Friday, December 18, 2015

#1,950. Lenny Bruce Without Tears (1972)

Directed By: Jesse Hibbs

Starring: Audie Murphy, Marshall Thompson, Charles Drake

Tag line: "The Exciting True-Life Story Of America's Most Decorated Hero"

Trivia: This movie features clips of Lenny Bruce on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show

Lenny Bruce Without Tears, a 1972 documentary written and directed by Fred Baker, does, on occasion, delve into the late comedian’s troubles: his drug use, his numerous arrests for obscenity, and so on. But the movie primarily focuses on what it was that made Lenny Bruce great: his comedy routines (or “bits”, as he liked to call them), many of which will have you laughing out loud.

Though structured like a biopic, Lenny Bruce Without Tears spends very little time reviewing Bruce’s early life. We learn that his parents divorced when he was young, and he spent a great deal of his childhood being raised by relatives and family friends. At 16, he joined the Navy, serving in Europe during World War II, and upon his return expressed a desire to become a comedian. Featured for a short time on television (including appearances on Steve Allen’s Plymouth Variety Show and a failed attempt at his own series), Bruce’s jokes went over better in jazz clubs, which booked him regularly. Married for a short time to stripper Honey Harlow (the couple had one child, a daughter, before divorcing in 1959), Bruce also began experimenting with drugs, and his comedy, which had always dealt with social issues such as religion, politics, and bigotry, suddenly became edgier, with more colorful language. As a result, he was often arrested for obscenity (his legal troubles made their way into his act, an on occasion, he’d read directly from court transcripts). Bankrupt and depressed, Bruce died of a drug overdose in August of 1966.

Yet most of the above is mentioned only in passing. Instead, Lenny Bruce Without Tears gives us clips of Bruce doing what he did best: making people laugh. Introduced by Steve Allen as “the most controversial comedian” working at the time, Bruce had the audience in stitches with his rendition of a kid (as played by actor George MacReady) discovering that airplane glue could get you high; and imagined what it would be like if the lamp holding the genie in 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad ended up on the shelf of a New York gift shop (owned by an elderly Jewish man, whose only wish was to visit Atlantic City). Some of his routines do, indeed, push the envelope, yet he always managed to get a laugh (during one bit, he pokes fun at a real-life incident where a man was arrested for blowing up the plane his mother was on, with Bruce imagining, for a moment, what it might have been like if the pilot and co-pilot were Laurel and Hardy). The clips of Bruce’s later days, including an interview he did in Canada when his legal woes were at their height, are difficult to watch at times, yet even here, his charm and sharp sense of humor shine through.

Because he was a friend of Bruce’s, director Fred Baker paints the comedian in a positive light, interviewing those who admired and respected him (he even gets a former prosecutor to apologize for what he did). In addition to being one-sided, the film is a tad haphazard in its construction (throughout the movie, Baker inserts scenes from a handful of motion pictures, including The Pink Panther, which play, silently, over top of audio from Bruce’s night club performances). So, if you’re looking for an unbiased, professionally-produced account of Bruce’s life, you’d be better off watching Bob Fosse’s Lenny. But if you want to see the comedian at his best, acting out his own brand of free-flowing comedy at the height of his career, Lenny Bruce Without Tears will do the trick, and is guaranteed to brighten your day.

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