Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Poitier-Cosby Trilogy: Cuz I'm From Off The Corners

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)


Before 1973, Sidney Poitier was hardly known for comedy. In old Hollywood, when you said  “comedy” and “Negro,” you meant COON. Sidney was our distinguished Black actor, carrying the weight of the “Good Negro” on his capable shoulders. He was held to a higher ideal, noble beyond any reasonable request. Sidney could be charismatic, charming, and even easy-going. Outright funny he could not be, at least not before he took control of his own career by directing and producing his films in the early 70’s.

Sharing a production company with Paul Newman and Babs Streisand, Poitier started directing the kinds of movies he wanted to be in, changes of pace from his norm. He started with the wildly entertaining 1972 Western, Buck and the Preacher, then helmed the romantic drama A Warm December. The latter I affectionately refer to as the “Put Your Shirt Back On, Sidney!” movie. A shirtless, early 70’s era Poitier is definitely not objectionable, but you could make a drinking game out of how many times he loses his shirt. You’d die.

In 1973, writer Richard Wesley brought a screenplay to Poitier, who intended to direct but not star in it. Attached to the story of two men trying to retrieve a stolen wallet containing a $50,000 lottery ticket were Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx. Bill Cosby blew away the executives during his tryout for the small part of a shifty private eye. In fact, Cosby’s audition for this part is the stuff of legend. But Warner Bros., Poitier’s studio for this new film, didn’t believe Foxx or Pryor were appropriately sized box office draws. Foxx had just started on Sanford and Son, and Pryor had been in the moderately successful Wattstax and the wildly successful Lady Sings the Blues. By comparison, Poitier was an Oscar winning superstar and had been the number one box office draw in 1967, with his triumvirate of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and To Sir, With Love. Bill Cosby was a famous stand-up comedian with three Emmys for his dramatic work with Robert Culp on the 60’s classic I Spy.

Out went Redd and Rich, in came Sidney and the Cos, and the rest is history. The resulting film spawned two pseudo-sequels and changed the way we looked at Sidney Poitier.

Let me briefly stop here for a moment of mourning. We should bow our heads in silent reverence for the movie that Uptown Saturday Night would have been had Warners not been so gaat-damn greedy. I’m not sure who would have played which part, but in either roles, both Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx would have been Black movie dynamite. I would have loved to see Pryor as the suave Sidney straight man and Foxx as the bullshitting Cos. Imagining scenes with them makes me giddy. Alas, like Diana Sands in Claudine, we must relegate these notions to our imaginations rather than reality.

Don’t get me wrong. Uptown Saturday Night is perfectly fine as cast. The movie we are left with for posterity benefits from the fine work by Sidney and Bill. Cosby picks Poitier’s pocket and walks off with the picture, but Sidney purposely telegraphs where his wallet is. Their offscreen friendship translates to their onscreen characters, which is why it works here and works even better in the first "sequel," Let’s Do It Again. I’ll be covering that next week, and the second "sequel," A Piece of the Action, in two weeks. Maybe I’ll miraculously like that latter picture by then.

Uptown Saturday Night tells the story of Steve Jackson (Poitier) and Wardell Franklin (Cosby), two blue collar guys who decide to live above their stations for one night. Cab driver Wardell and factory worker Steve are working multiple jobs and, as Uptown Saturday Night opens, Steve is on vacation from all his jobs for two weeks. Wardell convinces him to go to Madame Zenobia’s, a legal club with an illegal gambling ring behind a red door. This ritzy club is not for po’ folks like Steve and Wardell, so Wardell types a fake letter on some stationery he stole from his wife’s law office employer. The letter says he and Steve are important African diamond merchants and is “signed” by one of the “lawyers.” “Who is that guy?” asks Steve, referring to the fake name on the signature. “I don’t know,” says Wardell, “and I hope he doesn’t show up here tonight.”

