Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Unsung!: Movie Movie

“I promised to make you a star one day. Well, that day… is tonight.”

Movie Movie was one of those special films that, because I enjoyed it so much the first time, I never wanted to rewatch for fear that a second viewing might break the spell. Last weekend I finally tracked it down again, and I am happy to say that it is still the same old Movie Movie. I have certainly changed (I am now TWICE the man I was at 16) but the movie is exactly as I remember it.

Movie Movie was ahead of its time. First, it seems to have arrived just a wee bit before that huge wave of ironic parody that followed the success of National Lampoon magazine, Saturday Night Live, and the films of Mel Brooks.

Never arch, superior, or cruel, Movie Movie’s knowing irony is always deeply affectionate, a quality later parodies would often lack.

Second, Movie Movie predates the movie Airplane! by two years, but has a very similar sense of humor. Airplane!’s humor is pretty broad, to say the least, whereas I really admire the restraint and subtlety of Movie Movie. It is also subtle and knowing in ways that Airplane! never attempted, which might explain Airplane!’s box-office bonanza and its legacy as a beloved classic. Airplane! is silly, but Movie Movie is sharp.

Also—Movie Movie is structured as two separate movies on a double bill with a parody trailer in between. Wait a minute – two separate genre homages linked with trailers? Could Movie Movie had been the secret 1970s template for—dare I say it—Grindhouse?

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: George Burns introduces the film, informs us that we are about to see something called a “double feature,” and explains what a double feature is. He also reassures the audience that he himself will not actually appear in the movie. Was Movie Movie really SO ahead of its time that the filmmakers felt the need to prepare the audience for what they were about to see? I do not usually enjoy this type of prologue – as my previous column about Fantasia so elegantly attests.
The first segment is a boxing movie parody. Dynamite Hands features law student Joey Popchick (Harry Hamlin) agreeing to box professionally under the knowing hand of old timer Gloves Malloy (George C. Scott), but only until he has raised enough money for a desperately needed eye operation for his kid sister, Angie (Kathleen Beller). Gangster Vince Marlow (Eli Wallach) tries to convince Joey to take the easy route to riches, and murders Gloves Malloy. Will Joey finish law school in time to prosecute Malloy’s murderer?

A parody trailer for Zero Hour, a World War I melodrama, follows. The film concerns fighter pilots, and we are encouraged to “Fight with them! Laugh with them! Love with them! And even die with them the death of heroes who will live forever!”

The final segment, Baxter’s Beauties of 1933, features Scott again as Spats Baxter, a Broadway producer trying for one more hit show because he has only one month left to live. In the process, he ignites the career of young songwriter Dick Cummings (Barry Bostwick), acknowledges the love of longtime flame Trixie Lane (Barbara Harris), and reunites with his long-lost daughter Kitty (Rebecca York). Will Spats be able to replace his leading lady by the time the curtain goes up for the big show… and before he takes his own final bow?

Larry Gelbart wrote Movie Movie’s knowing script, and it harkens back to his work on Sid Caeser’s groundbreaking television programs Your Show of Shows and Caeser’s Hour (both programs specialized in movie parodies.) In Movie Movie, Gelbart has isolated what made 1930s dialogue so special and unique – and then turns it on its ear in many ways. Here are a few highlights of this skewed dialogue:

Mrs. Popchik, as you know, the eye is the second most sensitive organ on the human body. Your young daughter's eye muscles are extremely weak. They can barely hold up what she sees. If any part of the human body has a tendency to break down, I'm afraid the eyes have it.

Vince Marlowe
I don't keep that kind of cash around.

Joey Popchick
You got it, and I want it!

Vince Marlowe
That's right. I got it and you want it and you'll get it when I give it! Got it?

Spats Baxter
Only four weeks to live? Thirty days! 

Dr. Bowers
This is February, Spats.

Joey Popchick
When a man says what's right, what's good, what's real, and what's true, then his mouth is ten feet tall!

Two weeks ago, in my excellent (and much-commented upon) column about They Might Be Giants, I opined that George C. Scott was a comic actor of rare gifts and that it was a shame that he did not play more comedic roles. That “conversation” was what led me to seek out Movie Movie, which features George C. Scott giving not one, but two terrific comic performances, each very different from the other. Scott’s Gloves Malloy is avuncular, winsome, and knowing. His Spats Baxter is sophisticated, arch, and jaded.

Sometimes when I have been watching too many Turner Classic movies (that is, all the time) I begin to notice the same character actors playing the same parts in films by the same studio – as if each movie depicts life in MGM Land or Paramount Town, and all those characters actually live there together. (You feel that way sometimes too, don’t you? DON’T YOU?) Movie Movie’s casting elicits the same response. Art Carney appears in both segments as a doctor and “plot starter.” Trish Van Devere (then Mrs. George C. Scott) plays both female leads. Red Buttons appears in both segments too, playing essentially the same sidekick; in the boxing picture his character is named “Peanuts” and in the musical his character is named “Jinks.” (One suspects that, in earlier versions of the script, both parts were written for a mischievous monkey. Named Buttons.) Barry Bostwick mixes it up, playing a cheap hood in Dynamite Hands but the male ingénue in Baxter’s Beauties.

I applaud the fact that, when originally shown in theatres, Movie Movie had the guts to present the Dynamite Hands segment in black and white, though it was shot in color. Unfortunately, Movie Movie is only available to buy on Amazon Instant Video, which has ported over the dreaded VHS transfer that restores Dynamite Hands to color. Boo.

If you ever get the chance to watch this film – and you should! – I suggest you do what I did, and watch that segment with the color turned all the way off on your monitor.

Are there any other obscure comedies that you love and that you secretly think no one else has ever seen? Share them with other F-Heads below. Also, can someone please give me directions to Paramount Town?


  1. Nice column sir. I really like the comedy Mystery Team and I don't think more than a handful of people have seen it. Paramount town is at the base of the mountain. Or is it the summit?

  2. Yes, I have wanted to see Mystery Team ever since my son told me about it.

  3. I read that the original title was Double Feature but the studio felt that seeing a listing for "George C Scott – Double Feature" would lead to expectations of Patton and Day of the Dolphin.

    Scott actually plays three roles. In Zero Hour he's the biggest ace of the war.

    I saw the movie a second time in Japan. They ran Dynamite Hands in color. Also, the audience didn't enjoy it as much. I put it down to most of the humor being verbal. That may be why Brooks and the Zuckers did better, overall.

    1. That's a good point about the verbal humor. One would think that a director like Stanley Donen could have added some sight gags, but visually, the movie is kind of drab.

    2. Ann Reinking's dance number notwithstanding.