Vintage Cable Box: The Woman in Red, 1984


“Come and get it, Cowboy.”


The Woman in Red, 1984 (Gene Wilder), Orion Pictures

I had not planned to cover The Woman in Red until next year, but Gene Wilder’s passing prompted me to look at the movie again. As far as I know, the movie did not premiere on HBO until 1986 when we had already moved back to Philadelphia. We missed our HBO so much we bought a satellite dish (at a cost of $30 a month), and installed it on our rooftop (at a time when Philly did not have cable television below the Broad Street line). What I most remember about the movie was the heavy promotion it received during it’s initial release. The publicity and the advertisements thoroughly peddled Kelly Le Brock and the memorable (if tedious) music of Stevie Wonder.

San Francisco advertising executive Gene Wilder is negotiating a hi-rise ledge and wondering what he had done to find himself in this position.  He recalls that one day four weeks ago, he was sitting in his car in a parking lot when he spotted a woman in a red dress walking down the street.  She passes over a grate, which blows hot air up her dress, revealing her matching red panties.  She turns back, stands over the grate and starts dancing.  From then on, Gene is smitten.  He is immediately infatuated with her, and tries to set up a date with her, but mistakenly reaches co-worker Gilda Radner instead.  He seems happy yet unsatisfied in his marriage to Judith Ivey, recalling Tommy Noonan’s roving eye and boredom in The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe.

His friends are of no help to his burgeoning infidelity and thoughts of desertion.  They ogle women constantly and screw around behind their busy wives’ backs.  Joseph Bologna (fresh from Blame It on Rio) is a cad, and Charles Grodin plays a character he knows best: well-meaning and mild-mannered, but with a touch of hysteria.  All is not well as Bologna is informed his wife is divorcing him, so the central fear of loneliness is a preoccupation in Wilder’s character.  Evidently, men are all big talk until the shit hits the fan.  Interestingly, because Wilder refuses to discuss his feelings of ennui with his wife, he comes across as a gibbering idiot on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Ivey, livid over Bologna’s impending divorce, and all the terrible stories that accompany it, informs Wilder she is a violently jealous woman.  Her revelation horrifies Wilder.  Meanwhile, Gilda awaits her “date” with the clueless Wilder, who never arrives because he had no idea he was making a date with her.  In an unusual montage, we see Gilda sitting alone in an empty restaurant, Bologna sleeping and drinking alone next to pictures of his children, and Wilder unable to sleep next to his wife in the bed they share.  The next day, a furious Gilda keys his car and breaks his antenna.  When he discovers his mystery woman had a love of horseback riding, he arranges a meet-cute with the girl at the stables.

The two hit it off, and once Le Brock shows even the mildest of interest in Wilder, his life turns around.  He is happy and confident.  He buys new clothes, and tries to give himself a new hairstyle, to which his friend hilariously compares him to Robert Redford.  As with Dudley Moore and Bo Derek in 10, Wilder manages to get Le Brock into bed, but before he can consummate his lust, her husband arrives home early, and he must escape, by climbing out on the aforementioned ledge.  Where Moore was turned off by Derek’s casual attitude regarding sex, Wilder’s screenplay and direction emphasize the loneliness of his character.  He photographs Le Brock as though she were a goddess just out of his reach.

With a charmingly dated appeal, this is a movie made for the PG-13 rating.  While PG-rated movies in the late 70s/early 80s treaded lightly when it came to certain kinds of violence and off-color language, the introduction of the PG-13 rating promised movies with adult humor and themes that could be watched and enjoyed by kids.  This was the promise, but it was not kept.  PG-13 movies were produced (starting in the early 90s) to guarantee as many asses in the seats as PG movies did twenty years before.  The Woman in Red is a rare example of a movie that would be rated R (restricted audiences) if released today.

Gene Wilder never set out to become a comedic actor.  It was only when collaborators such as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen discovered his gift for controlled mania, and an unerring capacity to stretch the imagined boundaries of sanity with every character he played, were we truly witness to the birth of that comedic legend.  His first film was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.  Brooks cast him as the neurotic accountant Leopold Bloom in The Producers.  He would appear in Start the Revolution Without Me and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but it wasn’t until 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) that he began to make a name for himself as the reluctant comedian.  He would make Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles for Mel Brooks, as well as a series of successful comedies with Richard Pryor.  In addition to The Woman in Red, he would write and direct The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, The World’s Greatest Lover, and Haunted Honeymoon.

I’m gonna miss him.

A very special thank you to Christopher Hasler for suggesting this title.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.


Vintage Cable Box: “Blame It On Rio, 1984”

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“One time a company I worked for transferred me to an island in the Pacific. Fantastic place. I invited my girl to visit me. I sent her a postcard everyday with a single word on each card. I wrote “Found a virgin paradise. It’s yours. Matthew.” Naturally, they were delivered in the wrong order. The message she got was “Found a virgin. It’s paradise. Yours, Matthew.” Never heard from her again.”


Blame It On Rio, 1984 (Michael Caine), 20th Century Fox

This is a tough one. It’s a film I enjoy, but only in private. This is a movie I find I cannot share with today’s younger audiences, either because they can’t grasp the concept of a truly R-rated sex comedy that skirts topics considered forbidden, or because of it’s simultaneously dated yet timeless feel. Let’s get the hotness of Michelle Johnson out of the way first. She’s supposed to be a teen-aged girl, but upon inspection, she appears mature. She looks like a woman, not a girl. Once you’ve taken that fact and put it in a box, it’s easy to enjoy Blame It On Rio, the definitive romantic jailbait comedy.

Michael Caine stares down the barrel of middle-age, trapped in a loveless marriage (to Valerie Harper, can you blame him?) and worries after his reckless daughter (Demi Moore, whom apparently inherited her scratchy-voice from Harper) when his friend (a constipated Joseph Bologna) suggests a family vacation to titular Rio de Janeiro. Nothing to worry about. Just a couple of dads and their hot daughters going stag for a couple of weeks. After witnessing Bologna’s daughter topless on the beach (with his equally-bare daughter, which is … just yuck), she seduces him, and despite all his efforts at restraint, he succumbs.

Caine spends most of the movie after this point trying to avoid the girl. She casts love spells on him. He tries to make himself less appealing (which is impossible because, come on, he’s Michael-freaking-Caine!) and he lectures her on their illicit behavior. She doesn’t care. She’s hopelessly in love with him. Bologna snoops through his daughter’s diary, discovers she’s in love with an older man, and enlists Caine to help him find the scumbag. Caine is a joy to watch in these scenes. A gifted comedian in the Peter Sellers and (our old friend) Dudley Moore mold, he can go from terrified to turned-on in five seconds.

Michelle Johnson is a difficult actress to assess. While extremely attractive, and obviously up to the game of seducing Caine, most of her dialogue is looped and thus, inconsistent with many of the scenes in which she is featured. Her voice is silky, but out-of-place.  She has great chemistry with Caine (not an arduous feat for an actor of his stature), but her line readings are dull and flat. Bologna suffers the same problem. His dialogue also appears to be looped. Valerie Harper disappears at the beginning of the movie, and then reappears shortly before the end to discover (with Bologna, ironically the character she’s having an affair with) Caine and Johnson’s tryst. Demi Moore’s character is almost a ghost in the movie, always exiting in every scene. The movie would’ve been a lot stronger if more of a relationship between Moore’s character and Caine were present.

It is toward the end of the movie that the narrative goes clunky and dramatic. When Bologna and Caine come to blows (a hilarious bit with pot-bellied Caine taking on a much leaner Bologna – pun!), a distraught Johnson overdoses on birth control pills and has her stomach pumped at the hospital. Director Stanley Donen (fresh from the horrendous Saturn 3) and writers Larry Gelbart and Charlie Peters must’ve thought injecting a little pathos into the story would legitimize what is essentially a smutty little sex comedy. It might’ve worked under different circumstances in the 1977 French film, on which this movie is based (or Jean-Francois Richet’s somewhat more explicit recent remake), but here, amid all the goofiness, this is quite jarring.


It’s disturbing to me that a movie like this could not be made today in this country. As I mentioned, it was remade last year in France, but as a drama with humorous moments rather than a screwball comedy. It harkens back to the days of Kubrick’s melodramatic and comedic take on Nabokov’s Lolita, in which much of the sting of the story’s content was sterilized by the casting of a mature-looking Sue Lyons. Today, men are perceived as aggressors and rapists and women are seen as victims, regardless of their age. Audiences would see Michael Caine’s character as a modern-day Clare Quilty; a master manipulator of young women who seduces Michelle Johnson, regardless of how the story actually unfolds. Caine would be castigated, arrested, and labeled a sex-offender for the rest of his life. Advocacy groups would picket and protest this movie.

In the 1980s, most of the money in movies was being made from sex comedies and horror films. Conversely, there were very few family movies. Cable television and the video industry were going through a renaissance period, and budgets were comparatively low compared to the money being spent today. The risqué sexy comedy is all-but-extinct, and movies being made these days are sad, stale (not to mention expensive), disposable entertainments to be consumed and then discarded, and Blame It On Rio is emblematic of the charms of a smutty yet harmless bye-gone era.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.