Splitsider

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Diving Into John Belushi's Lost Last Comedy, 'Noble Rot'

"The Script Pile" is a biweekly column on Splitsider that takes a look at the screenplays for high-profile movie and TV comedies that never made it to the screen.

John Belushi spent five years as a movie star at the end of his life, and during that time, he never starred in a movie that he wrote. At the time of his death in 1982, however, he had been writing a movie script for himself to star in with longtime SNL writer Don Novello, best known as Father Guido Sarducci, serving as his co-writer. Called Noble Rot, it was a throwback to screwball comedies that, in the wake of Belushi's death, was never produced.

Noble Rot was a starring vehicle for Belushi as he was coming off of back-to-back flops in Neighbors and Continental Divide, both released the previous year. In Noble Rot, he was to play Johnny Glorioso, the troublemaking son of a Northern California winemaker. When his older, more responsible brother falls ill, Johnny is sent to New York to bring the family's wine to a big competition, but on his flight there, he meets Christine Walters, an attractive wealthy woman who drags him into a diamond fraud scheme.

The title, Noble Rot, refers to a type of fungus that grows on grapes but instead of infecting the grapes, it can, under the right condition, cause them to make a great-tasting, sweet wine. Johnny Glorioso's father, in an on-the-nose moment at the top of the script, describes Johnny as "My Noble Rot. My blessing in disguise."

Christine and a wealthy businessman named Steven Gates are in the process of purchasing 10 million dollars of missing diamonds, and she uses Johnny to distract a group of people who are trying to catch her while he thinks these people are part of The New York State Grape Growers Association attempting to steal his wine. Johnny falls in love with Christine, a complex character who's more fleshed out than most female leads in '80s comedies (or in comedies today, for that matter), as he gets manipulated by countless people leading up to the big wine show and is led all over the east coast, with the script containing plenty of car chases and action.

Just like Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? a decade earlier (or Continental Divide, even), Noble Rot is a revival of the screwball comedy subgenre, popular in the '30s and '40s, and it's a more mature and subtle comedy than the other stuff Belushi was making at the time. While there's still a little bit of drug use and swearing sprinkled into the script, it's few and far between and the story finds Belushi playing a much more subdued and relatable character than his most famous role, "Bluto" Blutarsky. Noble Rot gives him a chance to play the straight man, do love and action scenes, and fly off the handle and scream in true Belushi fashion in small doses, and it gives a good idea of where his career might have gone if he hadn't passed away so young.

One of the most interesting things about Noble Rot is that John Belushi is credited as a writer on the script. It's not that he hadn't written before; he had at Second City and for the National Lampoon stage and radio shows he was in. He continued to write at Saturday Night Live, even winning an Emmy for it in 1977 along with the rest of the show's writing staff. But when he started branching out into movies, Belushi never scripted any of his own films, so Noble Rot is a bit of rarity. He shares screenwriting credit with Don Novello, who I assume was doing the heavylifting during Belushi's drug-heavy final months, and the movie was based upon an earlier unproduced screenplay by Mary Tyler Moore director Jay Sandrich called Sweet Deception, but Noble Rot still shows promise in what could have been a continued screenwriting career for Belushi.

The draft of the script I read, dated January 1982 (just two months before Belushi's death), is a bit bloated and messy, and it was by no means a final draft to be shot. A lot of work still had to be done here. The script's light on jokes, although there are some funny moments throughout, but the plot's all there. Although the story gets a bit muddled at times, the spine of it makes sense and is entertaining in a way while being different than a lot of comedies that were being made in the early '80s. There's enough here that with some rewriting, Noble Rot could have turned out to be the movie that successfully broke Belushi out of Animal House typecasting and defined the next few years of his career.

John Belushi left many projects behind when he passed away at the age of 33, but Noble Rot is one of the biggest missed opportunities of the bunch for him as both an actor and writer.