Friday, June 19, 2009

The dark humor of George Axelrod

George Axelord is best known as the screenwriter of two early Sixties classics, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Manchurian Candidate. What’s thoroughly fascinating about him as a writer, however — besides the fact that he was both a fully accredited “light romantic comedy” and espionage-thriller scripter — were his dark, bitter jibes at the hang-ups of the American middle-class male and his savage mocking of movies and TV in his better screenplays.

Axelrod was around for a number of years (he lived from 1922 to 2003), but his greatest period of productivity was the Fifties and Sixties, when he worked with two of the period’s best candy-colored satirists, Frank Tashlin and Richard Quine. Besides the aforementioned duo, his best known work is The Seven Year Itch which began his abuse of the hung-up wimpy American male. That film has become immortal, thanks to a certain skirt-blowing scene, so I won’t include any links to scenes here (plus Tom Ewell wears me down…). I will skip to the film of his play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which openly mocks the way that celebrities are created, and while thoroughly charming, is a pretty sardonic look at show biz (Tashlin wrote the screenplay, by the way, but it retained much of Axelrod’s original). The trailer:

And a key scene spoofing the difference between widescreen movies and small-screen TV. The poster edited this in with the terrific opening to another Tashlin classic, The Girl Can’t Help It. Admittedly, these scenes are more Tashlin than Axelrod, but they fit in nicely with his constant abuse of the phoniness of the media (and besides, "Tish-Tash" was another god):

One of the two Axelrods I’ve yet to see — that also is a show-biz parody — is up in its entirety on YouTube.

This gentleman put it there. It’s Paris — When It Sizzles

I haven’t seen The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968) in a few decades now, so I’m not qualified to hold forth on that, but I am glad that two of Axelord’s darkest and most memorable comedies are sampled on YT. The first is How to Murder Your Wife (1965)

Here is the film’s sarcastic opening, narrated by Terry-Thomas. Jack Lemmon plays a cartoonist who does a daily spy strip. He acts out his action himself, and has his butler (T-T) photograph it, producing this oddball “fumetti”-like sequence.:

As the film proceeds along we are introduced to a wife (Claire Trevor) who gives newlywed hottie Virna Lisi a speech on how “the better half” can manipulate her hubby.

The most astoundingly dark bit of comedy, however, is the final courtroom scene, in which the ever-affable Lemmon presents an argument that married men would gladly (if they could be anonymous and not jailed) dispose of their wives. The thoroughly politically incorrect piece is made even better by the always-awesome character actor Eddie Mayehoff (who was a mass of wonderful comic tics):

My personal favorite Axelrod creation is his first writer-producer-director credit, the unforgettable Lord Love a Duck. Offering a critique of the American middle-class that is literally savage, the film showcases the charms of a bitchy Tuesday Weld and the always charming Roddy McDowall as her infatuated friend. It’s a film that quickly moves back and forth between light, silly comedy and very dark satire. The “12 Cashmere Sweaters” scene, which has been put up on YT in three parts, actually is both:

The film’s trailer, which outlines all the things it is against, and dubs it “an act of pure aggression”!

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