He doesn’t. But a bunch of stocking mask-clad burglars do. Before the robbery, Wardell is making beacoup dollars at a craps table. With her hot dice, Leggy Peggy (Paula Kelly) is burning down the House. Both Wardell’s fists are full of money he’s made courtesy of a loan from Steve. When the robbers arrive, Wardell’s upraised hands are full of cash. (Watch how Cosby silently yet reluctantly hands over the money the gun-toting villains take from him.) The robbers make everyone strip to their underwear before they leave. “But I don’t wear underwear,” says one unlucky lady. Too bad for her (and for us—Poitier keeps the camera at a modest angle). Just before the robbers leave, the leader says “Never have so few owed so much to so many.” Yup, a misquoted Winston Churchill is robbing Madame Zenobia’s.

The next day at church, as Reverend Flip Wilson preaches a sermon about not bringing “joy juice” to the upcoming church picnic, Steve and Wardell try to stay awake and out of suspicion. The duo had been cleaned of their cash the night before, so when the collection plate comes around, Wardell puts a handful of air in it.  When Mrs. Wardell passes the collection plate back to him, Wardell puts a bigger handful of air into it. Steve gets into bigger trouble after church. Asleep In his chair and smiling, Mrs. Steve pulls a dirty trick on him. “Are you dreaming about me?” she asks. No response. “Are you dreaming about a woman?” she asks. Steve smiles. His wife hauls off and slaps the everlasting gobstopper shit out of him. Poitier’s reaction remains for me the film’s biggest laugh. Holding his face in shock after leaping 20 feet off the chair, he looks at his wife in shock. “Why you hit me?!!” he asks, his Bahamian accent creeping back into his astonished voice. “You must have been dreaming,” says Mrs. Steve.

Fate gives Steve an even bigger open handed slap in the mouth. The newspaper prints the lottery numbers, and Steve’s ticket has hit. (I always wondered if this were the legitimate lottery, or the neighborhood "number.") “$50,000!” the married couple sing in unison. Then reality intervenes: The ticket was in Steve’s wallet, which is now property of whomever hit Madame Zenobia’s. This is $50,000 in 1973 money, so Steve enlists Wardell to help him find out who robbed them. Being new to the ways of crime, their first few interviews don’t go so well. Wardell’s adventure includes that staple of Black folk interaction with the police: He fits the description.

After Steve bails out Wardell, Wardell has a conniption and demands they leave this investigation stuff to the professionals. This leads them to Sharp Eye Washington, Private Eye. This is the role Cosby auditioned for, and when you see it, just think of what might have happened if he’d gotten it. Sharp Eye is now played by the guy who originally was set to star in this picture, Richard Pryor. Pryor is only onscreen 4 minutes (if that much) but during that time, he owns Uptown Saturday Night. Skittish, nervous and as bootleg as the shitty cardboard sign on his door would indicate, Sharp Eye Washington is obviously a con man. He takes our heroes’ $50 and tries to leave before they can tell him what the job is. Going down the fire escape, Sharp Eye is met by the 5-0. “Your con days are over!” says the stern looking detective cuffing the fake detective. The cop lists Sharp Eye’s other persona, including a fake defense lawyer in my hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey. Like Steve and Wardell, I’ll bet some of my relatives got tooken by Pryor’s con man!

Our duo’s next step is to visit their local politician, who is probably a bigger crook than Sharp Eye Washington. Congressman Lincoln is a pandering, corrupt politician trying to hide just how ghetto he really is. In other words, perfect casting for the great Roscoe Lee Browne. When his secretary informs him that there are some “kind of ordinary” people there to see him, Lincoln says “CONSTITUENTS?!!” Before welcoming them, Lincoln has to make some quick interior decorating changes to his office.

Congressman Lincoln Goes From This...

...To this. Just like a damn politician!

Congressman Lincoln’s all set to help until he discovers the crime took place at “that den of iniquity” Madame Zenobia’s. In the middle of his stern lecture about the evils of illegal gambling, in walks Mrs. Lincoln a.k.a. Leggy Peggy! She was introduced to Zenobia’s by the Congressman himself. Her street vernacular makes Lincoln cringe, but she gives Steve and Wardell some advice on where they can next look for information. “Look up Little Seymour Pettigrew,” she tells them, but warns that Little Seymour is a bad, bad man.

