Monday, May 8, 2017

Doing Nothing To Prevent It

The past gets forgotten. Films get forgotten. That’s just the way it goes. Even good films that were hits back in their day fall through the cracks. And then there are the bad ones which you may remember with a touch of fondness because you saw them when you were young and stupid and didn’t know any better. These aren’t films that are hurting anyone but they’re not doing much else either, eventually becoming little more than used VHS tapes that you can buy cheap at a video store going out of business, star vehicles made in between the hits that the stars are actually remembered for. The 80s were loaded with them and now, decades later, sometimes you see one of these things again for no particular reason other than to confirm your suspicion that it probably really wasn’t very good back then even when you maybe had an ok time watching it. Nothing wrong with checking to be sure, of course. Even bad films deserve the benefit of the doubt.
As I wrote about it, one of the highlights of the recent TCM Classic Film Festival for me was the new restoration of the 1931 version of THE FRONT PAGE which I had never seen all of before, being mostly familiar with the 1974 Billy Wilder remake and especially Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY which turned the lead reporter character into a woman and made it a full-on romantic comedy. But THE FRONT PAGE ’31 was a minor revelation, sharply drawn featuring some wonderful character actors as well as a finely honed sense of place which gave me a window to this particular world more than I had ever felt with any other version. And although the source material is largely confined to the age in which it originated, during the cable boom of the 80s it did inspire one more film which I didn’t bother to mention last time around. If SWITCHING CHANNELS is remembered at all these days it’s as the film Michael Caine had to drop out of because he was stuck filming JAWS THE REVENGE, also the reason he was unable to accept the Oscar he won that year. But that aside, this fourth celluloid version of THE FRONT PAGE has been erased from all memory, the sort of thing that maybe gets a brief mention in career summaries of the people involved and not much more. Released by Tri-Star in March 1988 just a few months after the acclaimed BROADCAST NEWS, even then it looked like not much more than an also-ran. My vague recollection is that when Kathleen Turner appeared on Letterman to plug the film and he remarked on the similarity she simply replied, “It’s funnier than BROADCAST NEWS” to which Dave laughed in her face. Now, it’s possible my memory is faulty on this point but regardless you’d better be able to back up such a claim even when you’re in publicity mode and that’s a tough one to pull off. For the record, SWITCHING CHANNELS isn’t funnier than BROADCAST NEWS. It’s isn’t funnier than a lesser MARY TYLER MOORE rerun. It isn’t even funnier than a ninth season episode of MURPHY BROWN. It did open the same day as the Richard Pryor vehicle MOVING, so at the least it has an outside shot of being the funniest movie released that week.
Christy Colleran (Kathleen Turner), hotshot anchor for the all-news cable channel SNN returns from a two-week vacation in Canada where she announces to the horror of boss and ex-husband John L. “Sully” Sullivan IV (Burt Reynolds) that she’s quitting the news game and marrying sports equipment tycoon Blaine Bingham (Christopher Reeve). But the day she stops by to break the news happens to be the very same day convicted cop killer Ike Roscoe (Henry Gibson) is set to go to the electric chair and Sully uses the opportunity to delay Christie’s departure so she can interview Ike and get his sad story on the air, predictably enraging Attorney General Roy Ridnitz (Ned Beatty) who is dead set on preventing the Governor from pardoning Ike. As the clock ticks down to the execution, they race to get the interview on air while at the same time Sully continues to do anything and everything to keep Christy from leaving town.
At some point in the past I’ve heard SWITCHING CHANNELS mistakenly referred to as a Cannon film which it isn’t although when you watch the film you kind of get why. Mostly shot in Toronto with a few Chicago exteriors there’s something slightly off about the whole thing with a slapdash, undeniably fake vibe as if it was actually made overseas somewhere, maybe directed by someone not quite familiar with the language so they don’t know to get certain nuances right. Director Ted Kotcheff certainly spoke English; he’d made the excellent FIRST BLOOD several years earlier as well as the comedy FUN WITH DICK AND JANE a decade previous but the work here feels tone deaf as if he never quite got a handle of how to play the farcical elements even if, to his credit, there are moments that play like at least he studied HIS GIRL FRIDAY a few times. In his recent autobiography “Director’s Cut” (which, just from glancing through it, looks like a very engaging read), Kotcheff mainly focuses on the reported strife between the two leads—Turner wasn’t happy with Reynolds as the replacement for Caine—and concedes that the film didn’t really work, calling the end result “apple juice rather than champagne”. Comedies are binary, he says, they work or they don’t and though it’s nowhere near the worst thing ever SWITCHING CHANNELS never really does. If anything at all, it’s most interesting as a screenwriting exercise designed to see how much it can remain faithful to the source material while updating it for modern times. Jonathan Reynolds (credits include the Blake Edwards comedy MICKI + MAUDE as well as, gulp, LEONARD PART 6) wrote the screenplay with the Hecht-MacArthur original given credit and in fairness it actually does come up with a few clever ways to bring the story into the modern age and still kinda, sorta make sense; certainly there’s nothing wrong with updating the premise to a cable news setting or the copier in place of the roll-top desk or the defense attorney pleading for justice in the place of street walker Molly Malloy. It’s just that everything seems heightened up a little too much in every single scene so the tone never seems quite right, it never seems believable even as broad comedy.
