Friday, July 01, 2011

 

We gave them virtue, they want vice


Once upon a time in a wonderful land called Hollywood
there lived a very successful motion picture producer named Felix Farmer.
He owned three beautiful houses, he had two lovely children and he was married to a gorgeous movie star. The people who ran the studio where he worked loved and admired him because he had never made
a movie that had lost money. Then one day he produced the biggest most expensive motion picture
of his career…and it flopped. The people who ran the studio were very angry at Felix
because they lost millions of dollars…


and Felix lost his mind.

By Edward Copeland
We see that title crawl after brief credits run while Julie Andrews as actress Sally Miles plays Gillian West in her producer husband Felix Farmer's multimillion extravaganza Night Wind. That photo above doesn't do justice to how garish that set is as Sally as Gillian cavorts with life-size toys dancing and singing "Polly Wolly Doodle" (There are even singing balloons and a Jack in the Box). It has to be seen. Click here. You can believe from that scene alone that Night Wind truly stinks as much as they say it does, though how they could calculate on its opening weekend that it's "the lowest-grossing film of all time," seems a bit suspect. I would imagine films that never open would have lower grosses. Maybe the biggest money loser in relation to cost? Oh, who cares? We're not here to be serious or particularly realistic. We're here to pay tribute to the 30th anniversary of writer-director Blake Edwards' mad spoof of the movie business. Blessed with an unbelievably large and talented cast, S.O.B. isn't as sophisticated as Robert Altman's The Player would be a little more than a decade later and its satire isn't as sharp as Sidney Lumet's film of Paddy Chayefsky's take on the television industry was in Network a mere five years earlier, but it was and remains damn funny.


That crawl scrolls against the blue sky over Malibu beach where a man (Stiffe Tanney) jogs with his dog (Troubles). He suddenly suffers a heart attack and though he manages to crawl toward the deck of a large beachhouse and the dog barks up a storm, no one notices his emergency and he collapses. It sets the tone for an underlying theme that afflicts most of the film's characters: obliviousness, mostly stemming from self-absorption. As a result, a man drops dead on a beach with his dog barking loudly even though people keep coming and going on the deck a few feet above where a catatonic Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) sits among the trades reporting Night Wind's failure. (A smaller headline in Variety reads N.Y. Critics Break 'Wind' — Edwards' humor doesn't always aim for the highbrow. Though from the descriptive crawl, you'd think that Felix is the film's main character. While S.O.B., which does not stand for what you think it does, revolves around him and his movie, the film truly stands as an ensemble piece. No character really serves as lead even though Andrews and William Holden as the film's director Tim Culley get top billing, all the other significant characters are listed alphabetically. In fact, Felix remains in his non-speaking state of depressed madness for a long time. When he does snap out of it and taks 44 minutes into the film, Mulligan at first does it in a way very reminiscent of reactions his character of Burt Campbell on television's Soap sometimes did.

While S.O.B. retains its power to make me laugh decades after I first saw the movie, I have to admit that re-watching it for the first time in a long time, I found more problems than before, but not as an entertainment rather in how it chooses to take its shots at the always worthy target of movie studios. I first saw S.O.B. on cable when I was a teenager but as I've grown up, not only have my tastes grown more refined, so has my knowledge of how the film industry works. S.O.B. works on many comic levels, but this time the ludicrous nature of its story took me out of the movie at times. The crawl set up the basic premise, but it's more complicated than that. Even though Night Wind has opened to terrible reviews and worse box office, Capitol Studios President David Blackman (Robert Vaughn) desperately tries to get his top executive Dick Benson (Larry Hagman, taking the relatively minor role when he was white hot as J.R. on Dallas, having just finished the season that resolved "Who Shot J.R.?") to talk to Felix so they can jerk the film out of theaters and do a major editing job on it which they can't do because of Farmer's ironclad contract that only allows him to make changes. Sure, there was a re-edited version of Leone's Once Upon a Time in America a few years later, but that wasn't a wide release. Blackman himself has been getting pressure from the chairman of the corporation that owns Capitol Studios, Harry Sandler, played by longtime dependable Hollywood character actor Paul Stewart whose first credited film role was the butler Raymond in Citizen Kane. Now, the studio and everyone involved in Night Wind had to know it was a turkey before it opened, so why didn't they try to get him to re-edit it before it opened? You can't tell me they didn't hold test screenings. He might have had a contract that stopped anyone else from making changes, but I doubt it required Capitol Studios to give it a wide release.

While that part of the movie doesn't pass the credibility test, even for a farce, other aspects do. Sally and her team worry about damage to her career and Sally would like to exit the marriage. She gets conflicting advice from her attorney Herb (Robert Loggia), her press agent Ben Coogan (Robert Webber) and her agent Eva Brown (Shelley Winters). While Loggia wants to help extricate her from the marriage, the agents advise against it. Eva in particular reminds her client that her image couldn't withstand a divorce or even a separation, especially now. "You know this town, sweetie. You can smoke dope and end up going steady with your Afghan and you're one of the gang, but you — you're Peter Pan," Eva tells her. Winters is a riot as is just about everyone in this sparkling cast and the cast makes the film overcome its weaknesses. There also are many hints of autobiography and inside jokes sprinkled throughout. Andrews never really played Peter Pan, but she did have that Mary Poppins/Maria von Trapp image. In real life, Edwards did cope with serious depression and supposedly studio interference on Darling Lili inspired S.O.B. Ironically, Hagman's mother Mary Martin originated the roles of both Peter Pan and Maria von Trapp when the characters made their stage musical debuts.

The studio finally dispatches his good friend and the film's director Culley (Holden) to the beachhouse to keep watch on him and see if he can pull Farmer back to the real world. Culley is a hard-drinking womanizer. Culley, always on the lookout for young women to decorate his surroundings, picks up two hitchhikers on the way, Lila and Babs (Jennifer Edwards, Blake's daughter; and Rosanna Arquette in a very early role). At Farmer's house, the servants and the man who mows the yard are so oblivious to what goes on around them that they don't notice when Felix heads to the garage, starts the Cadillac and closes the garage door again. The gardener (Bert Rosario) doesn't get an inkling until he finds a dead rat. When the gardener puts the mower up, he smells the carbon monoxide and sees Felix's red eyes staring at him through the car's rear window. "Not such a good idea to sit in here with the motor running," he tells Felix as he reaches inside to try to cut the engine. Instead, he shifts it into drive and the Caddy crashes through the back of the garage, down the beach and into the ocean, just in time for Culley, Lila and Babs to stare in disbelief.

Felix's attempt at suicide introduces us to the greatest asset that S.O.B. has — Robert Preston as physician to the stars, Dr. Irving Finegarten. Blake Edwards wrote Preston the part of Toddy for his next film, Victor/Victoria, and earned Preston his only Oscar nomination, but as great as he is there, I think his Irving Finegarten is even better. Once he joins the film, he enlivens every scene he's in. When Robert Webber's character Ben, though he works for Sally, starts feeling guilty and spends most of his time hanging out with Irving and Culley, a comic troika for the ages forms. Irving mildly sedates Felix and they sit around the bar. Ben has turned into a wreck. Irving suggests giving Ben a vitamin shot. As he removes bottle after bottle from his medical bag, Dr. Finegarten has second thoughts. "Come to think of it, why should I give you a vitamin shot? I'm the one with the hangover," Irving declares.

