Melvin and Howard

Melvin and Howard, singled out by the National Society of Film Critics as the best film of 1980, was more commercially successful than Handle With Care (aka Citizens Band)

It was also a different movie. If Handle With Care unfolds as a comedic fable, Melvin and Howard is both more poetic and lyric. The critic Michael Sragow was so excited about the film that he described it as “painting a vision of America as robust and generous as Walt Whitman's.” The picture is distinguished by Bo Goldman's high-quality writing, winning the Original Screenplay Oscar.

The narrative begins with a most bizarre meeting in the Nevada desert between one of America's richest man, Howard Hughes (Jason Robards), and one of its poorest, Melvin Dummar (Paul LeMat). Driving his junk-laden pick-up truck, Melvin finds Hughes on the ground, thrown from his motorcycle. White-haired and long bearded, Hughes looks like a crazed prophet, a sage of ancient times.

Trying to cheer Hughes up, Melvin talks non-stop, sings “Santa's Souped-Up Sleigh,” and persuades the old man to sing along with him the song “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Melvin wishes for a better job, at an airplane factory like McDonnell-Douglas or Hughes. “What a shame,” the old man remarks casually, “I might have done something. I'm Howard Hughes.”

Upon reaching Las Vegas, Melvin drops Hughes at the Sands Hotel and gives him his change, a quarter. This unlikely encounter is magical, not only because of Jason Robards's great performance, but because the two men interact on equal terms and the media-created Hughes emerges as a human being. This encounter also signifies the American democratic-egalitarian spirit, reflecting Melvin's (and the film's) optimistic view of the possibility of establishing meaningful rapport with people who differ in status or class.

Melvin returns to Gabbs, Nevada, to his trailer-home, where he lives with Lynda (Mary Steenbergen) and their daughter Darcy (Elizabeth Cheshire). In the morning, Lynda wakes up to the sound of repossession men, hauling away Melvin's truck and his new motorcycle. She calls her boyfriend, Clark Taylor (Chip Taylor) for help, and leaves Melvin.

However, in Reno, Taylor walks out on the bruised and battered Lynda in a low-rent motel. Tracking Lynda down, Melvin finds her dancing in a sleazy Reno go-go club. Assaulting the stage with her suitcases and causing disorder, Lynda is fired. She then takes another job, as a waitress in a topless joint.

This time around, Melvin gets impatient and, with divorce papers in hand, he is granted custody of their daughter. In the next scene, a very pregnant Lynda is at her mother's, calling Melvin. Softened, he asks her to remarry him at Vegas's Silver Bell Wedding Chapel, with a $39 ceremony. Broke, Melvin dismisses his doubts over the identity of the father of Lynda's baby. Later, Lynda leaves him for the second time, criticizing his ridiculous purchase of a Cadillac and a huge motorboat (which is parked on land!).

Melvin listens to her, protesting only once, when she says that they are poor. “Broke maybe,” he says, “But not poor.” Even so, Lynda is determined to leave, and her last sentence to him is “C'est la vie,” which neither he nor she understands. “What's that” asks Melvin “French,” says Lynda, “I used to dream of becoming a French interpreter.” This shocks Melvin: “You don't speak French!” But Lynda has the last word, “I told you, it was a dream!”

Melvin and Howard was billed as a romantic comedy, “a fiction based on fact,” but as writer Goldman noted, “Whether Melvin was telling the truth or not never really concerned me.” And director Demme concurred, “the film is about what if Melvin was telling the truth.” According to the film, Hughes's will was mysteriously left at Melvin's gas station. However, later on, it was contested in court and eventually declared a forgery.

The film's central, most illuminating, scene is a TV game show. Melvin and Howard captures better than other films the American obsession with winning jackpots and prizes. What's left of the elusive American Dream of hard work and success is the unrealistic belief of the middle and lower-middle classes, in sharing the national spotlight and appearing on TV, if only for seconds.

In this sequence, the comedy is wryly perceptive about the quality of Mid-American life. Melvin's fantasies are to be rich (by winning in a game show) but also creative (by writing a hit song). Vulnerable, he is also humble and generous: He is genuinely happy for those who win; perhaps the next time it will be him. “Look it this way,” he tells his jealous daughter Darcy, “the friendly skies, look, look how happy she is!”

Modeled after “Let's Make a Deal,” the film's “Easy Street” has a smooth host, Wally (Mr. Love) Williams, with a soothing voice who functions as a priest, or pastor, in this collective ritual. A modern version of Capra's “little man,” TV does not represent mass, anonymous, and impersonal culture. On the contrary, for Melvin (and his likes) TV game shows offer a bond with millions anonymous strangers, united by their love of the medium and fantasy to win.

Demme demonstrates a most perceptive eye for the offbeat Americana, particularly the characters' fantasies and interpretations of the American Dream. The film does not condescend to its outrageously eccentric protagonists. To each his own–let them dream–the film seems to be saying, if it helps them survive the day.

Melvin is a quintessential American hero: innocent, naive, idealistic, not very bright (though not dumb either), kind-hearted, trusting and, above all, generous. That said, his occupations are innovative for a protagonist in American films: He first works at a factory, then at a dairy, winning the title “Milkman of the Month.”

The film offers a bittersweet commentary about chasing the American Dream of monetary success and upward mobility, about the constant attempt to rise above one's limitations–but also the inevitable fall back. The characters are not fully aware of their class origins, nor do they see their backgrounds as obstacles; optimistic and naive, they feel they may overcome them one day. It's a far cry from those small-town films wherein individuals from the other side of the tracks are doomed forever–unless they go to war or leave town.

In Demme's film, individuals are ever hopeful and never defeated, despite facing one crisis after another. The Melvins of the film will always find employment and always be romantically attached. Contrary to what Scott Fitzgerald said, there are second chapters in their lives. Indeed, after a second divorce from Lynda, Melvin marries Bonnie (Pamela Reed), a pragmatic woman who manages a gas station.