by Alexandre Paquin
"My Favorite Year" is a splendid, well-researched comedy on the "Golden Age" of television, which manages both to entertain and make us feel nostalgic about a bygone era. The acting is excellent, particularly Peter O'Toole as the washed-up star of yesteryear at the centre of the story. Only the plot, which is unbelievable and lacks focus, prevents this film from being perfect.Actor Errol Flynn's off-screen personality was notoriously legendary. Flynn was often depicted as a drunkard with an extremely active sex life (with accusations that ranged from homosexuality to statutory rape), who was consciously destructing himself. In spite of this notorious behaviour, there was something about Flynn, most probably his lack of remorse about the way he led his life, that compelled empathy.
"'Of course he's beneath us, he's an actor': 'My Favorite Year' (1982)."
This empathy came to a halt around 1980, with the publication of Charles Higham's "Errol Flynn: The Untold Story". Higham added another element to the Flynn legend: Backed with evidence from official sources, Higham claimed that Errol Flynn had been an active Nazi spy in the United States. This led to generalized disgust for the actor, his films allegedly disappeared from television, and to even mention Errol Flynn became taboo. In the following decade, Higham's book would be proved a fraud, but the damage had been done, and Flynn's best features never seemed to return to their previous level of popularity.
This was the context in which "My Favorite Year" (1982), Richard Benjamin's directorial debut, a film which was an obvious parody of Errol Flynn, came out. It made no mention whatsoever of Higham's controversial claims, as the film was a comedy, mainly about Flynn's acquaintance with the bottle, but also a nostalgic portrait of television during its "golden age", the 1950's. The film was phenomenally popular, earned actor Peter O'Toole a seventh Oscar nomination as best actor (but unfortunately, a seventh loss) and was later turned into a successful musical.
"In 1954, television was live and comedy was king", explains Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), the narrator of the film. In 1954, Stone, modelled on Mel Brooks, was a junior writer for a weekly NBC television show named "King Kaiser's Comedy Cavalcade", modelled on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows". The guest star for the upcoming episode is supposed to be Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole), a matinee idol best remembered for his swashbuckling films such as "Swords of Glory", "Defender of the Crown", "Captain from Tortuga", and "Rapture", but who had later turned into a drunken has-been with his days of glory long behind him, with no film prospects ahead of him, and who in fact was threatened with deportation if he did not find a source of revenue, thus the reason for his accepting a guest presence on the show.
But Swann had no intention of changing his behaviour in the few days before the show. The first time he shows up at the NBC headquarters in New York City, he is completely drunk, and King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna) is far from enthusiastic about the prospect of having Swann on his show, because of the risk he represents. However, Kaiser agrees to keep him as long as Benjy keeps an eye on the former swashbuckling star. Swann is however not the type of person to be restrained by anyone, and while he accepts Stone's presence, he in fact brings him along most of the time, and Stone, often against his own will, becomes his accomplice much more than a chaperon.
Even though Benjy's adventures with Swann were rather tumultuous -- involving covering Swann's quick exit from a restaurant with a lovely woman who had been accompanied by her boyfriend, rescuing Swann from a swashbuckling attempt to swing himself down a few stories in a skyscraper using a fire hose, and bringing Swann to visit Benjy's family in Brooklyn, much against Benjy's will --, none of them is as bad as the day the show is supposed to go on the air. A few minutes before the programme begins, Swann is confident that even though he generally needs two or three takes before doing a scene correctly, in this case he will do it on the first. Benjy then tells him that they must get it right on the first take because the show is broadcast live. This is big news to Swann, and he immediately decides to back out, solemnly stating that "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!"
Apart from his purpose of bringing Swann sober to rehearsals and the show itself, Stone is also involved in an attempt to obtain a date with a young secretary, Catherine (K.C.) Downing (Jessica Harper), who had so far always turned him down. In the meantime, Kaiser is forced to deal with an angry Jimmy Hoffa-like labour leader with a penchant for gangsterism, Karl Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell) whom the comedian had parodied on his show. As Kaiser swears to continue to make fun of the mobster in front of millions of viewers, Rojeck states that he is in the "removal business". Kaiser then demonstrates how Rojeck's "removal business" works by "removing" the gangster's cashmere coat through the window, which leads Rojeck to declare that he will have his revenge.