Before I forget, when Felix's car ended up in the ocean, it did attract police interest and they did discover the poor dead man and, after subduing the dog, retrieved the corpse who was identified as veteran character actor Burgess Webster. The dog escaped and continued to hang out on the beach. Irving didn't give Felix that strong a dose apparently because he wanders downstairs and that obliviousness theme continues as Ben follows him, trying to talk, not noticing as Felix sticks his head in the oven or scrounges successfully for rope and returns upstairs. Ben soon panics with the arrival of gossip columnist Polly Reed (Loretta Swit) at the front door. Everyone tries to ignore her, but then they can hear she's sneaking in the back. Irving whispers, "This reminds me of a scene in The Thing when a terrible monster is just on the other side of a door" which only sets Ben off more. Polly comes in cooing for Felix while he's upstairs trying to hang himself. The beam doen't hold and he crashes through the floor, landing on Polly below. She ends up in the hospital in traction with multiple injuries. Irving gives him a stronger dose this time and Culley sits beside him and gives him a speech that seems especially prophetic, knowing what fate awaits Holden so soon after the film's release. It's spooky, since we know that a little more than four months later, Holden would get drunk alone at home, fall, hit his head on the corner of a nightstand and bleed to death. This was his last film.
"Felix, for the last 40 years I've lived a life of dedicated debauchery. I've consumed enough booze to destroy a dozen healthy livers. I've filled my lungs with enough nicotine to poison the entire population of Orange County. I've engaged in sexual excesses that make Caligula look like a celibate monk. I have, in fact, conscientiously, day in and day out, for more years than you've been in this best of all possible worlds, tried to kill myself and I've never felt better in my life. So, if you're really going to end it all, I can show you at least a half-dozen better ways to do it."

This being Hollywood, everyone is sleeping with everyone else and cheating as one might expect. David Blackman's girlfriend Mavis (Marisa Berenson) also is seeing an up-and-coming young actor Sam Marshall (David Young) on the side. When Culley takes Lila to the store, they run into Sam who invites Culley to a party he's having in Malibu that night. Culley regretfully declines, but hits upon the idea that perhaps a party will lift Felix's spirits so Sam agrees to move the party there. It's really the key scene in the movie with most of the film's character's there. It reminds me of Blake Edwards' 1968 film The Party with Peter Sellers, which I never was that big a fan of, but it has that sort of feel with the wacky orgiastic vibe that occurs — only he could do a lot more in a R-rated 1981 film than a pre-rating system 1968 one. Lots of sex, drugs and punchlines a-plenty. Even the cops who came earlier when Felix's car ended up in the ocean, come back for the party (and one of them is Joe Penny, whom some might remember from TV's Riptide).

Also showing up at the party are studio exec Dick Benson (Hagman), Polly Reed's henpecked husband Willard (Craig Stevens), who is supposed to do the spying for his wife, and loads of hot young men and women eager to engage in scenes that would seem more at home in the "free love" era than the beginning of the 1980s. Felix eventually awakens from Dr. Finegarten's magic medicine and as he walks, he's too out of it to remember that there's a hole in the bedroom floor that has been covered with a rug and he steps on it and glides rather easily to the party below. He does notice that one of the partying cops took off his holster and left his gun on the bar. Felix takes the gun and returns to the refuge beneath the rug, trying to point feel the barrel so while he's covered and he can shoot himself through the rug. Before he can, a topless young woman crawls under the rug and presumably a different gun goes off because soon Felix has fired the gun in the air a couple of times until he appears, pants down in that Burt-esque moment I alluded to earlier shouting, "Woohoo. I've got it!" The next thing we know, Felix, who hasn't said a word and who we've only seen as slow-moving, glum and silent has transformed into a ball of energy. He bursts into a bedroom where Culley is enjoying the company of a young lady and bellows, "Sex, Culley! That's the answer. We'll give 'em a $40 million pornographic epic." Having been preoccupied at the time and not accustomed to seeing Felix up and around lately, Culley expresses a bit of understandable confusion. Felix explains that the times have passed them by. People don't want the goody-goody stuff they've fed them for years, so they'll re-shoot it. Gillian West's dream will no longer be of childhood good times but of repressed fantasies. The world wants sex.

