The World’s Greatest Lover (1977, dir. Gene Wilder)
Rudolph Valentino is the sex symbol of the century! Rainbow Pictures executive Adolph Zitz (Dom DeLuise) is furious over Valentino and Paramount Pictures’ success. He strikes upon an idea: hold a contest for The World’s Greatest Lover, a man who they will make into the new star of the ages and get the female moviegoers to forget about Valentino. Cue Rudy Valentine (Gene Wilder), a man incapable of holding down a job due to his nervous tic of sticking out his tongue when he’s nervous. Rudy and newlywed bride Annie (Carol Kane) travel from Milwaukee to Los Angeles for his chance to become a star. A wedge is driven between the couple after they arrive and mishap piles upon disaster to impede Rudy from reaching his goal.
From the opening scene of The World’s Greatest Lover, I was laughing. And the laughs came pretty consistently throughout, probably the funniest of the Wilder films I’ve watched in this batch so far. There is the playing up of Wilder’s manic rage for comedy. And while in some films it befits this character, in this one it is the perfect tone to take. The absurdity of Wilder competing with Valentino is apparent off the bat, but having the character be so arrogantly assured of himself makes it that much funnier. It also doesn’t hurt that here, like in Silver Streak, Wilder is so naturally damn charming.
On the same level as Wilder in the picture are DeLuise and Kane. I can’t say I saw too much of DeLuise’s work in the past, but he just brings such a massive level of energy to his performances that it overwhelms you. He has got to be one of the better blowhards I’ve ever seen in a film. Much like Wilder, the sort of manic switch from furious to inviting creates a wonderfully tense comedy in each scene. Kane is unlike anything I’ve seen her in before. If you’re more familiar with her later work (The Addams Family, Kimmy Schmidt) then you’ll be stunned by how demure and innocent she can play. You don’t question for a second why Rudy is in love with Annie, and you also don’t ask why she is falling out of love with him.
The World’s Greatest Love is not Wilder’s finest work. Regarding directing, it is an improvement on Sherlock Holmes. He feels very comfortable with large set pieces and manages to balance comedy and sentiment well. There are some moments where the plot goes off track and Wilder indulges in some scene he cooked up that isn’t necessarily essential. There is also a love of an older style of comedy from the 1920s and 30s that is being recreated in the 1970s and viewed in the 2010s may not translate.
This was Gene Wilder at his peak. He’d just made Silver Streak and was a full-fledged movie star at this point. From here on out his career would be a mixed bag with a lot of less than stellar vanity projects. The Frisco Kid with Harrison Ford would come in 1979, Stir Crazy in 1980, and then the big moment of his life: meeting Gilda Radner on Hanky Panky, which is what we’ll look at next time.