The 1970s was such a revolutionary decade for great films and creative filmmakers who had such unique artistic visions and fabulous storytelling skills. But so many of these exceptional Hollywood dramas were concerned with negative, downbeat themes: political corruption, inner-city crime and violence, big-time organized criminals, and social injustices. “The Godfather I and II,” “Network,” “Chinatown,” “All the President’s Men,” “The Conversation,” “Jaws,” “The French Connection,” “Patton,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “The Deer Hunter” were among many of these fine classics from this outstanding artistic period.
In the middle of that decade, a film that bucked this negative trend was director Peter Bogdanovich’s s exceptional 1973 “Paper Moon,” a wonderful “feel good” comedy/satire. It was based on the novel “Addie Pray” by Joe David Brown and adapted by screenwriter Alvin Sargent. “Paper Moon” concerns a small-time Depression-era con-man named Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) and a tough as nails 9-year-old orphan named Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal—Ryan’s real-life daughter).
Bogdanovich, who was also a well-known journalist, film critic, and cinema historian, transitioned into filmmaking in the mid-1960s through his friendship with Hollywood legends, like John Ford and Orson Welles. His early works, like “Targets” (1968), “The Last Picture Show” (1971), and “What’s Up Doc?” (1972) were innovative, critically acclaimed films that offered refreshing insights into the modern horror film, melodrama, and screwball comedy, respectively.
“Paper Moon” is a good-natured comedy that was creatively shot in black and white by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, who captures an effective, old-fashioned tone of the story’s Depression-era setting, almost echoing the visual style of John Ford’s early classics, like “The Grapes of Wrath” or “My Darling Clementine.” In fact, in the director’s commentary on the DVD, Bogdanovich notes he shot many of the scenes using a red or orange filter because both Ford and Welles told him those filters provided greater contrast in black and white.
The film opens on the face of a young girl at the gravesite of her mother’s funeral and soon pulls back to include a minister leading services with two female mourners. In the far background of this shot along the horizon, a noisy auto suddenly comes to a stop and out rushes another mourner, who grabs a bunch of flowers off of another grave and lays them on the casket. After the short service, the late-arriving mourner mentions he’s heading off to St. Louis; when the other concerned mourners note the young orphaned girl’s only living relative lives in St. Joseph, Missouri. So why couldn’t this kind soul help this unfortunate young girl reunite with her aunt?
So, Moses meets young Addie and soon their cons begin. Moses pretends to be a salesman for the Kansas Bible Co, and after looking through local newspapers for recent widows, approaches these poor women by saying that months before their late husband ordered a deluxe edition of the holy book, inscribed with their name. But, of course, they needed to pay for the balance of the bible’s cost before receiving it. Soon little Addie improvises her part in the schemes, frequently suggesting a higher charge than Moses’s usual $8-10 fee.
Within months, she pretends to be Moses’ daughter, adding further sympathy to the con’s ploys. As Moses opens to Addie and reveals how much like her late mother she is, this hints that he might, in fact, be her father. When Moses picks up an amusement park entertainer/dancer Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn) and her young assistant, Addie not only gets frustrated that their schemes are put on hold, but she becomes jealous of all the attention Miss Delight is receiving. The comic timing between Kahn and young Tatum is wonderful, especially as they exchange ever-so-subtle facial expressions of contempt. Soon the sly Addie concocts a plot to rid them of Delight involving a lecherous hotel clerk, who thinks Trixie has the hots for him.
Moses and Addie later get involved with some bootleggers before they finally get to St. Joseph, Missouri, and Aunt Billie’s house.
Ryan O’Neal is very effective as the slick con. The hilarious young Tatum steals almost every scene she’s in; all of which led to her capturing the Oscar for best supporting actress in this, which was her debut film. In addition, “Paper Moon” received nominations for best adapted screenplay, sound, and Kahn, for supporting actress.
Bogdanovich’s films have always provided me with many hours of personal fascination and enjoyment. I will never forget how thoroughly I enjoyed chatting with Mr. Bogdanovich about his films, including “Paper Moon,” at the Chicago International Film Festival in October 2016.