Wanda Gerschwitz: “Let me correct you on a couple of things, okay? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not every man for himself.”
I hadn’t laughed like this in a long time. Maybe ever. I literally couldn’t catch my breath. I stopped the film three times and had to rewind so I could watch the scenes again. Gosh, I didn’t know I needed that so much. It felt great. The film is “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988) which I hadn’t seen since its release, but something about the past few days…strike that, something about the past nine months had put me in a funk. I’d forgotten what having a really good time felt like and I regained the freedom to allow myself to laugh unreservedly. I never could imagine that the sight of an incoming slow-moving steamroller could get me to completely lose it.
“A Fish Called Wanda” starts as a simple heist taking place in London, and quickly shifts gears into a riotous and farcical exploration of the cultural differences between the British and the Americans. At a time where the rest of the world is looking at the way we’ve been handling our compounding tribulations, the comedic skewering of American behavior feels so refreshing and welcomed. We’re portrayed as excessive, spontaneous, vain, greedy, lustful and vulgar in comparison to the Brits who are too reserved and imperious.
The sophisticated and highly amusing screenplay is based on a story by Monty Python and Faulty Towers comedy legend John Cleese and co-written with Charles Crichton who directed. Crichton – who was 77 years old when the film went into production – is known for having helmed comedies produced at Ealing studios – including the Academy Award winning “The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951). The latter shares a lot of similar attributes with “Wanda” – including bumbling robbers, class conflict and humorously embarrassing moments.
A thin-mustachioed gangster George Thomason has planned a jewel robbery with the help of his animal-lover brother Ken (Michael Palin), his scheming American girlfriend Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), as well as Otto (Kevin Kline) – a weapons expert and pseudo-intellectual. Wanda and Otto are pretending to be siblings, but are passionate lovers. Otto doesn’t like it when people call him stupid – yet he unrelentingly makes fun of Ken’s stammer. “What if we have to say something during the break in?” Otto points out.
The heist goes as planned. As they’re fleeing, they almost run over a snobbish old lady walking three dogs. “Look where you’re going chauvinist pig,” she yells. It all goes haywire after that. George ends up locked up in jail and with the secret where the money is stashed. Now it’s up to Wanda to seduce the barrister (John Cleese) representing George to get closer to the bounty. His name is Archie Leach (Cary Grant’s real name) and he is totally uptight and stuck in a lifeless marriage. “Wanda, do you have any idea what it’s like to be English?” he bemoans. “Being so correct all the time? Being so stifled by this dread of doing the wrong thing?”
Chrichton, who was nominated for the Oscar for his direction, started his career as an editor – and the precision and rhythm of the unfolding is remarkable. He allows the characters to be established unhurriedly – picking up the pace once the wheels are in place. There’s one parallel cutting sequence in which the lovemaking of Otto and Wanda is compared with Arthur’s and his wife’s bedtime routine. Arm pit sniffing is juxtaposed with toe nail clipping. It’s convulsively hilarious.
Most audiences were familiar with Kevin Kline as the brooding leading man in “Sophie’s Choice” and the caring husband in “The Big Chill.” I had seen him on Broadway in zany and swashbuckling roles in “On the Twentieth Century” and “Pirates of Penzance,” so I wasn’t shocked to see his completely rubber-like physical performance and his comic timing all on display in “A Fish Called Wanda.” His Oscar for Best Supporting Actor was that rare instance when the Academy deservedly remunerated a comic performance.
I’m a huge animal lover – in particular dogs – and fortunately no real creatures were harmed in the making of the film – but the most insanely hysterical moments are when sweet pets are slapstickly done away with.
Otto: “You English! You think you’re so superior, don’t you? Well you’re the filth of the planet! A bunch of pompous, badly dressed, poverty stricken, sexually repressed football hooligans!”
