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A sore spot in the early career of William Friedkin, The Night They Raided Minsky's is an unique comedy musical about a subject as far from the concerns of 1968 as one could get: New York burlesque in the 1920s. A labor of love and affection by Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear, Minsky's gathers a top-flight cast for a consistently funny and affectionate look back at the 'naughty' entertainment of an earlier era. The much-maligned film is known as a notorious failure 'rescued' by its editor, but the performances, jokes and great music are what persist in the memory. Known as "The Poor Man's Follies", the lineup of jiggly, overweight chorines croaks out Minsky's signature song: "Take ten terrific girls, but only nine costumes, and you're cooking up something grand ..."
The Night They Raided Minsky's charms us because it's essentially innocent and affectionate. The jokes are too cute and too antiquated to be offensive; it's humor that our great-grandparents probably smiled at, coarse or not. Virginal Rachel Schpitendavel looks with wonder on what we know to be a line of porcine painted trollops, each more unbelievable than the next. The 'cute' one has rolls of fat bulging over her skimpy costume, and the others are overage disasters in heavy denial. The film's attitude toward them is flat out hilarious -- Minsky's silver haired emcee-tenor introduces the lineup, finally asking one gum-chewing woman, "Is it a sin to be so friendly?" Her response is to shoot back a look that could peel paint. Doubts as to the authenticity of all this are quashed by the inclusion of vintage B&W footage of a real burlesque line-up, that the Minsky girls match perfectly.
Critics have opined that Jason Robards is miscast, when he does terrific song & dance routines with comedian Wisdom. Robards also handles the seduction comedy well. His Raymond Paine eventually impresses us as an essentially unhappy man transformed by his persona as a burlesque star. Norman Wisdom has the most experience, coming from a British music hall tradition. He pulls off a routine explaining funny business to Rachel, that seems modeled on Donald O'Connor's Be a Clown act from Singin' in the Rain.
Britt Ekland was never a major talent but the role of the farm-fed hick in sin town fits her perfectly. The boys lust after her, marveling at the rarity of a girl who knows the Bible: "It's a book that civilians read on Sundays." But the abuse of a man is what turns her into the 'inventor' of the strip tease for the film's haute-vulgar finale.
The casting is flawless. Forrest Tucker is a suitably comic bad guy, teasing Denholm Elliott's pinch-faced, repressed bluenose with questions about what exactly offends him: "Is it that the girls jiggle, Fowler? What parts of them jiggle, Fowler?" Joseph Wiseman and Harry Andrews clash as an orthodox Jew and a fundamentalist Christian who worry that they might not pray to the same god. "What kind of father are you, who would permit his son to run such a sinful establishment?" "The kind of father who would not permit his daughter to dance in Minsky's burlesque." Smaller parts are covered with good performances by Gloria LeRoy, Joe E. Marks and Jack Burns.
In his career biography, editor Ralph Rosenblum assures us that after The Night They Raided Minsky's was assembled in script order, it just sat there, dead and uninspiring. Known as Woody Allen's editorial mentor, Rosenblum completely restructured the film, giving it its catchy, jittery rhythm. Scenes start in the middle and end before they're finished and most of the comedy sketches have been chopped up into bits. Rosenblum also contributed several fast-paced montages that shuffle bits of unused scenes with trick opticals and well-chosen newsreel film from the 1920s. The main title is a manic flutter-cut unseen this side of experimental films. The picture pops from B&W to color and back again, mixing up the new footage with the old. Interestingly, the first image is of an elevated train, looking forward to the director's The French Connection.
The result is a sprightly pace that the film's content can't quite keep up with. One of the clever conceits is to suggest that the burlesque performers behave just as madly off the burlesque stage as on, and a third-act fight between Chick & Raymond and Forrest Tucker's gangsters becomes tiring, especially when intercut with a jarring jazz vocal in a speakeasy. Punches to the face are slam-cut with silent footage of chimneys crashing to the ground. We've already had our fill of that kind of thing.
One thing is sure, Rosenblum went radical on Friedkin's movie, seizing on the opportunity to become its auteur in post-production. The constant parade of grainy shots indicates optical blowups used to create new close-ups, effectively re-directing the work of Billy Friedkin. Not only do we wish we could see more of the original scenes peeking through the (clever) re-cutting, the editorial flimflam adds an air of desperation to the proceedings. After all the sophisticated cutting tricks, the editing of the body stand-in for Ms. Ekland's 2-second nude scene is the phoniest thing in the movie.
The most obvious example of this is also the film's biggest heartbreak. Funnyman (and original burlesque headliner) Bert Lahr, the original Cowardly Lion, died a couple of weeks into production, before his part could be finished. Lahr's Professor Spats character, a backstage liability always begging to perform, was intended to fill-in for the missing Raymond Paine. His show-stopping number would have capped both the movie and Lahr's legendary show-biz career. As it is, Lahr makes a good entrance, reads a few choice lines spread throughout the story, and then disappears, to be replaced in some scenes by a double. For a conclusion, the double picks up a fallen seltzer bottle on an empty stage. An indifferent shot of Lahr appears to be a leftover fragment from an unrelated shot, before Friedkin said "Action" or after he said "Cut."
