Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Come Blow Your Horn (1963)

Simon’s first Broadway play from 1961 was promptly adapted to screen two years later. In it, Frank Sinatra plays Alan Baker, the son of a working class salesman (Lee J. Cobb), and brother to Buddy, a young, wide-eyed man just on the brink of adulthood. Alan’s salesman job at his dad’s plastic fruit company is jeopardized by his swinging lifestyle: he’s got Mrs. Eckman, a married woman who also happens to be an important client; Peggy, a bimbo bamboozled by his ruse of knowing a Hollywood producer; and Connie, the one who seems to serious about their relationship – more serious, perhaps, than Alan is ready for. Buddy takes flight from his stifling family and alights at this bro’s pad – and Alan is all to happy to let the boy sow his wild oats, as long as his sowing doesn’t interfere with the revolving door of dames.

Of course, in classic Simon tradition, the revolving door spins wildly out of control. Alan lets Buddy have his date with Peggy, impersonating the producer, and due to a mix-up resulting when the Baker matriarch plays telephone receptionist, Alan shows up at his assignation with Mrs. Baker, and comes face-to-face with Mr. Baker as well (Bonanza’s Dan Blocker). But the s**t really hits the fan when the boys’ dad makes an impromptu visit, and bears witness to Buddy’s new libertine lifestyle and Alan’s old libertine ways, which have now cost him, and dad, the valued Eckman account. It doesn’t end well, with Cobb practically restaging the “I have no son” monologue from The Jazz Singer, times two.

Fast-forward a few months, and Alan is still stringing along Connie, who gives him an ultimatum: she’ll either be his wife… or mistress (WTF? Well, it was the still-male-centered early 60s). Of course, she’s none too happy when he opts for the latter, but a nonplussed Alan continues his hedonistic ways. This is, until he comes home to his pad to find a swinging party of strip Scrabble players and political hypnotists, and demands that its host, baby brother himself, reform or else. Buddy rejoins with the accusation that Alan is actually irate because he sees a mirror image of himself, a charge not necessarily refuted, resulting in Alan’s proposal of marriage and Buddy’s realization that less is more. Mom and pop drop by again, and after some initial frizzle are grateful for their elder son’s nuptials, and junior son’s sudden maturity.

Neil Simon’s first Broadway play is also appropriately his first screen adaptation,

and it’s classic Simon all the way. But its only flaw is a big one: the miscasting of Frank Sinatra in the starring role of Alan, a man who’s supposed to be in his mid-thirties (Frank was pushing 50 at the time). Worse, it’s impossible to believe Lee J. Cobb, only four years older than Sinatra, as his father, and so nearly all of their scenes are somewhat undermined by this disbelief, great writing notwithstanding. Ol’ Blue Eyes does play the philandering, womanizing aspect of his character pretty well, and he even contributes the title song to the soundtrack, although hat may very well be the reason for his casting.

But as I mentioned, the classic Simon elements are already in place here, beginning with the playwrights alter-ego, Buddy, a wide-eyed youth caught between adolescence and the adult world, and between the apron strings of his dear mama and his dreams of being a writer and falling in love (not necessarily in that order). And speaking of mama, here we have another oft-visited archetype. The smothering but well-meaning matriarch is done beautifully here, in a small but memorable role played by Molly Picon. And the first scene of the movie, between these two characters, best encapsulates the magic of Simon’s pen. It’s spare and simple enough to be credible, but with just enough wit to make it theatrically viable. And all of it tethered to character, character, character. Just listen:

Mom: Buddy, is that you?

Buddy: Yeah, mom.

Mom: You’re home from work early.

Buddy: Yeah, mom. I’m going out tonight.

Mom: Please, darling, don’t track dirt in the living room. Buddy?

Buddy: Mom, I’m in a hurry!

Mom: Alright, only maybe someday you’ll tell me what I did to deserve it.

Buddy: Deserve what, mom?

Mom: A son who doesn’t even have the courtesy to ask his mother how she’s feeing.

Buddy: How do you feel, mom?

Mom: Don’t ask!

Buddy: Mom, I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.

Mom: I would’ve come to you, son, but I can’t leave the stove. You know how your father loves stuffed peppers. So I’m trapped here all day like an animal. It’s only 5 o’clock. Where you going?

