A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards

A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards

by Sam Wasson

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819569158
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2009
Series: Wesleyan Film Series
Pages: 370
Sales rank: 1,184,701
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

SAM WASSON is currently working on a book about Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He lives in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

BLAKE BEGINS

1955–1959

BRING YOUR SMILE ALONG (1955) Jerry: You'll get further with a smile than you will with a frown.

HE LAUGHED LAST (1956) Doctor: He laughed himself to death.

MISTER CORY (1957) Mr. Earnshaw: Manners, Mister Cory. I find them a prerequisite in any circle.

THIS HAPPY FEELING (1958) Mitch: When a man retires he doesn't give up women. Not entirely anyway. When a man does that he's not retired, he's dead.

THE PERFECT FURLOUGH (1959) Colonel Leland: He's loose in Paris? Liz: Everybody's loose in Paris.

Edwards gets off to an Edwardian start in Bring Your Smile Along, a B musical he conceived and directed under the mentorship of Richard Quine, and the first of his two Frankie Laine pictures for Columbia. Looking back on it he said,

I recognized very early on that [directing was] where the control was. And it was more fun for me, too. I get great rewards from writing — the best rewards — but then I have my joy and my fun and my laughs on the stage because it becomes for me a kind of extended family. And I always work best that way. I need that family.

Out of his crew came a family — a stock company of favorite actors and technicians — and later, out of his own family would come a crew — a posse of actual relations (son, daughter, and, of course, wife) plucked from the Edwards dinner table to star, write, and even co-direct alongside the patriarch. "My life has always been a struggle to create a family around me," Blake said, "I needed it, I didn't have it, and I wanted it desperately." And on Bring Your Smile Along he got it.

The film offers several key, though rudimentary, glimpses into the auteur-to-be. Chief among them is an interest in the true nature of idenity, a fascination that will nourish Edwards' comic and dramatic technique for the next forty years of filmmaking. The identity question is introduced early in the film when unemployed songwriters Jerry Dennis (Frankie Laine) and Marty Adams (Keefe Brasselle) discover a sheet of mystery lyrics slipped under their studio door. At first, Jerry and Marty refer to the unknown author as "he," though, as the audience knows, it is actually their new neighbor, Nancy Willows (Constance Towers), a she. It is an innocent enough confusion, but it gains significance as one that looks ahead to the gender plays that will dominate Edwards' later farces. Farce, as we will see, is a form perfectly suited to identities revealed and concealed, and in Bring Your Smile Along, Edwards makes a few notable gestures in that direction, some of which result in the kind of antic physicality, both on and off camera, that will, in time, blossom into pitch-perfect splurching. But those are all nascent components. Bring Your Smile Along's most prominent feature is its musicality, presented here in a style borrowed from Quine's own singing pictures, but it isn't until He Laughed Last, made the following year, that Edwards' uniquely Edwardian realization of performance spaces truly begins to come into focus.

He Laughted Last, Blake's second Frankie Laine vehicle, is a Runyonesque tale about a mob boss and the empire he bequeaths to his gun moll, Rosemary (Lucy Marlow). She's really big-hearted underneath it all and isn't cut out for the back-alley lifestyle like Max Lassiter (Jesse White), the former second-in-command, who plans to marry the girl and regain control of the organization. Rosemary likes a cop, though, who's concerned about her family ties and getting her out safely, which puts the dame in a tough spot, especially with respect to the ermine and pearls. Lucky for her, she's in a Blake Edwards comedy, which means she'll show the fellas what's what ("you gonna take orders from a dame?"), and turn masculinity on its head. She also does a few numbers at the Happy Club, directed with a sense of spatial awareness that rehearses Edwards' musical presentation of Darling Lili. Performance space is ideal for Blake's split characters, especially female figures who struggle with conflicting allegiances, inner crises, and ultimately the most Edwardian tension of all — how they appear to be versus who they really are. A couple of gags look ahead to The Pink Panther's use of off-screen sound and space; architectural framing predicts the proscenium frame; bright, saturated colors abound; and the occasional outburst of knockabout physicality proves that Blake's interest in rubber bodies was with him from the start. It is only 1956, and the director has shown signs of the artist he will come to be.

