Thursday, December 18, 2008

Man's Favorite Sport? (1964)

With the possible exception of Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark (both featuring Peter Sellers as Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Surete), 1964 was not a banner year for American movie comedy. Comedies released for the year include David Swift’s Good Neighbor Sam, J. Lee Thompson’s star-stuffed (as opposed to star-studded) What a Way to Go! and Ralph Levy’s Bedtime Story (remade in 1990 as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). Most of these movies had sex on the brain, yet lacked the refinement of an Ernst Lubitsch to make the sex seem anything but witlessly vulgar.

Even Billy Wilder, a disciple of the “Lubitsch Touch,” co-wrote, produced and directed the misguided Kiss Me, Stupid, a movie about a would-be song writer (Ray Walston) who, in order to sell one of his songs, pimps out a stripper (Kim Novak) to a Vegas crooner passing through town (Dean Martin playing a character referred to in the script as “Dino”). It was considered so depraved that the movie was condemned in the strongest language possible by the Catholic League of Decency. Wilder blamed the failure of the movie on the fact that Ray Walston was a last minute substitute for a heart attack-stricken Peter Sellers, for whom the part of the song writer had originally been written. One year later, J. Lee Thompson’s strenuously unfunny John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (written by a pre-Exorcist William Peter Blatty), generated an equal amount of Catholic ire by showing the Notre Dame football team seduced by a band of harem girls.

Three of the biggest American comic stars of the decade were Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon and Rock Hudson. Grant was winding down his career with the romantic thriller, Charade (1963), and the family comedy, Father Goose, in which, cast against type, the usually suave Grant spent the entire movie barefoot, rumpled and unshaven. In 1964, Jack Lemmon was represented by Good Neighbor Sam, a comedy that timorously exploited that shocking new phenomenon of wife swapping, based on a minor novel by Jack Finney (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Time and Again). As for the well-named Rock Hudson, he appeared in two romantic comedies that year, as Doris Day’s foil in Norman Jewison’s Send Me No Flowers and as Paula Prentiss’ in Howard Hawks’ Man’s Favorite Sport?

At the time, Hawks was coming to the end of a distinguished career as one of the greatest American film directors, with a protean command of any genre. He could direct comedy (His Girl Friday) and drama (Only Angels Have Wings), contemporary films (To Have and Have Not) and historical epics (Land of the Pharaohs), crime melodramas (Scarface) and westerns (Red River), war movies (Air Force) and detective stories (The Big Sleep). It is even believed that, in addition to producing, he secretly directed The Thing from Another World (1951), which featured his trademark overlapping dialogue as well as another Hawksian staple—the lone female character who can hold her own in a world of male camaraderie.

In Man’s Favorite Sport?, Hawks generously steals from himself and recycles many of the most famous gags from what is probably his best screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938). Although well regarded today, the movie was a disaster when it was released because the humor in the movie is so lacking in motivation that the entire picture has an absurdist air to it. Katharine Hepburn plays a mad heiress who becomes obsessed with winning the love of a man she barely knows, a distracted paleontologist played by Cary Grant. He seems more concerned with finding his Brontosaurus skeleton’s missing bone than in Hepburn’s flirtatious assaults. The bone in question, the intercostal clavicle, has been stolen by the heiress’ dog (played by Asta on loan from The Thin Man series). But that is not the Baby of the title. Baby is a leopard the mad heiress keeps in her Park Avenue apartment (and who goes after the dog who goes after the bone).

What is man’s favorite sport? According to Johnny Mercer’s lyrics to Henry Mancini’s title song, “the favorite sport of man is girls.” But in the movie, the sport in question is ostensibly fly-fishing, of which Rock Hudson, playing a San Francisco Abercrombie and Fitch salesman, is supposedly an expert. (In those days, A&F sold sporting goods and camping equipment instead of retailing teen erotica fantasies.) In reality, Hudson has never been fishing in his life and has faked his expertise. The plot kicks in when Hudson’s bosses ask him to take part in a fishing tournament held at a lodge north of San Francisco. Paula Prentiss is a P.R. woman who represents the lodge. Fearful of being exposed as a fraud, Hudson resents Prentiss for roping him into this potentially scandalous situation. The two of them spend most of the movie fighting tooth and nail, which, this being a screwball comedy, only makes them fall in love with one another. And along the way, we are treated to a series of scenes in which Hudson, the non-fisherman is forced to pretend to be an expert on fly-fishing (just as Hudson, the closeted gay man, is forced in all his movies to pretend to be a heterosexual ladies’ man).

Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss are Hawks’ contemporary stand-ins for Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, although they are pale copies when compared with the sparkling originals. Prentiss affects the same madcap air as Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, but here, her attraction to Hudson really seems to come out of nowhere. And Rock Hudson’s indifference to Prentiss’ come-ons appears to come from a deeper place than just his opposition to her scheme of having him continue to fake his expertise during the fly-fishing tournament. The script even honors genre conventions by giving Hudson a requisite straight-laced fiancĂ©e to complete the love triangle according to the rules of screwball comedy (although, this being 1964, Hudson's fiancee is a slightly sexier version of Cary Grant's prim, ascetic fiancee in Bringing Up Baby).

The movie has a plodding pace compared to the headlong momentum of Hawks’ best movies of the thirties and forties. And there is a general air of mustiness that hangs over most of the jokes. And yet, Hawks still manages to supply some inspired moments. One occurs when Rock Hudson tries to wriggle his way head first into a locked car through its open sunroof. The sight of six-foot-five Hudson stuck upside down inside a tiny foreign car is a visual gem. As a leading man Hudson was never in Cary Grant’s league, but, in Man’s Favorite Sport?, he proved himself to be a very good sport when it came to making fun of his own manly image.

There is another fresh gag (in both senses of the word). It happens when Hudson, Prentiss and Maria Perschy, playing the lodge owner’s daughter, Isolde “Easy” Mueller (Easy: a Hawksian nickname if ever there was one), go into the woods for a private confab after Hudson has revealed to them that he is a phony. The two women have their backs to the camera. Hudson is facing them. It begins to rain. The rain makes Prentiss’ and Perschy’s blouses turn transparent, something they are unaware of as they gab on and on. And the humor in the situation is derived from Hudson’s growing frustration over his inability to inform the oblivious, chatting women that they “look like they haven’t any clothes on.” This racy gag must have come across as quite shocking to movie audiences in 1964.

But these examples aside, compare the otherwise creaky antics in Man’s Favorite Sport?, shot entirely on the hermetically sealed environs of the Universal backlot, to what was going on in British and Italian cinema at the same time. Pietro Germi’s Seduced and Abandoned, also released in 1964, is a maturely considered, savagely funny attack on Italian sexual hypocrisy with a plot that boldly demonstrates the courage of Germi’s satiric convictions. And in England, Clive Donner and Richard Lester were shaking up British cinema with, respectively, Nothing but the Best, the story of a charming sociopath played by Alan Bates, and A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles’s critic-defying movie debut.

One year later, in The Knack…and How to Get It, Lester would pull off an audacious comedy stunt by having three characters (played by a very young and very thin Michael Crawford, Rita Tushingham and Donal Donnelly) push, ride, tow and row an iron bed on wheels across London. The scene is a triumph of cinematic ingenuity as Lester playfully collapses time and space in order to work in every possible gag he can dream up for this rolling iron bed, one of the most iconographic images of British cinema of the sixties. Contrast this to the lack of cinematic spark found in these American comedies, directed for the most part by old men, dirty old men or studio hacks with no comedic flair whatsoever, to be consumed by a complacent, middle class, middlebrow audience. It would take Mike Nichols with The Graduate to break a few windows and let some fresh air into the room. But this advent was still three years in the future. And it couldn’t come soon enough to help shake the American cinema out of its doldrums.

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