Friday, April 18, 2014



I am most put out. After a most uncomfortable journey, I arrived at Fanning Island, which is, I believe, three thousand miles from the nearest hair and nail salon, not to mention Laundromat, and was jeeped out to the location for Celebrity Survivor, my new television project. When we arrived at the set, I found no four star hotel, no craft service table and no replacement luggage. Apparently, I am supposed to spend the next few weeks sleeping in some grass and palm frond hut, living off the land for the amusement of America, safely ensconced in their easy chairs with a bag of Doritos. I feel as if I have been seriously misled as to the nature of this project and I have dispatched several emergency e-mails to Madame Rose, my manager, to please send necessary supplies by the next scheduled flight.

In the meantime, the rules of the game were explained to all us 'contestants'. Apparently we are supposed to play some sort of tropical musical chairs, using various tests of skill and endurance as a means of determining who remains and gets paid an additional appearance fee for another week's shooting. All I can say is that I hope some of the contests involve tap dancing as I'll be a natural. Although I may have some difficulty getting my purchase on all this coral sand. I'm to share my hut with the actress Ginger Grant, whom I vaguely remember from the sixties. She seems to be an old hand at this tropical living and soon the two of us were gabbing away as we cut palm fronds to rethatch our roof. Let me tell you, that girl is a wonder with bamboo and the odd vine.

After the sun set, I fired up the laptop with the DVD player for some entertainment. I had had the foresight to charge up the solar battery and Ginger and I thought it might be nice to start our stay with a nice musical. I had brought Blake Edwards' 1982 film, Victor Victoria with me so I popped that in and we settled down for some inspiration. Soon we had drifted off to Paris between the wars and were caught up in the charms of Julie Andrews at the top of her craft.

Victor Victoria, based on the early 30s German film Viktor und Viktoria, is a slyly naughty story of gender transgression in an art deco never-never land of a Paris that never truly existed. Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews), is stranded in Paris after the demise of the Bath Light Opera Company. She attempts to get a job in the nightclubs but her operetta style is out of touch with the jazzy thirties. One day, starving and about to sell her virtue for a meat ball, she meets cabaret entertainer Carroll Todd (Robert Preston), also down on his luck after a contretemps at his club and being dumped by his latest boyfriend. A memorable dinner together (superbly staged by Edwards) leads them to discover that they truly like each other and they throw in their lot together. When Victoria, dressed in men's clothes as her own pitiful rags have shrunk in an inconvenient rainstorm, is actually mistaken for a man, Todd has an epiphany. Why not present her as a him - Victor, Europe's greatest female impersonator.

Victor is booked into Andre Cassel's (John Rhys-Davies) nightclub where s/he is an immediate sensation and catches the eye of visiting Chicago gangster King Marchand (James Garner). King's entourage includes his vacuous moll, Norma (Lesley Ann Warren) and his bodyguard, Squash (Alex Karras). King falls for Victoria, before realizing he's Victor, and is unaware of the double deception with a real Victoria underneath, who in her turn is falling for him. Norma is shipped off to Chicago, assuming she's been dumped for another man, and soon, all sorts of gender bending confusion is set in motion. Nightclub musical numbers blend seamlessly with Feydeau style hotel farce and there's a roundelay of mistaken identities, unexpected pairings, and an homage to Edwards' Pink Panther films, before a grand finale where everyone is appropriately united in a lovely curtain call.

The subject of homosexuality was still exceedingly taboo in mainstream American film making in 1982. Gay, lesbian and transgender characters made appearances but were rarely in central roles or portrayed in a sympathetic light. Victor Victoria was unusual in that it not only had such characters in prominent roles, but also that it managed to make them palatable and sympathetic to a general audience. The film was a major financial success and was nominated for seven Oscars (winning one for Henry Mancini for best adapted score). Julie Andrews, Robert Preston and Lesley Ann Warren all received acting nods. It's hard  to watch the film without a smile on your face.

The film has a lovely, intimate glow and feel for such a sprawling narrative with dozens of locations. This came about as the entire film was shot on two connecting soundstages in London. Edwards and his art department had complete control in creating a Paris, interior and exterior, that was much more perfect and much more inviting than the real city. This is a perfect fit for a musical film where fantasy and larger than life characters reign supreme.

Like most other musicals post Cabaret, the musical numbers are all diegetic in nature. The characters are, at all times, aware they are singing and the musical numbers are confined primarily to the nightclub stage. There are still some stunners, especially Le Jazz Hot and the beautiful Crazy World. Mancini's score is tuneful and keeps true to the thirties period, especially in his incidental music which evokes the sounds and moods of Gershwin's symphonic jazz.

Blake Edwards, of The Pink Panther fame, is in superb form and completely in his element. No other director is quite as comfortable with farcical mayhem and his ability to keep the hoary conventions of people creeping in and out of hotel suites fresh is masterful. He only slips once, with the inclusion of an unnecessary subplot involving a bumbling French detective (played by, of all people, the Edwards family physician, Herb Tanney - a regular in his films under a variety of names), that reeks a little too much of Clouseau for the piece. Otherwise his direction, writing, and structure are spot on.

The performances are first rate. Julie Andrews gives the film performance of her career as the title character and in one fell swoop makes you forget all those sweet singing governesses she was saddled with. Her Victor/ia is sassy, assured, and believable in both genders. She has great rapport with James Garner (whom she had worked with several times before and who is a great friend of hers). Garner has a laid back, easy charm and gets most of his mileage out of brilliant reaction shots. He's the straight man to the chaos swirling around. The supporting cast are superb. Preston gets his best role since Harold Hill and milks it for all it's worth and no one will ever forget his contribution to the finale. Lesley Ann Warren, playing a trailer park Jean Harlow, is completely over the top, but it's absolutely right for the character. Even the bit parts, especially Graham Stark as a sardonic waiter, are spot on. There's even a quick bit from Blake and Julie's son as a chorus boy with a wandering eye and a thing for Garbo.

The DVD has a commentary track, recorded recently, with both Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews, discussing the film, telling anecdotes, and generally getting warm and fuzzy with each other. It's obviously a special film for both of them and the family feeling that must have pervaded that set (many of the actors came from Edwards' stock company of farceurs) come shining through. By all means, look this one up.

Cockroach mayhem. Multiple hotel faints. Jaw punching. 'Gay Paree' puns. Lovely art deco hotel suites. Frozen Squash. Tinsel headdress. Flaming flamenco. Collapsed equilibrist. Mouth washing. 'Sweet Adeline' sing along.

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