A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN FILM
When Christopher Durang's play with music A History of the American Film was first produced in 1978, the mainstream critics jeered, calling it sophomoric and shallow, a collection of old college-show jokes trying to pass itself off as a play. (The New Republic critic thought a better title would have been A History of American Film Skits.)
In fact A History of the American Film is a rich, complex play disguised as just another parody of often-parodied films--Casablanca, Citizen Kane, On the Waterfront. The parodies are chronologically arranged to reflect movies' evolution from the silent era to the disaster epics of the mid-70s, but the play also tells the absurdist story of a hapless woman, Loretta, who attempts to find happiness in a world that keeps shifting genres. One minute she struggles with life in a 30s gangster melodrama, the next she finds herself cast as the unknown starlet who gets the big break in a Busby Berkeley movie musical (with parodic lyrics by Durang and music by Mel Marvin).
Done well, the play is not only very funny but explores such diverse questions as the difference between theater and film, the relationship between the audience and the screen image, and the ways Hollywood films have changed the way we perceive God, history, and our place in the world. Done badly, the play decays into a series of loosely connected comedy sketches about movies, reminiscent of the mild satires Carol Burnett used to feature on her show in the late 60s. Funny and diverting, yes, but ultimately not very satisfying intellectually--hardly the sort of thing Durang had to go to Harvard and then Yale Drama School to learn to write.
Roy Hine's entertaining but botched History of the American Film falls flatly into this second category. And the key word here is flat. When the play calls for a silent-movie parody, he can only come up with bad Charlie Chaplin--forget the fact that the film being parodied is clearly D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. When the play calls for a parody of a screwball comedy, Hine's cast deliver an interpretation so murky that they could be reproducing My Man Godfrey as a Three Stooges short. And when the play parodies a more obscure film--say, the very frequently revived The Best Years of Our Lives--Hine's cast seems totally lost.
Hine's errors can be seen most easily in one silent-film parody. A mother prays to God to forgive her for deserting her child, and God, Jesus, and the Blessed Mother appear in heaven above her. God refuses to forgive the woman, who dies "crushed by their refusal." Mary turns to God and asks, "But what has happened to the baby? Can we help it?" God looks angrily at the Blessed Mother and says, "It is not up to Us to help those on earth. We can only watch." Hine treats this scene as a throwaway, just one more gag to get through as quickly as possible so that we can get to the next one, and the one after that. This does both the gag and the meaning behind it a great disservice.
Perhaps no one since Martin Luther has devoted so much of his career to turning his Catholic upbringing back against the church. Durang's most famous play, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, is a 90-minute attack on Catholics and their very unmodern belief that they understand everything there is to know about the ways of men and God. And even in A History of the American Film, he can't resist tweaking a few Catholic noses. But this is lost on Hine, who doesn't seem to see how this scene reveals Durang's ideas about God--God the impotent, God the voyeur, God the unmovable first mover, who started the world turning and is now content to watch it as it spins. Hine has even less of an idea of how to stage this scene, resorting to standard TV variety-show shtick, with the cheap white robes and the long fake beards.
Worse still, Hine has assembled an incredibly uneven (but large) cast. Some can sing but can't act. Some can act but can't sing. Some can't do either. It takes them all about half of the first act to get going, and even when they are acting at full tilt, they let every third joke fall flat.
Only Jane Blass, as an Eve Arden clone, and Cathy Schenkelberg, as Loretta's chief rival, Bette, give consistently good performances. Schenkelberg in particular deserves praise, as one of the few singers in the cast who can sing and the only dancer I would go out of my way to see dance again.
Mary Ringstad as Loretta has a beautiful singing voice, but her acting range is strictly limited. Though she has little trouble with Loretta's straight scenes, she is a little too restrained to do justice to Durang's comic scenes. One sequence in particular, in which Ringstad plays a boozy chanteuse, cries out for some comic overstatement. Instead, Ringstad plays the scene close to the vest, as if her performance were some private joke between herself and the first two rows of the theater.
Durang deserves better. Hine could have given us clever, absurdist theater. Instead, he's served up a little TV away from TV. His production is funny, it's just not as funny as it could be. Or as smart.