Spies and space mean satire on TCM

Channel offers a night of 'Spaceballs,' 'Sheriff,' 'Silencers' and more

David Niven and Maggie Smith in “Murder by Death”

A satire has to be true enough to whatever it’s sending up, while also providing enough laughs to be clear that it’s a spoof.

Turner Classic Movies devotes a night to such films Wednesday, June 29 (into early Thursday, June 30), starting with the Neil Simon-written 1976 mystery parody “Murder by Death.” That’s followed by Mel Brooks’ 1987 sci-fi takeoff “Spaceballs,” then the 1969 Western comedy “Support Your Local Sheriff!” The festival ends with Dean Martin as secret agent Matt Helm in the 1966 release “The Silencers.”

“Murder by Death” uses a familiar Agatha Christie set-up — drawing various people to a remote location — and making detectives the “guests.” Two are direct takeoffs on famous Christie characters, with James Coco as Hercule Poirot facsimile Milo Perrier, and Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles … clearly a stand-in for Miss Jane Marple. Peter Sellers, David Niven, Maggie Smith and Peter Falk play other pseudo-sleuths.

“Spaceballs” draws a bead on “Star Wars,” to the degree that Brooks secured George Lucas’ permission to take aim at the latter’s saga. It won’t be tough at all for fans of the blockbuster franchise set in “a galaxy far, far away” to recognize the elements being satirized; one big indicator is intergalactic sidekick Barf (really, that’s his name), played by John Candy.

Interestingly, “Support Your Local Sheriff!” was directed by someone who made his share of “for-real” Westerns, Burt Kennedy (“The War Wagon,” etc.). So did star James Garner, who plays a town’s new chief lawman, who basically takes the job for the pay. He soon finds he must fulfill the position in a more thorough way, positioning him against some sinister folks. The film’s success inspired 1971’s “Support Your Local Gunfighter,” which has many of the same elements, but wasn’t a sequel.

The four Matt Helm movies also didn’t involve direct sequels, and they also weren’t complete satires, incorporating enough legitimate spy-story themes. The humor largely came from Martin’s depiction of Helm; in the first of those pictures,  “The Silencers,” the ex-sleuth (who has become a photographer professionally) is lured from retirement to chase an enemy organization planning to start World War III.

Even if they feel authentic, satires still need to have their laughs, as TCM intends to demonstrate bountifully in one night.

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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