Friday, May 20, 2011

Brooks Alumn-O-Rama: FATSO and THE FRISCO KID, by Team Bartilucci

My husband Vinnie and I have our Team Bartilucci blogging caps on again! One of the many reasons he and I and our families have always loved Mel Brooks’ movies is that Mel and most if not all of the writers, directors, and actors he worked with came from ethnic families and grew up in multicultural New York. Vinnie and I did, too; I grew up mostly in the Bronx and also lived in Manhattan for many years, while Vin grew up in Elmont, Long Island. Our combined ethnic heritage includes Italy, Ireland, and Scotland, as well as France and, I’m told, possibly Spain. We’re a regular U.N.!


The two movies we’ll be covering this week feature regulars from Brooks’ movies. While only the first was produced by Mel’s company, Brooksfilms, you’ll see plenty of familiar faces in the casts of both movies. Enjoy!

Dorians Pick: Fatso (1980)

This comedy-drama—or dramedy, as they say nowadays—was Oscar-winning actress Anne Bancroft’s only foray into writing and directing that we know of, but it was fantastico!  Having grown up in New York City in a food-loving family that was Italian-American on Dad’s side and Irish-American on Mom’s side, our clan identifies so closely with Fatso’s characters that it almost feels like a documentary to us!  Heck, I still remember the movie poster from its original theatrical release: a mournful-looking Dom DeLuise standing against a long list of foods under the bold heading “Do Not Eat:” Weight-loss solutions have come a long way since then, but human nature and emotional family members haven’t changed all that much—and that’s one of the things that has always endeared Fatso to our family and friends.

DeLuise is best known as a hilarious member of Mel Brooks’s stock company of zanies, but it was great to see him at last in a leading man role—a romantic leading man, at that! He plays our hero Dominick DiNapoli, an overweight 40-year-old bachelor living in NYC’s Little Italy. His happy life revolves around his boisterous Italian-American family, all living together in apartments in their two-family walk-up. Dom’s sister Antoinette (Bancroft) lives in one apartment with her husband and kids, while Dom shares his apartment with his “baby” brother Frankie, a.k.a. "Junior" (Ron Carey, who’d been best known and loved in our household as chauffeur/sidekick Brophy in Brooks’ hilarious Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety. What a shame that all three leads are no longer with us, though I’m glad we have Fatso and other fine films of theirs to remember them by. But I digress…)  Dom’s countless cousins include his big-hearted and just plain big cousin Sal (Manny Medina), who loves food, glorious food, as much as Dom. Having been doted on and overfed by his worried, well-meaning mom (tragically, Dom’s two  previous baby brothers died before the age of 2), Dom’s life has revolved around eating, drinking, and being merry more often than not. But when 39-year-old Sal dies of a massive heart attack, the grieving Antoinette and Junior frantically beseech Dom to tackle his own weight problem before he follows in Sal’s footsteps to the graveyard (pitch-dark humor abounds at the funeral).

Dom’s misadventures on the road to weight management begin with the support group Chubby Checkers, recommended by neighborhood friend Mrs. Goodman (played by Estelle Reiner, the “I’ll have what she’s having” scene-stealer from her director son Rob Reiner’s modern classic …When Harry Met Sally).  Dom tries to stick to the nigh-draconian diet, in which the diet doctor pretty much recommends that he eat and drink only the basic food groups and none of the rich dinners and desserts he adores, since this takes place in 1980! It reminded me of a wisecrack Joan Rivers made in one of her early books, Having A Baby Can Be A Scream: “If it tastes good, spit it out.” Antoinette and Junior try to help Dom stick to his weight-loss plan. Alas, their well-intentioned but overzealous haranguing only makes poor Dom feel worse about himself.

