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Hollywood Bloopers

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A disreputable, scantily-identified video called Hollywood Bloopers has got me thinking about why people love seeing movie actors flub lines, fumble props, trip, swear, and crack up on camera. This particular tape appears to be a series of 5 or 6 blooper compilations put together by someone at Warner Brothers in the late 30s and early 40s, under the titles "Breakdowns of 1937," "Breakdowns of 1938," etc. The lead credit for one reads "The Warners Club Presents..." and another opens with the title "And here's what we've all been waiting for..." I surmise that the annual "Breakdowns" were intended for internal amusement, probably to be shown at an occasion like the studio Christmas party. Certainly it would be more fun with a few drinks under your belt and a holiday bonus check in your pocket; cold sober, it's not that thrilling to hear Pat O'Brien say "God damn it!" several dozen times.

The bloopers, or "breakdowns," included on this tape are not particularly dirty or particularly humiliating, and not very funny either. But they are absolutely irresistable. The genre has continued to thrive, with whole TV programs devoted to TV and movie screwups. What's the charm?

1. It's fascinating to watch the instant switch from character to person: this creature on the screen looks the same and sounds the same, but the context changes completely. There's a certain look that a skilled actor never uses within a film--an inquiring glance to a spot about three feet to one side of the camera--that effectively destroys whatever illusion has been created. Often actors stay in character to a certain extent; without changing their tone of voice they abandon the scene: "..and I'll tell him... I'll tell him... I won't tell him anything because I forgot the goddamn line!" Or they garble a word they keep on spewing nonsense syllables for a few seconds (Edward G. Robinson seems fond of this approach). Often it takes other performers in the scene a while to realize that the take is ruined; as soon as they do, their whole physical presence changes.

2. Hearing stars, especially in period costume, say "Ah, shit!" "Son of a bitch!" and "Jesus Christ!" does pack something of a punch, even in the profane 90s. Must have caused great hilarity in 1937. Cagney, Bogart, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, John Garfield, Lionel Barrymore, Paul Muni,, all swear--if not "a blue streak," as the video box promises, at least respectably (no clips are included where a woman says anything stronger than "Shoot!," or where anybody uses the F-word, proof of the movie's at least semi-official status). It's a reminder that although we feel we know these people intimately, we know them within an extremely constrained context.

3. When the crew guffaws off-screen and fellow actors break up, we get a glimpse of the sublime cameraderie of performing. This is true of the stage as well as movies; these people are working together, just as we work with our colleagues doing whatever we do, but think of all the fun they have! When Bette Davis and James Cagney sag against each other mock-weeping because they've botched a scene for the third time, they seem like the luckiest people on earth.

4. There's a certain hilarity in seeing scene follow scene: here are some men in knee britches, here's a bunch of gangsters in prison, here's a Civil War era ball, a safari scene, a close-up of Errol Flynn with a feather in his cap. Movie-making is so crazy! And in the blooper context, every scene ends exactly the same way--with a burst of highly contemporary American slang.

5. Audiences like to be reminded that movie actors work hard. Even this murky little tape conveys how much concentration and skill even the simplest scene demands. These folks have to hit marks, handle props, and deliver dialog that can be extremely complicated, and on top of all that they have to be emotionally convincing. It's somewhat awesome to see them snap in and out of character. One year's compilation (they get more clever as time goes on) intercuts little snippets of Basil Rathbone in chain mail patiently trying on helmet after helmet, holding up a little card with a number to identify each model. This is the quotidian work of movie actors, uncomfortable and unglamorous, funny and somewhat moving when shown in public.

But I'll return to point 1. Here is the alchemy of movie performing in stark relief. Costumes, lighting, makeup stay the same, but one moment there's a fantasy happening before us and a second later we've got exasperated actors cursing themselves and asking for a drink of water. The studio personnel for whom these little films were originally put together knew more about the process than we do, but apparently they were no less enchanted.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein