Saturday, July 28, 2018


“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be brief. The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules or took a few liberties with our female party guests. We did. But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few sick, perverted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational systems in general? I put it to you, Greg— isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do what you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you bad-mouth the United States of America!”
-- Eric “Otter” Stratton, ’63, Gynecologist, Beverly Hills, California
Forty years ago, on July 28, 1978, National Lampoon’s Animal House was unleashed upon the world.  A modest, low-budgeted comedy in which its own studio, Universal Pictures, held little faith, it quickly became not only a well-reviewed hit, for a time the highest-grossing comedy in US box-office history, but a genuine cultural phenomenon which inspired a tidal wave of on-and-off-campus food fights, toga parties and general collegiate misbehavior, as well as a seemingly endless parade of movie comedies strung out over the following four decades that would strive to duplicate (with wildly variant degrees of success, of course) its underdogs-vs.-the establishment formula and unapologetically anarchic spirit.
Later this month, in Eugene, Oregon, there’s a 40th-anniversary toga party-centric celebration of the movie being staged to mark the occasion, headed up by the movie’s local casting director, Katherine Wilson, and others who participated in the filming of Animal House on and about the campus of the University of Oregon, many of whom still live in and about that community. But other than a recent onstage cast reunion at the Turner Classic Film Festival, where the movie played to a packed house of nearly 1,000 audience members, who laughed as if it were still 1978, there hasn’t been a whole lot heard from Universal or the press to celebrate Animal House’s 40th birthday, certainly nothing comparable to the reception it received—multiple cast reunions, newspaper articles, a features-packed anniversary DVD, et al.—when it turned 30.
Could they be nervous? The situation is that the 40th anniversary of the release of National Lampoon’s Animal House is occurring during a time when many modern collegiate viewers are looking back on the movie through self-corrective lenses provided by a society of social arbiters who want to insist that art (yes, I used the words “art” and “Animal House” in the same sentence) not be truly representative—that is, voicing opinions, perspectives and notions of propriety they may not be comfortable with which coexist with the ones they feel no hesitation in endorsing. 

Yesterday, the current affairs website Vice published a finger-wagging takedown of the movie’s perceived sins of cultural insensitivity entitled "Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Animal House by Tossing It in the Trash." (The piece’s subheading: “Drunken frat boys don’t seem so charming anymore, and the film’s gender politics are fucked beyond repair.”) The headline and subheading tell you everything you need to know about the piece, written in an unsurprisingly condescending tone by one Harry Cheadle, but it’s worth noting a couple of Cheadle’s observations for the way in which they reflect and attempt to instruct upon the proper way to assess and compartmentalize an “artifact” like Animal House.
First on the writer’s checklist, Cheadle makes much hay of the “boring” use of nudity, especially in the scene in which Bluto spies on a sorority through an upstairs window which, according to him, only horny 14-year-old boys would respond to. (To which I can only respond, “Thank you, God!”) Cheadle also wants to point out that the only “sympathetic” characters in the film are Katy (Karen Allen), the uber-patient girlfriend of Boone, one of the senior Deltas, or perhaps some of the other women exploited by the film’s protagonists. He also notes, with exceeding generosity, that “At one point, one of our heroes thinks about molesting (a) 13-year-old while she sleeps, but decides not to.” 

It will undoubtedly come as news to Cheadle and anyone else armed and ready to topple the statue of Emil Faber which stands in the center of the Faber College quad, but movie history is rife with examples of men and women ogling each other’s unclothed or partially unclothed bodies, and often not with the added benefit of a fourth-wall-breaking visual joke which ties Belushi’s oversexed voyeurism with our own. But that, like Animal House itself, I suppose, is just history.
Cheadle’s noting of the exploitation of Animal House’s secondary female characters reads less like honest concern, or even fair representation of what’s actually on screen in terms of the characters and how they are presented, than the scribbling of someone slightly more worried than he should be about staying on the correct side of the current cultural debate about “fucked-up gender politics.” Cheadle offhandedly tries to score points in favor of his thesis by noting Karen Allen’s comment, made during a recent interview about the film, that “You cringe at (Animal House), but it’s an interesting kind of cringe.” The writer, apparently too absorbed in the sensation of rubbing his goatee in contemplation, forgets to add the rest of Allen’s comment: “What’s great about the film is that it really makes fun of everybody.” (Italics mine, all mine.) Best to forget that last part, I suppose, within a brave, humorless polemic like Cheadle’s.

