The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

I do love it when our son enjoys a film more than I did. “That was comedy gold,” he exclaimed. I don’t love it when I enjoy a film a lot less than I once did. I honestly remembered 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper as being far more full of laughs than I found it this morning. There’s still a lot to like, but I was more amused by things that I probably wouldn’t have noticed when I last saw this, many years ago, like the costumes.

So for this outing, Kermit and Fozzie are investigative reporters who have followed the famous fashion designer Lady Holiday back to London to interview her about the theft of some of her jewels. Lady Holiday designs the ugliest things women have ever worn: bridesmaid dresses for ladies who hate their bridesmaids. It’s a beautifully unstated running gag, never acknowledged onscreen, while you just know Jim Henson had to keep sending back draft designs with kind notes that the ideas were simply not hideous enough. Lady Holiday’s brother, the irresponsible parasite Nicky, wears the worst men’s clothes in London. Even his socks are shocking.

I wondered how much of the script originally came from Henson, Oz, Rogers, and Goelz just sitting around with their characters improvising. There’s a hysterical moment where the Muppets break character and Kermit starts critiquing Miss Piggy’s performance. Piggy protests that she’s going for eighty emotions, and Kermit sighs that then surely she can get one of them right. The kid didn’t find this as funny as I did. Later on, Oscar the Grouch and Peter Ustinov bemoan their very brief cameos and I giggled for a full minute.

But the first of this movie’s two big problems is that the guest stars keep stealing the show from our heroes. I’m not sure it should be like this. Honestly, my favorite scene by a mile is when John Cleese and Joan Sanderson, who had played Cleese’s mostly deaf nemesis in a brilliantly funny Fawlty Towers a couple of years previously, have their dead pets and dismissed staff lifestyle intruded upon by a pig climbing the outside wall. Cleese begins hunting for the intruders with a fireplace poker and ends up recommending a supper club. But the problem from a Muppet perspective is that they aren’t amusing in response to anything the Muppets can do; their scene would have been every bit as hilarious if Tim Brooke-Taylor had played the wife and Marty Feldman had broken in.

This goes on all through the film. Diana Rigg and Charles Grodin, playing the Holidays, are far more interesting than Miss Piggy. Michael Robbins has a tiny scene as a museum guard who does not like pepperoni, and my eyes were on him, not Kermit and Fozzie. And then there’s Peter Falk, playing a tramp with a coat full of used wristwatches. Maybe he isn’t actually credited at the end because he felt bad for walking away with the movie entirely.

These probably don’t read like “problems,” but they are in a Muppet movie. The Muppets get in the way of the funniest stuff. In no universe should that ever be the case. Actually, the funniest Muppet moment is the first appearance of the running gag of everybody talking at once, and shushing at once, except for Janice, who’s in the middle of a mildly risque anecdote. Many of the later-day Muppet Show cast, including Pops and the Electric Mayhem’s trumpeter, Lips, are in this movie. Since it seems unlikely that seasons four and five of the Show will be seen again, at least in full, due to music rights issues, this is one of the few chances to see these characters right now.

That said, the other problem is that Paul Williams didn’t write the music. In The Muppet Movie, the songs are all great and they never overstayed their welcome. These songs aren’t and the film stops dead twice for very, very old-fashioned dance numbers. One’s all top hats and tails and the other is a water ballet with synchronized swimmers. The first could have been edited at least in half and the other should have been abandoned completely. Almost none of the other songs are in any way memorable; it’s been an hour and I’ve forgotten them already.

The exception is the Mayhem’s number, “Night Life.” This was actually a minor revelation to me, because I really just remember Lips’ trumpet being added to the TV show’s end credits music and didn’t remember what he added to the Mayhem’s sound. Granted, one part of my professed Electric Mayhem fandom is me being silly, and another part is just loving Floyd being such a smartass all the time, but Henson and company really did give the Mayhem some fine songs to play, and that trumpet in this song is awesome. I don’t know that Lips actually has much of a character, but he can play.

So it’s by no means a bad film, but I think it’s seriously flawed and about ten minutes too long. The kid loved it to pieces, because it’s full of slapstick and goofy lines and surprises and stunt drivers. At one point, Beauregard drives a cab right into the Happiness Hotel’s lobby, and I thought this might be our son’s favorite moment because he was laughing so hard that he was clutching his sides, and then, when he should have reversed out, he doesn’t. So it’s a great film for nine year-olds, and a pretty good one for their nitpicky parents.

