When Woody Allen had his musically inexperienced cast singing and dancing in Everyone Says I Love You (1996) with their mostly mediocre voices, he didn’t raise as many eyebrows because there was a precedent to having novices croon classics in a stilted comedy-musical format: At Long last Love, the biggest dud of Peter Bogdanovich’s career, and the film that’s often cited by critics as being his career killer with major studios. That, and winner of the Medved Bros.’ Golden Turkey Awards (World Musical Extravaganza in Hollywood History).
Were the critics in 1975 utterly wrong in blasting Love as a steaming turd? Was Roger Ebert a lone voice of sanity in defending the film for its ‘light, silly, and impeccably stylish’ take on frothy, risqué musical comedies of the thirties?
When Bogdanovich made What’s Up, Doc? in 1972, he successfully (well, mostly) mimicked the screwball comedy genre, but to a fault: by copying the best bits from the classics and needle dropping contemporary actors in those quaint but often limited roles, he made a colour copy that felt unnecessary; it was an experiment that marginally succeeded by a few amusing gags, and an incredible talent pool of gifted comedians.
Bogdanovich also captured the fast-pacing of Howard Hawks’ comedies, and the film did move with crisp ease when most of the screen action involved door slams, circuitous dialogue, and a car chase through the streets of San Francisco.
So if copying the classics worked once, why not do it again?
Well, for one, there wasn’t Buck Henry to write dialogue that imparted some semblance of character archetypes, as well a coherent script. Love is all Bogdanovich, but it’s supposed to be a fanciful fable.
Bookending the movie are credit sequences involving a brass music box. During the main titles, two pairs of dancing brass lovers swivel, pause, and swap partners before coming to a rest point, thereby starting the film. Love is essentially the director’s meditation on what brought the little figures together, and whether their intermingling romances and mate-swapping will yield a happy ending.
Much like contemporary musicals (Mama Mia! and that ilk) which consist of popular songs strung together to form a kind of Voila! We made it all work! libretto, Love is structured around 16 Cole Porter songs that are somehow supposed to tell the fable of three couples coming together under the most unlikely of circumstances.
Johnny Spanish (Duilio Del Prete) is an Italian-American gambler who woos broke debutante Brooke Carter (Cybill Shepherd). Drunk playboy Michael Oliver Pritchard III (Burt Reynolds) just smash cuts to romancing singer Kitty O’Kelly after his chauffeur-driven car swerves and sends Michael crashing into Kitty, herself just recovering from another night of heavy drinking.
Michael meets Johnny and Brooke while attending Kitty’s sultry song and dance review, and when Brooke recognizes Kitty as her old public school chum, the threesome head down to Kitty’s dressing room after the show, and the newly minted quartet decided to head over to Michael’s mother’s mansion, where they can drink, have sex, and running around wearing hangovers the next morning.
Woven into this fabric is an undercurrent of attraction between Michael and Brooke (say it ain’t so, Joe!), and the budding non-romance between house chauffeur Rodney “Rod” James (John Hillerman) and Brooke’s attendant, Elizabeth (Eileen Brennan).
One night while trying to spruce up a dour dance among creaky old couples in the family’s grand ballroom, Johnny spots Michael with Brooke, but rather than having both betrayed halves concede defeat at being cuckolded, they decided to make the new lovers jealous.
That tactic (surprise!) works, but it ultimately splits the couples along gender lines because men-can’t-be-trusted. Nevertheless, all issues are eventually resolved at a grand dance, but after Michael & Kitty and Johnny & Brooke are briefly dancing cheek to cheek, the dancers are told to change couples, and before the end of the song things slow down. Bogdanovich then dissolves back to the brass music box figures, and closes the film with a silent end credit crawl.
The finale actually makes sense: the dance and reunion for the main couples is incomplete, and will only reach a conclusion when someone winds up the music box, letting the figures dance one more time.
END OF SPOLIER
The plotting in Love is nowhere as daft as Xanadu (1980), the cokehead monstrosity that involved aliens; nor The Apple (1980), written by Comet-sniffing dunderheads. The problems with Love are actually quite straightforward, and they were sewn when Bogdanovich crafted his fable by relying on the lyrics of creaky risqué songs from disparate vintage productions.