All this is, of course, to completely ignore the presence of Dean Wormer’s wife (Verna Bloom), hardly a victim in her own extramarital sexual escapades with Otter (Tim Matheson) Delta Tau Chi’s rush chairman and resident playboy. (Except, of course, when the dean, in retaliation, has her shipped off to Sarasota Springs for a “vacation.”) And finally, it seems to escape Cheadle’s eagle eye that during the moment in which Pinto (Tom Hulce) decides not to “molest” the 13-year-old Clorette (Sarah Holcomb), he believes her to be a college-aged girl. Pinto only sleeps with her after she confesses to him that’s she’s deceived him about her age—how’s that for offensive? Again, the joke is on Pinto—he’s been played like the horny freshman he is. But while harvested for a laugh, the ensuing situation, however clearly a case of legally-defined statutory rape, hardly qualifies as a National Lampoon primer on how to bang underage chicks and get away with it. (Our last sight of Pinto is of the offender fleeing the violent clutches of Mayor Carmine DiPasto, Clorette’s bad-tempered and clearly mob-connected father. Calling the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League!)

The Deltas visit to the Dexter Lake Club is the nexus of the critical case against Animal House in terms of race relations, as Cheadle and others have been quick to point out. In another equally depressing piece published in the most recent issue of Oregon Quarterly, “The Magazine of the University of Oregon,” Jason Stone, “staff writer for University Communications,” notes how the movie “mines uncomfortable humor from racist stereotypes” during the Dexter Lake Club sequence. The scene, in case you claim, as do both these writers, to not have seen it for decades or to have almost entirely forgotten it in the pursuit of more worthwhile endeavors, involves the Deltas transporting their dates (obtained through an awful, and awfully funny, bit of deception involving an obituary and a kiln explosion) to the Dexter Lake Club in pursuit of their favorite Negro bar band, Otis Day and the Knights. Earlier in the picture, of course, OD&TK provide the soundtrack for the Deltas’ infamous (and almost quaintly tame, as measured by the 21st-century bar) toga party, where Boone (Peter Reigert) can be spotted wearing dark sunglasses and sitting apart from the dancers, instead positioning himself on a stool, facing the party alongside the band, visibly soaking up their cool and occasionally shouting “Otis!” And now Boone shouts again— “Otis! He loves us!”—as he leads their group, including their unsuspecting dates, into a roadhouse dive packed with, well, Folks Who Don’t Look Like Them. (“We’re the only white people here,” Pinto whispers to Boone, stating the obvious with hushed, deadpan desperation.)
Cheadle, as part of his dismantling project for Vice, mentions that no less than Richard Pryor blessed and anointed the movie, including this scene of the Deltas’ squirming and sweating amongst the black patrons within the leopard skin-lined confines of the Dexter Lake Club. According to an oral history about the movie published in The New York Times in May 2018, Pryor sent a note to the head of the studio who, according to the film’s director, John Landis, was convinced the scene would cause “riots across America.” The great comedian proclaimed in the note that “Animal House was [expletive] funny, and white people are crazy.” That’s a particularly telling comment not only because of the knowledge of Pryor’s own incendiary way with approaching racial politics in his stand-up comedy, but because it provides a clue to the true perspective of the scene itself. Unfortunately, the observation holds little water for Cheadle, who thinks Pryor’s commentary occurred too far in the past to have any relevance for today’s viewers.

It will surprise no one, except perhaps the likes of Cheadle and Stone, that the actual butts of most of the humor in the Dexter Lake Club scene are the Deltas themselves and their misguided attempt to crash an insular social situation which in 1962 naturally would not have welcomed them with open arms. The Deltas, Boone in particular, are targets in a satirical jab over what amounts to cultural appropriation— they want the cool associated with Negro culture by making a show of bopping along with Otis Day, dipping their toes in for a double rock and rye and seven Carlings, and then running for the safety of the frat house when they get called on their game. (Outraged charges have yet to besiege Landis’s follow-up, 1980’s The Blues Brothers, the movie that much more thoroughly follows through on and fulfills the cultural appropriation “crimes” satirized in Animal House, a fact which might have something to do with the glow emitting from all those supremely talented Black folk with which Landis, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd surround themselves.)
The one joke in the Dexter Lake Club scene that lands perilously close to indefensible is the cut from Emily Dickinson College’s Brunella (Eliza Garrett), as she announces her major-- Primitive Cultures-- directly to Otis Day vocalizing the “Ooh-mau-mau” refrain from “Shama Lama Ding Dong.” Perhaps a step too far even for a movie which, as Allen insisted, makes fun of everybody. (Who’s equating primitive cultures and Otis Day? Not Brunella.) But even if it is too much, the joke is no more justification for a green light to scrub National Lampoon’s Animal House from our cultural history than would be Groucho Marx’s racist crack in Duck Soup for getting rid of all traces of that classic film. (Groucho’s joke, "My father was a little headstrong, my mother was a little armstrong. The Headstrongs married the Armstrongs, and that's why darkies were born," is a reference to/jab at Kate Smith’s 1931 recording of a popular song entitled “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which some claim to be a joke on racism, but which never fails to inspire crickets among modern audiences who are engulfed in laughter for the rest of the movie’s 68 minutes. As a time traveler Kate Smith doesn’t travel well.)  

