BlogReviewsVHS Rewind!

Hidden Gems: They All Laughed (1981)

They All Laughed, 1981 (Ben Gazzara/John Ritter) Moon Pictures

“Do you always look sexy when you’re running late? I guess I’ll have to keep you tardy.”

They All Laughed is a sad child of a movie. Full of potential and interesting characters, but ultimately a waste of time that throws ten million dollars to the wind. Let’s put that money in the briefcase and then go out on the balcony and toss it out into the Hudson. It couldn’t be helped as you’ll discover later. I think Peter Bogdanovich’s biggest mistake is to spend too much time creating an (albeit fantastic) atmosphere inside a confusing story.

For most of the movie’s running time, the characters are walking around all over Manhattan while other characters follow them and take notes on their activities. I was dreading this was going to turn into I Heart Huckabees, but thankfully I was spared. No movie could be that bad. From what I can gather, Ben Gazzara is a divorced private detective with two precocious daughters (Bogdanovich’s actual daughters) who are about as clever as their dad.

I like when children take on the characteristics of their parents. Not Peter in this case but Gazzara, who must’ve spent some time with them before shooting began. I can’t blame Bogdanovich for casting his daughters. I’ve done the same. Mostly because I love my daughter’s face. Ben’s job is to spy on the wife (Audrey Hepburn) of a wealthy industrialist.

John Ritter plays Charles, a bumbling, four-eyed bag of neuroses who is also, inexplicably, a private detective, and his job is to keeps tabs on beautiful blonde, Dolores (Dorothy Stratten). Ritter seems to be working the “charming, befuddled” angle of his character, while Ben is effortless with women. So effortless he has to juggle his relationships.

He courts a hot cab driver (Patti Hansen) while having an affair with country singer Colleen Camp (who does her own singing). Meanwhile Ritter’s like a less confident Jack Tripper as well as a surrogate for Bogdanovich (he even wears his glasses), who fell in love with Stratten during filming, much as Ritter’s character does in the movie. Meanwhile Ben (and fellow private eye Arthur played by co-writer Blaine Novak) stalk Audrey to a midtown arcade with her son.

To his credit, Ben does tell her he’s being paid to follow her. They strike up a friendship, but frankly there isn’t enough of Audrey in this movie. Gazzara and Hepburn have wonderful chemistry. Interesting when you consider they were in a relationship that had ended prior to shooting. I don’t quite know what the movie is trying to be. There are some humorous moments, but the dialogue isn’t written for humor, but rather a kind of old-fashioned lyrical noir poetry.

In fact, if you remove the references to marijuana, the movie could’ve been made in the ’40s or ’50s as a kind of screwball comedy. Ritter is, and always was, an excellent physical comedian. There’s a funny bit where he knocks over a mannequin in a shoe shop and attempts to apologize to it. I love the look of New York in 1981, and I like that the movie is a product of its time.

At times, They All Laughed is chaotic and romantic, smothered in anachronism and laced with country music; the kind of music you wouldn’t expect to hear in Manhattan, unless you take into account that country/western bars were popping up all over the island at the time. Stratten is very easy on the eyes, but she isn’t given much to do beyond looking gorgeous in every shot.

I wonder how They All Laughed would’ve performed at the box office if there wasn’t a tragedy connected to the production. Shortly after finishing her scenes, Stratten returned to her home in Los Angeles where she was going through a bitter divorce from her husband, Paul Snider. Snider murdered her before taking his own life. Stratten’s murder destroyed Bogdanovich and made the movie impossible to sell to a distributor.

Bogdanovich distributed the movie himself, but most exhibitors refused to show it. He wouldn’t make another movie until Mask in 1985. Bogdanovich died in 2022 from complications related to Parkinson’s disease. Although his career was fraught with unusual missteps, he helped define cinema in the ’70s and ’80s and was enormously influential in the careers of many prominent filmmakers. They All Laughed is an alluring gem filled with interesting flaws, but it remains a sad child of a movie.


David Lawler has written for Film Threat, VHS Rewind, Second Union, and his own blog, Misadventures in BlissVille. Lawler has produced several podcasts including That Twilighty Show About That Zone, Two Davids Walk Into A Bar (with co-host David Anderson), EQ Lawler/Saltz (with Alex Saltz), and Upstairs at Froelich's (with co-host John Froelich).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *