Buck and the Preacher
Poitier’s comical version of The Ten Commandments, with Harry Belafonte in the role of Aaron and Cameron Mitchell as Pharaoh, filmed in the style of the latter Gunsmoke, with an adept and controlled use of the Frankenheimer zoom.
Uptown Saturday Night
A little look at America from the vantage point of its varied commercial enterprises, its political leaders, and most notably its bosses, which decides in the end that “Home—and Certainty and Sanctity, are best.”
Let’s Do It Again
A satire on the gentle side, whose incidental targets are Gordon Parks viewed as a maker of flashy gangster films, and Black Mohammedanism viewed as a friendly sort of fraternal order like the Shriners (fez and all), from the standpoint of Laurel & Hardy (the “Sons and Daughters of Shaka”).
The main gag has Jimmie Walker as a chump hypnotized into a champ, and when the ruse is found out, his opponent gets the whammy put on him, too—a pox on both their houses, these mobsters (John Amos and Calvin Lockhart).
Much of the comedy is in the costumes worn by these quiet Atlantans in the underworld of New Orleans: Denise Nicholas in fire-engine-red boa and knee-high boots (gold), platinum wig, split miniskirt and scarlet garter, Bill Cosby in his Matisse beard and wraparound shades with pink or yellow frames (plastic).
A Piece of the Action
Poitier’s jokes are of the very best, and tend to constitute the basis of his films, so that Uptown Saturday Night is laid in Atlanta as a send-up of the Baptists, and Let’s Do It Again in New Orleans (where the city seal is a crescent moon and star) for the Muslims, whereas A Piece of the Action goes to Chicago for a different kind of setup to the main gag in the home of a mobster (Titos Vandis). He’s counting the money and checking the books when he sees plainclothesmen pull up outside. The books go down to the basement, but he can’t burn money, so he gives the briefcase to his cleaning lady, who is black, and asks her to run an errand. The cops never arrive, he’s been had, and Poitier has his joke on certain forms of charitable activity.
The director who filmed the Book of Exodus as Buck and the Preacher could hardly flinch at a history of America by Bruce Jay Friedman. An actor and a playwright flee the squalor of New York for California, and in Arizona they wear woodpecker costumes for a bank promotion, which is sticking a feather in your hat and calling it macaroni. The plot device calls for two other men to borrow the costumes and rob the bank, which effects a change of perspective.
The actor is a student of human nature, but the playwright is a born bullrider, so they enter the intermural prison rodeo and contend with the champion, whose name is Caesar Geronimo. And they make a clever, daring escape, with the actor doing a quick-change from rodeo clown to goateed Westerner. As grand, inspired and delirious as that is, Friedman has it couched in terms of a prison movie parody full of satire whose barefaced surrealism is fleshed out by the inventions of Wilder and Pryor, while Poitier plays it all as close to the chest as possible.
Hanky Panky proved to be too difficult for comprehension at the time, apparently. Its style is very acutely derived from The 39 Steps, its content is a direct allusion to Seven Days in May.
Halliwell ineptly characterizes this as a spoof of North by Northwest, but there is a grain of astute observation in that, because of a crosscut structure which adds a further level of difficulty. Add to this an entirely independent stream of surrealist imagery and you have an homage to Hitchcock comparable to Donen’s Charade and Arabesque, superbly organized and played exceedingly well, which seems to have produced nothing more than a gasp of incomprehension despite the painstaking care of Poitier to establish it all on firm, solid ground.
Within an idea of style not based on the pictorial but the imagistic, Poitier takes no end of pains with nearly each shot. A good example of this is at the end of the Grand Canyon sequence, the desert crash-landing. Gene Wilder emerges from the wreckage and clutches a tumbleweed to his lips with gratitude (the pilot collapsed after takeoff, a forced landing followed, out of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World), he and Gilda Radner are met by a military detail in combat gear. Poitier has a three-second shot of the wreck, that’s all, but this location exterior is dressed with minute attention to detail, the various parts of the plane, etc., only to serve as background to a simple gag and pivot the film towards its culmination.
Many, many shots are richly detailed in this way, or soak up large amounts of locality in quick flight, as it were. And there you have the distinction from Donen, who abandons himself to large-scale pictorial constructions. Poitier gets the sharp, compressed wealth of detail in a single shot, Donen the grand sweep of action creating a panorama. They are both effective.
The multiplicity of the structure serves to clarify the texture, and only the description of it is difficult. This is Hanky Panky’s specific contribution, a confirmed articulation supplying the homage of a reflection.
A painter hangs himself after painting the Grand Canyon’s South Rim with its watchtower. A man is poisoned in a New York club, and a woman is murdered in a hotel nearby after crossing paths with an architect (Wilder) and mailing a padded envelope. The architect is suspected in her death, and flees with the help of another innocent (Radner). They head north, retrieve the envelope, decipher its contents as well as the painting (by an old friend of the architect’s new accomplice), find themselves in the Arizona desert at a remote military installation rather like Frankenheimer’s ECOMCON, and reveal a governmental infight like a coup.
There you have the general outlines. Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange is partly an homage to Keaton, and has a gag from Lloyd. Wilder does a perfect Keaton, slipping under a truck to avoid capture, then, when the truck drives away, sitting halfway up and looking askance.
