June 18, 2018
$12.99 DVD, $16.99 Blu-ray;
Stars Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, Stacy Keach, Tom Skerritt.
I’m running late on this vibrant-colored commemorative 40th anniversary paean to cannabis capers — and given the specifics of one gag that opens it, plus the disoriented and judgmentally addled states of its two protagonists, detractors could just as well call it a pee-on. But given that, for all its raggedness, Cheech & Chong’s screen debut has aged so much better than Jeff Sessions, attention must be paid — which is the same advice one might give to protagonists Pedro and “The Man” when they’re behind the wheels of motorized vehicles.
Up in Smoke was directed by record producer Lou Adler, and no one will mistake his mis-en-scene for the seamless elegance of, say, Josef von Sternberg’s in Criterion’s imminent Sternberg-Dietrich box set. Cheech & Chong, however, came from improv and knew how to play to an audience, and their album cuts were essentially sustained routines (at times, more sustained than the humor itself) with unexpectedly impressive sound effects. I became a fan listening them send up “Sister Mary Elephant” (on the Big Bambu LP) — where an understandably frazzled nun’s attempts to impose order with her ear-shattering “Shut Up!!!! screams on her suddenly silenced classroom were interrupted by a pupil aside. Even though these were the days of two stereo speakers and nothing else. the response seemed to come from about 20 feet in back to me and off to the side: “I gotta go to the can, man.”
Vinyl and concert popularity notwithstanding, the picture’s box office success came after everyone’s conventional wisdom (mine included) speculated that Paramount probably had another The Last of the Secret Agents? (which, in 1966, deservedly became the last of the Allen & Rossi comedies) on its hands. Matter of fact, I seem to recall that Steven Bach opens his great account of how Heaven’s Gate sank United Artists — Final Cut — with a lot of lot of old white-guy studio executives sitting in a studio screening room trying to figure out what Paramount’s genies were smoking inside their bongs.
Cheech is Mexican-American Cheech Marin, who — and I don’t say this lightly — is one of the greatest mimics ever. Tommy Chong (sometimes billed as Thomas, though it hardly fits) is a mix of Scots-Irish-Chinese raised in Canada. In later years, he was so persecuted by the U.S. government on a minor drug charge that a documentary was made about it (I have a copy) — but in terms of the act, he’s mostly a passive straight man to Marin despite displaying a pleasing personality on this set’s bonus interviews. Albeit one that probably couldn’t be mined because it would have thrown off the act’s dynamics.
Basically, the movie is about the twosome’s sole motivating force in life: getting stoned, with occasional breaks for band rehearsals and sex with buxom hitchhikers. Though it peters out some at the end — an affliction it shares with some of the team’s other and progressively inferior screen comedies — this hook sustains itself better than expected for much of its length. Much of this is due to casting more inspired than one might assume for a low-budget production that took six or seven years to get green-lit.
Right off the bat, there’s Strother Martin and Edie Adams (fading trophy wife) as Chong’s parents. We also get Tom Skerritt as a cousin and pot source who thinks he’s still back in Vietnam; and most of all, Stacy Keach as a narc who’s only a little less inept than his subordinates and whose K-9 police dog ends up on his back with all fours sticking up after picking or ingesting fumes from an entire van made of grass. Two of the bonus deleted scenes feature Harry Dean Stanton as a prison guard who sells pills at rip-off prices on the side, though he was edited out of the final release print. (Best of the excised clips is one where C&C try to smoke a joint that is half-made with Hamburger Helper in an attempt to cure the munchies problem in one fell toke).
At its best, this is funnier than most of the Abbott & Costello movies I’ve seen, in part because I’ve never been crazy about comics who lack a sexual dimension (and before you ask, W.C. Fields definitely had one). Everyone was talking at the time (well, I guess Alistair Cooke wasn’t) about the aforementioned van of pot and how it would interact with the exhaust fumes. And also the scene where the kind of woman who would smoke Hamburger Helper accidentally snorts Ajax and gets a still-funny rush that must have had the boys in the Colgate-Palmolive boardroom being if it was too late to change the ad campaign.
This was a rich brief period for distributor Paramount, the kind they haven’t seen in a while. There was the box office grosses of the godawful Grease to presumably off-set the commercial underperformance of Days of Heaven; Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, which scored with both critics and public; and then the surprise success of this poster child for stoner cinema to prove that not everyone was into Star Wars and the lesser galaxy rides it spawned.
As a footnote, I did my part to sustain the C&C spirit (coincidentally, as it turned out) by programming Maryjane with Fabian in the AFI Theater around the same time — a film series about high school and college, as opposed to a Fabian retrospective. I simply felt that the Kennedy Center could use some loosening up, and I didn’t have a key to the supply cabinet where they kept the Ajax.