Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Unsung!: At Long Last Love

This Peter Bogdanovich film has only sporadically been shown on television. It has NEVER been released on any tape or disc format. Boy, is it ever unsung! And Burt Reynolds sings!

At Long Last Love has finally (at long last) been released on DVD and Blu-ray, a mere 38 years after it was first released to theaters.

A LITTLE HISTORY: At Long Last Love was released in 1975, not long after writer and director Peter Bogdanovich had made three film triumphs in three years: 1971’s The Last Picture Show, 1972’s What’s Up Doc?, and 1973’s Paper Moon. In fact, Bogdanovich had wanted to lens At Long Last Love in black and white, which, with Picture Show and Paper Moon, would make it the final film in a 1930s monochromatic homage trilogy, but Twentieth Century Fox, worried about the box office potential of another black and white film, nixed that idea.

At Long Last Love was released in color and was an immediate critical and commercial failure. The vitriol of the original reviews remains a little puzzling almost forty years later. The critical reception to Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller (which was released after Paper Moon) and the disastrous Nickelodeon in 1976 effectively ended Bogdanovich’s career. With the sole exception of Mask in 1985, all of his films since then have been critical and commercial failures. He now works mostly in television.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Two couples – millionaire playboy Michael Pritchard (Burt Reynolds) and Broadway singing star Kitty O’Kelly (Madeline Kahn) and disinherited ingénue Brook Carter (Cybill Shepherd) and loveable rogue gambler Johnny Spagnoli (Duilio Del Prete) – meet cute in a Manhattan nightclub and embark on a series of urban adventures that leads to a “shuffling” of the romantic partners. Meanwhile, Pritchard’s stuffy butler Rodney (John Hillerman) is pursued by Carter’s amorous maid Elizabeth (Eileen Brennan). Will true love win out in the end? Which of the three couples is really perfect for each other?
THE SAD, SAD MEDVED BROTHERS: I first read about this movie in one of the Golden Turkey/Fifty Worst Films books written by Michael and Harry Medved in the 1980s. They really shit on At Long Last Love, let me tell you. Even the production stills they chose to illustrate their blistering essay made the film look horrible. Remember, this film was largely unavailable for thirty years; I had no choice but to take the Medveds’ word. They were wrong. This film is very entertaining; it aspires to be nothing more than an amusing trifle, a clever diversion, and it succeeds. Any chef will tell you that it is difficult to make a light and airy soufflé. This soufflé is delicious and sweet. The Medveds lied to me!

Boo, Medveds. Boo.

THE STARS ACQUIT THEMSELVES ADMIRABLY: While there is no tour-de-force dance number that leaves the audience out of breathe at the tap show prowess on display, all four of the leads dance and sing just fine. Burt Reynolds can carry a tune. Cybill Shepherd’s singing voice is strong and delightful. Madeline Kahn and Duilio Del Prete were both classically trained singers who can belt out numbers in proper Broadway style. All four can dance. The score consists of popular Cole Porter standards. It was as if critics were lying in wait in 1975 to take Bogdanovich down a peg. It makes me wonder if the film I viewed this morning was the same film critics saw in 1975.

And maybe it wasn’t.

Apparently, there have been several iterations of At Long Last Love. In spite of two disastrous preview screenings, Twentieth Century Fox reportedly loved the film (after all, in 1975 Burt Reynolds was the biggest box office star in the country) and rushed its release – before Bogdanovich had a chance to tinker with it to his satisfaction. Studio editor Jim Blakely assembled his own cut, which was the version shown on television and at 16mm revival screenings from 1979 on. The new Blu-ray is being touted as the “Definitive Director’s Version” and runs 123 minutes (an extra four minutes over the theatrical release.)

WHO’S YOUR GIRLFRIEND? Some of the critical backlash against At Long Last Love seems to be directed at Bogdanovich’s attempts to foist then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd into the limelight by featuring her in both Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love. Daisy Miller is a disaster, and Shepherd is miscast. It is almost as if critics still had a bad taste in their mouths from the previous film and continued to take it out on At Long Lat Love.

BUT LET US PUT ALL OF THIS INTO PERSPECTIVE: Look at the Oscar Best Picture nominees from 1975: Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. (Because Hollywood always gets it wrong, Cuckoo’s Nest won.) Do you see any other lighter-than-air musical trifles on that list? At Long Last Love did not stand a chance. I am not saying that At Long Last Love was Oscar-worthy. I am simply suggesting that, given the contemporary cinema zeitgeist for realism, drama, and existential angst, this movie went against the grain. The popular films of 1975 had so much on their minds – At Long Last Love has a head full of champagne bubbles. New York, New York, Martin Scorsese’s paean to thirties musicals released two years later, was similarly doomed.
FULL DISCLOSURE: The film is a little long. Paramount’s classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies from the 1930s (the films to which At Long Last Love tips its fancy silk top hat) were all about 100 minutes; the extra twenty-three minutes here really makes the film feel like IT IS OVER TWO HOURS (At) LONG (Last Love).

At Long Last Love is worth seeing today for its technical expertise alone. Bogdanovich resurrected the technique of recording singing vocals live during filming for the first time in thirty years. This increased costs because the director and actors needed take after take after take just to get the singing right. The fact that the vocals were recorded live leads to some of the longest sustained takes in Hollywood musical history. In one shot, the camera travels with Burt Reynolds’ limousine. While singing, Reynolds steps out of the moving car and stands on the running board (still singing); the actor playing his chauffeur is simultaneously talking to Reynolds and REALLY DRIVING THE CAR. Remember, this is all being recorded live – how are the actors even being mic’ed? I would love to know how many takes it took to get that single shot.

 I do not often say this, but the film is worth checking out for its production design alone: the art direction, the costumes, the sets and set decoration, and the cars all create a knowing Valentine to 1930s Art Deco Hollywood excess. It seems at times that Bogdanovich and his production crew are handing a big “F You!” to 20th Century Fox by creating what is essentially a black-and-white film in color.

Of course, what do I know? I really liked Mamma Mia!


  1. I SAW THIS IN 2011 in 35mm here in Gotham and, while I wasn't too impressed (the live singing highlights the weakness of the actors' singing talent, IMO), I also came away puzzled at the vitriol of the negative reviews. It's a perfectly harmless homage to old screwball comedies and musicals, except the supporting cast (particularly John Hillerman) steals the movie from under Reynolds and Shepherd. It's worth a rental at least just to see what type of vanity project Bogdanovich could get away with back when he had Hollywood clout.

  2. Ugh, Michael Medved. Remember that Siskel & Ebert knock-off he did with Jeffrey Lyons (father of master critic Ben Lyons) called Sneak Previews? It was on WTTW after Yan Can Cook (which was sponsored by Kikoman Soy Sauce). If Yan can cook, can can you!

  3. I was one of about 4 people who purchased the original soundtrack album of this movie, back in 1975. I loved it. I've seen the restored version of the movie recently, and found it delightful. I find Cybill's singing voice prettier than Madeline Kahn's. Reynolds is surprisingly effective. The long takes and direct sound recording of the songs are a marvel. Considering that Cybill and Burt are not natural musical comedy stars, this movie is rather like a really good high-school production with dazzling art design. Old pros Eileen Brennan and Mildred Natwick are scene-stealers, all the way. The orchestrations are very lush. Worth a look, if you like Porter and 1930s culture.