Sunday, May 12, 2019

My Favorite Year (1982)

No one knows Melvin Kaminsky.  Who am I even talking about?  Nobody, at least as far as the world is concerned.  He was just some schlump from Brooklyn.  From there, he vanishes off the map, never to be seen again.  The public at large could care less about the Melvins of the world.  Back in the 1950s they were more interested in what was then a new medium: television.  Not long after Melvin disappeared off the map, the new TV format played host to a series called Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar.  In terms of impact and legacy it was the first breakout variety show of its kind.  It's possible to trace a line of influence and inspiration from Caesar's show all the way to Saturday Night Live, and from there to shows like The Office, and performers like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  Caesar was the one who got the ball rolling in the first place, however.

The mainspring of what made Your Show of Shows unique, however, was the group of writers that made up it's creative core.  The names in the writer's room were impressive, to say the least.  Besides Caesar, there was his partner in crime, Carl Reiner.  There were also little known guys like Mel Tolkin, who never became a household name, but still had a major impact behind the camera (especially if you take into account that he was one of the guys who got All in the Family off the ground).  In addition there were more recognizable figures like Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, and Melvin Kaminsky.

The Brooklyn kid just got lucky is all.  He was one of those natural born class clowns, the kind of guy who somehow has a knack for finding the punchline even while lost in the middle of a crowd.  If I had to take a guess of where he got it from, the most logical answer is that it had to be some form of survival trait.  People can't beat the living snot out of you if you've managed to make them double over with laughter.  This survival trait soon became a lucky sort of meal ticket, as Melvin was able to impress Caesar enough to be invited to write for YSOS.  After all these years, Melvin had finally found a place where he belonged.  He also decided to change his name to Mel Brooks.

Of course the gig was never easy, and his boss could have a bit of a temper.  One time, when Melvin kept harassing his boss in the middle of lunch because the pressure was getting to him that day, Sid resolved the situation by holding Mel out the window by the scruff of the neck until he realized he was complaining about nothing.  Then there was this other time an actual horse got in the way of a bit.  According to Mel, Caesar was able to physically deck an animal twice his size and strength.  There may be just a bit of exaggeration around that last bit.  The point is sometimes life behind the camera was just as much of a cut-up as it was on-stage.
There was this one other time when Erroll Flynn was scheduled to be the guest star on Your Show.  He was an old actor from Hollywood's Golden Age.  Think of him as a cross between Schwarzenegger, Michael Caine, and Daniel-Day Lewis and your may not be close to the mark, but at least your within shouting distance of it.  Anyway, the point is that Flynn was booked on Caesar's show.  Therein lies a tale worth telling...

The Story.

Benjamin "Benjy" Stone is one lucky kid.  It's 1954, Joe McCarthy's career is dead, and somehow he manages to land his dream job, working as a staff writer on the King Kaiser Cavalcade, the top rated show in the country.  To top it all off, he managed to move out of his parent's house!  The best is yet to come, however.

Next week, Kaiser has scheduled none other than Alan Swan, the man, the myth, the washed-up has-been to appear as his upcoming guest.  There's just one hiccup.  On the day he's scheduled to arrive for the first day of rehearsals, Swan is late.  When the old actor decides to show up at last, he's flat-on-his-face plastered.  Kaiser is seriously thinking of ditching the old man from the show until Benjy intervenes.  Kaiser is impressed (or else just plain ticked off) enough to offer Benjy a deal.  They'll keep the has-been on the schedule.  The catch is Benji has to act as his de-facto handler.  Stone's job will be simple: keep the booze-hound sober enough and out of trouble till after the show wraps up on Friday night.

The assignment sounds simple enough, and Benjy is a born fan of Swan's, so he says yes.  The trouble is Swan is from a generation when Hollywood worked hard, and partied even harder.  As they say, sometimes you just can't teach an old dog new tricks.  You also can't keep a guy like Alan Swan from not keeping it in his pants, or staying within shouting distance of sobriety.  The week turns into a strange trip as Benjy follows Al on a never ending quest for thrills and adventure.

As if that wasn't enough, Kaiser finds himself getting harassed by a mobster who wants him put on ice on account of he doesn't like an upcoming sketch the King plans to unveil, and which is pretty much a satire of the the guy who would like to fit the star of the Comedy Cavalcade for a cement overcoat.  So now the job is keep the guest from getting himself or his handler killed, while also avoiding a contract on the head of the biggest name in Television.  Yes sir, life is pretty grand for Benjy Stone right about freakin' now.

A Love Letter to a Bygone Age.

In some ways it's difficult to figure out just how much exaggeration has gone into My Favorite Year.  Producer Mel Brooks always maintained that the whole film was inspired by the time he met the former Robin hood actor back in the day.

"The depiction, claimed Brooks “is pretty damn close. My company made it, and I made sure that we were telling the truth. I was locked in the Waldorf Towers with Errol Flynn and two red-headed Cuban sisters. For three days I was trying to get them out of there, and he was trying to get me drunk and in there. It was the craziest weekend of my life. I was 20 years old and just starting with Your Show of Shows. He was a tough guy to corral and get to rehearsals. Max Liebman assigned me to him and said, ‘Get him into rehearsal! Make him learn his lines! Work with him on the sketch!’ Errol Flynn was a raving maniac. All he wanted was booze and to fool around. He did learn the sketch. Actually, I whispered into his ear when he was asleep. I’d say all the lines and unconsciously, I knew it would get through to his head,” Brooks told Jeffrey K. Howard in an interview for Film Score Monthly in 1997 (web)".  That said I'm pretty sure Brooks never once dressed up as a waiter just for the sake of allowing Flynn to make off with some other guy's date.  At least I hope not.
While there may always be questions about what in the movie is true to life, there is a sense of personal experience that lingers over the film as it's narrative unfolds.  While the story itself may be fiction, it is this sense of lived experience that lends the proceedings an underlying sense of authenticity for the viewer.  You get the idea of listening to an old man recount the good old days while helping another relic regain some of his past glory.  This is most evident in the scene where the crew tries to come up with a script.

The scenes in the writer's room are welcome for two reasons.  The first is that they are a fond look back at the days of misspent youth, combined with being a veiled roman a clef snapshot of a number of talented minds coming together for a brief moment to pioneer new ways of telling a joke and making people laugh.  The second reason is that it all comes off as just plain fun.  Screenwriter Norman Steinberg gives the dialogue in these scenes an infectious camaraderie based on equal parts put-down, encouragement, and a curious, yet endearing form of crack-pot insecurity that really has to be seen to be believed.  It gets even better if you take the time to wonder if what the actors are doing may be true to life at moments in these scenes.  This scatter-brained form of nostalgia continues as we watch the cast in crew make ready for the live broadcast.  These elements are able to give an idea of how talent can start out small and continue to grow, while also keeping a smile on your face.
In particular Basil Hoffman needs to be cited as Herb, a staff writer whose even more insecure than Benjy, and who always has to make his opinions known by whispering into another person's ear just so they can pass it along to everyone else.  Hoffman is able to make this gag work, carry it throughout the film, and end it on a punch-line that actually manages to pay itself off.  It's a minor role, yet it's a testament to both Hoffman and Steinberg that they are able to make such a small role stand out so well.  As it is, I'm left wondering if Hoffman's character is based on the likes of Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, or perhaps both.

This is also one of those films where the viewer just might find themselves up on the screen.  Benji Stone is a role for pretty much all the losers of the world who just can't shake this nagging interest in the arts.  It's also a work that champions the enthusiasms of people who like a lot of the oldies.  At one point, Cy Benson, the show's head writer, complains of Benjy's idol, "You call what Swann does acting?  That's not acting.  That's kissing, and jumping, and drinking, and humping!  I don't know why we're wasting our eyesight on this crap".  To which Ben makes the following appeal: 

Cy: Crap!  This is crap.

