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LOLITA (1962)

Lolita (1962) Movie Poster

Your June 2007 RMC Results Are In!

(See if you can guess the movie from the) Tagline: How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?

Preshow Entertainment: Bobby Slayton

"Lolita" is more than a movie about a middle-aged man's obsession with a teenager. It's actually the film-world's first pedophilia comedy.

The Preshow Entertainment...

Way back in 1990, whilst channel hopping, I caught fifteen minutes of an HBO ONE NIGHT STAND (that was a stand-up comedy show) with a guy I'd never seen before - Bobby Slayton. He made me laugh a whole lot, but when he did a bit on Chinese haircuts all looking like Moe, well, I was in tears. HBO reran that show last week, so for the first time in 17 years, I got to watch the show again, this time from the beginning.

I've followed Bobby Slayton, a/k/a "The Pit Bull of Comedy," since that fateful day. Despite small roles in movies like DREAMGIRLS, THE RAT PACK (he was Joey Bishop), and the funniest film in the universe, THE ARISTOCRATS, he never really broke big. That's too bad, because he really is that funny. The half hour assault went sailing by. His act was nice and polished with a dose of charming bitterness. He ranted on the differences between men and women as many comics do, but had that attacking (pit bull, remember?) stance. He's one part Seinfeld, one part Lewis Black.

And now to our feature presentation...

Here's something to make you feel old. When Sting sang the line "Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov" from The Police's monster hit "Don't Stand So Close To Me," the movie LOLITA was only 17 years old (the book was 25). And now? It's a whopping 27 years since "Don't Stand..." was released. And that shocks me more than the illicit romance tween teen and middle-aged man.

James Mason plays writer/professor Humbert Humbert, who arrives at a New England town for the summer before starting a teaching job in another state. Sunbathing Lolita He stumbles onto the house of Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), a raffish, needy widow who takes an immediate shine to Humbert. He's politely uninterested in her, and ready to leave when....he spies her daughter, Dolores, a/k/a Lolita (Sue Lyon). He is dumbstruck, instantly caught in her tractor beam with no escape. He is smitten, and like a terrier with a slipper, he's not letting go.

Poor prurient perverted Humbert can't catch a break. Charlotte seems to always make it difficult for him to spend quality time with Lolita. First she sends Lolita to summer camp, and later she informs Humbert she has decided to ship her off to boarding school. And when the fates step in and make it easier (not easy - easier) for Humbert and Lolita to be together, it's Humbert's paranoia that ultimately derails him, turning him into a suspicious, drivelling, jealous, and mega-paranoid loon.

And then there is TV writer Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), who also fancies Lolita. Quilty employs a more passive, yet more insidious tack to win Lolita. Yes folks, it's the Battle of the Pedophiles.

Now here's the thing: although on the surface LOLITA is about an older guy's obsession with an underage girl, it's actually about...power. It's clear from the very beginning that Lolita has the power and Humbert is indeed the terrier with the slipper. And sooner or later that slipper will get torn up. Humbert tries to be the authoritarian father figure, but whenever bratty Lolita whines about something, he sheepishly succumbs and lets her have her way. It's either that or risk losing her. And once you set up that dynamic, the roles are clearly drawn.

Humbert paints Lolita's toenails
Lolita has all the power. In one scene, the grown man is literally eating out of Lolita's hand, and in another, when painting her toenails...he is at her feet. That's what obsession does, it weakens you to the point of submission. It's coincidental that in the Preshow Entertainment Bobby Slayton does a whole hunk on how men and women are different, and who exactly has the power.

