Friday, June 17, 2011

On the Tuneless Cole Porter Musical At Long Last Love, Peter Bogdanovich's "Great Debacle," Screening This Weekend

Posted By on Fri, Jun 17, 2011 at 1:42 PM

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"Among New Hollywood's movie brats, the [musical]" became the preferred form of career hari-kiri," Nick Pinkerton observes in his piece on Anthology Film Archives's Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s series: Before Coppola's One From the Heart, Martin Scorsese fell on the knife with Big Band 40s-set New York, New York (he recovered), Peter Bogdanovich with his Cole Porter 30s At Long Last Love (he didn't)." At Long Last Love screens tomorrow evening and again on Tuesday night.

Flops are a dime a dozen, but few have been as fastidiously locked away from posterity as At Long Last Love, Peter Bodganovich's 1975 homage to Hollywood musicals of the 30s. Sandwiched between Daisy Miller (1974) and Nickelodeon (1976), it's undoubtedly the most maligned in Bogdanovich's trilogy of period-piece bombs. John Simon's Esquire review called it "maybe the worst movie musical of this—or any decade”: “Sitting through this movie is like having someone at a fancy Parisian restaurant, who neither speaks nor reads French, read out stentoriously the entire long menu in his best Arkansas accent, and occasionally interrupt himself to chortle at his own cleverness." Bodganovich and his then-girlfriend/leading lady Cybill Shepherd have referred to it as simply "The Debacle." Never released on home video, At Long Last Love is well-known for being one of the only films so disastrous that its director resolved to publish a "letter of apology" in newspapers across the country shortly after the film's release. The actual letter, it turns out, is even stranger than any of the Internet rumors about it:

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Somehow the lunacy of this ad has slipped through the cracks of history, but plenty of the mythology of Bogdanovich in the mid-70s has been well-documented, particularly his megalomaniacal identification with the directors and stars of Golden Age Hollywood. If The Last Picture Show (1971) was his Ford film and What's Up, Doc? (1972) was his Hawks, then At Long Last Love is his Fred and Ginger musical, with a side dish of Lubitsch. Built around sixteen Cole Porter songs, it's set in the 30s and employs much of the same soundstage-bound artifice that movies of that decade did. Michael Oliver Pritchard III (Burt Reynolds) is a millionaire romantically involved with a star singer, Kitty O'Kelly (Madeline Kahn), but he's also got his eyes on Brooke Carter (Cybill Shepherd), who's dating an Italian, Johnny Spanish (Duilio Del Prete). The film follows the four friends and lovers for a few days in their aristocratic life—hopping from parties to picnics to horseraces and even a baseball game. The simplicity of the storyline is a key part of the film's homage to classics like Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936). The ultimate conceit: for the first time since 1932, back when lip-synching wasn't an option, all the musical numbers were sung and recorded live.

Even the most natural singing talents would find direct sound recording a challenge, and Reynolds and Shepherd are no naturals. Cole Porter devotees and casual showtune fans alike instinctively rejected the film on the basis of the subpar musical numbers alone. Many also complained about Bogdanovich's graceless choreography, although some dances are quite whimsical, particularly those with the maid, Elizabeth (Eileen Brennan), and butler, Rod (John Hillerman). After Elizabeth begins to come on to Rod, singing "But are you fond of riding, dear?/Kindly tell me if so" (Rod responds, "Yes, I'm fond of riding, dear/But in the evening...no!"), she chases him into his bedroom and even across his bed in hot pursuit. Bogdanovich's blocking here is exceptional: just as they've rolled across the width of his bed and fallen onto the floor beside it, Elizabeth knocks over his bedside lamp. Cut to black.

Numerous other moments in At Long Last Love defy the film's reputation for being clumsy. For one, the film makes fun of Burt Reynolds' first song for us. Sitting in the backseat of his Rolls Royce, when he begins singing, his butler/chauffeur Rod asks, "Are you singing to me, sir?" "No, I was singing to myself," Pritchard (Reynolds) responds, and Rod wryly retorts, "Yes, sir, go right ahead sir," before smiling at the camera. Rod also boasts another of the seemingly spontaneous, brilliantly deadpan lines in the film during the ensemble number "It's Friendship": "If you're ever in a mill and get sawed in half/I won't laugh."

What really encapsulates the idiosyncratic humor of the film, though, comes when, after asking in the last line of the title song, "Is it at long last—love?", Brooke says to herself: "I wonder what'll happen." For this split second, Brooke is completely aware that she is in the middle of a movie, that, after some complicating action, her story will soon arrive at some resolution. This line, particularly in the lackadaisically playful way Shepherd delivers it, is a microcosm of the film-nerdy self-consciousness that runs through Bogdanovich's films. (And later those of his protegé and professed admirer Wes Anderson, who's producing Bogdanovich's forthcoming Squirrels to Nuts—got the Lubitsch reference?—with Noah Baumbach. This group of neo-screwball comedy auteurs is further united by the fact that Shepherd's looks in the film, like Greta Gerwig's are reported to be in the upcoming Whit Stillman musical, are modeled after Grace Kelly.)

Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, "Miss Shepherd may be the most magnificent example of American WASPdom in movies today... As a madcap heiress, circa 1935, in 'At Long Last Love,' she is merely waspish." Indeed, watching her onscreen is tedious because of how ill-equipped for the role she is. Always appearing to be on the verge of a giggle breakdown, Shepherd seems too at ease onscreen, as if audiences were irrelevant and all that mattered was her director and then-boyfriend's approval. She fails at delivering any of the witty quips, let alone the songs! Well... at the risk of damning her with faint praise, her style is astonishing. Decked out in a different head-to-toe costume in nearly every scene, her ensembles include canvas fedoras, myriad silk ascots, and a variety of lavish gowns. Plus, how many American Apparel girls wish they could pull off decorative horn-rimmed glasses so well?

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Like Shepherd, Reynolds can't sing to save his life but sure looks good in 30s garb, Clark Gable mustache and all. He nearly always runs out of steam by the end of a given verse and speaks lines rather than singing them, but his 'stache still counts.

Bogdanovich's fatal flaw in At Long Last Love was focusing not on fully realizing the musical numbers but instead on meticulously recreating the look of a 1930s musical. As on-the-mark as the Art Deco set design and post-flapper couture are, the film lacks the vitality that more professional choreography and singing would have provided. As a labored retread of a bygone type of film, it suffers from its inherent studiousness. As academic and slight as it may at times be, though, it never aims to be much bigger than an homage. The image that opens and closes the film, a mechanical contraption that waltzes silver figurines around a marble base, is a testament to the film's subtextual humility. Before the silver dancers return to end the film, Bogdanovich ties up the final musical number by dollying to a floor-to-ceiling mirror which reflects the two main couples in each other's arms, suggesting that all along the film was a mere reflection of the iconic dancers (especially Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) who made the Depression-era musical comedy such a delight.

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