Auteurist gesticulations are also evident in the picture's thematic components. We've got reversals of gender and power structures, nostalgic yearning for "the good ol' days" (the story is told in flashback), and even gruesome readings into the perils of humor. Originally titled He Died Laughing, He Laughed Last makes our acquaintance in the form of a title sequence that begins with bullet-hole lettering shot out of a machine gun. It's cute, but it hurts. After mob boss Big Dan (Alan Reed)'s hospital scene, the commingling of laughs and death is reinstated quite literally when the doctor, hunched and bespectacled, declares the boss "laughed himself to death." The absolute high point of dying/laughing occurs late in the film in the "mix the cement" routine, which plays out more like a vaudeville insert than mafia murder. Edwards has infused a torture scene with emotional unreality, somewhere between pantomime and cartoon, and all with a theatrical, self-conscious ear for rhythm that removes the naturalistic threats of danger.

In fact, there is never any anxiety in He Laughed Last. Like the gangsters we will see in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Revenge of the Pink Panther, and Victor/Victoria, these wiseguys all lack that Corleone something. They are teddy bears dressed up in pinstripes, failures when it comes to real authority, and, consequentially, first-rate splurching material. Observe the cigar gag: played twice, it splurches at the expense of Max Lassiter, king of the phonies. Both times it begins with the off-screen sound of what is best described as gunfire. Edwards then cuts to the reaction shot of an uninvolved participant, and then to the source of the sound, Lassiter's exploded cigar. The choice of sight gag and its visual construction answer to Blake's enthusiasm for busted masculinity (the cigar, which is not just a cigar) and the jumble of perception and actuality; that is, when we hear the sound we think gunshot, but when Edwards cuts to the smoking butt we know we've been intentionally confused. Lassiter's reaction to the reading of the will works in exactly the same way: the off-camera crash (audio only), followed by a reaction shot of an observer, and then the reveal — the splurched victim writhing on the carpet. Even Jimmy (Dick Long), the cop, a genuine authoritarian, is at risk of suffering a weensy pratfall, composed of the off-camera audio punch line, the befuddlement of perception (a closed door refutes what's actually behind it), and, quite naturally, a face-first spill designed to deflate him at the peak of his arrogance. The comic mechanism is admittedly crude, and without the elegance of later Blake, but it is effective nonetheless.

Enter the crane shot, a recurring character in Edwards' musicals. In He Laughed Last, the camera movement romances those of director Vincente Minnelli gliding in from on high, drifting over the audience's heads and on up to the stage. More than just an establishing technique, the crane draws us through space in a manner that carefully alters our understanding of key expositional elements. Gino's (Frankie Laine) performance of "Danny Boy" for instance, begins with his close-up and pulls back ever so slowly to reveal a crowd of spellbound listeners, and continues back until the entire screen is filled with audience. As in (Darling) Lili's rendition of "Whistling Away in the Dark" (still to come), Edwards changes personal space into public space with a swift movement that helps him play the game of peek-a-boo he loves so much. He uses cranes, like gags, to reveal, to take a point of view and then, in a flourish, revise it. Minnelli's glide may help an aria take flight, reinforcing it, but Edwards suggests otherwise. By delaying our awareness of an audience, and thereby "tricking" us into thinking the performer is alone, it represents the inherent duplicity in performance. No, Blake's saying, this isn't a confession, this is an act.

The film received good enough notices to earn Edwards another shot behind the camera. "An amusing spoof," went Variety, "The pacing is good and the laugh handling productive." Most papers responded in the same fashion. They saw in it the stuff of competent comedy, and in Lucy Marlow, an up-and-coming Judy Holliday. (Frankie Laine, for reasons it is difficult to comprehend, was regarded as having an auteurist's influence over the picture). The Hollywood Reporter's piece on He Laughed Last, although unfavorable, is noteworthy for having singled out, as early as 1956, a soon-to-be trademark of Edwards' work. "More deadly than devastating," they said, the film was "mostly frantic without being funny," adding, "The chief flaw in the production is that the gangsters seem to often to be not amusing but deadly and unpleasant. With all the credits going to Blake Edwards, he will have to take the blame for the production's general failure as well." Ah, yes: the bad taste, the sick jokes, and the death fixation. Thus commences the great critical kvetch that will trail Blake for his next forty years.

