Welcome to Fistful of Features, a celebration of film preservation through physical media and the discussion of cinematic treasures to maintain their relevance in the cultural lexicon. This edition will focus on three films: two from the great Mel Brooks which were recently issued new home releases by Kino Lorber (The Producers/Spaceballs) and one from co-directors Howard Franklin and Bill Murray which was recently issued by Warner Archive (Quick Change).
“Oh, how the mighty have fallen,” is likely a phrase Max (Zero Mostel) had grown accustomed to overhearing from former colleagues in passing after being a Broadway sensation one day and a desperate medium talent the next. He’s now become so blinded by greed that he’s resorted to seducing elderly prospects just to keep his vault filled with their earnings. Leo (Gene Wilder), his anxious auditor, is so bound to hysterical outbursts that the mere presumption of his literal security blanket being fondled would be enough to send him into a tantrum that would elicit the passion of a thousand suns.
Yet, somehow, Mel Brooks’s comedic masterpiece manages to keep its audience in their corner and rooting for them to evade well-deserved prison time for petulant fraud. The magic of The Producers is how it’s remained prevalent for so long thanks to one key ingredient: the understanding of casting and how vital it is for everything on the page to translate seamlessly to screen. It rightfully won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, yet if it wasn’t for the energy and charm these two talented comics brought to the table, it would have easily all been lost in translation.
One of the greatest feats Brooks accomplishes is how the self-referential reaction to “Springtime For Hitler” doesn’t wink or draw unnecessary attention. It’s always clear that LSD’s (Dick Shawn) hammy performance on stage is manifesting a completely different interpretation from what the unhinged former Nazi (Kenneth Mars) intended on paper. His unintentional abstract performance becomes an inadvertent masterwork to behold.
Worth noting is the supplemental material included with this release that includes a thorough documentary recalling the early stages of Brooks’s vision to the praise from Peter Sellers that helped this film from fading into obscurity. There’s a complimentary excerpt from filmmaker Paul Mazursky underlining Seller’s pivotal role in helping this film find an audience as well.
Available for purchase from Kino Lorber.
Spaceballs in 4K UHD
Satire is an arduous task with which Mel Brooks has had a great handle on since early in his career.
There’s no argument that Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein are quintessential examples of how to do satire well, and Brooks remained on this valiant stride all the way through History Of The World: Part 1. When Brooks got around to Spaceballs in the late ‘80s, the passionate craft shown in his previous work appeared to be primarily absent.
One problem is that his satirical targets became less perilous and poking fun at Star Wars in 1987 isn’t exactly a daring endeavor. Perhaps if Brooks dug deep enough to muster some biting commentary instead of merely shedding light on the obvious consumerist approach to Lucas’s successful space opera, there would be things in it to discuss today, like the racial politics of Blazing Saddles. It’s easy to be blindsided by nostalgic memories of youth where one might have seen this as an extension of their devotion to the source material. Revisiting it now, one can actually see it for the ironic shallow cash grab that it actually was.
That being said, Spaceballs isn’t entirely joyless. There seems to be a harmless playful approach to it and the gags elicits laughter from time to time. The charming cast certainly helps the runtime breeze along, especially the budding chemistry of Bill Pullman and the always likable John Candy as they do their caricatures of Han Solo and Chewbacca. Rick Morranis elicits one of the biggest laughs in a scene where he’s caught red handed acting out a wish fulfillment fantasy with his action figures (or dolls as George Wyner perceptively points out). Perhaps the most understated performance belongs to Daphne Zuniga as Princess Vespa. Her career had such early promise with striking performances in Vision Quest and The Sure Thing. It would have been wonderful to see her continue that path of accepting challenging roles at this point in her career. The enticement to work with Mel Brooks was likely strong, but the script doesn’t give her much to do.
At the end of the day, Spaceballs is a harmless misfire that kicked off a slump in Brooks’s outstanding filmmaking oeuvre, though Life Stinks is better than its reputation. Kino Lorber has done a great job with their HDR Dolby Vision picture transfer and the fans of this film should be pleased with the results.
Available for purchase from Kino Lorber.
Warner Archive has been known to let the features speak for themselves rather than include supplements and I respect that, but if I were to make a case for some of their releases which would truly benefit from some behind the scenes material, even an audio commentary, Quick Change would be a strong contender. This dark comedy features Bill Murray pulling a bank heist in full clown garb and in broad daylight.
The premise isn’t what’s potentially fascinating about this film though, it’s how Bill Murray came to get co-directing credit with Howard Franklin. This was the first of only three films that Franklin, primarily a screenwriter, sat in the director’s chair for. His follow-up, The Public Eye, was an underrated crime film with a terrific turn from Joe Pesci, and his final film saw him returning with Murray for the colossal misfire Larger Than Life. Who wouldn’t love to see a behind-the-scenes peek at how Murray ended up assisting directorial duties on this film? That being said, I’m still thankfully we got a solid transfer for an oddity in Murray’s oeuvre that doesn’t get discussed nearly as often as it should.
The dichotomy that separates Grimm (Murray) from his two eager accomplices is his indifference to the risks involved with the task at hand. Think John Cazale’s performance as Sal in Dog Day Afternoon, Calm and focused, never buckling under the pressure. It’s frankly unnerving and adds an entirely different layer to his sharp banter and dry wit. Grimm is traumatizing innocent people and it’s all part of the thrill.
Geena Davis, hot off her well-deserved Oscar win for The Accidental Tourist, takes an entirely different approach to Phyllis, Grimm’s love interest and partner in crime. Her fascination with his fearless outlook on life is offset by her concern for what it will potentially bring to their impractical future. Loomis (Randy Quaid) perhaps deserves the most empathy from their plight as his loyalty stems from years of manipulation rooted in his childhood friendship with Grimm. His amiable naïveté puts them constantly at risk, but we also see his loyalty repaid. None of these people are saints, but they show compassion when it’s necessary.
After the heist, this film shifts gears into what some would call a “One Crazy Night” film. Think After Hours or One Crazy Night and the constant outlandish scenarios those characters have to endure. Jason Robards is the persistent chief of police looking to retire on a high note and refuses to let their deeds go unpunished. Their night spirals more into misfortune as they tangle with outlandish witnesses that can potentially blow the whistle on them any moment and the ruthless pursuit courtesy of disgruntled muscle from the mob. This film constantly walks a tightrope between dramatic suspense and off-kilter comedy to various degrees of success and deserves recognition as one of Murray’s notable productions amongst an eccentric body of work from the decade that preceded it.
Available for purchase from Warner Archive.