Sunday, June 11, 2006

95. Swann's Way

Despite my advanced years, I stayed up after 11:00 last night to watch My Favorite Year (1982) on Turner Classic Movies, and I was immediately rewarded on hearing Robert Osborne, TCM's ubiquitous host and all-around movie-lovin' fool, introduce it as one of his favorite movies. I nodded in agreement, even though I am deeply hesitant to make such commitments myself. Favorite what? Comedy? Richard Benjamin comedy? (OK, that one has some credence.) But still, I agree, Mr. Osborne: It's one of my favorites, too. I saw it multiple times in the early '80s, in a period when, as newlyweds, we had little money but a great urge for Home Living and Entertainment. So we had HBO and a VCR--and although for a year our TV was a 12" black-and-white RCA, and replaced by a friend, who gave us a belated wedding present, a 13" TV--and color--we were Home, and Living, and indulging in Entertainment. So we squinted, and watched movie after movie--on HBO multiple times.

My Favorite Year was one such perennial, and the more I watched it, the more I liked it. It's not particularly memorable in its look--the lighting is a bit too '80s sitcom-bright--but the period music is great (for instance, the opening titles use the intro for Stardust, "the music of the years gone by", Nat Cole softening the blow of the deep melancholy in Hoagy Carmichael's masterpiece); but the real draw, I think, lies in both its evocation of '50s comedy TV--that Your Show of Shows phenomenon, in which so much talent gathered in the service of breakneck silliness--and in its performances. And while everyone has fun with their roles, watching it last night I remembered how perfect Mark Linn-Baker was as Benjy Stone, the Mel Brooks figure, the junior comedy writer who idolizes--and needs to babysit--Peter O'Toole's Errol Flynn-like Alan Swann. Linn-Baker is the most '50s-ish performer in the cast--not that Benjy acts like someone from the '50s, but that, as narrator/memoirist, his '50s Benjy acts like an actor from the '50s, a rapid-fire nebbish who would have been perfectly at home with Lucille Ball or Phil Silvers--or Sid Caesar. Part Donald O'Connor ricochet, part Howard Morris panic, Linn-Baker delivers the performance of his career--unless you count Perfect Strangers, but there he had the thankless job of dampening the enthusiasms of his cousin Balki (Bronson Pinchot).

In My Favorite Year, though, he more than dampens, he jumps belly-first on the blazes set by Swann, catching on fire himself in the process, and flinging himself around, a screwy Brooklyn squirrel surrounded by nuts. Finding himself in New York, eager and young and Jewish at a time when TV comedy was all of those things as well, Benjy cannot curb his enthusiasm. Watch him dart after his would-be girlfriend, or jam those dim sum in his mouth while telling one of my favorite jokes ("A guy walks into a psychiatrist's office with a duck on his head ..."), or fly around on a rooftop, trapped and breathless as he once more attempts both to reign in Swann--literally--and become him; as Swann comments just as he is about to once again imbibe, "Stone, you can watch me or you can join me. One of them is more fun."

That urge to identify with the swashbuckler is Benjy's--and Swann's--salvation. Linn-Baker provides us with a tireless pest who loves movies just enough--that is, too much--to will them off the screen and into his life. We first see him carrying around a lifesized cutout of Swann; and by the end of the movie we are given Swann himself, on the TV screen, caught in the act of becoming a fond, dim Kinescope, something for us to remember just as dimly, and maybe catch on TV late at night, past everyone's bedtime.

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