As for politics, Animal House clearly stood not only as a refutation of the innocence myth of American society, in which we’re all supposed to believe that the United States existed in some sort of pristine bubble of purity until Kennedy was assassinated (or until whatever other awful or even trivial political development occurred which you might want to slot in there instead), but as a refutation of the cynicism of the fallout caused by Nixonian politics from which it emerged in 1978. But Cheadle would rather twist the tried-and-true framing of the movie’s central conflict for the sake of a smarmy retort than actually think about what establishment, what swamp, is being attacked by the movie:

“The slobs vs. snobs dynamic seems dated, especially with one particularly nasty slob now running the country and doing a pretty bad job of it. (It makes you nostalgic for the previous generation of country club asshole, who were at least better read.)”

If he’s suggesting that there’s a fundamental social and political difference between Donald J. Trump and, say, Caddyshack’s Judge Smalls, the closest and most primary descendant of the reactionary evil of Dean Wormer, well, then I’d say Cheadle ought to heed the Faber College motto, “Knowledge is Good,” and get himself some right quick.
Cheadle’s holier-than-thou tirade is pretty much par for the course in a culture hellbent on turning the sentiments of liberal politics, once based in freedom of expression and the liberation from confining attitudes to which everyone is expected to subscribe, into hardscrabble conservative dogma about what can and cannot be tolerated in art and culture. It’s a pitiful move which seeks out a roadmap for social behavior and acceptance in art rather than a forum for posing questions and thoughtfully considering them, one which presumes that movies are to be used as guideposts along life’s highways and not as a means for gaining understanding of experience through independent thought. It’s clear what Cheadle thinks about the frat boys in Animal House who behave outside the margins of proper behavior. I wonder what he makes of folks like, I don’t know, the aimless youths of Bande à part, or the familial gangsters of The Godfather, or the ruthless killers who compose the worn heart of The Wild Bunch. Are these also movies to be shunned because their characters exhibit behavior which society in our enlightened times would find “inappropriate?”

So where does Cheadle’s nonsense lead him? Quick. Remind yourself of the title of Cheadle’s piece. And then read his final, withering paragraph:

“We could never wipe Animal House from the face of the earth even if we wanted to; its influence is too vast, and its best jokes are justifiable classics. So put the movie on a pedestal, induct it into whatever hall of fame, move it into a museum, fine. You know who visits museums? Nobody.”
"Even if we wanted to." And it sure sounds like folks like Cheadle want to, if for no other reason that they can continue to pretend they’ve got it all over the unenlightened cretins who came before and left the world in such a fucked-up state. And if you’re not wasting time watching cinematic stains like Animal House, why, that’s all the more time to spend, like Cheadle, not going to museums or availing oneself of any of the other cultural opportunities one might have at one’s disposal. Unless they’ve been previously approved by whatever committee or social movement programs your thinking at the moment, of course.

But as frustrating as Cheadle’s point of view is, I have to say I found Stone’s fence-straddling in the Oregon Quarterly article, entitled "Animal House: Still Funny at Age 40?" just as dispiriting. This is a piece that seems like a J. Edgar Hoover-commissioned hit job, its foregone conclusion prescribed by the dean’s office, or perhaps by the wet-noodle head professor of the Cinema Studies department, who openly frames the perspective of the piece early on:

“`Over the years, as the film endured and grew in local legend it also became an acknowledged part of Oregon culture and the brand of the university,’ notes Michael Aronson, head of the Department of Cinema Studies… `The problem is, the film is bad, really bad… It might be fondly remembered if you haven’t watched it in 30 years, but Animal House is awful; wildly misogynistic, homophobic, and racist.’”
This arrogant quote from a man in a position of power to condition and guide a generation of students to a greater understanding of the power and possibilities of film art (or any other kind), and the way he shuts down all discussion with loaded catch words without bothering (and this may be thanks to Stone and his editors as well) to articulate his claims, gives me chills. And Stone, the dutiful reporter, marches right along under the professor’s guiding principle, accepting claims about the movie, its subject and context, without much investigation. According to Caitlin Roberts, the UO’s director of fraternity and sorority life, “The film does not represent what fraternities were founded on or what our organizations are truly about.” This is an argument that sounds suspiciously akin to the one proffered by Greek system representatives at Oregon in 1977, when the movie was being proposed to school administrators and they were actively protesting the university’s involvement, an argument from which they quickly backed away once the movie became a local phenomenon during the fall of 1977 and then a national one a year later. If Animal House doesn’t represent the lofty ideals or intentions of the Greek system, that’s sort of the point— it’s much closer to another puncturing of the official tidal wave of self-aggrandizing bullshit with which institutions like universities and their social substrata frequently cloak themselves.
And, of course, the reaction of a student audience Stone observed watching Animal House was predictably tepid:

“They thought the plot was overstuffed and unstructured, and too much of the dialogue hinged on insults. They were critical of the gratuitous nudity. More than one viewer described the film as ‘old-fashioned’—an ominous sign with regards to any media artifact’s prospect for longevity. More ominous still, ‘overrated.’ And finally, the judgment that is most gravely portentous for anything intended to be timeless comedy: ‘Not all that funny.’”

