Sherlock through the decades

So having seen the recent Sherlock Holmes movie, I thought I’d take a survey through the past and look at some older Holmes movies, particularly funny ones: Without A Clue (1988) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother

Without A Clue
Without A Clue

Without a Clue holds up pretty well, though the buffoonery seems a little silly. The premise of the movie is that Watson created the Holmes character to hide his own involvement in detective activities. Of course, the actor he hired to play Holmes is a doofus. And hilarity ensues. By contrast, Holmes’ Smarter Brother appears alternately stale and insane. There are some funny moments in it, and my everlasting love for Madeline Kahn (and soft spot for Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman) gave it wide latitude to be mediocre, but much of the film just doesn’t hold up.

  • The difference in humor in the thirteen years is striking. In 1975, Wilder has just come off a run of very successful films, with both Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein appearing in 1974. There are pratfalls and silliness–such as Holmes falling off a roof into a rain barrel, complete with slide whistle–as well as outrageous goofy humor that only people like Dom Delouise can pull off. Without a Clue is much more reserved, with little of the humor happening in a way that could break the audience’s disbelief.
  • Both films rely on Moriarty as the central bad guy. In Wilder’s film, he’s spun out past any kind of real villain to be a kind of Elmer Fudd character. Without A Clue‘s M is much more restrained, only looking silly during the final sword fight against Holmes.
  • Speaking of which, both films have closing sword fights and, surprisingly, establish plausible reasons that Holmes would know much about sword fighting. (Perhaps “plausible” stretches credulity a bit for “Adventures,” since that film establishes Holmes’ sword-fighting ability through his duel with a bicycle-powered robot fencing machine.)
  • Both films also reach their denouement in a theatre.  The decision to take this remediated story (from literature to film) and bring it to a third presentation format seems strange to me, but compelling as well.  Bravo!
  • Oddly enough, though I think Without A Clue holds up as a better film, it’s not as memorable.  Many of the jokes were pretty funny, but the unhinged surreality of movies in the 1970s let Wilder make gags that will stay with me, I’m sure, much longer than those from Without A Clue.

Anyhow, they’re amusing if you haven’t seen them. I would probably stay away from Adventures unless you’re a fan of 1970s comedies–it’s pretty dated. I couldn’t help but wonder if the mid-list comedies of the 2000s, like Talladega Nights, will be similarly dated and ludicrous in 2030.

Mixed Nuts keep getting tastier

Just before he went out the door and was run over by a truckload of mixed nuts.
Just before he went out the door and was run over by a truckload of mixed nuts.

I did some searching and discovered that I haven’t written any posts about this most underrated of holiday movies.  If you haven’t seen it, and your heart isn’t three sizes too small, take a look at the under-appreciated 90s gem, Mixed Nuts.

The film tells the story of Philip, a hapless hopeful who runs a suicide hotline that’s about to be shut down and booted out of its building.  His coworkers and others who find their way into the story run a gauntlet of Christmas cheer and goofiness, reminding us, in the end, just what Christmas is all about.  Some thoughts:

  • Duh, but if you haven’t seen it, here’s the cast: Steve Martin, Rita Wilson, Anthony La Paglia, Madeline Kahn, Juliette Lewis, Adam Sandler, Liev Schrieber, Gary Shandling, and Rob Reiner.  Plus, cameos from Jon Stewart and Parker Posey.
  • There’s a genius scene in which Madeline Kahn is stuck in an elevator and noone knows that she’s there.  She starts hollering in the hallway, and the sound editing lets you hear her in the background as we cut to inside the hotline office, where her co-worders don’t hear her.
  • This time around, I noticed lots of little things in the set design, like the hilarious art on the wall in the apartment.  The hangdog velvet painting just must have been picked by Catherine, while the pith helmet hanging on the wall in the bathroom could have been a souvenir from Philip’s days in the Peace Corps.  There’s also a poster for the condo development on the Wall behind Mrs. Munchnik in a later sequence.
  • There’s a great bit about a “plan” at 6:00 or so in the clip below.
  • The 1950s family that Liev Schriber storms out on makes me laugh every time.  When the family chants “Arnold, Arnold, Arnold” the guy playing the piano plays a low monotone beat to accompany them.  Hilarious.

My 10 Favorite Characters in the History of Movies (part 1)

Brian tagged me with the “10 Favorite Characters In The History of the Movies” meme a while ago, but somehow I missed it in his blog. I’ve been working on this since the 19th, writing a bit each day. Like Brian, I offer the caveat that this is provisional on my mood.  I’ll post this over three days.  I’ll tag the next folks now, though.  Roger, documentary site, Andrew, Rob.  Go!

1. Hawkeye Pierce

Hawkeye Pierce
Hawkeye Pierce

Hawkeye is the kind of man I would want to be (I’m more of a Radar, I’m afraid). While I try to live up to the moral certainty that he shows, I can’t lampoon authority the way he does. I can’t spit in the eye of the hurricane, and doubt that I would be able to survive the rigors of war with such aplomb. Hawkeye embodies the best of the spirit of the 60s, the whimsy that Ken Keasey and his Merry Pranksters dripped from that day-glo bus. But he’s also the rational man in the irrational world. And for that I like him an awful lot. Plus, there’s that awesome whistle.

Hawkeye has been on my mind lately as I recently learned that a friend from high school who paid his way through med school in ROTC has just been deployed to Afghanistan. I’d like to imagine my friend keeping his sanity in the face of war, perhaps with the same cool Hawkeye does.

It’s hard to see Southerland’s Hawkeye with the same perspective that we can see Alda’s. Southerland doesn’t get much opportunity to show the heartbreak that the series allowed for. There are moments, don’t get me wrong, but it’s the prankster that we remember from Altman’s film, while the world-weary clown that stands out from the series.

2. Fred Gailey

John Payne
Fred Gailey

Miracle on 34th Street‘s idealistic lawyer stands in, for me, for all idealistic lawyers. As a consummate law-and-order man, a rule follower, the idealistic legal eagle strikes the chord that resonates in my heart. I could easily have picked Atticus Finch or The Rainmaker‘s Rudy Bailor or Mr. Smith who went to Washington, but Fred appeals to me on an emotional level deper than those others.

I love the way he takes Kris on his own terms, engaging without a moment’s hesitation a man who claims–in all seriousness–to be Santa Claus. There’s a sense of empathy at his core I aspire to.

In bringing a wink and a nod to his approach to life, in defending “people who are being pushed around,” Gailey stands directly opposed to the crass commercialism flowing around the rest of the characters in the film. Despite my pose as a rational man, I like Gailey’s idea of faith — believing in things when common sense tells you not to. He has a strong sense of justice and whimsy.

Plus, the way he arrows out of the living room to “check on the meat” under Doris’ whithering stare makes me laugh every time.

3. Mrs. White

Mrs. White
Mrs. White

It’s hard to choose a Madeline Kahn role for this list. Mrs. Munchnick from Mixed Nuts, Lilli Van Schtupp from Blazing Saddles, Mrs. Frankenstein. All are genius. In each, Kahn shows a remarkable talent for brilliance among an ensemble cast.

“Someday, Wadsworth, when we’re alone together.”
“No man in his right mind would be alone together with you.”

When she’s frustrated she blows a raspberry.

She does a little screech after Wadsworth uses his lights off trick. It’s perfect.

Regarding one husband: “Someone cut off his head and his, well, you know.”

Regarding another husband:

Wadsworth: Your husband disappeared
Mrs. White: Well he was a magician
Wadsworth: But he never reappeared
Mrs. White: He wasn’t a very good magician.

But Mrs. White stands out. She’s icy and cold, but funny. She wields her sexuality like a gun.