Sunday, March 21, 2010

The death of the B movie

Some time back, I commented on how I thought TV helped lead to the death of the shorts and B movies as produced by the studios in an earlier time. One of the consequences of this that doesn't get mentioned is that, when something that would have been better served as a B movie got made later on, the result was a movie more likely to be panned than to be seen as what it really is. A movie that I think is a good example of a more modern B comedy is For Pete's Sake, which airs at 4:15 PM ET today.

Barbara Streisand stars as a housewife in the New York City of the mid-1970s (the movie was released in 1974), when inflation was running rampant, making ends meet was tough, and New York wasn't the most pleasant place to be. Not only is she struggling to stretch the budget, her husband (Michael Sarrazin) is working as a cab driver and is being browbeaten by his brother and sister-in-law, who have it better. One day, he hears of a commodities deal that could easily net the two of them several thousand dollars, if only they had the money to invest at the start. Streisand does the best thing she knows to do: she borrows the money from a loan shark. Unfortunately, the deal goes sour, and the naïve Streisand learns she's expected to pay the money back....

It's here that what comedy there is in the movie kicks in. Her loan shark seems a bit uncomfortable with the idea of killing a woman, so instead he comes up with a scheme by which she can pay off the debt. That scheme doesn't work, and the debt keeps getting sold from one loan shark to the next, each of which comes up with a more daft idea for getting the money back. However, circumstances combine with Streisand's general incompetence to make each of the deals go sour. For example, when she's expected to work as a prostitute and service the men from her apartment, one of the men comes there by taxi -- a taxi that just happens to be driven by her husband. There's also a courier plot which involves Streisand wearing a ridiculous wig and glasses reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, and most wacky, a plot that has Streisand herding cattle through the streets of New York.

If For Pete's Sake had been made three dozen years earlier, it probably wouldn't be well-remembered, with only those of us who watch too much TCM recalling it, and thinking of it as an interesting B movie. (Of course, the things the Streisand character would be expected to do to get back that money would also be decidedly more tame.) However, it's got a pretty big star in Streisand, which changes people's perceptions of the movie. The result is one that's entertaining at times, but not particularly great. Streisand doesn't have enough to do to carry the movie by herself, and Michael Sarrazin is a bit stiff as her husband. Still, it's not a terrible movie. If you like Streisand, or if you want a nostalgic look at the way New York was in the mid-1970s, you'll probably enjoy the movie.

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