Sunday, July 28, 2013

My Favorite Year

Sometimes, it starts with a synchronicity of events. A memory emerges, unbidden, of moments of auditory or movie pleasure, fleeting imagery that wanders through consciousness a day or two before other forces and other connections make themselves known. Robin Hood has been in my mind again. Not any Robin Hood, not one of those modern reinterpretations, which I'm sure will soon emerge in a newer "darker" version dressed in black leather and fake muscle formed spandex, fighting zombie ghouls under the spell of the evil witch king brother of the rightful ruler, ably aided by a crossbow and hatchet wielding Maid Marion. No, I mean the real Robin Hood, to be precise, "The Adventures of Robin Hood". Deep in my secret heart of hearts, behind all the clutter of the modern world resides a more innocent time, of rainy Saturday and Sunday afternoons spent in front of a flickering tv image. I've never asked any of my female friends how they felt about Robin Hood, or the handsome action hero motif. Do they sigh for the hero, think it's all much ado about not much? How about us guys, how many of us have the Robin Hood thing inside of us? I can say that I never really wanted to be Robin Hood, I just wanted to be that good a man. And I wanted to know that Robin Hoods exist, heroes who stand against the tide of tyranny, who care for the hungry, for the poor, for justice, for what is right in a world gone wrong.

In case anyone is wondering,
this poster hangs over my bed
In those days, the tv image was black and white. It came as something of a shock in the early 1960's when I turned on our set and discovered that one of my favorite movies was in color. It took a viewing or two before I got used to the change. Over the years I booked and showed the film in coffee houses, cultural arts societies, saw it in museums and in revival theatres, learned about the "real" Technicolor system used to film it, and the nitrate film stock which gave it a sheen and glow no longer attainable. When I expanded from 8mm into collecting 16mm, Robin Hood was the third sound movie I purchased. The print was acquired through a New York based film editor - it was made using a special process intended for archival purposes which recaptured the intensity of the dye transfer process. It seems two extra prints had been struck, oh, my. There was a minor soundtrack problem in  my print, with no way to correct it. It didn't matter, I was in heaven. Since it was a movie, I should say I was in 7th Heaven. I haven't looked at the print in years, and assume with some regret that its' color has probably faded to red.

I've been day dreaming of trying to set up my old 16mm system again. I don't have the room, the projector is noisy, my motorized screen is in a barn miles from here; there are lots of reasons not to pursue the thought, but that hasn't yet ended the desire. I want to see Robin Hood again, and not tv size, thank you. I'd no sooner started thinking about this when I chanced upon a clip from the movie. But then, from some recess of memory I heard just a tad of a lovely little melody, "reappearing in my mind... but that was long ago... are your memories like mine, or have they let you go?" I know the song; it was written for a movie, but was never used. Michael Feinstein found it and recorded it. So did Margaret Whiting. It has a slightly sad melancholic quality, "My Favorite Year".

"My Favorite Year" was a wonderful early 1980's movie, one of those little gems that tend to be too easily forgotten. It starred Peter O'Toole, who had just been Oscar nominated for his work in "The Stunt Man", another sadly neglected movie. He plays the part of a famous action star romantic hero who time is passing by. The idea for the story came from an appearance by Errol Flynn on the Sid Caesar show in the early days of tv. At the time, Flynn had adopted the role of a charming inebriate, and was assigned a keeper - in real life a young Mel Brooks. It's one of those movies. The young writer who becomes the keeper shares traits from a couple of Caesar's writers - Brooks, Neil Simon, and a dash of Woody Allen. Another of Caesar's writers, Selma Diamond (and a big stevil favorite) is in the movie as a wardrobe mistress. (Those who were fans of the Dick Van Dyke show - also based on Caesar's 'Show of Shows' milieu - would recognize her as the basis for Rose Marie's character.)

So, "My Favorite Year" had been in my mind over the last couple of days. Last night I happened to turn on the tv, and there it was. If I'd known, I'd have recorded it. As it was, I just dropped in for the last hour, and I was thankful for the pleasure. It's one of the best things O'Toole has done; his Alan Swann inhabits a persona he knows was created for him to play, and he's smart enough to know that it's not that people just let him get way with things because of it, they want and expect him to do so. In once scene, he describes some of his life to his young keeper,

"The women who are interested in me know exactly who I am and what they want, and nine times out of ten, they get it."

"That's some curse."

"You'd be surprised. You see, no matter what I do, I can never fulfill their expectations."

There is a lovely scene in which O'Toole takes his young keeper off to dinner at the Stork Club; "are you sure you want the Stork Club, Mr. Swann?" "It's been a year and a half, surely they've repaired the wall of the bandstand by now". While there Swann is approached by an elderly gentleman whose wife is a fan. Would he be kind enough to say hello to her as he leaves after his dinner? He would not. Instead, he goes directly to the table, bows with the grace of aging gentleman, extends his hand, and asks for a dance. They glide gracefully around the floor; her eyes, brimming with happiness, memory, and swelling with tears never move from his. The scene is pure enchantment. The woman was Gloria Stuart, a former star who would only emerge from retirement again 15 years later to play "old Rose" in the 1997 "Titanic". You don't need to know this kind of stuff to watch the movie, but if you do you'll find a number of familiar faces and stories (Lainie Kazan! Adolph Green, Joseph Bologna, et. al), and lots of references and connections to the entertainment businesses of days gone by. The trailer really isn't very good, but it does give you an idea of how much fun this movie can be. If you ever see it listed, trust me, set aside the time to watch it, and a little extra to remember your favorite year.