Overstuffed? Unstructured?. Too many insults? Well, it’s true that Moliere and Oscar Wilde weren’t available when the script was being written. And God forbid anything be perceived as “old-fashioned,” which, as we all know, is the soul killer of the artistic endeavor, to say nothing of it being a huge obstacle to overcome in terms of a work’s longevity. Because the truly enduring works are those which haven’t had the misfortune of being tainted by time and its peculiar habit of sealing the attitudes, rhythms, presumptions and occasional artistic revelations of the people who made them in celluloid amber. And if I may clear my throat here, isn’t it rather boneheaded to presume that anyone, from Leo McCarey and the Marx Brothers, to Preston Sturges, to Billy Wilder, to Mel Brooks or Harold Ramis or the Farrelly Brothers or anyone else, is necessarily shooting for “timeless” comedy? No, they’re shooting for laughs, plenty of which were in evidence when I saw Animal House with 1,000 other people at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood this past spring, people who also happened to be ignorant of the sealed-off proclamations of the esteemed and surely wise professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Oregon.
Of course, as the professor says, if it’s not all that funny, then into the trash bin of history it goes. Fuck it.
If I could, I’d like to hand the last word in this long rebuttal to what I consider essentially an anti-art argument over to a couple voices of reason and sanity who I’ve communicated with more than once on this issue, both of whom seem to have crystallized the rebuttal in a way that is far beyond the capabilities of my logorrheic self. First, in reaction to Cheadle’s nonsense, my friend Christopher Atwell, a very wise, considered fellow who also knows his way around the subject and application of good humor, wrote this on Facebook:

“These SJ W modern lens articles… always arrive at the unspectacular conclusion that old movies fail to reflect our current woke attitudes. No shit. The writer’s prescription-- to “throw it in the trash”--  is more small minded, stupid, and worthless than the worst offending old movie. The only thing these writers seem to offer today is, “Can you believe how sexist/racist/homophobic people used to be?” That’s not news. Contextualize the work, glean its meaning, have the imagination to maybe try to understand what it reveals about the world that produced it. And if the damn thing is funny, don’t feel you need to clear it with the culture police in order to laugh.”
He continues:

“Just to belabor the point further, by contemporary woke standards, the universe of cartoon shorts is `problematic’ AF. Not just the overtly racist ones the studios have locked away, but a great many of the popular ones. And for a million reasons! All that getting shot in the face. All the ethnic humor. The disability jokes. The gay jokes. Everything. But they are glorious art. Hilarious as the day they were made. And revisiting them with my children proved to be one of the joys of parenting. Am I worried about polluting my kids with negative attitudes and old prejudices? No, because their mother and I are not raising morons. I’m arrogant enough to believe that (our) values are of greater importance to their development than Daffy Duck’s. 
I realize now I grew up in a totally irresponsible era. Films were all the better for it.

And from the great wit of cultural critic and all-around good guy Phillip Dyess-Nugent comes this:

“I have just encountered the argument that Grand Illusion cannot be a great movie because its sympathetic view of its aristocratic characters compromises its wokeness. I am now going to go to Montana and live off the grid. If anyone approaches my door, I will shoot them and feed their bodies to the pigs that I will be working to cross-breed with chickens. When I die at the age of 112, surrounded by the cats I will have taught to communicate in Morse code and to play the stock market, I will have no idea what is going on in your so-called ‘civilized world,’ but I will be the only person who has ever tasted or will ever taste my delicious deep-fried porkchicken chops.”
Thank you, gentlemen. For myself, I have only two words further in defense of National Lampoon’s Animal House or any other movie that ends up in the crosshairs of this particularly disturbing moment in the decline of our culture, words from the movie itself which are emblematic both of its valuable anarchic spirit and the sentiment I hold for pieces like the ones which have caused my blood pressure to spike on this day, the 40th anniversary of a comedy classic. The two words?



Saturday, July 21, 2018


“Who are you?”

“B-I-double F-iffle. Biffle! S-H-double O-ooster. Shooster! We’re Biffle and Shooster! Need we say more?”

In 1928, the vaudeville comedy duo of Benny Biffle and Sam Shooster made the transition from the stage to the nascent medium of talking pictures with a pair of Vitaphone one-reelers. That move was a modest but immediate success, breaking ground on what would be a string of 20 comedy shorts made by the team for independent producer Sam Weinberg, which would both build on their reputations as worthy occupants of a comedy firmament anchored by stars like Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello, but also cement Weinberg’s standing as a producer who liked to lean a little too heavily upon the blueprint of others. (After a preview of their ninth short, Imitation of Wife, Laurel & Hardy producer Hal Roach approached Weinberg and gently suggested that he “try and be a little more original next time.”) In 1938, Biffle and Shooster parted ways with Weinberg, but they continued to work sporadically in films, including a cameo appearance in Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), which was cut from the film’s original theatrical release.

All of the above sounds the typical trajectory of a vaudeville-to-the-movies comedy team career but for one thing—it never happened. Biffle and Shooster, themselves and their comedy shorts, are actually lovingly crafted fictions, built on a foundation created by actors Nick Santa Maria (Biffle) and Will Ryan (Shooster) and expanded into a series of actual shorts by producer-director-writer Michael Schlesinger, which have recently been collectively released by Kino Lorber on DVD and Blu-ray as The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster. (“Two Madcap Morons on a Mission of Mayhem!”) The collection consists of five of those 20 shorts (the five Schlesinger has filmed so far)—The Biffle Murder Case, a terrific riff on whodunits of the Philo Vance variety; Imitation of Wife, the duo’s aforementioned “tribute” to Laurel & Hardy; Schmo Boat, a late-period (1937) revue shot in two-color “Cinecolor”; Bride of Finkelstein, B&S’s dip into Universal monster/Abbott & Costello territory, which was, according to Schlesinger lore, deemed “too Jewish” by theaters in the South which refused to show it; and the team’s last collaboration, It’s a Frame-up!, which shows the boys to be as entertaining at the last as they were at the first, however hobbled they may have been by the accretion of recycled plots and drastically lowered budgets. (In the real world, It’s a Frame-up! was the first Biffle and Shooster short Schlesinger filmed.)

Misadventures is also a treasure trove of arcana for Biffle and Shooster fans—they’ll get their first peek at B&S’s second Vitaphone short, 1928’s First Things Last, as well as that Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World outtake, improbably unearthed from the Kramer estate, and an outtake from Wife spoken entirely in (badly phoneticized) Spanish. Plus, there’s a B&S Will Rogers PSA, a 1962 interview with the boys, plenty of bloopers, deleted scenes and outtakes, and complete audio commentaries for each short from Schlesinger, Santa Maria and Ryan.

It’s really peachy to have all these shorts collected together— Schlesinger’s craft at making them seem indisputably authentic to the period is a knockabout joy to behold, as are Ryan and Santa Maria’s fully committed performances. The Biffle and Shooster comedies have been created with such fealty to period style, production values, and even, most delightfully, wear-and-tear, that audiences not in on the joke going forward might easily assume that what they are watching is the real vintage deal, though featuring jokesters they may not precisely… remember. (I promise you, I have seen it happen.) However, as with real-life progenitors like Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, the Ritz Brothers et al., audiences may find that prolonged exposure to one Biffle and Shooster short after another can becoming trying. (There are, of course, plenty of folks for whom this will not be a problem.) My suggestion is programming a Biffle and Shooster short as a warm-up before the classic film of your choice—The Biffle Murder Case would pair up with any number of terrific comic mysteries, starting with The Thin Man (1934) or even The Garden Murder Case (1936), and of course Bride of Finklestein will whet the appetite for any number of Universal monster classics. And then you’ll be ready to dig into the delicious package of extras that Kino Lorber, along with Schlesinger and his team of impeccable actors and craftsmen, have put together. 

Schlesinger himself is what I like to think of as a walking encyclopedia of Hollywood history (though far less musty than the average dormant World Book volume which may still be on your parents’ bookshelf), and that sensibility informs every lovingly recreated period detail of the Biffle and Shooster shorts. “I’ve pretty much run the gamut of the industry,” Schlesinger says, certainly a claim that’s far more authentic than anything he ever cooked up about Biffle and Shooster’s Hollywood history.
After starting out in Ohio booking movie theaters, then shifting into distribution, marketing and production after the inevitable move to Los Angeles, Schlesinger soon (well, probably not soon from his perspective) developed a reputation as a pillar in the field of classic film distribution and restoration over 25 years working with MGM/UA, Paramount and Sony (aka Columbia Pictures). Some of the movies returned to theaters or restored for home video under his watch were a slew of Budd Boetticher westerns and Buster Keaton shorts, as well as trifles like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Citizen Kane (1941), White Dog (1982), The Conformist (1970), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), The Boy Friend (1971) and seemingly countless others.

Working in Sony’s home entertainment division, he toiled to make numerous rare features, shorts and cartoons from the studio’s library available for the first time, and in 1993 he delivered the completed version of Orson Welles famously unfinished It’s All True to movie theaters. It’s a tribute to Schlesinger’s eclectic tastes and talents that he also wrote, produced and voice-directed the Americanized version of Godzilla 2000 (1999), which got such good reviews that even Toho Studios proclaimed Schlesinger’s monster a big improvement over their own released version. The emergence of Biffle and Shooster and the first produced short, It’s a Frame-up! (2012), was a natural development.
I was trying to make it as a screenwriter, but I don’t write rubbish, so that clearly was an impediment,” Schlesinger explains of his decision to bring Biffle and Shooster to life. “I finally had to make a picture on my own dime. Let’s see if it leads to anything…though it better be soon!”

