Dinners From Hell, Part III — Dine Harder

Thanksgiving is gonna be pretty strange this year.  In the Year of Covid, A.D. 2020, and between masks, lockdowns, travel restrictions, and sheltering in place, who knows if we can even celebrate it?  Yet somehow I think our annual Feasting and Festivity with Friends and Family will prevail, even if done via Zoom or Skype or Google Meetings.  You can’t keep a good holiday down.

With such considerations in mind I post my third installment of Grand Old Movies’ Dinners From Hell:  Featuring cinematic dining experiences from classic-era Hollywood movies that partake of the weird, the wild, the woolly, and the wigged-out.  But funny—always funny.  Because humor in the strangest times—especially in the strangest times—may be the best ingredient when setting out absent places next to the the computer screen.  As Joel McCrae says at the end of Sullivan’s Travels, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh…it isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

My earlier Dinners From Hell posts (which can be found here and here) were discrete scenes on the Agonies Of Dining, With And Without Others.  In this new post, I divide the clips into two categories—Making Of and Eating Of (food, that is).  On hand in the selections are some of the usual suspects—what’s a look at cinematic culinary consumption without the Three Stooges (who give new meaning to the expression “Food Fight”)?—as well as a few new entrées.  I’m limited in my finds by what’s posted online (as I do not possess the equipment, technology, finances, or know-how to cull and create the clips on my own), but I trust what I’ve posted will suffice to amuse, divert, and entertain.

Or maybe not.  But let’s hope they do.

Category One:  MAKING OF – Before the eating there’s the meeting—of all that’s needed to prepare a meal, including food, equipment, cooks, and an utter lack of know-how in putting it all together:

Stooge Does Dinner

‘Does’ is the operative word here.  As in, what Shemp ‘does’ to a harmless plucked fowl is something a boxer ‘does’ in the ring to an outmatched opponent (if Shemp’s methods looks familiar, that may be because Curly did something similarly hostile to a bared bird here—the Stooges were never ones to let a good routine ‘do’ dust).  And watch how Larry measures out ingredients by guesswork alone, as if exactitude in food prep was as out of date as long division—surely the sign of a true culinary artist is to rely not on measurements but on instinct and intuition?  But if it’s careful prepping you want, we have Moe to thank for such rigor—noting that no paper should be included in the turkey stuffing (as he rips the label off the can before inserting the can back in…).  Yes, our Boys are back at it again in the kitchen, doing to food and its making what might, in saner times, end up in a court of law.  You might almost think they didn’t like the stuff…

As someone who doesn’t cook (blessings upon that useful invention, the microwave oven), but has two brothers who do, I think the Stoogian Food Follies may express something deep about our relation to our Provender.  There are those who like, even love to cook—and there are those, like me, who find it a baffling, and onerous process, akin to the operation of higher mathematics.  I really do like to eat, you see.  I just want to get to the eating process ASAP; and not have to bother with all that must happen beforehand.  As a wise person once said to me, food always seems to taste better when someone else prepares it…

Which, in the matter of who does what when wangling the wittles, brings us to—

Zasu Who Would A-Wooing Go

An old expression has it that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach—a phrase that Zasu Pitts (in a sterling comic performance) takes to her own heart in the 1934 version of Mrs. Wiggs of The Cabbage Patch.  Zasu’s problem:  She cooks with the finesse of a brush fire on the march.  Her solution:  Have friend Mrs. Wiggs (Pauline Lord), a talented culinarist, prepare the comestibles.  During the epic dinner with the man (and stomach) that follows, a complicated series of signals (“owls,” we’re told), notifies Zasu whenever a freshly finished dish appears at a convenient window, for her to place on the table.  Result:  The desired marriage proposal.  Aftermath:  Zasu must confess All to her newly acquired spouse—which is that she can’t even boil water (tougher to do than you might think…as I know…).

