What does the American dream mean to you? Hardworking folk just want the job and the house and the family as promised in the ‘old’ Contract With America that began to slip out of reach in the 1970s. To examine the social absurdities at the tacky end of the consumer divide, Bo Goldman and Jonathan Demme’s marvelous film follows Melvin Dummar, a luckless a guy who became an involuntary media sensation. You just want to hug plucky Paul Le Mat and adorable Mary Steenburgen, even though there’s not a thing to be done for them: going to ‘Easy Street’ isn’t so easy, not even after being named in a billionaire’s Last Will and Testament.
Melvin and Howard
1980 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 95 min. / Street Date April 16, 2019 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Paul Le Mat, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Elizabeth Cheshire, Pamela Reed, Michael J. Pollard, Gloria Grahame, Charles Napier, Jack Kehoe, Cheryl Smith, Martine Beswicke, Charlene Holt, Rick Lenz, Gary Goetzman, John Glover, Dabney Coleman, Joe Spinell.
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Film Editor: Craig McKay
Original Music: Bruce Langhorne
Written by Bo Goldman
Produced by Art Linson, Terence Nelson, Don Phillips
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Melvin and Howard is the most refreshing bit of Americana I’ve seen this year. Jonathan Demme’s deserving ‘special’ film from the benighted year 1980 wasn’t his first first effort away from the Roger Corman corral, but it earned him instant credit on the international film scene. Practically a neorealist look at the blight of America in the post-Watergate era, Demme and writer Bo Goldman’s picture creates a warm and forgiving feeling about folk trapped in the working-class doldrums, anesthetizing themselves with manufactured dreams of magical riches.
Demme’s leading characters are infectiously endearing. Paul Le Mat of American Graffiti plays a hapless Everyman, a sweet guy who is nevertheless a magnet for the woes of working slobs with no prospects. Even more adorable is Mary Steenburgen’s Lynda, a sweetheart of a go-go dancer who just wants a hint of stability in her life. The charm of Melvin and Howard is its caring attitude to these people. We have no illusions that they’ll solve their problems, but they face their (self-inflicted?) troubles with such open-faced honesty that we can’t help loving them. They have spirit; they don’t burn themselves up with anger or self-pity.
The jumping-off point for Demme’s tale is the mysterious ‘Mormon Will,’ a dubious document that left an enormous sum to one Melvin Dummar, a Utah resident who claimed that he met the millionaire Howard Hughes on the Nevada desert in 1967. Although the media storm surrounding the contesting of the will is covered in the movie, Melvin and Howard has a much more humanist agenda: where did the American dream go?
Once upon a time there was dignity in holding down a modest job, or at least that’s what our parents told us when they vowed to see that we got college educations. We meet Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat) in 1967, when he picks up an old bum in the desert, who insists that he’s Howard Hughes, and drives him back to the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas; Melvin makes the old man sing with him during the ride. Nice-guy Melvin lives in a trailer park and has trouble holding jobs, and his constant habit of buying things he can’t afford causes his wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen) to leave him and go back to dancing in cheap bars. Melvin secures a divorce. A hard worker at the magnesium plant, Melvin takes care of his daughter Darcy (Elizabeth Cheshire) and pals around with the harmless Little Red (Michael J. Pollard). When Lynda turns up pregnant, they get married again and relocated to Southern California, where Melvin tries being a milkman again. Lynda wins furniture and money on a TV show called ‘Easy Street,’ and they buy a small house they might be able to afford. But even though Melvin’s job is rigged to make sure he falls farther in debt, he goes out and buys a new car and a boat. He and Lynda split once more, but dairy co-worker Bonnie (Pamela Reed) entices him to help her run a filling station on the highway in Utah. One sunny day in 1976, a man in a new suit (Charles Napier) comes to the gas station and drops off an envelope containing a hand-written document that changes Melvin’s life forever…
The Mormon Will is almost an afterthought in Melvin and Howard, which uses poor Melvin Dummar’s fifteen minutes of fame to sketch a clear vision of the End of the American Dream. All the old aspirations and fantasies of American opportunity and prosperity are gone. The frontier is closed, every bit of land has a No Trespassing sign and life for the uneducated, unprivileged class can easily spiral into a pit of exploitation.
