Favorite Comedies of The 80’s

In looking back at the 1980’s I was surprised how rich the decade was in comedies. Films that could have made my list but did not include Airplane!, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The Naked Gun, Tootsie, Spaceballs and Stripes. There are others, but you get the idea. The 80’s included one of the last great romantic comedies along with Woody Allen continuing to produce some great films and the underrated Albert Brooks.

You can find earlier post in this series easily by clicking right here!

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Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) Carl Reiner

The film  opens with the old Universal logo. It  switches to a rain soaked dark Los Angeles night as the credits begin to roll. In the first scene, a car is speeding out of control; it suddenly swerves and goes crashing off the road. We cut to the messy office of private eye Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) who is reading the morning newspaper. The headlines scream about the disappearance of the cheese maker king John Hay Forest.

There is a knock on his door; a beautiful, mysterious, alluring woman dressed to the nines, in 1940’s fashion enters. Her name is Juliet Forest (Rachel Ward) the daughter of the missing big cheese. She wants to hire Reardon to find her father. Reardon is always willing to help a beautiful lady. He’s  even willing to adjust her breasts when she faints, explaining to her after she comes to that they had shifted all outta whack. Reardon accepts the job.

Along with the mood, the  ambiance, the orchestra sound of Miklos Rozsa’s soundtrack, the perfect dead pan voice over by Martin, and we are transported back to 1946 and those dark rain filled streets of film noir. Well sorta, after all that is Steve Martin sitting in the detective chair and it is Carl Reiner in the director’s seat. “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” is an affectionate and technically inspired tribute to the murky cinema of gats, dames and mean darkly lit streets.

Written by Carl Reiner, Steve Martin and George Gipe, they are obviously a group that loves old movies and are a talented lot when it comes to comedy. Reiner’s career goes back as far as Sid Caesars “Your Show of Shows.” He also interviewed the 2000 Year Old Man, Mel Brooks on one of the first comedy albums ever recorded and was the creative source behind the classic 1960’s sit-com, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”  He previously directed Steve Martin in “The Jerk” and would do two more films with him, the underrated “The Man with Two Brains” and along with “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, one of my favorite Martin films “All of Me.”  Reiner even appears here in a couple of scenes spoofing Otto Preminger’s screen Nazi roles.

In 1982, Martin was still an adventurous comedy maverick willing to take chances with films like “Pennies From Heaven” and “Roxanne” among others instead of the series of tepid “Pink Panther” and “Cheaper By the Dozen” remakes of recent years (Though I have to admit “Shopgirl”, based on his own short novel was a surprising nice trip back to those more adventurous days).

The highest accolades for this film though are saved for film editor John DeCuir, director of photography Michael Chapman, sound editor James J. Klinger and many other techies for the flawless matter in which they matched the many classic clips used here with the new material. Well over twenty actors from the classic era “co-star” with Martin. They include Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, Charles Laughton,  Alan Ladd, Burt Lancaster, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart who  as Marlowe, works for Reardon as his legman and is continually picked on by Reardon for the way he dresses. There are also some of the great character actors of noir popping up in the clips like William Conrad, Jeff Corey and Edward Arnold. Rachel Ward’s wardrobe was by the legendary Edith Head. This would turn out to be Ms. Head’s last film.

Some of the dialogue are take offs on classic lines from Hollywood films. When Juliet Forest leaves Reardon’s office she looks back seductively as she departs saying, “If you need me, just call. You know how to dial don’t you? You just put your finger in the hole and make tiny little circles.”

And while Reardon is in many ways a homage to Marlowe, Spade and other hard-boiled screen P.I.’s he does have his own unique quirks. Forexample, whenever someone says “cleaning lady” it turns Reardon into a murdering out of control maniac. Think Abbott and Costello and their “Niagara Falls” routine.  Another scene have Reardon dressed up as a woman, specifically as Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson from  “Double Indemnity,”  blonde wig and white sweater included. He also witnesses “Swede” Anderson’s murder in “The Killers”.

Beside the technical aspects, what makes this all work so well is the over the shoulder shooting style many of the 1940’s filmmakers used back then. As an example, we see Reardon talking to someone who is dressed up like Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious.” In the shot, the camera is shooting over “Bergman’s” shoulder, as we watch Martin speak. The camera then cuts to the real Bergman speaking in a scene from the Hitchcock film and we view Reardon only from over his shoulder.  In most instances this works very well, though in this particular scene if one looks closely at Bergman’s hairstyle in the “Notorious” clip you will notice her ears are exposed and would be visible when shooting an over the shoulder shot. In this instance the Bergman stand-in’s hair covers her ears. As they cut back and forth a few times in this scene the mismatch becomes very obvious. Happily in most scenes this is not the case, the matches are very well done. Additionally, there is one scene where Martin appears in the same shot with Cary Grant. The scene is from “Suspicion”, which takes place in a train compartment, Grant asks Martin if he smokes, to which he answers, “No, I have tuberculosis.” Grants replies, “oh, thank heaven for that.”

Reiner and company have to be given credit for doing all this one year before Woody Allen did in the celebrated  “Zelig” and twenty years or so before Robert Zemeckis had  Forest Gump meet JFK! Overall, the film is funny, silly at times but always affectionate toward its subjects.


All of Me (1984) Carl Reiner

“Carl Reiner’s “All of Me” might just be one of the best comedies of the 1980’s with a career winning performance from Steve Martin. Martin’s movie career has been one of innovation, off beat (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Pennies from Heaven, The Spanish Prisoner, Shopgirl) and retreads (Sgt. Bilko, The Out-Of-Towner’s, Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther’s). Generally, his more adventurous work has been at least moderately successful while the retreads have been embarrassingly bad (so beware of his upcoming remake of Topper); the track record has not been very good.  “All of Me” falls into the first category, it’s different, it exploits Martin’s talent to the outer limits and it is just plain fun.

The sickly and sickly rich Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin)  is about to expire and has embarked upon a plan to transfer her soul to that of a younger, prettier and healthier young woman named Terry Hoskins (Victoria Tennant).

“And what makes you think you can do that?” ask an incredulous Roger Cobb (Steve Martin), a reluctant lawyer assigned by his law firm to ensure Edwina’s legal papers have no loose ends and are all in order.

“Because I’m rich,” Edwina obnoxiously answers. And she is, she is filthy rich, diamonds dripping from everywhere even the oxygen tank she continually has to suck on. With the aid of her personal swami, (Richard Libertini), Edwina has arranged to mystically transfer her soul into the body of a young willing blonde.

Roger Cobb is a frustrated lawyer, who rather be a jazz musician. He works for a law firm but is getting nowhere in his career. His assignment to make sure Edwina’s papers are in order is the kind of work they dump him with; he pleads for more impressive client than crazy ladies. Through a series of circumstances when Edwina’s transference takes place, the swami’s pot, that is holding Edwina soul, accidentally goes flying out a window landing on Roger’s head, and before you know it, Roger and Edwina are sharing the same body…Roger’s!

Thus begins a battle of the sexes, only we are only one body short. With Edwina’s soul now implanted into Roger’s body an internal struggle begins filled with physical and verbal gags. There is Roger dragging himself across the sidewalk, one side (Edwina’s) ever so feminine and the other side  his masculine self. Two scenes that stand out are a courtroom scene, with Roger’s career hanging in the balance, only problem is he is dead tired and falls asleep, while Edwina isn’t, so she decides to step in for Roger. Acting in a fashion she considers macho, she proceeds to grunt, spit and scratch his/her way through the court proceedings, until at one point she screams at the top of her lungs waking the Roger side up. A second scene involves Roger having to go to the men’s room and needing Edwina’s “assistance” with unzipping his pants and  well you can imagine the rest.

Later on there is an attempted seduction scene by Roger, at least the half of Roger that he controls, of the beautiful young Terry. Of course, the Edwina side wants nothing to do with it. The whole scene is a beautiful timed combination of physical comedy and witty written dialogue played out to the hilt by the three characters.

What is most inspiring in this film is the performance of Steve Martin who is required to act as two people inhabiting one body. It is a brilliant performance, one that was recognized for its greatness by the New York Film Critics who gave him their best actor award for the year.

Also making the film such a delight is it is not just physical humor, but a witty script written by Phil Adel Robinson. At one point, the engaging Lily Tomlin after hearing Roger complain about his day says, “My day hasn’t been that great either, I died 5 minutes ago.”

Beside the two stars, director Carl Reiner had put together a great supporting cast, the always amusing Selma Diamond, as Roger’s secretary, the amazing Richard Libertini as the Swami and the cool sophisticated beauty of Victoria Tennant.  However, there is no doubt that it is Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin who carry the day right up until the closing credits.