The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

Dir. Jim Henson. Starring the Muppets, Diana Rigg, Charles Grodin

My ten favorite gags in The Great Muppet Caper, which has been one of my favorite movies since the mid-1990s. (I’ll save you some suspense. “What color are their hands now?” is not going to make this list.)

10) No respect for the British Society of Cinematographers

Oswald Morris shot The Great Muppet Caper. In one of the great careers of any DP, he contributed to the literally inimitable cinematography of Moby Dick, the elegantly crowded vision of Lolita, the bruising and stark photography of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, my beloved autumnal Fiddler on the Roof. His name is on the screen when Fozzie asks Kermit a question that, in a pre-Google era, I simply did not know the answer to. “Kermit, what does ‘B.S.C.’ stand for?” (That Fozzie should be able to read the credits at all was not something that struck me as especially strange when I was four or five years old and coming across this movie for the first time.) Morris would shoot only one more film before retiring. After eight movies with John Huston, he rounded out his career with two with Jim Henson; his last film was The Dark Crystal.

9) No respect for Charles Grodin, either

“Piggy’s Fantasy” is not the most impressive setpiece of The Great Muppet Caper, which I firmly believe and which I also understand sounds like a totally ridiculous statement on its face. I mean, look at this:

Four- or five-year-old me didn’t sit there wondering how Miss Piggy’s legs worked either, incidentally. I was a trusting kid. I’ll also say that I have a new appreciation for this, just on a choreography level, after watching Footlight Parade and Million Dollar Mermaid. It’s not true Busby Berkeley craftsmanship, but it’s good work on the human side, and of course Berkeley didn’t have to figure out how to make a foam puppet work in a giant pool while the puppeteer learned how to scuba. Meanwhile, Kermit and Nicky (Grodin) look on from panels in which they sing in harmony in an attempt to woo her. The kicker is what happens afterward, when Nicky successfully frames Piggy by placing a stolen necklace belonging to his sister, Lady Holiday (Rigg) into a coat pocket he drapes around her. Upon seeing the necklace, which is missing its diamonds, Piggy realizes that Nicky is no dashing gent but the rogue Kermit warned her about. The worst crime she saves for last. “Your voice was dubbed!” she cries. There’s a fan blog out there which suggests that the person dubbing was opera singer Stuart Kale, which is as good a solution as any. I just love this line, which is exactly the kind of thing one should be riled up about before getting put in jail after being framed. I know I would be.

8) Zoot gets his moment of glory

I don’t have a lot of complaints about The Great Muppet Caper, but I do sort of lament the general absence of The Electric Mayhem in this picture, especially compared to how incredible they are in The Muppet Movie. There’s not a lot of room for them to really stretch their wings, no song showcase like “Can You Picture That?” Animal, as ever, gets his spotlight (“WO-MAN!”), and Janet’s got a couple moments here and there that are pretty funny, but the rest of the group recedes into the background a little bit in order to make room for newer characters, the plot, etc. Thus, Zoot does not have a lot of work to do even for a C-list Muppet, but I have always loved his little part in Fozzie’s rundown of the equipment the Happiness Hotel folks are bringing to bust Piggy out of prison. While Nicky and his molls run through their hi-tech list of supplies to steal the fabulous Baseball Diamond, our heroes run through a list of various items ranging from a rubber raft (“it’s got holes!”) to peanut butter (“Animal ate it!” “SOR-RYYY”) which it turns out they just do not have. Zoot is responsible for bringing wax lips to this jailbreak, but he says, in a rueful voice, that he just had them. Dr. Teeth asks if they might be in his other pants, but Zoot replies, in an incredulous wheedle not so different than the one Cate Blanchett uses in I’m Not There, “I don’t have no other pants!” Aside from being a wonderful line delivered beautifully by Dave Goelz, it’s also a really nice callback to the poverty that these Muppets have found themselves in. The Great Muppet Caper falls a little short of Marxist tract, clearly, but even kids would recognize that we’re watching good guys who don’t have no other pants go up against a rich guy trying to get even richer at the expense of others.