Self-deprecating, informative, and entertaining to the last (pick up his audio commentary on last year’s Blu-ray of Billy Wilder’s One Two Three, if you don’t believe me), Michael Schlesinger is one of Hollywood’s genuine good guys. Recently I peppered this renaissance fella with some questions via e-mail vis-à-vis Biffle and Shooster, and, boy, did I get some answers.

Do you remember the moment, or the movie, that made you fall in love with the movies? Did you have parents who loved the movies?

Are you kidding? Eisenhower was president! I can’t even remember what I had for lunch yesterday. Anyway, it wasn’t a sudden “Aha!” moment, just a gradual growing love. I was an only child, so the TV set became my de facto sibling. My folks neither loved nor hated movies; they just went, because that’s what people did in those days. That said, I can definitely point to, of all pictures, The Satan Bug (1965) was the movie that cemented the idea in my head that this was what I wanted to do. Go figure.

Who, exactly, are Biffle and Shooster? Frequently when you hear people talk about these guys the names of Abbott and Costello are invoked, but I suspect the influences and roots run more extensively than that.

They’re a fairly conventional vaudeville comedy team: one rather dimmer than the other. They’re sort of an amalgam of all teams, with some of their own qualities, though they’re probably a bit closer to A&C than any of the others. I wanted not only for the shorts to be different from each other, but for them to be different as well, depending on the scenario. Thus, in Imitation of Wife, they’re like Laurel & Hardy, in Schmo Boat they’re Hope & Crosby, in It’s a Frame-Up! they’re the Stooges (or at least two of them), and so on. It was mainly to avoid repetition from setting in, as well as displaying the guys’ versatility.

Speaking of influences, one of the most delightful things about Biffle and Shooster is the seemingly endless vein of movie references and movie dialogue embedded in these shorts. What's your favorite in-joke reference from any of the shorts? The most obscure one?

Oh, man, there are so many. Two I particularly adore are the Max Davidson “Scream” painting in Frame-up, and Biffle invoking The Susquehanna Hat Company in Schmo Boat. I also love when Biffle slips into a Bing Crosby impression. Never gets a laugh, but it puts me on the floor. As for obscure, maybe the reference to “six delicious flavors” in The Biffle Murder Case; that was Jell-O’s slogan for many years. Nobody gets it, but audiences in 1935 would have, and in any event, it’s not presented as a punch line, so it doesn’t really matter if people miss it. Also in Murder Case, the photo on the table is of S.S. Van Dine, whose Philo Vance stories we were spoofing. In fact, that whole short is laced with whodunit Easter eggs. Bride of Finkelstein, which is my favorite of the bunch, also has a lot of specific horror movie hat-tips. For example, when Finklestein enters, it’s to an orchestral arrangement of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor—the exact same passage used for Karloff’s similar entrance in The Black Cat (1934). And of course, what would a good horror spoof be without a gorilla? Incidentally, the script merely said, “They do the mirror routine.” Nick and Chris Walas (the Academy Award-winning make-up artist who played the gorilla) worked that out on their own.

My favorite of the shorts is The Biffle Murder Case. I love everything about it, even the intro card describing the movie's supposed history.

Those Blackhawk cards are important for setting up the short for audiences unfamiliar with this kind of comedy. Again, they weren’t necessarily intended to be seen all at once, especially in theatres.

And the great Jackson family in-joke, which I won't spoil. And the special guest appearance by Detective Murphy, played by Robert Forster (“I got three sons and I'd kill 'em all and have a beer afterwards!”).

That’s Lieutenant Murphy! Don’t make me say it again!

But my favorite is Roosevelt, the family butler who, of course, is black. His surprised take during the dramatic stingers, when all the suspects get to look extra suspicious, is priceless. The whole short is a masterpiece not only of duplication of the sort of drawing-room murder mysteries like the Philo Vance stories, but it also leaves room for a lot of sharp observations about race and class, both of the time being referenced-- the late '30s-- and current times.

Well, that was somewhat of a concession to the PC era. If we had a black servant going, “Yassuh, Boss!” and things like that, I’d be roasted on a spit. So, I wrote him as the kind of character Paul Robeson might have played. Alas, the actor I cast dropped out at the very last second, but that got us Todd as a replacement. He was terrific, but he was also several inches shorter, so Roosevelt went from being taller than everyone else to shorter than everyone else. I adjusted his character accordingly, and, since Todd shaves his head, added a line in which Nance addresses him as Stymie. That’s another film buff joke I love that hardly anybody laughs at. As for class, that reminds me of another obscure bit of business. Andrew suspects Roosevelt of sneaking drinks of his scotch. Roosevelt replies that it’s gin, and Andrew replies, “Oh, that’s alright, then.” That’s not a non sequitur gag. Back then, scotch was considered a gentleman’s drink and gin was more the beverage of the lower class. So, Andrew really wouldn’t care if Roosevelt was drinking it; he probably only kept it for company.

