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The Lens: From Alka-Seltzer to 'Private Benjamin'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 26, 2009 - The filmography of Howard Zieff, who died recently after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease, is not, overall, a particularly impressive one: Nine features over 21 years, most of them lightweight star-driven comedies like "Private Benjamin" and "The Main Event."

Zieff entered films after a brief career in advertising, where he worked on some of the much-imitated campaigns of the 1960s and 70; he photographed the "You Don't Have to be Jewish" ads for Levy's Rye Bread and was director of the famous Alka-Seltzer commercial that produced the catchphrase "Mamma mia! That's a spicy meatball."

All of this would have made for a modest but unremarkable career, had Zieff not launched his film career with two underexposed but almost coltishly admired comedies, both of which are sadly unavailable on DVD.

His 1973 debut "Slither" was a wonderfully eccentric road movie/paranoid satire with James Caan and Sally Kellerman as an ex-con and a free spirit running across middle America chased by an ominous pair of dark vans.

His second feature, "Hearts of the West," was an endearing look at early Hollywood with Jeff Bridges as an aspiring Western writer who falls in with a film crew and inadvertently becomes a cowboy star. (It would make a great double bill with Peter Bogdanovich's equally ignored "Nickelodeon".) Bridges' entry into acting, where he overenthusiastically disrupts a staged shootout, actually received the longest round of laughter I can recall hearing in a theater.

The rest of Zieff's output was uneven at best, though occasionally likable. ("House Calls" was a modest romantic comedy with Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson, but it contains one of my favorite throwaway movie lines: The newly single Matthau, on a date with a much-younger girl, tells her, "You know, until tonight, I never even knew there was a Boz Scaggs!")

By the end of the '70s, however, the blockbuster complex had taken over and the days when studios had the nerve to produce unconventional satires like "Slither" and "Hearts" were gone.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon. 

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