Buddy: I told you mom. I’m going out.

Mom: Without dinner?

Buddy: Oh, mom, don’t worry. I’ll eat. Honest!

Mom: Where? What? Better have something now.

Buddy: I’m not hungry now.

Mom: Eat some potato pancakes. I just warmed them up.

Buddy: No, I can’t.

Mom: Eat! Over the sink. I just waxed the floor. Let’s see, what else can I get you?

Buddy: The pancakes are enough.

Mom: There’s some nice cold lamb. Would you like some cold lamb?

Buddy: No, no….

Mom: Over the sink with the pancakes. And if you’re going to eat like a slob, don’t do me any favors.

Buddy: Mom, I didn’t want to eat anyway.

Mom: Sure, that’s why you’re eating them. And now I don’t have enough for your father.

Buddy: But mom, you gave them to me! Ah, what’s the use? I’ll see you later. I gotta go.

Mom: Alright. You’ll be back early?

Buddy: Yeah, sure.

Mom: My backache. Khrushchev should have such a backache!

Sublime! The intro, the timing, the punch lines, the flourish – wonderful. Not perfect; Simon had yet to iron some of his dialogue out a bit. And the pokey, bouncy soundtrack reminds us all too easily that this is a 1963 film. But what a bravura introduction.

And then we meet Alan, the elder brother, a model Simon would use much again, most notably in the Brighton Beach trilogy. The role model teaching kid bro the ropes in life, but somehow not having his act together himself. And then, the father, hard-working breadwinner clearly inspired by the ennui-laden Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, but minus the existential tragedy (Cobb, in fact, also starred in the original run of Salesman on BW). How ‘bout this scene between the two in Come Blow, as pop lends his progeny an earful after Buddy’s dalliance is uncovered and Alan blows a crucial account:


Buddy: Why, hi, dad. Is everything all right dad? I wasn’t expecting you up tonight. I was gonna have a nice long talk with you tomorrow night. I even told mom I’d come home for dinner. Boy, you’re really angry, aren’t you dad?

Dad: Why should I be angry?

Buddy: About the letter.

Dad: What letter?

Buddy: This letter. The letter I wrote you.

Dad: Oh, no. You didn’t write this letter; somebody I don’t know wrote this letter. You, I know. This person I never met.

Buddy: Dad, don’t you think we could wait ‘till tomorrow night to talk about this? I mean, you’ll be calmer and we can talk better.

Dad: What’s there to talk about? It’s signed, sealed and delivered. The Declaration of Independence!

Buddy: Dad, I think you’re too upset to discuss this logically.

Dad: Listen, I expected it: you hang around your brother long enough it was bound to happen. So, what’s the windup? My sister Gussie has two grandchildren. And I got a bum and a letter!

Buddy: This didn’t suddenly happen! I’ve tried to explain to you many times hw I felt, but you’d never listen to me.

Dad: Okay, I would like to hear from your own lips, nicely, why a young, single boy can’t live at home with his parents.

Buddy: Young boy? Dad, I’m 21!

Dad: 21.

Buddy: You say it as if you don’t believe me. I was 21 last week.

Dad: Whatever you say.

Buddy: Whatever you say? I say I’m 21. Now that’s old enough for a man to be on his own.  When you were 21 you were out on your own.

Dad: You were there?

Buddy: No, you told me yourself.

Dad: Those days were altogether different. I was working when I was 11 years old. I never went to camp.

Buddy: What’s camp got to do with all of this?

Dad: I’ll walk right out in a minute!

Buddy: Okay dad, I don’t mean to be disrespectful. But your answers never match my questions.

Dad: That too, huh? Now I don’t talk fancy enough? Soon even the business won’t be good enough!

Buddy: Well, now that you mention it I’ve been thinking about that too.

Dad: Huh?

Buddy: Maybe the business is not the right field for me.

Dad: Not the right field? I give the boy the biggest artificial fruit-manufacturing house in the East and he tells me it’s not the right field?

Buddy: I dunno if I’m talented enough but I’ve kind of toyed with being a writer.

Dad: Writer? What kind of a writer? Letters? Letters you write beautifully! I don’t know who’s gonna buy them but they’re terrific!

Buddy: Dad, will you just forget about the business for now? I’ll stay and work for you. All I want now is your blessing for me to live here with Alan.

