Saturday, February 1, 2014

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for February on TCM

"Words with a K in it are funny.  Alka-Seltzer is funny.  Chicken is funny.  Pickle is funny.  All with a K.  Ls are not funny.  Ms are not funny."
- Willy Clark, The Sunshine Boys

Theatrical agent Ben Clark has been hearing theories on comedy his whole life from his Uncle Willy. Willy Clark of the famed duo Lewis and Clark aka "The Sunshine Boys" is a veteran of over 40 years in show business, so if he says words with Ks are funny then you can take it as gospel. Ben is the world's best nephew. He visits his uncle weekly and continues to look for work for the cantankerous senior despite Willy's practically pathological irritability which does not endear him to potential employers. In fact, Willy - to quote Ben - is a "Crazy freakin' old man!" 

George Burns as Al Lewis

When Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys opened in 1972 it was the 11th Broadway hit for the Emmy, Tony and Pulitzer Prize Award winning playwright. It was inevitable that the play would make the transition to the big screen and just as inevitable, in the ways of Hollywood, that the original cast of Jack Albertson as Willy Clark and Sam Levene as Al Lewis would not be used in the movie. The inspired first choice for The Sunshine Boys were the consummate funny men Red Skelton and Jack Benny.

Red Skelton declined the offer as he was doing better financially on the road than the film prospect could offer. Tragically, Jack Benny would be diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer which would take his life. Jack, bless his soul, recommended his lifelong friend George Burns as his replacement. George had not appeared in a movie since 1939s Honolulu and his narration of 1956s The Solid Gold Cadillac, but this "gift from Jack" as Burns called it, revived his career in a big way. George Burns won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor of the year and became a recording artist, best selling author and a movie star!

Richard Benjamin as Ben and Walter Matthau as Willy

Oscar winner for the supporting role of Willie Gingrich in The Fortune Cookie, Walter Matthau was cast as Willy Clark and would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for this role.

A good 20 years younger than the character of Willy Clark, Matthau is a total hoot as the grumpy golden-ager. Willy becomes apoplectic upon taking his first breath in the morning and nothing that occurs during the day lessens his attitude. On the other hand, Al is so easy-going that he might be comatose. Their long association makes each fellow the key to the other's exasperation.

Richard Benjamin gives a note-perfect performance as the harried nephew, Ben. The lengths to which Ben Clark goes to take care of his uncle surpasses human understanding, as is the length of aggravation Willy heaps on Ben with a mix of glee and insensitivity. It seems Richard Benjamin's Oscar nomination was lost in the mail. However, he did receive a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture, while that organization gave both Matthau and Burns statues for Best Motion Picture Actor - Musical/Comedy. I doubt anyone complained about the disparity in the category designations. After all, recognition is recognition.

Al Lewis and Willy Clark - The Sunshine Boys
George Burns and Walter Matthau

In The Sunshine Boys Ben Clark has found a sure-fire job for his Uncle Willy. The ABC network is planning an all-star program on the history of comedy and naturally, there is a spot for Lewis and Clark. Surely the two men can put aside the differences that ended their partnership for this opportunity. There is much humour in Ben's efforts to bring the two former partners together. A favourite scene is set in Willy's apartment as the two set up to rehearse a sketch. Priceless!

The Sunshine Boys marks the first of five movies based on Neil Simon's work that would be directed by Herbert Ross. Oscar winners The Goodbye Girl and California Suite would quickly follow.  Simon said of Ross, "I think Herb Ross is the best director I've worked with in films. The others just don't understand my material as well."

Supporting players in the film include Lee Meredith (The Producers) from the original Broadway cast as the nurse in the famous "Doctor" sketch and Rosetta LeNoire (TVs Family Matters) as Willy's beleaguered nurse. Look for Tony winner Ron Rifkin as the TV special's director, Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham as a mechanic, Howard Hesseman (TVs WKRP in Cincinnati) as a commercial director, and Fritz Feld (Bringing Up Baby) as an actor.

TCM is screening The Sunshine Boys on Friday, February 21 at 6:00 pm during its yearly 31 Days of Oscar festival. The Sunshine Boys is a very funny movie. The nostalgic and knowing script has a clear-eyed affection for its characters. Don't miss it!

