Enter Laughing

Everybody knows that Carl Reiner toured the Pacific Theater with Maurice Evans and his Shakespeare Troupe. This is the key to understanding his art.

He applies it to himself here. It’s an introduction to young Carl Reiner, or someone rather like him, entering the trade as an apprentice to the great master Jose Ferrer, who nervously sips from a straw in his breast pocket at the sight of him.


The Comic

“There is justice in this land after all!”

Life and works of Billy Bright, screen comedian (the repertoire of his two-reelers is a tour de force, from the director of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid).

He is several kinds of a fool, so please you, the heroic movie star is not the vaudevillian nor yet in features, as they say.

The trip along Hollywood Boulevard to Forest Lawn, reminiscing all the way.

“You know, the French are all right, but you have to sit on ‘em.”

Citizen Kane and Calvin Coolidge and Hamlet get into the act, with hindsight.

Billy Bright is not the kind of fool who makes talking pictures. James Agee tried to explain slapstick to the New York critics.

“Half o’ Culver City, part o’ Glendale, too.”

One knows the Walk of Fame by heart, in the dark, one is there. “I first saw the gentleman, that I’m about to introduce, at the Museum of Modern Art.”

Of his latter end Reiner and Ruben are not too delicate to speak.

“A potentially great subject” (Pauline Kael, The New Yorker).

“It isn’t a good movie” (Roger Greenspun, New York Times).

“Remarkably bright and cinematic”, says Halliwell’s Film Guide, “a must for professionals.”


Where’s Poppa?

An emulation for comic purposes of Hitchcock’s The Birds, set in New York so that crows on the playground become muggers in Central Park, etc.

Momma is gaga, there’s really no question of the “Jewish mother joke” often cited in reviews, or of meaningless vulgarity or tastelessness for its own sake (Variety thought The Birds was “little more than a shocker-for-shock’s-sake”), just a bitter appraisal of the cockeyed world where the happy ending of Hitchcock enforced by all the malarkey is somewhat manqué, more or less.


Oh, God!

“God is a witness who cannot be called,” Beckett says, the trial scene is a tantalizing feint. Nowadays we are accustomed to public insult. “History made them famous,” says the Peeb (meaning Louis Armstrong and Red Norvo), “Ken Burns makes them real” (referring to the pussyfaced imp with a rostrum camera).

“Some people get high from drugs,” says a lady at a party, beginning to quote her Porter, “but the high I get is from... shopping.” What is needed here is Miracle on 34th Street directed by Buñuel, and that’s what this is.

It’s a transcendent miracle of eerie precision and incredible speed, starring all the great actors who weren’t drunk at the time, or out of town. Voltaire is cited, “God is a comedian playing to an audience that’s afraid to laugh.”


The Jerk

The very recondite joke (per all critics) makes this a memory outside Deathtrap at the Huntington Hartford, pure and simple.

Time had one John Skow write an essay on cat juggling, it ends with a movie pitch. Time Out Film Guide analyzed “retard comedy”, Ebert wrote a theory of comedy.

“Hilarity ebbs”, Variety says, “during his decline and fall,” but according to Time Out Film Guide “the comedy runs out of steam when the jerk makes good.”

“A lot of the people who went to the sneak preview laughed all the way through it,” Ebert reported in the Chicago Sun-Times, adding “others booed—but there you are,” a tragicomedy.

Halliwell speaks of “fallen aspirations to be a modern Candide.”

Reiner & Martin are a great team, with mountains of experience and great acuity of wit. So naturally this appears, like Magritte’s castle on a rock floating in air, a well-rounded defensive position.

It’s a rough business, fraught with perils, proverbially. Just keeping your glasses on your nose is a problem, and when you contrive to fix them there, you’re accused of monopolizing the conversation. So back you go to the bottom of the heap, leading a life of guilelessness.



Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

Because they ain’t Scottish.

Cheese molds for the Reich come to light in the course of a private investigation involving much of the cinema.

A work of genius, from the cinéaste of The Comic.



The Man with Two Brains

“Tame a wife, have a wife.”

This is so arduous and lengthy a proceeding that she may well grow fat, but such is marital bliss.

Carl Reiner playing straight man is something not to be underestimated, which has been the mistake of many a recent film. It’s a practiced art, and here based on a sophisticated analysis of Singin’ in the Rain, one you might say calculated to stress its inner workings rather than its outward kaleidoscope. The natural kinship to Young Frankenstein is very pleasant, and a perfect foil to Steve Martin.

The difference between Reiner and Brooks is the calm, complacent accommodation of the camera to whatever bits of business are in hand. It follows a sequence of thought with a classical development, something like Elmer Bernstein not quite parodying himself, or assembles a gag, or catches a quick one without emphasis. It’s especially irresistible when it’s just staring blankly, like the delivery boy gawking at Chaplin in the now no longer unknown shop window scene cut from City Lights.


All of Me

“The horse leech’s daughter is a closed system. Her quantum of wantum cannot vary.”

After the fantastic study of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Reiner has completed his Chaplin curriculum and now has a fully-fledged cinematography, just in time to effortlessly record Steve Martin’s “two-fold security.”


Summer Rental

In the end, very surprisingly, Summer Rental overthrows the Management Revolution with the Spirit of ’76. It takes as a starting point a then-recent tiff with air traffic controllers, and along the way invents the sea captain restaurateur of The Simpsons (and the caretaking Scotsman, and the nasty nabob, and the fat hero), with an anticipatory nod to Pirates.

The calm superficiality of a Florida summer makes even Alan Silvestri seem in tune. A great discovery is Richard Crenna’s gift for a villainous farce part.


Summer School

Bless me, as the blighter said, if each and every shot is no joke, and the critics were not scandalized thereby.


Sibling Rivalry

Sibling Rivalry is built on one great joke, and in such an instance everything depends on the elaboration. A wife takes a lover and finds him dead. Dispassionate comedy is what you want, and Reiner serves it up from the first frames with an objective suburb viewed as possible.

The large-scale mechanics of this are worthy of interest, but for the moment let these notes reflect only Bill Pullman’s performance as a kissing cousin of Kenneth Mars’ musicologist in What’s Up, Doc?


Fatal Instinct

The hero is a cop and lawyer both. “I have too many careers,” he says later in the film, after his wife tries to kill him so her mechanic can take his place, his mistress tries to kill him with an ice pick, a criminal he put away comes back to osterize his putz, and he realizes the secretary he never noticed is his true love, the one who with a six-shooter in each hand dispatches the homicidal termagants rampaging through his house.

Tattooed across the phalanges of the criminal’s hands are the words LEFT and RITE. The genius is to order the various remakes by Martin Scorsese (Cape Fear), Adrian Lyne (Madama Butterfly) and whoever into gag material, making a cogent framework out of the film noir.

Reiner films in color, going beyond his experience with The Comic and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid into something really difficult. A great deal of the pleasure in Fatal Instinct comes from the imperturbability of his settings, inspired by Chinatown (and as always repaying the debt with interest). The contemporary spoof material adds just the right volatility to all this and creates a unique style by contraposition. Reiner toured the Pacific Theater with Maurice Evans, remember. He proves that the common ground of invention here is Casino Royale, at least.

After arresting his wife for laboriously murdering the criminal aboard a train, leaving no doubt that her husband was the intended victim, the hero defends her in the spectacular trial scene, a send-up of the show trial with color commentary from a booth and recess meaning it’s time to go out and play.

Sean Young as the blonde bombshell is trying to pin hardboiled Armand Assante to the floor with an ice pick, but he plants his foot in her midriff and flings her through the air into an easychair, where for half a second she is nonplussed and then calmly lights a cigarette with the butt end of her ice pick. At another moment, during a parody of Chinatown’s slapping scene (she starts slapping him back), it occurs to one that The Three Stooges used to train at boxing and other things, and at precisely that moment the scene becomes a Three Stooges routine.

Kate Nelligan plays the Stanwyck role in Ball-red hair. On the witness stand, her thinly-mascaraed eyes grow limpid, and later on in her bathtub as she’s being murdered her exquisite legs in cream pumps twitch...

Sherilyn Fenn as Laura is Marla Rakubian. She’s trying on hats, suddenly Assante in his suit and tie is wearing red high heels with his pant legs rolled up, dancing a fandango to “Brown-Eyed Girl”. What should there be in the courthouse Press Room but reporters having their clothes pressed?

There are so many jokes tossed out and varied and developed, as the case may be, that it won’t spoil the effect to mention another suite, part of a studied appreciation of Mel Brooks. When Assante turns off the running bath water, the film noir score (flawless every time) is turned off, too. Later, when a romantic scene changes tone, one of them walks over to the radio and pushes a button for something more dramatic. The lone trumpeter on the soundtrack is discovered to be Doc Severinsen in a clothes closet, and the saxophonist at the end is revealed to be in bed with the principals.

Nothing tops seeing this masterpiece for the first time after reading the reviews.