Generally I am as fascinated by filmdom’s grand catastrophes almost as much as I am intrigued by its truly great and occasionally hidden masterpieces, for the primary reason that – despite all claims to the contrary as set forth in Mel Brook’s sublime farce, The Producers (1967) – no self-respecting producer/director initially sets out to make a bad movie. The error in judgment that leads to an artistic implosion is even more deliciously intriguing when one ponders how time can do strange things to art; for example – Hitchcock’s maligned Vertigo (1958) eventually resurrected as the truly superior psychological masterwork that it so obviously is. But hindsight is even further compounded when one pauses to reflect on what might have been instead of what actually is; for example – what would Cleopatra (1963) be if Joe Mankiewicz had been allowed to release it as two ‘three hour’ epics instead of one truncated four hour turgidity. No, Hollywood’s flops are – for the most part – a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon. Occasionally, however, the resurrection and/or rediscovery of a near-forgotten turkey cannot yield this sort of rich verity.
Case in point: the critical vitriol that greeted Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975) remains regretfully justified; its glue-footed mockery of the effervescent Hollywood musical and thorough bastardization of Cole Porter’s illustrious contributions as one of the premiere song writers of the 20th century, the movie remains so archaically slapped together that even in its definitive director’s cut it never rises above its reputation as a bona fide non-entity; brimming with vacuous performances that stifle the imagination in all their bad taste and even more dim-witted execution. Bogdanovich, who had risen to prominence in Hollywood as a director capable of evoking period better than most any of his generation, with films like The Last Picture Show (1971) and What’s Up Doc? (1972), sought to emulate the gleaming deco allure of Astaire/Rogers’ musical pastiche with its white on white sets, ultra-sheen of cultured manners and even more cultured gardens, and its escapist fantasy domains where the prospect of people breaking into song remains not only believable but truthful to the genre. In fact, At Long Last Love looks every inch what a ‘30s musical might had it been photographed with the advantages of widescreen and color; the landscapes shimmering/glimmering in their too cha-cha for words precious moonlight.
Tragically, this is where any similarity between every musical from the 1930's and At Long Last Love ends; the resultant spectacle so woefully miscast, so incredibly mangled along the way by Bogdanovich’s lumbering, yet threadbare, screenplay, and so grotesquely misappropriated by its stars, (who have neither the concept nor the inclination of what it takes to properly execute a song or dance and truly ‘sell’ either to the public), that its artistic implosion is not just a misfire, but a cataclysm with very little competition for being the worst movie musical ever made; perhaps uncomfortably situated between Ross Hunter’s lackluster remake of Lost Horizon (1973) and Ken Russell’s calamitous Lisztomania (1975) . It’s really no secret that Fox executives were frankly insulted by what they saw in Bogdanovich’s rough cut; yanking the film from his control and mercilessly butchering it in the editing room in an attempt to stitch together a silken purse from this sow’s ear. The chop-shop cuts did not help the picture.
But neither has the reinstatement of ‘crucial’ sequences left on the cutting room floor back in 1975. Bogdanovich has always had mixed feelings about At Long Last Love. On the one hand he claims the studio liked the picture, but then, on the other, he's readily referred to the experience as a ‘total disaster’ attesting to his own ‘inexperience’ in the genre. Bogdanovich compounded his inability to get credible performances from the actors by forcing them to actually sing their songs live – the orchestrations dubbed in after the fact. I'll just presume for a moment that this attempt at taking the musical back even further, to its infancy in the late 20's before over-dubbing and lip-syncing were common practice, must have been Bogdanovich's feeble stab at hope (or prayer, is more like it) for a miracle of spontaneity to occur.
The miracle never happens, and this leaves us with the movie’s plot – a pathetically undernourished wafer about the idle rich; three pairs of would-be thoroughly confused lovers: respectively, bored playboy Oliver Pritchard III (Burt Reynolds) with gold digger debutante Brooke Carter (Cybill Shepherd); Broadway star, Kitty O’Kelly (Madeline Kahn) carrying on with immigrant Lochinvar, Johnny Spanish (Duilio Del Prete) and Eileen Brennan (as Elizabeth, Brooke’s maid) developing her yen for John Hillerman (as Oliver’s urbane valet, Rodney James). No one can make up their minds who to bed, so they ‘change partners’ then change back again; satisfaction guaranteed…well, sort of…before the final fade out.
If only one could say the same for the movie. Bogdanovich might have had a sleeper on his hands – ill-timed and ill-received in its own time, though arguably more than the sum of its parts or merit allotted back in the day. This isn’t the case. At Long Last Love is every bit the millstone it proved to be in 1975, dragging Bogdanovich’s reputation down the proverbial crapper and all but dismantling Cybill Shepherd’s movie career. Although Shepherd would rise like cream to the top of the heap in the mid-1980's as the sassy, saucy Madeleine Hayes on TV’s Moonlighting, Bogdanovich never rebounded in any meaningful sort of way after At Long Last Love. And it’s a shame too, because as a director/writer/producer Bogdanovich had the chops and the clout to etch a meaningful career – one for the ages - before At Long Last Love drove the proverbial stake through its heart.