Noted pairings in The Sunshine Boys:

Tony Randall and Jack Klugman appeared in a Broadway revival in 1997 that ran for over 200 performances.

Peter Falk and Woody Allen made a TV movie in 1996 that updated the duo from vaudevillians to early TV stars.

In 2011 Dick Van Dyke and Jerry Van Dyke appeared in a limited-run fund-raising production for the Malibu Stage Company.

In 2012 Danny DeVito and the late Richard Griffiths starred in a well-received production in London. Judd Hirsch took over for Griffiths when the production moved to the States.

I shouldn't be surprised if a local company near you has plans for a staging.


  1. Oh, such a delightful movie! One can only wonder what Jack Benny would have brought to it, but Burns & Matthau are so great together. A very famous NYC apartment building called the Ansonia was used as the outside location - a place I wish I could get into just to see what the apartments look like! Check it out -

    1. I was a rental broker in New York in the '90s and showed some apartments in the Ansonia, which I loved walking past all those years and wondering what it was like inside. The answer is more complicated. Many of the original apartments have been broken up into smaller units, some with extremely eccentric, rather bizarre layouts—of the ten or so I got to see, none were the original floor plan. The lobby was very cool, and the penthouses on the roof are the coolest, though they would be wicked hot in the summer. The wide corridors and splendid stairs are still beautiful. This was during New York's last housing slump, after the Wall Street crash of 1987, and I'm sure a lot of the apartments have been bought and restored to their original layouts. The Ansonia, along with The Dakota, are two of the UWS's grand old ladies, and I hope they will stand for another century. xxoo Lesley

  2. Thanks for the fascinating history of the Ansonia. Wouldn't that make a grand mini-series?

    I love it when Willy points out the window and brags about seeing "life". The location is such an important part of the story.

  3. I cannot tell you how long I've wanted to see this film but, sadly, I've not had the chance to see it yet.

    Jack Benny would have been great in this film, but I'm glad the final choices were Burns and Matthau.

    You always review such interesting films. :)

    1. I hope you get the chance to catch "The Sunshine Boys" this month. It never fails to deliver the laughs. Tops my faves of the 70s.

  4. Caftan Woman, I fondly remember seeing seeing THE SUNSHINE BOYS with my family at Radio City Music Hall when it came out in 1975 -- talk about a "spectacular"! :-) Did you know Team Bartilucci fave Sam Levene (THE KILLERS; AFTER THE THIN MAN, etc.) had also performed on Broadway in THE SUNSHINE BOYS at some point? Anyway, it was such fun to see the film with all the trimmings, and you've got me smiling -- thanks for the memories, my friend!

    1. So glad to have brought up a fond memory.

      I have a friends who saw Sam Levene in "Guys and Dolls" on their honeymoon. I'll bet there are lots of honeymooners who went to NYC and spent time with our pal Sam over the years.

  5. The opening quote from Willy Clark reminded me of Charles M. Schulz's appearance on a TV show where he explained that words beginning with "B" were particularly funny: "They just are, I don't know why!" Thus, Charlie's surname is Brown, Snoopy is a beagle, etc.

    Originally, Schulz had thought of having his own favorite composer, Brahms, be Schroeder's favorite also -- but, again according to the master: "Somehow 'Brahms' doesn't sound funny but 'Beethoven' does."

    Ah, the unfathomable mysteries of comedy!

    1. It's true. Beethoven works. As Schroeder tickles the ivories, it tickles our funny bones. It's just the way it is.

      I think that Neil Simon has provided me with more outright belly laughs and wry smile than any other writer. Maybe someday "The Sunshine Boys" will fail to make me laugh, but I doubt it.

  6. All I could think about in the study of funny sounds was George Carlin's bit about language and the feelings evoked by certain letters! Carlin too always knew the value of language in comedy, although some of his examples are definitely X-rated! I really enjoyed your take on Sunshine Boys -- I haven't seen it in many years, and it's certainly worth another watch. (I didn't know Jack Benny was originally going to be in it -- he would have been wonderful!)

    1. Becky, circle the calender for this month's screening. A Friday at 6 pm is actually a pretty decent time. If you haven't seen it in many years then the laughs will be fresh and there's nothing better than a fresh laugh.

  7. "En-tah!"

    Lovely review of a truly wonderful comedy, thank you, Patty...




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