Amateur Night at City Hall (DVD Review)15 Aug, 2016 By: Mike Clark
The subject of political demagoguery has, ahem, been in the news a lot lately, and it was during one recent but fuzzily recalled broadcast discussion of Donald Trump that I caught (almost certainly from Philly native Chris Matthews) where the subject of Frank Rizzo came up. Brandishing in-your-face pugnacity atop what looked to be his own style take on 1965 Jerry Lewis patent leather hair, Rizzo represented Central Casting perfection as an attitude-heavy street cop who advanced from Philadelphia police commissioner to becoming the city’s two-term mayor beginning in 1971, while managing to politicize every institution he touched along the way. Amateur Night at City Hall, whose major drawback is that it was perhaps made too soon, is a Rizzo documentary from Robert Mugge, whose prolific output includes a lot of documentaries on music figures (Al Green to Sonny Rollins). Mugge also did Entertaining the Troops, a World War II beaut that I’ve seen at least three times and one of two DVD releases I know (the other is the Dick Cavett box set devoted to comedians) where you can see — and to great effect — a shtick-less Bob Hope just sitting down and being a regular guy.
When you have a protagonist like Rizzo who once said he was going to make Attila the Hun “look like a faggot,” your documentary is probably half-made, and Mugge gives us an array of supporters and detractors — the latter including some who nonetheless marvel at how well the city’s top cop (even when he was mayor) was able to keep oiling his political machine despite (or probably due to) his subterranean demos with the black and gay communities who were often on the wrong end of police raids. Sometimes those throwing brickbats are from Central Casting as well, including one tweedy political opponent who’s interviewed wearing a bowtie, which is not the kind of garb you wear when taking on an adversary who talks loudly and carries a big stick. (Some industrious photojournalist once got a shot, which we see here, of Rizzo in a tux that has a nightstick jutting out of its cummerbund.)
MVD has released this portrait as is and without any fresh remastering, which means that the reddish faces we see come more from lab shortcomings than, say, scenes of over-imbibed wine down at a neighborhood saloon packed with Rizzo enthusiasts who sing along to the establishment’s resident accordionist. Interviewed journalists include a young and then-local Andrea Mitchell as a brunette, which for at least a few seconds renders her unrecognizable (though the voice is unmistakable). Rizzo was known for courting news folk who treated him well in what came to feel like some kind of quid pro quo arrangement, though the PR mechanism broke down some when the local papers got new owners and the Philadelphia Inquirer won a string of Pulitzers in a major turnaround under editor Eugene L. Roberts, Jr. — including, eventually, a Pulitzer winner about racial abuses in the city’s police department.
In that climate, things weren’t as cozy as they’d been, and hopes of further political advancement (the governor’s office, anyone?) took a hit after Rizzo ill-advisedly agreed to like a lie detector test amid controversy over his patronage abuses — one that he flunked. It was the kind of political publicity one just can’t buy, no matter what one’s political affiliation. And Rizzo, by the way, was a Democrat but one who often cozied up to Republicans — and here he is, via photos or footage, with Bob Hope, Richard Nixon, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. (Was Sammy a Republican, or did he just like to hug Republicans?)
Rizzo won a second term, and it was during this time that 1978's Amateur Night was completed, with some key parts of his political saga yet to come. Foremost was his death in 1991, when after a long period out of office and a switch to the Republican party, he won his primary in an attempt to become mayor for a third term against eventual Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell (now a fairly regular presence on MSNBC after all these years). When still a Democrat, Rizzo had tried to find a legal way to run for a third term in 1979, but voters (in a charter vote) gave that one an emphatic no. Thus, Rizzo’s coulda-been additional success is an open question (though the tea leaves readings weren’t great) because he suffered a sudden and fatal Big One during the July before the ’91 election. Now, that career capper could serve a great documentary by itself — or even a theatrical feature or HBO movie amid current discussions of overzealous police practices. Rizzo’s base obviously remained faithful because his funeral was one of the biggest, if not the biggest in Philadelphia history — though let it be noted that Philly native Mario Lanza was buried in California after his far more untimely death, which had the possible effect of cooking the tally.