Sunday, June 03, 2012

80s Revisited: The Toy

The Toy (1982)
Directed by Richard Donner; written by Carol Sobieski; produced by Phil Feldman & Ray Stark

And then there was the time that a white Louisiana millionaire bought his son a black man as a pet.

Just think about that for a minute. In its heart, this movie thinks it's a heartwarming comedy about how a man reconnects with his distant son, brought together in an unbreakable bond by a man who comes into their lives and teaches them both about the value of familial love. But the way it does this is by forcing the viewer through a truly idiotic plot where this cranky old white guy basically rents the presence of a black man for the amusement of his own kid, who apparently never learned about slavery and the 13th Amendment in all of his fancy schools.

I don't know, is it me being oversensitive? I don't really think it is. I mean, sure, it's just a Richard Pryor vehicle with questionable taste--and it's 1982, there are a lot of movies of questionable taste. But the setting, the fact that there's a minor subplot involving the local Ku Klux Klan, and the near-constant appearance of Confederate flags lead me to believe that everyone working on this film knew the racial subtext was going to be obvious, but no one really cared all that much.

But what's even more depressing here (to me) is the way this comedy vehicle took Richard Pryor and turned him into a hapless dope, an overly-afro-sheened plot device, flailing about, bereft of any dignity or edge, complicit in his own cynical exploitation. It begins even before he's rented as a living puppet for the benefit of the world's most irritating overprivileged brat, when he desperately accepts a job as a maid and is made to wear a skirted maid's outfit because, hey, why not get the emasculation train running early? It also has the effect of rendering the movie's rich white men as hopelessly uncaring about things like basic humanity, making it that much harder to root for Jackie Gleason as he stares and wonders how it all came to this: breaking WC Fields's rule about working with children and wearing a hairpiece so distracting that the movie constantly surrounds him with people with far worse, more obvious hairpieces just so his will look more natural in comparison.

This is the kind of movie, too, where I didn't really sit through it thinking Oh, this is stupid or Ouch, my brain is trying to kill itself in self-defense, but instead I was just thinking about what kind of desperation would have made Richard Pryor sign on to a film that treats him so terribly. Why become a willing partner in your own degradation? It's not like Richard Pryor couldn't act. Have you ever seen Blue Collar? That is an Oscar-worthy performance, my friends. Stir Crazy is classic comedy. It's not like Richard Pryor was incapable of making great films. It's just that, sometimes, you really get the sense that he didn't bother trying very hard. He seems tired through a lot of this movie. In scenes where he stops and talks seriously with the rich kid, he seems grateful to sit down. (The kid is, of course, Scotty Schwartz, who appeared in A Christmas Story the next year and who famously did a porno with Juli Ashton that was predicated on the bizarre and frankly untrue notion that anyone would care that Scotty Schwartz ended up in porn; it's a celebrity stunt with a very loose notion of what celebrity means, and since then his appearances in adult films have caused people to call him a "child star turned porn star," which is a loose definition of the word "star." As the AV Club once pointed out, Clint Howard's in a lot of movies, but no one calls him a movie star.)

So, yeah, the plot. Richard Pryor prostitutes his dignity for the sake of entertainment. So does the character he plays, agreeing to act as a toy for a spoiled rich kid. Nothing happens organically, it just goes from scene to scene, inserting character growth here and there, suddenly giving the kid integrity that he hasn't earned just to shame the adults into learning something important, and then there's a happy ending and Gleason and Pryor both notch another terrible movie under their belts. Richard Pryor is funny, but without any context it's mostly flailing and overreacting. Gleason, in contrast, plays it tighter, going for slow burns and angry explosions. I think it's probably less embarrassing for both men than Superman III and Smokey and the Bandit, Part III, respectively, but that's not saying anything, is it?

One of the few things I liked in the movie, though? Teresa Ganzel. Remember Teresa Ganzel?

That ditzy blonde bimbo thing really came back hard as a comedy type in the late seventies and early eighties, and Teresa Ganzel did it extremely well. I remember seeing her in other movies and on TV (she memorably played Greedy Gretchen on Three's Company), and, well, come on, I was a little kid. Of course, at 35 I still had the same reaction... Women like this explain a lot about me and my sensibilities today, I think. If you're going to make me sit through a movie where a rich white guy is so desperate for his son's acceptance that he buys him a slave in fricking 1982, then the least you can give me is the occasional joy of Teresa Ganzel playing a breathy-voiced sexpot named Fancy.

Sorry, I just... hey, at least there was something for me to enjoy in this crappy movie. My interest always perked up when she would walk in on screen, bouncy and effervescent, breasts heaving, mane of hair completely unmoving, cliched "va-va-voom" music playing on the soundtrack. Ms. Ganzel was a lovely distraction from my main emotions watching the movie, which were total irritation (both at the flailing and the running time--this flick needs to be an hour and 52 minutes long??) and just feeling sorry for Richard Pryor.

And at least sometimes he got to enjoy the movie, too.

Unf. You and me both, pal.

A couple of interesting bits of trivia. First, this movie is written by the same woman who wrote the script for the film adaptation of Annie, which came out the same year. Apparently she tapped gold with the whole children and rich guys thing.. (Although when I did Annie as an 80s Revisited, I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it, much more than I remembered.) Second, this movie is an American remake of a French comedy by Francis Veber, who has had several movies remade in American versions (including The Man with One Red Shoe, Three Fugitives, Buddy Buddy, Quick ChangeFathers' Day, Pure Luck, and Dinner for Schmucks). Veber was also one of the screenwriters of the original film adaptation (and one of my favorite movies) of La Cage aux Folles. That's just... weird. But somehow reassuring to know that all of those movies came from the mind of one guy.


Tallulah Morehead said...

As it happens, Theresa Ganzel is a friend of mine. She's still around, still performing, still delightful, and I'm forwarding this column to her.

SamuraiFrog said...

Oh, wonderful! I've seen her in a number of voice credits, especially for Pixar, which makes perfect sense because her voice is lovely and distinct.

Tallulah Morehead said...

I sent her the link to this post yesterday.

Semaj said...

The killer fish in the stream is one of the worst scenes in the movie for me. I remember really digging this movie as a child, but it hasn't aged that well at all.

But, Theresa Ganzel is amazing to look at in this movie. She has held up very well too, by the way.

And, she gets ten point for showing up in "Good Burger".

SamuraiFrog said...

This sounds so stupid to say as an adult now, but I was so afraid of piranha as a kid because of that scene. Then when I was a teenager we had two piranha in one of my science classrooms and they really underwhelmed.

Tallulah Morehead said...

I received this message back from Teresa Ganzel today: "thanks for sending this and what you said! thanks! - Teresa"

So she has seen and read your piece here, your praise has reached its target. "What you said" refers to "She's still around, still performing, still delightful."

SamuraiFrog said...

That's very lovely!

Roger Owen Green said...

I ACTIVELY boycotted (if a one-person boycott ever mattered) over the subject material, and wondered, "Pyror, what the hell are you DOING?!"

Shades Below said...

What's really sad between this and "Superman III" is that they both open with the same type of scene, where he's standing around in the unemployment office. He later admitted that he did these for the money, but you can only imagine the stratospherically-high medical bills he must have had after he burned himself up.