Both men were superb athletes in their primes, and both, to quote my friend Kent, had “funny bones”. It was difficult for these men to suppress their comedic impulses. Cary Grant did so completely in Notorious, which is why his performance is still so brilliant and unsettling, and Elvis? Well, you can see his humor in live performances, even from the earliest days before he knew he would be a legend, goofing his way through songs, lightening the mood, tuned in to comedic potential in every moment. This is a man who, when faced with a tepid audience in Las Vegas in 1956, is so desperate for them to laugh that he introduces his next song with, “The next song we’d like to sing is …. Get Out of the Stables, Grandma, You’re Too Old To Be Horsing Around.” This man was a shameless goofball. It’s unbalancing, to find that quality in a sex symbol.
Presley was brilliant physically, and you can see it in the early movies, particularly in the fist fights (before the karate came into play). He has an incredible fist fight in Loving You and a couple really good ones in King Creole. He has that thing that good physical actors have: a total trust in his body doing what he wants it to do, as well as a canny mix of abandon and total control. He loved fight scenes. He acts the shit out of them. It was rarer that he got to do physical comedy but all you have to do is watch the scene in Girl Happy as he tries to placate three people at once, all at the same time, running from room to room, or the “waiter” scene in Viva Las Vegas when he pops the cork, with a completely startled look on his face, to know the guy knew how to move funny. It’s a delight when he is allowed to go there. His entire performance in Live a Little, Love a Little is a masterpiece of physical comedy. And please don’t even get me started on this. I said everything I needed to say there. It is one of the many reasons that I treasure him. Sexy shmexy, give me a funny man.
So let’s look at two perfect pratfalls by these sex symbols, pratfalls that are similar in that both of them Keep Going. After you think the fall should end, after you beg it to end to put the man out of his misery, the chaos of the fall is an event that will not stop, and, if given more screen time, both of them would have continued to find different ways to keep falling.
There is nothing, literally nothing, I love more than a perfectly executed pratfall. A perfect pratfall is the definition of generosity towards an audience because its sole purpose is to make an audience laugh. When someone else falls, in a moment that is supposed to be dignified, we experience a catharsis. It’s awesome to see someone else have misfortune, but there is also the element of “Oh my God, I am so GLAD that that is not me”, which is also an important part of catharsis. Cary Grant falling on a dropped olive in Bringing Up Baby is a gift that never stops giving. Bringing Up Baby came out in 1938, many years before I was born. That pratfall will live forever. Believe me, I appreciate the actors who make me cry and think. They’re the ones who changed my life when I was 12, 13. But there is nothing like the satisfaction – the perfection – of a really good funny pratfall . It is related to my “Bang Bang You’re Dead” school of acting. It requires a similar belief in the imaginary on the part of the actor.
Cary Grant was a professional tumbler before he hit the big-time, and he utilized that ability in his parts. My friend Mitchell, who works for a circus, broke down what is so unique about Cary Grant’s back flip in the last scene of Holiday. Yes, he does a back flip, which is already bizarre. But he manages to elongate his body mid-air, and look UP at Katharine Hepburn, NOTICE her entrance, while mid-air, and then falls flat on the ground (with one leg subtly going down to support his fall, elegant, professional).
What is beautiful is that this is being done by a giant movie star, a sex symbol, really, who gives up his protection when necessary to look foolish, clumsy, ridiculous. It is a risk, make no mistake. Every pratfall holds pitfalls. If an audience doesn’t laugh when you decide to look foolish, it could be a disaster.
I wanted to break down two pratfalls, to see how they work.
My favorite pratfall in Cary Grant’s vast repertoire comes in The Awful Truth. The best part about it that it keeps going. You think it’s over, you think he’s gotten it together … and then it …… keeps deteriorating. Most of it is done in 2 or 3 shots, too, so it’s obviously happening, it’s obviously him in charge of the ongoing chaos of that fall. If you study the fall, which appears totally spontaneous, you can see how highly engineered it is.
Like a great athlete (and Grant was a great athlete), he is working on multiple levels during the fall. He is totally in charge of it. He is also able to throw his body around fearlessly, because he has such control of it that he knows how to do it without hurting himself. And in the middle of the chaos, he takes the time to have emotional bits, glances this way and that, to work with a certain prop, plumbing its comedic possibilities. He is a master.
Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) is a guy who is married, but doesn’t seem to take it seriously. He still wants to play around. His wife, Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne), is a bit of a silly person, loves to flit around, taking singing classes, and treating life lightly. The two clash. He can play around. She can’t. The two get divorced. Then, of course, things get interesting. He begins to act like a lunatic. He is convinced she is having a series of giant love affairs. One afternoon, he goes to an address where he believes a tryst is going down. After jujitsu-ing his way through the foyer, he bursts into the inner room, only to discover that his wife is in the midst of giving a hoity-toity opera concert for a select group. She, in the midst of her aria, sees him burst in, the whole room turns around, and so he tries to get it together, pull himself together. Oh yes, oh yes, I’m here to see the concert, oh yea. Mortification + suppressed outrage = comedy.
