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Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Case of Mistaken Identity (originally published 6/95)

Unless I'm badly misreading the signs down at the local newsstand, it seems to be Sandra Bullock's turn to be the flavor of the month. Over the past few months, by my careful count, she has been on the cover of every major publication except "Scientific American" and "Field and Stream." All she needs to do to complete the sweep is discover a formula for cold fusion while on a hunting trip.

It's no accident, however, that she is enjoying her hour in the spotlight. In addition to her talent and engaging screen presence, she seems to have a knack for choosing vehicles built around tried and true formulas. "Speed," for example, tapped into the bottomless appetite of movie audiences for high-octane chase scenes. Her current film, "While You Were Sleeping," makes use of an equally sturdy dramatic device, that of mistaken identity. It is, in fact, one of the oldest plot devices, and has served as the basis for both comedy and drama with equal success. If you've enjoyed the comic confusion resulting from Bullock's impersonation of an unconscious man's fiancee in "While You Were Sleeping," here are some earlier examples of mistaken identity comedies to look for on home video.

"Along Came Jones" (1945). Gary Cooper plays Melody Jones, an inoffensive and thoroughly inept cowboy who can barely hold a gun, let alone shoot one. He does, however, resemble Monte Jarrod (Dan Duryea), a gunfighter who is feared throughout the territory. Even the initials on his saddle seem to confirm that Jones is Jarrod. Cooper, who produced the film, plays the confusion for comic effect in a gentle parody of his own heroic screen image. It was a gutsy move -- or a foolhardy one, depending on your point of view. Cecil B. DeMille, for one, advised Cooper that his audience would never forgive him if he undermined their cherished image of him. Luckily, Coop's fans showed more tolerance than DeMille had given them credit for. They no doubt recalled how engaging Cooper had been as the gentle and amusing Longfellow Deeds in "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" (1936), a connection that is explicitly played up in the film's original coming attractions trailer, which is reproduced below courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"The Court Jester" (1956). In what is generally regarded as his best film, Danny Kaye parodies swashbuckling adventures of the Robin Hood variety. Kaye plays Hawkins, a lowly servant to the leaders of a peasant rebellion against a usurping king. To prove himself worthy, Hawkins assumes the identity of the usurper's court jester in order to assist his compatriots from the inside. This is the film that features Kaye's classic routine in which he vainly tries to keep straight whether the "pellet with the poison" is in the "vessel with the pestle" or the "flagon with the dragon." Another highlight is Basil Rathbone poking fun at his own villainous image much as Cooper had done with his heroic image in "Along Came Jones."

"Top Hat" (1935). No one used mistaken identity more entertainingly than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as this delightful musical demonstrates. Jerry Travers (Astaire) meets Dale Tremont (Rogers) at a resort near Venice and is instantly smitten. Dale, however, wants nothing to do with Jerry. The situation only gets worse when Dale gets the mistaken impression that Jerry is married to a friend of hers named Madge (Helen Broderick). In fact, Madge has invited Dale for the specific purpose of introducing her to Jerry, thinking that they might hit it off. This leads to lots of comic business in which Madge seems to be encouraging Dale to dally with her husband. The plot is great fun, the Irving Berlin songs are first-rate, and the dancing, needless to say, is sublime.

"Bachelor Mother" (1939). Ginger Rogers stars, without Fred Astaire this time, as a department store employee who finds herself stuck with an abandoned baby. Having agreed to hold the baby for a moment, she gradually realizes that no one is coming back for it. Everyone assumes that she's the child's mother, and nothing she says can convince them otherwise. It is further assumed that the child's father is the son of the store's owner, a suave young playboy played by David Niven.

It is little short of a miracle that a comedy with such racy overtones was made and released during the height of the Hollywood production code, which was designed to keep movie content squeaky clean to head off government censorship. If you want to watch it, though, go ahead. If the censorship police come after you, you can always claim that they've got the wrong person.

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