Although Lolita has Humbert in the psychological department, Charlotte has the physical power. She's constantly caroming into him so he must retreat, often knocking things over or backing into a wall.
Humbert (Mason) and Charlotte (Winters)
And his back is to the wall, especially when he decides to marry Charlotte, a woman he thoroughly abhors, just to remain in the proximity of the nymphet (a term that was invented by Nabokov for the book). There's a brilliant moment when Humbert finally lays into Charlotte while she's on the phone with Lolita. Fed up, he snaps at her, "Not all the decisions are taken by the female...I scoot around you like a little lapdog! Oh yes, I'm happy and delighted to be bossed by you, but every game has rules!" But was he really yelling at her...or Lolita, who was on the other end of the phone? Now go back and read that dialogue again.

I am here to tell you that LOLITA is very much a comedy. Sure, there's drama in it, and yes the subject is awkward for a comedy...and, okay, I'm not sure I'd put it on the comedy shelf next to GHOSTBUSTERS. But there's intentional comedy here. Take for example when Charlotte tells Humbert, "...you just touch me and I go as limp as a noodle. It scares me." He replies, with a sarcasm lost on her, "Yes, I know the feeling." And when Humbert is touring the house for the very first time, it's clear he's not interested in renting it from Charlotte at all, especially with her forward advances. But one look at Lolita and...Sold!! Then there's the time Humbert is in bed with Charlotte as an 8 x 10 of Lolita stares at him, prominently figured in the shot. There's even a reference (in the dialogue!) to SPARTICUS, Kubrick's film right before LOLITA. And when Humbert finally manages to get Lolita to a hotel, he learns the place is packed with the overflow from the state police convention. Geez, there's even slapstick; Humbert can't get the cot to work and it ultimately collapses on him. It's just Lucy. And if you still need to be convinced, the camp Charlotte sends Lolita to is called Camp Climax for Girls.

On the entendre side, Charlotte proffers this tidbit to entice Humbert to rent her house: "I can offer you my cherry pies." And at a party, when Charlotte is talking to Clare Quilty about Lolita - "Wednesday she's going to have a cavity filled." When Charlotte and Humbert are playing chess, she says "You're going to take my queen." and his response is, "That is the intention." And then he does.

And just how many more little winks are there in LOLITA? Lots. Again, as I did with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, I may be finding things that aren't there. But Stanley Kubrick sure does fill his films, and more specifically his frames with allusions and symbolism. As in many of his films, he paints a picture with broad strokes and subtle shadings. Short vignettes and lengthy takes. And his vision of America is not too far off, though you do get the occasional actor saying things like, "Now see here, young man...!"

Lolita Hula-Hoops
There's one vignette where Kubrick has a bored Lolita counting how many times she makes the hula hoop go around her waist. Humbert leers over his book as he watches her pelvis thrust back and forth. But his bliss is interrupted by Charlotte who takes a flash picture of Humbert, thusly shifting the power chain. The composition of that shot, with Lolita in the foreground and Humbert oblivious to Charlotte until the flash goes off, is, as Mastercard says, priceless. That one fleeting moment tells you everything you need to know about these people.

Another scene has distraught Charlotte, who has just discovered Humbert wants Lolita, crying against the urn filled with her late husband Harold's ashes; "You are the soul of integrity. How did we produce such a little beast?" If she stopped to think about it, she answered her own question. Mason & Winters If Harold was the "soul of integrity," then it was Charlotte who produced the little beast. For Charlotte is the big beast. She got around, often talking of past conquests, even one with Clare Quilty. And she read Humbert's diary, where he calls her a cow, which last I looked is a big beast.

Sue Lyon was 16 when she did this movie, and although there's lots of suggestion, there's nothing graphic. But although she was playing 14 or 15 (it's never mentioned), she looked older to me. She looked early 20s. And when you have 25 year old Audrey Hepburn with 55 year old Humphrey Bogart in SABRINA, or Woody Allen and any co-star, well, it didn't appear as wrong (wrong, but not as wrong). But in 1962, they were daring enough doing what they were doing, let alone making a girl really look 14 (or 12, as in the book). Yes, that would have been trouble.

Which reminds me of something James used to say; "This is a man's world, but it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl."

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