He sits in the back next to an octogenarian, crossing his arms, in a clear pose meant for his wife to see. “Show me what ya got, I’m not impressed.” She sings through the entire scene.
Leo McCarey, the director of The Awful Truth, was so smart to put that octogenarian there, that relic from another time, that guy born before the Civil War. Sitting there, in his old-fashioned suit and old-fasioned glasses, he represents a respectable world, outraged by the goings-on of the younger generation, as represented by Cary Grant, literally falling apart in the chair next to him.
To show how above the proceedings he is, Jerry starts to lean his chair back against the wall, wearing an arrogant expression.
He leans too far back, and the chair legs fall out from under him, and down he goes in a thunderous crash.
The entire snooty room turns around to look at him. His wife, singing up front, never stops her song, but she watches the entire thing unfold with a demonic glee in her eyes. Both a chair and the small table beside him have gone over with him, his legs having knocked over the table. (The table will be important. I wonder whose idea it was to choose that particular table. Or if that was just the table they had, and Grant, in working out his fall, immediately gleaned that there could be something very funny about that table.) You can see how startled he is at the disaster that has befallen him in front of an entire room of people.
Cary Grant was tall, all arms and legs, and all of them are now tangled up in the chair legs as well as the table legs. It is very important for him to stand up, to stop lying on the floor, because that is tremendously undignified and everyone is staring at him. He has his arm looped through a chair leg, which is still upside down, and he thinks maybe he can stand up, holding it that way, and nothing else bad will happen. The octogenarian watches the entire thing.
Still all tangled up, Grant stands, holding a chair leg, and, in that moment, throws a quick glance at the octogenarian. The quick glance is hilarious.
It seems like he might be out of the woods now. He is, thank God, on his feet, and he has left the chair on its side on the floor, but he still holds the table, which is upside down. He is crammed up against the wall and struggles to get both feet on the same side of the damn table. But his legs are so long, it causes a racket.
He loses his grip on the slippery table, and it falls to the floor. The octogenarian never blinks. His wife never stops singing. Cary Grant is, by this point, a total and utter madman, at war with a physical object.
He’s in a bit of a quandary. The table is still upside down. He knows he has to handle it. But first, he glances quickly at the octogenarian again. Yup, he’s still staring.
Now notice how Grant has placed his one hand down on the top of the table, currently lying on the floor. He is going to pick it up from the top of the table, as opposed to the legs. But, and this is the multi-level thing, Grant is also preparing for the final part of the fall. He’s not done yet, and he has to prepare himself, without, of course, letting on that he is preparing himself.
But first, he glances up at his still-singing wife. Look at how crazy he looks. He is frozen in horror. He wants to sink through the floor.
Ready now, to right the table, he straightens up, and reaches down to grab the top of the table. Notice where he places his hand, though. The character thinks he’s done with the fall, but the actor knows he’s got the final button to put on it.
Instead of grabbing something stable, like the lip of the table, instead he has grasped on to the drawer in the table, which proceeds to come out of the table in his hand, as the table, yet again, crashes down to the floor. It is like the whole universe has gone insane.
At this point, he gives up. He cannot get control of the physical objects in his vicinity, his hair has come undone, he has made such a ruckus that he has ruined his wife’s concert, the octogenarian keeps staring, and there is nothing more to do but submit to the absurdity of his situation. Holding the disembodied drawer, he leans back against the wall, and looks up at his wife, still singing, mind you, with a helpless, “This is totally out of my hands” expression.
And, beautifully, the scene ends with Irene Dunne coming to the final note of her song, and laughing as she sings. Laughing on key.
In Tickle Me (1965), Elvis plays Lonnie Beale, a hotheaded out-of-work rodeo rider who gets a job as a stable boy at a fat farm out in the desert. Models and actresses pay big money to starve themselves and exercise and lose their collective minds when this new guy shows up, a new guy who #1 looks like Elvis and #2 has a way of taking out his guitar and singing sexy songs just as they are supposed to be devoting themselves to aerobics, and all hormonal hell breaks loose. He’s a rooster in a hen house. The movie is extremely entertaining, with some songs I love (“It Feels So Right”, “Put the Blame On Me”, and “Such an Easy Question”), and the whole situation is preposterous, involving a pot of lost gold, a haunted hotel, repeated kidnappings, and many funny scenes of Elvis dealing with all of the horny starving ladies on the fat farm who won’t leave him alone. He’s funny in it. I get why he was depressed making it, but I’m not here to protect Elvis’ interpretation of events. I mean, I’m sorry he was bummed out, but that’s not my problem. (Side note: I think often that’s why “serious” music critics pooh-pooh the movies, because it was well-known how Elvis felt about them, and to say otherwise would seem like a betrayal.) Excuse me, but Elvis is dead. I wasn’t married to him, I didn’t know the guy, I feel no need to take on his interpretation out of loyalty to him. Why? I’m loyal to my own sense of what is good and funny, and it’s not a betrayal of the man to say “Dude is hilarious in this movie.”
Lonnie Beale arrives at the fat farm, holding a suitcase, a saddle, and a guitar. He is led by the hostile male swim teacher past a group of ladies who are doing stretches and bends. Naturally, Lonnie Beale, faced with a bunch of female asses in the air, stops in his tracks.
