Like the great Hollywood films of the studio era, Bogdanovich wrote the picture specifically for everyone who features in it, from Ben Gazzara and Audrey Hepburn all the way down to George Morfogen. Gazzara plays a private detective, working for Morfogen, assigned to follow Hepburn at the behest of her (unreasonably) jealous husband. There are two other detectives (played by John Ritter and Blaine Novak) at the agency, but they’re mostly on the Dolores Martin case. Dolores is played by Dorothy Stratten, with whom Bogdanovich was madly in love at the time; her husband, perhaps not coincidentally, had a private detective following her during all this.
Unlike most detective pictures, their profession never becomes a serious element. Though there are intuitions of intrigue, there isn’t any larger scheme to uncover. Their entire business is introduced to be and remains the following of wives. In this way, and so many others, They All Laughed has a casualness to it. The film was shot on location in New York, mostly without permits in the outdoor scenes. Bogdanovich seems to be capturing life as it happens, using characters with mannerisms and ways of speaking that very closely resemble the actors portraying them (Novak’s contributions were so important in this arena that he receives a co-screenwriting credit). Yet it’s so sharply written, the shot sequences so elaborate, that just a tiny scratch at the surface of this seemingly simple concoction becomes remarkably elaborate. The dialogue veers between naturalistic, perhaps even improvisatory (“How can I help it?” Novak insists, pointing to his schnoz, when a woman accuses him of being nosy), and quite clever. “What are you doing later?” “Sleeping.” “You want some company?” “You’re welcome to the floor.” “I’ll take it.” “You got three chicks over there already, Curly, what are you gonna do about it?” “You got a big floor?” The scenes are sometimes accomplished in a single shot; other times, there are more than a dozen that have to keep time with a live musical performance. Bogdanovich never calls attention to how difficult this stuff could be to work out, but an audience can feel the drum beat.
As one might expect from a film written for its cast, every member excels, most especially Colleen Camp as the country-singing love interest for most of the men. Her speech pattern falls somewhere between the casually confident and the outright hostile, so that a line like “Look, Charles, I have a terrace, do you want to go out on the terrace?” could either be playfully chipper or homicidally threatening. She doesn’t need jokes to tell - though she gets plenty - or pratfalls (like the ones Ritter executes so beautifully); she’s funny just by being there. In an interview with Wes Anderson on the DVD edition, Bogdanovich mentions that so much of what makes Gazzara compelling is that the audience can tell they’re watching a star, someone who holds the screen not by giving a “performance” or making any sort of “transformation,” but because he’s conveying himself, his natural charisma. If the modern cinema has so few stars, it is in large part because so few have the chance to play themselves.
I mentioned at the top that They All Laughed is so successful because it doesn’t try to imitate anyone else; that is not to say it doesn’t call some names to mind. When I first saw it, I thought instantly of Howard Hawks, who could subvert and indulge genre better than just about anybody, much as Bogdanovich does here with the “detective picture.” Watching it again, though, I felt that this is much more Bogdanovich's heir of Lubitsch than At Long Last Love. Here is all of Lubitsch’s breezy sexuality, the bittersweet finale that makes Trouble in Paradise and The Smiling Lieutenant so resonant, the sense of play that accompanies romance, and the way we’re drawn to people for really no reason whatsoever. Like Lubitsch, it buries its emotion in subtext; the characters rarely come right out and say what they mean to each other, but we get it by the way they say it. “I hoped so much you’d come. I hoped so much you wouldn’t.” “Yeah, so did I.”
I’m glad everyone involved with this thing showed up to make it. Its life in post-production was considerably less fortunate than the many moments of tremendous fortune it found while shooting. Stratten was brutally murdered by her husband a month after they wrapped. The producing studio shut down their movie division altogether, and nobody wanted to pick up a production tainted with tragedy. Bogdanovich released it himself, but despite a positive audience reception - at a Q&A in 2012, he recalled the film playing for 15 weeks at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills and breaking records at a joint in Westwood - the task of keeping it out there became overwhelming, and he went bankrupt. It became, along with Heaven’s Gate and One From the Heart, something of a cautionary tale for the corporations that were buying up Hollywood - don’t let these filmmakers run too wild now.
The story of the film is the story in the film; an explosion of joy and connection followed by the reminder that all in life is transitory. “I mean I knew all this was too good to last,” Novak movingly says near the end. That line has perhaps gained more meaning since he spoke it, but it would always have hit hard; it's the kind of thing people say when they mean it.
Scott Nye writes for Battleship Pretension and podcasts/writes for CriterionCast. Follow him on Twitter @railoftomorrow.