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Critic comedies starring Mel Brooks, Vincent Price, and Bob Hope

Should a critic be forbidden from reviewing a play written by his or her spouse?

Queen Bees and a downed drone: Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret, and Courtney Gaines.
Queen Bees and a downed drone: Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret, and Courtney Gaines.

Three comedies about critics starring Mel Brooks, Vincent Price, and Bob Hope. Our first entry earned Mel an Oscar® for Best Animated Short, and in spite of that, it’s good!

The Critic (1960)

For many, this four-minute animated short would provide their first big-screen glimpse inside the mind of Mel Brooks. The fact-based backstory finds Brooks inside a theatre, watching an experimental short by the National Film Board of Canada’s pioneer in pixelation, Norman McLaren. Seated behind Mel is an old Jewish guy who, through a thick Eastern European accent, spends a good chunk of the short’s running time bemoaning its lack of plot. A few years earlier, Mel, along with Carl Reiner, had struck comedy gold with the best-selling LP The 2000 Year Old Man. It was just a matter of laying Mel’s cranky commentary track over a series of McLaren-esque abstract designs animated by Ernest Pintoff. Brooks sat in a recording studio and, sight unseen, improvised a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy. Released at a time when theatrical shorts were verging on extinction, this had an incredible shelf life. Ten years after its release, a wise Chicago exhibitor booked a scratchy 35mm print to screen as a prelude to Blazing Saddles.

Theater of Blood (1973)

Believe it or don’t, Vincent Price’s bread-and-butter roles in horror films were so numerous that he never got around to cracking Shakespeare. That is, until this picture offered him the opportunity to pack nine of the Bard’s protagonists into one feature. No wonder Price ranked it among his favorites. Contrary to the actor who plays him, the only characters Edward Lionheart consents to embody are those written by the Bard. The presumed-dead actor would quite literally kill to get a good notice — it’s the only way he knows to get even with the Theatre Members Guild, a group that refuses to give him the attention he so richly thinks he deserves.

Lionheart picks off each member of the group serial-killer style, and in accordance with one of Shakespeare’s plays. The entire film was shot on location, with many of the murders taking place inside the rundown theatre Lionheart keeps alive, waiting for the day he will stage a comeback. It also gives shelter to the hobo horde that Lionheart casts a Manson-like spell over, inciting them to kill. What follows is a delicious “death by billing” affair that posits an actor enacting revenge on a collection of critics played by a distinguished cast of British characters (Jack Hawkins, Harry Andrews, Robert Coote, Ian Hendry, etc.) — including the future Mrs. Price. It was suggested by co-star Diana Rigg that the then-married Price would make a perfect match for Coral Browne. (The couple remained together until Price’s death in 1991.) The only misfire is Robert Morley’s pink-toussled, poodle-toting poofter, an abused-to-death stereotype even in 1973. And the obvious drag-gag worked better in Richard Rush’s Color of Night.

Critic’s Choice (1963)

If a surgeon is forbidden from operating on his or her spouse, shouldn’t the same principle apply to a critic reviewing a play written by their partner? That’s the foundational precept upon which this adaptation of Ira Levin’s moderately successful 1960 play is based. (Actually, it was based on the lives of top playwright Jean Kerr and the esteemed theatre critic she married, Walter Kerr.) Screenwriter Jack Sher (Shane, The Kid From Left Field) clearly tailored the character of theatre critic Parker Ballantine to suit Bob Hope’s persona. Wife Angela is played here by Lucille Ball. This was to be the comedians’ fourth and final pairing, released not long after Lucy split from Desi. The part of the first Mrs. Ballantine went to Marilyn Maxwell, aka Bob’s real-life “second Mrs. Hope.”

With Angela in tow, a visibly agitated Parker stops for a little polite chatter with show producer S.P. Champlain (John Dehner) while making an Act III exit on the latter’s latest Broadway clunker. The script actually calls for the play’s young director to ask Champlain what the critic thought of the production. The little dialogue that did make the transition from stage to screen crackles with the sting of lessons learned. Otto Preminger helmed the Broadway version, while Don Weis drew big screen duties. Sadly, Weis’ slapstick insertions act to distract. A reenactment of the balcony-dangling gag that suited Dean & Jerry & Tashlin so well in Hollywood or Bust plays like a mistimed mess. And while Lucy holds her own, too much of Hope’s delivery smacks of one-liners scrawled on cue cards for a T.V. monologue.

