shines because its humor stems from nostalgic affection. So, with venerable director Stanley Donen playing to his strong suit of smoothly choreographed light comedy, Movie Movie becomes first-rate escapist silliness.
          Of the two features, Dynamite Hands is marginally better because the focus is on delivering verbal gags and spoofing clichéd storytelling. However, Baxter’s Beauties of 1933 has song-and-dance numbers that Donen stages with his signature effervescence. Appearing in both features, Carney, Red Buttons, Trish Van Devere, and Eli Wallach have a blast sending up the mannered acting of studio-era hams. Scott manages to be sweetly affecting in his dual roles, as a gruff boxing trainer in the first picture and as a Broadway impresario in the second. Kathleen Beller, Harry Hamlin, and real-life Broadway hoofer Ann Reinking are featured in Dynamite Hands, while Rebecca York costars with Bostwick in Baxter’s Beauties. They all get into the spirit of the thing, investing their performances with golly-gee-whiz enthusiasm. Also working in Movie Movie’s favor is zippy pacing—two features, a trailer, an introduction, and credits get crammed into 105 fast-moving minutes.

Movie Movie: GROOVY

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