Fitzwilly (1967) ***

Implausibility was not much of a deterrent for the Hollywood screenwriter. It might even prove beneficial when it came to romantic plot ramifications. Suffice to say that this most charming of fey comedies entailing a gang of butlers engaged in a larcenous spree stretches credibility, not least because their intentions are a twist on Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the rich, namely to ensure a dotty old lady maintains her wealthy lifestyle.

The big plus is not the series of heists, which fall into the over-egged pudding category, but the performance of Dick Van Dyke (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968). It’s somewhat refreshing to see him not falling back on twisting his vowels or his body and looking like an accident waiting to happen. This is Dick Van Dyke – actor.

Edith Evans explaining her brilliant concept. although I’m surprised to see her leave in the “D” in Sandwich which is the most common error.

Fitzwilliam – nicknamed Fitzwilly – is the adored and highly-educated head butler in a gigantic New York mansion owned by the eccentric Victoria Woodworth (Edith Evans) who is working on the daftest notion imaginable, writing a dictionary for people who can’t spell. That’s not even the most bizarre element.

While leaving the entire running of the house, and the management of her money, to Fitzwilly, Miss Woodworth goes against this by off her own bat hiring a secretary Juliet (Barbara Feldon) who can’t spell. This is despite Juliet having a degree from a top university and having a professor for a father. But, aha! There’s method in the old bird’s madness. She requires a semi-illiterate to practise her dictionary notions upon.

Having upset Fitzwilly by sneaking in like a cuckoo to his well-oiled nest, Juliet complicates matters firstly by spotting some of the thieving and secondly by falling in love with the butler.  It’s something of a shame, really, that the initial scheme of clever crooks on the make, using wealth as a disguise – who is going to challenge an exceptionally well-spoken butler when he walks off in plain sight with a Steinway piano – is turned on its head when we realise the hoods stand to make no personal benefit. Their largesse merely avoids revealing to Miss Woodworth than she is actually broke.

The two stars getting up close and personal.
There are a ton of under-stated elements of Van Dyke’s performance. In this scene,
he delicately explains to a young, inexperienced waiter how to properly pour wine.

Some of the heists are more of the over-egged con variety, too complicated for their own good, but the final robbery – on Xmas Eve – sits fairly and squarely in Marx Bros territory, providing a host of genuine laffs. Though you might wonder at the susceptibility of big-name department stores to smooth-talking criminals.

The romance is gently old-fashioned, and though Barbara Feldon (Agent 99 from Get Smart!, 1965-1970) does possess comedic timing, in hairstyle and delivery resembles Jane Fonda. It could have done with more time spent on her challenging or outwitting the butler, as she does at the start, to build up her character rather than lamely surrender to the romantic urge

Dick Van Dyke and Edith Evans effortless carry the picture. But while you’d expect nothing less of the renowned British actress, Oscar-nominated the previous year for The Whisperers, the biggest stretch in the entire picture is Van Dyke reversing his screen persona to turn into a believable leading actor not dependent on pratfalls, dodgy accents, singing and those limbs that seem to have a life of their own. He exudes charm and class and his character, without the distraction of being so devoted to his boss, could have pursued a highly profitable life of crime with himself as the sole beneficiary, which might have opened the door for his underwritten confederates – including John McGiver (My Six Loves, 1963), Oscar nominee Cecil Kellaway (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1967), Norman Fell  (Sgt Ryker, 1968) and in his debut Sam Waterston (Three, 1969) – to play a larger part in the dramatic proceedings.

But hey, if audiences were primed to fall for every Doris Day comedy built on a dumb premise and had lined up in the millions for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), then it’s kind of hard to question the narrative underpinning this picture. Isobel Lennart (Funny Girl, 1968) whipped up the screenplay from the novel A Garden of Cucumbers by Poyntz Tyler.

Once you get over the initial over-egging it’s soon apparent that Delbert Mann (Buddwing, 1966) has stitched together quite successfully a jigsaw of improbability.

Worth seeing for a Dick Van Dyke you never knew existed and another imperial turn from Edith Evans.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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