I'm fascinated by the visual and aural authenticity you manage to achieve in these shorts-- the “earliest” Biffle & Shooster, First Things Last, is a real marvel in this regard. It's no wonder that several people know who've seen them weren't aware a first that these weren't actual shorts from the '20s and '30s, but instead lovingly recreated homages.

I have an authenticity fetish. Do it right or don’t do it. And it can be done—all you have to do is want to do it. I can’t tell you how it drives me up the wall when I see a period piece and they get everything wrong. I’m fortunate to have a great D.P., Doug Knapp, who knows how to light for B&W, and Scott Cobb, a fabulous production designer. But the real hero is my editor, Bill Bryn Russell, who’s a one-man post-production house. He’s done all of Larry Blamire’s films, so he knows this territory well. I love playing around with color, sound, aspect ratios, etc., and he enjoys this stuff, too. On the Vitaphone short, I told him I wanted a slug at some point when they weren’t moving around. He not only put one in, but he even added a fake bad-splice jump. It looks completely real. He also dug up some of the cartoonish sound effects we used. It’s simply amazing what can be accomplished with digital editing nowadays.

How long does it usually take to get a B&S short from initial concept and screenplay to the finished product? You've made several of these now. Is the process getting any faster?

I can’t answer the question satisfactorily because most of the scripts were written months before shooting, and the editing and post went on for a long time because Bill was squeezing me in between his regular big-time gigs. We shot Frame-up in December of 2012 and all the others consecutively in July of 2014. They were all filmed in 3-4 days each, which is about what most Columbia two-reelers took, so I doubt we could hustle much more than that.

Those intro cards before each feature describe the movies in such loving detail, craftily intertwining real Hollywood history with your made-up version. I’d love to see a Biffle & Shooster feature in which they interact with your alternate Hollywood.

I’m kicking an idea for a feature around, but it’ll have to be somebody else’s money. I do have one short outlined called Vitaphonies where they’re turned loose in a movie studio, so that could address some of those issues. I’m also considering doing one of their radio shows as a podcast, which would give them a chance to have big-name guest stars via impressions.

Are your actors, Nick Santa Maria, who plays Benny Biffle, and Will Ryan, who plays Sam Shooster, as well-versed in Hollywood arcana and lore as their writer-director?

Without question. Like me, they eat, sleep, breathe and live this stuff. It’s in our DNA. Don’t forget, they actually “created” the characters, though they were kind of nebulous before I jumped in and fleshed them out.

The screenwriting credit for The Biffle Murder Case goes to Lou Breslow, a real screenwriter who wrote, among many other terrific movies, Murder, He Says (1944) starring Fred MacMurray and the great Marjorie Main, a movie you introduced me to at the first TCM Classic Film Festival by describing it as a parody of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 30 years before that movie was even made. I'll always be grateful to you for making me aware of this movie, which has since become a personal favorite. But the Breslow touch in Murder Case is typical of your catch-all-of-old-Hollywood approach to these shorts. For those who may not know how IMDb works, who was Lou Breslow?

First of all, except for B&S and executive producer Sam Weinberg, all the names in the opening credits are real. Again, I want them to seem on the level. As for Breslow, I’m a huge fan. He started as a writer, and eventually directed as well. He did a lot of films I love, including No More Women (1934),  36 Hours to Kill (1936), You Can Never Tell (1951) and Gift of Gab (1934), and wrote for Laurel and Hardy, the Stooges and Bob Hope, among others. He had a terrific ear for dialogue, but also was a great constructionist. Most of the writers and directors in the fake credits match the content; for example, for the ones which blatantly rip-off other shorts, I use Clyde Bruckman as the writer. He was quite well-known for, shall we say, recycling.

What constitutes good comedy for the creator of Biffle and Shooster?

For starters, don’t insult my intelligence, don’t bore me, and above all don’t fall back on attitude or profanity as a crutch. You can be dirty, but at least do it as part of a joke. I dig Keaton and Lloyd, but I also love Michelle Wolf and Jim Jefferies. Once you’ve established your characters and a story arc, you can do whatever you want—as long as it’s funny. Still, the greatest TV series ever is The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the greatest movie ever is It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I can’t even hope to aspire to those heights.


Wednesday, July 11, 2018


Here it is, the second week of July already, and I feel as though I’ve barely seen anything in the realm of theatrical movies. Compared to the average movie critic anyway, who probably sees three or four (new) movies a week, to say nothing of the ones she/he sees at home. But my movie consumption rate is still probably more ravenous than the average bear, and so at the risk of exposing just how limited my perspective is, I present to you my best of 2018 at the midpoint, ten movies (six of which are already available for home viewing) I think you should catch up with. The first three are particularly good (which is why they get a little more space, I suppose), and at first glance they might seem like strange bedfellows. But each one suggests a different mode of looking at life—quiet, measured, open to unexpected responses—or at the very least, in a world subsumed by superheroes and other forms of sensational overload, a different way of looking at movies, to say nothing of a different kind of movie to look at.