Benjy: That was the best part!

Cy: There is no best part.  Swann never made a decent movie in his life.

Benjy: Cy, that one, Defender of the Crown, is a classic.

Cy: Crap.

Benjy: And so is Captain from Tortuga.

Cy: Crap.

Benjy: And what about Swords of Glory?

Cy: Crap.

Benjy: Amarillo?

Cy: Crap.

Benjy: Sands of the Sudan?

The film titles are fake, the scene itself has a lot of cliches in it that might make it hard for others to take it seriously, yet there's no denying the passion that exists as Benjy lists off his idol's accomplishments.  Hearing the main character list off the names of his favorite films, only to bet met with either indifference or outright hostility is just something I can't help identifying with.  It's a scene that should speak to anyone with a passion for classic cinema, and an understanding of the importance of preserving the past.  It's like the figure of King Kaiser says not long after, "He is a legend.  One of the biggest stars ever.  He's one of a kind.  A guy like this is irreplaceable".

Sandwiched in between these exchanges is a moment that is always a surprise because it leaves me in stitches.  One of the things that makes this film great is to discover just how much of a natural comedian was to be found in the late, great Peter O'Toole.  This is demonstrated when he introduces himself to Kaiser, Benjy, and the writers.  He comes in "plastered", and proceeds to pass out in athletic fashion on the room's only table.  It takes our hero a while to bring Kaiser around to agreeing to keep Swann on as a guest.  Kaiser even makes a bet with Benjy that Swann won't even make it to the airdate.  If that happens, the solutions is simple: Benjy's out of a job.  It's bad odds.  It's also an offer Ben can't refuse.  To everyone's surprise, Swann adds his money to the wager, and then proceeds to fall asleep flat on his face in the middle of the office while on company time    

For whatever reason, that moment left me doubled over my dinner table with laughter after coming back to it in a long while.  I'm not sure I even remembered that scene.  All I could recall at the time was vague images of O'Toole and Baker making their way through Central Park.  Now, seeing O'Toole's sense of pitch-perfect comedic timing just makes me sad he was never given a better opportunity to showcase this aspect of his talent.  It's hard to explain the comedy of scenes like that except to say that it is all pitched just right.

While O'Toole is the highlight and star of the film, he is not it's protagonist.  That role goes to Baker's Benjy Stone.  The character is clearly a stand-in for Mel Brooks, and the biggest hazard is that the main lead could have been something like a preening Gary Stu type.  The good news is that Brooks is willing to be honest with the young man he used to be.  Benjy is a decent enough sort, and a natural wit, yet he also lacks a lot of the social graces that comes with a broader experience of the world.  He's a young man  with a lot of growing up to do (if that's even possible (which it probably never was, and we just like to pretend it's possible as adults).  This can be seen in his interactions with K.C., the girl who has caught his eye.  The trouble is the Benjamin always let's his lack of self-confidence get in his own way.  This makes him come off as too defensive and aggressive with K.C., when it's clear he has an actual thing for her.  The trouble is he let's his insecurities turn his constant stream of proposals into an on-going train-wreck  "Benjamin," she exclaims, "who would want to go out with you?  Every time you come near me you embarrass or humiliate me.  I mean, what do you want from me"?  To which the young lad's immaturity leaves him with no other choice for a response except: "...Sex"!

As the film goes on, and Benjy interacts with Swann, he is able to understand and take the elder star's advice, and begin to show signs of a latent maturity in his dealings with K.C.  This is most evident when the two share a date in the writer's room.  These scenes may be a it on the sentimental side, and it is in these moment when audiences may understandably use to make a pit stop or scrounge for a refill or bite to eat.  However, it's heart is in the right place, and on the whole, moments like this are harmless.  This scene also has a nice bit of met involving the two kids watching an elaborate re-creation of the end of  The Adventures of Robin Hood, with O'Toole standing in for Flynn.  This moment of a film within a film is neat because it asks us to judge just how much we value the art we take in.

If there is any one element I could single out for criticism, then it would have to be the role of Benjamin's step-father.  That role is odd in an interesting sort of way.  Benjy's mom has re-married, and her new husband is a Chinese boxer named Rocky.  On the one hand, this creative chocie could almost be termed laudable, as part of that plot element is a veiled hint at racial integration.  If they'd taken this role in a more mature direction, then perhaps it would have been at least a notable side plot that is there without being forceful or distracting, and instead something as natural as the seasons.  To his credit, Brook's heart is in the right place.  The trouble is he's a natural born comedian, and he plays this part up for laughs.  It's clear he's not trying to be disrespectful, a point that Brooks drives home with a conversation between Rocky and Swann where Ben's step-dad is given his due.  It's just that I wonder how this scene will come off to post-modern audiences, especially if their sense of humor is not up to the level Brooks is working at.  The funny man himself even admitted he'd never be able to get away with Blazing Saddles if he made the  film today.  So, all I can do is wait and observe, as the final verdict is still out on aspects of older films like this.

A Tale of Two Tricksters.

Aside from O'Toole's star turn as Swann, there is the figure of King Kaiser, played by Joseph Bologna.  Kaiser is interesting because he isn't just there for comic relief.  It's true that all his scenes are the movie's B plot.  However this sideshow has a bit more connecting it to the film's main story.  Based in large part off of real life comedian Sid Caesar, Kaiser is a man bursting with talent and energy, and he doesn't always know what to do with it.  This gives him a temper driven by fear of failure, as well as success.  At the same time, there is a grain of steel in this simple variety show host that makes him both a natural leader as well as a comic talent.

Swann, by contrast, does bear a certain likeness to one of Dickens' famous characters.  Like Sydney Carton, Swann is a man who finds himself alienated from normal life.  This isolation seems to be by choice, as Swann, like his Dickensian counterpart, finds it hard to get along with or trust people.  In Swann's case, this lack of trust has turned him into a bit of a rogue, willing to flaunt society and it's claims on him.  The curious part is that it has also given him a sympathy for the outcasts and underdogs of society.  This is a virtue that he shares not just with the figure of Carton, but also King Kaiser.

Both men are cast as mercurial tricksters who are able effect subtle changes in those around them.  For Kaiser (or rather Caesar), it comes from helping to lend a new, modern voice to the then current state of American humor.  For Swann, it is in helping Benjy to overcome his own insecurities, and perhaps learn a working-class level of something that is in or near the vicinity of what may or may not be charm.  In Swann's case, this goes on to be a form of learning to take his own advice.

The Ghost and Necessity of the Past.

At one point during the proceedings, while characters are in a night club, there is the briefest shot of a photo on the wall.  It was less a photo, really.  It was a framed sample of one of those old New Yorker cartoons.  In this case, it was a framed, illustrated head-shot.  While I've never had an eye for visuals, the reason that photo jumped out of the frame was because I recognized the man in it as Robert Benchley.  He's as obscure as Melvin Kaminsky, yet for a short amount of time he was the Mark Twain of his day.  He was well regarded writer for the New Yorker, as well as something of a stand up comic who published funny short-stories, and even became something of a movie star in his own right.  Then the days came and went, and who is Bob Benchley, anyway?  I think that photo is the perfect symbol for the idea behind this film.  Here is where director Richard Benjamin is helpful with his DVD commentary.

Benjamin proves to be quite observant about both the past, and how the progression of years tends to bury it under tons of earth both figurative, and literal.  As a director, Benjamin seems to know the value of at least trying to preserve as much of the past as possible.  He's also very knowing about what it took to make the present what it is today.  This is evident in Benjamin's musings on the kind of people who worked on Your Show of Shows.  According to the director, these people were the product of various walks of New York life: "New York is a big character in this movie.  These are all New Yorkers.  The New Yorkers, the terrific, scrabbling, kind of energetic New Yorkers that are these writers and these comedians could only come out of basically the Bronx and the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  They had to fight their way into these positions".  At the very least, his words serves as a helpful cautionary note for those who believe that anything can be taken for granted.

He also notes some interesting shared traits between Caesar, Brooks, and a lot of the other big names of that era: "As Neil Simon told me, these guys, they had all different names, but they picked royal names: King Kaiser, Sid Caesar, Alan King.  When you think about it, they came from nothing, they came from the Lower East Side or somewhere and had nothing.  And when they invented themselves, as these performers, they became larger than life, and they were".  That was pretty much the same narrative arc described by guys like Benchley.  He won his position through a combination of natural wit and talent welded to a sense of sheer will that just kept at the typewriter day in and out.  Benchley, Caesar, Flynn, and Brooks were all lucky in their way.  They each came of age in a time when, at least for people like them, talent could still go far enough to speak for itself.  There seems to have been a gradual drop off in whatever kind of social contract made such achievements possible. 

"So", Benjamin continues, "this was based on Caesar, and Your Show of Shows.  And Your Show of Shows was a live, hour and a half show, thirty-nine weeks a year; with long sketches.  Not short sketches; not little blackouts; not one-liners, but long comic sketches live every week".  Nowadays what Benjamin describes is considered the norm.  Back then, it was almost unheard of, strange as that may sound.  "And so these guys," he explains, "had all of this on their shoulders, and it took a tremendous toll on them.  I mean, they behaved in very erratic ways, as you see Joe does in the film, because of the pressure and stress that they were under".

Finally, Benjamin notes the important relation of all this between the past, present, and future: "The essence of the picture, also, is that here's live television, and which takes place in 1954, it's brand new, it's young, it's courageous, it's live.  And here's the new in Joe playing King Kaiser, and here's what's leaving, what's fading out are the Errol Flynn like movie stars.  And that's really what is at the heart of the picture: the beginning of something incredible and wonderful, and the ending of a whole Golden Age of motion pictures".

Conclusion: Looking backward, moving forward.

There is an interesting dichotomy at the center of My Favorite Year.  From an anthropological perspective, it seems to be about the relation of the present and future to the past.  What the film seems to suggest is that people always face an uneasy, yet necessary co-existence with their own history.  The way it seems to be is that sooner or later every new generation takes over the reigns of the order of things, or at least it tries to.  The curious part seems to be that in order to handle it's own struggles and accomplishments, it is always having to borrow or take a leaf from, or look back to the past, in order to move forward.

For some reason that doesn't sound like a very novel idea.  To be fair, though, I don't think Brooks and Benjamin where interested in this film for the sake of novelty.  I think they were a pair of elder statesman trying their best to bequeath a legacy for future generations to learn from.  I merely note the interesting fact that this legacy seems to be a constant paradox.  It is both optional and non-optional at the same time.  Yes, people can make a conscious choice to ignore the past in both a personal and collective capacity.

The trouble is such choices always seem to incur a pretty steep bill of fare, meaning the natural course of events often forces the person to turn back to the very history they are trying to ignore.  It's only when this confrontation with the past is made that the future can often be discovered at the same time.  This is the challenge confronting all three main character's in Brook's film.  Two men who represent the future, and yet they can't be themselves until the reckon with the past.  At the same time, Swann can't go back to being himself until he realizes what made him a hero in the past.  In some ways, the idea of the past is the theme hovering over every inch of this film.  It's something that characters have to contend with and understand in order to move forward.  It also provides what might be a secondary theme of the flick, the necessity of knowing what parts of the past are worth preserving.

If all this is something like a natural task confronting the human person, whatever that may be, then the real value of My Favorite Year is that it asks why the past matters, and also serves as a reminder of why it should be preserved.


  1. Never seen this! But I'm supposed to be watching it with a friend sometime soon, so once we do, I'll come back and give the post a read.

    1. Hope you enjoy it. It's both funny charming, more or less.