Walk, Don’t Run (1966) ***

Stars rarely get to choose when they want to retire. Usually, the phone stops ringing, or they slide down the credits until no one can remember who they once were, or they end up in terrible international co-productions, or like Tyrone Power (Solomon and Sheba) they die on the job or, like Spencer Tracy, because of it. Cary Grant, on the other hand, went out at the top, or near enough. If you are more generally familiar with Grant through Hitchcock thrillers or Charade (1963), you might have forgotten his comedy expertise, or that his entire output in the 1960s, including this one and excepting The Grass Is Greener (1960) were box office hits, not forgetting he ended the 1950 with three outstanding winners in Houseboat (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Operation Petticoat (1959) so there was no doubting his marquee pulling power.  

He was a master of the double take and the startled expression and he needs that here in what is sometimes a pretty funny farce. The set-up is peculiar. Sir William Rutland (Cary Grant),   a businessman landing in Tokyo two days before the 1964 Olympic Games with nowhere to stay and ends up – platonically, I should add – on the couch of Christine (Samantha Eggar) and later sharing his room with Steve (Jim Hutton), an athlete equally lacking in the forward planning department. (Excluding the Olympics, of course, the film has a similar concept to The More the Merrier, 1943).

There’s no great plot and no great need for one. Grant’s main purpose is to play Cupid to Hutton and Eggar and steer her stuffy fiancé, an ambassador going by the moniker of Julius D. Haversack (John Standing), out of their way. But it says a lot for Grant’s talent that not much plot is required. He is just so deft, whether he is playing top dog or being beaten at his own game by a rather resilient Steve, who shows quite a talent for quick-fire verbal duels..

There is only a wee bit of stereotype, overmuch bowing mainly and a Russian shot-putter, but some other Japanese customs are more interesting, yellow flags to cross the road, for example. There are a couple of brilliant visual gags, one involving trousers, another Sir William getting locked out of the apartment, and a terrific payoff in a Japanese restaurant. It might seem odd – to fans of Grant – that he delegates romance to Steve but the age different between Christine and Sir William was over 30 years. Instead, he ensures that romance between Christine and Steve runs its true course, which while that is satisfying enough, is a bit like removing John Wayne from the final shootout in a western. Oh, and there is a reason for the Olympic Games setting.

Grant appeared so eternally young that he could probably still have pulled off the romance especially as his interaction with the pernickety Christine (she and fiance equally matched in this department) carries all the Grant romantic hallmarks. Imagine Doris Day in the role of Christine and you have a solid romance that would work well despite the age difference, as it had in the previous films pairing the stars.

You could argue Grant was pretty young for a swansong, certainly by Hollywood standards. He was only 62 and had two decades left, it turned out, to live. He was far more sprightly than many stars of his age and with the right vehicles could probably have gone for at least another six or seven years. His peer John Wayne had starring roles well into his seventies, but James Stewart’s last top-billed picture (Fools Parade, 1971) came when he was 63. So it was probably an astute decision of Grant, who had seen the likes of Gary Cooper and Clark Gable make unexpectedly early mortal exits, the former aged 59, the latter 67. Grant was 62 when the film appeared so quite rightly delegates romance to Hutton, which is a shame because his (non-romantic) interaction with the pernickety Christine. Except for thrillers, Grant did not need great directors, he knew comedy inside out and here the accomplished Charles Walters (High Society, 1956) has the sense to let him get on with it.

Samantha Eggar (The Collector, 1965) was a rising star but it seemed a mistake to take on a role that made obvious comparisons with Doris Day. Jim Hutton (Major Dundee, 1965)  is a revelation, not the dour dog of later The Hellfighters (1968) and The Green Berets (1968), but showing true comedic talent. In his movie debut, Sol Saks delivered the screenplay based on the original The More the Merrier story which had earned Robert Russell and Frank Ross an Oscar nomination.

Lock Up Your Daughters (1969) **

Worth seeing for all the wrong reasons prime example being Christopher Plummer with a false nose and almost unrecognisable as an eighteenth century periwigged English dandy in a pure squalor of a coastal town. The best reason is the very realistic background, all mud, missing teeth, drunkenness, cockfighting, poverty, debtors strung up in baskets – not the usual bucolic image of Olde England. But everything gets bogged down in an indecipherable plot. Robert Altman mastered the multi-character narrative in such gems as Nashville (1975) but here debut director Peter Coe most demonstrably did not.

This started life as a modestly successful London West End stage musical and probably for budgetary reasons the songs were discarded. All that’s left is plot. And plot and plot. All to do with sex as it happens. Husbands exist only to be cuckolded. Cleavage is obligatory for women. Young women lusting after sex have been brought up in contradictory fashion to view it as dirty. And no eighteenth century tale is complete without a regimen of long-lost daughters and sons.

Guess who?

It starts promisingly enough in early morning with a town crier (Arthur Mullard) filling us in on the predilections and problems of various prominent citizens, most notably Lord Foppington (Christopher Plummer), the foppest of the fops, gearing up for an arranged marriage to Hoyden (Vanessa Howard). As a virgin not wanting to come to his wedding night bereft of the necessary skills, he employs strumpet Nell (Georgia Brown) to bring him up to speed.

Meanwhile, it’s “lock up your daughters” time as a ship’s crew, at sea for ten months, given two days leave, start charging through the town, fondling and kissing any woman of any age who happens to stand still for a moment. Among this randy bunch are Ramble (Ian Bannen), Shaftoe (Tom Bell) and Lusty (Jim Dale). Ramble is given the eye by married Lady Eager (Fenella Fielding), Shaftoe takes a fancy to Hilaret (Susannah York) while old flame Nell is targeted by Lusty (Jim Dale). Mrs Squeezum (Glynis Johns) seeks sex anywhere and there’s maid Cloris (Elaine Taylor) also seeking physical fulfilment.

Of course, the whole purpose of the narrative is to thwart true and illicit love, husbands and fathers returning at inconvenient times. And had the storyline stuck to the tried-and-tested formula devised very successfully for Tom Jones (1963) and The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) it might well have worked. But the instinct to make meaningful comment by way of satire takes the story in very unlikely directions, an extended court scene with a barmy judge the worst of such excesses, though a food fight comes close.

It’s meant to play as a farce, the men climbing (literally) in and out of bedrooms, the town’s apparently only ladder put to continuous use. But what would work on stage sadly falls down here, and not just because the occasional song might have come as light relief. There is an element of the female confusion over sex, natural instinct going against education, and so ill-informed that at the slightest chaste kiss they are likely to cry rape, but that’s as close as the movie gets to anything that makes sense.  A movie that needed a sense of pace just becomes one scene tumbling into another.

Christopher Plummer (Nobody Runs Forever/The High Commissioner, 1968) makes by far his worst screen choice. He’s so concealed in his clothing that movement is inhibited and most of his acting relies on overworked eyeballs. Susannah York (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) is pretty much lost in the shuffle. Ian Bannen (Penelope, 1966) is the pick, largely because he is required not to play villain, grump or idiot, and his Scottish charm and confidence works very well. Tom Bell (The Long Day’s Dying, 1967) is not cut out for comedy whereas Jim Dale (Carry On Doctor, 1967) who very much is does not get enough.  

The movie wastes the talents of a terrific supporting cast headed by former British box office queen Glynis Johns (The Chapman Report, 1962) plus Roy Dotrice (A Twist of Sand, 1968), Vanessa Howard (Some Girls Do, 1969), Elaine Taylor (Casino Royale, 1967), Roy Kinnear (The Three Musketeers, 1973), Kathleen Harrison (Operation Snafu, 1961), Fenella Fielding (Arrivedeci, Baby, 1966) and singer Georgia Brown (A Study in Terror, 1965).

Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (Billy Liar, 1963) wrote the screenplay based on, as well as the original musical, a number of sources drawn from the works of Henry Fielding (author of Tom Jones) and John Vanbrugh. Peter Coe never directed another movie.

Hard to find so Ebay will be the best bet.

“Penelope” (1966) ***

Comedic twist on the heist movie with Natalie Wood (This Property Is Condemned, 1966) as a kleptomaniac. Given its origins in a tight little thriller by E.V. Cunningham, pseudonym of Howard Fast (Mirage, 1965), it’s an awful loose construction that seems to run around with little idea of where it wants to go. Wood, of course, is a delightfully kooky heroine who takes revenge on anyone who has ignored or slighted her by stealing their possessions.

The picture begins with her boldest coup. Cleverly disguised as an old woman, she robs the newest Park Avenue bank owned by overbearing husband James (Ian Bannen). This prompts the best comedy in the movie, a man with a violin case (Lewis Charles) being apprehended by police, the doors automatically locking after a clerk falls on the alarm button, James trapped in the revolving doors losing his trousers in the process.

In flashback, we learn that she turned to thievery after a rape attempt by Professor Klobb (Jonathan Winter), her college tutor, and while half-naked managed to make off with his watch fob. She stole a set of earrings from Mildred (Norma Crane) after suspecting she is having an affair with James. “Stealing makes me cheerful,” she tells her psychiatrist, Dr Mannix (Dick Shawn) and while admitting to dishonesty denies being a compulsive thief. After the bank robbery she even manages to relieve investigating officer Lt Bixby (Peter Falk) of his wallet.

Nobody suspects her, certainly not her husband who could not conceive of his wife having the brains to carry out such an audacious plan. Bixby is a bit more on the ball, but not much. Clues that would have snared her in seconds if seen by any half-decent cop are missed by this bunch. And generally that is the problem, the outcome is so weighted in Penelope’s favor. The plot then goes all around the houses to include as many oddballs as possible – boutique owners Sadaba (Lila Kedrova) and Ducky (Lou Jacobi), Major Higgins (Arthur Malet) and suspect Honeysuckle Rose (Arlene Golonka). Naturally, when she does confess – to save the innocent Honeysuckle – nobody believes her in part because everyone has fallen in love with her. Bixby, just as smitten, nonetheless makes a decent stab at the investigation.

Howard Fast under the pseudonym of E.V. Cunningham wrote a series of thrillers with a woman’s name as the title. He was on a roll in the 1960s providing the source material for Spartacus (1960), The Man in the Middle (1964), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Sylvia (1965), Mirage (1965) and Jigsaw (1968).

Taken as pure confection it has its attractions. It’s certainly frothy at the edges and there are a number of funny lines especially with her psychiatrist and the slapstick approach does hit the target every now and then. The icing on the cake is top class while the cake itself has little of substance. It strikes a satirical note on occasion especially with the Greenwich Village cellar sequence. It doesn’t go anywhere near what might be driving this woman towards such potential calamity – that she gets away with it is only down to her charm. There has probably never been such a pair of rose-tinted spectacles as worn by Penelope, even though her every action is driven by revenge.

Without Natalie Wood it would have sunk without trace but her vivacious screen persona is imminently watchable and the constant wardrobe changes (courtesy of Edith Head) and glossy treatment gets it over the finishing line. It’s one of those star-driven vehicles at which Golden Age Hollywood was once so adept but which fails to translate so well to a later era. Ian Bannen (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is in his element as a grumpy husband, though you would wonder what initially she saw in him, and Peter Falk (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1965) delivers another memorable performance.  Dick Shawn (A Very Special Favor, 1965) is the pick of the supporting cast though screen personalities like Lila Kedrova (Torn Curtain, 1966), Jonathan Winters (The Loved One, 1965) and Lou Jacobi (Irma la Douce, 1963) are not easily ignored.  Johnny Williams a.k.a John Williams wrote the score.

Arthur Hiller (Tobruk, 1967) delivers as much of the goods as are possible within the zany framework. Veteran Oscar-winner George Wells (Three Bites of the Apple, 1967) wrote the screenplay and it’s a far cry from the far more interesting source material and I would have to wonder what kind of sensibility – even at that time – could invent a comedy rape (not in the book, I hasten to add).

Kisses for My President (1964) ***

The concept of a female President was so alien to Hollywood that the only conceivable approach was to make it the story of the husband taking up the chores of the First Lady.

Having perfected his double takes and pratfalls on a string of Disney comedies Fred MacMurray plays Thad McCloud, straight man to incoming President Leslie McCloud (Polly Bergen) and after the screenwriters have exploited virtually every joke in the gender switch catalogue it settles down to a more serious exploration of power.