The others on the list are merely terrific. Certainly, it was a pleasure to have seen enough really good movies by July that, in order to keep myself to the traditional ten I had to leave an accomplished thriller like Hereditary or a heartfelt comedy drama like Love, Simon off my list. (I fully expect raised hackles over excluding at least Hereditary in favor of the last two lustrous pearls on my list.) But the less said about the year’s most serious bummers, including Ava Du Vernay’s A Wrinkle In Time, Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline and (sorry, fanboys) the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War, the better. On to the good stuff.

Paul Schrader's First Reformed is, I think, truly a movie for our moment. It’s an exquisitely tormented consideration of faith (and the lack thereof), the difficult possibility of transcendence, and the seemingly even more difficult act of holding ostensibly opposed impulses of hope and despair in balance without completely losing one's shit. And it speaks to the faithful in terms of what even the faithless see directly in front of them. Ethan Hawke is exceptional as the tortured pastor counseling the husband of a parishioner despondent over the dire implications of climate change, and the transference of that burden of responsibility from counseled to counsellor addresses one of the pastor’s central spiritual crises, a profound insecurity over whether can God forgive us for what we’ve done. The movie is a brilliantly sustained act of tension between the spiritual and the corporeal (and the influence of each on the other), building toward an act of desperate release, of a man trying to make a mark on the world, on his own soul. Hawke’s pastor, exiled in his doubt and overseeing a historically significant house of worship made into a sparsely attended tourist trap under the stewardship of a corporate-style megachurch, truly is God's lonely man. Over all of Schrader's most personal work, including Taxi Driver, with which this movie shares some stylistic devices derived from transcendental filmmakers like Robert Bresson, as well as its suffocating sense of isolation, this film feels the most piercing, the one that hurts the most, the one that offers the possibility of mortification and the bearable weight of an earthly yoke in equal measure as penance for divine deliverance. It's the best movie I've seen so far in 2018.

It's possible that society, especially American society, might have continued to undervalue the contribution of Fred Rogers to civil discourse and the general well-being. But Morgan Neville’s fascinating, unexpectedly (even overwhelmingly) emotional documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  seems poised to become the best of all possible insurances against the man’s ever evaporating from our collective neighborhood. Prior experience with the PBS program which, from 1968 to 2001 provided an oasis for children from the crass relentlessness of most Saturday-morning kid-oriented fare, isn’t required to appreciate this rich overview of Fred Rogers’ achievements as the overseer of a singular corner of television influence. But one’s own memories of spending time in the Neighborhood is likely to make the tears come faster and with more force. And those unfamiliar with Rogers’ work as anything but a Saturday Night Live joke may find themselves surprised by the level to which this articulate advocate for the spirit of childhood (Rogers was an ordained minister whose specific religious views never overtly became part of the program’s content) used his genteel pulpit to help children of the ‘60s and ‘70s deal with some harsh realities, like racism, childhood disease and even political assassination.  Neville’s great achievement, apart from crafting a wonderful, surely enduring film, is to secure Rogers’ reputation as not only a children’s champion in guiding young ones through the process of discovering the world, but one for showing those kids who became adults a way of living in it once their own discoveries had been made.

Probably the most denigrating thing I can think of say about Debra Granik’s intense, affecting familial drama Leave No Trace is that it sports a somewhat generic title which evaporates almost immediately upon contact with the eyes and ears. Not so the movie itself, however. The story involves a PTSD-inflicted war veteran Will (Ben Foster) who has taken himself and his daughter Tom (newcomer Thomasin Harcourt Mackenzie) off the grid, making for them a quiet, if illegal, existence living off the land in a forested park within Portland, Oregon city limits. Once they’re reined in by social service agents and given a taste of being reintegrated back into society, the father bristles, but the daughter realizes that, though she wants nothing more than to be with her dad, a modest life among modest people is pretty appealing too. What’s genuinely marvelous about Granik’s approach, especially with Mackenzie, is the way director and actress make clear the dawning difference between parent and child without pressing home the metaphoric significance. Mackenzie’s Tom eases into a world of new experiences with a child’s natural curiosity—sea horses she reads about in books, flag dancers at a local church, 4-H kids raising rabbits, learning about the temperament and tendencies of hive bees—while her dad remains at a measured distance, his mind never far away from the clarion call of an isolated existence to which he longs to return. By the time Tom declares to Will that “the same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” the movie has fulfilled its unhurried journey toward sublimity, with myriad opportunities for its audience to appreciate the nuanced, rarified air of a soul discovering itself, asserting independence, breathing in the world.

The rest of the best, in descending order:

Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley)
Annihilation (Alex Garland)
Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird)
The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
Blockers (Kay Cannon)
Rampage (Brad Peyton)

Bring on Skyscraper!