"Things change, people change, hairstyles change... Interest rates fluctuate." - HILARY FLAMMOND
Sometimes it feels like I grew up during the golden age of the genre parody, and that age -- now sadly passed -- will never return. The year after I was born, Mel Brooks released not one but two classic spoofs, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, and while he didn't invent the form he certainly was its standard-bearer for many years. In addition, my comedy intake also included healthy doses of Woody Allen, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker and Monty Python, and they were no slouches in the parody department, either. The problem is they were a little too good at it because most everything that has come down that road over the past two decades can't help but seem anemic and undercooked in comparison. And just so we're clear, I'm not just talking about the oeuvre of odious crap merchants like Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer here (although they have led the charge in recent years). Even before they came along there was half-baked dreck like Repossessed, National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1, Fatal Instinct, The Silence of the Hams, Wrongfully Accused and 2001: A Space Travesty, none of which did a whole lot to advance the art of the parody film. Even Brooks himself stumbled with his last two directorial efforts, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, which were made to parody one specific film almost exclusively. That sort of thing is very rarely a recipe for success.
Of course, this isn't to say the single-film parody can't work. When the Kentucky Fried Theater (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker) made the transition from stage to screen with The Kentucky Fried Movie in 1977, the centerpiece of the film was A Fistful of Yen, a dead-on parody of Enter the Dragon that takes up about a third of its running time. And that trend continued when the trio stepped into the director's chair with Airplane! three years later. While it may seem like just a take-off of the Airport series of the '70s (which had already descended into self-parody by the time The Concorde ... Airport '79 limped into theaters), Airplane! is actually a shockingly faithful remake of a thriller from 1957 called Zero Hour! that stars Dana Andrews as a war veteran who has to be coaxed into landing a commercial airliner when the crew takes sick and he's only passenger on board with any flying experience. The ZAZ team not only borrowed the basic plot, they even incorporated whole scenes from the original film into their script without having to change so much as a single line. That's how deliriously over-the-top and melodramatic Zero Hour! is. (The casting is also key, with Robert Stack's part being played by Sterling Hayden. And the stunt casting of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as co-pilot Roger Murdoch is prefigured by the pilot in Zero Hour! being played by football hero Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch.) The genius of the ZAZ approach was to take the conventions of whatever situation they started with and tweak them ever so slightly, upping the ante with each iteration until it reaches the point of total absurdity. It would have been good for a shock if Steve McCroskey had declared right off the bat that he had picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue, but it's a lot funnier after we've seen him progress through smoking, drinking and taking amphetamines first.
Following the success of Airplane!, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker set their sights on the boob tube (the source of the numerous television and commercial parodies that dotted The Kentucky Fried Movie and Airplane!) and created the police procedural parody Police Squad! around Airplane! MVP Leslie Nielsen, who showed such a flair for deadpan comedy that he essentially got a second career out of it. (In fact, in recent years he's appeared almost exclusively in spoof movies, with roles in two parts of the Scary Movie quadrilogy, Superhero Movie, An American Carol, Stan Helsing and a cameo in something called Spanish Movie which has mercifully not made it to these shores yet.) As for Police Squad!, it was summarily canceled after just six episodes and the premise put on the back burner (from whence it would return at the end of the decade as the first part of The Naked Gun trilogy) while the ZAZ team regrouped and plotted their return to the big screen. That came in 1984 in the form of Top Secret! (they really liked their exclamatory titles, didn't they?), one of the strangest genre mash-ups in film history: an anachronistic rock and roll musical/cold war spy thriller starring Val Kilmer as singer Nick Rivers, who gets himself into a whole heap of trouble when he agrees to take part in a cultural festival behind the Iron Curtain.
From start to finish, it's never really clear exactly when the film is taking place, which I have to believe is intentional on the parts of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker (who collaborated on the script with Martyn Burke, the Canadian auteur behind The Clown Murders, starring a pre-SCTV John Candy, and the late-period Sylvester Stallone vehicle Avenging Angelo). Is it the present day (i.e. 1984) as the divided Germany and contemporary references to the Jimmy Carter presidency, Howard Johnson's and the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes (among other things) would indicate? Or is it the early '60s, which would be a better fit for Nick Rivers's musical repertoire, which ranges from a Beach Boys pastiche (the opener "Skeet Surfin'") to rockin' rave-ups ("Tutti Frutti," "Straighten the Rug") to Elvis-style crooners ("Spend This Night With Me," "Are You Lonesome Tonight?")? In either case, what in the name of Buckaroo Banzai's Blue Blaze Irregulars is the French Resistance doing operating in East Germany anyway? I know the East Germans in the film act like they're the second coming of National Socialism, but the way those guys run around you'd think there was still a war on.
