Tuesday, August 30, 2016

COMMON CLAY

It was burnoff season in the summer of 1980, when the Big 3 networks aired all the failed pilots and unloved theatrical releases to which they owned the rights, and which would inevitably get terrible ratings.  But they had these things, so when they knew no one was watching, they'd go ahead and show them, these pathetic Bob Denver sitcoms and terrible variety shows, and these movies like The Little Prince.

A failed, little-loved adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's book, it was airing in a ninety minute time slot as part of The CBS Saturday Night Movie.  Though a short film, it would have been extensively cut to fit in that time slot, which shows how little the network cared about it.

Nonetheless, my brother and I made sure to watch.  We didn't know Saint-Exupery's book at all, or care about the fact that it had an original score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.  We just watched because it featured an appearance by Bob Fosse, and we were both huge admirers of Fosse's All That Jazz, and the chance to watch the man himself, as opposed to Roy Scheider portraying him, was just to strong a lure.  Plus, hey Stanley Donen directed!  Singin' In The Rain, Bedazzled.  How bad could it be?

Well, it wasn't very good, and even Fosse's sequence is kind of disappointing.  But it does have Gene Wilder as a fox, a wild fox tamed by the title character.


This scene was followed by a commercial break.  We were watching this in my brother's room upstairs, and during the break, I went downstairs to the kitchen to get a drink.  Turns out Mom was watching it, too.  She'd exiled herself to the kitchen to watch it on a small black-and-white TV, because she knew it wasn't anything Dad would like.

And she was crying.  I asked her if she was okay.  "Oh, honey," she said.  "The poor fox," then continued crying.

I could talk and talk and talk about the greatness of Gene Wilder, who died Sunday at the fine age of 83.  I could explain how his surprisingly melancholic performance in Blazing Saddles anchors that film's anarchy, how his meticulous preparation for the role of Willy Wonka, a role many actors would have tossed off, resulted in a film that is rediscovered and loved by every new generation.  I could tell you that the screenplay he co-wrote with Mel Brooks for Young Frankenstein is a masterpiece of carefully-escalated comic madness, or that his performance, descending from barely-controlled calm to outright madness, in a brief segment of Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex is one of the greatest things ever put on film.

I could tell you all that, and it would be true.  But more important than any of that, at least to me, is this: Once upon a time, he made Mom cry.