The near-exclusive use of lyrics meant Bogdanovich didn’t have to spend much time on dialogue, so what’s said outside of song is rudimentary bridge material. That left zero room for character development, and each character’s introduction feels like a needle drop: Johnny gambles and hopes to get rich; Michael’s a drunk; Brooke’s a spoiled brat and snotty poseur; Kitty is worldly, but we’ve no idea from where or whence; chauffeur Rod is annoying yet obedient and a social pal of Michael; and Elizabeth is just there to get her paws around Rod’s little rodney.
The woman are all variants of the classic Hawksian dame – wise-cracking and able to hold her own with men- but in a Howard Hawks film, there’s generally one, not three who sound alike.
Shepherd also plays a pretty girl who wears big-rimmed spectacles because she’s horribly near-sighted – a reference to Marilyn Monroe being blind as a bat in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), a film where three pretty women go after rich dudes to ensure a stable room and board.
Because he has no character to play beyond a “good racket club boy,” Reynolds plays Burt Reynolds, comedy-action star, trapped in an awkward place where he has to sing and strut, and strains to make it look like he’s having oh-so-much fun when he’d rather be strangling his agent for making the deal memo irrevocable.
Kahn is surprisingly svelte and sexy – a polar shift from dowdy, roundy Eunice in Doc – but while Bogdanovich gives her a sexy number to sing in the contrived Cole Porter musical-within-a-musical scene, he covers the damn thing in a medium-to-wide shot, wasting any chance of creating something vibrant.
Del Prete is the most likeable of the foursome, but his archetype is drawn from the creaky stereotype of a good and earnest Italian boy who arrived on the boat, and needs one good break in Ah-meh-ricah. (Bogdanovich’s Hawks fetish also doesn’t work when he has other characters addressing Johnny as ‘Hey Spanish’ – a reference to Hawks’ own habit of giving characters ironic and absurd nicknames.)
The brass music box at the beginning of the film plays Cole Porter (“You’re the Top,” which also bookended Doc, and seems needlessly repetitious here). Radios play Cole Porter music, and the main cast croon Porter songs. Collectively it’s an overload of sameness, since the songs are sung either by specific couples, or as with the title song, sections are shared by each of the three couples. Artie Butler and Lionel Newman’s music direction evokes thirties orchestrations while the cast sing in their seventies voices, and the underscore also beats Porter songs to death by repeating melodies without reflecting any of the characters’ scant psychologies.
The most grievous choice isn’t forcing his cast of experienced, novices, and never-done-it-befores to sing & dance, but to do so live. Part of the negative publicity surrounding the film focused on Bogdanovich’s bizarre choice to film the actors singing as the cameras rolled, and not to a pre-recorded, pristine music track, and it just doesn’t work for fairly obvious reasons: Hillerman and Brennan singing in the fully tiled kitchen brings unwanted audio reflection and renders their already ugly tones echoey, and dynamically flat; a duet between Del Prete and Shepherd has the former shouting his lines up to the latter when she’s perched at the staircase’s peak; and Reynolds and Shepherd singing while swimming in the mansion’s pool is accompanied by score, water swirls, and bubbles.
Shepherd and Kahn’s stroll in the park was obviously filtered down to remove surrounding tree, bird and wind racket; and Kahn’s first song in her apartment has her voicing to specific mic placements or projecting to a terrified boom operator, who must have ground his teeth in fear of telling the director the sound still stinks.
Bogdanovich may have tried to create a Hollywood backstage look through bright lighting, lush set design, rich colours, beautiful costumes, and using lots of intimate medium close-ups and medium shots, but the film has no scope.
Bogdanovich’s lack of any visual breadth means the racetrack footage feels like telephoto shots taken by the second unit, and Kitty’s musical show – represented by one song – is visually flat in spite of Laszlo Kovacs’ graduated lighting scheme - an approach that worked, for the most part, in the finale of Barbra Streisand’s A Star is Born remake, filmed a year later).
Kahn has legs, and her stage persona has oomph, yet Bogdanovich maintains a staid distance when the camera needs to convey some of the exotica that Kahn is clearly working out (something she managed far more successfully as Lili von Shtupp in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles).
Of the six actors, no one sings well. Shepherd had in fact released a Porter album prior to the film’s release, but there are only two songs in which her range and delivery work, and turn a grating bitch into an ephemeral sweet love interest. Del Prete is okay, but only because the physical energy he puts into his character feels earnest; everyone is just doing schtick demanded by Bogdanovich after being told to watch and mimic the mannerisms of actors in a handful of classic musicals. Kahn’s voice – which crosses over into operetta – is also too aggressive, and she often flattens the high peaks in Porter’s melodies.