Available to stream on HBO Max, HBO Now, HBO (Via Hulu & Amazon Prime), DIRECTV, and to rent Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, FandangoNOW, Redbox and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by John Cleese
Story by Charles Crichton and John Cleese
Directed by Charles Crichton
Starring John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin
Bringing “A Fish Called Wanda” to the Screen
Mr. Crichton’s feature-film career stumbled to a halt after an ill-starred trip to the United States in the mid-1960’s. Burt Lancaster fired him as director of ”The Birdman of Alcatraz” after just one week; he went to New York and walked out of a projected movie that ”just got worse and worse and worse”; and the death of its producer brought a premature end to a film he was preparing with Sammy Davis Jr. Back he came to England, to find deaf ears and closed doors. ”Films were having a very tough time, because of the competition from TV. Everyone was looking for young audiences and felt they needed young directors, and I was in my 50’s. And then I used a whole year trying to make a film about the Irish Troubles that never got off the floor. I was out, and once you’re out, you’re out.” At least he met the rising John Cleese. In 1969, Mr. Crichton had abortive discussions with him and the comedian Graham Chapman about a feature film distantly indebted to ”The Lavender Hill Mob.” The two men liked each other but went their separate ways. For Mr. Cleese, there was Python and more Python, followed by ”Fawlty Towers.” For Mr. Crichton, there was a long, unfulfilling period in television, where he directed ”The Avengers” and other programs he’s less happy to remember. It wasn’t until they found themselves collaborating on management training films a decade later that they formed a friendship and started making a feature…Mr. Crichton joined Mr. Cleese in the south of France, spent two weeks with him beside a swimming pool, talked about diamond robbers and stutters and lawyers, and helped evolve the glimmerings of a story. On the very last day, Mr. Cleese had the breakthrough idea that was eventually to lead to Jamie Lee Curtis. He scrawled ”Maybe the Gang Boss has a Girlfriend” on a piece of paper he still keeps pinned to his study wall. Just before that, Mr. Crichton came up with an ending for the film, involving a steamroller and a criminal trapped in drying concrete, that was derived from a wartime brush he had with a cameraman in a car. ”We were working in the docks and I got my foot under a girder,” he recalled. ”I waved him through a tight area, and of course he went on the girder. And he said, ‘What’s the matter?’ and went back over it, and I shouted, so he went over it again. That gave me the idea.” Mr. Cleese believes that most films betray signs of hate and even panic, and tend to deteriorate after their first third. That’s why he spent the next two-odd years meeting regularly with Mr. Crichton, plotting ideas and working on the story ”very, very slowly, letting the mixture gradually get richer.” That’s also why its last third was finished before the middle. And that’s why the final project was organized with the same precision he and Mr. Crichton had been recommending to aspiring managers in their training films. (nytimes.com)
Casting “A Fish Called Wanda”
Miss Curtis was carefully wooed, Mr. Kline’s interest was whetted and Mr Palin, who knew about the affliction because his father had suffered badly from it, was firmly told he must play the stammerer. By early 1986, all the key people were in place. In the summer they were presented with a first draft of the script, and a year later they were in the studio, on the street and at Heathrow Airport, making the film precisely when and where John Cleese had announced they would. ‘You get so many false promises in this business, you become very wary,” says Miss Curtis. ”But every promise John has made has come true.” One of the promises made and kept was that she have a genuine say in the kind of character she plays. At first she felt Wanda was rather obviously a man’s invention. ”She was a sexually brazen, cold-hearted manipulator, who simply wanted money. I didn’t find that real. I decided she didn’t altogether know what she wanted, but finds a wonderful power in manipulating people and feels personal satisfaction in trying to fool them. She plays a slightly different role for each man, yet she enjoys being herself, and she’s not cold-hearted, not vicious.” She wasn’t the only one to end by humanizing the comedy.
John Cleese himself had gradually concluded that the attorney he played, so far from being a stuffed shirt with nothing beneath, was the sort of Englishman ”who is actually alive and adventurous and open-minded, but has an emotional conditioning so deep it’s a lifetime’s work to escape from it.” Indeed, he came to see the character as the film’s emotional heart and found himself injecting a certain seriousness into the kind of romantic scenes, that because of his reputation for extensive humor, no one had previously asked him to attempt. ”Comedy can be oppressive, because the requirements of timing put pressure on you,” he says. ”But when you don’t have the pressure to get laughs, it’s liberating. In fact, acting became interesting for me again.” Kevin Kline also found himself cast against type, or at least against expectations. His first reaction to being asked to play the crazed hood Otto was to wonder if Mr. Cleese hadn’t got their two characters the wrong way round. ”I mean, I was the sociopath, the person who gets in terrible rages with people, the one who’s fun to perform, while he was relegated to the romantic lead. I told him, you’ve written the John Cleese part for me.” But it brought with it a problem rather similar to that faced by Jamie Lee Curtis. How to make bearable a villain who, at one climactic point, has to torture Michael Palin by sticking french-fried potatoes up his nose and sadistically swallowing his pet fish? (nytimes.com)
