It takes me right back to film school, when Peter Bogdanovich graciously brought Paper Moon to Melnitz Hall. We enjoyed the show immensely. Then, during a Q&A session that followed, a bombastic Ethiopian exchange graduate student named Haile Gerima launched into a screaming rave: "Your movie is corrupt because it disparages a little black girl! You are not black! You are unqualified to make this movie! Your movie is fxxked! You are fxxked!" It took a couple of professors screaming back (with Bogdanovich helping) before Gerima made a furious exit. Such was the loopy atmosphere at UCLA's film school. 'Political consciousness' often boiled down to attention-grabbing theatrics and high emotions. I was fairly conservative then, but you didn't have to be to recognize bad manners.
The movie Bogdanovich showed us is perhaps his best. In addition to laughs and heart-tugs, we're given a John Fordian sense of landscape and bleakness, with 30s characters brought up to date in endearing ways. There are no prissy bows to P.C. ideas: Little Addie Loggins swears, smokes, and schemes like a cute version of the midget Harry Earles in The Unholy Three. Paper Moon is a good comedy with performances worthy of a classic movie, and despite all of his ego at the time, Bogdanovich was a terrific director.
Again using black and white, Bogdanovich finds a classic camera style in Paper Moon, holding many scenes in extended takes, and cutting as infrequently as possible. A car chase is confected to use one single camera position for several screeching turns, for instance. The style sometimes resembles John Ford, particularly at the beginning. Dialogue scenes, like one in an ice cream parlor, use real street backgrounds as if they were rear-projections in a 30s studio film. Many exteriors have classically-composed wide shots showing the terrain and the horizon as might Ford. But scenes do jump across cuts, and there are many more closeups and wide angle shots. Bogdanovich's restrained camera, the lack of color, and the source music he uses for a soundtrack, place us firmly in the dust bowl years without the period oversell of the many imitators of Bonnie and Clyde. 1
Alvin Sargent's script has the right 30s argot, but it's the subtle clash between sharpie Ryan O'Neal and his quick-study acolyte Tatum that lights up the screen. The much-maligned Ryan is amusing as an exasperated straight man, while his daughter Tatum naturally steals the show with every precocious look on her face. It's fun to watch Addie Loggins strain to stay ahead of the trouble she and Moses run into, and even more fun to see the tricks she pulls to break up Moses' inconvenient crush on Trixie Delight. Tatum's not only a natural, but with her director's help, she's a considerable improvement on pops, whose career was no skyrocket, even with the unexplainable blockbuster Love Story on his resumé. Frankly, she carries him, and that's the appeal of the movie.
Madeline Kahn's abrasive but sentimental floozie is a secondary high point of the picture. Seeing Trixie trying to be ladylike against her own nature is hilarious, and her eventual respect for Addie as real competition creates a scene of rather touching candor. Naturally, Addie shows her no mercy. Depression reality soaks through in the character of Imogene (P.J. Johnson), a girl basically at the mercy of involuntary servitude. In a much worse situation than Addie, with more to lose and even less to gain, Imogene has little choice but to abide Trixie's abuse and hope for the best.
John Hillerman is appropriately menacing as a lawman who has seen too many Moses Pray types to be fall for any con baloney, and the plot's best turn is when Addie outfoxes him, and rescues the man who might be her father. In the end, Bogdanovich goes for a muted version of a sentimental Ford fadeout, and we've all had a good laugh and a pleasant emotional ride.
Bogdanovich idolized the great directors he interviewed in the 60s, and perhaps his problem was trying to push himself into their ranks too quickly. It was around the time of Paper Moon that he was doing sickening guest hosting bits on The Tonight Show and behaving like the worst kind of conceited Hollywood ass. Then came his Von Sternberg/Simple Shepherd period that ended with the first derailing of his career.
Bogdanovich really doesn't have much in common with the film school directors of the 70s, most of which copied the 'feel good' movies they loved without honoring the traditions they represented. In some cases they copied movies and moments to the point of plagiarism. Bogdanovich knows his film history too well, and he's subtler about it. When John Ford's Steamboat 'Round the Bend shows up on a movie marquee early in Paper Moon, it's not an empty reference. The old Ford movie has a looney prophet who wanders on the big river wearing just a white baptismal robe. His name is The New Moses, and when he's the only one who can clear the hero of a murder charge, everyone searches for him:
Passerby: "I ain't seen the OLD Moses!"
Somehow, the mild blasphemy of Moses Pray selling overpriced Bibles to bereaved widows, ties in. Paper Moon does connect up with that innocent old movie.
Paramount's DVD of Paper Moon has an enhanced transfer that captures the crisp deep-focus look of the B&W photography, and doesn't try to hide the occasional grainy shot with digital doctoring. The sound is perfectly clear, allowing us to savor the fine selection of period songs that serve as a score.
Some dandy extras are included. Bogdanovich offers a full-length commentary brimming with comments, observations and warmth. He's not quite as humble as on his earlier Targets commentary, but he's mellowed enough to no longer come off as a blowhard either. Laurent Bouzereau's The Making of Paper Moon is handled in the contractually necessary 3 parts, but is a full rundown of the film's genesis that will delight its fans with outtakes and inside stories from Mr. B, Ms. Platt, cameraman Laszlo Kovacs, and producer Frank Marshall.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Paper Moon rates:
1. For much of this period
picture's superior look, Bogdanovich has to thank his production designer and full-on
collaborator Polly Platt, who designed most of his early pictures and never gets enough
credit for her share of making them work. She's up there with the great designers of movies,