A Day at the UN
Do you think it would be funny to do a picture with the Marx Brothers at the United Nations?
Billy Wilder is widely regarded as one of the greatest film directors who ever lived. The Austrian-born, German-trained former newspaperman was a screenwriter before turning to directing. He is generally placed in the same pantheon as the great Preston Sturges, who inaugurated Hollywood's writer/director revolution of the 1940s.
The esteemed American critic Andrew Sarris, who popularized the French "auteur theory" in the United States, numbers Wilder among his favorite film authors. The auteur theory was conjured up by a collection of post-World War II French critics who held that some directors maintained recurring personal themes in their work and that these directors could be considered the authors of their films. Film is, of course, a collaborative medium, and the auteur theory does not assert that all directors are the authors of their films. As a matter of fact, the common misinterpretation that the theory proclaims the director is always the "auteur" of a film has resulted in a significant number of bad films during Hollywood's modern era. Nevertheless, Billy Wilder is truly an auteur, because he is quite literally the author of his films as their co-screenwriter and because they are fraught with recurring personal themes.
Wilder has made films in a variety of genres, and his output includes Double Indemnity, one of the definitive pieces of "filmnoir," as well as Some Like It Hot, the hilarious drag comedy. His oeuvre contains The Lost Weekend and Witness for the Prosecution as well as Kiss Me, Stupid and The Major and the Minor. By the 1960s, Wilder had turned almost exclusively to comedy, and in the post-Some Like It Hot era, the term Billy Wilder film pretty much suggested "comedy" to members of the audience. But this was a man who could summon despair as easily as hilarity.
Wilder's comic sense is, at least to some extent, an outgrowth of his fabled cynicism. And this cynical take on things causes even his "serious" work to be laced with comedy. Even a bleak Wilder film like the alcoholism chronicle The Lost Weekend contains many comic moments. The classic Sunset Boulevard might even be called a black comedy. (In the film's original opening, the deceased William Holden was supposed to sit up in the morgue and tell the other corpses his tale.)
Sunset Boulevard of 1950, the tale of a washed-up silent star, is a perfect embodiment of one of the recurring motifs that define Wilder the auteur. The European who embraced America and became a primary creator of its motion pictures has had a fascination with and lifelong love of America's pictures and its starsparticularly from the era that first entranced him in his youth. Sunset Boulevard, of course, sees these enthusiasms through the prism of Wilder's cynicism. We are treated to a macabre look at what the once-grand figures of Hollywood's silent era had become. But soon thereafter, following a particularly dark Wilder effort called Ace in the Hole, the director decided to return to the theme from a much brighter perspective.
Wilder had observed that due to declining American box office during the early television era, the postwar European market was becoming responsible for an ever larger percentage of a motion picture's gross. He decided this meant that he could successfully make a feature starring Laurel and Hardy, despite their career eclipse in the States, since they were still popular overseas. He asked Norman Krasna to collaborate with him on the script, for which he had already contrived the basic story.
It would be set during Hollywood's silent era. The opening sequence would be a long shot of the Hollywood sign. Moving closer, we would discover two figures sleeping within the OsMr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. They were to play movie extras who lived in a cemetery. A rich widow would meet Ollie while visiting her husband's grave and would fall in love with him, but she would hate Stanley! The classic "Who does Hardy love more?" situation would thus come into play.
Unfortunately, Krasna couldn't stand working with Wilder, who belittled him, and left the project. (He later helped Wilder with Avanti!) Wilder enlisted Edwin Blum to replace Krasna, whereupon Oliver Hardy up and got sick on them. Wilder ended up making Stalag 17 instead. He returned repeatedly, however, to this period of American history and eventually returned to the notion of revisiting a classic comedy team.
While making 1960's The Apartment in New York City, Wilder was staying near the United Nations. He witnessed the cold war hubbub surrounding the place and one day asked his collaborator I. A. L. Diamond, "Do you think it would be funny to do a picture with the Marx Brothers at the United Nations?" Diamond took to the idea, and off they were to (a day at) the races.
Groucho liked the idea and told Wilder to make a deal with the group's agent, their brother Gummo. Gummo felt the deal was doable, so Wilder and Diamond developed the idea into a 40-page treatment.
Groucho was to be the leader of a mob that decides New York's police department is so tied up with UN delegate protection that it would be possible to rob Tiffany's unnoticed by the distracted officers. Chico was to be the "muscle" of the organization, Harpo its safecracker (shown in one scene to be unable to open even a can of sardines). Navigating the New York sewer system, they would steal four suitcases of diamonds from Tiffany's before attempting to escape on a tramp steamer bound for Brazil. There would, however, be an anti-Communist demonstration when they got to the pier, and somehow the police were to mistake them for the UN's Latvian delegation. They would be given a police escort to the Latvian embassy, just when they would otherwise have been able to escape. The comic climax was to have been a scene wherein Harpo addressed the entire General Assembly without uttering a soundutilizing his classic bag of tricks, including horn honking and girl lunging, while multiple foreign interpreters "translated."
Unfortunately, as with Laurel and Hardy, age and infirmity crept in. Harpo had a heart attack while rehearsing for a TV special, and though his health improved, they were unable to get insurance for the project. Shortly thereafter Chico died, and that, of course, was that.
Wilder went on to do the Jimmy Cagney starrer One, Two, Three, which revisited the fast-talking style of some of Cagney's 1930s Warner Bros. movies.
It's a pity that we didn't get to see this potential Marx Brothers classic. Wilder was at his comic peak, having just made Some Like It Hot and The Apartment in rapid succession. Groucho was riding high, having starred for more than a decade in television's You Bet Your Life. Harpo's contemporaneous TV appearances indicate that he was undiminished by time. And this would have been only the Marxes' second chance to work with a top flight director. The first, their collaboration with Leo McCarey, had resulted in Duck Soup, perhaps their finest film.
The brothers had not worked much as a team during the previous decade or more but had recently warmed to the notion, having previously filmed a TV pilot called Deputy Seraph. Though there were no further Marx Brothers projects, Groucho did return to the greasepaint-mustached character in Otto Preminger's 1968 Skidoo.
Wilder later created his own classic comedy team by pairing Jack Lemmon and Waiter Matthau in 1966's The Fortune Cookie. But neither Wilder nor the moviegoing audience got to enjoy the Marx Brothers by spending a day at the UN.
The Adventures of Fartman
Stern has said that "the deal fell through over Fartman coffee mugs."
There are two ways to dislike Howard Stern. One is by being a celebrity whose feelings are hurt by Stern's radio eruptions. The other is by never actually having heard him (only having heard about him).
Howard is not merely a "shock jock." Unlike the witless annoyances who compose the bulk of radio "comedy," Howard is not broadcasting primarily as an abrasive who rouses listeners from their slumber. He's there to be funny and to speak in the voice of the American proletariat. That voice is not always pretty, in the same way that rap music can be a drag. But if rap is the news of the ghetto, then Howard's rap is the rap of the common man.
The audience's connection with him has been borne out time and time again as his New York-based radio show has expanded to other markets. Stern, the outsider, tends to beat his local adversaries because being local doesn't mean his competitors have anything in common with their listeners. Howard speaks both to his audience and as his audience. He is one of them, even if from afar.
His audience has followed him from radio to books, from radio to television, and from radio to motion pictures. The move to motion pictures proved most fortuitous of all, for it demonstrated to many of Howard's critics what his audiences already knew: Howard is a real man, possessed of real feelings and real experiences. He is not just a venom-spewing machine. Viewed in that context, his volcanic verbalizations take on a different hue. It's one thing to read Howard's utterances in cold, black print. It's another to hear them directly, mitigated by the nature of the man.
This is not to argue that Howard's humor isn't coarse. His humor is coarse, of course (of course), but, equally important, it is humor. Howard's successful foray into video produced the classic Butt-Bongo Fiesta which could be considered a great experimental film.
Howard's screen debut in Private Parts (adapted from his book) won him many new fans and served to humanize him in the hearts and minds of the general public. There has been much less hue and cry over Howard since Private Parts' release. In its wake, he's been able to appear more mainstream, even crossing over into big-time television. Might a more authentic debut feature have offered not the man, but his workthe coarse, unvarnished voice of the people that radio fans have come to love and that critics hate?
It certainly was in Stern's character to do it that way. Early television efforts featured lesbian components and other inflammatory offerings. His first syndicated series even broadcast the adventures of a character called Fartman. The character had originated back when Stern was doing his radio show in Washington, D.C., and was a fine example of the unvarnished Howard.
Well, if things had gone according to plan, Howard would have made his movie debut with a character like that. In fact, he would have made his debut with that very character. The Adventures of Fartman was to have been Howard Stern's premiere theatrical release.
The visual appearance of Fartman, a superhero character, changed over the years leading up to his intended movie debut. On Stern's WWOR TV program, Fartman wore a toilet seat around his neck instead of the more traditional superhero cape. On 1992's MTV Music Awards show, Fartman's outfit was glitzier. The character entered from above, and when he reached the stage a new costume innovationexposed butt cheekswas revealed. From between said cheeks (at least seemingly) came an explosion.
As you can see, by this point in the nineties both Howard's and Fartman's profiles were expanding. New Line Pictures decided that the time was right to bring Howard to the motion picture screen, and Fartman was believed to be a suitable vehicle.
Screenwriter Jonathan Lawton, who had written Pretty Woman and Under Siege, was brought on board to script the heroic opus. (Howard claimed that Lawton had seen him invoking Fartman on a Leno Tonight show and exclaimed, "That's my next picture!") A story was developed in which Howard was to play a New York editor who was also the powerful Fartman! His heroic counterpart was created when evildoers stuffed him with a sludgy compound that gave him "colonic powers."
The movie was thought capable of filling the Wayne's World niche and was expected to be a successful summer comedy. Unfortunately, though development did commence, Howard and New Line never actually came to terms regarding the picture. No contract was ever signed.
There was, however, a comic strip adaptation of the first five pages of the hilarious script. In the bowels of the city, we see a hooker getting roughed up by some ne'er-do-wells. Fartman, his face covered with stubble, arrives on the scene and blows the villains away (you know what I mean). The grateful hooker tells Fartman, "Any time you want a free one, just ask for Bruno."
The hooker turns out to have been a transvestite, and a disappointed/disgusted Fartman "turns the other cheek and is gone with the wind."
Stern has said that "the deal fell through over Fartman coffee mugs." In truth, New Line, which had missed out on a fortune because they didn't have the licensing rights to the characters in their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, didn't want to make the same mistake again. The 5 percent licensing interest reportedly offered to Howard just wasn't sufficient as far as the comedian was concerned.
Also, Howard had envisioned Fartman as an R-rated movie, while the studio apparently wanted it to be PG-13yet another bone of contention.
It may have been a better career move for Howard to have made Private Parts, but fans were deprived of the opportunity to get their comic savagery undiluted. It's very possible that more people would have gone to see Fartman than attended Private Parts. But Fartman would never have humanized Howard in the minds of the media the way Private Parts did. The world, however, has enough humans. There was only one Fartman.
Excerpted from The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made
by Chris Gore. Copyright © 1999 by Chris Gore. Excerpted by permission.