The Inspector General Reviews
I know that no one anywhere else in the country wants to hear me complain, but man, was I overheated today. And so very little of what had come from Netflix or the library was quite what I was in the mood for. Thinking, you see. Actually, I had been talking to Gwen about [i]Captain America[/i] this afternoon, and one of the things we had agreed was ideal in a summer blockbuster was a movie where you could think and didn't have to. And as I have said before, in the summer, I don't want to have to. The idea that I therefore decided to watch an adaptation of a Russian satire written in 1836 is, I acknowledge, a bit surprising. To be perfectly honest, I didn't know it was going in. However, I think that most of the really political stuff must have gotten weeded out, or else Gogol didn't put that much in to begin with. This wasn't quite mindless, but it definitely wasn't as ponderous as you might expect.
Danny Kaye plays Georgi, a peasant who performs in the traveling medicine show of Yakov (Walter Slezak). Georgi is a softhearted, honest sort who tries to convince an old woman that Yakov's medicine is worthless, and Yakov kicks him out. Georgi wanders tired and hungry until he reaches the village of Brodny, where he is arrested for vagrancy. Brodny is a hugely corrupt little town, and they are expecting an inspector to be sent from Napoleon any day now to examine their books. A wacky series of coincidences leads them to believe that Georgi is that inspector. Though he is illiterate, Yakov eventually finds him and inveigles his way in as "the inspector's" assistant. The lovely Leza (Barbara Bates) convinces Georgi that he really ought to help the town. The town leaders want to kill Georgi before he can report their corruption to the emperor. Oh, and there's the little detail that impersonating a government official can be grounds for execution.
It is rather interesting to note that the plot basically revolves around Georgi's literacy, or lack thereof. Had he been literate, Yakov might not have kicked him out. Had he known what the letter said, he might not have used it to patch his boot. (It seems to me that it would be uncomfortable to have the seal in your shoe, but what do I know?) He needs Yakov, when Yakov shows up, because they're all expecting Georgi to inspect the books. He can't even sign his own name. And then, when Leza sends Georgi a note to warn him of an imminent threat on his life, Georgi can't read it. I won't give away what happens, because it's less funny if you know going in, but let us say that it would have been much safer for Georgi had he not had to ask someone else to read the note for him. What's more, it doesn't appear to have been the case in the original play. This is probably in part because literacy rates were much higher in the US in 1949 than they were in Russia a hundred years earlier.
I don't know what it is about Danny Kaye movies. For some reason, he's always totally irresistible to women in them. Now, to be fair, Maria (Elsa Lanchester) is mostly interested in getting out of town and away from her marriage to Kovatch (Alan Hale). She sees someone important like a government inspector straight from Napoleon as a chance to go to court instead of being stuck in a one-horse village with a buffoon. But we all know he's going to end up with Leza. Don't get me wrong; Danny Kaye was a very talented man. He had a good voice, and he was a good dancer. But he was not the world's most attractive man. I'll admit it's been a very long time since I've seen [i]Hans Christian Anderson[/i], but I think he manages to get the girl in that despite how ridiculously out of character it is. One thing the movie industry just doesn't ever seem to have worked out is that comedies don't need romances in them, and they certainly didn't realize that in the forties.
It's kind of odd. I like funny movies, but I never seem to have them in my Netflix queue. Maybe this is because the comedies they recommend to me aren't generally what I consider funny. And it isn't just that I don't like Woody Allen or Judd Apatow. Yes, I started this review talking about how, in the summer, I don't want to have to think. However, I did also point out that I want it to be possible to think about the movie if I want to. As part of my summer tradition, I watched [i]Major League[/i] a while ago, and while it's pretty dumb, it isn't entirely dumb. Even most of the silly throwaway jokes are built on a solid footing. This is true of most of my dumb summer favourites. It's also true that they don't tend to center on bodily functions or the idea that a stereotype will do in the place of actual character development. Yes, Danny Kaye is playing a very silly character without a lot of background or intellect. However, someone--be it Gogol or screenwriters Philip Rapp and Harry Kurnitz--still put more thought into him than just making him fall down a lot or whatever.
I knew that this movie would entertain when I heard the dull, monotone, "Hey" in the first number. Where does such genius come from. The 'Hey' is an absurd means of rallying laughter, and it works. My father laughed, even. Unfortunately, this laughing spell did not last long. A number, Soliloquy for Three Heads, continued far too long for comfort. 'Soliloquy's' job mirrors the countless numbers found in Danny Kaye films. These musical pieces are created to emphasize the rapidity and confusion of Danny Kaye's comical reactions; the many reactions of the face and waving of hands. Although Mr. Kaye wanted to highlight the very best of his comedy style, going about it in one song, one frame, one continuous shot is exhausting for any audience, the fanatics and the non fanatics.
The greatest film displaying Danny Kaye's farcical best, I believe, was White Christmas. It one of the few that refuses to select Mr. Kaye as the sole lead. Instead, he is an ensemble actor leaning on the comedy of his trio of costars. All this to say that Danny Kaye might be better at ensemble work than solo. Take the number 'The Gypsy Drinking Song.' Danny Kaye did not begin the song alone; incorporating the foreground crowd to provide sound effects at the point of his finger. As the humming crowd loses importance, a select table of men (with the intent to kill put poison in Kaye's cup) urge and suppress their happiness as Kaye lifts the glass and never takes a drink. This song is the very best in the film. For once, Kaye's reactions are not the sole venue but the reactions of others reacting to the reactions of Kaye. Sounds confusing? That's Danny Kaye.
The songs do the job of carrying the entire film through. They are mildly hilarious.The plot moves slowly and uncomfortably along. But it's Danny Kaye. Give it a chance for that reason.