Not that the Melvin Dummars of the world are particularly deserving. Paul Le Mat’s sad sack is a typical slack-minded nice guy who doesn’t see any way forward in the options he’s given. The very morning he gives Howard Hughes a ride into town, they repossess an expensive motorcycle he’s bought. The family pasttime is watching brain-numbing TV shows, especially ‘Easy Street,’ a combo of The Gong Show and Let’s Make a Deal that features contestants willing to humiliate themselves to take a chance at winning something. Big dreamer Melvin urges Lynda to hold out for the big prize, and for once they get lucky. Although shocked when she wins, Lynda can muster a practical attitude — at the real estate office she insists on a smaller model house, one they might actually be able to make the payments on.
It almost makes sense that Melvin resorts to Pie in the Sky dreams of wealth, as all of his jobs seem to bleed employees with a trickle-down cheating system. Are milkmen now extinct? Melvin’s dairy employer puts many the operating expenses on Melvin’s tab, insuring that he earns less and owes more each and every week. Poor Melvin is never in control of anything, and must threaten violence to be given the ‘Milkman of the Month’ prize that he’s earned four times over. The gas station turns out to be a marginal thing as well — he has to buy his gas with a rubber check, hoping that his volume over a holiday weekend will be enough to put his accounts in the black come Monday morning. It’s like a game of Monopoly in which other every roll of the dice puts you back on Skid Row.
But the overall tone of Melvin and Howard is not despair. The Dummars are suffused in a kind of loving understanding, a quality that comes through in most of Jonathan Demme’s work, including The Silence of the Lambs. The Coen Bros. are often slammed for their unsentimental jabs at the silly provincial yokels in the wilds of America; accusations of elitist condescension are common. Demme’s movie doesn’t hide Melvin Dummar’s flaws but it never makes him an outright clown. Melvin’s recurring pose sees him standing in a driveway with an uncomprehending ‘not again!’ look on his face, as his foolish purchases are being repossessed or his family is exiting in a taxi. Lynda knows better than to even get angry with Melvin — there’s just no changing him.
The firestorm of media madness, opportunistic relatives and threatening lawyers Melvin hard. It’s almost the same as Preston Sturges’ comedy Christmas in July, only this time there’s only a mix of congratulations and disapproval, with no dream payout from the big slot machine in the sky. Will it all fall apart for Melvin? In an atypical moment of clarity, he vocalizes what’s been nagging him all along: he doesn’t believe he’ll ever see a dime of the $156 million promised him in the Hughes will, because things like that just don’t happen to guys like him.
Melvin and Howard is a delight despite what should be a constant parade of working class miseries. Paul Le Mat’s inoffensive Melvin is like a great many guys I’ve met trying to get ahead, who didn’t or couldn’t avail themselves of educational opportunities. Melvin doesn’t blame anybody else (except his boss at the damn dairy) and is in general a hell of a nice guy. He doesn’t even drink — but he seems addicted to buying consumer goodies he can’t afford, to perhaps ease the pain of failure. It’s like a sickness: does he buy the car and the boat because he knows he’ll soon be losing everything, so why not go for broke while he can?
The ‘Easy Street’ show serves up an infantile fantasy that the Dummars find irresistible. The lecherous host Wally ‘Mr. Love’ Williams serves up a tap-dancing Lynda in a game where everything is out of their control, and one simply has to have faith in the system. It’s a microcosm of our present political situation — a leering TV host promising everything to a gullible public that no longer believes that society works.
This is surely Paul Le Mat’s best film after American Graffiti and Melvin is an even more original character. Poor Melvin is the epitome of ‘a guy who means well, but…’ I carry in my brain a bias against stories that champion the ‘virtues’ of pig-headed ignorance, but Melvin and Howard doesn’t offend me as does, say, the enormously popular Oscar winner Rocky. Real-life dumb Palookas rarely come with hearts of gold; a more typical Rocky Balboa would express his low self-esteem and frustration by beating his wife. (I did say I was biased.) The real Melvin Dummar was reportedly an inoffensive fellow, but America is overrun with guys like him who simply aren’t so nice, and compensate for their misery with various vices, mainly drugs… Melvin and Howard is a real-life fairy tale, that reminds us that even self-defined losers are still deserving people with good qualities — but without inventing a ‘Magic Slob Everyman.’ Melvin is a modern George Bailey, starring in “It’s A Wonderful Life Even if Nothing Seems to be Working Out.”