The Great Race (1965)

This blog’s got a few years in it yet, but it’s not going to go on forever. Somebody asked me if I had a conclusion planned. I do, and there will be a couple of clues to readers that we’re almost there. First, we’ll catch up with Doctor Who. Although, if they insist on committing unforced errors like taking an entire year off right when the show becomes a mainstream popular hit again, that might be later than sooner. Another is that we’ll watch one of the last films on the agenda: 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Two years after that classic was released, Blake Edwards directed a mammoth, 160-minute comedy that clearly has a lot of Mad World in its DNA, along with at least two actors. I saw it, or most of it, a million years ago on TV and forgot almost the entire thing, but remembered a few of the great gags. I think it’ll stick with our son a little better. He says it’s the funniest movie he’s ever watched.

The center of The Great Race is the rivalry between the nefarious, black-clad Professor Fate, played by Jack Lemmon and the practically perfect gentleman good guy The Great Leslie, played by Tony Curtis. They are daredevils, escape artists, and showmen, only the Great Leslie is incredibly competent and barely acknowledges Fate. You may know Fate from his later career in Hanna-Barbera cartoons. He’s the inspiration for Dick Dastardly from Wacky Races and later shows, with Peter Falk as the proto-Muttley. Things get off to a clear start in the opening scene, where the Great Leslie puts together a big stunt involving a hot air balloon, and Professor Fate intercedes by wheeling in a massive crossbow with an enormous red bolt. It’s so thunderously cartoonish that it tells the audience that some pretty epic slapstick is on its way.

Professor Fate enters into the greatest automobile race ever conceived, from New York west to Paris via Siberia, in another attempt to steal Leslie’s thunder. Also in the race, suffragette Maggie DuBois, played by Natalie Wood. After browbeating the editor of The New York Sentinel into giving her a job, she has to arrange to report on the race from every step of the way, and be in Paris when the winner crosses the finish line. Along with a cast of great character actors like Marvin Kaplan, Larry Storch, and Keenan Wynn, and with music and a couple of songs by Henry Mancini, there are some ridiculous hijinx between the two cities.

And yes, it’s very, very funny. There’s a scene set in Professor Fate’s castle home which Maggie invades for an interview. It started with a few chuckles over Fate playing an organ with broken thumbs and escalated into pausing the film because we were laughing so hard. Fate’s home would demand pausing your DVD player even if the scene wasn’t a triumph, because it’s one of the most amazing sets ever. Imagine building a set as intricate and detailed as, say, the living room of the Addams Family for all of two minutes of screen time. Later, Larry Storch plays a gunslinger with three compadres, and their entrance into an old west saloon also had me in stitches. Storch and Curtis trade fisticuffs here. Six years later, Storch would play the only American guest star in Curtis and Roger Moore’s wonderful show The Persuaders!.

The Great Race starts to run out of steam in its final third, when the racers get to some Nosuchlandia in southeastern Europe and they get involved in a Prisoner of Zenda situation masterminded by Ross Martin as an evil baron. The only real flaw up to that point was abandoning all the other racers incredibly early on, but the Zenda subplot is long enough to feel like an entirely different film, and while Lemmon is amazingly funny as Fate, he’s far less so as the drunk heir to the throne.

On the other hand, Curtis and Martin enjoy one of the cinema’s all-time great swordfights. The minutes they spend with these two, starting with foils before moving to sabers, are completely amazing. Regular readers have probably caught that I love a great swordfight. This is one of the best. And on the other extreme, the Zenda sequence ends with a food fight involving hundreds of pies that is so over-the-top and so intricately choreographed that it took four days to film and had every member of the cast ready to shove the director in an oven and bake him in a pie.

So The Great Race is like a lot of Blake Edwards’ work: it’s flawed, but very, very funny. I read that in the mid-seventies, Edwards wanted to make one of those later, far-from-funny Pink Panther films into a three-hour calamity like this. I think that could possibly have been much better than the mess that he finished with (The Pink Panther Strikes Again), but then again, The Great Race could have been pruned by twenty minutes and I bet our kid would still say it was the funniest movie he’d ever seen.

Today’s feature was a gift from Matt Ceccato and his wife, writer Nan Monroe, and I invite you all to check out her webpage and buy some of her novels and collections of short stories! If you would like to support this blog, you can buy us a DVD of a movie that we’d like to watch one day. We’ll be happy to give you a shout-out and link to the site of your choice when we write about it. Here’s our wishlist!