The Sunshine Boys (1975)

Director: Herbert Ross

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Is comedy dead as an American film genre? Some people might think I’m being facetious, but for me, 2000’s Zoolander was my high watermark for modern comedies, and even that film was showing the signs that I believe have proven near fatal to American comedies. In general, the kind of wit that is based in human experience and cultural literacy and not in unexpected outrageousness, that is, OMG comedy that makes one feel uneasy rather than carefree, is a highly endangered species. Sadly, too, the wonderful comedians who were in vaudeville or were mentored by vaudevillians are dead or retired. Whenever I see a film that taps into the rich tradition of vaudeville entertainment, it is a sad reminder of a much richer world of entertainment that will never come again.

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The Sunshine Boys is both a paean to the vaudeville era and a revival of the humor that entertained generations of Americans during the 20th century. Neil Simon, the author of the play on which the film is based, was born in 1927, near the end of the vaudeville era, when the actors and dancers, singers and specialty performers who trod the boards in vaudeville houses across the country were either retiring or trying to transition into motion pictures and radio. Despite the decline of vaudeville on the stage, movies were still liberally seasoned with the stories and acts of the era. For example, a veritable history of vaudeville can be found in the films of James Cagney, from the depiction of the prologue business that provided live entertainment in between movie showings in Footlight Parade (1933) to the career of the ultimate showman, George M. Cohan, in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). In the latter film, there is a reference to an acrobat act called Lewis and Clark; I wonder whether Simon might have remembered that reference when he christened the comedy team of Al Lewis and Willy Clark, the title characters of The Sunshine Boys.

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For me, Neil Simon tends a bit to the sentimental and superficial, but The Sunshine Boys is neither. Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) is a demanding, unhappy man who refuses to acknowledge his failing memory or the herculean efforts of his nephew-manager Ben (Richard Benjamin) to get him work. The opening sequence shows a nervous Ben waiting for Willy to show up for an audition for a Frumpy’s potato chip commercial. On his way to the audition, Willy zigs when he should have zagged, and winds up venting his spleen to an auto mechanic (F. Murray Abraham) at the address he has mistaken for the right one. When he realizes his mistake, he heads out, again in the wrong direction, only to be corrected by the mechanic. He gets a chance to read for the commercial well after the last minute due to Ben’s persistence, but forgets his lines and insults the director (Howard Hesseman) and the product. Matthau’s air of entitled irritation sets the tone perfectly for his crucial confrontation with his old partner Al Lewis (George Burns), which comes about when Ben secures a major television appearance for Willy, but only if he and Al perform their famous doctor routine as part of a retrospective of American comedy.

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Simon retreads his Odd Couple theme, with Willy a perfect slob and Al, his orderly, slightly prissy opposite. When he learns Al will be at his apartment in a matter of minutes, Willy hastily tries to clean up or cover over the dirty dishes, cast-off clothes, and other debris—a scene we can imagine happening many times over the course of their 43 years as a team. Burns, however, doesn’t play Al as neurotically tidy as Felix Unger was. He has the understated, disapproving Jewish mother down pat as he indicates his distaste with a terse “you live like this?” and a quiet, dismayed look around the room. Willy is much more vocal about his hatred of Al’s sprayed speech and finger jabs. The contrast between the emotionally volatile Willy and the maddeningly even-keeled Al is a formula that has worked beautifully for comedy teams through the ages—just consider how George Burns’ straight-man routine set off his wife Gracie Allen’s ditzy comedy perfectly—but highlights how difficult it can be to mesh such differing temperaments.

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The rehearsal for the television show is a fascinating and surprisingly intense scene. Al and Willy don some funny wigs, make-up, and costumes and perform the routine. Full of corny jokes and a blonde bombshell of a nurse (Lee Meredith) as the butt of sexist and sexual gags, the doctor routine is nonetheless wildly entertaining and enthralling. These two showmen have the timing of a fine Swiss watch and somehow make the material feel fresh and involving. When the routine eventually blows up before the finish as Willy attacks Al, his irritation with Al’s spitting and finger poking past reason, I was heartbroken. The magic stopped, with a crucial moment of table-turning—Al broke Willy’s heart by quitting the act abruptly without a word—evening the score between the two men. Ross’ camerawork, getting close to the actors as the tension mounts, forms a satisfying climax to a symphony of bickering.

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In general, Ross does a remarkable job of opening this play up for the screen, choosing locations and images that amuse as much as the snappy dialogue. The opening shot shows the fabled Palace Theatre, the goal of every vaudevillian, fronted by a statue of the legendary George M. Cohan with a pigeon perched on his head. Even just watching one of the boats people used to drive crossing a bridge from New Jersey to New York, with Burn’s disembodied voice whining along with the wheels of the car, was visual hilarity. Ross’ fluid camera works as well in elevators and offices as it does on the streets of Manhattan.

