Thursday, September 14, 2006

Film Review: FAST BREAK (1979)

"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Volume 10

FAST BREAK (1979 Columbia) Starring Gabriel Kaplan, Bernard King, Mavis Washington, Michael Warren, Harold Sylvester, Reb Brown, Bert Remsen, Randee Heller. Directed by Jack Smight.

Today, The Horn Section remembers that special moment in time when one of television’s brightest stars made the leap to the big screen after three years of paying his dues in one of the most popular shows on television. He starred in a film so specific to the late Seventies that it belongs in a time capsule. A movie that told the story of a young Brooklyn man and his dream, a dream that suddenly appears to be within reach, if he can only manage the one big victory he needs as a springboard. A clich├ęd film, true, with a familiar and slight storyline, but one that briefly turned the former star of WELCOME BACK, KOTTER into one of the biggest movie stars in the country.

Oh, no, not that one. I’m talking about FAST BREAK, starring the great Gabe Kaplan.

The great Gabe Kaplan
Kaplan plays a New York deli manager who, much to wife Randee Heller’s chagrin, still has an unrequieted love for the game of basketball. His dream of playing long gone, he settles for being a player-coach at local pickup games while dreaming of a coaching opportunity. He finally gets a nibble from hopeless Cadwallader College, a small Nevada school with an unathletic team and a University President who plays the Ink Spots’ If I Didn’t Care in an effort to make black recruits comfortable. As if he didn’t have enough obstacles to overcome, his wife refuses to make the trip, the contract offers him only $60 per win, and the only way to ensure job security is to schedule and defeat Nevada State, a top 10 program with a legendary coach several conferences (at least) above Cadwallader.

But Kaplan has an ace in the hole: his streetballers in New York. After recruiting pool shark Bernard King and two guys with legal troubles (Michael Warren and Harold “Griff” Sylvester), he puts his recruiting skills to the ultimate test, and talks Mavis Washington (female college basketball and volleyball legend at UC Riverside in real life) into not only forgoing her existing scholarship, but masquerading as a guy, “Swish” in order to realize her own basketball dream. They pile into Gabe’s station wagon (the same car driven by Coach Kenny Reeves!) and head to Nevada.

 Mavis Washington
Everything in FAST BREAK is familiar to the seasoned moviegoer, but the film seems most indebted to that 1970’s landmark, THE BAD NEWS BEARS. A girl and a delinquent inject some athleticism into a hopeless team. The girl is the best player on the team. A hustle is attempted at a table game in order to gain leverage for the ultimate goal. A never-was wins redemption by coaching a team of misfits to the big game. The coach gets overzealous in pursuit of the victory but is set straight by his players in the nick of time. It’s all here, along with some (still funny) swipes from elsewhere: for example, the pot scene is lifted directly from Cheech and Chong’s first record.

Director Smight keeps the pace brisk and the tone breezy: while ONE ON ONE and BLUE CHIPS solemnly detail the shocking recruiting practices of college coaches, FAST BREAK plays the same shady recruiting for laughs throughout. The few serious interludes are brief and unintrusive. While no one will ever mistake Gabriel Kaplan for a great actor, he is always likable, a great asset in an overly recognizable and at times very implausible (A top-10 school scheduling a fledgling second-rate college in the middle of a season? Washington concealing her gender 24/7 for several months?) film. This would be Kaplan’s lone big-screen success: following the failures of TULIPS and NOBODY’S PERFEKT in 1981, Kaplan would turn to stage (triumphing as “Groucho”) and professional poker full-time.

So….why isn’t this on DVD?

There’s a million just like this one, it is dated, and it has some plot developments that are a bit hard to swallow.

Why it should be on DVD:

Ok, so there’s a million just like it. There’s a reason this sports movie formula gets repeated, over and over again: it works! Hell, to this day, they still look for true stories that fit the formula: witness MIRACLE and GLORY ROAD.

And what a great commentary we could have, with Gabe, who’s very informative and funny every time you see him on HIGH STAKES POKER; possible Hall of Famer Bernard King; collegiate two-sport legend Mavis Washington; and Harold Sylvester, for starters? A commentary is a must, dammit!