Nobody tires of the terrific original music by Charles Strouse, the composer of the Broadway shows Bye Bye Birdie, Applause and Annie. The main theme is both inspiring and touching, setting up nostalgia for a theatrical tradition that's been extinct for eighty years.
The Night They Raided Minsky's has tenuous connections with a Barbra Streisand musical TV special The Belle of New York Street, a look back at pop hits of long-ago New York. One of the episodes features dancing girls called "The Beef Trust Chorus" and Jason Robards contributes a major performance. Even more tangentially, Streisand's then-husband Elliott Gould has a major Minsky's role as the nervous showman.
The Night They Raided Minsky's is funny, sexy and tune-worthy. It's also doubly interesting in the context of today's media culture. Comedy has dipped far, far deeper into the depths of smut than anything dreamed up on the Minsky's stage. The movie begins with an announcement from Rudy Vallee complimenting the viewer for being "a real mature audience". We can't help but be nostalgic for a tradition that none of us witnessed first-hand.
MGM's DVD of The Night They Raided Minsky's is presented in a glowing enhanced transfer that brings out the gaudy hues in Andrew Laszlo's cinematography. The stereo audio may be a new processed track; an original mono is provided as well. MGM has unknowingly added a song to the show. All previous copies I've seen use an instrumental over the end credits, but this DVD brings back Rudy Vallee to sing a redundant ode to burlesque. As the end titles only credit Vallee with the opening narration, it's possible that the song was never intended to be in the film.
Although the story behind this under-appreciated gem would make for fascinating viewing, there are no extras, not even a trailer. The Photoshopped cover graphic is one of the most hideous yet devised for a DVD. That's all the more regrettable, considering that the film's original poster used superb 'merry chase' artwork by Frank Frazetta.
long-ago conversations with Robert S. Birchard
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Reader Bill Wind with some pertinent comments on Minsky's, 6.24.08:
Thank you for your insightful review of The Night They Raided Minsky's ... It's seldom that I completely agree with any critic about any movie, but your review parallels my feelings about this film 100 percent. Most others who reviewed the DVD dismissed the movie as stupid or inconsequential.
I have wanted a good copy of this film for many, many years (I don't believe it was ever on laserdisc). When the DVD arrived, I watched it twice in a row. Then, I dug out my vinyl copy of the soundtrack album and listened to it twice (what great songs!). Finally, I re-read the chapter about Minsky's in Rosenblum's book. After thinking about it for a while, I came to the same conclusion as you did. Despite the choppy editing, the movie's charm and humor show through enough to make it a very enjoyable experience. For me, the highlight of the film is the "From Head to Toe You're a Gentleman" number with Robards and Wisdom --- it seems to be the only number that was left intact and it captures the spirit of burlesque very nicely.
I know that Rosemblum's book is one of the few about film editing and it's considered a "bible", but after a while, his assertion that "saved" all those movies becomes rather suspect. I would love to see the original cut of The Night They Raided Minsky's and compare it with Rosenblum's cut. Regardless, I would say that in today's hyper-editing environment, Rosenblum's edit actually seems a bit slow and easier to absorb than the editing in most contemporary films.
Also, thank you for confirming what I'd always suspected --- that Bert Lahr was to have done an on-stage routine at the end of the movie. I had the pleasure of seeing Bert Lahr in a Broadway review called Two On the Aisle many, many years ago, and he was truly a masterful stage performer. It would have been great to see him working an audience one more time.
On this particular day, the same could be said for George Carlin. -- Bill Wind Lakewood, Colorado
2. More good thought and information from "B", 6.24.08:
Dear Glenn: "...the newly teamed Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear..."
Yorkin and Lear had been teamed professionally for over a decade in television and movies before The Night They Raided Minsky's was produced.
Also crooner Rudy's last name is "Vallee." I've seen various prints of Minsky's and like you, I've never run across an end-title Vallee vocal. A British print, perhaps? Where does MGM find these things.
When I saw the picture in early '69, the audience had no patience for Norman Wisdom -- there were even catcalls from the crowd after a while. But I think he's funny, and good in the movie.
The death of Lahr must have really put the producers in a quandary; this is one of the most interesting examples of a performer's passing during a production genuinely handicapping a show. It's heartbreaking to listen to the great Lahr begging to go on... knowing that he didn't live to finish the film. This is so sad -- and the film so clearly structured around Spats' planned turn at the finish -- that they should probably have re-cast the part and offered Mostel or Gilford a fortune to play the character.
I have mixed feelings about Rosenblum's razzle-dazzle post-production work. I accept that it likely made the movie releasable and it probably helps make some of the movie work well. But I guess the problem is that in order for this style to work at all, it has to be consistent through the picture. I don't think all of Friedkin's scenes needed this kind of oomphing up. It adversely affects some of the numbers, and interrupts a bit of the by-play between Robards and Wisdom. [Robards is okay in the movie, but he was better doing this kind of thing in the Streisand special and in A Thousand Clowns.]
It's funny that this M-rated 1968 movie, a little bit scandalous for its day, should be seem so gentle and harmless today... Good review. Best, Always. -- B
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