In her first movies Mary Steenburgen illuminated five or six disparate characters with her completely winning personality. Her nude scenes seem so spontaneous that the question of exploitation never comes up — besides, not once are we distracted from her disarming smile and cheerful attitude. (I once shared a twenty-second elevator ride with Ms. Steenburgen, and was floored when she flashed me that heart-melting smile, just as a friendly gesture to a stranger. That sort of thing didn’t happen very often.) Sharing a tacky go-go stage with Lynda is another game dancer — working with one arm in a cast! Steenburgen could play Lady Macbeth and still capture our hearts.
Melvin and Howard is too early to be an ‘a luta continua..‘ picture but it certainly bears Jonathan Demme’s earmarks, starting with creative, inside-track casting. Any picture where Gloria Grahame shows up in a bit part, just enough for us to recognize her, is going to make us keep our eyes open. Demme regular Charles Napier is here, but also the sweet Pamela Reed, years before The Right Stuff. For the exotic fringe, there are bits for Cheryl Smith, Charlene Holt and Martine Beswick, not to mention Dabney Coleman and John Glover. Extremely good at communicating small business venality is Jack Kehoe as Jim Delgago, Melvin’s prevaricating boss at the dairy distribution office. Jeez, guys like Delgado are the curse of the working world.
And then there’s the top-billed star Jason Robards, who spends the film’s first sixteen minutes putting up with Melvin’s friendly chatter in the cab of a pickup truck headed for Vegas. Stories about Howard Hughes’s eccentric old age are legion, and the vision of a long-haired unshaven weirdo isn’t too far off from recorded accounts. And Hughes was just nuts enough to credit Melvin with saving his life and shoving his name into a (very bogus-sounding) Last Will and Testament. Is it cynical to look for obvious ways the Will could have been a bald forgery? The idea certainly feeds into the fantasies of fellow citizens that worship get-rich game shows, and spend Johnny’s college money on lotto cards.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Melvin and Howard is a visual beauty, looking better than the beat-up print I saw sometime back in 1981. It looks great. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto filmed Terrence Malick’s Badlands back in 1973 and moved on to a number of exploitation films, including Jonathan Demme’s early Caged Heat; he’s filmed almost every Demme picture and scores of other major shows as well. For Melvin and Howard Fujimoto sticks to a fairly documentary look, yet the images of messy apartments and tawdry kitchens remains as bright and hopeful as the people in them.
Demme also loads the soundtrack with great music, right from when we hear Melvin tuning his truck radio between three stations on a lonesome highway in pre-dawn Nevada. Some of the music is gloriously inappropriate, as when Lynda chooses The Rolling Stones for her ‘Easy Street’ talent demo. Michel Legrand’s “The Windmills of Your Mind” even slips in there along the way, for who knows what reason.
The fine director Jonathan Demme comes off well in an archived commentary from an earlier disc release, accompanied by his production designer Toby Rafelson. Their candid remarks are really illuminating. We’ve seen dozens of forgettable ‘Vegas wedding’ scenes but the one in Melvin and Howard takes the prize in every respect. The whole loving family unit is there — excited daughter, sober best friend, extremely pregnant bride (who will take that $5.00 blue veil, yes thank you) and a groom who is so busted that they all volunteer to work as witnesses for the next few weddings on the chapel’s docket. The montage in which Steenburgen kisses a succession of eager grooms is painfully funny.
The only gripe with the disc is that Universal didn’t provide Twilight Time with subtitles, making the show off-limits for the hearing-impaired. I assume this was unavoidable, but it’s a major aggravation for a sizable group of disc fans.
— Most of us have had some contact with the Melvin Dummar mentality. My sensible spouse once did some sit-down counseling for a relative with a ‘creative’ plan when she refinanced her house. When told she could borrow a big sum over what she owed on the house, the relative had a whole list of dream purchases in mind: a car, a pool, new furniture, a trip. A sober intervention helped the relation avoid financial suicide. But the bank’s loan officer made it all seem so easy!
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Melvin and Howard
Supplements: Isolated Music & Effects Track / Audio Commentary with Director Jonathan Demme and Production Designer Toby Rafelson / Original Theatrical Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: April 20, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson