"Movie Movie," a delightful comic divertissement, consists of a matched set of film parodies, conceived in affectionate mockery of '30s genre pictures. There are two miniature features, a boxing melodrama in black-and-white entitled "Dynamite Hands" and a backstage musical in color called "Baxter's Beauties of 1933."
These attractions, purportedly distributed by a company called Warren Bros., are bridged by a hilarious trailer for a bogus coming attraction called "Zero Hour," a combat melodrama about intrepid World War I pilots.
George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Red Buttons, Eli Wallach, Art Carney and Barry Bostwick appear in both "Dynamite Hands" and "Baxer's Beauties." Scott, Buttons and Wallach are also the alleged co-stars of "Zero Hour."
"Movie Movie" begins awkwardly with a prologue by George Burns, but once over the introductory hump, it plays like a charm until the closing moments, when it becomes apparent that in the musical finale of "Baxter's Beauties," the muscial numbers themselves are getting short shrift. It seems rather bewildering, not to mention disappointing, to reuntie director Stanley Donen with choreographer Michale Kidd for the first time in 20 years and then insist that they treat the ostensible musical highlights as throwaways.
The negligent treatment of the production numbers and musical interludes in "Baxter's Beauties" underlines the fact that Larry Gelbart and Sheldon Keller, authors of the surprisingly astute and clever script, are basically concerened with kidding the cliches of exposition. This emphasis may explain why "Dynamite Hands" seems the more satisfying of the two parodies. A boxing melodrama can't transcend plot structure as easily as a musical, in which the songs and dances frquently exist on a loftier imaginative plane than the story.
"Movie Movie" sustains a more consistent and appealing parodistic tone than the film spoofs written by Mel Brooks and Neil Simon. It would be unjust if this genuinely sophisticated parody of movie cliches ended up suffering at the box office because Brooks and Simon had overworked the form or accustomed the potential audience to cruder jokes.
"Dynamite Hands" could scarcely be improved upon. In the course of about 45 brisk minutes the filmmakers succeed in fusing elements abstracted largely from "Golden Boy," "City for Conquest" and "Body and Soul" into a definitive spoof of the Depression period piece about an idealistic son of the ghetto corrupted by exposure to the fight game. It's a miniature gem, as incisive and funny as the best parodies on "The Carol Burnett Show."
Joey Popchik, splendidly portrayed by an intense, young stage actor named Harry Hamlin making a film debut almost as impressive as Christopher Reeve's in "Superman," is the hard-working pride and joy of Mom and Pop Popchik (Jocelyn Brando and Michael Kidd), who run the neightborhood deli. Joey's dream of going to law school must be deferred when he learns that his doe-eyed, delectable kid sister Angie (Kathleen Beller) will go blind unless the family can raise the money to send her to a famous surgeon in Vienna.
Earlier that Joey had attracted the notice of the veteran manager "Gloves" Malloy (George C. Scott) but declined his overtures with the comment, "Fightin's for suckers; I'm goin' to night school to be a lawyer; these hands are for readin's books." Now Joey is compelled to seek out Gloves, and they agree to a partnership-until Joey can earn the $25,000 he needs to finance Angie's trip to Vienna.
Under the experienced tutelage of Gloves and his trusted trainer Peanuts (Red Buttons), Joey battles his way through a montage of knockouts into championship contention. Indeed, his success makes him impatient. When gangster Vince Marlowe (Eli Wallach) offers him a quick shot at the title in Madison Square Garden. Joey ignores Gloves' warnings and jumps at the chance. The association with Marlowe exposes Joey to sexual temptation in the scintillating, insinuating form of Ann Reinking as cabaret star "Troubles" Moran. At the same time sweet Angie falls for Marlowe's lean, oily henchman, played by Barry Bostwick.
The climax comes on the night of the title fight. Marlowe orders Joey to take a dive in the fifth. When Joey says, "Get yourself another boy," Marlowe calmly replies, "It's up to you. You want to spend the rest of your life watching your sister walk into walls?"
