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Comedy Can Be a Serious Business
by Jon Schuller

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Before movies and television were commonplace, the world saw itself portrayed in plays. A drama was always serious, a comedy was always fun. Occasionally, the two would meet, thanks to William Shakespeare. I don't exactly know when the word dramedy came into common usage. It's a blend of comedy and drama, used to describe dramas with comedic themes or comedies with dramatic overtones. Some television programs, starting in the 1960s, like sitcoms, featured these two devices combined. Movies have always featured these effects, notably begun, I believe, by the immortal Charlie Chaplin. He realized early on that the drama of life, which everyone, everywhere, endures, can be seen and tolerated as long as there's laughter to help us along the way. His films reflected how the bipolarity of life affects us all and no one, rich or poor, man or woman, was immune to the daily up and down stresses of life. No doubt, hundreds, if not thousands of movies, have featured this duality, regardless of subject, plot or the characters portrayed. Take a moment to think about all of your favorites and you'll soon see how directors and writers work their magic as funny situations suddenly turn deadly serious within a few short minutes. Serious, taboo subjects that were once untouchable have become the objects of laughter and comedic people. Anything to do with religion, for example, was once off-limits but no more. Stand-up comedians usually start trends and mercilessly attack people or their professions. Then it becomes a daily subject on today's myriad social media and absolutely no one is immune, anywhere or anytime. Films eventually pick up on it and off we go.

Way back when, besides Chaplin, we had W.C. Fields, Max Sennett, Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Mae West and many more who routinely took conventional wisdom and long-held beliefs and turned them into comedic fodder. The same held true for what people thought was funny but turned into serious moments, with sometimes deadly consequences. James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft and
many others became associated with bad guys and villains, who routinely laughed during grim situations. In the classic crime film, White Heat, Cagney, while eating and talking, asks a guy stuck in a car's trunk if he can breathe. He then shoots a few bullets into the trunk to let in some air. Quite funny for Cagney but it's obviously not for his victim. In The Long Kiss Goodnight, Geena Davis, as a school teacher and professional assassin, Charley Baltimore, sees one of her young students smoking and tells him to stop, warning him if he doesn't stop at once, she'll shoot him. The kid wets his pants and she leaves. It's funny, for sure, but her demeanor and words are scary as well. Edward G. Robinson brought to life the sadistically heartless ship's captain in 1941's The Sea Wolf. Wolf Larsen routinely embarrasses and hurts his ship's crew sometimes to the point of death while laughing and joking about them. These examples, and so many more, allowed the movies to try and mirror the dichotomies of life, regardless of fact or fiction. What we witness or experience on a daily basis, no matter where or who we are, eventually become the subjects of films worldwide. In December, 1971, $ Dollars (The Heist in Great Britain) premiered, starring Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn and a well-chosen, international cast of good and bad guys. Directed by Richard Brooks, with backgound music by the one and only Quincy Jones. It looked like just another predictable crime drama at the opening, but the comedic side of it added a bucket full of twists, turns and just plain fun.

Warren Beatty plays Joe Collins, an American protection expert who's on assignment at a large bank in Hamburg, Germany, managed by Mr. Kessel (Gert Frobe of Goldfinger fame). Joe oversees all of the latest intricate and electronic security measures so the bank will be able to attract more customers, especially for safe deposit boxes. Then, as now, many European and other foreign banks, had strict rules about revealing who their customers were and what they kept hidden away. This bank is no exception. Several
safe depositors are criminals and their ill-gotten money is safely tucked away right under everyone's nose. There's a Las Vegas mob wiseguy, who launders money and stashes it in Hamburg, represented by an attorney, Mr. North (Robert Webber); The Candy Man (Arthur Brauss) who smuggles millions in drugs and cash; and the Sarge (Scott Brady) who has a nice, neat little business using his fellow Army buddies to score a large shipment of heroin and LSD. Joe has been watching these men and knows what they're doing. He gets help from a local American girl, Dawn Divine (Goldie Hawn) who sleeps with these criminals to get into their confidence. She is the quintessential Goldie Hawn (from Laugh-In and movies): ditsy, silly, laughing constantly and with apparently little or no brains. Joe's plan is to steal the bad guys' loot and put it all into Dawn's own safe deposit box.

Dawn phones in a bomb threat to the bank and Joe "rescues" a solid gold bar displayed in the lobby, running into the bank's vault and locking it. As he carefully watches the vault's security camera, every time it turns away from him he opens the criminals' boxes (with spare keys Dawn stole and he copied) and puts all of their money into Dawn's. Mr. Kessel has his security team burn threw a wall and opens the vault. Joe is a hero as Dawn visits the bank to open her box and empty it into an oversize shopping bag. The bad guys come back to empty their boxes and discover they're all empty. They slowly realize what's happened, how it was done and, mainly, by whom. The attorney says he better start running away before his employers find him and leaves. The Sarge, his partner, The Major (Robert Stiles) and The Candy Man begin a search and pursuit of Joe and Dawn.

Joe and Dawn have cleaned out his waterfront flat, putting all the loot into one suitcase and other things into another matching one. Dawn gets one and Joe takes the other. He puts her in his car and tells her we'll meet soon at the pre-arranged place. The Major follows her in his car. As Joe is cleaning out the rest of his things, Sarge and
Candy Man climb the stairs, not far from Joe. He grabs the suitcase and lowers himself to the street. The chase is on!

Via streets, trains and on foot, Joe escapes with both men close behind. Dawn goes to the train station, apparently boarding a train with the Major right behind her. She gets off the train, fooling the Major still on it as it leaves the station. She gets back in her and leaves. Joe is relentlessly chased by the Sarge and the Candy Man, eventually to a frozen lake where the Candy man tries to chase and run him down with a car. Joe realizes parts of the lake have melted and leads Candy Man to run to a break in the ice as his car sinks through the frozen water. Joe reaches a car carrier and then another train. But the Sarge is smart and eventually catches up to Joe on the train. Joe admits that Dawn had fooled him, switched suitcases and took the one with the loot. The Sarge says let's partner up and catch her, taking a drink from a champagne bottle in Joe's bag. It contains highly concentrated LSD from the Candy Man and the Sarge chokes to a horrible death right in front of Joe. Throughout the chase we hear the unmistakable musical track of The Orange Blossom Special, a classic bluegrass banjo tune befitting the action we're seeing.

The end of the movie shows Dawn Divine riding down a beautiful highway near the ocean in a yellow Corvette convertible, the sun shining on her bright happy face. She drives into a sumptuous hotel and then we hear, but don't see her, as she's talking to someone under the covers of a large plush bed. The other suitcase is nearby, with Joe's jacket hanging up.

This film is simply a lot of fun. There are many twists and turns, as we watch and wait to figure out who's doing what and what will happen next. The characters are well-acted by two major stars and even with many clues, the outcome is still in doubt. We hear the great Little Richard singing the title song. I think, like so many other films of this genre, that we secretly cheer when we realize our heroes have beaten the bad guys and gotten away with the $Dollars.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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