Saturday, December 13, 2008

And Now for Something Completely Different (Playboy/Columbia, 1971)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out, largely because I felt Charles wanted a comedy (and, having been up since 5 a.m. and being a bit weary, so did I!) was And Now for Something Completely Different, the 1971 British film that marked the big-screen debut of Monty Python and was originally intended to “break” the great comedy team in the U.S. I remember seeing the trailer for this film quite often at the Cento Cedar Cinema, the marvelous revival house in San Francisco where I saw quite a few interesting films for the first time, and being totally confused by it — the routines being excerpted in the trailer were obviously supposed to be funny but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how or why. Later, in 1975, KQED, the PBS station in San Francisco, started regular showings of the Monty Python TV episodes — and from the moment I saw the first one, particularly the sketch “It’s A. Tree” (billed as a talk show hosted by the eminent arts authority, Arthur Tree, and turning out to be literally hosted by a tree, with such guests as a piece of wood, a patch of creosote and a lump of laminated plastic), I was falling over with laughter and I was hooked.

This movie was actually produced by Playboy Enterprises’ short-lived film division for release by Columbia (the second Monty Python film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, was also a Columbia release; Life of Brian came out from Warners’ and The Meaning of Life from Universal) and was a flop in the U.S. but did well in Britain, where audiences remembered the sketches (or most of them) from the TV show. (The show was filmed between the first and second seasons of the TV series and some of the sketches in it, notably the Hungarian-English phrase book sequence, had already been written but not yet videotaped for TV.) The film is basically a greatest-hits DVD for Pythonmaniacs (many of whom have noticed that the versions of some of the sketches seen here were not identical to the ones on TV — there were a few abridgments and some rewrites): such hilarious routines as “How Not to Be Seen,” “Military Fairies” (there was a glitch on the DVD when we watched this one but I suspect the disc just had dirt on it at that point), “The Killer Cars,” “Hell’s Grannies,” “Hungarian Phrasebook,” “Ex-Parrot,” “Lumberjack,” “Mountaineering” (in which Eric Idle interviews for a mountaineering expedition with a team leader who literally sees double — he’s convinced there are two Eric Idles and two peaks to Mount Kilimanjaro, which there aren’t, and says that the purpose of this year’s expedition is to find whatever traces remains of last year’s expedition, which disappeared without a trace while trying to build a bridge between the two peaks), “The Restaurant” (in which the management of a fancy restaurant are progressively reduced to sniveling tears and utter craziness by the discovery of a dirt stain on a fork) and “Upper-Class Twit of the Year,” appropriately used as a finale — all artfully bridged by Terry Gilliam’s famous animated sequences — are all here.

Back in the 1970’s I didn’t realize (even though I’d grown up on the Beyond the Fringe album, the pre-Python troupe that loosed Dudley Moore on the world) that Monty Python was at the end of a long line of British zaniness that had begun in the 1950’s with the Goon Squad (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe) and continued through Flanders and Swann (whose album At the Drop of Another Hat is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard — it holds up better than Songs for Swingin’ Sellers even though Flanders and Swann hardly achieved the worldwide fame of Peter Sellers) and the other comedy groups George Martin produced for records before he discovered the Beatles. Still, this material is incredibly funny and reaches the heights of anything-for-a-laugh zaniness that was my original attraction to Monty Python in the first place: the idea that they would dare anything at all, as long as they thought it would be funny (and they were usually right, at least until they made The Meaning of Life, all too much of which crossed the bounds from hilarious to tasteless). Holy Grail and Life of Brian are the Pythons’ movie masterpieces, but And Now for Something Completely Different is nice to have and it’s particularly valuable to have so many of the great Monty Python routines in one place.