Playing Tue June 21 at 9:30 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]
A film that lives in infamy.
Alt Screen Editorial Assistant Joseph Pomp summarizes for L Magazine:
Flops are a dime a dozen, but few have been as fastidiously locked away from posterity as At Long Last Love, Peter Bodganovich’s 1975 homage to Hollywood musicals of the 30s. Sandwiched between Daisy Miller (1974) and Nickelodeon (1976), it’s undoubtedly the most maligned in Bogdanovich’s trilogy of period-piece bombs. John Simon’s Esquire review called it “maybe the worst movie musical of this—or any decade”: “Sitting through this movie is like having someone at a fancy Parisian restaurant, who neither speaks nor reads French, read out stentoriously the entire long menu in his best Arkansas accent, and occasionally interrupt himself to chortle at his own cleverness.” Bodganovich and his then-girlfriend/leading lady Cybill Shepherd have referred to it as simply “The Debacle.” Never released on home video, At Long Last Love is well-known for being one of the only films so disastrous that its director resolved to publish a “letter of apology” in newspapers across the country shortly after the film’s release. The actual letter, it turns out, is even stranger than any of the Internet rumors about it.
Read the rest of Joseph’s review here.
It’s hard to believe that Peter Bogdanovich—ascotted poet laureate of the DVD commentary, anecdoting friend of famous-er directors, delightfully readable Indiewire blogger (see Blogdanovich)—was once the reigning wunderbrat of New Hollywood. There’s a definite edge to the initial reviews of At Long Last Love (Simons is no outlier) that betrays a barely disguised desire to see Bogdanovich pulled off his pedestal—which followed in short order, of course, despite the director’s strange cry of defiance. But in the decades since, more than a few critics have developed a soft spot for the film.
Blogging at The Evening Class, Maya recounts a recent (reluctant!?) Bogdanovich appearance at an At Long Last Love tribute screening:
[Programmer] Jesse Hawthorne Ficks detailed that his “genuine” Bogdanovich tribute came about in response to recently screening At Long Last Love (1975) at his Midnights for Maniacs Burt Reynolds triple-feature. The film hadn’t played in over 30 years and Jesse was terrified that perhaps it really was a terrible film and that there was a reason why it hadn’t been screened all this time. His fears evaporated watching the film. Even though the film was detested by critics, Jesse confidently asserted that was only because the critics were “fucking stupid.” He found At Long Last Love to be “a genuine Lubitsch musical” way ahead of its time even as it paid tribute to films of yesteryear. Jesse contacted Peter Bogdanovich and argued At Long Last Love had been seriously overlooked and misunderstood and that Bogdanovich needed to come out to San Francisco for a retrospective at the Castro Theatre. Bogdanovich’s response was, “Why do you want to play that film?” Through a volley of conversations, Jesse managed to convince Bogdanovich to attend the weekend tribute.
The conceit of At Long Last Love was that Bogdanovich wanted to do all the singing live. “Most musicals are done in playback,” he explained, “the voice is recorded in a studio and then on set you lip synch to what’s been recorded. But I didn’t like that. I thought, ‘Let’s do it the way Lubitsch did it back when they couldn’t do playback and have them really sing live.’ Which was challenging since Burt was not a singer—”to put it mildly”—but, then again, he wasn’t a dancer either. They got around all that somehow. “It was reviewed as my homage to Astaire and Rogers but it was actually the opposite. It was really about a bunch of frivolous people who couldn’t talk to each other so they sang lyrics that were made up by somebody else. Like when you can’t think of anything to write and you buy a greeting card.” At Long Last Love was really about these superficial people unable to communicate directly. Conceding he might be superficial as well, Bogdanovich said he likes to sing to people too. Shepherd recalled that he courted her during the filming of The Last Picture Show by singing songs. She then talked him into singing one of those courtship songs and joined in. It was a charming close to their on-stage appearance together.
Stephen Garrett for Time Out (London):
Everybody hated Bogdanovich’s homage, a trivial story slotted round some Cole Porter songs. It’s an indulgent movie – Peter and Cybill having a lark with their friends – but it’s also a neat parody of ’30s musicals, with sets nodding to Van Nest Polglase, Hillerman taking the Eric Blore part with unerring restraint, Reynolds hamming away as if he’s Cary Grant crossed with Muhammad Ali, the much-maligned Cybill Shepherd an icy honey-blonde in the Tracy Lord tradition (the Grace Kelly, not the Katharine Hepburn version). Better still, the brittle, clipped world of Porter’s songs is perfectly evoked. It may be a movie we’ll come back to later and find we all like it.
Joe Baltake for The Passionate Moviegoer:
Criminally maligned – and mostly by people who haven’t even bothered to see it – Peter Bogdanovich’s sublime homage to the ’30s film musical, At Long Last Love, is ripe for a little rediscovery and some decided re-evaluation. Bogdanovich was arguably at his most creative on this movie, filming it in color but designing it largely in black-and-white, so that the only colors in the film are his actors’ skin tones. He also enlisted his cast of game, nonprofessional singers to perform their songs live, every one of them, and despite the hasty assumptions that were made at the time of the film’s release, the singing is fine here – more than fine actually, given that Shepherd, Kahn and Del Prete all sport trained voices, while Reynolds affects a soothing Dean Martin-style croon.
To complement the stress-free singing, choreographer Rita Abrams kept her dance routines light and easy-going. The result is that the dancing here has the off-the-cuff, scratch-pad casualness of the in-between numbers in the Astaire-Rogers films. The film doesn’t feel choreographed.
It’s impossible not to feel affection for At Long Last Love, Peter Bogdanovich’s much-maligned evocation of the classical 1930s musical. It’s a light, silly, impeccably stylish entertainment, and if the performers don’t come up to the comparisons they evoke with the genius of Astaire and Rogers, that’s not entirely their fault; the studio tradition that developed and nurtured the great musical stars no longer exists, and a movie like this has to be made from scratch.
The story, of course, is totally inconsequential, as it should be, and Bogdanovich is good at keeping it floating some few inches above the ground; he’s not giving us a tribute to the great musicals like Swing Time and Top Hat, he’s trying to make another one. He doesn’t succeed, primarily because his performers aren’t really suited to musical comedy, but he doesn’t fail to the extent some of the reviews would have you believe.
The movie’s no masterpiece, but I can’t account for the viciousness of some of the critical attacks against it. It’s almost as if Bogdanovich is being accused of the sin of pride for daring to make a musical in the classical Hollywood style. At Long Last Love isn’t Swing Time, but then it isn’t Funny Lady either, thank God. Bogdanovich has too much taste, too sure a feel for the right tone, to go seriously wrong. And if he doesn’t go spectacularly right, at least he provides small pleasures and great music.
The plot, a lighthearted romp with the idle rich and their intertwining relationships, is no more shallow than the typical MGM musical of its time. The cinematography, with its long movements and constantly changing lighting conditions, is no less ambitious and successful than Singin’ in the Rain. The editing, with every cut so perfectly timed it seems as if the film is one total unabridged take (although many scenes do run ambitiously longer than most films), is impeccable. The music, composed entirely of Cole Porter classics, certainly cannot be faulted. Apparently Cybill can’t hold a note, but from the muddled transfer I saw, she held up just fine. Madeline Kahn, Burt Reynolds and the rest of Bogdanovich’s picture show team do an amiable job of bringing Porter’s music to life and keeping the film at a bubbly and brisk pace. The entire film comes off pitch perfect as an old school musical, and to criticize it for its production values would be criticizing the entire genre as a whole. Nobody criticizes a romantic comedy for letting the two lovers unite at the end, so why should Bogdanovich’s film be chastised for recreating the conventions of the musical?
To say At Long Last Love achieves at being an old style musical would be a disservice to the things Bogdanovich has done with the film. He’s done more than just recreate the genre’s elegance and technical beauty, although those traits are not to be ignored. He peppers throughout the film a new sort of self-reflexivity, where the characters themselves acknowledge the absurdity of the whole song and dance numbers. “Are you singing to me sir?” the butler asks Reynolds. “No. I was singing to myself,” Reynolds says with a slight embarrassment on his face. There is a hint that the characters themselves understand they are in a musical, as if they’ve already been to Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo and seen through the movie screen. They sing and dance because they have inherited the whimsy of love, but they also do so out of duty of saving face in a genre long past its prime.
Shawn McLoughlin for the blog as well:
What does work, and what is presented best of all is the theme. As the film ends and we are pulled out of the music box world. The music and dancing figurines stop and as the credits roll we hear car horns and street bustle. I would like to think, that this is the real point of the film. You can have the nostalgia of simpler times, but realize that you can’t go back. The real world is always where you are forced to return. In that regard, perhaps the casting of stars that could in no way match the presence of the golden era wasn’t so off-target. The movie is a dream, a “what if” story. What if the stars of today were dropped in the studios of yesteryear? Sadly, this film proves that the thought works better in the mind than the screen. That haunting ending is, in a way, more heartbreaking than even the grittiest the decade offered us. It’s an incredible finale and fine redemption for a film you would never expect to see it attached to.