Madeline Kahn Brightens a Paper Moon
Coming up with a Madeline Kahn tribute post for Stinkylulu’s Day of Appreciation blogathon proved difficult for me, as I had trouble thinking of the words to express how important the lovely Ms. Kahn’s work has been to my life as an avid movie fan. Madeline Kahn was one of the earliest and most beloved performers I can remember seeing in films on a frequent basis (she made her film debut in What’s Up Doc? at about the same time I can first remember going to the movies regularly), and her impact on me was profound. Long before I understood enough to make any type of critical assessment of a performer or film, I simply liked or didn’t like a movie or actor and, during the amazing two-to-three year stretch wherein she appeared in Doc, Paper Moon, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, and Young Frankenstein (I wasn’t able to witness her indelible work as Lily van Stupp in Blazing Saddles until later, as the film was considered too raunchy for my young, impressionable eyes to view), Madeline Kahn became a welcome, recognizable figure to me, and the performer I most identified with onscreen. I felt a strong connection with this warm woman who seemed so funny, alive, and kind. I think her warmth gets overlooked a lot due to her astounding gifts as a comedienne (a measure of Kahn’s abilities in this area: the gifted newcomer was reportedly turning in such a great performance as Agnes Gooch in Mame that Lucille Ball did herself no favors- and Kahn plenty, as it turned out- by having her talented rival axed from the picture she was stealing). Her characters often aren’t very sympathetic, but Kahn makes a viewer care for each of their plights and, no matter how outrageous the comedy, she always manages to find the humane aspects of the character.
I believe Kahn’s single greatest achievement on film came in the cliché role of “Trixie Delight,” the lazy, self-involved tramp of Paper Moon. From the moment Kahn first appears in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 depression-era comedy, flouncing around as Trixie jiggles her way towards the forefront of the screen, Kahn's presence and good nature picks the movie up and turns it into a fantastic entertainment; once Kahn arrives, a viewer instantly gets the sense that something very special is going on, and "This is as good as movies get." Kahn takes the stock role of a bubbly, saucy tart and shades the character with traces of sadness and complexity, resulting in a rich portrayal one can never forget. Trixie may come across as a shallow, materialistic creature but, beneath Trixie’s surface vamping, Kahn invests the role with layers of feeling. Most significantly, in the film’s best scene Kahn does a 180 on Trixie’s heretofore vapidity and proves this earthy woman’s suffered through plenty of hard knocks. Carnival “dancer” Trixie has hooked up with con artist “Moses Pray” (Ryan O’Neal), much to the chagrin of Moses’ tiny partner-in-crime, Addie. After a picnic lunch on a hillside, Addie decides to go to battle with her nemesis, and refuses to get back into the car with Moses, Trixie, and Trixie’s world-weary fifteen-year-old maid, Imogene (P.J. Johnson, who gets some hilarious lines, and nails every one of them). This action prompts Trixie to climb the hill and attempt to cajole the youngster back into the car by the use of comic books, flattery (who can forget the ingenious inflection Kahn gives to her pronounciation of "bone structure"? My sister and I aped Kahn saying this for weeks), and demands for her to “. . . cut out the crap, you understand?” before Trixie turns around to head back downhill. Addie is immobile through it all and, sensing the child is on to her game, Trixie turns back around and, in stunning fashion, completely drops her guard. With her voice quavering and her eyes suddenly tearing up, Kahn is magnificent in this scene. Trixie wins Addie (and the audience) to her side by gently informing the girl Moses’ infatuation with her will wear off, as Trixie always messes up her relationships with men. Kahn’s acting is so direct and honest during Trixie’s sweet, melancholic monologue that a viewer buys into everything she’s telling Addie. Even though Trixie subsequently acts in her own best interests and gets meaner, until her ruthless, unfaithful behavior is finally (and probably justifiably) revealed to Moses by Addie, I find myself rooting for Trixie to take her duped con man suitor for everything’s he’s got whenever I watch Moon. In Trixie, Kahn creates an endearing portrait of a woman who’s a victim of her time and circumstances, and this lady deserves to gain a better lot in life.
Kahn’s most celebrated work in Saddles and Young Frankenstein is original and brilliant, but it’s definitely on a different, more stylized comic plane than what Kahn pulls off as Trixie. Underneath pounds of makeup, tight dresses, baby talk, batting eyelashes, swaying hips, and bouncing cleavage, her Trixie remains a vividly real woman. Trixie Delight represents one of Madeline Kahn’s most irresistibly perfect cinematic accomplishments, therefore making this Moon nirvana for Kahn’s fans, and for any other moviegoer with a heartbeat.