Then he meets the new shopkeeper in town, a voluptuous, sweet-natured blonde named Lydia Bollowenski (Candice Azzara). It’s clear that down-to-earth, huggable, adorable Lydia is perfect for Dom, and as Dom works up the courage to ask her out, they slowly but surely fall in love. Although Fatso was rated PG, Dom and Lydia’s romantic scenes together are still pretty darn romantic and sensual. I bet Dom DeLuise never got so much kissing and clinches in all of his movies combined, bless his heart!
Our family’s favorite scene is when Dom tries to head off a midnight binge with the help of two Chubby Checkers members. Of course, the trouble with controlling eating is that unlike alcohol or drugs, we all need food to survive. So when the subject inevitably turns to food, the situation soon erupts into the most spectacular binge of all time for all concerned! It always cracks us up when Dom and his partners-in-weight-management rhapsodize dreamily about the many ways to enjoy a jelly doughnut, turning the innocent phrase “Get the honey, Junior” into a threat/chant.

By turns zany, warm-hearted, and bittersweet, Fatso may be too shrill for some tastes, but my family and I loved it from beginning to end, and still do!  Born Anna Maria Italiano, triple-threat Bancroft’s Bronx roots show throughout. The volatile yet endearing characters and the loving details about their lives ring true, kind of like Martin Scorsese on laughing gas. While many of the film’s ideas about the best approaches to battling the bulge are dated now, it was surprisingly ahead of its time in portraying emotional eating and its tragicomic aspects, making it all the more devious that Bancroft and Director of Photography Brianne Murphy filmed the tempting, luscious-looking foodstuffs in an inviting, sensual fashion reminiscent of the 1978 comedy-thriller Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?  Can you imagine what Fatso would have been like if The Food Network had existed back then? Yikes! It would be utter food porn!

Bancroft and her cast sprinkle many nice little character touches throughout, like the way Dom stirs a huge pot of sauce during Sal’s wake at Antoinette’s apartment, weeping while at the same time sampling the sauce and adding his own seasonings. I also love the romantic moments and easy conversations between Dom and Lydia. Having waged my own “battle of the bulge” during much of my adult life (and succeeding thanks to the new-and-improved Weight Watchers Points Plus program, not to put the whammy on it!), I could absolutely identify with Fatso. It’s like a lively Sunday dinner with my Grandma Josie and/or our other food-loving drama queen relatives and Italian-American pals in our old Bronx neighborhood—and I mean that as the highest of compliments. Fatso sometimes shows up on The Fox Movie Channel (letterboxed!) and HBO Comedy, but I wish some enterprising company would release it on DVD or Blu-Ray sometime!

Vinnie tosses some spice in the sauce on Fatso:The dialogue in the film is solid and authentic, with moments of brilliance.  The phrase "You ate the 'ony'!" cannot be sufficiently explained; it must be experienced. Later, Dom laments to Lydia that he's failed twice now on his diet, and she replies, "Christ fell THREE times...and he was Christ!" And at the climax of the film, Dom speaks to Lydia on the phone; all we hear is the word "yes," 17 times.  He runs the gamut of emotions in that conversation, and it's a wonderful moment. 

Vinnie's Pick: The Frisco Kid (1979)
A Jewish cowboy. Sounds groan-worthy doesn't it?  That was how The Frisco Kid was pitched to the public, and pretty much what most people know about it.  But if you take the time to sit down and watch it, it's a solid comedy with two very good actors as its tentpoles.
Gene Wilder plays Avram Belinsky, a Polish rabbi (who just barely came out 38th in a class of 39) who is selected to travel to America, specifically to San Francisco (which, according to the chief Rabbi, is "near New York") to head a new temple.  To say that his trip is not smooth is an understatement.  After the ship to California leaves early without him, he arranges passage in a wagon train with two brothers who eventually roll him for his cash and throw him out of the wagon.  He finds a group of Amish farmers, mistaking their black clothes for Jewish garb.  The farmers help him to a train, which, while Avram is in the washroom, is robbed by Tommy Lillard (Harrison Ford)  He and Tommy meet up again officially later in Avram's journey, and Tommy quickly realizes this poor schmuck won't make it ten miles without his help.

