Sunday, January 11, 2015

Up next is...

From last Friday night, here's my wraparound for MURDER  BY DEATH, written by me and Courtney O'Brien.  Lots of names.  I stumbled a few times while taping this bad boy.  Join me on TCM next Friday night for three more Neil Simon films, including THE GOODBYE GIRL.  And now... MURDER BY DEATH. 

INTRO:


Hello and welcome to TCM. I’m Ken Levine – a TV writer and director, and here to once again shine our “Friday Night Ppotlight” on the work of Neil Simon. Tonight we’re going to bring you two Neil Simon double features.

In our first pairing, we have movies showcasing Simon’s tongue-in-cheek take on the mystery genre. For the second helping, it’s a double order of movies set in and around hotels.

Up first we bring you the 1976 murder mystery spoof “Murder by Death,” a film that is very much a sign of the times.

In the mid-1970s, parodies were incredibly popular. Writers and directors were spoofing many genres – Mel Brooks first parodied the western genre with the wildly funny “Blazing Saddles,” and then he took on monster movies with “Young Frankenstein.” the year before, Woody Allen gave his own spin to sci-fi flicks with “Sleeper.” so Neil Simon decided to take on the murder mystery genre, writing this film directly for the screen and drawing influence from Agatha Christie’s best seller, “And Then There Were None.”

In “Murder by Death,” Simon poses the question, “who is the greatest gumshoe of them all?”  He not only channels Miss Christie and her two major detectives – Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot – but also Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, played most famously by Humphrey Bogart. Simon also includes his satirical versions of Nick and Nora Charles from the “Thin Man” film series, along with Charlie Chan.

All the names have been altered. Here you’ll meet Jessica Marbles, Milo Perrier, Sam Diamond, Dick and Dora Charleston, and Sidney Wang.

As you’ll see, Neil Simon and his producer Ray Stark rounded up an all-star cast: in alphabetical order, as they were billed: Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote -- yes, Truman Capote -- James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, and Nancy Walker.

Now. Warning: this is hardly a politically correct movie. Charlie Chan jokes alone are asking for it, but then to have Peter Sellers play the character – there are a few “yikes” moments in this film. From 1976, directed by Robert Moore, also with James Cromwell and Estelle Winwood, here’s Neil Simon’s “Murder by Death.”

OUTRO:

Though some of the jokes and puns may not work, the major problem Neil Simon had with “Murder by Death,” and perhaps an issue for some of you as well, was the casting of Truman Capote as the eccentric millionaire, Lionel Twain. Ray Stark, the producer of the film, thought the sheer publicity of casting Capote would draw an audience – and he was right. “Murder by Death” was a big box office hit.

But Simon thought Capote was completely wrong for the role – especially since he had no acting experience – and it showed.

Simon’s first choice for the role was Orson Welles, who wanted to do it but unfortunately had another commitment.

Coming up next, another mystery spoof from Neil Simon -- this one starring Peter Falk, and a film that blends “Casablanca,” “the Maltese Falcon,” “To Have and Have Not,” and many other classic Hollywood mysteries.

15 comments:

Frank Abe said...

Ken, thanks for acknowledging the inherent danger of including the Chan stereotype. I had done one featured TV-movie role in 1975 and was sent to audition for the Number One Son role to Peter Sellers in this one. In our nascent Asian American theater group, which was founded to confront the stereotype, we often parodied the Number One Son voice. I read the lines with animation and full commitment, and I'll never forget not knowing how to take it when casting director Jennifer Shull looked me gravely and marveled, "You really understand this part."

I was warned by a leading Asian American playwright that if I did it, I would be forever typecast as a number one son, so when I flew to LA to read before director Robert Moore, I effectively sabotaged my audition by taking it in a different, angrier direction. Moore turned to Shull and said something like, "Well, you certainly traveled a long way for nothing," and that was that. The part went instead to Richard Narita, who played it in a kind of a deadpan.

I've since continually questioned a decision that cost me the chance to meet David Niven, Maggie Smith and Truman Capote (!), but I was too inexperienced to know how to navigate between the pull of celebrity, my reputation among my peers, and personal integrity.

Thanks for sharing these intros.

YEKIMI said...

Dammit! You're making me think long and hard about whether I should get cable now. I'm a fan of all these movies and would love to see your intros/outros but I'm a bigger fan of keeping money in my wallet. Maybe when cable lets me pick what I want to see and not have to pay for crappy infomercial/religious channels I don't want.......

James Van Hise said...

I saw your intro and out-tro for Murder By Death, and upon reading the transcript here I am struck with the same question I had Friday night. You never say whether you actually think the film is any good. I saw the film when it was released in 1976 and thought it was just awful, and desperately unfunny. It needed a major rewrite because the concept was okay, but the script was something out of a bad sitcom where the show had to film on Friday and even though the script wasn't ready they went ahead and did it anyway. Films like The Big Sleep, which is a drama, had funny throwaway lines which were better than anything in Murder By Death (like when Bogart describes a young woman by saying "She tried to sit in my lap when I was standing up.") It just comes across like they thought all of the stunt casting in Murder By Death would somehow make it funny, but it didn't.

Max Davis said...

Hi Ken, do you have any techniques or exercises you use when creating sitcom characters? I'm having a bit of trouble breathing life into mine. Thanks, Max.

Chris said...

Friday question: the wikipedia entry for I Do, Adieu (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Do,_Adieu) says you guys shot 3 endings for the episode, but it says the third one was never revealed. Can you tell us what it was?

Johnny Walker said...