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It is hard to fault the work of Burns and Matthau, both brilliant comic actors. Nonetheless, the much-younger Matthau—54 to Burns’ 80 years—could not suppress his physical vigor and seemed a mismatch for Burns. Watching his gangly form smoothly chasing a slow and stiff Burns around a couch is very funny, but highlights the degree to which Matthau does not play older than his years. Yes, he is great at sneaking cigars and eating the salty foods his doctor warned him against, but the infirmities of old age never really come from the bone.

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Richard Benjamin is a bit of the unsung hero of this film, just as he is with his fictional uncle. His work as a go-between, however, is crucial to humanizing Willy and keeping him in contact with the world around him. He clearly loves and admires his uncle, and is proud of the legacy of Lewis and Clark. Willy has not adjusted to being an old man, nor has he moved with the times. He claims to be more in touch than Al, who lives with his daughter in New Jersey (“I see everything that’s going on in the world. Look! I see old people, I see young people, nice people, bad people. I see hold-ups! I see drug addicts! Ambulances! Car crashes! Jumpers from buildings! I see everything!”), but, in fact, he has withdrawn. Benjamin hits all the right notes as the comic scapegoat for Willy, but he also brings an emotional heart to the relationship that gives us a reason to care.

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One thing vaudevillians could do that today’s comic talents seem unable to grasp is take a performance to its proper conclusion. Instead of starting a joke and developing it, modern comedies tend to flounder and spin out of control. The Sunshine Boys shows how even the most time-worn material can be spun gold in the hands of veteran entertainers who understand how to tell a story—beginning, middle, and end.

  • Christopher Potter spoke:
    18th/07/2013 to 5:46 pm

    To Marilyn Ferdinand:

    I agree with the bulk of your excellent and enjoyable review of a movie I’ve never liked. My problem with “The Sunshine Boys” is simple: Unlike you I could never get past the sore-thumb fact that Walter Matthau was much younger than George Burns — and shamelessly failed to cover the fact.

    Adorned with rubbery old-man’s makeup, Matthau plays Willy as if he were an embittered vaudevillian novitiate to Al rather than his partner. His character mugs and bellows ceaselessly and shamelessly: Was Matthau terrified he’d look second-fiddle to Burns without constantly one-upping him? It’s a stunningly ungenerous performance, the essence of an actor in writhing in his own insecurities.

    Had Matthau managed to relax and play Willy as is, his team-up with the quietly blissful Burns (who inherited Al’s role after Jack Benny died) could have been a movie match made in Heaven. Instead, “The Sunshine Boys” comes off as a star competition in which only one star is competing. And losing.

    As for Richard Benjamin as Willy’s nephew Ben, I confess I can hardly remember him. I do recall him striving hard to make something out of a thankless role, yet Simon did not put enough character into Ben and the overbearing Matthau seems bent on loudly exacerbating this script weakness.

    Benjamin — who I first saw playing Felix Unger in Chicago in 1966 — is an actor I almost always enjoy. But Simon and hack director Herbert Ross (Hack? Hell yes! He made “The Turning Point,” didn’t he?) provide Benjamin no chance to invest Ben, and thus the film, with the necessary heart you so rightly mention.

    Which is why I failed to give a bleep about “The Sunshine Boys” when it arrived 38 years ago. And I still don’t.

    Christopher Potter

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/07/2013 to 6:50 pm

    Christopher – Thanks for stopping by and sharing your comments about The Sunshine Boys. I agree that Matthau was over the top – he has never been the most subtle of actors. I don’t think he was trying to one-up Burns, personally, just playing the loud to Burns’ soft. That kind of contrast is a popular comic device and one Neil Simon relies on. Should he have toned it down? Yes, I think he should have, but he’s not that kind of an actor. Look back over his career and you’ll see the same kind of bellicosity in many of his roles.

    As for Ross, I would not call him a hack. He handled this film expertly. I also love his treatment of Goodbye Mr. Chips, and he has a solid resume of entertaining films. Not high art, but a cut above what passes for mainstream entertainment these days.

  • Christopher Potter spoke:
    18th/07/2013 to 7:38 pm

    To Marilyn:

    Thanks for the reply. I must confess I’ve never seen Ross’s “Goodbye, Mr. Chips'” other than in snippets when it happens to be showing on TV. The reviews were so hostile when the movie was released, I decided not to bother; another reason was that I dearly loved and still do adore the original.

    I admit that over the ensuing decades I’ve noticed an escalating number of kindly observations about “Chips” the movie musical. Perhaps the initial reviews were way too harsh — it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. In any case, it’s now on my list of Missed Movies I Must See.

