Can violence be funny?
Well, certainly the slapstick comedy of the silent cinema was often based on violence, what with people getting hit with heavy objects, taking horrendous falls, and running full speed into walls.
And the films of Quentin Tarantino – from Reservoir Dogs in 1992 to the current Django Unchained – have found humor in violence and death at its most grotesque ... though not without a backlash from some critics and audiences.
You wouldn’t think that a movie starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn would draw that sort of heat, but that was precisely the case in 1963 when the comedy thriller Charade hit America’s movie screens.
Set in Paris, the film finds a new widow, Reggie Lampert (Hepburn), dealing with the realization that her late husband was mixed up in some pretty shady dealings. Now his thuggish associates (among them Walter Matthau, George Kennedy, and James Coburn) are threatening her, sure she knows the whereabouts of a fortune stolen by her spouse. She is befriended by the mysterious Peter Joshua (Grant), who fights off the bad guys while initiating a slowly-simmering romance with Reggie.
But Donen dabbled in lots of movie genres.
“I always wanted to make a movie like one of my favorites, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest,” he recalled. “What I admired most was the wonderful story of the mistaken identity of the leading man. They mistook him for somebody who didn’t exist, so he could never prove he wasn’t somebody who wasn’t alive.
“So I searched to find some piece with a wonderful story and the same idiom of adventure, suspense and humor.”
He found it in “The Unsuspecting Wife,” a short story by Peter Stone that had been published in Redbook magazine.
From the outset of the project, Donen envisioned Grant (the star of North by Northwest) as his leading man and Hepburn (whom he had directed several years earlier in Funny Face) as the widow.
But Grant was already booked up. Donen next turned to Paul Newman, but the studio, Columbia, refused to pay Newman’s high rates. Moreover, Hepburn didn’t want to be in the movie if she couldn’t play opposite Grant.
With the deal all but dead, Donen sold Charade to rival studio Universal. And in a perfect storm of good luck, Grant announced that he had dropped out of that other production and was now available. Hepburn quickly jumped on board.
Charade is tons of fun, filled with rapid-fire repartee and a circular narrative that finds our hero and heroine repeatedly going from safety to danger and back again.
The film also achieves a tonal balance quite remarkable for the time, with the merriment quickly spilling over into mayhem, and fright into frolic.
There was much gallows humor, as when one of the bad guys pays his respects to a dead man in a coffin, then pokes the corpse with a long needle to make sure he’s really dead.
The villains die spectacularly... and comically.
In fact, that the bigwigs at Universal feared the film was too violent, too black.
Donen fought back by suggesting that two versions of Charade be shown to preview audiences. One would be his full director’s cut. The second would be a cleaned-up version with most of the offending material removed.
The original Donen-approved cut was the first one shown to a preview audience, whose members were afterward asked to fill out comment cards. Donen and screenwriter Stone (who had adapted his own short story) decided to stuff the ballot box by filling out dozens of the comment cards.
“When the card asked what was our favorite part of the picture, Stanley and I wrote down ‘When it’s violent.’” Stone recalled. “‘What part did you like the least?’ ‘When there’s no violence.’
“‘What could be done to improve the picture?’ ‘More violence.’”
Amazingly, the studio never caught on. The comment cards for the dark version of Charade were so positive that the bowdlerized version was never even screened for an audience.
Donen had only to make one small change to the film. Charade opened in New York City only two weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Grant and Hepburn were called in to redub the dialogue in one scene, replacing the word “assassinate” with “eliminate.”
Charade was booked as the Christmas movie at Radio City Music Hall.
The critics loved the film. The hard-to-please Pauline Kael called Charade the year’s best movie.
Judith Crist described it as “a grownup, tongue in cheek romance.”
But the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther noted the movie’s dark side: “The picture has so many grisly touches in it and runs to violence so many times that people bringing their youngsters to see the annual Nativity pageant and the Christmas stage show may blanch in horror...”
Still, he described Charade as fast moving, urbane entertainment.
Which is most certainly was and still remains.
Other films in the series “50 Years Ago at the Movies”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- January 5: Lilies of the Field (1963) Not Rated
- January 12: Hud (1963) Not Rated
- January 19: Tom Jones (1963) Not Rated
- January 26: Captain Newman M.D. (1963) Not Rated
- February 2: Charade (1963) Not Rated
- February 9: Bye Bye Birdie (1963) Not Rated
- February 16: The Birds (1963) Not Rated
- February 23: The Great Escape (1963) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.