Falls from grace are a common film motif, but I’ve yet to watch a dramatic disgrace that’s endured time as much as Life Stinks (dir. Mel Brooks, 1991).

The story follows Goddard (Mel Brooks), a billionaire who bets a dodgy rival that he can survive as a vagrant for thirty days (in exchange for coveted plots of land, one of which was occupied by a houseless encampment). He signs all of his assets over to his financial advisors, wears an ankle bracelet to track his whereabouts, removes his toupee, and takes on street life with nothing but the tailored suit on his back. Within the first twenty-four hours, he learns that being penniless isn’t nearly as easy (nor optional) as he believed. Molly (Leslie Ann-Warren), a fellow houseless person, is the first true friend he meets — and possibly the only one he’s had in his adult life; she shows him the ropes of survival in Skid Row, putting her hard-won belongings at risk in the process.

Life Stinks bears similarities to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). Both films’ directors double as lead actors, and they’re concerned with lovemaking (in every sense) while in financial straits. The two scenes below are ripe for comparison:

Life Stinks, Clothing Warehouse scene:

One of this film’s most affecting scenes arrived when Molly and Goddard broke into a used-clothing warehouse. Molly replenished the wardrobe she lost to arson, and they enjoyed a bottle of ‘borrowed’ champagne to celebrate the end of the 30-day bet. After a musical number, they made love on a pile of clothes, with Goddard comically stripping Molly’s many layers of insulation.

Modern Times, Department Store scene:

After being released from prison for saving a sheriff’s life, the tramp (Chaplin) was smitten with an unnamed, houseless woman (Paulette Goddard) who he met as she stole a loaf of bread. Instead of reporting her crime, he took the blame. Some selfishness was involved in this sacrifice (he secretly wanted to return to jail), but this was only his first instance of protecting ‘the gamin.’ He later used the sheriff’s letter of recommendation to procure a department store job, where he snuck the young woman in to eat cake and steal a few hours of sleep on a display mattress. The two enjoyed an after-hours romp through the store’s empty floors before the night took a dangerous turn. All the while, the tramp imagined the stable life he and ‘the gamin’ could have together.

Conclusion: Both couples made ‘home’ in places that were meant to be off-limits to them — turning public spheres into private retreats (and vice versa). They shared fugitive loves and domestic dreams.

*Life Stinks can be streamed on HBO. Modern Times can currently be streamed for free on OpenTube.

Supplemental Reading:

Charlie Chaplin’s Scandalous Life and Boundless Artistry’ by Richard Brody

Why actors still talk about Charlie Chaplin, and what he teaches them about not acting funny’ by Sheila O’Malley

Four couples living in homeless camps in Seattle and Portland talk about the challenges and rewards of being in a relationship with no permanent home’ by Candice Pires