For his part, Nick seems determined to cause an international incident right off the bat by mouthing off to the border guards at the East German checkpoint, but his long-suffering manager Martin (Billy J. Mitchell) smooths things over as best he can -- not an easy task when you have a machine gun pointed at you. Meanwhile, there is skullduggery afoot as trenchcoat-wearing secret agent Cedric (Omar Sharif, who's clearly having a ball) meets his contact, a blind souvenir vendor (Ian McNeice, whose singular reading of the line "Souvenirs, novelties, party tricks" is genius personified), and has to endure all sorts of humiliations in order to keep up appearances. When Cedric gets double-crossed and winds up in a car crusher you'd think that would be the end of him, but he's extremely resourceful and determined and still makes it to Hilary (Lucy Gutteridge), the daughter of a scientist being held captive by the East Germans, and hands off his ballet ticket so she can meet the leader of the Resistance in his stead. It's at this point that our two plots intersect, as Hilary is being pursued by the secret police and Nick, who's dining alone, pretends she's his date to get her out of trouble. He also comes to her rescue that night at the ballet and, after mortally wounding her pursuer, gets thrown into prison. There he's beaten and tortured and, while trying to effect an escape, winds up in the secret laboratory of Hilary's father, Dr. Flammond (Michael Gough, then best known as a Hammer Studios regular), where he's developing a secret weapon called the Polaris Mine. This puts Nick in dutch with the authorities and he's only saved from a firing squad so he can perform "How Silly Can You Get?" in front of a crowd of screaming girls (who behave like he's all four Beatles rolled into one). This time it's Hilary who comes to his rescue and sparks fly between them as they get closer to "The Torch," the mysterious Resistance leader who's going to help get Nick out of the country and spring Hilary's father from prison.
Unlike in Airplane!, where the romantic leads had matching flashbacks, in this film only Hilary gets one and it's an extended Blue Lagoon parody that doesn't play as well today as it did 26 years ago. As for Nick, he tells a weepy story about getting lost in a department store, which isn't quite as dramatic as being shipwrecked on a desert island, but it did lead to him becoming a singer, so that's something. Once they reach the headquarters of the Resistance they learn that the Torch is none other than Nigel (Christopher Villiers), the boy Hilary was shipwrecked with, which makes things a little awkward between her and Nick, but they have little time to sort things out before the hideout is ambushed by enemy forces. They manage to escape, though, and when they regroup as Der Pizza Haus they determine that there is a traitor in their midst and Nick comes under suspicion when he's recognized by a couple of teenage girls and passes himself off as Mel Torme. This leads to what is probably my favorite musical number in the whole film ("Tutti Frutti" runs a close second) as Nick cuts loose to "Straighten the Rug" and everybody in the place spontaneously joins in. Thus having cleared himself of being Mel Torme, the indispensable Nick joins the others on a daring mission to break Dr. Flammond out of prison (which somehow involves two people disguising themselves as a cow) and uncover the identity of the traitor. Then comes an ending that's equal parts Cloak and Dagger (the 1946 Fritz Lang spy flick starring Gary Cooper, not the kiddie adventure about Henry Thomas and his imaginary super-spy friend Dabney Coleman) and The Wizard of Oz as Hilary bids farewell to Resistance members Du Quois (Harry Ditson), Déjà Vu (Jim Carter), Chocolate Mousse (Eddie Tagoe), and Scarecrow (who apparently left Mrs. King home that day).
I realize I've probably made the film seem a lot more straightforward than it really is. Nothing could be further from the truth. After all, the plot of Top Secret! is basically a mechanism to allow Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker to string together as many jokes -- ranging from the obvious (the obligatory Jaws music cue, the Pinto gag) to the surreal (Nick scaring the bicycles off like horses, the fireplace on a parachute, the underwater saloon brawl) as they possibly can. I haven't even mentioned the officious East German general (Jeremy Kemp) who gets some of the best sight gags in the whole film (the shot with the boots up on his desk, the one of him reading Herman Goering's Workout Book, and, of course, the big phone). He also gets some terrific lines, as evidenced by the scene where he introduces Nick to the men who will be interrogating him: "Otto is deaf and blind. He operates solely by touch. Klaus is a moron who knows only what he read in the New York Post." In the absence of Leslie Nielsen, Kemp gets my vote for best deadpan performance in the whole film. The performances across the board are just a delight, though. I'm particularly fond of Harry Ditson and Jim Carter's double-act, with the perpetually grousing Du Quois correcting the empty-headed Déjà Vu at every turn. The scene that gets the most points for creativity, though, is the one in the Swedish Bookstore (which is run by Peter Cushing, another Hammer veteran making one of his last screen appearances) that was filmed entirely in reverse. I wonder how many takes it took to get that right.