Little Seymour sounds like Little Caesar, and indeed we get a character Edward G. Robinson could have played. Before we do, Wardell and Steve see firsthand how rough the bar they’re about to enter is. A guy gets thrown out, makes an attempt to go back and gets an ass kicking before he gets through the door. Steve is ready to go, but Wardell immediately starts psyching him up. The woof tickets Bill Cosby sells in this sequence are what you paid to see when you rented this movie. “If the dude mess with me, I'ma knock him out. You know why? Cuz I’m from OFF THE CORNERS!!” Wardell yells, promoting his toughness to anyone who will listen.

 "...cuz I'm from OFF THE CORNERS!!!" And yes, The Cos is giving The Finger.

The woofing continues. Wardell walks into this bar asking for Little Seymour and his bodyguard, Big Percy. When a guy tries to jump bad, Wardell beats him up easily. Maybe there IS something to that “off the corners” jive after all. Steve gets in on it, playing the dozens and calling Little Seymour a “corny little runt.”  You can feel Poitier the actor finally cutting loose and enjoying every minute of it.

Mr. Tibbs Plays The Dozens!

But Steve, as so many other Negroes before him have done, sells one too many woof tickets. Just as Wardell is advising Steve to “say something about his Mama,” Little Seymour shows up in the guise of one half of the uber-talented Nicholas Brothers, Harold Nicholas.  “I’m Little Seymour,” Nicholas announces. He is indeed little, but the scowl on his face makes him 12 feet tall. Literally 12 feet tall is Seymour’s bodyguard. “I’m Big Percy,” says he, and his booming voice reverberates through the speakers. The two of them look like the precursor to Master Blaster in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Mutt and Jeff are about to open a can of Whup Ass!

Wardell sees this shit, and immediately starts back pedaling. Writer Wesley said that, in the script, the scene was to have his heroes turn and run from the bar. This entire scene is improvised by the actors, including Cosby, who is funnier than he has ever been onscreen in this one moment. “You see,” he begins before launching into this incredibly convoluted excuse about hospitals, the war, grandmothers, mental disorders and doctor’s cards. Transcribing it would do it no justice, so you’ll need to see this for yourself.

"If you notice, uh, Mr. Seymour, he never said nothing 'bout your mama..."

After all that woof ticket refunding, Little Seymour responds as expected. He tells Wardell “that story you just told is BULLSHIT.” After saying he had nothing to do with the robbery, Little Seymour proceeds to whip both Steve and Wardell’s asses thoroughly. I don’t know why Little Seymour needed a bodyguard. His karate moves and leaps through the air were enough to induce cardiac arrest in any opponent. Even after crashing through the bar, Little Seymour hops back up for more ass beating.

"Here's a little something for niggas who loud-talk Little Seymour!"

“What did he hit me with?” Steve asks Wardell during their recuperation at Steve’s house. “His hands or his feet?” “Both!” says Wardell. “At the SAAAME time!”

With that lead now dead, the guys try Leggy Peggy’s other suggestion, Geechie Dan Buford. Geechie Dan’s portrayer is Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher cohort, Harry Belafonte. If Little Seymour were Edward G..Robinson, Geechie Dan is Brando’s Don Corleone. Belafonte stuffs his face with cotton, adds a Southern swagger to his voice and looks menacing as hell. Just to screw with the audience. The first thing we see Geechie Dan do is slurp down a raw egg, followed by pills and that Vicks thing you shove up your nose. “Whatchu suckas want?” he asks.

Those suckas want to know if Geechie Dan knocked over Zenobia’s. Dan says he didn’t and threatens to knock Steve’s head into another zip code. “Sucka if you don’t get outta here, they’re going to be pickin’ yo’ head up from across the street!” Before anyone can leave, the bar is ambushed and shot up in spectacular fashion. Geechie, his men and our heroes escape, but now Dan thinks he’s been set up by Steve. “Silky Slim did this,” he asks them later, interrogating them in an abandoned area. To get out, Steve admits Silky Slim set him up. He has no idea who Silky Slim is. “Put these dogs to sleep,” Geechie Dan tells his henchmen.

