BLOODHOUNDS OF BROADWAY
(PG, Columbia Pictures, 93 mins., theatrical release date: November 3, 1989)
It's "The Broadway Melody of 1928" as produced by PBS, but Bloodhounds of Broadway ended up swallowed whole on The Great White Way. Surprisingly obscure for something which boasted an ensemble of once and future movie stars, the disastrous release of the film in late 1989, nearly two years after it began filming, was particularly bittersweet in recounting the sad fate of its director, Howard Brookner. The NYU-schooled playwright and two-time documentary filmmaker finally got his gamble in the Hollywood racetrack. Unfortunately, Brookner was living in the early stages of AIDS for months before production, the chilly Jersey climes and tight schedule weakening his defenses as he refused his AZT regimen. Initial editing of a rough cut version had to be carried out whilst he was hospitalized in the summer of 1988.
Columbia Pictures waived final cut, though, and would impose post-production chicanery after Brookner's inaugural edit was deemed incomprehensible. It was also unceremoniously sold to fledgling Vestron Pictures only for the rights to boomerang back in the wake of 35-year-old Brookner's passing on April 27, 1989. To add further indignity to the late artist, according to former Tri-Star Pictures chairman Mike Medavoy, the film's theatrical rollout saw an entire reel go missing which nobody apparently noticed. The critical consensus was unkind, and despite being made for roughly $4 million, it netted close to $43,500 at the box office in limited release.
Plus it gave Madonna, who took a supporting role as a favor to Brookner instead for any hefty salary, her third consecutive Golden Raspberry nomination, although this time she mercifully lost the dishonor to Brooke Shields' mile high flub from Speed Zone! It's safe to say that unlike her previous failed grasps at leading lady credibility in Shanghai Surprise or Who's That Girl, Madonna is much less of a problem this time around. Indeed, like in Desperately Seeking Susan, her character of Hortense Hathaway, Flapper Queen, makes no demands other than her natural wattage, and chances are you could remember her fondly either doing a Mummy Dearest striptease or belting a decent if anachronistic take on the 1931 Bing Crosby hit "I Surrender Dear."
Or you could remember it if Bloodhounds of Broadway itself didn't get treated like a major studio's Poverty Row refugee. With its reshuffled yet still dysrhythmic footage and tacked-on narration worthy of Blade Runner in its thudding literalness, Brookner's supposed intention for a dense, intertwined anthology culled from the Damon Runyon catalog instead plays as if an entire miniseries was chopped down to 90 minutes. Based on four of the Roaring Twenties wordsmith's romanticized paeans to les années folles, this has a lot more going on than the 1952 Harmon Jones musical of the same name, albeit detrimentally.
As scripted by Brookner and Colman deKay, Bloodhounds of Broadway ostensibly charts the fates of four schlubs and the dames who enflame their hearts:
a) Schlub #1 is Regret (Matt Dillon), a cocky bettor nicknamed for the only pony who delivered. His paramour is Lovey Lou (Jennifer Grey), a solemn showgirl whose patience is wearing thin in her pining for the skirt-chasing Regret. Their strained courtship is further beset by a murder rap which leads Irish-brogued Inspector McNamara (Gerry Bamman) to suspect Regret.
b) Schlub #2 is The Brain (Rutger Hauer), Broadway's top mobster and wry gentleman about town. At Mindy's café, which is where all of the main cast are gathered for introduction, The Brain treats Regret and stranger John Wangle (Alan Ruck) to a hearty meal, accompanied by Wangle's two hungry bloodhounds. But it's the impresario's last supper before getting shivved by Daffy Jack (Brookner), emissary to rival Mafioso Homer Swing. The Brain's henchmen seek out his various mistresses hoping for safe haven, but they all reject him. However, his karma could change if his act of kindness to a poor flower girl named Mary (Madeleine Potter) goes rewarded.
c) Schlub #3 is Basil Valentine (Ethan Phillips), a Nervous Nelly who falls under the amorous eye
of socialite Harriet McKyle (Julie Hagerty). After giving Inspector McNamara the slip by introducing him to Wagner's hounds, Basil makes his way to Harriet's posh New Year's bash and bluffs his way into convincing her he's a thug. But when humiliated playboy Handsome Jack (Esai Morales) takes a shot at her prized parrot in a fit of rage, Basil finds himself an accidental assassin.
d) Schlub #4 is Feet Samuels (Randy Quaid), an honorable, hapless goofball "lousy in love" with Hortie Hathaway (Madonna), the star attraction of Missouri "Mizzoo" Martin's (Anita Morris) nightclub and niece of type-writing confidante Waldo Winchester (Josef Sommer). In his suicidal desperation, Feet sells his body to quack Doc Bodeeker (Robert Donley) for $400, which he invests in craps and poker games which make him even richer. Torn between his gradually requited love for Hortie and his impending obligation to Doc, Feet is forced to welsh for the first time in his life, either for true love or an end to his misery.