David Blackman, Dick Benson (wearing a cast from an injury he sustained at the party; it's a recurring gag that almost everyone ends up in a cast — Polly's husband Willard got hurt as well and ends up in the same hospital room), and two other execs (John Pleshette, John Lawlor) wait impatiently for Farmer. They begin to think it's a put-on until they begin to hear his voice over the speakers singing "Polly Wolly Doodle" and describing the Night Wind that they know — "But we blew it!" Felix shouts through a megaphone as he appears from behind the Jack in the Box. "Because dying fathers and lying mothers are a dime a dozen these days. Home and family have become civilization's antiques along with the flag, Sunday school, Girl Scout cookies, C.B. de Mille and virginity," Felix tells them. "We gave them virtue, they want vice. We sold them schmaltz, they prefer sadomasochism. Instead of the American dream, it should have been the American wet dream." What's funny is that, to some extent, the situation has reversed in 30 years. Movies made for adults — and I don't mean porn, but subject matter — almost have become an endangered species. Films that earn an R because they aren't for the younger set seem to be a rare breed. Live Free or Die Hard mumbled Bruce Willis' signature line as John McClane so it could get that all-important PG-13. The King's Speech never deserved an R for its single scene where Colin Firth unleashes a string of fucks, but when it started winning awards Harvey Weinstein cut that scene just to get a PG-13 so it would earn more money. Excuse me. Back to S.O.B. Felix explains his plan to re-shoot parts of Night Wind to change it from a woman's dream of childhood to her Freudian nightmare. Turn Gillian West into a nymphomaniac businesswoman. He just needs a few million for a re-shoot. Blackman doesn't seem to be listening, but he does pull out his pages for suggestions they have for cuts that can be made to the current version. "Cutting won't help," Felix teases. Blackman yells about how much he went overbudget and Farmer rightfully goes back at him saying he didn't go to his office and hold a gun to his head and demand more money. They approved the script and the budget. Blackman is firm and is ready to walk out — until Felix offers to buy Night Wind back. The execs whisper and then they agree to sell the movie back to Farmer.

Apparently, Felix has been very good with his money, though he still has to do some asset shuffling to get the funds ready to shoot. Felix must fend off someone who isn't very happy with him right now: His wife. Several million dollars of that money that Felix put together to fund the Night Wind re-shoot rightfully belongs to Sally. Felix tries to explain his plan to her, including having her do a nude scene. "Peter Pan is dead. Long live Gillian West, nymphomaniac executive," he tells her. Sally seeks the advice of her attorney Herb and her agent Eva. Herb agrees that she has plenty of grounds to sue to try to get her money back but Eva, who admits she's always there to protect Sally's image, has to ask, "What if Felix is right?" Maybe it's not a bad idea for Sally to take the chance and go against her image and possibly get a lot of money out of the deal. If it doesn't work, she always can sue him for everything later. Sally reluctantly agrees that she'll film the revised Night Wind.


Of course, getting Sally to that point is easier said than done, even if she has agreed to do it. She's too nervous. Everyone wants to be there on the set to see what happens that day. Polly Reed makes them take her by ambulance but a guard that Felix has hired named Harold Harrigan (Ken Swofford) refuses to let her in. Blackman and his toadies show up in a golf cart and Harrigan tells them to shove off as well. Blackman tells Harrigan he won't work in Hollywood again. Felix may have control of the set, but it does reside on Capitol Studio's lot, so Blackman does succeed in having Harrigan tossed off. When Ben hears that Polly lurks, he lets her in and the two ambulance attendants are forced to hold her upright to watch. In her dressing room, nothing Felix, Culley or anyone can say can convince her to do the scene. Thankfully, Dr. Irving and his bag of tricks are on the scene (play clip above) to help and an artificially high Sally is ready to film the scene. Culley escorts her back to the set. "You know you are sexually notorious," Sally tells Culley. "A semi-fraudulent reputation which I do everything I can to encourage," Culley admits. Sally asks why he does that. "Because it's the best way for an old man to compete in a young man's world," Cully replies. Polly waves at Sally, trying to get her attention. Sally finally recognizes her, then asks, "Did you come to see my boobies?"

