Vintage Cable Box: “To Be Or Not To Be”, 1983

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“Listen, if I don’t come back, then I forgive you for anything that happened between you and Lt. Sobinski.  But if I do come back, you’re in a lot of trouble!”

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“To Be Or Not To Be”, 1983 (Mel Brooks), 20th Century Fox

The story goes that Mel Brooks sought out the widow of Ernst Lubitsch to get her blessing with regard to a remake he wanted to produce for 1941’s Jack Benny classic, “To Be Or Not To Be”.  Lubitsch’s widow approved, and Brooks chose Alan Johnson (celebrated choreographer of many films including “The Producers” from 1968 and director of the notorious Brooksfilms flop, “Solarbabies”) to direct the film.  I can only assume Brooks decided not to direct because he wanted to focus on producing a faithful remake of a film with potentially controversial subject matter, and stay true to the dramatic material. In fact, this movie (and “The Twelve Chairs”) is as close to drama as Brooks would ever permit.

Brooks (with wife Anne Bancroft) play Frederick and Anna Bronski, reknowned actors (world famous in Poland!) and owners/operators of the Bronski Theater in Warsaw.  Despite warnings of imminent German incursion, Bronski reasons the show must go on; including a politically satirical musical number featuring a buffoonish Hitler (played by Bronski).  The Ministry of Information threatens to shut down his theater if he doesn’t remove the offending material.  Frustrated, he relents.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Bronski conducts a romantic affair with a brash, young Polish Lieutenant Sobinski (Tim Matheson) during Bronski’s center-piece, Highlights From Hamlet, in which he destroys Shakespeare with his hammy performances.

Soon after, the German war machine rolls into Poland.  Sobinski tells Anna he must leave immediately and connect with the Royal Air Force in England.  The Germans shut down Bronki’s theater, confiscate their possessions (including their home), implement gas rationing, and start rounding up dissidents and enemy agents.  The Bronskis reluctantly start hiding Jews in their basement.  Anna’s homosexual dresser, Sasha, opens his modest apartment to the Bronskis.  The brave Sobinski discovers that a respected member of the underground, Professor Selitski (José Ferrer), is a double-agent for the Germans.  Selitski acquires a list of Polish Underground members.  Sobinski is ordered by the British to paratroop back into Poland and kill Selitski.

Anna, in spite of her obvious infidelity, persuades her husband and his troupe of actors to help Sobinski.  First, Bronski must impersonate Colonel Erhardt in order to obtain the list from Selitski.  After Selitski is dispatched and the list is destroyed, Brooks masquerades as Selitski for the benefit of Colonel Erhardt (hilarious scene-stealing Charles Durning) and his bumbling assistant, Schultz (Christopher Lloyd).  Sobinski devises a plan to steal an aircraft and fly the Bronskis, the theater troupe, and all of the Jews (cleverly disguised as clowns) in hiding out of Warsaw to safety in England.

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This is such a fun film I have to admit I enjoyed it much more than the Jack Benny original that inspired it.  Film lovers in my age bracket respond more to Brooks than Benny.  Jack Benny, while a hilarious entertainer, was not in constant rotation on cable television in those days.  Even today (like Ernie Kovacs), it’s difficult to find a good portion of his surviving material.  When I was a kid, Mel Brooks was the king of comedy, and when “To Be Or Not To Be” debuted on cable, The Movie Channel ran a retrospective of his films.

What impresses me the most about “To Be Or Not To Be” (above the remake’s requisite respect for the original) is the very thin line the film negotiates between hilarity and pathos.  As an actor, this is Brooks’ strongest performance of all his movies.  In fact, all of the performances (particularly Bancroft) are on equal par.  These are a group of committed and energetic actors giving their all, and putting on a wonderful show.

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. 

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Vintage Cable Box: “The House Of God”, 1984

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“You can’t learn medicine without killing a few patients.”

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Sorry. No movie posters were made for this movie.

“The House Of God”, 1984 (Tim Matheson), United Artists

Ten minutes past the hour mark of this movie, a once-idealistic doctor named Wayne Potts (Michael Sacks) looks out an enormous balcony at a never-ending cityscape. He sees ambulances and police cars tearing down dark, oppressive streets. He wonders if anything of what he does matters. All he ever wanted to do was be a small-town doctor; dispense medicine and heal the sick. He jumps.

The House of God is the greatest teaching hospital in the world. Interns who’ve studied at BMS (“Best Medical School”) are assigned to do rounds, plug holes, and practice what is now referred to as “diagnostic medicine”. Tim Matheson’s fiery, young Roy Basch negotiates half-constructed corridors on his way to orientation. In one of his first film roles, Joe Piscopo conducts the orientation. Charles Haid is “The Fatman”. He’s the guy that gets things done. He supervises the rounds of a group of newly acquired interns.

A G.O.M.E.R. (short for Get Out Of My Emergency Room – patients who take up residence in the emergency room and serve as nothing more than impediments to others in need of more attention) named Ida has the unerring ability to “go to ground”, so Fatman puts a football helmet on her head, so that she doesn’t crack open her skull. Tim’s first patient is an old woman whom he assumes has died. The Fatman sets him straight – “Gomers don’t die.” The Interns bond. I think The Fatman’s purpose is to remind these young Interns on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis that what they do matters, and that they should take care of themselves before worrying about others.

I’m reminded of my review for “WarGames”, in which I discuss the concept of futility, and how computers will never understand it.  They just keep going, regardless of failure, intuition, hope, or chaos.  The body is supposed to give up.  The body is supposed to die, but the machines keep it going, and there is the insidious undercurrent of a medical bureaucracy designed to continue collecting money from all the bodies it keeps alive, whether they want to give up or not.  The doctors who promote this system are known as “slurpers”; essentially the vampires of medical science.

“The House Of God” plays as a series of episodes in which these young doctors cope with the G.O.M.E.R.s, blanket administer Valium to all patients, scare patients out of their beds with threats of lumbar punctures, and suffer trials of depression and neuroses.  While The Fatman inspires the ire of the conservative medical establishment with his unorthodox practices, he is obviously respected, but because he does not approve of these new-fangled diagnostic procedures, he will never be promoted to Chief Resident.

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Originally shot in 1981, the film was denied a theatrical release.  I’ve heard of a number of theories as to why the movie was never released.  1. Producers claimed it was unwatchable (which it most definitely is not).  2. Harvard Medical threatened to sue (I don’t know about that one – it’s just a movie).  3. The medical community was appalled at the book on which the film was based by Samuel Shem, M.D. (why bother even shooting the movie amid such controversy?).  4.  United Artists (the parent releasing company) was too broke to release the movie (the likeliest theory).  I don’t know which, or any, of these theories is correct.  If any of the first three theories were correct, how could the movie be released to cable (eventually in 1984)?  “The House Of God” was never given a VHS, Beta, or Laserdisc release, which is puzzling.

The movie’s cast is extraordinary.  Haid is a joy to watch as “The Fatman”.  His character very much reminds me of Hugh Laurie’s Gregory House.  Tim Matheson proves he can flourish in a largely dramatic role.  Bess Armstrong, Michael Richards (Kramer from “Seinfeld”), Amazing Colossal Podcast’s Gilbert Gottfried, James Cromwell, Howard Rollins, and Ossie Davis round out the cast.  “The House Of God” would go on to influence St. Elsewhere (which took it’s title from a line of dialogue in the book and the movie), Scrubs, Gray’s Anatomy, and House M.D.

Starting next week, we celebrate Mel Brooks (who turns 90 on June 28th) with two weeks of Vintage Cable Comedy Classics!

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.