There are endless cliches out there about the importance of a first impression, but whatever truth they may hold in our everyday lives they go double for film. When there’s only a couple of hours to tell a story and capture its players, an audience’s first chance to meet a character is an asset no filmmaker worth their salt is going to waste. So with that in mind, CHUD is going to take a look through the many decades of cinema to extract the most special of those moments when you are first introduced to a character, be they small moments that speak volumes, or large moments that simply can’t be ignored.
Inevitably it will be the major characters and leads that are granted the grandest of entrances, but don’t be surprised to see a few supporting players and minor individuals get their due, when the impact of their appearance lingers longer than their screentime. Also know that these moments may be chosen for any number of reasons, and the list could never be exhaustive. But here you’ll find moments that make a big splash, say a lot with a little, or we think are just particularly cool.
We hope you enjoy, and can’t wait to hear from you about each and every entry. Don’t spend the effort guessing future choices or declaring what must be included- just enjoy the ride!
The Film… Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Director… Frank Oz
Entering From Stage Left… Steve Martin in the role of Orin Scrivello, DDS.
What Makes it Special… The Direction, The Song.
Before the musical stage adaptations of The Producers, Hairspray, and Monty Python’s Spamalot were winning Tony Awards; before sketch troops across the country were putting on ironic musical adaptations of films like Point Break, Species, Evil Dead, and Jaws; before youtube artists were going viral with short musical sketches of Arnold Schwarzenegger films — there was Little Shop of Horrors. In 2011, in our post-Simpsons meta comedy world, the idea of turning something like Roger Corman’s no-budget 1960 dark comedy into a doo-wop/Motown stage musical seems almost boringly commonplace, but when composer Alan Menken and lyricist/writer Howard Ashman had such an idea in the early 1980’s, they were forced to open the play off-Broadway. Because of that it was ineligible for the Tony’s, but Little Shop ran for 2,209 performances and became the highest grossing off-Broadway production in history, so they had that going for them. They also had record exec and future G in Dreamworks SKG David Geffen as a producer, and Geffen had The Geffen Company film productions. So the play soon became a film. Their Tony omission was further glossed over when they wrote a new song for the film, “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space,” which was nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars (they lost to “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun). Menken and Ashman would return to the Oscars many times as part of Disney’s late 80’s/early 90’s renaissance, winning for Best Original Song twice together.
Ashman took the basic theme and characters from the Corman film and blew insane fresh life into them, crafting one of the most jubilant dark comedies the stage has ever seen. The best tweak of course was taking the creepily meek voiced killer plant, Audrey Jr., and turning it into the big-mouthed and booming African-American voiced Audrey II. The other fantastic alteration was taking the dentist Dr. Farb and revamping him into Orin Scrivello, turning him into the self-centered, abusive and Leader of the Pack-esque boyfriend of hero Seymour Krelborn’s secret crush, Audrey. Orin’s big moment is the song “Dentist!” in which he sings about the joys of his profession (“causing great pain.”) When Frank Oz came on to direct the film adaptation, he had the wisdom to cast Steve Martin in the role — not exactly the person who comes to mind when you think of a black-haired leather jacketed 50’s greaser. Well, not in 1986 at least.
We know of Orin well before we ever see him. Audrey (Ellen Greene ) often comes into work with bruises or sprained arms — evidence of Orin’s sadistic handy work. Then about 30 minutes into the film Audrey announces she has a date that night, and her worried boss, Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia), decides to give Audrey some advice:
Mushnik: I’m telling you Audrey, he’s not a good clean kind of boy!
Audrey: (defensively) He’s a professional.
Mushnik: What kind of professional drives a motorcycle and wears a black leather jacket?
Then the music kicks in and we cut to Orin smugly riding his motorcycle. Oz’s comedic masterstroke is putting an intentionally awful and tacky looking rear-screen projection behind Orin, elevating the moment to high absurdity. Even just the shit-eating smirk on Martin’s face is hilarious — at one point acting like he’s about to start singing, then returning to looking smug for a few more beats.
Then the lyrics finally roll out…
When I was younger,
Just a bad little kid,
My momma noticed funny things I did.
Like shootin’ puppies with a BB-Gun.
I’d poison guppies, and when I was done,
I’d find a pussy cat and bash in it’s head.
Thats when my momma said…
Orin arrives at work, with the film’s girl group chorus (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell) dancing and waiting, and the ridiculousness continues. Orin hops off his bike while its still moving, letting roll for a couple feet, then doing a sudden Elvis hip-pivot to stop the bike with his sheer Fonzie-like coolness. The glee Orin has over himself is contagious. When he strolls into his office and punches one of his female assistants in the face, we’re along for the ride. You may have to catch yourself from cheering him along. But you want more…
You have a talent for causing things pain
Son, be a dentist!
People will pay you to be inhumane
Your temperamant’s wrong for the priesthood
And teaching would suit you still less!
Son, be a dentist!
You’ll be a success!
Orin pointlessly rips the head off of a little girl’s doll. We learn that he’s addicted to huffing laughing gas, while he’s working on patients. He continues to physically abuse the same female assistant, not to mention a variety of patients, but following all this through Orin’s song somehow lends everything a completely acceptable tone — something you wouldn’t feel weird showing a child, despite the objectively disturbing level of malice and violence on display.
Martin deserves a heap of praise for his performance, which is a perfect balance of character investment and detached wink-winking that seems to say “Isn’t this just stupid? But isn’t it just great?” But Frank Oz is what makes this work so memorably. The song was always going to be funny – it was Oz’s to fuck up – but he brought it to the next level. Likely thinking about the fact that a mainstream audience might not delight at the sight of Steve Martin punching a woman in the face the way some of us would, Oz pushed the cartoonish nature of the film to its farthest during “Dentist!” Everything about Orin is so over-the-top and silly that it serves as a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, so to speak. Oz also does what a film adaptation of a musical should do, which is take advantage of it being a movie. We’re taken inside Orin’s spooky shrine to his oft mentioned “momma,” and in a bit of gonzo puppetry, we’re taken inside a patient’s mouth.
Why it Resonates… Introducing a character via song is hard to top for basic effectiveness, given that it is essentially a whole sequence of the character saying, “This is me, this is my personality, this is my backstory, these are my views, here’s everything you need to know about me!” Musicals work by their own rules. In a non-musical you couldn’t have a character give a four-minute monologue in their first scene offering up the same amount of information so literally. It would be horrible! Oz’s direction is why the moment works so well in the film, but in the greater sense it resonates simply because of Menken and Ashman’s song. It is stuck in my head right now.
Other Grand Entrances… Little Shop of Horrors‘ biggest moment is “Feed Me,” the musical number in which Seymour (Rick Moranis) learns that Audrey II can talk and we first hear the plant’s throaty baritone (voiced by Four Tops’ frontman Levi Stubbs). It is an even better song than “Dentist,” and quite possibly the most amazing large-scale puppetry I’ve ever seen in movie. But we’ve seen so much of Audrey II’s personality by this point that it is hard to truly consider it a character introduction just because we haven’t heard it speak yet — especially when compared to that gloriously silly hard cut to Steve Martin on his motorcycle.
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