When S.O.B. opened, reviews varied, but it was hard to hear them above the noise about Julie Andrews baring her breasts in a film for the first time. That trumped everything else about the movie. It doesn't help that the way it happens in the movie-within-the-movie makes it all about Sally Miles baring her breasts. It's not as if it comes in a Gillian West love scene, nymphomaniac or not, but it just comes at the end of a new dark dream sequence (Jack in the Box is now Jock in the Box and a stalker). As Jock chases Gillian through a maze and she enters the devil's mouth, the music builds to a crescendo, she holds out her hand for Jock to stop and simply pulls down the front of her dress and unveils her breasts. (To see something completely bizarre, here is a YouTube clip where you can see a great deal of the sequence except it has been set to the Chris de Burgh song "Lady in Red." I recommend hitting mute and just looking at the images.) Everyone present applauds, including the ambulance attendants who drop Polly as a result. Sally smiles gratefully and covers herself, before collapsing. However, this is Hollywood and scheming usually is going on. Sally's personal secretary Gary (Stuart Margolin) never has been trustworthy but he's been talking to Eva behind Sally's back in hopes of getting a career of his own. Now that Capitol Studios has no part of Night Wind, all the buzz that has been building has made the corporate boss bug Blackman about why they don't have a piece of it in case it turns into a hit. As a result, the studio has been using Eva who has been dangling a job in front of Gary in exchange for him putting the idea in Sally's head that since she technically owns half the film, she should sell distribution rights to Capitol since Felix can't very well distribute it himself. Sally agrees to do it and a judge backs up her right to do it. Felix, however, doesn't learn of it until after he screens a final cut of it with Cully and the lights come up in the screening room to reveal Blackman and his toadies. Blackman shows him the legal documents which basically means Night Wind has been stolen from him. Since his original contract was voided, they can do what they want. Blackman asks what the running time is. When he's told 164 minutes, he says they'll have to cut that.

Felix drives like a maniac, first going to his other house looking for Sally, but she's gone somewhere in the Far East to visit some kind of swami. He does see his kids briefly who want to play with daddy and squirt him with a squirt gun, which he takes. He even plows a car through the kitchen of the Malibu home. Because he's been speeding and driving recklessly, police have been pursuing him, but somehow he's able to switch cars and escape. He drives to the office where the original negative is stored in a vault. When he gets in the building, a friendly voice surprises him: It's Harrigan. He's working security there now. Felix is too preoccupied for small talk. He goes to the office of a Mr. Lipschitz (Hamilton Camp) and makes him take him to the film at "gunpoint." As Felix leads Lipschitz and the reels to the lobby, the squirt gun aimed at Lipschitz's head, Harrigan tries to calm him since by then a lot of armed police have arrived. Some distraction makes Felix aim the gun toward the cops and he gets hit by a fusillade of bullets. Harrigan leans over the dying producer. "I'm sorry, Mr. Farmer," Harrigan says. "It's alright, Harrigan. It'll mean another $10 million at the box office," Farmer tells him before he dies.

At this point, the film divides half into Hollywood hypocrisy, half into the funniest part of the film as the three characters most disgusted by Felix's treatment band together on a bender: Culley, Irving and Ben. It begins at a bar where Sinatra's "All the Way" begins playing and Culley informs them that he just put $6 of Sinatra into the jukebox. Ben, having worked for Sally, who they feel stabbed Felix in the back, feels the worst and tries to convince Culley to beat the shit out of him in the hope it will make him feel better. It's in this scene that we learn that the S.O.B. of the title stands for Standard Operational Bullshit, according to Ben. Culley agrees, lamenting that there are "so few people in this town with a conscience." Meanwhile, the rest of the industry plans a huge memorial service where Sally plans to sing and they all will pretend they treated him decently. The drunken trio, who christen themselves The Three Muscatels at one point, all agree they won't take part in the sham, which will be presided over by the guru Sally met in the Far East (Larry Storch). Sall also will sing. The triumvirate decides that they are going to give Felix the memorial he deserves and set out to steal Felix's body from the funeral home. Apparently, this is based on a Hollywood legend that director Raoul Walsh stole John Barrymore's corpse after he died and propped him up to scare Errol Flynn, but what the fictional characters do with Felix is a bit more elaborate.