What is chiefly lacking from this excursion to the blissfully obtuse world of movie musicals is suspension of disbelief and a modicum of largesse for the ample bounty of Cole Porter tunes (some of them big hits, others golden nuggets of near-forgotten, naughty wisdom). At Long Last Love should have clicked. But the movie doesn’t evoke the past so much as it dredges up our fond memories for that golden age by sprinkling embalming fluid all over the palatial grounds of Oliver Pritchard III (Burt Reynolds); somehow meant to preserve and instill the joy of those bygone days, yet instead stagnating our appreciation for both the vintage and the score in ways that, frankly, I didn’t even think were possible.
At Long Last Love is, if nothing else, either a valentine to Bogdanovich’s then hot and heavy affair with Cybill Shepherd or a terribly cruel in-joke perpetuated on the audience about just how awful movie musicals had become in general in the 1970's. It must have at least seemed like a good idea at the start, the utilization of 16 Cole Porter standards, many unheard for years, all replete with additional lyrics extolling Porter’s yen for double-entendre. Shockingly, the bubbles from this champagne cocktail don’t tickle our nose so much as they burst, leaving a sweaty/sticky feeling of thorough and unapologetic dread.
In her cameo as Oliver’s mother, Mabel, vintage ham Mildred Natwick practically steals the show – or what’s left to pilfer (which isn't much) after the bones have been thoroughly picked apart by the principle cast. Burt Reynolds seems the most invested of the players; his overall commitment to this fizz-watered purgatory nearly impaling itself on his flat-footed dancing or his wan rendering of the songs. Reynolds is like a stick of kindling next to Cybill Shepherd; brittle but utterly void of any sort of romantic spark to keep us invested in their burgeoning/beleaguered relationship. It takes Reynolds and Shepherd three songs to warm up to the score. But by then the audience has thoroughly cooled to them. And Shepherd seems at times to be reading her dialogue from cue cards, mildly disenchanted to utterly bored with the scene, the score, the moment and the milquetoast of a plot she’s been asked to wade through for true love’s sake. Badly done doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Slotting the plot around the songs makes At Long Last Love a thoroughly self-indulgent movie-going experience. At times a distinct ennui emerges; that perhaps Bogdanovich and Shepherd are having their own backstage spree with friends; a party to which none of us is invited. Yet, as a legitimate contender designed to resurrect the 30's musical At Long Last Love miserably fails. The transparencies are obvious without ever entering the realm of homage: John Hillerman double-take on the old Eric Blore cameos from Astaire/Rogers never-never-land is thankless and meandering. Burt Reynolds isn’t Cary Grant, except if one crosses Grant’s suave sophistication with a Ginsu-wielding O.J. Simpson. Cybill Shepherd would like to think of herself as the 70's incarnation of that honey-colored ice princess a la Grace Kelly – or Kelly as she appeared as Tracy Lord in High Society (1956). She’s not. The sass evaporates from Cole Porter’s songs; made curiously dull by way of their sing-song effect and all but lethally deadpan deliveries.
As a neat little parody of '30's musicals At Long Last Love has even less staying power; like a Cole Porter coloring book left in the hands of a blind autistic savant who neither can see the canvas on which to paint nor can remotely understand the basic concept for which its Crayolas were intentionally designed. Viewing At Long Last Love made me think of Cole Porter – the man - in surreal terms, the composer pictured to me as unable to roll over in his grave or plug his ears within that final resting place in Peru, yet strangely still able to be accosted by this incalculable bastardization of his witty lyrics. The orchestrations are frequently intruded upon by a talk/sing style (vaguely reminiscent of Rex Harrison’s turn in My Fair Lady, albeit with none of Harrison’s inimitable charm or finesse – apologies to the late Mr. Harrison for this comparison) and are, on the whole, interminably over-expressive, making the Porter score unrecognizable or, at the very least, extremely difficult to listen to with any shred of pleasure.
Fox Home Video has labeled this Blu-ray as the ‘director’s definitive edition’ but in any incarnation At Long Last Love is far from definitive except if one chooses to regard it as an absolute disintegration of the movie musical as art. Well, did you evah?!?!? We have to give Fox high marks for the transfer. At Long Last Love looks beautiful in hi-def. One can truly bask in Laszlo Kovacs’ evocative cinematography, just about the only redeeming quality this movie has. Beautiful sets only get you so far, however, particularly when the beautiful people wearing Bobbie Mannix’s beautiful clothes sing and act as though they’d rather be shooting craps poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
I’ll give Fox Home Video an A+ for effort. I don’t know what mark I ought to afford them for rushing this unmitigated turkey to the head of the line when their back catalogue of golden classics remains such a colossal embarrassment of riches yet to be unearthed in hi-definition. Initially, At Long Last Love was going to be a Twilight Time limited edition release. For some reason the studio pulled the plug on these plans and went with a national release instead, though the isolated score (included on all Twilight Time titles) remains intact; so our ears can be doubly offended by having to listen to the mauling of Porter’s lyrics in new crystal clear DTS mono.
Framed for the first time since its theatrical release in its proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the image is solid, but quite heavy on film grain and with de-saturated colors that favor the B&W patina of 30s musicals. This is probably accurate, not for the 1930s but for film stocks from the 1970s, so no complaints herein. Blacks are very deep, although edges seem a tad soft. Again, I suspect this looks very much as it did back in 1975. I’m going to try and end this review on a positive note, because I truly wanted to like At Long Last Love as another undiscovered gem whose time had finally come around. Having seen the movie now I can honestly say that once was too much. Bottom line: not recommended! I mean, ‘really’ NOT recommended!!!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)