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This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

Ho, ho, ho!

Melvin and Howard (1980) on IMDb

Plot Overview

“Melvin” is one of a subgenre called BOSUD (BioPic of Someone Undeserving.) It features working class schmuck Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat) whose lyrics to a seasonal record flop, “Santa's Souped Up Sleigh,” were scored by the Holly­wood Music Company, for a fee of $75, to give him music identical to the melody of “Wabash Cannon­ball.” He's either oblivious or in denial.

While Melvin tends to splurge out of extreme self-confidence, his trailer trash wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen) is a hoarder. Their marriage is subject to ups and downs, and then some. She gifts him with a book, The Magic of Believing, and tells him, “You just have to believe in your­self.” Self-confidence he's got plenty of, and when he's riding high, he also has plenty of friends. He's generous to a fault.

Like the time he gave a lift to an old coot who thought he was Howard Hughes. He'd been injured doing some motor­cycle peripatetics in the desert outside of Tonopah, NV. Mel gave the bum the last of his change, too. When three years later the real Howard Hughes dies intestate, Melvin slips a copy of Howard's putative will into the mail of the Mormon Church. And what do you know, it names Melvin as a beneficiary. Is Melvin a victim of fraud or a perpetrator? It's a mystery.


The will would have needed witnesses to validate it. Earlier on the game show Easy Street, the audience needed to witness (with applause) to a worthy talent in order for the contestant to proceed. At the Reno wedding chapel the happy couple had to fork over another $10 for the witnesses the chapel provided. Seems a recurring theme.

At a Reno strip club where Lynda danced, the dancer next to her had her arm in a cast. The club hired irrespective of handicap. The anonymous man who dropped off the will to Mel at his gas station smoked unfiltered Camels that according to Mel were a man's cigarette. Mel serves customers regardless of their sex. The audience at the game show included a Native American (in full Indian regalia) sitting next to Melvin. The audience could include all races. One of the paid witnesses at the Reno wedding chapel was an old guy on his last leg. The chapel's adult contractors were retained with­out regard to age. This American penchant for diversity is a recurring theme in the movie.

Since the wedding chapel business is a highlight of the movie, let's look at diversity there. Starting with a definition of marriage, I'll quote Dr. Ide: “The Con­tem­por­ary Christian stan­dard was defined not by the bible but gen­er­ated by Roman law as defined by the jurist Modes­tinus who argued that marriage was ‘consortium omnis vitae, divini et humani iuris communi­catio: a life-long part­ner­ship, and a sharing of civil and religious rights’” (83–5). Melvin we saw earlier wears a crucifix on a chain under his shirt. Lynda listens to “Amazing Grace Used to be Her Favorite Song” on the radio. They are nominally Christians who go through a rote ceremony at the chapel to get married. They pay an extra $3 for the license to satisfy the state.

This was actually their second marriage to each other—it's a long story. Even the Orthodox Church, I am told, will in the case of a death of a spouse, perform a remarriage of the survivor … up till two times. Beyond that, well, they are not playing games. Melvin is nothing if not a game-player, but I think any Christian church would have accommodated them in this.

Then we get to Melvin and Lynda hiring themselves on as the witnesses at the chapel for the after­noon. There's a succession of marriages that go by so fast we don't know what religion the couples are. From an American historical perspective, though, historian George F. Willison, writes,

The Pilgrims were … not monks or nuns in their intimate relations as their usually numerous families and more than occasional irregularities attest. Fond of the comforts of connubial bed and board, they married early and often and late, sometimes within a few weeks of losing a mate. (7)

Seems like Reno is set up for Christians who get “married early and often and late” when perhaps their High Church back home, or what­ever, can't easily accommodate them. The marriage scenes in this movie beg the question of divorce, they happen so fast. At least they conform to the apostle Paul's liberality as discussed by historian Johannes Weiss,

These questions Paul answered in detail in an essay on marriage in which each problem was care­fully dis­cussed. … He is sufficiently broad-minded and practical to dissuade from any­thing unnatural and over­strained, … in spite of the high opinion which he … expresses in favor of self-chosen virginity. (330f)

For all that we know the long stream of couples getting married that afternoon could have been of any religions that presented partners as a man and a woman, our Christian witnesses welcoming them warmly to the state of matrimony.