In a way, Top Secret!'s inherent strangeness is probably what kept it from making more of a splash at the box office. Whereas audiences in 1980 were primed for a movie like Airplane! (it was easy to identify what it was spoofing and it was able to shoehorn in parodies of other movies like Jaws and Saturday Night Fever without any fuss), the people of 1984 apparently weren't ready to embrace a zany comedy that couldn't be as easily pigeonholed. It's no surprise, then, that Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker chose to downplay some of their more absurdist tendencies for their follow-up project, 1986's Ruthless People, but they were back in full force for 1988's The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, which was the last time all three of them collaborated on one film. Still, the ZAZ ethos soldiered on with that film's sequels, which were largely the domain of David Zucker, and Jim Abrahams staked out his own territory with the Hot Shots! diptych, but after a while it seemed like even they couldn't recapture their former glories. (To this day I had yet to even attempt Mafia!, which is the last we've heard out of Abrahams apart from a co-writing credit on Scary Movie 4, and the less said about David Zucker's post-Naked Gun work, the better.) One has to wonder what they would come up with if they reunited for something more than just a group commentary on one of their old films, but I'd say the chances of that happening are less than a load of dead rats in a tampon factory.
"I remember the day we did shoot the Swedish Bookstore scene. I think it was going very, very slow, and I think we had gotten one rehearsal by the time we broke for lunch. And I walked up to Peter Cushing, and I said, 'Not like the old days, huh, Peter? At Hammer they would've had the scene shot and be striking the set by now.' He looked at me and smiled and said, 'At Hammer, they would have finished the picture and be starting the sequel.'" - DAVID ZUCKER
"How silly can you get?" - NICK RIVERS
They just don't exist! Just flat-out, plum do not exist! There simply are no Elvis Presley spy/romance/WWII action-musicals! Try and find one! I dare ya!
So far in this 1980s project, Richard O'Brien has parodied a kind of reality television that wouldn't really exist for another decade (Shock Treatment), and Amy Heckerling has parodied the gangster films of a half-century previous (Johnny Dangerously). But with their film Top Secret!, the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team attempted something altogether different: a feature-length spoof of a sub-genre which hadn't existed before, didn't exist at the time, and wouldn't exist in the future. In other words, Top Secret! is that rarest of rarities, a parody without a clear antecedent. Sounds like a veritable license to print money, doesn't it?
But it wasn't. Top Secret! lagged behind its competitors in 1984, outpaced by Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop and even a pair of comedies penned by Neil Israel and future ZAZ collaborator Pat Proft: Bachelor Party and Police Academy. On the brutal Top Secret! DVD commentary track, the ZAZ boys maintain that the film has yet to turn a profit, a sad fact which perhaps explains their utter lack of enthusiasm for it. But no matter! The film may have swung and missed at the box office, but it found a cozy home on video and television as the kind of flick that trivia-minded comedy nerds recommend to one another.
While re-re-rewatching Top Secret! for this article, I was reminded of just how many delightful moments there are in this film: the German guard who falls from a tower and shatters on the ground, the underwater saloon fight (complete with underwater barkeep, underwater hooker, and underwater gamblers), the "little German" and "little horse" visual puns. Not to mention the East German Women's Olympic Team (played by 'roided-up male bodybuilders), the giant statue of a pigeon befouled by flying men, and an incredible run of gags featuring two men in a cow costume. (I daresay the ZAZ boys exploited every last comedic possibility of two men in a cow costume... and then some!) In this age of easily freeze-framed DVDs, there are so many further tidbits one can discover, like the pop chart which features such unlikely also-rans as "Enough Already!" by the Rolling Stones and "Beige Tones" by Procol Harum. And can it be that I never noticed the headline, "My Daughter Is Dead... But So Is the Burglar!" on the cover of a gun magazine before? In our review of Johnny Dangerously two weeks ago, I complained that Heckerling's film didn't seize every possible opportunity for jokes and simply played some scenes relatively straight for plot or exposition purposes. Nothing like that here. In Top Secret!, if the main characters are earnestly discussing the plot in the foreground, you can bet there's some visual distraction occurring right behind them, e.g. that aforementioned "pigeon statue" gag, an incredibly elaborate bit which occurs entirely in the background of a scene and is never once mentioned or even acknowledged by the main characters.
