Book Reviews

A SPLURCH IN THE KISSER: THE MOVIES OF BLAKE EDWARDS by SAM WASSON

By • Nov 17th, 2009 •

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At the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony, Blake Edwards was presented with an honorary Oscar “in recognition of his writing, directing, and producing an extraordinary body of work for the screen.” It was the first step in a long overdue process of recognizing the octogenarian filmmaker’s cinematic contributions. Now, Sam Wasson’s new book, A SPLURCH IN THE KISSER: THE MOVIES OF BLAKE EDWARDS takes another giant step toward that goal.

The book’s curious title comes from the slapstick comedy with which Blake’s reputation is so closely identified: a “splurch,” Wasson explains, is a sight-gag’s ability to cut its subject down to size–in other words, in Blake Edwards’ comedies, he usually throws a pie in the face of the people who deserve a good drubbing. And Wasson clearly illustrates how Blake has done that time and time again not just onscreen but in life.

A SPLURCH IN THE KISSER is far less a biography than an in-depth critical essay, but in discussing each movie the author examines the issues in Blake’s personal and professional lives that inspired key moments or storylines in those pictures. More than simply discussing film theory from a distant or abstract point of view, Wasson has a definite feel for his subject and a great eye for detail, marrying a description of shots with an explanation of their purpose.

The book points out that throughout his varied career Blake Edwards has been an actor, producer, director and writer, though in many of his films he is better described as an auteur. Few filmmakers’ careers have been so all-over-the-map, ranging from romantic comedy (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, 1961) to suspense (EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, 1962) to out-and-out drama (DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, 1962) to musicals (DARLING LILI, 1968, and VICTOR/VICTORIA, 1982) to biting satire (S.O.B., 1981).

But ultimately Edwards is best known to the outside world as a maker of slapstick comedies. OPERATION PETTICOAT (1959) put him on the map, but it was the PINK PANTHER films that made him a household name. Released in 1964, THE PINK PANTHER began life with David Niven, Ava Gardner, and Peter Ustinov, but when Gardner made trouble and was released from her contract, Ustinov dropped out of the picture, leaving Blake scrambling to find a replacement for role of French chief Inspector Clouseau. Edwards quickly recast Peter Sellers, and thus began one of the most successful comedy partnerships in Hollywood history.

To be sure, it was a love/hate relationship. Sellers was brilliant but mad as a hatter and he and Blake Edwards locked horns during the course of filming a string of hits ranging from the sublime (A SHOT IN THE DARK, 1964) to the tired (TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER, 1982, shot after Sellers died and cobbled together partly from recycled footage). But audiences fell in love with the bumbling police inspector and turned cinematic brilliance into box-office gold.

At his best, Blake Edwards is a master not merely of combining comedy and tragedy, but also using dry wit to make wry observation. Wasson’s book sheds light on Edwards’ lesser known (and arguably most effective) offerings, such as the excellent WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? (1966) which was released on DVD a couple years back to little fanfare. Rarely has the cinema produced so poignant a statement on the futility of war with so little bloodshed.

Granted, he’s made his share of mistakes. Take BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, for example; Play MOON RIVER, the hugely successful theme song longtime Edwards collaborator Henry Mancini composed for the picture (with lyrics by Johnny Mercer) loud enough and audiences could almost overlook Mickey Rooney, dreadfully miscast at his old buddy Blake’s assistance, as a Japanese photographer engaging in what is now considered un-PC slapstick. And a number of Edwards’ films have suffered at the hands of bad editing jobs foisted on the pictures by inept studio interference.

The first one was DARLING LILI, starring his wife, Julie Andrews, as a German counter-spy during World War I. It was a musical, on top of that, but even following on the heels of Julie’s hit musical THE SOUND OF MUSIC (directed by Robert Wise) it was a legendary box-office failure.

MGM was now in the red and the studio’s new president, James Aubrey, took matters into his own hands when he ordered a number of MGM films re-cut. “It was my best film,” Blake said of THE WILD ROVERS (1971), “and he butchered it. I beseeched them; they still butchered it.” Aubrey did the same with two more of Blake’s films and, adding insult to injury, labeled the director an irresponsible spendthrift

Blake and his new wife Julie Andrews (star of DARLING LILI) now also had a string of flops to their names. After the fallout they and their family retreated to Switzerland, and while lesser men would have given up (and he himself almost did), Blake turned to writing, channeling his anger and frustrations with Hollywood into the screenplay that would later become S.O.B. (1981), a kind of metaphorical autobiography of his career as a director.

After recharging his batteries he plotted his comeback by returning to the familiar territory of Inspector Clouseau, surefire moneymakers that announced he was back in business, then segued from the PINK PANTHER sequels into his most thoughtful and reflective period. The movies that followed mirrored his own mid-life crises: the bittersweet 10 (1979), which made stars out of Bo Derek and Dudley Moore; the aforementioned S.O.B., and the gender-bending VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982). While 10 and S.O.B. featured Julie Andrews in supporting roles, it was her star-turn as “a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman” in 1930’s Paris that solidified Mr. and Mrs. Edwards as a successful creative team.

VICTOR/VICTORIA, like so many of Blake’s earlier projects, featured a score and songs composed by Henry Mancini. Their collaboration as director and composer over a nearly 35-year period produced some truly memorable songs, including the themes to THE PINK PANTHER and DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES and the unforgettable MOON RIVER, sung by Audrey Hepburn to great success in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S.

Wasson’s book proves a great success in providing a serious case for reevaluating Blake Edwards’ career. While it could use a few more still photos, A SPLURCH IN THE KISSER is a handsomely produced book and Sam Wasson is to be commended for shining a spotlight on an often-overlooked filmmaker, and especially for bringing attention to some of Edwards’ least-known movies.

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One Response »

  1. As author Sam Wasson knows, anyone who is interested in a more psychological and academic analysis of Blake Edwards should get copies of BLAKE EDWARDS and BLAKE EDWARDS VOL. 2: RETURNING TO THE SCENE by William Luhr and Peter Lehman (Ohio University Press). I took a film class with Professor Luhr at Saint Peter’s College back in 1978 and his lessons still reverberate with me today.

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