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Probably the high point of Blake Edwards' directorial career beyond the '60s, the hilarious S.O.B. didn't enjoy the breakout success of "10" or Victor/Victoria, but remains more inspired than either of those films. Hollywood has always been an easy target for satire and the really good parodies can be counted on one hand. Whether or not S.O.B. belongs there too depends on whether you think it's accurate as well as funny. Considering how unfunny much of Edwards' filmography seems now, it has got to be a subjective call.
Something has aged about the Blake Edwards films. I remember thinking The Pink Panther was the funniest thing on Earth. I also thought The Great Race incredibly witty, and The Party the height of sophistication. Now they move from gag to gag while we admire the Henry Mancini music and the elaborate and tasteful production values, and fewer than one joke in three seems remotely funny any more. Even Edwards' dramas now seem to drag, and I'm not quite sure why.
S.O.B. is one of that small group of movies that 'dare' to expose Hollywood as a depraved fraud, a position already accepted as doctrine by much of society. For courageousness, there's not much to applaud; in 1950 Billy Wilder was putting his career on the line when he suggested that his industry had flaws, but not so thirty years later.
Blake Edwards is really playing a self-referential Fellini game, as S.O.B. doesn't even pretend it's anything but an exaggeration of Edwards' and Andrews' travails within the studio system. Both were at the top of their game when they hit a brick wall of failure right around '69 -'70, and their popularity and bankability dropped sharply. Julie crashed in Star!, right at the time when roadshow musicals suddenly became unprofitable. And her typecasting as a Mary Poppins-style kiddie entertainer dampened her ability to work, even after her excellent adult role in The Americanization of Emily and other more adult dramas.
Blake Edwards went from being the maker of an unbreakable string of hits, to a state of professional panic after costly turkeys like The Wild Rovers. Darling Lili was the husband & wife co-venture that really did them in: their former exalted status dropped to the point where petty creep MGM head James Aubrey was able to take The Carey Treatment away from Edwards and butcher it editorially.
Thus the central issue in S.O.B. is a kiddie film called Night Wind that tanks so badly that it spells disaster for the husband and wife director/star team of Felix Farmer and Sally Miles. An exaggeration factor needs to be taken into account, as the film's feuding couple are nothing like the devoted Edwards and Andrews. The idiotic 'Polly Wolly Doodle' clip we're shown is also nothing like the quality family films Julie had done - it's just that cynics liked to assume that she personified her own 'spoonful of sugar' image. In Stanley Donen's Bedazzled, saying Julie's name is the equivalent of waving a fairy godmother's wand.
The actual exaggeration of S.O.B. is almost offensive. Julie and Blake did make bombs, and didn't have the appropriate hipness to bluff their way through the studios at a time when things like Zachariah were being green-lit. But showing the alternative to 'Polly Wolly Doodle' as being a soft-porn retread goes beyond satire to a loathing that undercuts their own position. S.O.B. becomes, in a way, the trash movie they are saying Hollywood will make when it's desperate. And like all satire comedy born of rage, if you consider any of it serious, it becomes despairing.
The actual scene where Julie goes topless is very well done but is a separate issue altogether. It's not so much courageous as it is defiant, telling people that nudity's no big thing, even for Julie Andrews. To ordinary people (like me) for whom going naked in public is still an inconceivable act, it's liberating for Julie Andrews to show us that we're making a big deal about nothing - that too much of our cultural focus is wasted on who's naked where this week. It's our limited thinking that needs adjusting.
In a way, S.O.B. would seem to be Julie and Blake's backlash at Hollywood for rejecting them as a pair of squares. In retaliation, they leapfrogged the town and made a scathing satire to prove that they are the ones possessed of both insight and the big picture. And with some success, although most of Edwards' subsequent pictures have been the very conventionally bland kinds of entertainments that evil studio boss David Blackman would greenlight.
What's great about S.O.B. in relation to other Edwards pictures, is that it's still funny. There's wit to most of the characterizations, and the constant ribbing of Hollywood's venality and lust for power and wealth is spot-on. The sex jokes are on the stale side (Robert Vaughn wearing female underwear, Shelley Winters in bed with a woman) and aren't going to shock anyone this side of Kansas (sorry, Bill). But there are heaps of great performances, with Robert Preston and William Holden on top as the wisecracking old guard of tinseltown. The nutty Richard Mulligan makes Felix Farmer into a funny clown, and Julie plays a farcical version of herself that indeed changes our take on her potential.
Most of the bits and smaller parts are better than just okay, with Robert Webber getting top honors for suprising deftness in the broader slapstick scenes. Television stars Larry Hagman, Loretta Swit and even Larry Storch have great moments too. 1 A young Rosanna Arquette plays a fast hitchhike babe, and goes topless without getting the attention that Julie does. Rosanna's teenybopper partner is played by Jennifer Edwards (a daughter?), who lives on roller skates like the character in Boogie Nights, and gets wheeled around in a shopping cart after fainting at the sight of an appropriately bland stud movie star (David Marshall).
Edwards betrays his fuddy-duddy roots in scenes that use the Mexican gardener and the Chinese cook for cheap ethnic humor (why anyone can still watch Breakfast at Tiffany's escapes me) and in slapstick that mines other people's ideas. The funniest running gag is a hole-in-the-floor gem stolen from The Horse's Mouth (soon to be reviewed here). Yet a big part of the appeal of S.O.B. comes precisely from Edwards' 'old Hollywood' P.O.V., and I guess the obsolete values and his willingness to resort to broad schtick comes along with that.
In 1980, we thought S.O.B. was pretty delightful, and we loved the fast-talking joke dialogue of the kind Billy Wilder used to provide. We also thought some of its satire was rather toothless - neither verson of 'Night Wind' related to anything being produced at the time. In fact, the outrage over the conversion of Hollywood to total exploitation junk was slightly out of date, and would have made more sense if the movie had been set in 1970. Most of Edwards' digs at Hollywood were old news by 1980, and even Julie Andrews' (hilarious) 'booby show' wasn't that big of a deal anymore. The constipated old-style studio system Edwards rails against, was a nostalgic memory. By 1980, the David Blackman character would be replaced by a committee.
Warner's DVD of S.O.B. gets high marks for image quality. The bright colors show off the attractive production design, and what previously looked cramped on television now makes sense in letterboxed 16:9. Quite a few jokes play much better this way, especially the running gag with the dead man on the beach. A trailer and a few text filmographies round out the package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, S.O.B. rates:
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: June 4, 2002
1. You know the farcical mood is working when Larry Storch's wizened guru reads a list of Felix Farmer's biggest hit movies, including howlers like Invasion of the Pickle People.