Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Afro-deco

Prince's unfairly maligned second film mixes swank screwball comedy with uptown sass.

Published September 30, 1998 3:59PM (EDT)

The luxurious settings of 1930s movies were less the province of the
characters who could afford them than the ones who knew how to have the
most fun. For all their art-deco elegance, the comedies and musicals of the
era were populated by the sort of earthy performers you wouldn't expect to
find on the social register. Cruising through the plush, satiny settings
with an air of cheerful disrespect, Mae West, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers
and others kept all the wealth on display from seeming like just cold cash.
In contrast to stiff swells determined to be tastefully discreet about
their bucks, the wisecracking stars most popular with Depression audiences
acted out an unabashed fantasy of finding yourself in the chips.

A gloss on '30s movies that combines lowdown comedy with high-fashion
style, Prince's "Under the Cherry Moon" (1986) was not what anybody
expected as a follow-up to the hit "Purple Rain," although it's a much more
enjoyable movie. "Under the Cherry Moon" isn't in the same class as
"Top Hat," "She Done Him Wrong" or "Dinner at Eight," but Prince captures
the essence of '30s comedies better than any of the directors (from Peter
Bogdanovich to Woody Allen) who have slavishly imitated them. The movie has
a casual, tossed-off approach and an air of impudent swank. If Becky
Johnston's script proceeds more by flourishes than plot development, she
still includes plenty of snappy repartee. And Prince was lucky enough to
have the benefit of Richard Sylbert's production design and Michael
Ballhaus' cinematography, which bring the lush, silvery look of '30s
movies into the age of Versace and rock 'n' roll.

When Prince appeared in the early '80s, the essence of his appeal lay in
the way his outrageously sexual image flouted the new conservatism of
American society (it was a Prince song that prompted a shocked Tipper Gore
to found the Parents Music Resource Center). Every enjoyable movie fantasy
is rooted in some emotional or cultural reality, and here that reality is
the Reagan era, with its agenda of relegating wealth and privilege to a
chosen few. But, in place of speechifying, the movie's cultural
nose-thumbing expresses itself as a dedication to the principle of fun.

"Under the Cherry Moon" is a fantasia of what might have happened if blacks
in classic Hollywood comedy hadn't been relegated to playing maids and
bellhops. Prince and the gifted and debonair Jerome Benton (he was Morris
Day's sidekick in "Purple Rain") play a pair of gigolos loose on the French
Riviera and insinuating themselves into the playground of rich whites. The
sassiness of Mae West and Jean Harlow here translates into the jivey
put-ons of a pair of slick black hustlers. As Christopher and his partner
Tricky, Prince and Benton are something like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby doing Amos and
Andy. (And if you know Amos and Andy only in disrepute, you probably don't
know about the program's clever, punning verbal humor, like the great line
"I not only denies the allegation, but I resents the allegator!") The
difference is, Prince and Benton are nobody's patsies. Everyone who deals
with them winds up feeling three steps behind, just as the poor straights
who tried to have a conversation with Groucho or Chico did. When their
landlady (the comely Emannuelle Sallet) tells them that Tricky's charms
will no longer suffice to pay the rent, the two of them sink to their knees and
become a pair of po' little orphan boys, begging not to get thrown out in
the cold, mean streets.

Prince and Benton's antics are a form of subversive blackface. In the '20s
and '30s, rich New York whites headed to Harlem for what they regarded as
chic slumming. In "Under the Cherry Moon," the slums make house calls on
the Vanity Fair set. Throughout the movie, whenever Prince wants to bait
stuffy white people (or just have a little fun), he abandons his natural
sexy speaking voice for a high-pitched black dialect. In one scene
Christopher and Tricky, dining in a fancy restaurant with a tycoon's
daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas, in her movie debut) they've set their
sights on, make her read a phrase they've written out: "Wrecka Stow." To
the pair's whooping delight, Thomas (who, with her tart comic delivery is
as game as she is beautiful) pronounces it in her flawless English accent,
and when she demands to know what it means, they tell her, "If you wanted
to buy a Sam Cooke album, where would you go?"

Maybe because his sexuality had been the subject of speculation, Prince
makes a grand joke out of his doe-eyed swanning. Wittily costumed in a
series of ensembles that includes high-heeled boots, cut-to-the-waist
jackets, beaded bandannas and skin-tight sequined pants, he asks the camera
to drink in every primped and pomaded inch. At one point he sits in the
bathtub wearing a bolero hat while Benton showers rose petals on him. The
two of them conduct their partnership as an endless round of flirtations
and flare-ups (too good-spirited to be homophobic), even falling into a
couple of eye-flashing clinches. (The real drama queen here is Steven
Berkoff, in one of his reliably disgraceful performances, as Scott Thomas'
father. He makes his entrance in a white suit leading a big trophy dog on a
leash and greets his daughter with a mincing, "Hello Kitten, how's the
prettiest girl on the Ctte d'Azur?" Oh, Mary!) But when he wants to be,
Prince is an ace seducer. The movie's sexiest scene comes when he and Scott
Thomas are talking on the phone, lying on their respective beds, not doing
much more than listening to each other's breathing. And when he takes her
to his seaside grotto, there's a lovely superimposed shot where the two of
them appear to be making love inside her outstretched hand.

The bad buzz about "Under the Cherry Moon" began a week into the shoot when
Prince fired director Mary Lambert (who had made a name directing videos
for Madonna) and took over. His direction is a little all over the place.
At times he seems to have gotten swept up in the movie's party escapades
and the parade of scenemakers floating by the camera. The big set piece,
Scott Thomas' birthday garden party, captures the slightly tipsy feel that
pervades the film. But sometimes it's as important for a director to
provide the right spirit as it is to be precise, and the most important thing
to Prince here seems to be to keep us entertained. The stylish, slightly
unsteady whirl of "Under the Cherry Moon" is like watching a '30s movie
while slipping into an afternoon nap and having it become part of your
dreams. It doesn't even wreck the fun when Prince moves from comedy to
romantic melodrama in the last half-hour: His dreams just seem to have led
him into another movie. And the comic tone is restored in the number
("Mountains") that ends the picture: Prince and the Revolution performing
the song direct from heaven. Life is a parade, Christopher says. So's the
movie. Prince wants to ride atop the float, receiving the crowd's
adulation, but he's also larking about down in the street, happy to be one
of the clowns.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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