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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fish Out of Water, Part 1 (originally published 4/01)

With his latest Crocodile Dundee picture, "Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles," Paul Hogan once again draws upon the clash of cultures as a source of entertainment. Some will inevitably speculate on whether he has gone to that well once too often, but my feeling is that this particular wellspring of inspiration is very nearly inexhaustible. Movies based on culture clashes, especially the so-called "fish out of water" stories, have been the basis for a great many outstanding films through the years. Here are a few examples to look for on home video.

"Tarzan's New York Adventure" (1942). One of the most popular movie series of the Thirties and Forties featured former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. When the variations on evil white hunters defiling the elephant graveyard eventually began to wear thin, the producers decided to try a radical change of scenery. This time the evil white hunters kidnap Tarzan's son and bring him to America. Naturally, Tarzan and Jane follow. Although Tarzan honors the local custom by wearing a suit, he cheerfully reverts to type when presented with the opportunity to swing from Manhattan rooftops or dive off the Brooklyn Bridge.

"Ruggles of Red Gap" (1935). If you can make a culture clash movie about bringing a character from the wilderness into civilization, you can also make one about bringing a supremely civilized character into the rough and ready environment of the American West. That's the premise of this classic comedy from director Leo McCarey. Charles Laughton stars as Marmaduke Ruggles, an English valet whose master loses him to an American rancher in a poker game. Stoically, the excruciatingly British servant makes the move to his new employer's home in the American town of Red Gap. Harry Leon Wilson's novel had already been adapted for the screen twice by the time Laughton and McCarey made their definitive version. It was remade yet again as "Fancy Pants" (1950) with Bob Hope, and was a clear source of inspiration for Disney's "The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin" (1967).

"The Light in the Forest" (1958). Movies about Native Americans have always tended to polarize into two extremes. One is based on the myth of the bloodthirsty savage, the generic boogie man of too many Western movies. The other extreme is based on the competing myth of the noble savage. In such films, Native Americans are portrayed as spiritual, almost superhuman beings who have achieved a mystical unity with nature. This Disney film uses the culture clash plot device to make the point that the truth lies somewhere in between. Johnny Butler, played by James MacArthur, is a white boy who has been raised by an Indian tribe. When he is returned to his own kind, he reacts with disgust. He feels that he has left civilization behind to be thrust into the society of whites, whom he regards as savages. In the end, he learns that there are heroes and villains among both white society and Indian society.

"George Washington Slept Here" (1942). Jack Benny stars as a city dweller whose wife persuades him to move to the country. The play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart was modified a bit to take advantage of the stingy persona Benny had developed on his radio program, but the laughs remain intact. Percy Kilbride, who would go on to play Pa Kettle, is hilarious as a deadpan local yokel. A premise this irresistible was bound to be repeated, and indeed it has been, from TV's "Green Acres" to "Funny Farm" (1988) with Chevy Chase.

"Witness" (1985). Harrison Ford stars as John Book, a big-city cop whose investigation of a murder leads him to a small Amish community. The link is an Amish woman named Rachel (Kelly McGillis), whose son, Samuel (Lukas Haas), was the only eyewitness to the murder. In the midst of a culture that is completely foreign to him, Book finds himself falling in love with Rachel. This was the first American film of director Peter Weir, who excels at turning anthropological musings on culture contrasts into compelling entertainment.

The range of movies based on the culture clash premise can't be squeezed into just one column. Come back next time and we'll look at more "fish out of water" movies, including a couple of films whose main characters are truly out of this world.

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