“You still owe me two hundred dollars.”

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Paper Moon Poster

Paper Moon (1973)
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Written by Alvin Sargent
Starring Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Madeline Kahn, P. J. Johnson, John Hillerman, and Burton Gilliam
102 minutes, Rated PG


Paper Moon is one of the singlemost delightful films I think I have ever seen. And I am consistently and constantly gobsmacked that people seem to have never seen it.

I saw it for the first time in a second-level college Literature course called “Comedy and Satire”. There were four novels assigned for the class (The Tortilla Curtain, Death on the Installment Plan, Love Among the Ruins, and Cat’s Cradle). We spent about four weeks a piece on each of those novels, but we were assigned a different film to watch for each of the sixteen weeks in the semester. Discussion for these films was interesting because a goodly portion of the movies we were shown were not necessarily comedies (examples included A Clockwork Orange and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover). Our professor had a penchant for showing us that there is humor to be found in even the darkest of material.

Paper Moon was a film he shared with us during the first week of class, citing it as his personal favorite movie. How he could have a love for the darkest of comedies and this, the most pleasant of diversions, is a question that only he can answer, but his passion for this particular movie was nothing if it wasn’t honest. The class as a whole really enjoyed the movie, but many people commented afterwards that they didn’t find it particularly funny. Amusing? Okay. It made them smile? All right. But their own personal definitions of “comedy” seemed to require that the source material make them laugh out loud.

Let’s analyze this for a moment before we get too deeply into just what makes Paper Moon such a delightful movie because I’ll concede that this movie, aside from a handful of clever lines of dialogue, isn’t really a bust-a-gut yuck-fest. But I have gone back to this film repeatedly over the years. I have recommended it ad nauseum. I have hosted parties where the sole purpose of said party was to introduce another group of people to this film. For me, Paper Moon is a cinematic comfort food. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Because it is charming, and it does make me happy. Isn’t that one of the main purposes of comedy?

If you ask Google to “define comedy“, the first definition says “professional entertainment consisting of jokes and satirical sketches, intended to make an audience laugh.” Dictionary.com defines comedy as “a play, movie, etc., of light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending.” Merriam-Webster defines comedy in much the same manner (“a drama of light and amusing character and typically with a happy ending”). It would seem that only Google (and a few of my former classmates) believe that a film has to make you laugh to be classified as a comedy.

To me, the varying definitions is one of the most wonderful things about comedy. One of the first things I learned as a playwright is that it’s much harder to write comedies than dramas. If you pick ten random people off the street, all of them would agree that a child dying is sad, but only three of them might laugh at a well-crafted joke about lightbulbs. And of those three people, only one of them might laugh at a well-crafted joke about Catholics. What one person finds funny, what makes one person laugh out loud, is a very personal thing.

For example: Do you like Adam Sandler? Do you find him funny? That’s great.  Because I don’t. But I’ve watched the entire library of Groucho Marx many, many, many times, and most of you probably have not.

So . . . is Paper Moon a comedy? Even if it doesn’t make you laugh out loud?

Set in the Midwest during the Great Depression, Paper Moon concerns one of the most lovable duos to ever appear in the same film. The first half of the duo is a conman named Moses Pray (played by Ryan O’Neal). The second half is nine-year-old Addie (played by Ryan’s real-life daughter, Tatum, in a performance that makes her the youngest person to ever win an Oscar for acting). It should be mentioned that Addie may or may not be his daughter. Circumstances occur that force Moses to drive Addie to her aunt’s house in St. Joseph, Missouri. But he is, as I said, a conman and it doesn’t take Addie long to figure that out. Especially after he cons her out of two hundred dollars that rightfully belongs to her. She makes it very plain: she is not getting out of this car until she is paid back what she is owed. Moses, however, has already spent the money on the car they’re sitting in. How is he to get the money and get this child out of his hair?

From here, the film divides itself perfectly into three well-defined acts. In the first act, Moses enlists Addie in a scam to raise the cash. The scam is simple: they peruse the obituaries for men who have recently died, and then show up at the homes of the grieving widows with Bibles that were apparently ordered for them before the spouse kicked the bucket. Ordered, I said. Not paid for. Seems the bereaved are quick to hand over hard-earned cash for one last sign that their recently-deceased partners were thinking of them. This act mines it laughs mostly on quick-witted dialogue. Long stretches of arguments while driving in the car. Moses’ consternation that Addie won’t keep her mouth shut when they’re in the thick of a scam. Further consternation when it turns out that her doe-eyed and innocent child act works.

