Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Spell of Laughter (originally published 2/99)

All filmmakers know that the essence of drama is emotional involvement. The producers of "Office Space" have taken advantage of the fact that few subjects can elicit a more potent emotional response than hypnosis and mind control. The notion of yielding control of our actions, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, is unsettling at best. For some of us it is a terrifying prospect, while others might view it as exhilarating and liberating, like a roller coaster ride for the psyche. The dual nature of our emotional response to hypnosis, the fear of giving up control on the one hand and the thrill of being relieved of the burden of control on the other hand, allows filmmakers free reign to create both serious drama and comedy around plots involving hypnosis. In "Office Space," director Mike Judge has played it for comedy, as we might expect from the creator of "Beavis and Butthead." For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers have played hypnosis and mind control for laughs, look for these titles on home video.

"Running Wild" (1926). Although W. C. Fields is best remembered for his distinctive voice, he did have a career as a film comedian before talkies. In this silent comedy, Fields plays Elmer Finch, a meek, browbeaten fellow who is treated like a doormat by both his wife and his boss. A chance encounter with a vaudeville hypnotist's act changes all that. Under the influence of hypnosis, Elmer becomes an aggressive and domineering figure, turning the tables on his former oppressors.

"Mr. Hex" (1946). One of the most enduring comic conceits is the idea of turning a character of mild temperament into a wild man under the influence of a specific stimulus. Laurel and Hardy used it in "Saps at Sea," (1940) in which Hardy goes wild at the sound of horns, and The Three Stooges used it several times, transforming Curly into a dynamo when he heard a certain tune or smelled a certain perfume. Here that same idea is used by the Bowery Boys. After discovering that Sach (Huntz Hall) is possessed of superhuman strength while under hypnosis, the boys waste no time in using his newfound athletic prowess to clean up on the prizefighting circuit.

"Road to Rio" (1947). Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's fifth "road" picture finds them on the lam as usual, this time as stowaways on an ocean liner. Dorothy Lamour, Hope and Crosby's perennial co-star, plays an heiress who has been promised in marriage to a man she doesn't care for. Her erratic behavior is puzzling to the boys - first she's cordial, then the next time they see her she is hostile toward them - until they discover that her scheming aunt has been using hypnosis to control the unfortunate young woman.

"The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (1964). The structure of this Disney comedy makes it tempting to speculate that it may have originally been intended as two episodes of the Disney television series. It divides neatly into two separate story lines, each built around the character of Merlin Jones (Tommy Kirk), a brainy college student whose scientific experiments regularly land him in hot water. The first story line is about Merlin's homemade mind-reading device and the havoc it creates. The second story involves his experiments with hypnosis. When a local judge volunteers to be a hypnosis subject, Merlin takes advantage of the opportunity. Having been forbidden to experiment on the science department's chimpanzee, Merlin sends the judge, under hypnosis, to kidnap the chimp for him. Critics hated this film, but audiences loved it, making it successful enough to give rise to a sequel, "The Monkey's Uncle" (1965).

"On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" (1970). In 1952, a Chicago woman named Virginia Tighe described under hypnosis her past life as an Irish woman named Bridey Murphy. Morey Bernstein's book on the subject, "The Search For Bridey Murphy" became a best seller, raising belief in reincarnation to the level of a fad. This clever musical comedy neatly lampoons the "Bridey Murphy" case. Barbra Streisand stars as a young woman who goes to a hypnotist for help in quitting smoking. Under hypnosis, she reveals a startling array of psychic abilities, including the memory of a past life as a 19th Century English aristocrat.

Next week we'll look at another, more sinister approach to hypnosis in the movies. Until then, be careful whose eyes you gaze into.

No comments: