VINCENTENNIAL: CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR and BARON OF ARIZONA Tonight
CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR will play at the Vincentennial Vincent Price Film Festival in a 35mm print at 7:00pm tonight, Tuesday, May 24th at Brown Hall on the campus of Washington University followed by THE BARON OF ARIZONA at 9:15. With introductions and a post-film discussion of “Champagne for Caesar” by Washington U. film & media lecturer Hunter Vaughan. Admission is free.
Many works of fiction have been said to be ahead of their time. In the world of motions pictures few are more prophetic than the 1950 comedy classic CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR. By that year, mind you, quiz shows were popular on radio and that young upstart television, but by the end of the decade these programs would inspire a national craze ( and a scandal later depicted in Robert Redford’s film QUIZ SHOW ). CAESAR foreshadows all this while showcasing some delightful performances by actors generally not known for big screen comedies. The plot centers on an unemployed genius Beauregard Bottomley played by one of Hollywood’s most celebrated leading men, Ronald Colman. He was best known then for roles in THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, LOST HORIZON, and RANDOM HARVEST, but today he may be best known as the vocal inspiration for cereal pitch man ( er..bird ) Toucan Sam. Beauregard shares a modest LA bungalow with his sister Gwenn played by Barbara Britton ( who later co-starred in TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North) who teaches piano and the filmâ€™s title character Caesar, a parrot with a taste for booze ( his exclamations, such as ‘get loaded’,and ‘How about a short one?’ are provided Looney Tunes’ man of a thousand voices Mel Blanc ). One evening the Bottomleys view a few minutes of a game show on a TV in a store’s window display. It’s ‘Masquerade for Money’ – sponsored by My Lady Soap ( the soap that sanctifies ) and hosted by Happy Hogan ( Hmmm wonder if Stan Lee saw this? That name was given to Tony Stark’s driver/bodyguard in his Iron Man comic book stories a decade alter ) played by Art Linkletter who would soon have a huge TV hit with his transplanted radio show People Are Funny. Beauregard dismisses it until the unemployment office sends him to the My Lady Soap headquarters for a job interview with the company president Burnbridge Waters by Vincent Price. Price had been making films for twelve years, but this film shows a zany, comic style not yet seen on screen. When Waters concentrates he goes into a trance and almost becomes a wax figure. He’s arrogant, pompous, and dismissive especially with his squad of yes men ( which include Ed Wood regular Lyle Talbot, who played Lex Luthor in the serial ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN and Commissioner Gordon in the serial BATMAN AND ROBIN, and John Hart who would replace Clayton Moore as TV’s Lone Ranger for one season). Leaving Waters’s office after losing out on the job and being insulted, Beauregard decides to go on the My Lady sponsored quiz show. There he easily answers the questions, but refuses the prize money. He wants to return on the next show and go double or nothing. Waters is delighted when this turns into a ratings ( and soap sales ) bonanza, but is horrified when his questions cannot stump Beauregard, who intends to keep earning money until he owns the company. A rattled Waters sends Hogan out to romance info from Gwenn and he hires intellectual femme fatale Flame Neill played by Celeste Holm ( the original Ado Annie in Oklahoma had won a supporting Oscar for GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT three years ago and was about to be seen in ALL ABOUT EVE ) to distract Bottomley. I don’t wish to reveal much more or spoil the film’s great humor and surprises. The main reason to see is the delightful performance of Mr. Price. His droll wit would come through in his later work, but here he’s a whirling dervish of mirth-an inspired comic villain. A few years later Price and Colman would spar again in Irwin Allen’s campy THE STORY OF MANKIND, but here in CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR the laughs are intentional., and very, very plentiful.
The second film written and directed by auteurist favorite Samuel Fuller (“Pickup on South Street,” “The Naked Kiss,” “Shock Corridor”), THE BARON OF ARIZONA is based on the true-life adventures of James Addison Reavis (1843-1914), one of the most ambitious swindlers of the 19th century. In the 1870s, ace conman Reavis (Vincent Price) spent years carefully forging documents and land grants intended to make him and his wife (Ellen Drew) the undisputed owners of the entire state of Arizona. A captivating, offbeat Western, THE BARON OF ARIZONA features impressive B&W cinematography by two-time Oscar® winner James Wong Howe, and Price’s role as a likeable schemer was one of his personal favorites. Praising the film on its 1950 release, the Los Angeles Times wrote: “Sam Fuller and star Vincent Price make the Baron a brilliantly resourceful, fascinating fellow, and his adventures absorbing.”