Reynolds, however, is a disaster. One comment by an online defender states the actor is no worse than Rex Harrison speaking his way through Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady (1964), but Harrrison was playing a curmudgeon closeting a seething passion for the stupid girl he turned into a butterfly, so his non-singing was I tune (so to speak) with his inability to emote.
Reynolds is supposed to sing whole songs, or be accompanied by co-stars who can’t sing well either. In the pool scene, for example, he’s embarrassing; and in a bedroom duet with Shepherd, there’s a lengthy instrumental buildup before Burt Reynolds opens is mouth to sing, and one is compelled to scream ‘For the love of God, DON’T! KEEP THAT MOUTH CLOSED!’
Of course he must open his big mouth, and of the beloved Porter classics, beautiful words and elegantly conceived harmonies are pushed through the blades of an inarticulate lawnmower. Tunes like “Just One of Those Things” are murdered in cold blood, and during the mansion’s ballroom sequence, the quartet sing “Well, Did You Evah” – and it’s a horror show, because what Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra managed to create as drunk, love-hungry men in High Society (1956) is drawn, quartered, and peed on.
Bogdanovich has the actors weave through the dance floor, changing partners and ‘being ironic,’ and it’s a completely dead sequence, with everyone straining to please the nuances and mugging demanded by the director because he wanted every movement to directly evoke antecedents from thirties musicals, regardless if it looked clichéd, faux, or dumb.
There are parallels here to Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), but only insofar as the indulgences that made The Deer Hunter (1976) so affecting turned Heaven’s Gate into an overlong, meandering bore. Bogdanovich’s dedication to mimicking the past worked more or less in Doc, but makes Love completely shallow.
More amusingly, like Heaven’s Gate, Love suffers from bad sound: Cimino’s ‘natural’ mix obliterated the audience’s ability to hear actual dialogue, and Bogdanovich’s decision to use production sound affected the score’s fidelity (and probably sounded equally hideous on the film’s 2-LP soundtrack album that will never, ever get a CD release). At least with Cimino’s film, MGM hoe video was able to go back to the music stems and reconfigure the Dolby mix into something intelligible; if Love was released in mono, there are no stems to clean up and fix.
For cinephiles, there’s a perverse fascination in seeing this legendary dud, but it’s a weird kind of virginal escapism peppered with antique risqué lyrics that evoke a modest chuckle, but it has no depth, no characters, and no soul. It neither affects nor sustains itself as a guilty pleasure; it’s an ill-conceived artistic experiment that slowly turns into a live-action train wreck, ripping apart sacred songs without intention.
This mess cost $6 million in 1975. Distributor Fox pulled the picture when the reviews made it impossible to defend the film, and Bogdanovich was compelled to publish a public apology for making a dud.
Whether it’s music rights, film ownership issues, or Bogdanovich wanting the film to fade into oblivion, Lost remains unavailable on home video, but it has appeared in rare TV airings, albeit in a shorter 100 version.
(While the editing is as tight as Bogdanovich’s Doc, there are seams that show some serious trimming. A few scenes end before music cues are resolved, and more garishly, it’s likely the biggest time loss is during Johnny’s intro song: as he steps away from a poker table, the scene cuts mid-song to Del Prete already singing another tune as he approaches a paper vendor. It’s likely the choppiness of these numbers come cuts made by stations who felt that of the four main stars, the one people would care least about is Italian Del Prete.)
The film’s MIA status may stem from no one willing to pay or renegotiate home video fees for the film and music, and frankly the interest in Bogdanovich’s experiment has waned. Too many years have passed since its public rejection and its entry into the Medved’s Golden Turkey pantheon, and as most studios are stepping away from physical home video releases, perhaps the only way the film can be seen again, widescreen and uncut, is as a digital download, or Fox’ own HD movie channel.
Reynolds also co-starred in Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon (1976), but he managed to hit pay dirt with his own brand of comedy (and weird, whiny laugh) in Smokey and the Bandit a year later. Shepherd co-starred in the grim Taxi Driver (1976) before finding greater success in TV 10 years later with Moonlighting. Kahn remained a strong part of the Mel Brooks/Gene Wilder stock company, and Del Prete returned to Italian productions, such as Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s The Divine Nymph (1976), and later horror films, such as Lucio Fulci’s Voices from Beyond (1994).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan