Thursday, November 15, 2007

Carol Burnett - Tribute to an Old Movie Buff

The recent “American Masters” documentary on PBS about Carol Burnett reminds us that among Miss Burnett’s many fine qualities is that she is the ultimate movie buff’s movie buff.

This being a blog devoted to old movies (I hesitate to use the word “classic” because not all of the films covered here are classics, just old.), the excerpts in this Burnett biography covering the film parodies on “The Carol Burnett Show” delightfully illustrate what it is about us old movie buffs that may baffle our loved ones who couldn’t care less if Frank Capra directed the movie or Douglas Shearer was the sound engineer. We love the details.

The details are what Miss Burnett and her team of writers skewered from the plots of old Hollywood films and twisted them into a distortion that was recognizable as much as it was new and creative. Like the way a caricature artist will draw a picture of you and make your nose way too big.

In her take on “One Way Passage,” she and James Coco take the parts originally played by Kay Francis and William Powell as the doomed shipboard lovers, one off to prison and the other terminally ill. Vicki Lawrence plays her doctor, “Dr. Ouspenskaya” (a nod to the formidable character actress Maria Ouspenskaya, who actually was not in the film, but it’s funny). When Carol becomes ill on ship, the doctor informs her, “You got what Bette Davis had in ‘Dark Victory’ and also Olivia de Havilland had it in one other picture. And if I’m not mistaken it was also had in one other picture by Sylvia Sidney. It’s called the Movie Disease and it’s incurable.”

Perhaps only old movie buffs would crack up at that, because to really enjoy these parodies, you had to have had some familiarity with Hollywood films of that era, and even better if you had seen the particular movie they were spoofing.

When they did a takeoff on “Random Harvest” with Carol in the Greer Garson role, Harvey Korman does a better Ronald Colman than Ronald Colman. In fact, he could give lessons to Ronald Colman on being Ronald Colman. He is also the domineering father in the Ralph Richardson role to Carol’s Olivia de Havilland role in their takeoff on “The Heiress.” Olivia de Havilland merely slouches, eyes downward, to demonstrate her shyness. Carol crawls inside the grand piano.

Sometimes just taking a piece of a film and encapsulating the feel of it, like the caricature artist making your nose too big, is enough to suggest the entire film for us, like the huge portrait of Carol with an enigmatic smirk on her face in their takeoff on “Laura.” Or, her hysterical underwater ballet in the takeoff on “Dangerous When Wet.” In the “Double Indemnity” spoof, Carol in the Barbara Stanwyck role wears an ankle bracelet that audibly clanks whenever she takes a step. Steve Lawrence, in the Fred MacMurray role, also wears an anklet.

Parody is built on exaggeration, and in this skit, instead of disposing of the body of the murdered husband by throwing it off a train, they plan to toss the body out of a blimp. We don’t need to see the blimp. Just the word sends an hysterical image to us, and when the plans are forged and Carol dramatically utters the conspiring words, “Here are the blimp tickets,” pulling them out from the bodice of her dress, we film buffs are on the floor laughing.

By the way, Vicki does an excellent take on Jean Heather as the surly stepdaughter, breaking into extremely funny tearful hysterics at the drop of a hat. Vicki Lawrence is also an over-the-top Mrs. Danvers in the Judith Anderson role in “Rebecca.”

In their take on “The Little Foxes” we see the elaborate effort put into sets and costumes which so distinguished “The Carol Burnett Show.” The doorbell plays “Camptown Races” to denote in as campy a way as possible the Southern charm and affluence of the setting. Guest star Roddy McDowall plays the unfortunate invalid in the Herbert Marshall role, and Carol is in the Bette Davis role as his scheming wife. We get the entire plot of the movie in one line when Roddy utters from his wheelchair, “Put my heart medicine without which I will surely die on that table over there.”

When Harvey blurts “Chitlins” as an expletive, it is one of those few (and treasured) times we see Carol almost break up. When Roddy collapses, Harvey re-enters with the line, “What happened? We heard all that dying music!”

Undoubtedly, the most famous of their film parodies has come to be the takeoff on “Gone With the Wind,” where Carol strides down the staircase with the curtain rod over her shoulders. To this day, I cannot watch the Vivien Leigh that scene in “Gone With the Wind” without thinking of the Burnett parody. When Miss Leigh shakes her fist at the red dawn and shouts, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” I inevitably think of Miss Burnett shouting, “I’ll never be hungry again! Not if I have to make tuna casserole!”

Again, Harvey Korman is not doing Rhett so much as he is doing Clark Gable, and this is, to use my favorite term from that era, swell. Guest star Dinah Shore is the perfect simpering Melanie role, and gets to shove Carol down the stairs in a manner Olivia de Havilland never got to do with Vivien Leigh. One of the impressive aspects about this skit is that it is broken into two parts, the first showing the interior of a grand Tara; the second part shows the mansion crumbling around them from the ravages of war.

I imagine a compilation of just the movie parodies on “The Carol Burnett Show” could take up several DVDs.

Carol Burnett’s everywoman qualities appeal to millions of fans who feel she is one of them. We old movie buffs know for a fact she is one of us.

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