The movie crisscrosses between these four primary stories in a rather unwieldy manner, relying on Waldo's voice to make the necessary transitions and color commentary. After Feet hits it off with Hortie at Harriet's and Regret woos fellow lonely heart Miss Maud (Dinah Manoff) to Lovey's confused chagrin, the two schlubs are immediately transported to a poker table presided over by Big Shelley (Herschel Sparber), a temperamental goombah who tries to grease the wheels in his favor against the improved odds favoring Feet. These sudden shifts are indicative of much of the film's structure, which sacrifices any real breathing room or compelling flow for simple whimsy.
Judged on their own merits, only a couple of the stories truly retain their power to charm. "The Brain Goes Home" segment is carried along by appealing turns from regular rogue Rutger Hauer, who is a thrill to watch even pale-faced and dragged around in near death, and the beatific Ms. Potter. As a simple morality play, it gets the job done. But the most pathos is mined from the most pathetic character in the lot, Randy Quaid's Feet, in an overlooked showcase for the cracked comic talent to truly flaunt his character chops. Quaid's so physically vibrant and devoted to the role, he makes Waldo's narration surrounding him all the more redundant.
The dalliances between Basil and Harriet as well as Regret and Lovey unfold with a more comedy-of-errors tone, replete with copious double-crosses and misunderstandings, which demand a certain momentum this movie cannot achieve. The catchall ending which resolves the four stories tries to link these two particular strands together with equal indifference. The twists they offer up are shrug-worthy, at best. Better to just appreciate Hortie's fantasy of the simple life, replete with chicken farm and an overnight wedding ceremony in Hackensack that doesn't require a blood test.
Brookner's not entirely without promise, though, especially in the handling of his wide variety of performers as well as the periodically perfect production design. The likes of Matt Dillon and Jennifer Grey don't appear to be stretching beyond their comfort zones (rascally and angsty, respectively), thus making for easy amiability. But Julie Hagerty builds upon her reputation as a grand comedienne (honed from Airplane! and Lost in America) with a chameleonic abandon as the politely repressed Harriet. And in taming the wild Madonna, here with a brunette bob reminiscent of Louise Brooks, Brookner coaxes the superstar into an honest-to-goodness performance, cheekier and less grating than either of her previous cinematic disasters.
As well as reliable turns from Esai Morales, Dinah Manoff and Ethan Phillips, Brookner's film is loaded with plenty of recognizable mugs even in the margins. There's a boyish Fisher Stevens as a practical joker named Hotfoot Harry, always on the lookout for shoes to torch; Richard Edson (Super Mario Bros. flashbacks, anyone?) as dice parlor emcee Johnny Crackow; Steve Buscemi as one of the bums Feet bests at the card game; Michael Wincott as Soupy Mike, the smirking fugitive tending bar at Harriet's Park Avenue palace, plus William S. Burroughs (the subject of Brookner's first doc) as her butler; Tony Longo as Crunch Sweeney, The Brain's right hand man and love interest for Miss Maud; Stephen McHattie as Red Henry, the gunsmith who antagonizes Handsome Jack; and Louis Zorich as Mindy, the restaurateur with the wavering policy towards serving bloodhounds.
Brookner also shows some humorous compositional flair, whether it be the sight of Hortie slow dancing with Feet, using his oversized cleats as a cushion, or the actual countdown to 1929 heralded through a montage of ticking clocks and barking dogs alongside the usual revelers.
But even after giving Brookner the benefit of the doubt, what Bloodhounds of Broadway reminds me most of is another screen adaptation made over a decade later, Rent. The original stage production was notoriously overcast by its creator Jonathan Larson's early death and the film version was so belated that by hiring both mainstream mogul Chris Columbus and the same actors who originated their roles, it was played way too safe. Brookner's legacy seems to parallel Larson's in as morbid and misfortunate a way. It's not a total bust, and I would watch this over Shanghai Surprise any day, but I don't feel like giving Bloodhounds of Broadway my love, my life, my all.