Men about Town

Zdeněk Podskalský

About film

“But still, it was nice” – one of the last sentences uttered in the popular musical comedy directed by Zdeněk Podskalský and written by Vratislav Blažek. Three plasterers from the country embody a caricatural cross-section of a society driven by a desire to improve one’s own life. They want to enjoy luxury which is within their reach while working in Prague. Even if it means scamping their work, lying, and cheating on their wives.

Their opening drinking spree, during which they paint the city full of enticing neon lights red begins in a shabby basement bar and ends in a classy establishment which they inadvertently set on fire. They evidently don’t belong in such a place as they only cause trouble. For now. The gentlemen Skopec, Prouza and Petrtýl are not just socially awkward but also persistent and fast learners. Their goal is to blend in with Prague’s high society. It’s the only thing they can talk about.

They move towards their goal with far greater fervour than they have for their duties, which they accept with unconcealed displeasure. Their priorities are different from those of the protagonists of films starring ‘builders of socialism’. The world which they are pulled into is reminiscent of those in comedies and melodramas from the First Czechoslovak Republic. For that matter, the character of a professor emeritus of dance and civics, portrayed by Oldřich Nový, seems as if taken from those very films. Along with their new tailored suits, it is he who should guarantee that the working class will also taste prosperity.

Also the film’s resourceful dialogue, alternating with old Prague folk songs, alludes to the first sound films, whose appeal was enhanced by musical hits. But the choreography of the musical numbers is much closer to those of later musicals. In Men about Town, we see not only the encounters of rich and poor but also a combination of characters and stylistic methods from various periods of Czech cinema. The film spares no one.

The builders of socialism display slyness and small-mindedness. Towards the end of the film, Oldřich Nový’s self-satisfied gentleman, along with a Police Officer, maliciously enjoys how his charges embarrass themselves in a restaurant. Everything he has taught them seems to be a part of his revenge for the time they attacked him after he had asked them to keep quiet in a library. Also the cloakroom attendant Trčková, the widow of a late First Republic banker, acts manipulatively and greedy and steals from the philandering husbands. 

But Blažek’s and Podskalský’s criticism aims higher than just to showcase the character flaws of snobs and workers. From the opening scenes with broken neon lights, we see that the environment itself is also deeply flawed. If the protagonists want to fit in, they need to act corruptly. Skopec, Prouza and Petrtýl also need to plaster new façades. Such as the façade of the house in which Trčková runs her underhand business. The glitz distracts from the amoral core and the solutions to problems. Because of their limited life perspectives, the married workers aren’t content and probably never will be. Given the circumstances, they can reach a different social position only with the help of pretence.

In the given system, vertical social mobility is not a real option. The authors see equality, justice, and solidarity as mere mottos which no one in socialist Czechoslovakia even pretends to uphold due to the value orientation of the whole.

Blažek wrote Men about Town in the relaxed atmosphere of the Prague Spring. From the beginning, he had pictured Oldřich Nový as the professor. That’s why his past is conspicuously reminiscent of a First Republic film star career. The production started in Autumn 1968 in the Barrandov Studios. By that time, Blažek had emigrated to Germany. Due to the subsequent changes in the management of Czechoslovak film, it premiered almost a year later.

The rumour that the film combining a Pygmalionesque motif with a class satire ended up in storage is therefore not true. On the contrary, almost three million people attended the film, and it became the biggest hit of 1969. In addition to the film’s rhythm and biting dialogues, a huge share of the success can be attributed to its star-studded cast. Jiří Sovák, Vlastimil Brodský and Jan Libíček excel as the plasterers. Their female counterparts, caricatures of coquettish easy women, are portrayed by Jiřina Jirásková, Iva Janžurová and Jiřina Bohdalová. Some of Sovák’s ideas were even incorporated into the script, and the actors had a chance to improve their performances by improvising, which affected the cinematography. In longer wide shots, cinematographer František Valerta usually includes at least three actors at once. In addition to dialogues, the dynamics of these static shots with high depth of field are increased by the characters’ movement in the space. Their position changes along with their roles in the dialogue. Even though the alternation between front and back planes, edges and centres may seem spontaneous, a careful observer notices a similar level of intentionality as is present in the choreography of musical numbers.