I have a soft spot for MURDER BY DEATH simply because I watched it a lot when I was a kid. I never got a lot of the references, outside of the most obvious ones, and would like to watch it again in order to get more of the jokes.

I always remember liking the "Charlie Chan" character (although I barely knew who it was referring to) -- he seemed smart and funny (or at least as amusing stupid as everyone else). As an adult, I suppose I wonder now if it seems fitting to have a caucasian man play a parody of a racial stereotype that was originally played by a caucasian man... but I guess you're right, it was most definitely a decision of its time.

Even as a kid, the thing I enjoyed most about MURDER BY DEATH was the performances. It's sad to learn that my impression of it is somewhat rose-tinted, though :(

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

@JamesVanHise: Murder is an over the top parody, especially Sellers and Falk's characters.
Seen in that vein the jokes are hysterical.
Some of Peter Sellers lines:
* No pulse, no heartbeat. If condition does not change, this man is dead.
* Conversation like television set on honeymoon: unnecessary.
* Big house like man married to fat woman: hard to get around.
* Man who argue with cow on wall is like train without wheels: very soon get nowhere.

Peter Falk's gems
* I never did nothin' to a man that I wouldn't do to a woman.
* Where were ya Wang, we was worried.
* My hat's off to the man with the shiv in his back. Except for the fact that he's dead, he was no dope.

at least that's just my sense of humor.

Bill O said...

Too bad Welles didn't do it. Or, if there was room at the table, a Nero Wolfe spin. Tho there was long term animosity between him and Sellers, back from Casino Royale '67. Capote co-wrote his own superior genre spoof, Beat The Devil '54,with Bogart playing the Bogart role.

Charles Jurries said...

Just saw this movie for the first time a couple years ago, and fell in love with it. The yellowface is... bothersome, and I do have trouble reconciling that sometimes, but, overall it is a very funny, clever, smart movie.

If nothing else, it has Obi-Wan Kenobi sharing a scene with Rhoda Morgenstern's mom!

Richard Rothrock said...

Ironically, this was the first movie I ever saw on HBO back in 1977. ("Taxi Driver" was the 2nd). It made me laugh hysterically back then and it still did when I watched it Friday night. Yes, the script has problems but there are enough witty Neil Simon lines throughout to make it work for me. These were all parodies of familiar characters those of us growing up in the 1960s and 1970s knew very well from Sunday morning and late night movies. While he certainly would not be cast in the role today, Peter Sellers still makes me laugh as Sidney Wang. There are very few movies that make me laugh just as hard on repeat viewings as the first time I saw it and this is one of them. Call it a guilty pleasure.

"I don't understand, Pop. Was there a murder or not?"
"Yes. Killed good weekend."

WizarDru said...

I think the Chan stereotype still works in a broad sense, as it is mocking the original conceit of a white man playing as an Asian man to a degree. As a parody of the original character and with Sellers winking delivery, I think it works.

Yes, it's not an Oscar-worthy cinematic gem...but it's pretty darned funny at parts. My kids love it to bits, so it's not just 'it was funny back then'.

Bill O said...

Tho Sellers is more extreme both in his make-up and delivery. None of the three movie Chans altered his appearence that much, and the first, Warner Oland, set the template for the fake humility of Falk's Columbo. The Chans were always the smartest guys in the room, and audiences respected that.

RCP said...

Although I'm a fan of his writing, Truman Capote was probably the last reason I went to see Murder By Death when it came out, but I've always loved its silliness delivered by the likes of David Niven, Maggie Smith, Alec Guiness and Elsa Lanchester. Of the lineup, my favorite film was Plaza Suite - particularly Maureen Stapleton's very funny and heartbreaking performance.

Some Hollywood trivia: Margaret Booth, whose editing credit has appeared on a number of Simon's films worked well into her 80s and lived from 1898-2002; so, literally, she was alive in three centuries - can't say that about many people.

JarrodM said...

For the most part, I thought the wraparounds filmed for TCM were very good. But there was one I did not care for (well two actually)-- and it has been bothering me for three months, so I figured it was time to find this blog and comment. The one "outro" I didn't like was after OUT OF TOWNERS aired. I didn't think it was necessary to explain to audiences post-911 that plane hijackings are not funny. And another wraparound, before the showing of MURDER BY DEATH, seemed to apologise for the 'un-PC stuff you are about to see.' Do you see where I am going with this? Why do we have to put a modern judgment on these films. They weren't made for us, they were made for audiences at that time. Don't we all have enough intelligence to figure out that some of the humour then is not in the best taste now? I just felt like it undermined some of Simon's work by pointing a finger at it and saying indirectly, well we wouldn't make it that way now. I am wondering why as host, you felt the need to throw political correctness on to those two films...?

JarrodM said...

For the most part, I thought the wraparounds filmed for TCM were very good. But there was one I did not care for (well two actually)-- and it has been bothering me for three months, so I figured it was time to find this blog and comment. The one "outro" I didn't like was after OUT OF TOWNERS aired. I didn't think it was necessary to explain to audiences post-911 that plane hijackings are not funny. And another wraparound, before the showing of MURDER BY DEATH, seemed to apologise for the 'un-PC stuff you are about to see.' Do you see where I am going with this? Why do we have to put a modern judgment on these films. They weren't made for us, they were made for audiences at that time. Don't we all have enough intelligence to figure out that some of the humour then is not in the best taste now? I just felt like it undermined some of Simon's work by pointing a finger at it and saying indirectly, well we wouldn't make it that way now. I am wondering why as host, you felt the need to throw political correctness on to those two films...?