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My Favorite Year

"I need my Alan Swanns as big as I can get them."

That quote popped up a lot on my Facebook feed in the wake of Peter O'Toole's passing last month, and it was really, really irritating to discover that the film it came from, My Favorite Year, was essentially unavailable on Netflix, or (yes, my dying medium) blu-ray.

Yes, do seek out Lawrence of Arabia, Beckett, The Lion In Winter or any other of his classic performances. Do yourself double fanservice by finding the BBC's Casanova, in which O'Toole shares the role of the legendary lothario with David Tennant.

O'Toole had many roles that should resonate with fanboys (he was in Supergirl, for gosh sakes -- and great in it), none so firmly summed up why we get into fandom than My Favorite Year.

A memory piece (very) loosely based on Producer Mel Brooks' early experiences writing for live television, My Favorite Year belongs to Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker in his film debut). Though Linn-Baker makes no effort to age his narrator voice, the film is being told from some vantage point beyond his favorite year, 1954.

Live television is king, and Benjy writes for The King Kaiser Show, a weekly variety program that strongly resembles Your Show of Shows, though Joseph Bologna as Kaiser doesn't seem quite as flexible a comic genius as Sid Caesar.

Benjy worships Hollywood legend Alan Swann, star of swashbucklers that filled Hollywood's Golden Age. Larger than life and always noble, Swann's characters gave a young Benjamin Steinberg his moral code, even if he only awkwardly applies it in real life. Also in real life, Swann is scheduled to guest-star on The King Kaiser Show, and Benjy couldn't be more thrilled.

But this is (sort of) real life, and Swann is now a washed-up alcoholic, trading on past glories and hiding from anything resembling real responsibility. When the matinee idol passes out at his first meeting with the show's producers, Benjy goes to bat and becomes the sot's keeper, struggling to make sure he makes his television comedy debut.

Their misadventures cross over with Kaiser's being threatened by a local mobster, Benjy's attempts at romance with production assistant K.C. (Jessica Harper), and the pros and cons of trying to reinvent yourself.

Director Richard Benjamin balances the poignant drama with a comedic style in keeping with the over the top antics of 1950's sketch comedy. When I first saw this film in 1982, I thought many of the performances had oddly cartoonish moments, but now I get it -- we keep getting Benjy's memories of the time, and of co-workers neck-deep in schtick.

Except, of course, for Alan Swann. Dissolute and yet still dashing, Swann lives in Benjy's memory as a complicated man, though the young Benjy could not see it at first. In O'Toole's hands, Swann is heartbreaking, wryly letting little truths slip about how he cannot escape his onscreen image, with nobody actually understanding the point he's making.

And then it leads to a terrific climax all at once hilarious, sad and then exhilirating.

It's not ripe for a remake, because it's too great a film on its own. But to some extent, its themes resonate with Galaxy Quest.

Rumor has it that Mel Brooks will be including it in a box set of Brooksfilms, which would also include The Elephant Man, Frances, The Doctor and the Devil and Fatso. In the meantime, you can catch it once more on TCM on February 20th, 2014 at 5:15 a.m. (ET).

Set your DVRs now, because it's a keeper.

UPDATE: J. Dobbs Rosa informs me the film is also available on WB Digital Download.

Derek McCaw

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