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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

MENTAL MONTAGE: The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Marlene, as an extreme personality- here in Blonde Venus-- 
was practically begging to be caricatured.

The struggle for fame and celebrity in Hollywood is a continual one. Even when someone has a few films under his belt and has a somewhat familiar face, the work that goes into maintaining his star status and position is more difficult than the public can ever imagine. Therefore, it naturally follows that no celeb is ever comfortable on his pedestal, which at any moment may topple. If he takes a break to blink, his moment may be over forever. From the outside, it looks easy, but to the one swimming upstream, it is impossible to ever utter the words, "I made it!" There is one tell-tale sign, however, to intimate that one has evolved past the cluster of "working actors" to the realm of bona fide "star," or perhaps even to the land of "legend." If you're popular enough to be mocked, heavily referenced, or flat-out imitated, you may have finally surmounted the curve. Today's stars can look forward to a lambast on "SNL" or "South Park," but before the days of television, there were only movies. Here are some stars who were big enough to be [mocked] in pictures.

The most obvious example is the hilarious haranguing of this month's muse, Marlene Dietrich, by one of the Queens of Comedy, Madeline Kahn, in Blazing Saddles (left). Mel Brooks's lampoon of the Western genre was derived from many classic films, including Dodge City, but the reference to Destry Rides Again never becomes more obvious than when Madeline takes the stage as Lili Von Schtupp. "Lili," one assumes, is a reference to one of Marlene's classic songs, "Lili Marleen" and "Schtupp" to... well, that's one Yiddish word everyone understands, I think. Madeline's every mannerism as Lili is clearly taken from the assertively sexual "Frenchy" that Marlene portrayed in Destry, and Madeline's impression of Marlene's accented speech is too humorously exaggerated and aped: "Oh, a wed wose..." Nothing is so spectacular as her rendition of the original song, "I'm So Tired." Her comedic expertise makes the performance more than a hammy imitation, it is genius. With Gene Wilder's so-quick-you'll-miss-it gun draw and Cleavon Little's confident and sly portrayal of the west's first black sheriff, there are few moments for one to draw breaths between laughs during the film, but it is Madeline's Marlene that takes the cake. As Marlene was still alive when the film was released, one wonders at her reaction, if she even saw it. Another screen beauty, Hedy Lamarr, gets a "shout out" as well, since Harvey Korman's character is named "Hedley Lamar." However, Hedy was not flattered, and sued Mel Brooks for what she considered to be the gross use of her name.

Another great parody comes via Carole Lombard in The Princess Comes Across. This screwball comedy is a mish-mash of mystery, murder, and maritime love. Carole portrays actress wannabe Wanda Nash who, in order to conceal her identity, pretends to be a Swedish princess (Olga) on her cruise to America, resulting in a lengthy, pitch-perfect send up of none other than Greta Garbo. From the moment Carole appears as Olga, beautiful, glamorous, and aloof, there is no question as to whom she is imitating. Her distant, irritated poise and uber-European accent-- "Dis is verry annoying..."-- draws an instant comparison to the eternal, gorgeous hermit who only wanted to "be alone." Of course, Carole is at her best when the mask comes off and her abrupt Brooklyn character has time to rant and fuss about the stress of maintaining her hidden identity and dealing with all those dead bodies that keep piling up on deck. A romance too ensues between Olga/Wanda and bandleader King Mantell, portrayed by a constant Carole co-star, (there's an alliteration for ya'), Fred MacMurray. Greta's very anti-social, dramatic, enigmatic, and slightly egotistical persona made her an easy person to duplicate, but through Carole's comedic expertise the likeness is exquisite (see right). With that special Carole stamp, we have a character who is part elegant and part kooky. For one great Hollywood screen goddess to portray another is superb, and the divide between the easy-going, deviant manner of Carole versus the otherworldy iciness of Garbo is both clear and divine.

In the film Monkey Business, Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, and Harpo Marx all used their singing skills and slight physical resemblance to Maurice Chevalier to comic effect. On yet another seafaring voyage, the four brothers are stow-aways (see left) who cause the usual amount of Marxian chaos and girl-chasing on their way to America. Groucho woos Thelma Todd, Zeppo befriends a pretty passenger, and Harpo and Chico step in as the vessel's very under-qualified barbers, all while evading capture and the anger of one very miffed gangster. After they make it across the Atlantic, they are left in a quandary: without passports, they will  be unable to disembark. Luckily, they swipe an ID from a passenger who coincidentally happens to be the Maurice Chevalier. One by one, they take turns offering the passport to the authorities, who of course doubt their identity. Forced to prove themselves as the French crooner and Lothario, they each sing the Chevalier classic, "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me," only to be denied access to American soil for their very poor impersonations. Ironically, the deliberately mute Harpo comes closest to victory, as he lip syncs the verses to a recording strapped on his back, but a slight malfunction botches his liberation as well. However, as in all things Marx, all's well that ends crazily, and hats off to Maurice for the honorary mention.