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Queen Bees and a downed drone: Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret, and Courtney Gaines.
Queen Bees and a downed drone: Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret, and Courtney Gaines.

Three comedies about critics starring Mel Brooks, Vincent Price, and Bob Hope. Our first entry earned Mel an Oscar® for Best Animated Short, and in spite of that, it’s good!

The Critic (1960)

For many, this four-minute animated short would provide their first big-screen glimpse inside the mind of Mel Brooks. The fact-based backstory finds Brooks inside a theatre, watching an experimental short by the National Film Board of Canada’s pioneer in pixelation, Norman McLaren. Seated behind Mel is an old Jewish guy who, through a thick Eastern European accent, spends a good chunk of the short’s running time bemoaning its lack of plot. A few years earlier, Mel, along with Carl Reiner, had struck comedy gold with the best-selling LP The 2000 Year Old Man. It was just a matter of laying Mel’s cranky commentary track over a series of McLaren-esque abstract designs animated by Ernest Pintoff. Brooks sat in a recording studio and, sight unseen, improvised a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy. Released at a time when theatrical shorts were verging on extinction, this had an incredible shelf life. Ten years after its release, a wise Chicago exhibitor booked a scratchy 35mm print to screen as a prelude to Blazing Saddles.

Theater of Blood (1973)

Believe it or don’t, Vincent Price’s bread-and-butter roles in horror films were so numerous that he never got around to cracking Shakespeare. That is, until this picture offered him the opportunity to pack nine of the Bard’s protagonists into one feature. No wonder Price ranked it among his favorites. Contrary to the actor who plays him, the only characters Edward Lionheart consents to embody are those written by the Bard. The presumed-dead actor would quite literally kill to get a good notice — it’s the only way he knows to get even with the Theatre Members Guild, a group that refuses to give him the attention he so richly thinks he deserves.

Lionheart picks off each member of the group serial-killer style, and in accordance with one of Shakespeare’s plays. The entire film was shot on location, with many of the murders taking place inside the rundown theatre Lionheart keeps alive, waiting for the day he will stage a comeback. It also gives shelter to the hobo horde that Lionheart casts a Manson-like spell over, inciting them to kill. What follows is a delicious “death by billing” affair that posits an actor enacting revenge on a collection of critics played by a distinguished cast of British characters (Jack Hawkins, Harry Andrews, Robert Coote, Ian Hendry, etc.) — including the future Mrs. Price. It was suggested by co-star Diana Rigg that the then-married Price would make a perfect match for Coral Browne. (The couple remained together until Price’s death in 1991.) The only misfire is Robert Morley’s pink-toussled, poodle-toting poofter, an abused-to-death stereotype even in 1973. And the obvious drag-gag worked better in Richard Rush’s Color of Night.

Critic’s Choice (1963)

If a surgeon is forbidden from operating on his or her spouse, shouldn’t the same principle apply to a critic reviewing a play written by their partner? That’s the foundational precept upon which this adaptation of Ira Levin’s moderately successful 1960 play is based. (Actually, it was based on the lives of top playwright Jean Kerr and the esteemed theatre critic she married, Walter Kerr.) Screenwriter Jack Sher (Shane, The Kid From Left Field) clearly tailored the character of theatre critic Parker Ballantine to suit Bob Hope’s persona. Wife Angela is played here by Lucille Ball. This was to be the comedians’ fourth and final pairing, released not long after Lucy split from Desi. The part of the first Mrs. Ballantine went to Marilyn Maxwell, aka Bob’s real-life “second Mrs. Hope.”

With Angela in tow, a visibly agitated Parker stops for a little polite chatter with show producer S.P. Champlain (John Dehner) while making an Act III exit on the latter’s latest Broadway clunker. The script actually calls for the play’s young director to ask Champlain what the critic thought of the production. The little dialogue that did make the transition from stage to screen crackles with the sting of lessons learned. Otto Preminger helmed the Broadway version, while Don Weis drew big screen duties. Sadly, Weis’ slapstick insertions act to distract. A reenactment of the balcony-dangling gag that suited Dean & Jerry & Tashlin so well in Hollywood or Bust plays like a mistimed mess. And while Lucy holds her own, too much of Hope’s delivery smacks of one-liners scrawled on cue cards for a T.V. monologue.

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..."one-liners scrawled on cue cards..." Wasn't that Bob Hope's epitaph?

Sept. 15, 2021

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