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Reviewed by Marjorie Baumgarten, September 25, 2009, Screens

A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards

by Sam Wasson
Wesleyan University Press, 370 pp., $30

He may have directed some 40 movies, yet Blake Edwards' name remains most closely connected with the eight Pink Panther movies he helmed. Some comedy fans might also cite such titles as Victor Victoria, S.O.B., and Operation Petticoat. Auteurists would also chime in with Breakfast at Tiffany's, Days of Wine and Roses, and The Great Race. Fans of schadenfreude would happily contribute the titles of Edwards' most ridiculed flops, among them Darling Lili – made with his then-new bride Julie Andrews, who at the time was trying to break out of her Mary Poppins/The Sound of Music goody-two-shoes image.

Despite a robust filmmaking career that continued over many decades, little scholarship has been devoted to Edwards' work. Sam Wasson's book goes a long way toward correcting that neglect. The author situates Edwards in that awkward crux of film history during which the studio system was crumbling but had not yet envisioned new modes of production. This decay started in the mid-Sixties, just as Edwards' directing career scored its earliest box office hits. This tactic allows Wasson to feather his auteurist approach with cultural and economic perspectives that help explain the radical distances between Edwards' extreme career ups and downs (though when the author claims that Edwards suffered "more than his share" of commercial and critical flops, his sympathy for the director may be overindulgent). Wasson's analysis of Edwards' career is not entirely original but solidifies a common argument by making it the thesis of the book: The Edwards gestalt is a sublime combination of the "low art" of physical comedy and the "high art" of intellectual wit. Edwards' films depend on the filmmaker's love of the silent comedians and their slapstick, pie-in-the-face humor (or as the book title casts it, a splurch in the kisser), as well as his mentally quick and verbally sassy humor that's also characteristic of such predecessors and contemporaries as Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, respectively.

While the gist of Wasson's arguments may not be new, they gain added coherency from the book's film-by-film approach. Wasson lays out how Edwards' recurrent themes surface with specific examples and background explanation. This makes for some extremely short chapters when the paradigm doesn't fit quite perfectly, which is one of the measurable failings of this approach. More bothersome is Wasson's tendency to refer to the filmmaker as Blake instead of consistently using his surname. And what Wasson himself describes as "aggressively alliterative chapter" headings can be a tad too cute ("Blake Builds," "Blake Blossoms," "Blake Burns," etc.). Strangely, one of the unintended byproducts of A Splurch in the Kisser is that the book makes me miss the writing of two of Edwards' earliest and most ardent advocates: George Morris and Stuart Byron, both of whom died within a decade of Edwards' career resurgence around 1980. Though Wasson references their contributions to Edwards scholarship, their focus on such themes as the malleability of sexual identity might have advanced rather than merely coalesced the scholarship to date.

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