Sunday, April 5, 2015

Rating the Movies of Madeline Kahn, Part IV

With Falk in Cheap Detective.


The Cheap Detective. Neil Simon’s second spoof of classic movies has been neglected in favor of its predecessor, Murder by Death, but it’s great fun, with many of the same assets: a terrific cast, Peter Falk’s loving impression of Bogart, snappy dialogue, and an amusing plot that makes sense even if you don’t know the movies it’s based on. As a wily femme fatale, Madeline’s character is so duplicitous she can’t remember her own aliases, and she changes her hair color so often that, by the end of the picture, she’s a fright. What really marks her performance, though, is her eyes, nervously darting as if she knows she’ll be unmasked at any second. She works beautifully with Falk, and she has fun scenes, too, with favorites Dom DeLuise and (briefly) Eileen Brennan.

With Reynolds in At Long Last Love.

At Long Last Love. Director Peter Bogdanovich and co-star Cybill Shepherd refer to this musical comedy as “the debacle,” but when you watch the recently released Blu-Ray edit, you may not understand why the movie has such a terrible reputation. True, the ostensible leads, Shepherd and Burt Reynolds, aren’t world-class singers, but she’s got a perfectly pleasant voice, and he’s fun to watch when he dances, a natural athlete goofing around. Musically, the biggest problem may be that we spend so much time hearing the songs — Cole Porter hits and rarities — sung by the same four voices; technically, the long takes and “live” singing created innumerable headaches for cast and crew, but they delivered some marvels for the audience.

Madeline had other worries, too. Always anxious about her looks, she found it intimidating to play opposite Shepherd, one of the most celebrated beauties of the day; she feared, too, that Bogdanovich favored Shepherd, his lover at the time, and that her own scenes might suffer as a result. Ultimately, however, the movie offers a wonderful showcase for her musical talents. Watch the opening scene (cut from the original release), as Madeline drunkenly staggers through her apartment, singing “Down in the Dumps (On the Ninetieth Floor)” — in one unbroken take. She sings several of her numbers in lower keys than you’d expect (making “Find Me a Primitive Man” somewhat disappointing), but this is one of her two most extensive singing roles onscreen. At Long Last Love brings Madeline as close as she ever got to the kind of lavish Hollywood musical that, had she been born a little earlier, might have been her calling card.

In the background, the movie launched Madeline’s friendships with Reynolds and with Eileen Brennan, and it brought her association with Bogdanovich to a close. That’s a shame, not least because he had planned to produce a solo record album for her, and to cast her in another musical, based on the songs of Rodgers & Hart.


As Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles.

You’re not likely to read these articles if you haven’t already had your interest whetted by What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, Blazing Saddles , Young Frankenstein, and Clue: the big five that have done more than any others to establish Madeline in the popular imagination. If you haven’t seen any of the Big Five, you need to catch up.

Madeline’s two other collaborations with Brooks, the Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety and History of the World, Part I, are a little less known. From a Madeline fan’s perspective, History is remarkable primarily as her final movie with Brooks, for the bawdiness of her role (crude even by his standards), and for Brooks’ belated realization (“after I saw the picture 30 times,” he says) that he “forgot to give her and Gregory Hines a musical number.”

With Hines in History.

High Anxiety contains Madeline’s most substantial role in a Brooks movie — she made such a big impression that we may forget how little screen time she has in the three other pictures, and Victoria Brisbane is also the most nuanced character he wrote for her. In one scene, she plays the most overtly Jewish character of her career before The Sisters Rosensweig (basically the wife of Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man), and this is the only movie she made with Brooks in which she’s not the object of a penis joke. It’s worth wondering whether he wrote the role of Victoria in response to Gene Wilder’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, in which Madeline plays another damsel in distress who discovers her own heroic qualities — and true love — while solving a mystery. Unlike Wilder, however, Brooks didn’t give her a song, taking the sole musical number for himself. Trivia: High Anxiety is also the only film in which we see Madeline drive a car.

As Victoria Brisbane in High Anxiety.
Hitchcock himself praised Madeline’s performance.

Coming Soon: The Not-To-Be-Missed.

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