I originally saw this film during my first year of college (back when Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth), in a class surveying notable movies of the 20th century.  But, hear me, brothers and sisters, when I say:  You can search any film history book high and low, from page to page, and in no instance will you find a mention of Mrs. Wiggs, in the Cabbage Patch or out, as a noteworthy addition to celluloid art.  For one reason only did the class professor choose this film—the appearance of W.C. Fields, near movie’s end, as the wooee to be wooed.  Everything we love about Fields is here:  The lingering nasal drawl, the extravagant, courtly gestures, the double and triple takes, and those grumbled asides and sideway glances telegraphing what thoughts really roil beneath that prominent proboscis.  There’s also the dialogue—written, I’ve no doubt, by Fields himself:  Those grandiloquent phrases (“waiting for this provender has me all a-twit”), double entendres (“mother of pearl!”), and quick cuts to the nub (“Good” he mutters when Zasu says Yes) set the student audience a-roar.  As Fields’s biographer, Simon Louvish, notes, Fields’s performance “rescue[s] a mawkish, tear-jerking sermon” of a film—and into something worthy of a masterpiece survey.  One can truly say that, no matter the movie, Fields always provides a feast.

Although I should note, having someone else prepare the meal may not always result in something expected or desired…

Hot Dog, Larry’s Cooking Is The Cat’s Meow

Here’s a deliciously gruesome little item:  In one of their funniest shorts, Malice in the Palace (1949), the Three Stooges are running a restaurant (if your reaction to that is a laugh mixed with a wince, well…).  On the menu are hot dogs and rabbit.  But the sounds—of meowing and barking—issuing from the kitchen indicate something nastier may be stewing in the pot.  Could it really be that Chef Larry is preparing Kitty and Fido for dinner?  Ah, yes, as Fields himself might drawl, the imagination indeed boggles at the contemplated cogitations of what gastronomic ferocities are at this moment being wrought upon the furry physiognomies of our feline and canine friends within the hallowed precincts of the local canteen…

Laughing and Wincing are how I’d describe reactions to this scene as a whole.  The Stooges, intentionally or not, have touched on something pretty grim here—the idea of what’s too Taboo to eat.  Non-vegetarians might nonchalantly consume almost anything four-footed-and-hoofed for supper, but will balk at the notion of chowing down on the family pet.  The film, however, is savage enough to mock both Shemp and Moe, as well as their guests (including Stooge regular Vernon Dent, in the beard), for their visible distress when served what they think are baked moggy and pooch.  Dinner-table taboos could include other categories—aren’t small, cute, furry rabbits also raised as pets?—yet Larry digs into his hare-y dish with evident zest.  For us Stooge fans, though, well acquainted with Stoogian haute cuisine, the idea of a Stooge rustling up anything on a stove might be the quickest way to start that necessary diet…

Speaking of dieting, your reaction to what follows next in Stoogian food prep might be to push away the dish untasted:

Stooge Fast Food Prep

This next clip I’ll let speak for itself.  It’s a montage of how a Stooge prepares chicken soup (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it the same chicken was used in all segments).  The clip prominently features Curly Howard, the greatest Stooge of all—and one whose culinary techniques are guaranteed to ruin your appetite.

Category Two:  EATING OF – After the prepping comes the eating.  Starting, of course, with breakfast. Which may not always be the way you’d want to start your day:

Eugene Wants The Funny Papers

Romantic film comedies track the run-up to marriage, with the Happily-Ever-After assumed by film’s end.  But the breakfast scene from 1943’s romantic comedy Heaven Can Wait shows What Really Follows:  A couple sunk, like fossils in rock, in mutual loathing, freely displayed during breakfast-table tantrums about who gets to read The Katzenjammer Kids.  There may be no time more fragile than breakfast, when, overhung with sleep, we haven’t yet built up our protective, emotional carapace to get through the day.  What happens, then, when such early-morning noshing includes facing a disliked spouse and a set of disputed comics?  Dining from Hell, indeed.