Finally, as unbelievable as it is, the Basketball Big Three of the late Seventies (ONE ON ONE and THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH complete the trilogy) is Oh for 3 on DVD! How can this be? Hell, they should be available together in one boxed set, if possible! But, if I had to choose one:

At the risk of having Coach G. D. Spradlin come after me with a red hot poker, I nominate FAST BREAK for DVD over ONE ON ONE because the latter is a hell of a lot more pretentious, while being just as implausible (i.e. Spradlin recruits Benson even though he doesn’t fit the system?). Case in point: a “sensitive” Seals and Crofts soundtrack, versus the uplifting, discofied “Go For It” by Billy Preston and Syreeta? I rest my case!

I’ll also nominate FAST BREAK over THE FISH as well. So they have Julius Erving and Meadowlark Lemon. I’ll counter with Bernard King (top 60 all time NBA player), Michael Warren (also NBA), USC footballer Reb Brown, Kaplan himself (who famously smoked Robert Conrad on BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS) and finally, Mavis Washington who adds gender equality in addition to her mad skills. Does THE FISH have a similar female basketball legend? Hell no! (As a side note, Mavis wuz robbed at the Oscars. I mean, Meryl Streep for KRAMER VS. KRAMER?  WTF?  Streep didn't even learn a new accent for that one!)

Gabe Kaplan, major movie star. Shouldn’t this moment be preserved on DVD for posterity? I vote yes!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Film Review: DIPLOMANIACS (1933)

"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?"
--Volume 9

DIPLOMANIACS (1933 RKO) Starring Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey, Louis Calhern, Hugh Herbert, Edgar Kennedy, Marjorie White, Phyllis Barry and Edward Cooper. Directed by William Seiter. Written by Joseph Mankiewicz and Henry Myers.

While Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges and W. C. Fields have seen their respective legends grow in the last 70 years, history has not been as kind to their RKO contemporaries, Wheeler and Woolsey. Bert and Bob have their defenders, but they are usually relegated to the era’s second tier and considered a flash in the pan, popular in their own time but completely irrelevant outside of it. In a way, the Salieri to, say, the Marx Brothers’ Mozart.

Okay, so Wheeler and Woolsey aren’t the Marx Brothers. They aren't Jack Pearl or Joe Penner either. Wheeler and Woolsey rushed through 21 films in only 8 years (compared to the Marxes’ 7 in the same 1929-1937 time frame) and as a result, their batting average is lower than that of their comtemporaries, but they did make a handful of very funny films worthy of rediscovery. DIPLOMANIACS is best described as a Wheeler and Woolsey variation on DUCK SOUP, sharing the same screenwriter, the same surrealism, the same anti-war message, the same frustrated Edgar Kennedy, and the same villainous Louis Calhern.

Bert and Bob have opened a barbershop on the Adoop Reservation---not a good business decision, since "Native Americans do not grow beards". (According to the film, not me.--HH) When members of the tribe overhear the usual barbershop talk about foreign affairs, the Chief decides that they should represent the Adoops at the Geneva Peace Conference and present his peace plan. Meanwhile corporate meanie Louis Calhern and his Chinese henchman Hugh Herbert (!) have developed an explosive bullet, and need war in order to realize the profits. They pull out all the stops to sidetrack the duo, including vamp Marjorie White, femme fatale Phyllis Barry (her kisses are fatal), sabotaging the ocean voyage to Europe, and several assassination attempts. But they are continually thwarted either by the dumb luck of Wheeler and Woolsey (a staple in all their films) or the creepily omniscient Adoops, who live up their warning that they will always be watching. When our heroes arrive at Geneva, they find the conference in complete chaos and the League of Nations to be entirely ineffective. Can our diplomaniacs save the world from itself?

Just as Groucho does his absolute worst as Freedonia's leader in DUCK SOUP, Wheeler and Woolsey are woefully incompetent diplomats. They lose the peace plans more than once, dress ridiculously at functions, give their secret mission away to just about everyone “in confidence”, get blind stinking drunk as guests of honor at a dinner, allow pretty girls to sidetrack the mission, and consider embezzling the money they’ve been entrusted with.

While DUCK SOUP sends up world leaders using the fictional country of Freedonia, and occasionally points out the absurdity of war (“I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield!”), DIPLOMANIACS uses the names of actual countries and cities and the anti-war content looms larger. The film moves smoothly from one nonsensical scene to the next, while making its satirical points: everyone talks of peace but no one actually wants to do anything about it; eloquent and intelligent words fall on deaf ears while acrobatics have everyone’s rapt attention; and as is always pointed out in anti-war films, no one wins in a war---no, not even Calhern and Co., who run afoul of their own invention.