7) Even more Charles Grodin

The Muppets bring out the best in a lot of human performers, which makes sense in a goofy way. Here’s my top ten human performers in a Muppet movie, a list which I understand will derail the rest of this post but which I now think I need to work out for my own benefit. I’ve tried to shift this a little more towards people who are doing plot rather than people who just have an outstanding cameo scene.

  1. Tim Curry, Muppet Treasure Island. One of my least favorite phrases in contemporary movie criticism is “s/he understood the assignment,” which manages to flatten out the craft of acting in a happily gauche style. What we’re really talking about when people say that is that the actor has humility. S/He is subordinating to the larger vision of the movie, especially if the film is goofy or awkward or off-kilter. Curry, the face of midnight movies, is giving such a humble performance as Long John Silver in this picture. Everything he does is exactly right for what the picture needs from him, calibrating his malevolence for a kids’ movie, having the warmth of a rough woolen blanket when necessary, rolling his eyes and cracking that toothiest of grins.
  2. Charles Durning, The Muppet Movie. Kind of a beautiful performance from Durning playing a lonely, desperate man; I’ll go a step further and say that I’d rather see him nominated for Best Supporting Actor that year than Justin Henry. Doc Hopper is a very specific villain, to be sure, but that showdown scene where Kermit puts on his spurs and confronts him about dreams and friends has real pathos to it. Durning has brought some goofiness to this film, as when we see him dancing in that frog costume in a commercial, but the hot pursuit he sweats through all film leads up to a human moment in that ghost town. He can choose to recognize the validity of another person’s dream, or he can double down on his own selfishness. That he chooses to do the latter is honestly saddening.
  3. Steve Martin, The Muppet Movie. I understand that this is just a cameo, but it’s got more weight than your performance just thrown in for a couple gags. (See Milton Berle and Richard Pryor in this movie as a counterpoint.) Between the lederhosen and the way he makes a meal out of literally every line of dialogue he’s got (“Sparkling muscatel: one of the finest wines…of Idaho.”), this is the gold standard for guest bits in Muppet movies.
  4. Louis Zorich, The Muppets Take Manhattan. Your Honor, the Greek philosophical tradition is as proud as any other nation’s in the world. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Pete of Pete’s Luncheonette. Peoples is peoples, no further questions.
  5. Charles Grodin, The Great Muppet Caper. See below.
  6. Michael Caine, The Muppet Christmas Carol. I don’t care if I get canceled for this take, because this is as high as I can put someone who’s playing the straight man, no matter how great that straight man performance is.
  7. Mel Brooks, The Muppet Movie. This is where the list starts getting cruel, but Brooks has extremely limited screentime and I backed myself into this corner. One of the purest expressions of the variety show ethos that the Muppets have always recognized at their best: a mad scientist with a penchant for Jewish expressions comes to zap a frog’s brain to make him sell fried frog legs. It’s all Brooks, let’s move on.
  8. Diana Rigg, The Great Muppet Caper. Not a huge part of the film, but when that film is basically using establishing shots, John Cleese, and Joan Sanderson to give itself Englishness, Diana Rigg is just so essential to the vibe this film really wants to have. Compared to the outright clowning that basically everyone else on my list gets to do, it’s also kind of a thankless gig being snippy glue.
  9. Austin Pendleton, The Muppet Movie. Max is such a likable character, and despite mostly doing legwork for the story makes the most of his opportunity to land jokes which truly stand the test of time. He makes a moral decision not to hunt Kermit, he sees his percentage doubled, he’s back in.
  10. Ty Burrell, Muppets Most Wanted. The odd couple silliness he provides doing his policework opposite Sam the Eagle is probably my favorite part of this movie. I’m even more sick of Modern Family than you are, but “Jean Pierre Napoleon,” with his little mustache and even smaller car, just feels pleasantly old school.

Right, so after showing you a lot of napkins’ worth of back-of-the-napkin figuring, Charles Grodin in this movie. I love that Grodin, perhaps alone of all of Miss Piggy’s human suitors, can look at “her” in a way that suggests he may actually want to make love to this puppet in a villa somewhere. I love that Grodin is supposed to be the brother of a most English icon and sounds like he came from Pittsburgh. I love the way Grodin slouches and dances at the same time and makes that feel like a natural, if very stupid, way to be. It’s a wonderful performance, and it’s done despite not having as much meat on the bone as Curry or Durning get for themselves.

