The Crazy World of Marty Feldman Comes to Blu-ray.
DIRECTED BY MARTY FELDMAN/1977
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MARCH 26, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Let’s face it- we ugly Americans are unfamiliar with an awful lot of things. But when it comes to second guessing our degree of ignorance, major movie studios tend to take no chances. “Keep it simple, stupid”, seems to have always been the edict. Even when dipping into literary territory, as was far more common in the earlier days of movies, the laziness of returning to the same material again and again was apparent.
Ugliness, though, is in the eye of the beholder. For funnyman Marty Feldman, however, a perceived kind of physical ugliness- specifically his uniquely beady eyes- became his stock in trade. Though something of a staple on British television, Feldman is best remembered stateside as an oddball supporting player in Mel Brooks films. A kind of human novelty; the laughing grotesque. There was, of course, tremendously more to Marty Feldman. When it came to his 1977 comedy The Last Remake of Beau Geste, the joke was indeed on us. (Squint at him during his own Buster Keaton-esque action sequences, and Feldman even appears… handsome??).
Hatched in the vibrant glare of the success of Mel Brooks’ boundaries-trouncing spoofs Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both 1974; the latter co-starring Feldman as “EYE-gore”), The Last Remake of Beau Geste storms the gates in a recognizably similar way. Sight gags, sexual innuendos, and groaner bits gloriously rule the day. If Feldman’s now-overlooked film has a stumbling block (and it is utterly hilarious, top to bottom), it could be that Feldman’s targets are too elevated; political, even. Who among of us are truly that familiar with the 1924 adventure novel Beau Geste by P.C. Wren, or even the parade of now-old film adaptations? (Admittedly, this reviewer has only gotten as far as owning but not yet watching the 1939 William Wellman/Gary Cooper version).
One might attest that the more-ambitious Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker outing Top Secret! (1984) is to their classic Airplane! (1980) what The Last Remake of Beau Geste is to Blazing Saddles. But perceived overreach be darned, Feldman’s film deserves a prominent place in the sun. It only takes a quick leap across the comedy pond to realize that Feldman’s sense of screwball cartoony intelligentsia has far deeper roots in the subversive Monty Python and pre-Monty Python British comedy sensibilities- the very pool from which Feldman climbed forth as a respected Woody Allen-esque writer.
For this, Feldman’s directorial debut, he distilled the Beau Geste saga to its most mockable essentials: A wealthy nobleman, unhappy that his desired biological son is (gasp!) a daughter, adopts identical twin boys to take up his legacy. The boys, Beau and Digby, grow up to be the dashingly arrogant Michael York and the nebbish glutton for punishment Feldman. Aside from their matching blonde curly locks, their supposed physical resemblance ranks as a prolonged, prefigured DeVito/Schwarzenegger Twins gag. Beau and Digby’s ravishing stepmother (Ann-Margret) turns out to be a gold digger of epic proportions, seducing everyone in her path in order to recover a lost family gem worth millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars.
The cast is rounded out in stellar form, with York’s Logan’s Run collaborator Peter Ustinov, James Earl Jones (the trio also featured in Franco Zeffirelli’s prestigious Jesus of Nazareth miniseries the same year), Trevor Howard, Avery Schreiber, Terry-Thomas, Henry Gibson, and even a quick cameo by Ed McMahon.
Along the way, Beau and Digby’s loyalty to the French Foreign Legion plays out in a perpetual string of sharp-witted verbal and visual barbs. The song they sing over the wacky opening titles includes lyrics like, “We’re chauvinist shmucks/For France! (And a couple of bucks! Bucks, bucks, bucks, bucks…)”. Portraits of Napoleon depict the dictator not with his hand tucked into his jacket but his trousers. Colonialist bloodlust and self-righteousness are dragged through the desert several times over, all courtesy of the socialist rebellious streak deeply harbored by Feldman. British aristocracy doesn’t get a pass, either; Queen Victoria is figuratively dressed down and disparaged in graffiti throughout.
This Blu-ray edition, courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics, comes stocked with an array of extra features as impressive as the film itself. There is not one, but two audio commentary tracks to be had. The first is by the wonderful Alan Spencer, creator of TV’s Sledge Hammer! and firsthand expert on much of what is great and at risk of being culturally forgotten in comedy. Spencer has the benefit of having known Feldman well enough to have racked up a breathless array of personal accounts and details on the man’s real life. Dense, personal, but never gossipy or out of line, Spencer’s commentary alone should assure this disc as a must-own for Feldman fans.
The second commentary track, another new one, is by entertainment journalist and author Bryan Reesman. Reesman has amassed a tremendous amount of information about everything from the on-screen talent to location facts to even statistic details about the French Foreign Legion. Those who opt to engage with this track should be prepared for a fully caffeinated info-sprint from start to finish.
This very attractive disc also features a new, exclusive fifteen-minute audio interview with co-star Michael York. While York’s voice doesn’t sound so great (he cites laryngitis), his enthusiasm for recalling his experiences on The Last Remake of Beau Geste is through the roof. Additionally, there’s a Trailers From Hell segment on the film, also hosted by Alan Spencer. On top of all of that, there are three separate image galleries, radio spots, and the theatrical trailer.
The Last Remake of Beau Geste is a brilliantly cast comedy yarn in desperate need of rediscovery. That said, as satisfying as it is for those looking for a tightly wound gag-fest, this is not Feldman’s true vision for the project. As detailed by the commentators, this eighty-five-minute cut of the movie is, sadly, is Universal Studio’s streamlined version of the film, having removed described character beats and narrative breathing room that the filmmaker intended. The resulting gag-to-gag pacing works quite well as a kind of too-smart-for-school post-Blazing Saddles/pre-Airplane! piece. But for Feldman (who’d go on to direct one more comedy for the studio, 1980’s In God We Tru$t– also released to Blu-ray by Kino Lorber Studio Classics), it was an upsetting and ugly move. But, seeing how ugliness resides in the eye(s) of the beholder, perhaps even the uncultured audiences of North America can now step up and appreciate The Last Remake of Beau Geste as we have it.