And here is Mister Cory to the rescue. Blake's 1957 film, which he called his "first film of any consequence," allowed him a bigger budget, gave him a bigger star in Tony Curtis, and was his first film out from under the shadow of Quine. Although Cory was adapted from a story by Leo Rosten, Edwards was given sole screenwriting credit. From script to screen, he imbued the picture with the kind of formal, thematic, and comic inclinations that would make his best work work. Among them we see a solid (though rudimentary) engagement with topping the topper, a gag structure passed down to Blake from director Leo McCarey (discussed at length in the section onThe Great Race), and gestations of what will become Edwards' visual style, rooted in the notion of exteriority.

In the film, Tony Curtis plays Cory, a gruff kid from the windy streets of Chicago, who in the brisk opening moments of Mister Cory makes it clear that he's going to get the hell out and make something of his life. His transformation comes not in the form of physical abuse (as we will see in the films to come), but in his realization that style — the seductive appearance of things — isn't really as wonderful as the window of Tiffany's makes it out to be. Indeed, the film's love triangle, a not-so-equilateral exchange between Cory and two sisters (one beautiful, one fun), elucidates Blake's investment in the perils of book covers and the illusions by which they are judged.

The casting of Tony Curtis is perfectly in keeping with the Tiffany dialectic. As a Bronx boy turned Cary Grant, Curtis represents the ideal combination of gruff and glamour, a persona that, as the film demonstrates, is equally at home with a carburetor as it is in a tuxedo. Curtis' voice, too, is town and country; baritone tough, but Spartacus smooth. In fact, Curtis was so well suited to the Edwardian agenda that Blake cast him in three more of his pictures, a distinction that earns the actor a place beside Jack Lemmon and Peter Sellers as one of the director's principal appointees. However, as we will see in The Perfect Furlough, Operation Petticoat, and The Great Race, Curtis was not recalled to play one of Blake's men in crisis (like Lemmon) or splurch-worthy pretenders (like Sellers), but to embody a natural inner duplicity that is to Blake Edwards inherent in the human condition. Over the course of these four films, Curtis makes the same arc he does in Mister Cory. From street kid (Cory), to rake (The Perfect Furlough), to smoothie (Operation Petticoat), to a fancy-man hero (The Great Race), both sides of Tony Curtis find expression throughout his nearly ten-year collaboration with Edwards. By the time he reaches the Great Leslie, his character in The Great Race, Tony won't be the one throwing the splurches in the kisser of authority (as he does in Cory), he will be the one receiving them.

A large part of Blake's aesthetic is determined by this interest in the risks of self-stylization. If truths are never what they seem, then "in [Edwards'] comedies, the widescreen space becomes a vortex fraught with perils — hidden traps, aggressive objects, spaces that abruptly open onto other, unexpected spaces." Critic Dave Kehr is terrific on this point. The idea here is to place a man at odds with his environment, something Kehr relates to the visual composition of Edwards' thrillers, in which "the threat comes not from empty space, but from the crowding of objects, colors, surfaces — the hard, cold thingness of things." Space in Mister Cory, neither thriller nor comedy, works in the exact opposite manner. Rather than make his frame frighteningly claustrophobic for a thriller or hilariously cluttered for a comedy, Blake opens it up. Thus, dramas like Cory are free from spatial restriction. Instead, Edwards offers an aesthetic of exteriority.

To do so, he employs one of his favorite angles — introduced in Mister Cory — a two shot, wide, generally shared between a man and a woman facing one another. They are far enough apart to make a close-up difficult, but squarely within slapping distance. The shot will play out in a master take, often lasting for minutes on end without so much as a pan, tilt, or dolly. Theoretically, an arrangement such as this — one unimpeded by cuts or movement — keeps us at an objective distance. It emphasizes the actual space between its subjects, doesn't play favorites by manipulating our gaze, and ultimately holds us outside character subjectivity. In other words, it is a shot about surface exteriority. We are meant to regard the scene with an eye on its physical properties, not for the psychological complexity of its people. In a world where style gets in the way of authenticity, this kind of shot is no less than totally precise. Mister Cory has it in spades.

For reasons we will see, these master shots do wonders for the sight gag (and vice versa), but in the meantime, before slapstick becomes Blake Edwards' primary carrier of narrative, character, thought, and theme, they will do well to service dialogue. For Myron Meisel this is at the auteur's heart. "The most immediately recognizable quality in a Blake Edwards film," he writes, "is a wise-guy verbal facility keyed to visual fluidity across a lateral field," adding, "Edwards charges his surfaces with significance by using the appearance of objects to suggest their essence. The same principle applies to the behavior of his characters." Or rather, can apply. The character of Cory is most certainly stricken with the malady of appearance, but he is punished for it. In Edwards' films, those who overcome it (as Cory in fact does), or, better still, those who know how to really use it (generally artists) are the ones that transcend pretense, evade the harshness of the gag, and earn their director's deserved admiration.

And the critics were pleased. "Robert Arthur's production wears a slick polish, enhanced by the use of Eastman Color and CinemaScope, and the physical values do a first rate job of backing the dramatic action, even when the latter shows some thinness here and there. Blake Edwards' direction gets good performances from the cast and gives the storytelling a well-paced unfoldment." ("Unfoldment"?) "The achievement of Mister Cory is primarily that of Blake Edwards, its writer-director, who steers an improbable raft of story situations past the shoals of disbelief and disaster. Despite having what the censors would describe as low moral content, the movie depicts high life in a manner constantly intriguing to those who are not quite able to afford it." And there they are again: "slick polish" and "low moral content." Blake was on his way.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "A Splurch in the Kisser"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Sam Wasson.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Matters of Introduction
Prologue: Breaking In, 1922-1955
BLAKE BEGINS, 1955-1959
Bring Your Smile Along (1955)
He Laughed Last (1956)
Mister Cory (1957)
This Happy Feeling (1958), The Perfect Furlough (1959)
BLAKE BUILDS, 1959-1962
Operation Petticoat (1959)
High Time (1960)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Experiment in Terror (1962)
Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
BLAKE BLOSSOMS, 1963-1968
The Pink Panther (1964)
A Shot in the Dark (1964)
The Great Race (1965)
What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966)
Gunn (1967)
The Party (1968)
BLAKE BURNS, 1968-1974
Darling Lili (1970)
Wild Rovers (1971), The Carey Treatment (1972)
The Tamarind Seed (1974)
PANTHER PICTURES (BLAKE BANKS)
Sellers Lives: Return of the Pink Panther (1975)
The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)
Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)
Sellers Lives On: Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)
Curse of the Pink Panther (1983)
Son of the Pink Panther (1993)
BLAKE BOOMS, 1979-1982
“10” (1979)
S.O.B. (1981)
Victor/Victoria (1982)
BLAKE BREAKS, 1983-1988
The Man Who Loved Women (1983)
Micki + Maude (1984)
A Fine Mess (1986)
That’s Life! (1986)
Blind Date (1987)
Sunset (1988)
BLAKE BOWS, 1989-1991
Skin Deep (1989)
Switch (1991)
Epilogue: Making Out, October 24, 1993
Appendix: Filmography
Appendicitis: How to Make a Blake Edwards Movie
Notes
Recommended Reading
Index

What People are Saying About This

Ed Sikov

“Reading Wasson’s book is like having a couple of beers with your friend, the Blake freak. I was continually amazed at the exacting nature of the descriptions of shots and sequences and the intelligence of the analysis that grows out of them.”

Andrew Sarris

“Sam Wasson has undertaken nothing less than the critical resurrection of Blake Edwards, whose 40-film career, by turns good, great, bad, but never indifferent, has been ridiculously underrated by the critical establishment. Wasson very readably displays the scholarly background, writing skills, historical sophistication and balanced judgment to succeed in his objective. One hopes this impressive work will inspire a splurge of revivals and retrospectives of this more than intermittently hilarious filmmaker.”

From the Publisher

"Sam Wasson has undertaken nothing less than the critical resurrection of Blake Edwards, whose 40-film career, by turns good, great, bad, but never indifferent, has been ridiculously underrated by the critical establishment. Wasson very readably displays the scholarly background, writing skills, historical sophistication and balanced judgment to succeed in his objective. One hopes this impressive work will inspire a splurge of revivals and retrospectives of this more than intermittently hilarious filmmaker." —Andrew Sarris, film critic, The New York Observer

"Reading Wasson's book is like having a couple of beers with your friend, the Blake freak. I was continually amazed at the exacting nature of the descriptions of shots and sequences and the intelligence of the analysis that grows out of them." —Ed Sikov, author of Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers

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