6) Beauregard and me, peas in a pod

Beauregard, an Englishman like Nicky Holiday who does not speak with an accent, is a taxi driver who picks up Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo and takes them back to the Happiness Hotel. Speaking as someone who would probably have driven into the ocean accidentally if it weren’t for phones that could run Google Maps, I’ve always related to what Beauregard says when he asks them for directions. “I live there!” he says cheerfully. “I just don’t know how to get there.”

5) Peter Falk

Too much of a cameo for me to actually include him on my list up there, but on the other hand, I can’t think of another scene which I’ve come around on this much in my movie watching history. As a child, I would fast-forward through this. As an adult I am riveted by this monologue, which is too composed and knowledgeable to be sweaty, but too detailed and specific to be anything but bizarre. I’ve just never seen anything like this in a movie before. What a willingness to slow everything down to a crawl and just let one of cinema’s most individual performers take the wheel. It’s not quotable, it’s not even that funny, the punchline about this bum being “100% wrong” is not much of a payoff, but at the end you feel like you just walked off a roller coaster.

4) The Great Muppet Caper asks, multiple times, in its first ten minutes or so, if we could abort it

The primary example of this is probably that joke about Fozzie telling their editor at the Chronicle, Jack Warden, that they’ll do better next time. Jack Warden replies sardonically, “What makes you think there’s gonna be a next time?” Kermit’s rejoinder is that if there isn’t, it’s gonna be a real short movie. But my person favorite comes from the opening number, “Hey, a Movie!” Sweetums has a pretty rough time of things in that number, including an absolutely incredible drop straight down a manhole. Thus that last chorus of “Hey, a movie!” followed by a plaintive jeremiad of a prayer to the head of Universal Studios perfectly timed to the beat: IS THERE ANY WAY TO STOP IT?!

3) “Couldn’t We Ride”

In The Muppet Movie, Kermit’s ability to ride a bicycle was a sensation, and of course a way to get a groanworthy pun in there (“Gone with the Schwinn”). Naturally, just two years later, The Great Muppet Caper gets everyone on a bicycle. Remote controls, old-fashioned mechanical know-how, and sleight-of-hand accomplish one of the great practical effects of the 1980s. Put The Great Muppet Caper up there with stuff like The Thing and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Who Framed Roger Rabbit for its work on special effects in the decade. It’s an awe-inspiring sequence because of its lineage, but also because of its relative simplicity. What could be more simple or lovely than to ride bicycles with some friends on a sunny, clear day in a London park?

2) No. 17 Highbrow Street

A beautifully orchestrated sequence, just the right mixture of back and forth between Piggy’s home invasion and the dreary supper being taken by Neville and Dorcas. Cleese is doing more setup here than Sanderson, which is probably the reverse of what one would expect, and it works out beautifully. She’s the one who gets the immortal line, “The pets are dead, the butler’s been discharged,” and she also manages to get the second reading about the Dubonnet Club in just pitch-perfect tones. Neville is asked to recommend a place for dinner; he reaches for the Dubonnet Club but then tries to walk it back, saying it’s more of a supper club. Dorcas has the same reaction, “Well, yes, I tried to tell them that,” end scene. The last great John Cleese dinner scene since “Don’t mention the war!

1) How to make your champagne taste better

I’ve been accused in some corners of saying that whatever x I’m talking about is my favorite x, but I might actually mean it when I say that this is my favorite line in any movie I came to before the age of 14. It’s just an unbelievable joke, paced to perfection. Fozzie is sitting there methodically dumping sugar into a goblet, and it’s presented in medias res, like maybe he’s been sitting there with that same precision for ten minutes already. He sips it. He looks up at a table of strangers and shouts, “You know, if you put enough sugar in this stuff it tastes just like ginger ale!” What is champagne but ginger ale that doesn’t have enough sugar in it yet? Earlier in the sequence, Kermit has been lamenting that roast beef costs as much as an Oldsmobile, and here’s Fozzie, gleefully on his own planet, risking bear diabetes and having a grand old time ruining champagne. Here’s to it.

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