The film's star, Peter O'Toole, is magnificent as Alan Swann, the old swashbuckling actor obviously modelled on Errol Flynn. References to the legendary actor can be found throughout the film. For example, Swann quotes other people talking about him as saying "you can depend on Alan Swann, he will always let you down", which was in fact what actor David Niven said about Flynn in his book "Bring on the Empty Horses", published in 1975. Swann's pictures suggest some of Flynn's films, such as the nautical swashbuckler in the style of writer Rafael Sabatini, and "Defender of the Crown", which is an exact replica of Flynn's "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938). Flynn's lack of experience on the stage is also mentioned. Australian-born Flynn did very little stage work (in Britain) before moving to Hollywood, but he returned to the stage in 1958, one year before his death, but the experience was disastrous as he was unable to remember his lines. The whole parody of Flynn's life suggests that screenwriters Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo did their homework, and conducted some research on their subject before writing the script.
In spite of Swann's self-destructive habits, one immediately feels sorry for the old has-been who is merely a ghost of his on-screen image. Flynn, in several respects, was the same. His hard-drinking, hard-loving habits became legendary, and the actor could not survive a few decades of this lifestyle, but his constant insecurity and his knowledge that his own behaviour would dispatch him to his grave prematurely, made one have empathy for the man. Flynn himself declared in 1958 that he did not regret his lifestyle: "I've had a hell of a good time. I loved it -- every minute of it."
Apart from the fact that Swann's behaviour is surrounded by the nostalgia of his better days, Swann's drinking bouts and his attempts, while drunk, to live up to his own legend, are constantly hilarious. In fact, the entire film includes several extremely effective physical jokes -- Swann throwing himself down a building in authentic swashbuckling fashion using a fire hose, or singing the famous part of Tchaikowsky's "Overture 1812" while being dragged upstairs by his chauffeur and Benjy. O'Toole's constantly over-the-top portrayal of Alan Swann, who manages to maintain his charm and class while drunk, is delightful. However, although he is billed first and steals every scene in which he appears, there is not enough screen presence for his character, as the story gets diverted into unnecessary and unrealistic subplots.
Even though all the performances are fine, particularly Mark Linn-Baker's as Swann's sidekick, a fast-talking and watered-down version of Woody Allen without the latter's irritating frenzy and psychological mumbo-jumbo, and Joseph Bologna's as the stubborn television host King Kaiser, the addition of a romance between Benjy and K.C. is of no consequence on the larger plot, as it is resolved halfway through the picture when they kiss, which was of course entirely predictable, and K.C. is hardly ever on screen afterwards. The gangster plot, on the other hand, is necessary to the story, but completely unbelievable, with Boss Rojeck's men attacking Kaiser while he is on air, and the latter being rescued in the old swashbuckling way by Swann swinging down the balcony. The film, even though every scene is filled with witty dialogue and hilarious situations, would have been stronger had it concentrated on Swann himself rather than try to introduce a love story and a gangster plot. Nevertheless, as it is, the film achieves the purpose it set itself, namely, being humorous, and it manages to blend humour and nostalgia for the era very well.
"My Favorite Year" succeeds in showing us what the world of television during the fifties looked like, with live broadcasting, audiences, collective screenwriting, and television studio politics, depicting it as the "golden age" of the medium. Television during that time was however not placed in the context of the times; there is no social study of America in the fifties in "My Favorite Year". Those who want to get the larger picture of the importance of television in the fifties and how it influenced and was influenced by society will likely be disappointed, but "Quiz Show" (1994), with its grim view of media corruption and its larger debate about the importance of television regarding prejudice during that decade, is totally rewarding in this respect.
"My Favorite Year" is an entirely successful comedy, and even though everything in the film must taken with a grain of salt, it manages to entertain and create a sense of nostalgia for the period. The script may not be entirely convincing, especially with the gangster and romance subplots, but it does feature hilarious lines and irresistible situations. Performances are splendid, especially O'Toole's, Linn-Baker's, and Bologna's. "My Favorite Year" is a splendid light-hearted comedy which never resorts to low-brow humour (apart from drunkenness, of course) to maintain interest, both unpretentious and thought-provoking. One of the few films one can watch again and again without getting bored, but which could have been longer. Unfortunately, they do not make enough comedies of this kind nowadays.Highly recommended. 18/20.
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originally posted: 11/07/01 09:16:56