“1954 — You don’t get years like that any more.”
The early 1950s was the era of live television and one of the most popular comedy shows was Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. A young Mel Brooks was one of several writers who supplied material for the weekly program. Guest performers such as Hollywood film stars were occasionally featured. In one instance, a somewhat inebriated Errol Flynn appeared, spoofing the sort of swashbuckling film roles for which he was famous. This scenario was used as the inspiration for the very funny 1982 comedy My Favorite Year, starring Peter O’Toole in a Best Actor Academy Award nominated role as the Flynn-like character. Warner Brothers have now released the film in a very welcome DVD.
Young comedy writer Benjy Stone is charged with the task of chaperoning Alan Swann, a star of swashbuckling films who has agreed to make a guest appearance on the weekly live television show “Comedy Cavalcade” starring King Kaiser. Swann needs a chaperone because he’s prone to getting drunk and seems unlikely to be able to perform unless someone can keep him away from alcohol. The task falls to poor Benjy when he sticks up for Swann just as King Kaiser is considering dumping Swann from the show. Benjy has a rather harried week that finds him causing havoc in a nightclub, taking Swann to meet his relatives in Brooklyn, trying to crash a party, and stealing a policeman’s horse in Central Park. Just when it looks like he may have been successful in making it through the week, however, Swann runs off when he realizes with horror that the show is to be done live on the air and in front of a studio audience.
Any film that manages to begin with Nat King Cole singing “Stardust” is going to have go pretty far wrong to not get a recommendation from me. Fortunately, My Favorite Year not only doesn’t go wrong, it goes very much right. Many people still consider this film one of, if not their single, favourite film. It’s easy to see why: likable performers giving solid performances; a wealth of humour, both gentle and slapstick; and a fine evocation of an era that many can still relate to.
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here. One of the hardest eras to recreate effectively comprises the 1920s to 1940s, partly because we’re seeing in colour what was normally conveyed to us in black and white. The 1950s is almost as difficult and that’s what My Favourite Year is about — 1954 to be precise. Perhaps it’s the slight muting of colours or the fact that a number of the players were themselves active in the 1950s or the involvement of Mel Brooks’s production company — whatever, it just feels right. The flavour of live television and all its trappings (writers’ and performers’ egos, the constant awareness of deadlines, the unexpected surprises that have to be dealt with while live on the air) is all here, expressed beautifully by a really amusing script by Dennis Palumbo and Norman Steinberg and buttressed by some New York location shooting that is distributed throughout the film and ties it all together effectively.
Beyond the funny script and its physical evocation, it’s the two principal actors that make the film really work. Peter O’Toole (who received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his work) is the heart of the film playing Alan Swann and delivers a magnificent performance that reveals an unexpected capability for broad comedy to accompany his already demonstrated touch with more subtle comedy or satire (as shown in How to Steal a Million and The Ruling Class). O’Toole does many of the physical stunts himself also, adding a nice touch of realism as well as enhancing the impact of the gags he’s involved in. Mark Linn-Baker plays Benjy Stone in a very assured and natural performance that’s quite striking for his first role of any great consequence. Strange then that he is a virtual unknown. He had a few other film roles with no particular impact in the 1980s and early 1990s, and some Broadway stage work, but he seems not to have capitalized on what should have been a springboard to success. But then, that’s happened before with others and will again.
One of the film’s ongoing pleasures is the supporting cast. There’s a wealth of familiar faces giving excellent comic performances. Notable are Joseph Bologna as King Kaiser, Bill Macy as head writer Sy Benson, Lainie Kazan as Benjy Stone’s mother, Lou Jacobi as Uncle Morty, Adolf Green as producer Leo Silver, Selma Diamond as the wardrobe lady, and Cameron Mitchell as Karl Rodeck.
Interestingly, the film was director Richard Benjamin’s first effort as a director on a feature film and it’s arguably the best directing work he’s done. He’s tended to concentrate on light comedy films in the 20 years subsequent (for example, The Money Pit, Made in America, and Mrs. Winterbourne), but has never had a cast nor a script of comparable quality to those of My Favorite Year since. That’s unfortunate, for he demonstrates a confident touch with actors and handles good comedy material adeptly, as shown in this film.
Warner Brothers’ DVD release of this 1982 MGM film looks pretty good for its age. Compared to the recent WB release of another 1982 MGM film — Victor Victoria — the colours are not overly vibrant, but that actually works to the film’s advantage in terms of evoking the era. The 1.85:1 anamorphic image is fairly crisp with good shadow detail, but there is some evidence of grain and debris that drops this effort from being among Warners’ very best transfers.
The audio mix is Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. It provides a satisfactory workmanlike presentation of the film; dialogue is clear and free of any age-related hiss or distortion (and Nat King Cole sounds just fine). There is also a French mono track and subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
For supplements, the disc features a theatrical trailer, a selected filmography for Peter O’Toole, and best of all, an audio commentary by Richard Benjamin. This one’s a pleasure to listen to. Benjamin doesn’t go into the technical side of things too deeply, but uses each scene to delve into casting choices, production decisions, and the interplay between cast and crew that contributed to the success of individual moments. He obviously enjoyed the experience of making this film and is able to communicate that to us in a pleasingly animated manner.
My Favorite Year flies by in a mere hour and a half, and at the end you wish you could spend more time with these characters. Fortunately, the film has great repeat potential. There’s so much good material in it that you inevitably miss some of it the first time through, but even if you somehow don’t, the best gags are worth seeing over and over again, as is a great comic performance from Peter O’Toole. Warners’ DVD provides a fully satisfactory presentation of the film. Recommended.