It’s also kind of sterile as a little cheap looking (or, as the Variety review pointed out, “production looks a little thin around the edges”) and just not as funny as it should be. You could say that the jokes are sitcom level but this was when CHEERS was on the air so let’s say they’re the level of an ABC sitcom circa 1980 with dialogue containing various references to jockstraps, Al Capone’s vault and multiple uses of the word ‘yuppie’ as a punchline. The frenetic tone doesn’t always match up very well with the three leads either, each of whom seems smarter than the material they have to play as well as the characters they’re supposed to be. The dialogue is missing the needed sharpness and while some of it, including the key phrase “Gentlemen of the press”, comes from previous versions some of it isn’t with a little too much crassness at times along with some misguided sentimentality as well. The visit with the condemned killer in this version and HIS GIRL FRIDAY is an interesting point of comparison; in FRIDAY Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson brings the barest hint of emotion to her deliberately flat dialogue, never going too far to betray how she feels, as a reporter would presumably do. Kathleen Turner’s Christy Colleran, meanwhile, is all empathy telling Henry Gibson’s Ike Roscoe “You don’t deserve to be executed,” which feels a little too much like editorializing and doesn’t leave much room for any subtext between the two actors. When Hildy Johnson leaves the jail cell she tells the killer, “Good-bye, Earl…and good luck,” which in the world of Howard Hawks is as powerful as a tearful embrace. The way SWITCHING CHANNELS adds extra emotion to the beat through the dialogue and how the actors are directed makes the moment fall flat. HIS GIRL FRIDAY is always about Hildy Johnson but in SWITCHING CHANNELS the focus is never strong enough to know for sure.
The Chicago setting is a carryover from the play and it makes just as much sense for SNN to be there as it does for CNN to be in Atlanta but it never seems like a global news organization, even with joking dialogue about all the Chicago fires they put on the air, focusing so much on local politics and cartoonish cutaways to people who supposedly live in the city. It’s sort of a reminder of that more innocent time when CNN was the sole all-news channel but it still never feels like the real thing and even the setpiece of the execution being filmed by the media who race into the jail scrambling to get a good look plays more as sitcom than something trying to be a NETWORK-type satire. Of course, a politician doing something blatantly evil in full view of the world isn’t such a crazy thing anymore but it still has no particular bite. Whether because of the structure forced on it by the previous versions or because it wants to be just a farce and nothing more, the film has nothing really on its mind, no greater point to make.
Maybe that’s part of the problem—the source material is a comedy about people who populate a very specific world and how they make that world (the names have been changed from THE FRONT PAGE for no clear reason, but this in itself isn’t a sacrilege). In its treatment of certain characters whether Ralph Bellamy’s Bruce Baldwin or the villainous Sheriff in any of them it makes it clear how they haven’t earned the right to be in that world. Here Christopher Reeve’s Blaine Bingham is more narcissistic than anything but the film’s portrayal of him almost wants to hold back on making him too much of a boob so when he pauses to admire the Chicago Picasso sculpture for a few seconds he doesn’t seem like that bad a guy. They’re just broadly drawn figures in a movie dumbed down from the material with myriad plot holes somehow trying to cover up that a state governor somehow wouldn’t know that an execution is taking place (I’d also imagine that a news anchor’s contract wouldn’t just let her leave on a moment’s notice and take a job in another city, but never mind) and since it’s based on an old movie anyway nobody did any research so the movie would attain the right sort of verisimilitude. When Burt Reynolds dismisses the idea of covering a summit in Belgium because no one knows where it is I can’t help but imagine Albert Brooks’ Aaron Altman from BROADCAST NEWS watching this and fuming at how his world is being depicted. The film isn’t smart enough to earn its own cynicism. Plus there’s that whole 80s day-glo sheen which makes all the fashions ugly to look at and while it makes sense that the large cast of reporters scrambling for the story would mostly be blow-dried nitwits, it still doesn’t make them interesting. Naturally the lead character is no longer the only female reporter in this world, with added bickering between the TV and print reporters but even the few comments on sexual politics are kept on the surface but in this film everything is anyway. The 80s were glossy and sleek and ugly but SWITCHING CHANNELS never wants to go any further than the surface in its commentary. I really don’t miss that decade.
It’s tempting to say that the film would have worked better with Michael Caine but it’s not like everything he actually made was always a winner (although later in ’88 he did wind up in a good remake of a comedy, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS) so we’ll never know. The template of THE FRONT PAGE really comes into play in the second half, moving over to the bland setting of a press room across from the jail and immediacy of it brings energy but never much in the way of laughs although surprisingly the Roy Bensinger equivalent is more of an anti-TV snob than the expected gay caricature, one of the low points of the Wilder version, so at least there’s something in the movie’s favor. But you can feel the strain of the film trying too hard to make this all play big and wacky so overly broad attempts to humiliate Blaine (sending him up in an elevator since he’s afraid of heights) or keep Christy from leaving (having underlings buy up seats on every flight leaving Chicago) don’t give the serious moments much credibility. Even the Michel Legrand score (with theme co-written by Legrand and Neil Diamond—NEIL DIAMOND?!) is way too over excited and the big band vibe maybe dates worse than anything else in the film. Since they got Michel Legrand maybe the whole thing would play better dubbed into French anyway but the timing would still feel off since it’s still lacking the correct metronome feel that would allow for everything to build to just the right explosion that the film never manages (I don’t want to be that hard on Kotcheff since, after all, FIRST BLOOD is pretty great). Even the few stabs at Chicago flavor never come off as authentic, partly because so much was shot in Canada (one of the Toronto locations is recognizable from turning up in Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS, released the same year) partly because it doesn’t seem to come from somebody who’s actually been there. It doesn’t seem to be interested in what the world it portrays really is since it’s all farce, when THE FRONT PAGE was what that world meant to the people in it. It’s the epitome of a film you kind of like when you’re younger, like I was when I saw it opening weekend, then you revisit it much later in life and are reminded how much of a line is to be drawn between the films that work and the ones that don’t, the ones that become more than they were ever meant to and the ones that recede into the distance. But hey, I was just a kid. I learned a couple of things eventually.
The three leads are all lively, I’ll say that, but they’re each kind of acting in their own movies. This was right around the peak of Kathleen Turner’s stardom and she always has presence and energy but seems a little too aloof at times as if she’s above all this nonsense which maybe she is; she was also somewhat famously pregnant during filming and as ungallant as it may be to point out that the giant blazer she wears through much of the film doesn’t quite cover up the fact (her costumes and hair aren’t so great either, if I can be real snippy about this). Burt Reynolds is pretty much playing Burt Reynolds, off in his own world and not always paying much attention to the other actors but he still probably has more energy than anyone else here even if it’s a little too much of a Hal Needham energy when maybe a few touches of Alan J. Pakula wouldn’t be so bad. Christopher Reeve gets the lesser role, as this part is going to be in any iteration of this material and maybe it’s the lasting fondness we all have for the guy but since he never comes off as shallow as the character he’s playing his few stabs at callousness never wind up meaning very much. It’s Ned Beatty who gets the most juice out of this and as over the top as he is, even doing a double take while eating popcorn, he still gets closer to the right tone than anyone else while Henry Gibson’s best moments are when he holds things back like when he quickly answers a few questions right before getting into the electric chair. George Newbern, also in the FATHER OF THE BRIDE remake, is Reynolds’ assistant and Charles Kimbrough, later of MURPHY BROWN, is the governor. Among the multiple Canadian actors in the cast is Joe Silver, a familiar face from David Cronenberg’s SHIVERS and RABID as well as, oddly, the film of DEATHTRAP which starred Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve.
Dedicated journalism is probably needed now more than ever but maybe this film isn’t the best example to use of that fact even though Ned Beatty’s corrupt state attorney, clearly meant to be an uneducated thug, doesn’t seem so bad right now and I couldn’t help but notice that the actor who plays his underling oddly resembles Paul Ryan. The 80s may not have been so great but maybe it’s not a good idea to compare them with where we are right now. As for SWITCHING CHANNELS, Sheila Benson’s review in the Los Angeles Times speculates that the thought process behind it is “the same kind of wishful thinking that produced the Alexander Haig presidential campaign” which, frankly, isn’t much better than a few similar lines in the film. Roger Ebert liked it considerably better, one of a number of films where Roger’s opinion now seems somewhat mystifying although he spends an odd amount of time in his review complaining about the absence of the play’s famous last line even though the way the plot goes there’s no way it could be in there anyway and HIS GIRL FRIDAY certainly got along ok without it. The film also pretty much marked the end of the A-list for the two male leads although Turner, with THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST and THE WAR OF THE ROSES coming up as well as the voice of Jessica Rabbit, still had a few years to go before V.I. WARSHAWSKI took care of that. Ted Kotcheff, meanwhile, went on the following year to direct WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S which of course everyone on the planet remembers. There’s nothing particularly tragic about SWITCHING CHANNELS being forgotten but it’s also not quite a career low for anyone involved and, hey, even bad films sometimes deserve a little love. You may even secretly like it and watch it late at night as some sort of comfort food. We all have those movies. It may even be closer to the reality of what goes on at certain news networks these days more than we realize. Still doesn’t make it any good, of course.

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