The second act revolves around Trixie Delight, a buxom burlesque dancer (played by Madeline Kahn) with eyes on Moses Pray, and Addie’s clever ploy to get rid of her. She’s a gold digger. She’s a prostitute. And Addie is not about to let her father figure get ensnared quietly. It is in this act, an extended sequence in a hotel, where we see that Tatum’s performance is based on considerable skill beyond her years. This is not Shirley Temple singing “The Good Ship Lollipop”. This is a well-honed, very natural performance based on physicality and facial expressions. It is also in this act where a clever screenplay shines. Laughs are derived from the audience knowing what is happening when the other characters do not.

For me, the biggest laughs come in the third and final act, in which Moses and Addie get caught in the act of one final score and must finally work together to keep from being arrested. There’s a clever gag with the costuming, two hilarious car chases (both high-speed and low- ), one actor playing two different roles, and the most ridiculous boxing match with a hillbilly that I have ever seen in a movie. The last half hour of this movie is a perfectly-constructed film all its own, heavily inspired by silent film comedy (there’s a car door gag that might have even been lifted from an old Buster Keaton short), and complete with a sappy, uplifting ending. It’s the kind of an ending that viewers see coming from the very beginning, but it’s also the kind of an ending that a movie this downright smile-inducing deserves.

Yes, I think Paper Moon is a comedy. And it’s a well-crafted one.

papermoonEverything about this movie is well-crafted. I’ve already mentioned Tatum O’Neal’s performance, but it warrants repeating. This was not an Oscar given out to “a cute kid.” This was an Oscar earned for an incredibly dynamic performance. In the course of this film, we see Addie Pray as a cigarette-smoking juvenile delinquent. We see as her as the clever brain behind an elaborate scam. But, despite being clearly more clever than all the adults around her, despite being worldly-wise beyond her years, Addie Pray is also a little girl. A child who longs for playing games at the carnival. A tomboy who wishes she were pretty. In one wordless sequence, where we see Addie mimicking Trixie Delight’s moves in the mirror with a half-smoked cigarette hanging out of her mouth, we see all of these incarnations at once. It’s quite a performance. Her line readings are natural. Her facial expressions rival Mildred Davis.

This film, however, is not just about performance. Multi-faceted screenplay that pays homage to multiple styles and eras of comedy aside, there’s a lot to admire here on a technical level. Director Peter Bogdanovich (a personal favorite of mine from the early 70’s) is well-known for long, uninterrupted tracking shots. It has been reported over the years (even by Bogdanovich himself) that one long sequence in the car took days to get right because they had to start over every time the actors flubbed their lines. This required driving the car many miles back up the road so that they could start filming, again, at the exact right spot that would allow the car to be where it needed to be when the sequence was complete. Other sequences, especially once the characters get to the aforementioned hotel, require the film crew to follow the actors up hallways and down stairwells and into other rooms entirely without a single cut of editing. None of this cinematography is showy or out of place. It’s seamless, and I had watched this film several times before I even noticed it.

With that said, long tracking shots like the ones I just mentioned were a hallmark of the films of Orson Welles. He was a mentor and good friend of Peter Bogdanovich, and it has been reported that shooting the film entirely in black and white was his suggestion. Yes, this movie is in black and white, and the movie is better served because of it. The film takes place during the Dust Bowl and it really looks like a movie that might have been made in 1939. The long tracking shots capture grand, open prairie. There are no trees to be seen. There is a desolation in the city streets that almost undermines the picture’s comedic intent. This does not appear to be a movie filmed in 1973. In fact, it actually appears to be a movie filmed . . . in 1939 . . . by Orson Welles.

To me, that’s almost completely the magic of this particular film. By design, this film was “timeless” before it was ever even viewed by audiences. Contemporary films work much harder to evoke a particular time and place without ever really achieving the desired result. Perhaps it’s my own love for the movies of the 1930’s. Perhaps it’s my own love for the comedies of that particular era. But Paper Moon does, for me, what similar films cannot without trying nearly as hard to do so. If this movie doesn’t inspire laughter in me the way other classic comedies I admire do (say, for instance, Airplane! or Duck Soup), I can’t help but watch it with a smile planted firmly on my face from beginning to end. The movie makes me happy, and that, for me, is what the best comedies should aim to do.

It occurred to me as I wrote this entry: A comedy that doesn’t necessarily invoke laughter. A 1973 film shot to look as if it were made in 1939. A maverick director intentionally emulating his long-time friend and mentor (director of the “greatest film ever made”, don’t ya’ know?). A classic “buddy movie” that is far better and far more engaging than it is probably now given credit for. This charming movie about a con man is perhaps one of the “greatest cons” in the history of American film.

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