The Making of “A Fish Called Wanda”
He and Mr. Cleese spent 10 days talking and improvising in Jamaica during the preparation period, and gradually the character brightened. Otto loved and misinterpreted Nietzsche. He was very stupid but believed himself very intelligent. ”He’s trying so desperately to create an image, and fails so miserably, he’s almost endearing,” says Mr. Kline. ”You can’t help appreciating his energy and his extraordinary commitment to himself. I ended by finding myself both repelled and drawn to him.” Michael Palin was required to play a far lowlier ruffian, a shy, furtive type infinitely more at ease with fish than with people. ”I felt that Ken was the sort of person you see in North London, looking very serious as he goes from the bookies to the pub. He wears a short jacket and tight trousers with keys hanging off the waistband. And he’s bottled up with frustration, so much so that the lid goes spinning into the air, and he ends up running someone over with a steamroller.” Once he’d found the right clothes, and got over the embarrassment of having his normally straight hair given a permanent wave and then scrupulously tousled, Mr. Palin almost was the part. ”I walked like Ken,” he said. ”I felt like Ken, people treated me like Ken and I resented them because they were doing better out of life than Ken.” The problem then, was less the characterization than the stammer, which was only slight with the few people Ken liked, severe with those he feared or disliked and uncontrollable in a crisis. Mr. Palin had to time it carefully, lest he held up the action or spoiled someone else’s lines. Consultation, discussion, change continued throughout 1986 and early 1987, intensified during a two-week rehearsal period and carried over to the studio floor. Right up to the end, the principals were encouraged to try new ideas themselves and offer suggestions and give notes to one another. Kevin Kline, in bed with Jamie Lee Curtis, suddenly produced so weirdly blithe a sexual expression that she, as she remembers, ”had to bite the pillow to stop laughing”; but then Jamie Lee Curtis was herself so inventive that Michael Palin ended up giving her a T-shirt emblazoned, ”Wait, I Have an Idea.”
”Most films, one person is in charge, and you’re afraid even to raise your hand with a suggestion,” she says. ”That’s frustrating if you’re a bright person and trust your instincts. But this was totally a collaborative effort, and I’m afraid it’s spoiled me.” Mr. Cleese oversaw the acting, but Charles Crichton took full responsibility for the filming itself. He felt no lack of confidence in his directing skills, he says, but he was afraid his bad back would trouble him and ”yes, I was a bit scared of letting down John, because it was very courageous of him to put me in that position.” He needn’t have been concerned. Nor need anyone have worried about his age. By all accounts, he grew in authority as the shoot progressed and astonished everyone both with the pace and momentum he seemed to inject into the unfolding story and with the speed with which he himself worked. He didn’t let the camera linger over a face or a line, unless it was important to the plot. And if satisfied with a take, he saw no reason to shoot any others. This sometimes disconcerted both Mr. Cleese, who found some of his funny lines were not exactly sacrosanct, and Kevin Kline, who admits he ”tends to err in terms of let’s do 50 takes, in case we find something new and worth exploring.” But there were no serious disputes. On the contrary, Mr. Cleese emerged from the collaboration convinced that Mr. Crichton had an intuitive grasp of what does and doesn’t work on film. ”Again and again he seems to find a way of putting the cameras on whatever reflects the essence of a scene. His technique is so deeply engrained he doesn’t have to think about it. He shoots less than most directors because he’s editing and cutting in his head while he’s actually on the floor.” Clearly, Mr. Crichton hasn’t forgotten the years he spent in the 1930’s as a film editor. Nor has he lost the habits he acquired as a director in the 1940’s, when money was invariably tight. ”There are people nowadays who are given so many million pounds, they really don’t give a damn about budgets; they go over and over and over,” he says. ”I think there’s a responsibility to the people who put up the money.” As it was, he took a sly pleasure in sometimes saying, ”Print that” after the very first take, and succeeded in shooting the movie within both the allotted time and the allotted budget of $7.3 million.