The aerobics teacher sees him through her legs, and glares up at him for staring.
She straightens up, the whole class stops, and she turns around to stare at him wordlessly. She clearly thinks he’s eye candy, but she’s also letting him know that ogling her and her class is not okay. Lonnie Beale, whom we have already seen getting in such an extreme (random) fist fight that an entire bar is ruined, is flustered by all the female eyes on him. He says nothing, but he starts to cross after the swim teacher, and Elvis, on his way, says, awkwardly, still staring at the aerobics class, “Well …. uh ….” (It’s always funny to see Elvis awkward.) He is not watching where he is going.
He bumps up against one of the umbrella tables, which tips precariously.
Startled, Lonnie Beale loses his balance and falls back on the now toppling umbrella table, legs splayed out. All the women stand still watching the disaster unfold.
The table tips further back, and Lonnie tries to control himself, but by this point the event is going down. He can’t get off this ride. Not now.
The table bumps back, and he falls off to the side … his guitar clattering to the ground.
Here comes my single favorite moment of this pratfall.
Really? Aren’t you exaggerating just a little bit?
Of course he is. That’s why it’s funny.
This, to me, is evidence of Elvis being totally in charge of the event of this fall, even though obviously once it’s going he has to just go with it fearlessly. But he knows, in his funny bones, that his long legs splayed out like a starfish as he goes down will be the funniest choice. And so, in the middle of a chaotic event, he makes that choice. You have to be a good athlete to make a fall like this work, not only to not hurt yourself, but to have it be funny.
More comedy to come. As he goes down, he quickly glances back at the women, making sure (with dread) that they are all still watching. He doesn’t lose himself in the fall, because that’s not what you would do in real life, either. As people fall, they always glance around, mid-fall, to see who’s watching, who is catching their embarrassment. I love that he included that. He is in the moment, as any good actor has to be.
But then the momentum takes over, and down he goes …
However. Once again, he looks back at the staring ladies, panicked that they are still watching his misfortune.
This is a cool guy. By Tickle Me we are full-on in Elvis Movie Land. Elvis is a singular figure in movies, completely unconnected to any reality outside the movies created as vehicles for him. There are subtleties from movie to movie, but the gist remains the same. He is cool, he is hot with the ladies, he can punch a man, and kiss a woman, and do it like a pro. So what’s funny here is that Lonnie Beale obviously is confident that he can get any woman he wants, and of course he knows that, but in the moment of his very first impression, he does battle with an umbrella table in the middle of a fat farm. So of course he won’t be so lost in the fall that he forgets to keep checking back with his audience, mortified that they are seeing him in such an un-cool moment.
It’s fun to watch Elvis play all of this in the middle of a fall that takes all of 5 or 6 seconds to unfold.
The second he is on the ground, he leaps back up, as the table clatters down around him. He reaches for his guitar, desperately, desperate for this nightmare to just END already.
A chair has fallen, a table has fallen, Lonnie has retrieved his guitar, and, for the third time, glances over his shoulder. He hopes his audience will have moved on to greener pastures. He hopes they will leave him alone in his own mayhem. No such luck.
Similar to the table-moment with Cary Grant above, there is a button to the fall and it is found in the offending prop that caused his misfortune in the first place. Elvis was in charge of this. He was funny. He loved it when the joke was on him. He reaches down to pick up the umbrella table, grasping it by the upper end of the umbrella (an important spatial choice).
Of course, as he rights the table, holding the umbrella by its top, the umbrella, embarrassingly, opens up in one flowing motion. It is a ridiculous moment. It makes Elvis look absolutely ridiculous.
It is at that moment that Elvis finally stops what he’s doing, the umbrella flared out beneath his hand, and makes direct eye contact with the aerobics teacher who continues to glare. There is nothing else he can do. He has made an ass out of himself. In his body language he throws himself on her mercy. The aerobics teacher says, scoldingly, “Move along cowboy.”
Huffed and annoyed, he reaches down and grabs the fallen saddle and starts to go.
You didn’t think Elvis was done with this fall bit, though, did you?
He turns and bumps into the fallen chair.
With the same 6 foot tall arms-and-legs awkwardness that Cary Grant had, he tries to walk over the fallen chair, without much success. He does battle with the chair for a second, making another racket, all as the girls continue to stand there watching.
The final button of the fall is that he finally clears the fallen chair but his saddle ends up draping itself over the chair, as though it is the back of a horse. Elvis is totally in charge of that. It’s not an accident that the saddle gets caught. Elvis the smart actor made sure it got caught. But it all looks totally spontaneous, as though the physical objects of the world are conspiring against him in a moment when he wants to look cool and sexy.
Elvis once again finds himself caught, and drags the chair along behind him, trapped beneath his saddle.
Finally, with one final wrench, he frees the saddle and, clutching his guitar and saddle like a man making a near escape, staggers out of frame.
It is a slam-dunk. One of my treasured Elvis Movie Moments.
As these two examples show, a really good pratfall is best left to the professionals.