Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Star-Spangled Girl (1971)

Taking a break from Walter Matthau and/or Jack Lemmon, the Neil Simon movie machine, in 1971, dug up the oldest of the playwright’s plays not yet a screen version: The Star-Spangled Girl, from 1966. It featured Connie Stevens in the title role as Sophie, with Anthony Perkins and Richard Benjamin competing the love triangle. Not exactly a smash hit, it closed after nine months, but I’ve seen it pop up here and there in summer stock versions, usually with Simon’s name in big, bold letters on the marquee so those not familiar with the play (pretty much everybody), will have some modicum of a reason for attending. In December of 1971, the film opened with Sandy Duncan in the lead, now named Amy Cooper, and Tony Roberts and Todd Susman as Andy Hobart and Norman Cornell, respectively.

Tony and Todd are writers and editors and publishers and distributers of an underground newspaper, The Nitty Giritty, but when Amy moves in next door to their apartment/office, Todd becomes so smitten with her he can no longer write. Worse yet, his overtures to her become so – extreme, shall we say – that she
One-sheet from the movie
begins to hate the dude, and appeals to Tony for help in repelling the Pepe le Pew of leftist journalists. Tony is stuck between a rock and a hard place: he wants to help the all-Americam corn-fed ingĂ©nue, but he doesn’t want the paper to go under (in a bad way) due to his prize-writer’s writer’s block. His solution is to hire Amy, who had recently been fired as her job as swimming instructor due to one of Todd’s attention-getting stunts, for the staff of his paper, but working so close to a man she detests is almost as bad as doing so for a man she loves – that would be Tony, political differences notwithstanding. With a loan shark breathing down his neck and her love/professional life in chaos, Tony knows what he has to do: get the girl, repair his friendship with the boy, and get the money for The Man. Pretty much in that order. 

The Star-Spangled girl was pretty much critical and commercial flop when it first came out, and, after reviewing it 44 years later, it’s still a mixed bag. It suffers from two major problems, the first being its direction by Jerry Parris. Parris was then working on Love, American Style, which was a Neil Simone-esque anthology series for ABC (see my review of “Love and the Good Deal) and would go on to direct for the Style spin-off series Happy Days. Parris essentially turns the film into an hour-and-a-half sitcom, replete with cheesy montage interludes and pokey soundtrack. He also directs the scenes themselves in TV fashion, rushing the dense Simon dialogue so quickly the viewer gets worn out pretty fast. It made me appreciate the fine job Gene Saks and Arthur Hiller did on the previous Simon productions, both directors knowing the importance of breathing room when handling dialogue-heavy scenes.

The other problem has to do with the times. For the first half, Todd relentlessly pursues Amy with a fervor that’s suppose to be funny, but he comes off as nothing less than a sexual harasser, at least by today’s standards. He tries to get her in compromising positions, writes her name on billboards, calls her, stalks her, drives her to tears, and we’re thinking.. this guy should be locked up! He’s not particularly likable as a result, nor is he credible as a brilliant scribe his friend Tony would give anything to keep on his staff. And Tony, who doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot to halt his friend’s criminality, doesn’t come off much better. Fortunately, the film’s second half focuses more on him and Amy, but by then we’re just too weirded out, and the damage is sadly done.

But there are still some good things about the film. Two guys adapted Simon’s play, and at least they were smart enough to leave most of intact. The crackling dialogue made me laugh on several occasions, particularly during Tony and Amy’s scenes toward the end. Simon’s skilled use of the comedy motif is pleasingly evident here (e.g: the use of “smelling” as shorthand for lust and hippopotamuses as metaphor for love), and it reminded me of Billy Wilder’s expert use of the same devices in his more accomplished works. And, as I mentioned, there are some sweet scenes between Tony and Amy in the film’s third act, abetted strongly by their performances of Tony Roberts and Sandy Duncan, who have charming chemistry together. Their opposites-attract relationship presages a similar Simon pairing in The Goodbye Girl, the critical and commercial home run that was still six years away.

Stage in Simon’s life represented: probably college, although his time (late 40s/early 50s) needed to be updated for the hippie-counterculture era.

Funniest line: “I love almost everything about America, except for the people who love everything about America” (Tony)

And look sharp in the beginning, when we see a bus passenger seated next to Amy who’s supposed to look like Joe Buck from Midnight Cowboy, saying he hopes he has better luck than he did in New York. (Sandy Duncan had a bit part in Cowboy). A definite reward for film fans.

I’d be interested in seeing a revival of the play somewhere, done with a different, more modern-day approach. As it stands, the film gets… 

Rating: ***

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