It's only a paper moon!
A box office smash in 1973, Paper Moon stood apart from the pack as one of the defining screen comedies of the era. It was the third commercial and creative hit for director Peter Bogdanovich. Little did anyone know that it marked the beginning of the end for Bogdanovich's winning streak.
As part of a renaissance of Bogdanovich, the summer of 2003 saw four of his best works released on DVD for the first time. Does Paper Moon stand the test of time after thirty years?
Facts of the Case
Paper Moon is a film in three acts. Act One introduces us to the characters. Addie Loggins (Tatum O'Neal in her film debut) is a young girl who has just been orphaned. At her mother's funeral, con man Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neal, who appeared in Bogdanovich's previous film, What's Up, Doc?) arrives unexpectedly. The mourners notice a startling resemblance between the young girl and the con man. Since he is passing through St. Louis, he is urged to take Addie along since she has relatives living there. While on the road, Moses discovers that with Addie at his side, he makes more money through his Bible-selling scam than ever before.
Act Two involves a romance between Moses and Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn, Blazing Saddles). Of course, Addie sees Trixie as a threat and takes steps to get her out of the picture permanently.
Act Three features Moses and Addie's run-in with a bootlegger and his brother, the local sheriff (John Hillerman in a double role). Also, the con man and his young charge finally arrive at St. Louis, where the tale is resolved once and for all.
Paper Moon began life without Peter Bogdanovich or the O'Neals attached. Originally titled Addie Pray, the film was going to be directed by John Huston, with Paul Newman and his daughter Nell to star. Newman would produce through First Artists, the production company Newman founded with Sidney Poitier, Barbra Streisand, and Steve McQueen. (One of the early First Artists releases was The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, in which Huston directed Newman.) FA's distributor, National General Pictures, began to have financial troubles, resulting in the project being dropped and Paramount Pictures snapping up the property.
Meanwhile, Peter Bogdanovich was preparing to direct a big-scale Western (I couldn't find any information to confirm whether or not this project was indeed Duck, You Sucker, which was supposed to be directed by Bogdanovich). That project fell apart after leading man John Wayne turned it down. Soon after, Bogdanovich was offered Addie Pray. After some serious thought, he decided to accept, making it the first project made by The Directors Company, a new production company Bogdanovich had created with Francis Coppola and William Friedkin a short time earlier.
Paper Moon is one of the best films of the 1970s. It is not only a very funny film, but it is surprisingly poignant as well. The film has been a longtime favorite of mine, since I discovered it on the CBS Late Movie on a Saturday night almost fifteen years ago.
Despite the fact that Alvin Sargent's screenplay is based on only half of Joe David Brown's novel Addie Pray, the film feels surprisingly complete. It tells enough of the story to keep the audience involved without tedium setting in.
Of course, Sargent's great script is only one ingredient that makes Paper Moon a masterpiece. Peter Bogdanovich's direction is a crucial key. The first directorial choice he made was to shoot in black-and-white. That was the right decision, since color would have been all wrong for this material. There's something about the Depression era that cries out for black-and-white. Color would have made the picture too cheerful. (For an example, look at the 1981 remake of Pennies from Heaven, a good film that would have been even better in black-and-white instead of the overly bright color in which it was drenched.) Even though Paper Moon is essentially a comedy, there are many serious elements to the basic story that color would have harmed.
With black-and-white settled upon, Bogdanovich settled on deep focus photography to give the picture an extra kick. It isn't mere coincidence that Bogdanovich was an Orson Welles disciple (and friend). By enriching the film with extra depth, the director adds a resonance and power to the basic material. Combined with long takes and few edits, he keeps the audience involved and interested in watching. It's a lesson he may have learned from mentor Roger Corman, who wrote in his autobiography that if you don't keep the eye entertained, you'll have a hard time keeping the audience involved.
Another important element is the casting. The two leads are father and daughter in real life, which adds an extra dimension that casting two strangers wouldn't have. The idea began with production designer Polly Platt (Bogdanovich's ex-wife, but that's a long, long story that we won't go into here). She suggested Tatum O'Neal to play Addie, which gave Bogdanovich the idea to approach Ryan O'Neal. Both men had worked well together on What's Up, Doc? and were eager to do another project together.
Ryan O'Neal is excellent as Moses Pray. O'Neal has been criminally underrated as an actor. He always gives a good performance, no matter how bad or good the film. He is equally strong in both comedy and drama, which is something few actors can accomplish so well. Madeline Kahn is also terrific as Trixie Delight. She had worked with Bogdanovich before in What's Up, Doc?, and she turns in another memorable comic performance in her all-too-few scenes in this picture. John Hillerman, another Bogdanovich veteran, is in top form in his double role as a bootlegger and lawman. But the standout is Tatum O'Neal. She was only nine when she starred in Paper Moon. The following year, she would win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here (even though it really is a lead performance, but that's another debate). In many ways, it's a tough role to play, since Addie is wise beyond her years and does a great many things no normal nine-year-old would even comprehend. But she pulls it off, not only with the aid of Bogdanovich and a great script, but through serious acting talent that would rarely be shown again.
Paramount presents Paper Moon on DVD for the first time in its correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Anamorphic enhancement has been provided for the transfer. Paper Moon has been issued in non-anamorphic widescreen before, on the third and final "Director's Series" VHS release (the first two were Fatal Attraction and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). That release was an improvement over earlier VHS releases, but not by much. For starters, the 1.66:1 aspect ratio wasn't wide enough to fully convey Bogdanovich's well-prepared compositions. Also, the image was still washed out and rather flat. With this new DVD, Paramount has done an incredible job. Gone are the heavy amount of specks and scratches from all previous releases. Some still sneak through, but these are very occasional. The deep focus photography has been restored to its original sheen. Blacks are rich and deep. Whites are chalky and luminous. The only caveat is grain—it is still present in some scenes, but it isn't as heavy as seen in previous releases. Besides, it only adds to the gritty, realistic feel Bogdanovich was aiming for. If you can't see Paper Moon on film, the DVD is the next best option. VHS and cable broadcasts simply can't recreate the deep depth of field that is easily seen on film (and now on DVD).
Audio is presented in an appropriate Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix. Some will no doubt complain that a stereo mix wasn't offered, but considering that this isn't a film reliant on sound effects, I can live with a mono mix. What is important is that the large amount of dialogue and the terrific music of the period come through in a strong, vibrant manner, which they do here. With the exception of a few crackling sounds (which may not be the fault of the technicians or filmmakers), this is a top-notch sound mix.
Paramount, a studio not known for providing much in the way of extra content, has given us a few terrific extras. First is a commentary track by producer/director Peter Bogdanovich. Some find Bogdanovich's delivery to be too dry. Some also find him to be arrogant. I do not find any of those charges to be fair. Bogdanovich may have had a massive ego at one point in his life, but he is much more mellow and reasonable now. Also, I like his delivery; it's straight and to the point. His commentary is chock-full of great information and trivia. Some will accuse him of patting himself on the back, but that is also an unfair charge. He is more than willing to share the credit with his co-workers. Of the six Bogdanovich commentary tracks I have heard, this one is the best to date.
A 35-minute documentary, The Making of Paper Moon, has been split into three parts: The Next Picture Show (15:37), Asking for the Moon (15:13), and Getting the Moon (4:10). All three feature comments from Bogdanovich, director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, production designer Polly Platt, and associate producer Frank Marshall. These are the perfect companion pieces, as they feature some key information that isn't contained in the commentary track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You might remember that in my opening statement I stated that Paper Moon marked the beginning of the end of Peter Bogdanovich's winning streak. I stand by that remark. Both The Last Picture Show and What's Up, Doc ? were huge box office hits as well as brilliant pictures. Paper Moon has his third box office success in a row, but the reviews were mixed at best. (Now the film is a confirmed classic, but major critics weren't so sure in 1973.) His next picture was Daisy Miller (1974), a film I think is a masterpiece, but many do not. It didn't do well at the box office, but it was a smash hit when compared to the director's next film, the godawful At Long Last Love (1975)—not only the worst musical ever made, but quite possibly the worst film of the 1970s. Nickelodeon in 1976 was a step in the right direction, reteaming Bogdanovich and the O'Neals in another period piece, but it did not score at the box office. His resurrection was Saint Jack (1979), a critical and commercial success which saw Bogdanovich working for Roger Corman again. After that came the personal tragedy of They All Laughed (1981) before Bogdanovich launched yet another comeback with Mask (1985).
Of the three Bogdanovich discs offered by Paramount, this is the most expensive, with a retail price of $19.99. However, despite that higher price, Paper Moon is worth purchasing. This is the definitive presentation of the film and you'd only be fooling yourself by sticking to the VHS copies that are often in the discount bin.
All charges are dismissed! Paramount has made my day with a terrific presentation of one of my all-time favorite films.
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