The sentences flow as our attention is directed from one speaker to another. In the best scenes, the events unfold in multiple planes simultaneously. During the final encounter, Petrtýl, in the front, clumsily tries to use a fork while Prouza, in the back, babbles about UFOs. In this concept, it’s hardly ever necessary to cut to a detail. If it happens, the detail usually brings a new input to a conversation or represents a punchline. For instance, in the scene in which we cut to a portrait on the wall to see that it’s not the late husband of the widowed cloakroom attendant as Petrtýl assumes but Czech composer Bedřich Smetana.

After the film introduces the protagonists in a sequence of loosely linked humorous scenes built on the parallels between the trios of male and female characters, it escalates with a final encounter. The three hicks assume that they have the honour of spending time with three emancipated Prague intellectuals. But in reality, they are meeting a former model and a cleaning lady. They try to charm each other with some random memorised facts about literature, painting and astrophysics. They tend to drop their acts, garble the learned phrases and their cyclical conversations lead nowhere.

“Nothing that is alien is human to us,” says Skopec confidently. The ladies, who also just pretend to be erudite, don’t notice a thing. In a society focusing on quickly satisfying one’s needs instead of deeper comprehension (regardless of what or whom), the substance of the words and one’s personality aren’t important. Instead, it’s what people project outwards and how well they are versed in social deceit that counts. For their deceitfulness, superficiality, and self-interest, all six unfortunate souls pay with broken limbs, but the sentence quoted at the beginning giving the humorous spectacle a bitter end doesn’t indicate that they have learned a lesson and understood that this is not the way to find happiness.

Martin Šrajer

Filmographic data

Zdeněk Podskalský

Vratislav Blažek

František Valert

Evžen Illín, Vlastimil Hála

Jiří Sovák, Vlastimil Brodský, Jan Libíček, Jiřina Bohdalová, Jiřina Jirásková, Iva Janžurová, Jiřina Šejbalová, Oldřich Nový

Filmové studio Barrandov, 103 min


 “The authors expanded on the Pygmalionesque motif in an unusual width resulting in a lively bustle of humorous ideas and verbal and situational humour. Podskalský is a very experienced comedy director and has a good hand in picking actors. The trio of men about town Brodský – Sovák – Libíček accompanied by three loose women (Jiřina Jirásková, Iva Janžurová and Jiřina Bohdalová) whom an old bawd tries to turn into “ladies”, allowed Podskalský to fully utilise a grand scale of comedic art which will genuinely entertain most audiences.”

Luboš Bartošek, Filmový přehled 1969, no. 33 (12th September)


“It seems to me that the director had a great opportunity to create a Gogolesque comedy but turned it into a music-hall film spectacle. It did no harm to the viewers and entertainment, but it did harm and damage art. What to do? There’s nothing else left to do than wait for a comedy of this type once again, as we’ve done so many times in the history of our art. In the meantime, we can genuinely enjoy Men about Town and have a few laughs as there are indeed humorous moments in the film. Particularly thanks to the excellent comedic performances by Jiří Sovák, Vlastimil Brodský and Jan Libíček who imbued their characters with all the flatulent pettiness and simple-minded half-wittedness which is irresistibly comical when confronted with big dreams.”

Gustav Francl, Kino 24, 1969, no. 21, p. 12.


“A charming and entertaining film from the Prague Spring staged in a comedic tradition and in its best moments reminiscent of Lubitsch.”

E. L., Annabelle, 2nd June 1971.


Interview with Zdeňek Podskalský

Is it pleasant to film comedies in Czechoslovakia?

That’s hard to say. It is pleasant because when I was child, I decided – back in the days when I organised local variety shows in our village – that I wanted to entertain audiences, and I still enjoy it; that’s why I endure occasional unfairness and trouble. But to give you an honest answer – it’s particularly difficult to make comedies here. I feel that our beloved nation has a certain fault: it's easily offended by humour aimed at it. When for instance a joiner appears in a comedy and, in order to make some fun, trips, the joiner association immediately objects why does it have to be a joiner when other craftsmen trip and fall as well.

In Men about Town (Světáci, 1969), the three protagonists come to a lady’s apartment (portrayed by Mrs. Šejbalová) where a portrait of a man hangs above a piano. Jiří Sovák’s character asks: “Is that your late husband?” “No, that’s Bedřich Smetana.” An old anecdote, it was published a long time ago with a different name. I received a letter from the Bedřich Smetana Museum saying that I can surely see how demeaning it is to make fun of one of the greats of our culture.

Your first film – naturally a comedy – is titled Friday Morning (V pátek ráno, 1957). It hasn’t been screened for a long time, so we only know that it’s a short film.

