By Jason Haas
The Muppet Movie is a timeless family film for a number of reasons, but it is also a product of its times. The film rejects much of the cinematic aesthetic of the 1970s, an era that began with pornography enjoying widespread mainstream success and ended in the birth of the blockbuster, which reveled in auteurloving â€œlook-at-meâ€ filmmaking and/or special effects. Throughout the decade, cinema was fighting with television for its audience, so it is odd to find that a production staff that came mostly from television created a movie bursting with a deeply innocent love for the movies and for a time when movies provided a more cheerful joy. It seems as if Henson and his collaborators (most notably Frank Oz) were dedicated to creating a film that reflected a love of all that made the golden age of cinema so fantastic. Simultaneously, Henson and company, not unlike their big budget and pornographer contemporaries, make clear that their movie offers something that cannot be had in the comfort of oneâ€™s living room: more Muppet action than viewers could get out of TVâ€™s The Muppet Show.
Itâ€™s certainly not hard to see how much the people at Henson Pictures loved classic entertainment â€“ The Muppet Show was as classic a variety show as there is, taking its cues from vaudeville, combining skits and stand-up comedy with musical numbers. This love of vaudeville carries into the film. The film is dedicated to and is the last public appearance by Hensonâ€™s puppetry hero and one-time vaudeville (and later, radio) star, Edgar Bergen and hid dummy Charlie McCarthy (as well as featuring appearances by his contemporaries, Bob Hope, Milton Berle and others). The vaudeville influence is especially visible in the relationship between Fozzie and Kermit. In their first performance together at the El Sleezo CafÃ©, the bear and frog are already trading old-school groaners like: Kermit: Itâ€™s too bad the dancing girls are on vacation. This crowdâ€™s getting ugly. Fozzie: If you think this crowdâ€™s ugly, you should see the dancing girls.
But even more than the love of vaudeville and its puns and one-liners, this movie is in love with a notion of a magical Hollywood that everyoneâ€™s in love with. When Dom Deluiseâ€™s â€œBernie, the Agent,â€ tells Kermit that he could go west to â€œthe Dream Factory, the Magic Storeâ€ and he could â€œmake millions of people happy.â€ Kermit being the mensch (or frosch) that he is, it is this dream that compels him to leave his swamp for a movie career, the dream of making millions of people happy. Constructed by the industry itself in fan magazines and films such as A Star is Born (1937), such notions of Hollywood were pretty outdated by 1979, but you got a picture of why the good-hearted, playful Muppets would want to go to leave their theatre for the big time. The film makes fun of this â€œsmall-town dreamer makes it bigâ€ story, having Orson Wellesâ€™ studio boss Lew Lord order â€œthe standard, rich and famous contractâ€ for Kermit and his friends, but it clearly believes in it, too.
The film borrows extensively from other genres that had expired by the 1970s, but were still shorthand for the classic ideas of cinema the film associates itself with. The â€œEl Sleezo CafÃ©â€ is, even in the screenplay for the film, a paean to all of the places you didnâ€™t want to be in film history: â€œThe El Sleezo is slightly out of context with the town we have seen outside. It is really sleazy, with beaded curtains, slowly revolving overhead fans, and the subtle aura of a place that might be managed by Sidney Greenstreet.â€
After the El Sleezo, Fozzie and Kermit indulge in a Hope and Crosby style road picture, and the film ends with a Western-style showdown in a ghost town that borrows heavily from High Noon. And oh yeah, itâ€™s a musical too. Sure there were rock operas and the like at the time, but there were very few filmed musicals coming out during the late 1970s. Even better, itâ€™s a great musical with incredibly memorable songs like, â€œMovinâ€™ Right Along,â€ â€œCan You Picture That,â€ â€œI Hope That Somethinâ€™ Better Comes Along,â€ and the Academy Award nominated, â€œThe Rainbow Connection,â€ which became Henson Picturesâ€™ unofficial theme song. The final production number, in which practically every Muppet in existence sings, â€œThe Magic Storeâ€ is filmed in an almost Busby Berkeley crane shot and, as the artifice of the set has falls away, weâ€™re treated to all of that foam-and-fur joy, swathed in a rainbow. The Muppets remind us that, â€œLifeâ€™s like a movie, write your own ending/Keep believing, keep pretending/ Weâ€™ve done just what we set out to do/Thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you.â€
But these movie-loving Muppets arenâ€™t just trying to emulate their peers of an era gone by â€“ they needed to stick out in an era where movies were constantly trying to bribe people to leave their homes to see films in theatres. One might think itâ€™s enough to have singing puppets with sharp wits, but in a decade that had seen Deep Throat, Jaws, and Star Wars top the box office, there needed to be some new level of spectacle. As such, the Muppet Show Fan Club newsletter wrote: â€œIf you think itâ€™s a film version of The Muppet Show, youâ€™re in for a surprise. For one thing, it doesnâ€™t take place in the theater. The Muppet Movie is set in the real world — itâ€™s like waiting in line at a gas station and looking up to find Fozzie and Kermit driving the next car over.â€ It proceeds to explain how Fozzie can drive a Studebaker (a midget in the trunk actually drove the car), how Kermit can be in the middle of a swamp (Henson was in an underwater container with an air hose and a TV monitor), and most strangely, â€œSeveral of the characters are shown as full figures for the first time. Think — have you ever seen Fozzie, Dr. Teeth [...] or Scooter below the waist on television? No. And yes, their legs arenâ€™t half bad.â€ Instead of seeing a ginormous shark, the Death Star destroyed, live sex acts, the audience could finally see the puppets legs. Like the rest of their appeal, even the Muppetâ€™s â€œI bet youâ€™ve never seen this beforeâ€ device is much more modest and charming than the contemporary high concept lures. Itâ€™s innocent, but still a â€œcool!-how-did-they-do-that?â€ thrill.
In the end, The Muppet Movie combines movie star cameos, genre tropes, real-life locations, and full-bodied muppets into a pastische that is overwhelmingly more real than The Muppet Showâ€™s theatre, but less real than real life. What to call this magical realm? Oh, wait. Theyâ€™ve already found it â€“ The Rainbow Connection. In the words of the Swedish Chef, â€œder flim ist okey-dokey.â€
U.S.A., 1979. 97 min. Henson Associates. Cast: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, James Coburn, Dom Deluise, Elliot Goud, Bob Hope, Madeline Kahn, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, Orson Welles; Music: Paul Williams; Produced by: Jim Henson; Written by: Jack Burns, Jerry Juhl; Directed by: James Frawley