This is not to say that Top Secret! is a perfect film. On the commentary track, the ZAZ boys say they brought in that fourth writer, Martyn Burke, because they needed someone who knew about "story." But I'm not 100% sure that Martyn earned his Paramount paycheck, because after many viewings of this film, I have found the plot of Top Secret! to be nigh-unfollowable. In fact, when I was watching the film's final, seemingly Casablanca-inspired scene just this morning, I was unclear as to which characters were boarding the plane, which ones weren't boarding the plane, where the plane was going, and what the passengers were going to do once they got there. And aren't the Naz... I mean, Commies supposed to be in hot pursuit of the heroes at that moment? Don't they all need to get on that plane, regardless of their divergent life choices? I'm thinking, Get on the goddamned plane and sort out your problems later. I'm sure the answers to these questions can be found somewhere in all that expository dialogue elsewhere in the film, but do you really feel like looking for them? I didn't. Ultimately, a movie like Top Secret! is just a delivery system for gags. There's no shame in that. The gags here are good, inventive, and (above all) frequent. But whenever I watch Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles, I somehow find myself getting wrapped in the storyline and really caring what happens to the people onscreen. That doesn't quite happen when I watch Top Secret! Somehow, when Gene Wilder tells Cleavon Little his tragic backstory in Blazing Saddles, it's both funny and sad. When Nick and Hillary swap tragic backstories in Top Secret!, it's just agreeably silly and not even a little more than that. Maybe that's why, for me at least, it's something of a chore to watch Top Secret! in one sitting. I'd much rather parcel it out in, say, 20-minute increments with snack/bathroom breaks in between. For me, it plays better that way. In that way, Top Secret! is tailor-made for the Internet age. It's all but begging to be quoted out of context and excerpted on YouTube, as indeed it has been.
But don't get me wrong, citizens. I come here to praise Top Secret!, not to bury it. This flick is a heck of a lot of fun and definitely worthy of 90 minutes of your time. If you've read this far in the article, I'm guessing you've already seen it, but it does merit repeat viewings if only to glimpse Val Kilmer during his days as a Tiger Beat-ready heartthrob. (Side note: Is it a mere coincidence that both Kilmer and Michael Keaton starred in unsuccessful spoof movies in 1984 before going on to play Batman? Well, yes, it is. Now if George Clooney had also made one of these things back in '84, that'd be a different story.) Anyway, Val's great here as hip-swiveling, cheerfully oblivious Nick Rivers, a Presley-type American rock star who finds himself involved in some Cold War intrigue in a suspiciously WWII-ish East Germany. Here's Nick's off-the-cuff defense of his beloved homeland: "We've got the Liberty Bell, Disneyland on both coasts. It's happening!" And then there are the songs. As Craig pointed out, these turn out to be highlights of the film, rather than dead spots. Top Secret! supplies Kilmer/Rivers with six unfailingly catchy songs, both remakes and originals, and then presents these tunes very effectively with rapid-fire visual gags and outlandish choreography. I'd like to particularly point out "Spend This Night With Me," a pleading, urgent romantic ballad which Nick sings during a concert sequence to his weeping, adoring fans. Like Elvis frequently did, Nick brings one lucky young gal with him onstage, and her very believable hysteria makes this one of the film's more emotionally affecting sequences. As the number progresses, Nick gets, shall we say, way into the drama of the lyrics, threatening to kill himself in a variety of ways (noose, head in the oven, lying down on train tracks) complete with props and scenery. During this scene, Nick Rivers recalls James Brown, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Spike Jones and "poor old Johnnie Ray" all rolled into one! Each time Nick tries to off himself, he is pulled back from the brink by his plaid-jacketed backup singers, who are meant to look like the Jordanaires. I really can't say enough about those backup singers; they're the funniest of their kind to be found outside of Peter Gallagher's scene in The Hudsucker Proxy. I cannot tell you how delighted I was when Nick Rivers and his Faux Jordanaires reappeared during the film's end credits.
With a couple of arguable exceptions, the real Elvis Presley generally never got to make a movie this good. If only the ZAZ boys had guided his screen career instead of Hal B. Wallis, imagine the films that could have resulted! Overall, I think the Big E would've gotten a kick out of Top Secret! One of my favorite little corners of the pop culture world is Elvis Presley's acting resume, particularly the names of his characters, as if Elvis Presley could ever be anything but himself. "Nick Rivers" is pretty close to a genuine Presley character name. Elvis actually did play a Deke Rivers once, alongside such memorable roles as Ted Jackson, Greg Nolan, Mike McCoy, Tulsa McLean, Chad Gates, and even Toby Kwimper. On the infamous spoken-word album Having Fun With Elvis on Stage, the King spoke with charming irreverence about his stint in Hollywood, cranking out 31 films in just 13 years:
I made some movies, you know, G.I. Blues, Blue Hawaii and several pictures that did very well for me. Thank you. But as the years went by, I really missed the people, the audience contact. I really was getting bugged. I was doing so many movies, and I couldn't really do what I could do. You know, they would say, "Action," and I would say, "Wha? Wha? Huh? Memphis!" And they'd say, "That ain't what you're supposed to say!" And I'd say, "Huh?"There's very little I could add to that except to say: Mitzi Gaynor. Ad nauseum. Amen.
Up next: In August, we'll see what those wacky Monty Python boys were up to in the 1980s. For one thing, they tried to figure out the meaning of life and turn their findings into a movie, the title of which escapes me.