As Steve and Wardell hilariously fight for their lives (what joy to see Poitier doing slapstick!), Silky Slim shows up. Any vet of Blaxploitation would know exactly who robbed Madame Zenobia’s based on voice alone, and would have waited for Calvin Lockhart to show up in this picture. Show up he does, and when he utters his previous Churchill line, the guys know they have their man. Using that fake lawyer letter, which was taken during the robbery, as a ruse to get Geechie Dan to partner with Silky Slim, Steve and Wardell get one step closer to getting their hands on that ticket. Dan and Slim think the letter is the key to $300,000 worth of diamonds hidden in a law office. Slim brings all the loot to Steve’s church in a suitcase, bringing our heroes even closer to that wallet.

Uptown Saturday Night climaxes at that church picnic, the one with supposedly no joy juice, and it asks just how far would you go to retrieve $50,000 of 1973-era money. I felt the same way I did when I first saw this film on a double bill in 1975—these guys go farther than I would have. There’s a happy ending, and a reprise of “How I Got Over” by an uncredited choir that shouldn’t have gone unknown. It’s a rousing number, and though they’re talking about a different kind of getting over, it’s a fitting way to end a film that shows how to get one over on the Mob.

Next Saturday, I’ll do this again with Let’s Do It Again.

4 comments:

Steven Boone said...

Man, this made my day. I can't decide whether Uptown Saturday Night or Let's Do It Again is my favorite Cosby-Poitier film (with A Piece of the Action falling to default third place), but this piece definitely tips the scales toward Uptown. It captures how much of a creative blast-off that first film was for the two actors as a comedy team.

I’m not sure who would have played which part, but in either roles, both Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx would have been Black movie dynamite.

Amen. It's like the Blazing Saddles Richard Pryor what-if.

But I suspect Pryor-Foxx would have been too much alpha-comic for one team, even though it's maddening not to have any evidence of whether Rich and Redd had, in fact, some chemistry. Did any black movies during that time have the luxury of screen tests? Hm...

Still, there should have been a place for a Foxx cameo, at least. He would have been a hilarious Geechie Dan, or even the Calvin Lockhart character. Imagine him under the ski mask when the lady with no panties got nekid (!!!)

Sid-and-Cos were a great consolation prize, and they simply own these roles now. I don't think I could identify with anybody as cool and badass as Pryor or Foxx, As cast, the leads are just what the trailer promises, "a couple of regular guys trying to hit the big time." Their daydreaming and woof tickets are flaws I can recognize.

That still doesn't settle it. Truth is, there was so much black comic talent available at the time, they could have filmed differently cast versions simultaneously, and made a mint. Dumb studios. But this essay shows how brilliant Poitier was, to seize the moment and do work that was hilarious but light years away from cooning.

Jason said...

The only redeeming aspects to A Piece of the Action are 1)The title song, 2) That 20 years later Sheryl Ralph was playing basically the same teacher/educator on Moesha that she is giving so much grief in this movie.

I'd say Let's Do It Again is my favorite of the trilogy, but Uptown Saturday Night is really close, if only because of the scenes with Pryor & the congressman.

odienator said...

Boone, I would have enjoyed seeing Redd as Congressman Lincoln, even if Browne nails it. You're right about studios being stupid. There could have been numerous Uptown Saturday Night clones. I think the only thing that remotely comes close to a clone is the Oliver Twist inspired Monkey Hustle starring Mumf regular Yaphet Kotto and Rudy Ray Moore.

Speaking of Moore, did you see under my raccoon piece at The Demanders Blog that someone had written their family member had a raccoon named Dolemite? I can just hear the dialogue now:

Boy: "What's your raccoon's name?"
Girl: "His name is Dolemite!"
Boy: "WHO?!!"
Raccoon: "Dolemite muthafucka!"

odienator said...

Jason, I'd have to agree that Let's Do It Again is my favorite of the three, but writing this swung the pendulum back toward Uptown Saturday Night for a moment. It certainly has my favorite scene in the trilogy in it.

I watched this trilogy two years ago but never got around to writing anything. I remember how bored I was watching A Piece of the Action and now I have to sit through all 2+ hours of it AGAIN!