Criterion: Paper Moon (****1/2) is still a delight

Paper Moon – 1973

Director Peter Bogdanovich
Screenplay Alvin Sargent based on the book Addie Pray by Joe David Brown
Starring Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Madeline Kahn, P.J. Johnson, John Hillerman, Randy Quaid, Burton Gilliam

One of the happiest stories that turned somewhat tragic. Tatum O’Neal joined her father for an adorable film about a con man that gains his daughter. She wins an Oscar. She becomes popular. Both she and her father lose their way. I remember liking this film as a kid, then avoiding it for decades just because I know father and daughter did not turn out like they did on film. Glad to say, it’s still a worthy piece.

The story of Moses Pray (Ryan) coming into Gorham, Kansas in 1936 to the funeral of a former paramour. He discovers a young girl who looks a lot like him (“seems you’ve got the child’s jaw”) at the graveside. Neighbors notice this and while he denies that they are family, agrees to take the young girl, named Addie (Tatum) to her kin in St. Joseph, Missouri. On his way out of town, he gets a bribe from the brother of the man who accidentally killed Addie’s mother. He then uses some of the money to get Addie a train ticket. He tries to send her off with $20.

Addie, hearing the conversation, determines that she is owed the money (“…my $200…”) he finagled. He agrees to keep her until he pays her back, unless he is her father. After a few stops in a Bible scam, Addie catches on and actually helps Moze score more in his various schemes.

Eventually, they grow into partners, but there are complications. Madeline Kahn’s circus exotic dancer, Trixie Delight is one of the more amusing complications. John Hillerman’s dual role as a bootlegger and his deputy brother provide a more menacing problem.

Bogdanovich is at his box office and artistic peak here. He gives an unflinching look at The Great Depression in the heartland. People are seen as starkly as the red-filtered black and white. There is no hiding the depravity, but none of the characters are played for sympathy. This is just life for them. It’s not a poem; it’s just a lot of the same lines, dully written in the dust.

Sargent’s Oscar nominated adaptation of the original novel is sweet, bordering on precious. Fortunately, the Tatum’s instinctive response creates a believable kid who necessarily thinks on her feet. A delightful haircut allows her character some humility in the first act, as many people mistake her for a boy. The result keeps Tatum on her toes, acting wisely, instead of just wise.

Overall, the chemistry between father and daughter is effective. The story benefits from the contrast of Ryan’s polish versus Tatum’s raw instinct. If the kid had even 1/10th of Ryan’s experience, it could have tipped the scales into bland.

Madeline Kahn as Trixie Delight

Madeline Kahn’s performance is as fearless as ever. She lost the Oscar to Tatum in the Best Supporting Actress category, and it is a shame. She was nominated the next year for Blazing Saddles. Her energy and skill is such that she often feels like a tornado through the story. Everyone is tempted to stand back and watch.

The film was nominated for Sound, and should have been nominated for Cinematography. It’s a film that has aged beautifully. It will show us as much about Depression era midwest as anything created even 50 years from now.

This is the perfect film for Criterion treatment.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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