Director Ernst Lubitsch was famous for what was known as “the Lubitsch touch,” in which the ferocity of sexual longing between characters is disguised, coded, and euphemized by smart dialogue, subtle underplaying, and sophisticated camera work that dances lightly around the sharp urgency of desire.  But watch when Lubitsch applies those techniques to this scene, in which the merging urge has burned out and only aggression remains:  Note, for example, the table’s length, and how the butler—the great Clarence Muse, who dominates the scene with a precise, and humane, comic understanding of its latent tensions—ambles between the principals at each end like a slow ball at a tennis match.  We laugh at the humor, but…Lubitsch’s genius is such that we feel the discomfort, too (particularly in Eugene Pallette’s teeth-baring barks).  A personal element may have been present; per IMDB, Lubitsch was undergoing a divorce while filming.  Perhaps this scene (as with William Wellman’s famous grapefruit toss in The Public Enemy) was a way for the director to relieve deeply felt frustrations through cinematic means.  Strange are the engines behind art:

Though when it comes to the expression of underlying tensions between a battling duo, few can match the following pair:

Lou Doesn’t Want The Mustard

Abbott and Costello may not be to all tastes.  Their humor is Hobbesian; in addition to being fast, it’s also nasty, brutish, and short.  And their give-and-take is sheer power play:  Bud barks, snarls, and tears away at what little shreds of dignity Lou may possess, while Lou cringes, whines, and sticks in what little digs he can to hold his ground.  It’s the classic contrast of opposites—tall, lanky Bud as the bullying adult versus short, chubby Lou as the sniveling kid.  Unlike a pair such as Laurel and Hardy, though, neither Lou nor Bud is lovable—which, paradoxically, may be their strength.  At their best, in their slashing, rapid-fire routines, the two inhabit a universe of uninhibited aggression.  It’s as if our ancient, reptilian brain has license to romp free of civilizing restrictions and realize a state of purity not known, or allowed, since the rise of the social contract.  The best A&C routines realize an uncomfortable sense of how liberating it might feel to kick such traces; it’s in later films, when Lou wanted to be lovable and tried for Pathos, the duo’s comedy waned.

In the clip below, however (from their 1948 film The Noose Hangs High), the pair are in fine, feral form.  The scene is essentially an extended burlesque skit, performed at a breath-defying pace and zig-zagging between unconnected topics in the manner of a shark randomly snatching prey.  Much of the routine’s fun resides in Lou’s deflection of Bud’s battering-ram delivery (you can see why Abbott was said to be the best straight man in the business).  The funniest moment may be Lou’s response when Bud asks him to imagine being in love with a ten-year-old girl (“This one’s gonna be a pip…” mutters Lou to the fourth wall).  Although the two are supposed to be at dinner (part of the routine’s fascination is watching Lou pare away at his shrimp cocktail), the action, or meaning, of dining out has little to do with what’s going on—except, perhaps, in the idea of dining as a refined expression of the very social contract that A&C’s comic style disavows.  There’s nothing tame about Bud and Lou at their best:

From the table for two we move to the banquet for many, where there’s always someone who manages to be left out…

Peter Pretends To Party

The Party, from 1968, is an anomaly in the Blake Edwards-Peter Sellers film oeuvre.  It comes midway in the duo’s Pink Panther series, between the early, manic 1960s entries and the classic ones from the mid- to late-1970s that set the series’ pattern.  Like the Panther films, The Party relies on Sellers’s deadpan expressions, as well as visual and physical gags.  Unlike the Panther movies, however, The Party‘s humor is more experimental, more odd in its effect.  Edwards uses techniques from both the French Nouvelle Vague (abrupt cuts and long takes) and silent cinema (slapstick and wild sight gags) to create an off-kilter, even alienating narrative.  The story concerns an Indian film extra (Sellers) invited by error to a Hollywood producer’s posh party and then trying to survive the title event.  Most of the jokes subject Sellers’s character to such humiliations as submerging his hand in caviar, losing and retrieving his shoe (on a tray of hors d’oeuvres, no less), and then losing himself in the producer’s vast, inhospitable house.  As with Chaplin and Keaton, Sellers here plays the classic Outsider:  The poor man among the rich, the foreigner among the natives, the naïf among the sophisticates; who, no matter how hard he tries, will never fit it.  He has only his own innocence to protect him from the world’s bruises; but, as Edwards implies, by the 1960s that may no longer be enough.

