Last Friday, my wife and I were flicking around on the tube and came across a Dick Cavett – Mel Brooks “sit-down” show where they just talked and told stories, bouncing things off each other. It had us on the floor and Cavett told a couple of really funny stories that surprised us with their risque-ness and ripe language, he was always so dry and suave on his old talk show, a gentleman.
One of them was about Talullah Bankhead and Chico Marx. Talullah Bankhead had taken New York by storm overnight in the 1920s with her sensational Broadway performances. She was an outrageous personality, her favourite things were sex (with both men and women), cocaine (of which she said “Cocaine is not habit-forming – I should know, I’ve been taking it for years”) and swearing. This was in stark contrast to her background and early public image as a grand, aristocratic Southern belle, she was from a rich and powerful old Alabama family, a real lady.
The Marx Brothers were famous for their sexual promiscuity and oddly, Chico was the most prolific (I would have thought Groucho, but never mind.) Chico was a real wolf, a quick and crude worker in his approach to propositioning the ladies, he didn’t believe in “beating around the bush.” The brothers were at a cocktail party for Talullah and Chico was warned to be on his best behaviour around such an elegant, grand lady.
Chico couldn’t help himself though, Bankhead was so drop-dead sexy that when he met her, he blurted out “You know, I really wanna fuck you.”
A shocked hush fell over the room but Talullah didn’t bat an eye, answering “And so you shall, you old-fashioned boy.”
Cavett said that sometimes when interviewing celebrities he would get into trouble by quoting a famous line about them, only to realize too late that they’d never heard it before. This happened to him once with Fred Astaire (when Cavett mentioned Fred, Mel Brooks made bowing gestures, he idolizes Astaire), when they were riding around Hollywood in the back of a limo with the windows rolled down. Cavett mentioned Katherine Hepburn’s famous line about Astaire and Ginger Rogers being a perfect compliment to each other – “He gave her class and she gave him sex appeal.”
It drew a complete blank from Fred, who’d not only never heard the line before, but wasn’t too pleased about it. “Kate said that? What the hell was she talking about? I don’t think I like it, it makes me sound like some kind of fag or something.” Astaire continued to chew on this as the limo pulled up to a stop sign.
Cavett noticed two old-lady Hollywood tourists right out of central casting (blue hair, sunglasses, cameras, binoculars and a guidebook to the movie star’s homes) standing on the sidewalk. They spotted Astaire and started pointing and gawking open-mouthed and just then Fred barked out “Katherine Hepburn is full of shit!!” as the limo pulled away.
I’d give anything if I could somehow bring Mel Brooks and my friend John Sherwood together, just so John could tell Mel the story of how he saw Blazing Saddles for the first time. He was about fourteen and a bunch of Grade 9 science classes from his high school went on a field trip by bus to some conservation reserve. It started pouring on the way and by the time they arrived at the park the rain was torrential, with no sign of it letting up, the place was about to close. Now the teachers had to figure out what to do with all these bored teenagers for the rest of the day and one of them hit on the bright idea of going to a movie, at least they’d be entertained and dry.
They found a nearby mall with a movie theatre and Blazing Saddles was playing. It had just come out, nobody had heard of it or Mel Brooks, plus this was the early version of it, before it was censored and given a restricted rating. The teachers figured it was a harmless western, a safe bet, and Sherwood remembers not being too enthused about seeing another cowboy flick. So in they went and the movie started and within about a minute it was pretty clear this wasn’t your average western, the outrageous humour and zingers started right away and John recalls about five minutes in when Slim Pickens drawled his immortal line, “You boys is dancin’ around like a bunch of Kansas City faggots” he just spazzed out and hit the deck, laughed till he was nearly sick.
It was up till then the greatest single moment of his young life, them being treated to all this outrageous whacko humour on school time by way of their teachers’ gross misjudgement. He said the teachers didn’t laugh once or even make a sound, they were mortified, just sitting there in the dark sweating bullets, while he and the others got over their initial shock and just went apeshit, rolling around in the aisles. Things were never again quite the same around his high school and the teachers made them all promise not to tell their parents they’d seen this movie. I love this story and I think Mel Brooks would too.
© 2012 – 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.