Joey's agony is intensified when he learns that Gloves and Peanuts have bet their life savings on him. Ditto for Mom and Pop and everybody from the neightborhood. Joey endures a terrible beating for four rounds until finding the resolve to foil Marlowe, redeem himself, protect the investments of his loved ones and be reunited with the sweetheart he so foolishly neglected, librarian Betsy McGuire (Trish Van Devere).
"Dynamite Hands" opens in the office of a doctor played by Art Carney. "Baxter's Beauties" opens in the office of another doctor played by Art Carney. This time Scott plays the patient receiving demoralizing news. Indeed, Angie Popchik seems lucky in comparison with Scott's "Spats" Baxter, a Broadway musical impressario informed that he has only a month to live before succumbing to the effects of the rare, dread Spencer's Disease.
Spats resolves to "go out the only way I know how-with a hit show." He confides to the doctor that he has a child to support, a daughter now in her teens and enrolled at a "swell finishing school." Spats, shamed at being responsible for the auto accident that killed her mother, has not laid eyes on his daughter since she was 3. "I send her an anonymous check every month," he explains. "That's why I've got to have a hit, so those checks can keep coming long after I've gone."
Spat's desire to go out in glory is threatened by the selfishness of his temperamental, dipsomaniacal star Isobel Stewart (Van Devere). However, two newcomers to the Baxter troupe contrive to rescue the show from potential disaster: a young book-keeper named Dick Cummings (Bostwick), who turns out to be an aspiring composer, and an ingenue named Kitty Simpson (Rebecca York), who has run away from a swell finishing school in hopes of breaking into the chorus of a Spats Baxter musical.
Gelbart and Keller are particularly adept at comic dialogue based on an extravagant indulgence of mixed metaphors. For example, here's a typical exchange from "Dynamite Hands": Joey: When do I get a shot at the real dough? A crack at the Garden?
Gloves: The Garden? Joey, you're good, but you're not ready, not for the Garden.
Betsy: Gloves knows best, Joey.
Joey: I'll tell Angie that. No eyes this week-Gloves knows best.
Gloves: That's no fair, kid. Your sister's eyes are hittin' below the belt.
In a rueful moment Joey later remarks, "Funny, isn't it? How many times your guts can get a slap in the face? Like Reeve, Hamlin has remarkable deadpan integrity. Inevitably, his sincerity intensifies the humor.
The writer's giddiest hyperbolic flight comes at the close of the trailer for the coming attraction "Zero Hour," when the following effusion is printed on a crawl and also spoken by a pompous narrator; "Take off with these knights in shining aircraft, their cockpits climbing ever upward, blazing a path of glory as they search the heavens for the Huns who would gun down our way of life. Hardly more than boys, yet a great deal more than men, this is the story of those who gave as good as they got and who gave more than they had."
The most satisfying satirical characterization may be bookish Betsy. Van Devere, who falters in the more forceful role of Isobel, is devastating at suggesting Betsy's sneaky intellectual prententiousness. "Movie Movie" may earn a special place in movie history for introducing Harry Hamlin, Ann Reinking and Rebecca York. Although Barry Bostwick has been in films before (including the dismal cult favorite "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"), the role of Dick Cummings gives him his first chance to display the charm and zest that have delighted Broadway audiences. It's as if he'd unified the most likable traits of Dick Powell, Donald O'Connor, Anthony Perkins and Tommy Tune.
The material and Donen's smooth direction seem to flatter and inspire just about everyone in the cast. Scott and Van Devere venture slightly out of their range in the musical, but their work in the boxing story is impeccable. Barbara Harris proves an invaluable addition to the musical in the role of Trixie, a wised-up chorine, and Michael Kidd is a wonderful choice to play Pop Popchik, since he and Hamlin could pass for father and son.
Watching Hamlin and Bostwick here, Reeve in "Superman," Tim Matheson and John Belushi in "Animal House," Paul LeMat in "Citizens Band" and Jeff Goldblum and John Heard in last year's "Between the Lines," one can't help feeling heartened.It appears that a new wave of bright, funny young actors is about to enliven American movies.