They forge a friendship which is tested by, among other things, a harsh winter, Indians, peyote poisoning, Tommy's revelation to Avram as a bank robber, and Avram's continued refusal to ride on the Sabbath, even though they're being chased by  a posse. Further west they meet up with the trio who stole Avram's money, one of whom is wearing the decorative breastplate from the torah as a necklace.  A short and embarrassing fight later, Avram has his money back, and three new enemies.  They follow the pair to a beach and attempt to gun them down, but Tommy shoots the brothers' crony, and Avram fires a gun for the first time, killing one of the brothers. 

After they arrive in San Francisco, Avram has a crisis of faith, and decides he cannot be a Rabbi anymore. Not because he killed a man -- it was in the act of saving a life, and in such extreme circumstances, many acts are considered permissible -- but because when he had the choice to come and help Tommy or save the Torah from the campfire, he ran to save the Torah. He is shattered that "I chose a piece of paper over the life of my best friend."  The hesitation is short-lived as the members of the congregation find him at the restaurant he and Tommy are eating at...and so does remaining robber-brother Matt Diggs (character actor William Smith). The final gunfight ends with no further blood being spilled, and Avram takes his place as the head of the temple, a wiser man than when he left Poland.
While there are the requisite ethnic jokes peppered throughout the script (Clyde Kusatsu has a short part that would NEVER be allowed in a film today), the film flies high on the wings of its leading men.  Wilder takes what could be a schticky trope of a character and fills him with a quiet strength, playing him not as comically naive, but honest and trusting, both in his fellow man and his God.  This was one of Harrison Ford's first starring roles after Star Wars, and he gets to play Tommy with bombast and bluster, taking the limelight that Wilder courteously vacates with his subdued turn. Wilder spends a great deal of time succeeding through that quiet strength and a lot of passive-aggressive "I'm not ASKING you to do anything", and Ford responds with wonderful slow burns.  The film is deftly directed by Robert Aldrich (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, et al) as a traditional Western with no glib Brooksian anachronisms. Ford was called stiff in his performance; I saw it more that he was playing a traditional Western bushwhacker. Similarly, William Smith gets to give a classic Western "You killed my brother" performance, and he nails it.  Don't blink, or you'll miss score composer Frank DeVol ("Happy" Kyne himself) as the piano player in the Red Dog saloon.
Apparently, John Wayne was originally courted for Harrison Ford's role.  I think that would have changed the balance of the film entirely.  While Wayne could certainly do comedy (surely we've gone on about The Quiet Man before, haven't we?), it would have absolutely become a John Wayne Movie, and Wilder and his character would have taken a back seat, or at least would have given up the seat with the cushion. 

Fans of Quincy, M.E. will recognize Val Bisoglio as, of all things, an Indian chief who shares with Wilder the single greatest descriptions of God, especially the Jewish interpretation of Him, ever put to screen.  Suffering from a drought and holding a rain dance, the chief asks Avram why "his god" won't just make it rain.

Chief Gray Cloud: What does he do?
Avram: He... He can do anything!
Chief Gray Cloud: Then why can't he make rain?
Avram: Because he doesn't make rain. He gives us strength when we're suffering. He gives us compassion when all that we feel is hatred. He gives us courage when we're searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness... but He does not make rain!
[a flash of thunder, followed by a downpour]
Avram:
Of course... sometimes, just like that, he'll change His mind.
One of the subtle themes through the film is that Avram becomes friends with and receives assistance from all sorts of people, including Indians, Amish and a Christian monastery (with Vincent Schiavelli as a monk who has taken a vow of silence).   Everyone gets along, regardless of creed.  Nice touch. It's a charming little film, far from the spoof masterpieces of Brooks.  Like Fatso, it's a film about people.

Dorian kibbitzes on The Frisco Kid:

The Frisco Kid was as funny as I expected, with Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford’s odd couple team-up working very well. I especially liked the surprising subtlety and nuance that Wilder brought to his endearing performance as the gentle rabbi. His Wild West adventure teaches him how to be the best rabbi he can be—and triumph over bad guys without going against his own teachings!