Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Sad passings

Comedy tonight (1928-2009)

Although very well known to people who follow the entertainment industry, Larry Gelbart’s was not a name that was as immediately recognizable to the less interested masses as were those of some of his fellow writing alumni of Sid Caesar’s legendary Your Show of Shows in the 1950s. Unlike the likes of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Woody Allen, Gelbart did not go on to make his mark in front of the camera, as an actor, nor behind it, as a director. He was first, foremost and finally a writer. And a very funny one and a very good one.

To the extent that he is famous, he will forever be associated with the television series M*A*S*H, which he adapted from Richard Hooker’s comic novel about medics during the Korean War and the 1970 Robert Altman movie it inspired. The TV version of M*A*S*H ran from 1972 to 1983 which, as commentators endlessly point out, made its duration longer than the Korean War itself. Its run was extremely long for a TV series, and its final episode was watched by a record-setting 106 million viewers.

Gelbart’s other claims to fame, at least as evidenced by what got highlighted in his obituaries, were a Tony-winning Broadway musical and an Oscar-winning movie comedy. With Burt Shevelove, he wrote the book for the 1962 Broadway show A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which featured songs by Stephen Sondheim and starred Zero Mostel. It was made into a motion picture in 1966, directed by Richard Lester. He also wrote the screenplay for the 1982 movie Tootsie, directed by Sydney Pollack, which was memorable for Dustin Hoffman playing a man impersonating a woman and for Jessica Lange winning her first Academy Award.

But in addition to all that, Gelbart wrote or contributed to screenplays to a number of interesting, if not downright hilarious, other movies over the years, which are well worth remembering. These include Richard Quine’s The Notorious Landlady (co-penned with Blake Edwards), starring Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon and Fred Astaire; Norman Jewison’s The Thrill of It All (with Carl Reiner), starring Doris Day and James Garner; Norman Panama’s Not With My Wife, You Don’t! (another case of mining comedy from the Korean War), starring Tony Curtis, Virna Lisi and George C. Scott; Carl Reiner’s Oh, God!, in which John Denver developed a personal relationship with the Deity, as played by George Burns; Stanley Donen’s Movie Movie, in which George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Red Buttons and Eli Wallach sent up boxing movies and show business flicks in a pair of mini-movies; and Donen’s Blame It on Rio, a farce in which Michael Caine falls in love with his best friend’s teenage daughter.

Gelbart also co-penned the Italian production The Chastity Belt, which in the U.S. had the title On My Way to the Crusades, I Met a Girl Who… and starred Tony Curtis and Monica Vitti. And a half-decade before the term WMD became a buzz word (1997), he wrote a movie called Weapons of Mass Distraction, about two media moguls (Gabriel Byrne and Ben Kingsley) battling over ownership of a football team. He had previously visited the topic of corporate warfare in the excellent made-for-TV movie Barbarians at the Gate. Based on the book by Bryan Borrough and John Helyar, it recounted in exquisitely humorous fashion the true story of the 1980s takeover of RJR Nabisco. James Garner and Jonathan Pryce played the corporate adversaries.

But if Gelbart deserves to be remembered for any one movie, it surely must be for his screenplay (co-written with Shevelove, adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne’s novel) for Bryan Forbes’s 1966 Victorian comedy The Wrong Box. The movie had John Mills and Ralph Richardson as the last surviving brothers of a winner-gets-all type of insurance scheme, in which the final survivor (and his family) will get the whole lot. An incredibly young Michael Caine starred as Mills’s grandson. The sprawling cast included everyone from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore to Peter Sellers. Rarely does a movie give as much pure pleasure as this one. If Gelbart had never written anything else, it would have been enough.

Dirty dancer (1952-2009)

Here’s a potentially interesting coincidence. We were just memorializing the man associated with the TV series M*A*S*H, and it turns out that one of Patrick Swayze’s first screen roles was as a private in an episode of that series in 1981. And he drew attention toward the end of his life by starring in a TV series, playing undercover FBI agent Charles Baker on A&E’s The Beast for an entire 13-episode season, at a time when most people would have given up and gone into seclusion. His other notable TV role was as South Carolinian Orry Maine, who finds himself on the opposing side against his best friend in the U.S. Civil War in the two North and South mini-series.

But it is his movie roles for which we will remember Swayze, who died on Monday after a valiant 20-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Inevitably, the one role that stands out for many people is that of the “bad boy” dancing teacher Johnny Castle in Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing. Longtime thorough readers will know that this movie is problematic for me. I have already written (I think more than once) about how it was the last-minute substitution for a movie, by one of my favorite directors (Ettore Scola), which I was really looking forward to. Not only did I resent the American movie for replacing the Italian one I wanted to see, but I found it corny and self-indulgent. My write-up was fairly scathing. And it has turned out to be Exhibit A in the case against my ability to judge the popularity or durability of a movie. The Italian movie I had wanted to see was called La famiglia, and when I finally saw it, it did not impress me nearly so much as Scola’s other movies and I have thought little about it since. Meanwhile, Dirty Dancing turned out to be inescapable. I knew something was up when a co-worker came back from seeing it and raved endlessly. The raving has never stopped. While some, like me, have been underwhelmed by Dirty Dancing, many more have been caught up and enthralled by its story, its dancing and its music. (When I heard that Swayze had passed away, I knew to brace myself for hearing many more airings on the radio of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s “The Time of My Life.”)

Because of his hunky good looks and healthy mane, it would have been easy to dismiss Swayze as just another pretty face, and I suppose some of us did for a while. There were times when I didn’t know where he left off and Kurt Russell began. But when we look back, we see that he managed to be part of a surprising number of iconic American movie moments. There was, of course, Jerry Rucker’s Ghost, which was a pretty darn good romantic comedy/fantasy, although it seemed to get co-opted by the same chick flick crowd that went ape for Dirty Dancing and, in the popular culture, the movie got reduced to the bit with Demi Moore and the pottery wheel and “Unchained Medley” by the Righteous Brothers (Bill Medley again!).

Swayze also starred in his share of B-level action movies, ones with titles like Youngblood, Steel Dawn, Tiger Warsaw, Road House, Next of Kin—as well as comedies like Waking Up in Reno and Keeping Mum. He even found time to do voice work in a Disney animated feature (The Fox and the Hound 2) and turn in a cameo in the 2004 sort-of prequel Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.

But let us not forget his other touchstone pictures. He was part of the crowd of fresh young faces that Francis Ford Coppola introduced to us (along with Matt Dillon, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Maccio, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Tom Cruise) in The Outsiders. He teamed up with Howell and future Dirty Dancing co-star Jennifer Grey (and also Lea Thompson and Charlie Sheen) in John Milius’s vision of Soviet-occupied America, Red Dawn. He and Keanu Reeves gave life to Kathryn Bigelow’s (whose latest is The Hurt Locker) vision of manly action and attraction in the cops & robbers & surfers flick Point Break. He went drag (along with Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo) in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, the somewhat inferior remake of the Australian classic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And he played a celebrity self-help guru in Richard Kelly’s cult favorite Donnie Darko.

That’s a pretty good list and shows a bit more range than Swayze was usually given credit for. Much too young at 57, he leaves behind a wife of 24 years (whom he met when he and she were 19 and 15, respectively) and legions of devoted fans. Perhaps they will take some comfort in the love-surviving-death theme of the role he played in Ghost.

-S.L., 17 September 2009

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