A very direct homage was paid to everyone's favorite ghoul, Boris Karloff (right), as well. "Arsenic and Old Lace" was a play penned by Joseph Kesselring in the early '40s. The plot revolved around two lovable old ladies who perform the benevolent service of murdering old, lonely men past their prime-- somewhat akin to the way the Eskimos set their elder community members adrift, or so I've heard. Their plot is discovered by their nephew, Mortimer, who is in the midst of possible matrimony. As if the shock of blood on his sweet aunties' hands isn't enough, he too has to combat an uncle who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, and his brother Jonathan, another murdering criminal, who returns home with a new face to hide his identity. Unfortunately, the doctor who performed the plastic surgery was intoxicated during the operation, and Jonathan came out looking like... Boris Karloff. Of all the horrifying faces to be trapped with! Audiences totally responded to the joke, which obviously runs throughout the entire play. Of course, the real clincher was that Boris Karloff was playing the role of Jonathan himself! Sadly, for various contractual reasons, Boris was unable to participate in the film version of 1944, which starred Cary Grant as Mortimer and the capable Raymond Massey stepping in as the facially mutated Jonathan. Since the play and the film made Boris even more immortal than he already was, I suppose he had the last laugh.

Sometimes, in the quest for stardom, one starlet makes it over another by a hair. This was definitely the case with Veronica Lake, whose iconic 'do (left) made her a sensation in her own day and keeps her a legend in ours. Ronni's hair was her "thing," just like Marlene was known for her gams and Jimmy Durante was known for his schnoz. Articles were written about her mop's hygienic upkeep and daily grooming regimen, public service announcements for safety were made with her hair used as a prop, and countless jokes were made at her expense. Possessing a good sense of humor, Ronni took the jests in kind. After all, they only helped to boost her appeal. If it took her mane to keep her in the mainstream, then so be it. Yet another reference to her famous tresses was made in Billy Wilder's first directorial effort, The Major and the Minor. Ginger Rogers, in yet another case of hidden identity, runs into trouble when she cannot afford an adult train ticket, which causes her to pose as an adolescent for cheaper fare. Unfortunately, she gets mixed up with, and sexually attracted to, fellow traveler Ray Milland while in disguise and winds up at his military academy still portraying a precocious pre-teen. Forced to attend a junior dance, she encounters a room full of young women who "all think they're Veronica Lake": cue camera pan to a row of seated girls with their faces half-covered in hair. It is a priceless guffaw that is typical of Wilder's comedies. Not only was it a fantastic gag at the time, but this small, hilarious reference also places it firmly in its timeline when modern viewers watch it today.

Speaking of sexpots... Marilyn Monroe topped them all (right). Her star power would be exemplified ad nauseum during her life, as it continues to be in her death, but interestingly it too was brought to life via Jack Lemmon. The two had worked together in the film Some Like It Hot, and while the consummately professional Jack was a little put off by Marilyn's at times erratic behavior, he could not deny her inexplicable charisma and warmth, which in the end gave him a soft spot for her. A year later, now as one of Billy Wilder's favorite actors, Jack was given the leading role in The Apartment opposite Shirley MacLaine. Acclaimed for its comedy and sympathy, it in a way reunited Jack with his conflicted friend when one particular scene pays homage to Marilyn-- although, since Billy too worked with Marilyn, this was a way of professionally tipping his hat to her screen power despite their post-Hot feud. Early in the film, Jack's C.C. Baxter is called by work colleague Joe Dobisch (Ray Walston), who is in a frenzy, because he just picked up a girl and has nowhere to take her for a sexual rendezvous. Since Baxter's apartment has become the go-to for cheating spouses, Joe asks for the use of his digs. When Baxter begs off so he can rest, Joe becomes adamant. The girl, he insists, is exceptional: "She looks like Marilyn Monroe!" With that, how can Baxter refuse? He gives up his room so that his work superior can live out every man's fantasy-- or at least as close as a guy like him will ever get. "Marilyn" and "Monroe" were apparantly the secret passwords.

Marilyn co-operated in another public celeb kudos earlier in her career when she starred in How to Marry a Millionaire, however Lauren Bacall rightfully maintains the bulk of the credit. The movie, of course, is about three lovely but struggling young women (Lauren, Marilyn, and Betty Grable) who are Hell-bent and determined to marry well to rich men. In the film, Lauren befriends the elder but always gentlemanly William Powell, who resists her advances due to their May-December age gap, yet later decides to court her in earnest (see left). In doing so, the other two gals question Lauren's choice-- he is old after all. But, Lauren rebuffs their quips by making an example of all of the handsome older men in the world: "I've always liked older men. Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill. Look at that old fellow what's-his-name in The African Queen. Absolutely crazy about him!" In this case, the crack wasn't just business, it was personal, for in real life Lauren was already married to Queen star Humphrey Bogart-- her senior by nearly 25 years. One imagines he found the cinematic joke hilarious and, of course, appreciated the extra publicity.

Lauren Bacall enjoys a day off with her "old man."


  1. Oh, I love that joke from How to Marry a Millionaire. Bacall probably got a kick out of it when she read the script.

  2. I concur, haha. I love little inside jokes like that!!!