When they get to the funeral home, the first coffin they check is no one they know. The next contains the late character actor Burgess Webster. The third time turns out to be the charm and they find Felix. Feeling that Webster's death hasn't received the attention it deserved, when they remove Felix, they put Webster in his coffin and the other guy in Webster's. Upstairs, the couple (Byron Kane, Virginia Gregg) that owns the funeral parlor salivate over how much business the Farmer funeral will bring them when they hear a noise downstairs. They find the empty coffin but locate the body in Webster's place and Webster in Farmer's. The husband is beside himself: Their cash cow is gone. His wife slams the lid on Farmer's coffin, now holding Webster. "Who's to know?" On the streets, after initial difficulty bending Felix into the car, they make Ben sit in the back with him because he's been having a bad night of bodily functions and as Irving points out Felix is the only one who won't mind. They stick some sunglasses on Felix and proceed to drive him back to Culley's where they drink and play cards with Felix as guest. It was funny for a time when I'd see the movie because from the years 1989-2000, the only actor in these scenes who was still alive was Richard Mulligan, who was playing the corpse. As they wonder what they should do with Felix, Culley fetches something from another room and places it on Felix's head. It's a Viking helmet for a Viking funeral.

The next morning, the men take Felix out to sea on his boat to prepare for their salute. At the same time, the rest of the industry begins gathering on a soundstage at the Capitol Studio lot for Felix's funeral. The occasion doesn't stop anyone from continuing their deals or their affairs. Blackman congratulates Sam Harris on his new role and whispers to Mavis that he better be worth it, not noticing that Sam's hand is up Mavis' skirt. Gary and Eva finalize their deal. All the people with various injuries wheel in. Sally tells Gary that she doesn't know if she'll be able to sing. "You have to — it's the only reason everybody came," Gary says. Her guru sits up on the stage looking as if he can barely stay awake. Finally, he's roused and stands to give his eulogy. Is it full of Eastern philosophy? Not hardly. It's as show bizzy as it can be. This is where some of the unreality takes over again. Felix was shot and killed before the film was released and still in the funeral home, yet the guru gives new box office reports on the revised Night Wind. Farmer also was supposed to have had a record of nothing but hits prior to the first version of Night Wind, but when the guru reads off the list of his film titles they all sound ridiculous. Here is a clip of the eulogy so you can see what I mean.




As Culley drives the boat, Irving and Ben sit on deck with Felix in the fisherman's seat, complete with rod and reel in hand. Ben wonders what happens if he should catch something. Back at the other memorial, Sally finally rises and sings "Oh Promise Me." Irving reads the inscription on the Viking helmet which reads "From the cast and crew of The Pagan Plunder." "I don't think I saw that one," Irving says. "Terrible reviews," Ben tells him. "Grossed a fortune." Once Culley feels they've gone far enough out, they load Felix into a little wooden craft, cover him in blankets, soak it with gasoline and then Irving lights a match and drops it and Culley pulls the boat away as it starts burning. "So long pal," Culley says as they watch Felix and the little boat burn. Back on the beach, Burgess Webster's dog can see the smoke and wags his tail. Then a final crawl scrolls across the screen.



And so just as Felix had predicted, Night Wind became the biggest money-making film
in motion picture history and Sally won another Academy Award and the people who ran the studio made
a ton of money and they all lived happily ever after…

until the next movie!

S.O.B. isn't the finest Hollywood satire ever made, but it's likely to put a smile on your face thanks to its great cast, most especially Robert Preston who I really can't say enough about here.


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Comments:
This film demands a new disc release, with extras and features the 2002 release didn't get. Surely, with Edwards passing this great work should require that (but I always felt the studio was hesitant considering the contentious relationship Edwards had with them). I don't think the studio ever wanted to treat this film well. And Robert Preston certainly was magnificent in this role! Thanks, Ed.
 
I had to cut a lot because it was getting so ridiculously long and I almost didn't get it done on time, so I didn't get to mention how S.O.B. was originally released by Paramount, but lost their rights when it went to video, which went to CBS/Fox Video. When Warner Bros. bought Lorimar (ironically the production company behind Dallas) in 1989, they gained the ancillary rights and Warners Home Video was the last one to issue a video release.
 
I left out a step. When Paramount lost their rights, it was MGM/CBS Home Video that did the first home video release and later CBS/Fox Home Video did a release.
 
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