I know, I know. You’re all thinking I’m wrong, and you’re all picturing different things I should be imagining instead. But there it is. The first thing I think of when I think Madeline Kahn is Gonzo wanting to marry her, move to the suburbs, and join the PTA. Oh, there’s a wealth after that, probably including most of the ones you’re thinking of. And there’s more to it than just the fact that, honestly, I think they give Gonzo the two best songs, and the one he sings when he finds out she won’t marry him is the best one from the TV show. There’s also the grace and dignity with which she handles being the unrequited passion of a hunk of foam covered in fake fur. Gonzo’s affections are a joke; Gonzo himself is not.
I feel this was often the case with Madeline Kahn’s characters, when she was used best. She was somehow planted in a completely ridiculous situation. Which she took completely seriously. I’ll admit I tend to feel that’s the key to comedy in general. But look at her in Clue or What’s Up, Doc? Or, O staple of my childhood, the bit on Saturday Night Live where she’s Marlene Dietrich opposite Gilda Radner as Baba Wawa. It takes quite a talent to keep a straight face on live television when telling people that you’ve had your weah wifted.
Oh, she was radiant. She is said to have improvised the “flames, flames on the side of my face” speech, and that’s one where I believe it. At very least, she delivered it as if it were ad libbed, with the sort of stuttering uncertainty about what she was going to say next—and it’s hilarious, possibly the funniest part of a very funny movie. I can tell you for sure it isn’t in the shooting script, which I’ve read. She trained as an opera singer, having been earning money as a singing waitress and having decided that she’d get better tips if she could sing the random damn arias people apparently requested of singing waitresses. (Who knew?) In fact, she got her start on Broadway, and Eunice Burns was her first film role.
Further, it seems that Lucille Ball had her fired from Mame over “artistic differences,” and from what I know of Lucille Ball, I suspect she felt upstaged by Kahn’s better voice and genuine stage presence. And either way, I think Ball herself would have admitted that Kahn was simply a better comedienne. Ball was a comedic actress, but she worked at it. She was not herself funny. Although Mel Brooks said that Kahn was shy and retiring in real life, she was still funny. She had to be, to do the things she did.
She was taken from us far too young. Fifty-seven is hardly any age at all. To be honest, I’m not sure what she’d be doing if she were alive today, but I like to hope that she would have inspired someone to write more screwball roles for her. I would have loved to see a movie with her and Carole Kane (who we’re getting to this month, if everything goes according to plan) and Bernadette Peters playing dizzy middle aged dames in some sort of wacky scenario. Oh, well. At least two of them are still alive; maybe the Coens can think of something.
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