Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Sad Month

     In addition to the passing of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (which I've already lamented), we lost a couple more cinema luminaries this month. Sid Caesar and Maximilian Schell both departed our dimension, leaving two amazing bodies of work to admire.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Schell, born in Austria, won an Oscar for Best Actor in 1961 playing a passionate, stalwart lawyer in Stanley Kramer's all-star courtroom epic Judgment at Nuremberg. The virtual unknown performed alongside such veterans as Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift (riveting) and Marlene Dietrich.

It's a role that would haunt the actor his whole career, for he usually ended up playing the tough German or Nazi official henceforth; most notably in Sam Peckinpah's near-brilliant Cross of Iron (1977). He would eventually make a celebrated but problematic documentary about his fellow costar (from Judgment at Nuremberg) and country-person, Dietrich called simply Marlene (1984).

Dietrich, who was 83-years old at the time, originally agreed to participate in the documentary and allowed Schell to interview her extensively, then changed her mind after the fact and left the filmmaker in a lurch. Schell got creative and used silhouettes of the Prussian-Hollywood cinema icon instead and his penetrating film garnered an Academy Award nomination.

Schell's sister was the famous Hollywood actress Maria Schell (The Mark; Superman: The Movie). My favorite of all Maximilian Schell's performances will probably always be The Freshman (1990). Yes, it was a variation on his patented Nazi character (as was his role in Disney's The Black Hole, 1979 for that matter), but he took the stereotype to an unexpected and hilarious high. I will miss you, Max.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
My first indoctrination to the work of Sid Caesar was probably It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) which I watched religiously on VHS when I was a kid. The comedy epic, also directed by Stanley Kramer (Judgment at Nuremberg) was in actuality Caesar's finest showcase on film.

Grease (1978) can hardly be considered a Caesar film, but the actor was in fine form as the likable gym coach. In fact, Caesar never did anything where he wasn't likable. You could say he gave some of the best comedy writers in the world their start: Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Woody Allen among many others. All of them wrote for Caesar and his groundbreaking live television series Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour in the 1950s. Another film I wore out on video in my youth, My Favorite Year (1982) with Peter O'Toole, was based in part on Caesar's live TV shows.

Caesar bypassed the safe and accepted form of slapstick at the time and relied on body language to invent his own unique form of avant garde comedy. It was all pioneering stuff for the '50s and he ended up inspiring generations of great comics and writers to come. Born in New York, the Jewish comedy giant was also a saxophonist. His deft skill with pantomime earned him the designation: the Charlie Chaplin of television.

He also perfected a form of comic delivery known as "double talk". His use of accents and comic timing is still legendary. He struggled with alcohol and drug addiction throughout his life and despite appearing in a handful of films, including a couple directed by pupil Mel Brooks (Silent Movie; History of the World, Part I) his legacy will always be associated with the small screen. He was, in a phrase: the king of sketch comedy. And that's no joke, folks.

 above left: Caesar and comedy partner Imogene Coca (Aunt Edna from National Lampoon's Vacation, 1983; 
Caesar had a cameo in Vegas Vacation, 1997)
above right: Schell with costar Marlon Brando in The Freshman (1990); 
Schell and Brando also appeared together in Edward Dmytryk's The Young Lions (1958)

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