    Chris

    P.S: From movies that got bad reviews when released but are now venerated — BUT NOT BY ME : “The Shining.” If I recall, The New Republic’s Stanley Kauffmann titled his scathing 1980 review “The Dulling” — and he was RIGHT. The best things about the movie — indeed, the only good things — are the music (which Kubrick didn’t write) and Jack Nicholson. And, of course, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy….” As far as I’m concerned the rest of this emotionally frozen flick can go sit forever in the Overlook’s hedge maze.

    P.P.S: From movies I finally caught up with that received vile reviews when released but are now regarded classics — BUT NOT BY ME: “Rio Lobo.” Forgive my dogmatism, but how can anybody — ANYBODY — tolerate, much less revere, this visually inert, scripturally cornball, wooden-acted disaster of a Western? “Rio Lobo” resembles nothing so much as any episode from the slew of TV cowboy shows Warner Bros. was churning out for ABC in the late ’50s and early ’60s — on the very same Warner studio sets, and with a $10.00 budget to match. Was Howard Hawks suffering from Alzheimer’s when he cobbled this dumb-dumb flick together? Did any of its stars give a performance that could even be labeled competent? (Yes: Ward Bond. But he got killed off early). I continue to be baffled over what modern critics could possibly find of value in this rightly-jeered disaster of a motion picture. Perhaps they feel that a Hawks/John Wayne collaboration must by its mere pedigree be a work of marvelous cinema? If you happen to be among those who venerate “Rio Lobo” — and I guarantee you no hard feelings — could you PLEASE explain to me what’s good about it?

  • Patrick spoke:
    19th/07/2013 to 1:14 am

    Arghh, Rio Lobo is grotesque, and this is coming from a big fan of westerns. He should have called it quits with El Dorado. Jennifer O’Neill is one of the worst actresses to ever get a starring role (or key role at least). However, I’m not aware of anyone calling this thing a classic.

    I was thinking of Marilyn’s opening comment, is American comedy dead? Not sure I go that far, but it’s becoming more juvenile. Maybe that’s the Adam Sandler influence. I saw This is the End a few weeks ago. Has some good bits, but I tried to imagine the movie being made years ago (the 1950’s say), hard to see it. Characters in movies were adults, the adults acted like adults that is, in This is the End they act like teenagers, like immature spoiled children almost. Maybe that just says that young adults now live in a state of prolonged adolescence, the movies just reflect that.

  • Christopher Potter spoke:
    19th/07/2013 to 2:59 am

    To Patrick:

    Dear god, I’ve got my Rios jumbled! My above rant was in fact directed at “Rio BRAVO,” a movie I cannot stand but which now boasts zillions of acolytes a half century after its release. Forget “Rio Lobo” and apply my bellows to “Rio Bravo.” Perhaps you’ll agree with me.

    But if you’re also a “Bravo” admirer — and as I said to Marilyn, no hard feelings — please, PLEASE enlighten me as to what’s exceptional about this appallingly directed, wretchedly acted flick that looks and sounds like a late-’50s ABC/WB TV Western. What am I missing????

    As for American movie comedy, I think you hit a homer in suggesting under-30 adults cling dearly to the notion that they’re still adolescents. That said, I admit I laughed more at “This is the End” than at any other comedy this year. Maybe I’m a middle-ager who just never grew up……

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/07/2013 to 7:10 am

    Gentlemen – I don’t believe I’ve seen either RIO LOBO or RIO BRAVO, so I’m out of the discussion. One thing I will say is that I prefer to enjoy films and talk about how much I like them. I made a vow to myself to avoid seeing bad movies if I could help it. So I end up on the positive side with most of my reviews.

    It’s true that comedy is more juvenile. Maybe it’s even funny to its target audience. But supposedly adult comedies are pretty dreadful. I have had a very hard time finding an American comedy I could really get behind.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    21st/07/2013 to 7:05 pm

    “Yes, he is great at sneaking cigars and eating the salty foods his doctor warned him against, but the infirmities of old age never really come from the bone.”

    Yes, this is an excellent observation Marilyn. And at the end of the day I must say I would stand at just about the same spot as you do with this generally irresistible comedy. Ross does indeed open it up very well, and both performances are winning. As far as recent screen comedies, while you cite ZOOLANDER in an era when effective comedy is scarce, I will readily go with Alexander Payne’s ELECTION and SIDEWAYS as considerable successes in that genre. Sure neither is pure comedy, but both are decidedly tilted in that direction and can be considered as such.

    Great review of a too-often neglected minor favorite.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/07/2013 to 8:09 pm

    Hi Sam – I liked ELECTION quite a lot, too, though SIDEWAYS left me rather cold. Believe it or not, I found the new release THE HEAT, with Sandra Bullock, to be very funny. Still, I guess I pine for the old-fashioned wit and professionalism of people like George Burns.

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