Friday, May 27, 2016

What's Funny About The Comedians?

So there are these guys named Brown, Jones, and Smith. They arrive at Port-au-Prince where a giant banner reads, "WELCOME TO HAITI." A public relations man gushes about the island paradise.  The thing is, we see only beggars and the ominous, omnipresent tontons macoutes in their para-military khakis and reflective sunglasses.

Brown owns a hotel in town, big, luxurious, empty.  While in the US, he didn't meet any buyers for the hotel, only promoters for martini-flavored toothpaste.  Delighted to have Jones and Smith for customers, he rushes home to discover a big to-do list:  Jones has been arrested; of the hotel's staff, only the bartender remains; the electricity's off, and there's a body in the pool.

Wouldn't you know, the lights go on to reveal the bloody mess just as Smith approaches the pool?  Smith, who ran for President of the United States on the Vegetarian ticket, would like a swim. Brown diverts him with the story that Erroll Flynn may have once stayed in Smith's suite.  Did we mention that Brown is also concealing his love affair with the gorgeous young wife of the stuffy German ambassador?

That's just the set up.  As they say in the synopsis for every farce, "complications ensue."  Jones, a diminutive braggart-warrior, having arranged to sell useless guns to the regime for kickbacks to the munitions minister, has been found out -- his Haitian patron is the guy in the pool. The minister's son, an art student who has never held a gun, decides to take up arms against the evil dictator Papa "Doc" Duvalier, and he wants Jones to be their leader. With Brown's help, Jones escapes in drag and black face to the German embassy, where he flirts with Brown's mistress -- with, of course, complications. Twist follows twist, and, by the end, Brown is the one urging on a band of unarmed rebels who don't understand his English as he cheers, "You are fools!  We will all get killed!"  They shout "hooray!"

That, in brief, is Graham Greene's book and screenplay for The Comedians.  The cast included comical Alec Guinness as "Brown," Paul Ford lumbering around in a beige Hawaiian shirt as sententious "Smith," wonderful Lillian Gish as his chipper little lady, and Peter Ustinov, perfect for the stuffy ambassador.  To play Haitians, the movie had a cast that included sonorous James Earl Jones as the politicized doctor, and, as the silent tonton assassin, South African Zakes Mokae, familiar to me for his work with Athol Fugard.  With all that potential, why is the 1967 film so tedious?

I understand that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (as Brown and mistress) had a great deal of creative control over the project, and neither of them, I suspect, had much sense of humor. (I've read Frank Langella's memoir.) They wanted to be the serious artists who made Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, not the celebrity adulterers who made Cleopatra. Perhaps it was for them, or for deference to Greene's heavyweight literary rep, that director Peter Glenville blunted the sharp funny bits with long stretches of medium range camera shots and earnest talk about lovelessness, politics, and faith.

Certainly, there's a serious theme here.  The title isn't a reference to comedy, but to playing parts. The Ambassador says, "We all pretend," in a diplomatic way, just to get along.  His wife delivers a line to her lover, "We are real people, independent of you. We don't just play the parts you assign us." Well, yes: isn't recognizing that the essence of growing up?  Even more strongly, there's the theme of "not getting involved" where one is already complicit.  As my philosopher friend Susan Rouse points out, that's a theme strong in Sartre, haunting the World War II generation as far back as Casablanca. 

One scene stands out for what could have been a great movie, where the horror that truly was Duvalier's Haiti meets the absurdity of the USA's supporting Duvalier as a "bulwark against Communism": Smith and his wife, out shopping at night, seeing a procession of singing children in white with priests and street musicians, follow.  "It must be some sort of festival," says Lillian Gish's "Mrs. Smith" with her characteristic twinkle.  But it's a mass execution, and Mrs. Smith turns away gasping, instantly in tears.  They leave the next day.

Greene often wrote of men who, like Brown, having lost faith in God and all causes, find themselves fighting God's battles, sometimes finding courage and God Himself in the end.  It's ironic, and it's there to enjoy in Greene's novel.  Too bad the movie didn't live up to its potential.

Posts of related interest on this blog:
Saints in Spite of Themselves: Characters in Graham Greene's Novels.
Escape Clause:  The Heart of the Matter

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