Dad: You want my blessing? I’ll tell you what I’ll do. We had a disagreement – a dispute. We’ll have a drink. You heard my side, I heard your side. We’ll give it a six-month trial period. Fairer than that I couldn’t be.

Buddy: Gee, I think that’s very fair dad! Six months – that’s wonderful. Six moths is just fine!

Dad: Then it’s settled – you’ll come home and live for six months!

Buddy: Come home? You don’t want to give me a trial period; you don’t want to be fair to me at all!

Dad: Don’t you raise your voice to me; you’re not too big to get a good slap across the face!

Buddy: Sorry.

Dad: You’re here one day. When did you ever yell at me before?

Buddy: Never, I guess. Now that you mention it.

Dad: I’ve been some terrible father to you.

Buddy: Dad, no. You’ve been fine. You’ve been wonderful! That’s not what I mean. All I’m asking you to do is to meet me halfway.

Dad: I’ll let you know.

Buddy: What do you mean, you’ll let me kow.

Dad: We’ll see. You’re coming home for dinner tomorrow night. We’ll see.

Buddy: Ok, wonderful, dad. Good night, dad.

Peggy: Oh, pardon me. You said you’d just be a few minutes.

Dad: This is some busy little girl

Peggy: Oh! Hi, dad! Oh, excuse me. I’ll just wait in there. I’m awful sorry Mr. Mackintosh.

Dad: Macintosh? Now even his name isn’t good enough? Bum!

Buddy: Dad, just let me explain….

Dad: Bum! 21 years old and already you’re a bigger bum than your brother is and you’ve got eighteen years to go!

Buddy: I can explain…

Dad: Ah! The other bum! Come on in, bum, we’re having a party!

Alan: What are you doing here, dad?

Dad: I was invited to dinner. That’s some cook you got in there.

Alan: What cook?

Buddy: He means Peggy.

Alan: Oh. Why don’t you tell him that she’s waiting for me?

Dad: I don’t need you to make up stories for him – I got Tennessee Williams.

Mr. Eckman enters.

Alan: Eckman?

Dad: Eckman! From Dallas? The buyer’s brother?

Eckman: Eckman. From Dallas. The buyer’s husband! You left your sample case, Mr. Baker, I want to make sure you got it back. Southern hospitality. Here we have your A22B pipe banana. Naval orange – 55A. 330A seedless grapes. 82W apple. Latest item: 99 stemless purple plum. (Destroys each fruit as he takes it out.) Good day gentlemen. By the way, Mr. Baker, if I catch you anywhere near Neiman Marcus again, I’m gonna jump on you until your eyes bug out like a stomped-on toad.

Alan: He was kind of clowning. Dad, if you give me a couple of seconds I can explain what happened.

Buddy: Dad, just hear him out for a couple of seconds, please.

Dad: May you and your brother live and be well. You should know nothing but happiness. If ever speak to either one f you ever again… MY TONGUE SHOULD FALL OUT!

Sorry for the uber-long transcription, but I just couldn’t help it – isn’t this stuff great? I think Simon is drawn to the family dynamic for dramatic utility because it’s so multilayered. The father, as the authority figure, is dominating but fraught with insecurities over whether his fatherhood was indeed successful, given his perceived inadequacies of his children. And the sons assert their independence but don’t go too far lest they be labeled as ungrateful or insolent. Plus there’s the fear of reality lurking – is it better to be free or safely under cover of mama-bird’s wing. Bottom line: the family matters most, but it sure is hard once growing up comes into play.

And in Horn’s second act, we get the classic superego/id conflict as Buddy and Alan reverse roles, and the later starts to take the former to task for his profligate lifestyle. Again, another Simon trope, most successfully applied in his classic The Odd Couple. Once we get their newfound personalities reconciled, it’s time to patch of the family friction. And when they do, it’s all’s well that ends well, with a few well-placed punchlines as flourish.

Simon was absent from the screen until 1966 – he was focusing on Broadway at the time, penning future classics Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple (oh yeah, those). But what an auspicious beginning; Come Blow Your Horn is still performed in local stock theater now and again, and sometimes the movie is shown on the Late Show. The film itself is a bit dated but the words are as dateless as anything he’s ever done.

Rating:  ***1/2

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...