In keeping with Wheeler and Woolsey’s reputation as the dirtiest of the pre-Code screen comedians, sex talk is plentiful (some of it surprisingly blatant). Unfortunately, so is uncomfortably un-PC humor. The “white vamp” is ordered from a vending machine and arrives wrapped in plastic, built to serve man in only one way; Herbert’s character is named Chow Chow; numerous Adoops speak only one word, “Oompah!”; and, most notorious of all, a bomb explodes in the peace conference, with the fallout giving everyone blackface---the conference then becomes a minstrel show with the song, “No More War”. To be fair, though, Herbert and the two Adoops with lines avoid the usual stereotypical broken English, and Woolsey’s one attempt at it is quickly and hilariously skewered by the Oxford-educated chief of the tribe--in fact, the Adoop Chief is the only intelligent and honorable character in the entire film. Chow Chow is a complete smartass (or as Calhern had to put it in 1933, “wise guy”) who always gets the best of his boss verbally. As for the minstrel show, well, you have to see it to believe it: incredibly over the top, warning of potential apocalypse with hilariously heavy-handed lyrics reminding the delegates that they won't get into heaven if they don’t sign the peace agreement.  (It's also hard not to note that Woolsey's glasses magically change from black frames to white frames during this number, and back again when it is mercifully over.)

Every Wheeler and Woolsey comedy has slow spots, and even at 62 minutes, this one is no exception. The slowest scene is the opener, with way too many hoary vaudeville groaners in the barbership. Another problem is that while likable, their characters are not as distinctive as the other comedy teams of their day. Bert and Bob are much more adept at the song and dance routines (they’re all excellent, but 1930’s audiences liked these far better than those of the post-Depression years) than they are at the verbal jabs, many of which fall flat as there are too many unfunny lines. But, bottom line, it is fast and funny, and stands up to repeat viewings. It's atypical for the team (they usually aren't defeated in the end), but is still a good introduction to the bizarre world of Wheeler and Woolsey.

So…why isn’t this film on DVD?

Wheeler and Woolsey are not well known to modern audiences, and lack the distinctive comic personas of Laurel/Hardy, Fields, and the Marxes.

There's a considerable amount of uncomfortably un-PC humor that hasn't aged well. That can be said about a lot of the era's films, but in this particular case, the most glaring and unfortunate example is in the climactic scene.

Why it should be on DVD:

In some ways does DUCK SOUP one better; it is wilder and more surrealistic, Calhern is even funnier here (and sings!), and at times, DIPLOMANIACS is more effectively satirical. It comes in second best overall, but it is a very respectable second.

You’ll have to watch it several times to catch all the jokes. Think Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker were doing something entirely new with AIRPLANE? Think again. This film is right up there with SOUP, HORSE FEATHERS, and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS as a prime example to show just how zany comedies could get in the pre-code early 1930's.

Wheeler and Woolsey should be rediscovered, and they are sorely underrepresented on DVD. While within the 1930's context he's presented as a second-tier Groucho, I think Woolsey brings to mind the late-middle age George Burns in terms of looks and delivery: and he even smokes a cigar in his sleep! Wheeler brings to mind a combination of Jerry Lewis (speaking voice) and Zeppo Marx (complete with singing), if you can picture that.

As noted above, it's barely an hour long (62 minutes) so a great double feature Wheeler and Woolsey DVD could be released, perhaps this one with (likely future review subjects here) HIPS, HIPS, HOORAY or HOLD 'EM JAIL, just to name two that are around the same running time.

It’s always fun to watch for the “dirty” humor in a pre-Code Wheeler and Woolsey film: in particular, watch for homosexual overtones (more overt than those in Martin and Lewis comedies, though W&W are never portrayed as anything other than straight), very scantily clad and sexually aggressive women, and plenty of wild, often surprisingly blunt sex references (i.e. “Where’s your cigar?””She swallowed it!”).

Marjorie White, who died tragically at age 30, is a scream as the aggressive vamp who chases Bert (“Sing to me!”). This is her best showcase, though she can also be seen in the Three Stooges short, MEN IN BLACK.

All things taken into account, this is a cult film just waiting to happen upon rediscovery. Isn’t there always room for a good anti-War film, particularly a bitterly funny one? This is the closest thing to a pre-Nukes DR. STRANGELOVE that exists.