By Ray Bennett
LONDON – The late American comic and film director Carl Reiner, who was born 100 years ago today and died in 2020, made some classic comedies but he told me ‘Dead Men Don’s Wear Plaid’ (above) was his favourite.
The 1982 black-and-white picture starred Steve Martin as a private eye whose scenes with Rachel Ward (pictured below) were intercut with those from old movies featuring stars such as Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner.
‘It was,’ Reiner said, ‘the best idea for the sheer fun of making a picture I’ve ever had. I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy making a movie more.’
We were speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1984 where his film ‘All of Me’, again starring Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin (photo below), was a big hit. It was a return to form for the two who had followed their initial box office smash ‘The Jerk’ with ‘The Man With Two Brains’ and the private-eye parody, which did not match Reiner’s earlier success with the marvellous farce ‘Where’s Poppa?’ and the George Burns hit ‘Oh, God!’
Reiner was quite clear on why their second two films, both of which are both clever and hilarious, were flops with critics and audiences. ‘Steve was a comedy hero to the kids for a long time,’ he noted. ‘They loved “The Jerk” but then he gave them “Pennies From Heaven” and they were so surprised and disappointed that they didn’t come out to see it even though it was quite an interesting picture. Then we did “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, which was a sophisticated comedy. It was funny but the kids who were his big fans didn’t know Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Edmond O’Brien and all those other people. Steve had left the kids twice to wonder about him. When we came back with “The Man With Two Brains’, they did not trust that he would be the same Steve Martin even though he was. If that picture had come out right after “The Jerk”, it would have been a big hit. I think now he’s back where everyone can enjoy him. He’s still funny but what happened is that along the way he did “Pennies From Heaven” and he became an actor.’
When he was hired to direct ‘All of Me’, Reiner was given a list of four or five comedians to choose from. ‘We decided that Steve might be the most interesting because he has that physical ability but it’s not exclusive to him,’ Reiner said. ‘It’s an ability that Robin Williams possesses. Richard Pryor, being one of the great pantomimists in the world, would have been magnificent in it. Dick Van Dyke, when he was younger, I would have thought of immediately.’
The filmmaker said that if there was a concern about Martin, it was over his ability to carry off a romantic leading role besides the comedy. ‘Steve has very deep feelings about women, you know,’ Reiner said. ‘He is a lover but he’s also very private so he had to show that leading-man quality. And he did. One time, I was watching a scene from “All of Me” on the moviola when he has on a tuxedo and he’s running around looking silly for a few minutes. Then he’s seen in repose and I said, “My god, that’s Cary Grant!” He really looked like Cary Grant.’