I've never been the biggest fan of Mel Brooks, and that's just a matter of personal taste. But as a producer, Brooks has shown a lot of good judgment and modest generosity, what with his championing of talent like David Lynch. He gave actor Richard Benjamin his first directing job in My Favorite Year, and thanks to a happy combination of talent, the show is one of those rare comedies that can be seen over and over again. The focus is live comedy TV in 1954 New York, the training ground for writer-comedian Brooks. The satire is affectionate and sentimental, centering a subject the makers know well.
First the basics. Alan Swann = Errol Flynn (duh). The film clips we see of Swann's career include parodies of The Adventures of Robin Hood and incredibly convenient stock footage of O'Toole from the fantasy sequences of Lord Jim (1965). Benjy Stone is obviously Mel Brooks himself, junior writer on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, a variety comedy weekly identical to the show on view here. That makes King Kaiser a direct take on Sid Caesar ... you get the drill.
We don't see much on-stage comedy; instead, My Favorite Year takes the anarchic, incredibly broad comedy of those hilarious old sketches with greats like Howard Morris and Imogene Coca, and spreads them lightly over the surface of the film. The character gags with the nervy writers and their nervous star may come from Brooks' personal memories, but the cartoonish tone of their insult-laden banter recaptures some of the fun of the old show. King Kaiser's head-to-head with gangster Karl Rojek (a deliciously ripe Cameron Mitchell) is like one of the sketches, complete with cashmere coats tossed out windows, etc.
For a PG film, the randy Swann gets away with some pretty good dirty jokes. The cranky wardrobe woman (Selma Diamond, the gravelly voice of Spencer Tracy's wife heard on the phone in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), protests when Swann invades the ladies' room. "This is for women!" she shouts. "And so is this!" Swann answers, unzipping his fly.
Away from the television studio, the movie goes sentimental, almost too much so. Swann's image causes him to be inundated by offers of sex, but it's soon revealed that that he's got a fractured personal life and nurses a broken heart over his estranged daughter. He's a real softie, gallantly dancing with an elderly lady on her 40th anniversary (Gloria Stuart, of The Invisible Man and Titanic). He accompanies Benjy to the home of his mother Belle in Brooklyn (a bounteous Lanie Kazan), graciously tolerating the fan-storm gauntlet of Benjy's relatives and neighbors.
The Benjy Stone character is the soft center of the film, well-acted by Linn-Baker but carrying too much sentimental baggage. He 'remembers' 1954 via nostalgic voiceover, but is more of a device to hold the story together than a character we really warm up to. As William Holden said in Network, everybody's got personal memoirs to write about the Golden Age of television, and we frankly don't give a hoot about Benjy's take on this material through an endistancing framing structure. His romance with Jessica Harper is okay, but it's second-string stuff; neither actor has the kind of instant likeability needed to make it go.
As straight-man support for Swann, Linn-Baker bounces back with great double-takes and perfect funny faces, providing wonderful support for gags like falling off the balcony of a 5th Avenue hi-rise. The only business that falls short is the gag with the pastries in the restaurant, and the no-cigar attempt at transcendant grandeur when they run off with a police horse. Also, Benjy's 11th-hour lecture to Swann is good, but seems a requirement of the story structure, and doesn't hit us as solidly as it should. We do care a lot for the Swann character, and the moment gets by because director Benjamin and editor Chew don't dwell on it. The action returns to the hijinks on stage, and an overall level of good humor prevails.
The goofy 'Boss Hijack' sketch that turns into a brawl, actually has some of the magic of Swann's old movies. It's an obvious setup, cribbed from great old movies like It's Always Fair Weather, but the real gangsters invading the gangster skit provide just the kind of pleasing opportunity for Swann to bounce back with his rope-swinging, sword fighting charm. The Your Show of Shows buffonery works great, even down to Brooks-like details of the "delivery boy" actor (Archie Hahn) who takes the opportunity of the chaos to get in some personal laugh-getting punches.
Writer Adolph Green, a king of comedy and writer with Betty Comden of scores of movie and Broadway hits, including Singin' in the Rain, has the plum part of Uncle Morty, King Kaiser's exec producer. His schtick is great, and very interesting when compared to Oscar Levant in The Bandwagon, (1953). Levant and Nanette Fabray in that film have always been ID'd as counterparts for Comden & Green. Green's style here is so much like Levant's in that film that you start wondering if Levant was imitating Green then, or Green was imitating Levant in '82. I have to think the former, since Oscar Levant was such a dour duck in everything else he did.
Knowing any of this background is by no means needed to enjoy the picture. A happy hit in the theaters, My Favorite Year has a nice attitude towards people and does a good job softening what must have been a much less rosy 1954 than Errol Flynn had, when he was only a few years and a few movies away from an alcoholic end. The show has a buoyancy few modern comedies share. 1
Warner's DVD of My Favorite Year is a well-mastered disc that makes the picture look as good as new, from the Nat King Cole song over the title to the shots of NYC streets that almost look like 1954 stock shots. Richard Benjamin's spirited direction is well served. He provides a leisurely commentary that rambles somewhat, and tends toward obvious observations and general praise for his cast, but he's quite good telling how the show came about, how he was hired for his first feature, how he got O'Toole to sign on, etc. A trailer rounds out the extras.
There are some glaringly ugly shots in the firehose balcony scene, that I don't remember looking this bad on previous video masters. They're up-angles at the sky past O'Toole and Linn-Baker, where either the sky was matted in, or the stage ceiling was matted out. What we see are some ridiculously bad garbage mattes popping around the actors' heads, that might have been invisible in thick film prints, but on this DVD make the shots look as if they were never completed. There are some other distractingly phony NYC stage backings, but Warner really should have painted out these matte errors (just on 3 or 4 cuts), because they yank viewers right out of the scene.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
My Favorite Year rates:
1. It does show its age, though. When asked back to dinner, Benjy says
"Sure, maybe at, uh, the turn of the century!", still 18 years away then.