(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.