For Mr. Crichton it wasn’t, however, altogether like shooting another Ealing comedy. There were obvious technical differences. He didn’t have to spend 10 minutes stumbling through a forest of lamps in order to speak to an actor, as he did when he made ”The Titfield Thunderbolt” in color. More importantly, he realized he was catering for a viewing public which demanded more punch and perhaps more toughness. ”Mind you, some of the Ealing comedies were a bit black: ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ and ‘The Ladykillers,’ for instance. But most of them were kinder. This film was harsher – and it went further towards surrealism, it was more Pythonesque than any of the Ealing comedies.” That harshness turned out to be the film’s main problem after it was completed. Test showings in Los Angeles and New York seemed to leave audiences uncomfortable at times, and M-G-M, which had provided the financing, asked for alterations. The ending was softened. The team reshot part of a scene in which Michael Palin’s Ken, animal lover and would-be murderer, is appalled to discover he’s squashed a dog instead of run down its owner. As for John Cleese, he loyally says the changes were minor and don’t betray the movie’s overall tone. But he admits to a certain regret, too. ”I don’t think there’s any question but that I and my friends have a tougher, slightly blacker sense of humor than most people. Do you know what W. C. Fields said? You can make the average man laugh by having a man dressed up as an old woman potter down the street and fall down a manhole. To make a professional comedian laugh, it really has to be an old woman.” But he’s also professional enough to feel that his prime duty is to please, and in that he has the unequivocal support of that veteran of classic comedy, Charles Crichton. ”I like black humor,” he said. ”I like the cautionary tales of Hilaire Belloc in which a lion eats a little boy and terrible things happen. I also think you should believe in what you’re doing and make the audience like it rather than simply do what the audience wants. ”But I don’t think we’ve done that. I don’t think there have been any changes that should make us ashamed. We went exactly as far as we could in the Ealing comedies, and I think we’ve done the same thing in ‘Wanda.’ And I hope and believe it is a very funny film.” AFTER THE CIRCUS The veterans of Monty Python’s Flying Circus may no longer be making television programs together, but they are all pretty busy. (nytimes.com)
About Director Charles Crichton
Charles Crichton was born in Wallasey, Cheshire, one of six children of an unconventional middleman in the shipping industry, who wore a beret to the City instead of a bowler. After Oundle and Oxford, where he read history, Crichton entered the film industry as an editor on several Alexander Korda productions from 1935, including “Sanders Of The River,” “Things To Come,” “Elephant Boy,” and “The Thief Of Baghdad,” before moving to Ealing Studios in 1940. There he continued to edit semi-documentaries such as “The Big Blockade” (1942), about the naval blockade of Germany. Crichton’s feature film debut as director was “For Those In Peril” (1944), a subtly propagandist war drama well written by TEB Clarke and excitingly shot by Slocombe. The following year he was one of four directors on “Dead Of Night,” his episode providing light relief in five tales of the supernatural…Although Ealing became virtually a generic term for English humour, the studio produced almost as many dramas as comedies, and Crichton directed a couple of the best: “Against The Wind” (1948), a rather belated resistance thriller, with Jack Warner being parachuted into Belgium on a secret mission, and “Hunted” (1952), starring murderer Dirk Bogarde on the run with a six-year-old boy (Jon Whiteley), making exciting use of locations such as trains and barges. He also made…“Dance Hall” (1950), which follows four female factory workers who spend their evenings at the local palais de danse. However, it is “The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951) for which Crichton is best remembered. Reunited with Clarke, Slocombe and Auric, he fashioned a fanciful comedy around the theft of gold bullion by a gang of thieves led by a timid Bank of England messenger, in the form of Alec Guinness. The film’s wild, climactic scene made effective use of the travelling matte, a masking technique which gave a vivid impression of the actors running down the Eiffel Tower.
“The Titfield Thunderbolt” (1953), about a group of villagers uniting against bureaucracy in an effort to prevent a branch railway from being closed, brought out the Ealing ideology of smallness and insularity with breezy aplomb. Despite the winding-up of Ealing Studios in 1955, and the beginning of a phase when British comedy became harsher and broader, Crichton continued to make films in the Ealing tradition, such as “Battle Of The Sexes” (1959). In it, Peter Sellers gave one of his most finely-judged character performances, as a mild Scottish accountant whose position is threatened in a long-established Edinburgh textile firm by the arrival of an American efficiency expert. The story was almost a symbol of what was happening to the British film industry. Being offered fewer films to direct in the early 1960s, Crichton worked on several episodes of the tongue- in-cheek television series “Danger Man” and “The Avengers.” However, in 1962, United Artists invited him to Hollywood to direct “The Birdman Of Alcatraz.” It was an odd choice because there was nothing in Crichton’s filmography to suggest that he would be particularly suited to a screenplay which mostly takes place in a prison cell. Sure enough, he clashed with the star, Burt Lancaster, who replaced him with John Frankenheimer. “We decided to part in a gentlemanly manner,” Crichton explained. “I found I was not in the same position as I would be in a British studio. There was too much interference.” In fact, almost everything Crichton did was in a gentlemanly manner, although he could be very firm. During the filming of “A Fish Called Wanda,” when he found the crew were listening to John Cleese – because of Crichton’s age, MGM had insisted that Cleese was billed as co-director – he shouted, “Who’s directing this film, for God’s sake?” At one stage, he told Kevin Kline, a believer in motivation, “We don’t want any of that stuff.” On the set, Crichton wore a t-shirt presented to him by Cleese and inscribed “Age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill”. “A Fish Called Wanda,” which earned more money than any of his previous pictures, was his first feature for 23 years. It was nominated for an Oscar and won a Bafta award. Crichton is survived by his French wife, Nadine, and two sons by his first marriage. (theguardian.com)