The party’s, and film’s, centerpiece is its long dining scene, a sustained, inventive sequence on how even the best-prepared dinner can go horribly and hilariously wrong.  The clip below features Sellers as a literal extra man, squeezed into a sharp corner next to the kitchen, and seated on an ottoman that lowers him to a child’s level at the table.  Complicating the set-up are the antics of a drunken waiter (Steve Franken, stealing everything), whose attempt to serve the salad results in mayhem all around.  Note how Edwards uses almost no dialogue in the scene except for overheard snatches of conversations (reminiscent of a Jacques Tati film) and how he uses a swinging door almost as a camera iris, with each swing revealing a new action.  Note also that the clip ends with a calm Sellers buttering his own hand:

The next clip shows what happens when a small cooked squab flies off its dish and roosts on a tiara—a segment that could have come right out of a Three Stooges short (even Sellers can’t keep a straight face here):

Another influence on Edwards in this dinner scene might have been the following film of another comic master:

Henry Hangs In

Preston Sturges’s 1941 masterpiece The Lady Eve is one of the great screwball comedies, and one reason why is that it’s also one of the most cold-blooded.  As I noted in an earlier post, screwball is in its essence a savage genre—depending on deception, lies, and humiliations practiced by the main couple on each other to bring themselves together.  The course of true love never did run smooth, wrote the Bard; and screwball aims to make that road as rough as possible.  Thus in this film we have card sharp Barbara Stanwyck revenging herself on scion-of-wealth Henry Fonda’s rejection of her, by masquerading as the beguiling aristocrat Lady Eve.  Cold-bloodedness features in Fonda’s encounter with ‘Eve’ at a fancy dinner party, resulting in the inevitable chaos—including a tumble over the sofa and a face in the cheese dip, in the clip below—:

—and, in the following clip, disaster at the dinner itself, with (as in The Party) spilled food, quarrelling waiters, and provender that won’t stay put on the plate:

Though it isn’t just hapless adults who can make a mess of your dinner:

Baby Le Roy Hangs Out

“I like children,” W.C. Fields is supposed to have remarked, “if they’re properly cooked.”  Fields may not have actually consumed children (whether baked, broiled, fried, or raw), but he came awfully close; especially when provoked (“Never work with animals or children,” he’s also supposed to have said).  In ranking Fields’s cinematic opponents, Kathleen Howard, who played his formidable spouse in two films, may lead the pack, but Baby Le Roy (Overacker), who co-starred with Fields in three, is right behind.  And when it comes to the ranks of intimidation, he may be Fields’s most insidious.  The magnificent Howard, with her muscular physique, her flaming eye and booming voice (she was an ex-opera singer), is an obvious Enemy—a warrior goddess with whom one can contend in matched combat without fear of censure.  But Master Le Roy?—tiny, cuddly, gurgly, with a disarming killer smile, and the insurmountable advantage of juvenile adorableness—that’s the kind of foe against which one can only roll over and quietly expire.  To combat such a cutie is like declaring an antipathy to Christmas carols or roly-poly puppies.  You just don’t.  It’s the dilemma of every adult confronting a Terrifying Toddler who sows chaos, havoc, and uproar—especially at a dinner table, which, like an armory, contains numerous weapons of destruction for Junior to wield with a dimpled fist and deadly arm.  Start with the mashed potatoes and cutlery, Kid, and move on from there.

Still, Fields makes a game try in The Old-Fashioned Way (1934) when faced with young Albert (Le Roy), the off-putting offspring of the immortally named Cleopatra Pepperday (Jan Duggin).  Fields admirably restrains himself when Albert twists his nose, dips his watch in molasses, pelts him with pie (lemon custard, I think), and hurls a napkin ring into the soup.  So can you blame The Great Man if, at skit’s end, he decides a bit of payback aimed at Albert’s posterior is what’s called for?  It’s that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which one can truly give thanks:

Happy Thanksgiving.

Bonus Clip:  Dinner concludes with dessert.  And herewith for the finale are — Pies!  You like Pies?  Well, we got Pies!  Featuring Charlie Chaplin and his own arch-opponent, Eric Campbell, in a clip from Behind the Screen (1916):

%d bloggers like this: