Thursday, June 5, 2008

Not To Drink Is To Call Her Ugly

It’s been less than a year since I attended the American Cinematheque screening of Blake Edwards’ THE PARTY at the Aero in Santa Monica and I still haven’t forgotten the thrill of the standing ovation given to the man at the end of the film. I knew it wouldn’t quite be the same to go back for another Edwards appearance but I did it anyway. After all, I’d never seen WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? and certainly screenings of it don’t come around very often. That drive all the way out to Santa Monica during rush hour gets worse all the time and no, it wasn’t quite the same. But it was unique and the film was certainly worth it.

Set in 1943 Sicily, the World War II story focuses on Captain Lionel Cash (Dick Shawn) a type-A by-the-book type who is ordered by General Bolt (Carroll O’Connor) to head a company to take the tiny town of Velerno. Cash is assigned a ragtag group led by Lieutenant Christian (James Coburn) and they have little interest in following his orders. Once the company gets to the town, they find the Italian soldiers led by Captain Oppo (Sergio Fantoni) are willing, absolutely happy, to surrender, but not before the annual village festival which is scheduled that night. Reluctantly, Cash is talked by Christian into allowing the festival to proceed and soldiers from both sides freely join in the festivities with wine flowing everywhere. When everyone awakens in the morning hungover, there is a sudden situation involving the mayor’s daughter Gina (Giovanna Ralli) leading Captian Oppo to refuse to surrender. But with headquarters demanding to know what is going on, both sides quickly realize that they have to fake a battle so no one will find out the truth. The real problem develops when what they're doing winds up looking a little too convincing, leading to an unexpected side taking an interest.

Made by Edwards between THE GREAT RACE and GUNN, WHAT DID YOU DO feels more like a romp than an out-and-out comedy, but it still offers many laughs throughout. Within its wartime setting, it never becomes too heavy-handed and the script (story by Maurice Richlin and Edwards, screenplay by William Peter Blatty) is extremely well-constructed with new elements not only continually turning up, but expertly kept in the air and eventually paid off. Edwards’ knack for purely visual gags is greatly on display as well, particularly in the montage displaying the various soldiers the morning after the festival, all passed out in various unexpected places and circumstances. It’s also a terrific example at displaying how good Edwards was with the camera to tell his story--framed through the Scope lens, the town itself becomes another character. Simply put, it’s a very funny, enjoyable film which deserves to be better known.

As for the cast, I’ll freely say that Dick Shawn has never been a favorite of mine. Something about his persona just always seemed too plastic for me to enjoy but it’s safe to say that except for his part in THE PRODUCERS (which certainly wasn’t a lead role) he’s never made me laugh like he does here. The character is consistently played, how he changes makes sense and Shawn becomes one of a number of other Edwards actors who are forced to dress up as a woman at one point and the results are as funny as anything in the movie. James Coburn, in one of another of his sixties iconoclast roles, seems a little like a Hawkeye Pierce prototype here and is just right as his character, consistently funny and unpredictable. Giovanna Ralli is both gorgeous and she has sharp comic timing as Gina and Harry Morgan (speaking of MASH) as Major Pott gets one of the funniest subplots but if you haven’t seen it, no point in my ruining it. WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? isn’t quite a hidden Edwards masterpiece, but is an example of just how good he could be at the peak of his abilities and would work extremely well for anyone interested in a more lighthearted war movie in the vein of KELLY’S HEROES—maybe it’s my prejudice for Edwards showing, but I think I like this one better. And, of course, the music is by Henry Mancini which naturally gives it an advantage.

Edwards, who apparently hadn’t seen the film since it was released, was present for the post-film Q&A which I have to say was just about the strangest of these I’ve ever attended. Since the director, who is very weak by now, was obviously unable to go up front for the talk, he stayed at his seat with a microphone while the moderator questioned him from the screen. Edwards’ advanced age, nearing 86, was very obvious as he acted cagey about certain things and not remembering others. When asked about his directing style which includes many long takes that play out without cuts (seen in many of his films) he didn’t seem to say much about it beyond simply “I did what I did,” which of course manages to say nothing and everything at the same time. Soon enough the entire audience was facing and gradually moving towards the back of the theater, which became an odd sight and a slight murmur went through the crowd as people quickly realized that the woman in the baseball cap next to him who was offering him encouragement in his answers was in fact wife Julie Andrews. Once or twice when someone asked something he didn’t seem to appreciate Edwards jokingly (?) offered to take that person outside and beat the crap out of them. Which, in his current state, certainly wasn’t going to happen, but was still very funny. Maybe I should have asked a lousy question, just to say that Blake Edwards threatened to kick my ass. What I’m saying is, it wasn’t a Q&A that I could coherently summarize.

The second film being shown that night was A SHOT IN THE DARK which I didn’t stay for, partly because I’ve seen it many times already (the same reason Edwards gave, incidentally). With many people around them, the couple slowly made there way outside to the car to applause from people in the street, watching them, myself included. Nothing more to say about it except to think about the sight of a pair of entertainment legends, older than we ever think of them being, driven off into the night down a quiet street in Santa Monica. In addition to witnessing that moment, I’m glad I saw WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? which served as a reminder of the various reasons why I’m such a fan of the director in the first place and all the special things he has brought to the screen in his long career.


Ivan said...

Mr, Peel,
I'll be renting WDYDITW,D? - whew! - because of you. I have fond memories of this movie - who can't love that mid-1960s Coburn? - but hadn't seen it in years, and worried that my nostalgia had made it better than it was.

WDYDITW,D? was shown regularly (in a *very* pan-&-scan version) on ABC's 4:30 movie in NYC when I was a kid.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Glad to hear that you'll be renting it and I hope you enjoy it. I can imagine that every movie that ever ran on the 4:30 movie aired in a very pan and scan version. At least, that's how they play in my memory. Few pieces of music are as majestic as the theme to the 4:30 movie.