Vintage Cable Box: Avanti!, 1972

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“Here we do not rush to drugstore for chicken sandwich & Coca-Cola. Here, we take our time. We cook our pasta, we sprinkle our Parmigiano, we drink our wine, we make our love…”

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Avanti!, 1972 (Jack Lemmon), United Artists

A pre-credit sequence Jack Lemmon wears what looks like golfing togs, propositioning a well-dressed fellow American a few seats behind him in an airplane. We can’t hear what they’re discussing, but soon after, they get up and retire to the tiny bathroom. As this unusual exchange has aroused the curiousity of just about everybody on the plane, including the pilots and stewardesses, they emerge from the bathroom wearing each other’s clothes. This is a five-minute set-up that bids a fond arrivederci to the conventions of a decent attention span in order to set up a visual joke and ciao to the more permissive sexual humor of the seventies. Avanti! is a groundbreaking achievement in that regard.

Lemmon is on his way to Naples to claim the body of his deceased father, Wendell Armbruster, Sr., a corporate Baltimore-money tyrant, who appears to have expired in a car crash. It’s interesting that Lemmon’s approach to the material, the reaction of his father’s death, and the ensuing romantic adventure is one of mild annoyance at every person and every situation that threatens to road-block his return to the States. Lemmon discovers his father was not alone in the car. Under the guise of traveling to Naples every year for ten years of spa treatments, Lemmon’s father has been having an affair with a British tart in a Same Time, Next Year kind of capacity. He hooks up with the daughter (Juliet Mills) of Armbruster’s mistress, takes an instant dislike to her (as he does with everyone in this movie), and sets about making preparations to ship the body back to Baltimore.

Lemmon is a man embarrassed by his father’s dalliances, and would do everything he could to keep those secrets, but Juliet (knowing well in advance of Lemmon her mother’s escapades in Naples) is a romantic at heart, and as lonely a person in her own right as Lemmon, but at least she admits it. She wants their bodies buried up on a hill overlooking the bay. Lemmon, of course, disagrees. He doesn’t want to publicize and celebrate their flagrant and careless behavior. In fact, he’s such a sour-puss in this movie, it’s shocking Mills is attracted to him at all (and personally speaking, I would’ve kicked him right in the nuts after his “fat-ass” remark). Of course, this being Italy with passion and romance in the air, it’s not long before they conduct their own clandestine affair. Unfortunately, their romance feels perfunctory to a romantic comedy set in Italy.

The bodies go missing, and Lemmon is convinced Juliet had something to do with it.  This subplot involves a romance between the hotel maid, Anna, and her lover, the valet Bruno, which is extraneous and adds to the running time (a whopping 2 hours and 20 minutes!).  What’s a romantic comedy without a little murder and intrigue?  In one of the more publicized scenes from the movie, Lemmon and Mills sunbathe nude together on a large rock in the middle of the bay, under sight of boats, curious onlookers, and helicopters.  It seems they are recreating the exploits of their parents.  Bruno wants to extort them for their behavior.  This enrages Anna (who always liked the old man and his mistress), who kills him.  What I enjoy about the film is that it seems to be a mere excuse to travel to Italy and photograph the gorgeous views(good enough reason for me).

As I inferred, this is an unusual movie; produced at the end of a creative cycle of sex comedies that only made vague implications with regard to carnal passion, expectation, and lust. I’m reminded of director Billy Wilder’s more successful entries,The Seven Year Itch (a personal favorite), The Apartment, and Irma la Douce, but these were unusual times. Nudity and sexual content became more prevalent in adult-oriented films, as did contemporary ideas about the sexes.

One particular element of the screenplay (and the stage play upon which Avanti! was based) has characters consistently commenting (in mean-spirited fashion) on Juliet’s character’s weight and physical characteristics.  Her character is written as being “short and fat”.  According to other sources, Wilder even asked Mills (the older sister of Hayley Mills) to gain weight for the role, yet to me and others with whom I have watched the movie, she doesn’t appear to be overweight at all, and what’s more, she’s actually quite beautiful.  Perhaps her wide face and frumpy manner existed in strict defiance to the new era of Twiggy; the anorexic, tall supermodels of the late 60s.  Watching this movie, I can understand why women are under such tremendous pressure to maintain an attractive physique.

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As we usher in a new season here at “Vintage Cable Box”, I reflect on the long, hot summer; the chaos and the politics, the terror and the splendor and remember the movies and the daydreams into which I have always fallen, and I remember the door to those dreams is always ajar.  No need for permesso here.  Avanti always!

Coming Next Month! Halloween all month at “Vintage Cable Box!”

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.

“The Machine That Goes ‘BING!'”

Bing Crosby. BIG Bing Crosby. The amiable, impish face and the posture of the Penguin from Batman. Actually, I wonder if Burgess Meredith thought of dear old Bing when he was waddling about, thrusting umbrellas and rocking his monocle and top hat. Maybe a little bit on the Bing, a little bit on Mr. Peanut? Who knows? I know of Bing Crosby from the classics – “White Christmas”, “Going My Way”, “The Bells of St. Mary’s”, The “Road” movies with Bob Hope.

Tacoma’s favorite son is still working to this day, despite being dead for over 35 years. He appears in television commercials, radio spots, dramatic and reality-based programming. I wonder how he cashes his checks. Talk about Bing Crosby to somebody from what Tom Brokaw coined, “The Greatest Generation” and it’s like you’re talking about God, and while the Big Guy could probably croon with the best of ’em, I seriously doubt he could hold a candle to Bing.

Yes, Bing made the ladies swoon. Maybe some of the men too. I remember an old Warner Brothers cartoon with some hens falling over themselves listening to an animated version of Crosby all decked out as a rooster, but then there was another crooner competing for the attention, and this one looked like Frankie (as much as a rooster could resemble Frankie, that is). Next thing you know the crooning roosters are trading fours.

These guys were the Elvises of their day. They could make a girl crazy just by hitting a note. My guess was it didn’t take that much to impress girls back in those times. In the race to woo the ladies, Ol’ Blue Eyes eventually overtook Crosby, but the legacy remained intact. Crosby’s recording of White Christmas is the best-selling single of all time with 50 million copies sold since 1942; more than Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Michael Jackson ever sold.

The David Bowie/Bing Crosby “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth” duet still gets airplay on the radio stations as part of their nonstop Christmas song pukefests, as does the music video taken from the 1977 Bing Crosby Christmas Special, Merrie Olde Christmas. Nothing can prepare you for the delightfully baroque image of androgynous rocker Bowie kickin’ it with Bing.

We’re treated to Twiggy, internationally recognized singer/supermodel best known these days for her turn in 1980’s “The Blues Brothers”, but she doesn’t hold a candle to pretty Mary Crosby (before she shot J.R. on Dallas or wooed Robert Urich in “Ice Pirates”). Bing and Twiggy go all folie à deux and meet Charles Dickens. Twiggy imagines herself as Tiny Tim, very weird. Inexplicably, David Bowie pops up again to sing “Heroes”, making out with himself against a black background – ah, the seventies!

Stanley Baxter troubles me. If not for the fact that he plays a handful of ancillary characters, then it’s because he’s trying to do a Bob Hope impersonation and failing. Later in the show, he shows up, dressed as a court jester. I was reminded of Woody Allen’s character in “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex…”. For the record, Woody does a much better impression of Bob Hope. Hope is conspicuously absent from the show, and his absence is sorely missed.

The final kicker to the whole mad affair is the fact that as of the show’s airtime and broadcast, Bing Crosby was dead and buried, in the ground and rotting. To close the show, he sings his signature song once again, and I am reminded of James Joyce.

“Snow is falling. Falling in that lonely churchyard where Bing Crosby lies buried. Falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living, and the dead.”

Merry Christmas, Everybody!