Monday, March 8, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Sunshine Boys" (1975)

The biggest joke in "The Sunshine Boys" is that the two old vaudevillians are funnier when they're not telling jokes.

The set-up of the 1975 comedy, based on the Neil Simon play, is about the duo of Lewis & Clark, hysterically funny on stage, and horribly estranged off it. They're brought back together by an offer to do their act one more time for a big television special, if they can only stand to be in the same room.

The highlight is supposed to be when they do their old doctor sketch during rehearsals, which is the least funny time we see them together. They're still pretty damn funny, but after an hour or so of wisecracks and great comic timing, we long for them to get to arguing again.

Simon's play was a big hit on Broadway a few years earlier, so it only made sense for it to follow "The Odd Couple" from stage to screen. Jack Benny and Red Skelton were set to star, but Benny grew sick and died and Skelton pulled out. Walter Mattheu stepped in as irascible Willy Clark, and George Burns -- a real vaudeville straight man -- was brought in to tackle the role of Al Lewis.

This was Burns' first motion picture in 36 years, and it was a doozy. He won the Oscar for best supporting actor at age 80, prompting him to joke that he should only do one movie every 36 years. Offers soon came flooding in, and 60-odd years into his career Burns became a movie star with the "Oh, God" films and several others.

Lewis and Clark hate each other, though neither would give the other the satisfaction of saying so. It's more a long, cold war, with every interaction a game of one-upsmanship. Even after Clark suffers a heart attack and is bedridden, he makes a point of setting up his chair on the far side of the room to receive Lewis, and stuffs pillows beneath himself, so his old partner will have to walk as far as possible to see him, and look up when doing so.

Richard Benjamin plays Ben, Clark's hapless nephew and agent, who can't convince his uncle to show up on time and in the right place to audition for a potato chip commercial. A number of other notable actors turn in supporting roles, including a young F. Murray Abraham -- all that hair! -- as a mechanic.

Matthau was only in his 50s when they made the movie, but he was believably aged up 20 years or so through makeup and his own acting skills.

What's really funny is that the comedy duo's disagreements are so trivial. Clark insists that Lewis deliberately poked him during their performances, and spit on him when pronouncing his T's. Lewis wanted to retire and Clark didn't, and he's obviously bothered that he doesn't have any identity outside of their partnership. Lewis gets steamed when Clark changes the opening line of their routine from "Come in" to "Enter."

There's a great, serious scene where Clark is haranguing Lewis to Ben, who finally asks him why he worked with him for 43 years if he hated him so much. Clark forcefully calls Lewis "the best." He was a great actor with terrific comic timing, Clark praises. "As an act, nobody could touch him. As a human being, nobody wanted to touch him!"

The jokes come fast and furious, building in speed and intensity until the audience is rolling with laughter. It's not vaudeville, but it sure is funny.

3 stars

(Apologies... after all my talk about how the vaudeville routine wasn't as funny as the rest of the movie, that's the only video clip I could find.)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the detail about earlier casting efforts. I was wondering why Walter Matthau, at 55, was playing alongside an 80-year-old George Burns. There are some very funny lines in The Sunshine Boys, but the poor memory jokes and Matthau's angry character get tiring.