In the decades since this 1980 movie, a new formula has been introduced in the civil sphere of same-sex marriage. We might ask how that fits in with the diversity of hetero­sexuals in this movie? It was the state of Massachusetts, historical enclave of the Puritans, that started the ball rolling allowing same-sex marriage. According to cultural historian David Hackett Fischer, the Puritans had “a cultural idea of marriage that was unique to the Puritan colonies. … The Puritans of New England rejected all the Anglican ideas. They believed that marriage was not a religious but a civil contract” (77). New England and environs went along with civil same-sex marriage, the population of the rest of America, especially in the west where this story takes place, did not, judging by their votes and laws. This is, in the frame­work of this movie, the audience nixing an act it didn't like. To find acceptance of a sort, from the perspective of this movie, a homo­sexual couple would have to actually go to a Justice of the Peace to have a civil ceremony. And while the private wedding chapel is protected by the First Amendment's freedom of religion to pass all hetero couples it likes what­ever their religion, the county JP by the same First Amendment is prohibited from establishing a religion, in this case broad acceptance of a union the people reject. For homos it would just be a civil union period, a domestic partner­ship only, but using the marital tag. For that matter the county office could even supply the needed witnesses for them as they would be establishing no religious dimension requiring them to keep a separation. The church accepts as legit only hetero couple marriages as seen in the chapel, or in the words of our Lord, (Matt. 19:4-5) “And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?”

Production Values

“Melvin and Howard” (1980) was directed by Jonathan Demme. It was written by Bo Gold­man whose script won an Oscar. It stars Paul Le Mat, Jason Robards, and Elizabeth Cheshire. Paul Le Mat plays Melvin in a very good performance. Mary Steenburgen's excellent performance won for her an Oscar as Melvin's wife Lynda. Robards is great as an old Howard Hughes for the few minutes he's on screen, especially for his encore appearance.

This film is rated R. It's a sparse 95 minutes long. It's shot in Technicolor. The real life Melvin Dummar appears as the counter person with a toothy grin in the diner where Lynda and her daughter Darcy (Elizabeth Cheshire) construct a sandwich. The real Howard Hughes raced cars, I think, in his younger days, but he was reclusive and grungy towards the end, holed up on a floor of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, pretty much indis­tinguish­able from the bums sleeping outside.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

Despite having the tattered look typical of movies between 1970–1981, “Melvin and Howard” is still a sweetly appealing film: Not badly made, but it's oddly paced and parsed. I especially enjoyed the dancing (“I love to dance”) of Lynda who at times showed more skin than was usual for that actress. If this is a mystery film, it doesn't solve the mystery. The Mormon Church looked rigorous, and people were people.

Movie Ratings

Action Factor: Weak action scenes. Suitability For Children: Not Suitable for Children of Any Age. Special effects: Well, at least you can't see the strings. Video Occasion: Good for Groups. Suspense: A few suspenseful moments. Overall product rating: Three and a half stars out of five.

Works Cited

Scripture taken from the King James Version. Pub. 1611, rev. 1769. Software.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America.
  New York: Oxford UP, 1989. Print, WEB.

Ide, Arthur Frederick. Noah & the Ark: The Influence of Sex, Homo­phobia and Hetero­sexism in the Flood Story and its Writing.
  Las Colinas: Monument Press, 1992. Print.

Weiss, Johannes. Earliest Christianity: A History of the Period A.D. 30–150, Vol. I. New York: Harper Brothers, 1959. This translation of Das Urchristentum was originally published in 1937 under the title The History of Primitive Christianity. Print.

Willison, George F. Saints and Strangers. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1945. Print.