"My Favorite Year" is vintage bubbly, a giddy tribute to early television, starring Peter O'Toole as a fading matinee idol who's traded his sword for a swizzle stick. His debuting costar Mark Linn-Baker is the perfect foil as a kid comedy writer who idolizes the old sloshbuckler.
O'Toole is flamboyant fun as an ersatz Errol Flynn. He's as practiced for pratfalls as a stunt man. He fences; he rides; he mugs. He comes bobbing and weaving as Alan Swann, a boozer as amiable as "Arthur."
It's 1954 and he's called to guest star on a show of shows called "Comedy Cavalcade," with host King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna). Kaiser is comedic coleslaw -- Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Hartz, Schaffner and Groucho Marx. He does a routine as Boss Hijack that steams mob-tied union leader Karl Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell), whose heavies occasionally drop floodlights at Kaiser.
Thereabouts Swann makes his grand entrance after a night of Pinch and women. "Comedy Cavalcade's" worldly-wise writers are stunned when he somersaults across their conference table and passes out. Kaiser wants to can him, but freshman writer Benjy Stone (Linn-Baker) offers to babysit.
It's an intoxicating week for Stone, nee Steinberg, and an educational one for Swann. They spend it in Benjy's Brooklyn and Swann's Stork Club, exchanging trade secrets on the meaning of life: "Dying is easy," says Swann; "comedy is hard." It's a pithy picture.
Benjy, an apprentice romantic, feints when his mentor Swann urges him to rappel off a skyscraper roof into a party a floor below for the love of K.C. Downing, an assistant producer on "Comedy Cavalcade." It's an attraction that's hard to grasp: She's flat, frigid and frumpy as played by Jessica Harper, now typecast in these wan roles.
Benjy's idea of a big night is inviting her over for an old Alan Swann movie, "Defender of the Crown." It's a film-within-the- film featuring Swann's rapier wits. O'Toole, who does his own stunts, proves proficient at both swordplay and wordplay, each plentiful in "Favorite Year's" script.
O'Toole's supporting cast of quality zanies includes Selma Diamond as wardrobe mistress; Bill Macy ("Maude's" husband) as hardboiled head comedy writer; Lainie Kazan as a buxom Brooklyn momma; and Ramon Sison as a bantamweight Filipino.
Added to that is the tone: just-right nostalgia, down to the Nat King Cole mood music and Jessica Harper's angora sweaters. Optical effects recreate the Manhattan skyline of 1954 and for many in the cast and crew, it's coming home, especially for producer Mel Brooks and director Richard Benjamin, once a page at NBC's Rockefeller Center Studios.
This is Benjamin's first film from behind camera, though he has directed for television and stage. At first, he says he was awed by O'Toole -- how to approach Lawrence of Arabia? But O'Toole respected Benjamin and vice versa. That and some fine editing make for some of the most flawlessly timed scenes in recent movie history.
"My Favorite Year" is the toast of the town.
MY FAVORITE YEAR -- At the AMC Academy, AMC Skyline, Jenifer Cinema, Loehmann's Plaza, NTI Dale Cinema, NTI Landover Mall, Roth's Americana, Roth's Mount Vernon, Roth's Seven Locks, Roth's Tysons Corner, Showcase Fair City Mall, Village Mall.