Robert Prosky has the Leo G. Carroll part, or is he the ringleader? Richard Widmark takes command of the operatives in immediate pursuit. The depth of seriousness on this end is what shows Wilder to be a comedian of limitless resources (at the controls of the pilotless plane, he even resembles Soupy Sales). Radner has lacerating style and invention to match.
Poitier’s approach to this material is in every way satisfactory. There is nothing finer than this level of sophistication, achieved by mere application of industry to inspiration, with something more. The New England Aquarium might have been borrowed as a location in homage to Arabesque, or it might just be the remote echoes of Lowell that are obtained by filming there, who can say? “Behind their cage, / yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting / as they cropped up tons of mush and grass / to gouge their underworld garage.”
It’s not at all uncommon nowadays to find a film completely misunderstood by the critics and the public, and when this happens it’s a matter of great astonishment but also of great joy, because you have the pleasure of a discovery that seems to be unique, even though the filmmakers must surely have known all along what they were doing. Sometimes the astonishment is all the greater for the self-evident clarity of the work, so that it becomes impossible to determine why the reaction has occurred, and Ghost Dad is the most blatant example of this.
The opening sequence is one of the funniest reels of film ever put together, and blisteringly so (it should be pointed out that Poitier’s technical acumen as a director, which has always been keen, has attained a precision that’s really flawless). An executive is preparing for work, he’s arranging a company merger, as he makes his way to the office (and from there to the bank), one disaster after another just misses him, in building anticipation of the premise, until he’s whisked off by a bearded madman driving a cab, who wants to know if he’s declared his loyalty to Satan. The terrified executive replies, in the words of Handel, “I am Satan,” which produces instant obedience from the cabdriver, but too late, the cab winds up at the bottom of a river, and this is seen later to invoke Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls.
Invisible but to the camera the executive walks along busy Third Street, wondering if that’s to be eternity for him. He’s whisked to London by Sir Edith (pronounced Eddith) Moser, an expert on spiritual phenomena. He has to complete the merger for his kids’ sake, because of the promotion it brings.
This educes a secondary or ghost theme, the absentee dad. His son is an amateur magician, but unsupervised locks himself into a Trunk of Doom during Show and Tell at school, and invisible dad has to help him out.
A portrait of John F. Kennedy in the background of this scene tells the tale, revealing the subject of this film, though much of it and many of its jokes can be taken several ways (it seems incredible the critics missed them all, dullness reaches no blunter point), the main gag being it’s not so much that Kennedy is dead, as that his spirit has departed from the body politic for the time.
There are really two aspects of Ghost Dad, equally significant and interdependent, to be considered. This large-scale reflection on Kennedy and his legacy is greatly important and closely related to Reitman’s Dave and Kasdan’s I Love You to Death, among others, and at the same time, it’s handled in a style that’s suited to its subject, as well as being one of the most unattainable reaches of style in all of cinema, one that has not been properly understood or even studied before Poitier miraculously achieved it after a quarter-century, and that is the body of work amassed by Walt Disney after much labor, exemplified by incalculable masterpieces such as The Absent Minded Professor and Mary Poppins—and if you don’t know what is meant here, you are probably a film critic or Michael Eisner.
It may be that understanding these things in all their complications and subtleties is an attainment in itself, but to have encompassed them in a film and found such a means for its expression is what makes the capstone of a great career as a director, and the film toward which in a certain sense Poitier’s great and satisfying work has tended.
It’s still hard to think of an actor as a director, even after Welles, Stroheim, Brando, Eastwood and Allen, and President Kennedy has his detractors, and Disney has preferred to remake its films rather than understand them, so these are three good reasons for critical antipathy. If you add to this the multiplicity of Poitier’s jokes, you get a bewilderment among the critics precisely matching the rage they have exhibited. I don’t mind, but Poitier’s absence from the director’s chair is sorely missed. Harold Lloyd is certainly an influence on the opening reel, and he couldn’t bear adverse criticism, either.
Poitier and Cosby are each able to sustain a film alone, and when they appear together they share the screen. Cosby directed by Poitier takes direction studiously (he is a great actor, perhaps best seen in Peter Yates’ fabulously underrated Mother, Jugs & Speed), so that two heads are better than one. Cosby sometimes mimics Poitier quite visibly, and the result is somehow twice as funny.
Arthur Lubin’s Impact and Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. are related to Ghost Dad because of the businesslike metaphors involved. The subtle depictions of fellow executives give a nuance of the late Fifties, and Barry Corbin’s portrayal of the boss is characteristically adroit, with a memory of Alan Hewitt’s general pursuing flubber.
All of the acting is perfect, the child actors have at least been noted, every detail is correctly realized, and that is what is most remarkable of all, the consciously perfect realization of a film in all of its many aspects. But you can read for yourself in Ebert and Canby how such a thing is prized by those who are paid to be in the know.
A small note about Sir Edith Moser (Ian Bannen), the part may have been conceived under the inspiration of Margaret Leighton in From Beyond the Grave. Finally, among other influences there is a striking citation of It’s a Wonderful Life effortlessly introduced.