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The World's Greatest Lover

Even those of us with a longtime and well-earned affection for Gene Wilder have to respond to The World's Greatest Lover, his second feature as writer/director/star — and now producer — with a dispirited sigh. Although this 1977 romance-farce came two years after his w/d/s debut, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, under all three hats here Wilder takes a big step backward instead of steadily improving on what came before. It's further proof — with Haunted Honeymoon still to come — that he was at his best with the right director, and Wilder wasn't it. On the other hand, his leading lady is Carol Kane, whose other big impression in '77 came with Annie Hall. As Vincent Canby in The New York Times said it then, she's a revelation whether she's being "stubborn, dim, sexy, plain or, sometimes, very, very beautiful."

Certainly the premise is worth playing around with. In the heyday of Hollywood's silent era and legendary screen lover Rudolph Valentino, a frustrated and neurotic Milwaukee baker (Wilder) enters a desperate movie studio's contest to become "the world's greatest lover." He heads west with his new bride (Kane) and, between the expected banana-peel and pull-my-finger misadventures, gains a few pointers from the real Valentino. (A how-to book, "Sex by the Numbers: Positions 1-18," helps in a funny, albeit underbaked, gag as well.) Once in Tinseltown, Kane's delusional infatuation with Valentino leads to confusions, shenanigans, and other predictable unfoldings both in the boudoir and during the hapless baker's big screen test.

Too bad the movie has such a tin ear on nearly every level. More so than in Smarter Brother, the often juvenile gags and set pieces come written, shaped, and shot with surprising amateurishness. (In this disc's commentary audio, more than once Wilder remarks on a scene, "Too slapsticky for you?", and the answer is invariably, [sigh] Afraid so.) A few, such as the baker's love-scene "rehearsal" with a phonograph in a public place, are outright embarrassing. The supporting cast — Kane in particular, with familiar faces Dom DeLuise, Fritz Feld, and Carl Ballantine — are welcome presences. But Wilder himself is on autopilot, rehashing tics and affectations that worked better for him when they were fresh in The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and even Smarter Brother. Worse, as both actor and director he relies so noticeably much on "eye-acting" that half the cast, he and Kane especially, appear to be channeling Marty Feldman. This thyroidal, goggle-eyed approach grates further with his over-reliance on screen-filling close-ups that must have left the original cinema audiences feeling like specimens in an ant farm.

The tone flops around like a hooked trout, flipping gracelessly from "silent movie" speedup to stagy blackout sketches to bedroom farce and would-be romance. Oh, it has its moments. Wilder still can be sweet-faced and guilelessly lovable when his character isn't coming across (unintentionally, we presume) as an abusive nut. Production designer Terence Marsh earned his pay and then some. And it's fun to recognize young Danny DeVito in a small role. But the whole endeavor is as forgettable as a day-old cruller, and not as easy going down.

*          *          *

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's DVD of The World's Greatest Lover gives the Gene Wilder completists a disc to be pleased with. This dual-sided disc puts the 1.85:1 anamorphic version on Side B, and a full-screen 1.33:1 version on Side A. In each case we get an exceptional print and transfer. The default audio is DD 2.0 stereo that's just fine, with options of mono English, Spanish, and French.

Perhaps understandably, Wilder doesn't have much to say during his new commentary track. He occasionally pops up with a scene-specific memory and sincere accolades for Kane, DeLuise, and others. His account of why the end credits include a Thank You to Federico Fellini is a pleasing tale of mutual admiration. But, as in his Smarter Brother track, he also sounds a little sad, especially when his few comments are merely self-deprecation ("I don't think I'd do that today"). Listening to it, we want to take him out to a nice dinner and a show. (Tellingly, in his autobiography, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, Wilder says nothing about the movie or its production, acknowledging its existence only for the Fellini anecdote.)

The disc's other extras are trailers for Smarter Brother, Young Frankenstein, and Silver Streak.

As usual these days, Fox's shrieking anti-piracy nanny-ad tries its best to ruin the experience before we even start. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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