When I returned from my research post, I spent some time working in the television where I made some programmes including a New Year’s Show. I came to Barrandov and in 1957, I filmed a short story. Two parents and three children have an elaborate organism of morning routine in order to stay out of each other’s way, everyone leaves and comes back at a different time. An important role was played by the family’s wolfdog who had the most time of the entire family, so he was able to adapt perfectly. It was a smart animal. But I can’t recall the punchline of the story.

It was screened as a supporting film and the reviews said (they surprisingly agreed) that it was better that the feature film it supported.

The exact opposite happened when I made my first feature film Close to the Sky (Mezi nebem a zemí, 1958). Again, everyone agreed that it was much worse than the supporting film. We aspired to put everything in the film and the film had too many motifs the audience couldn’t put together. It lacked drive; gags followed each other without any given order. We succeeded in The White Lady (Bílá paní, 1965).

The script for Close to the Sky was co-authored by Vlastimil Brodský, who played the leading role. It doesn’t happen very often that the actor writes a comedy script with the director. Can you explain it?

Our collaboration began when I joined Czechoslovak Television. I regret that the shows we made with Brodský and also Sovák aren’t archived as there wasn’t any recording device back then. There are only pieces of what was filmed. I was intoxicated with a vision that I would make a comedy duo out of these two actors. We agreed with Brodský that we would try to write something that would follow in the footsteps of Czech comedy as we know it mainly from Martin Frič. We started coming up with situations and gags involving and old man who was under the impression that he would die soon and had therefore lost his fear.

Were these your only plans?

The film wasn’t successful, we had to admit that it had faults and we didn’t carry on. But Brodský and Sovák kept appearing in my films – already in the next one from 1959, Where the Devil Cannot Get (Kam čert nemůže).

They titled this film “from shoeshine to Cannes.” The idea was well-worn, the Faustian motif appears in many genres. We used the poetic ideas of both authors and it turned out that it was impossible, so the production was put on halt. But Elmar Klos helped us with the idea that it was necessary to “ground” the story in a real form. He also suggested that the young she-devil is the daughter of the castle warden of the Pernštejn castle, and it is therefore logical that she lures the eccentric scientist she loves to the castle she knows.

Even in your following film, titled She Dropped from the Clouds (Spadla s měsíce, 1961) Vlastimil Brodský and Jiří Sovák portrayed country people.

Sovák attracted my attention as a theatre actor and I was intrigued by his ability to portray an ordinary person. And in the period perspective, a man of the people was a man from the country. The same applies for Brodský. I was still trying to follow my dream of having a comedy duo. I wish the authors had given them more material! They had a gift: they could casually react to absurd situations. Or let me put it this way: their unusual thinking about absurd situations, which was the source of their unique comicality, resembled for example Laurel and Hardy.

Your comedies often include ghosts, supernatural beings and forces. When these things meet – or perhaps clash with – reality, it has comical effect. Is it a coincidence?

It is not a coincidence. Comedies have always included supernatural elements. It stems from the nature of the genre conventions. We can find supernatural elements in farces as well as puppet theatre. In the genre of light comedy, they are often used to escalate the plot. Just look how often René Clair’s comedies include the other world, of course a toned-down version. If someone asked me to name my favourite film, I would immediately say Clair’s I Married a Witch.

You mention the genre of light comedy. But a supernatural being with the lightness of a spectre roams in your White Lady, and that is a proper satire.

Farces have always satirized the society. Clergy, foolish nobility and other characters the audiences knew very well as they didn’t have very good experiences with them.

Even the most common puppet theatre was, as we would say today, a social satire. Farces performed for the masses were never about them. Only the character typology changed – it wasn’t a lord anymore, but perhaps a nit-witted merchant.

The title of your following film is Men about Town (Světáci, 1969).

I was originally supposed to direct The Hop-Pickers (Starci na chmelu, 1964) but I have to admit that I didn’t like the script very much. Because of its theme. I am allergic to stories of young people picking hops. The poetry of beer romance is foreign to my sceptical nature. We were working on a different script. We even left Prague to write in the silence of the nature. Each day provided us with new and different inputs. The script didn’t move anywhere, but it had 19 different beginnings.

I made the last changes on Men about Town myself. And as you can see, the film again stars Brodský and Sovák. I now realize I insisted on having them in the film. The third protagonist was portrayed by Jan Libíček. He was an irreplaceable actor. 


Pavel Taussig


Film a doba, 1986, no. 5, p. 273–276