Thad nurses a wounded ego after playing second fiddle to his more powerful wife, joining the anteroom queue to see her, any romantic notions interrupted by the telephone, and not enjoying his new role as chief menu selector and supporter of charities. So he’s a prime target for another powerful woman, Doris, the head of a perfume company, an old flame who seduces him into taking charge of their male toiletries division. Meanwhile, Leslie challenges the foreign aid expectations of South American dictator supreme Valdez (Eli Wallach) while Thad gets into trouble escorting him to a night club.

Power is exploited not just by Valdez for whom financial aid means corruption but by the Presidents children, the teenage Gloria (Anna Capri) who races round Washington in fast cars driven by louche boyfriends in the knowledge that she can’t be arrested,  and younger Peter (Ronnie Dapo) who attacks schoolmates knowing Secret Service agents will protect him from retaliation. The sexually frustrated Thad, excited at the prospect of developing a new masculine-oriented range of perfumes, does not realise that Doris, far from leading him into the sack, is merely leading him by the nose, having no intention of using his ideas, her sole interest being getting the presidential endorsement.

There are certainly some amusing sequences – Thad getting lost in the White House, discovering his bedroom is more luxuriously appointed, getting stoned on pills to make him relax for a television show, and his reactions to watching the dictator spend his country’s foreign aid on fast cars, speedboats and loose women (a stripper named Nana Peel). The children are not just entitled but vicious with it. And Leslie, the most powerful person in the country nonetheless impotent in the face of a rebellious brood.

There’s a welcome element of Yes, Minister (the British television comedy ridiculing political bureaucracy) as both wife and husband face up to the over-complications of White House life. And there are some good lines. Spouts Thad: “A man needs an office especially when he has nothing to do.” Without a hint of irony, Leslie tells him, “Nobody expects you to vegetate just because you’re married to the President.”

And at least the character of Leslie is treated with respect. There’s no falling back on stereotypes. She’s not out of her depth, or given to tantrums or bouts of tears, she’s not outmanoeuvred by more clever men and she doesn’t come running to Thad for help.

That said, you can’t help thinking of the picture they could have made if Leslie had been the complete focus, her battles with the political male hierarchy, the laws she would have attempted to enact, introducing a feminine perspective to the corridors of power. Even so, as written, she is strong-willed enough to strip the self-indulgent Vasquez of foreign aid and deal with the consequent political fall-out.

Generally under-estimated as an actor, and now in his third decade as a star, the high points being Double Indemnity (1945) and The Apartment (1960), he had reinvented himself as a slapstick comedian with The Shaggy Dog (1959). His work had largely remained in that vein ever since so he was adept at underplaying this kind of character. Polly Bergen (Move Over, Darling, 1963) is spared the comedy and could have been in a different movie entirely, her scenes primarily taken seriously. Eli Wallach (The Moon-Spinners, 1964) gives the game away, over-acting to his heart’s content. Arlene Dahl (Sangaree, 1953) conjures up her Hollywood glamor heyday. 

Hungarian blonde bombshell Anna Capri (Target: Harry, 1969) makes her movie debut. Variety’s Army Archerd had a cameo as did columnist Erskine Johnson. Beverly Powers (Jaws, 1975) plays the stripper.

This was the final picture in a 40-year career for German émigré Curtis Bernhardt (Possessed, 1947). Claude Binyon (North to Alaska, 1960) and Robert G. Kane (The Villain, 1979), in his movie debut, shared the screenplay credit.

If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium (1968) ***

The combined tourist boards of Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Italy must have funded this film. Although Belgium and Switzerland may have been justified in asking for their money back since all we glimpse of either country is cheese. Nor does it particularly show the American tourist in a good light. In fact, the occupants of the tour bus seem drawn from the worst clichés of the American personality – characters who demand hamburgers wherever they go, think there sex available everywhere, steal everything in sight, and demand more than their money’s worth. These are characters who are not difficult to send up. And ever the democrat, director Mel Stuart pokes fun at every country.

So it’s something of a surprise to find the movie is perfectly palatable, a smorgasbord of  conflicting attitudes, on an 18-day bus tour of Europe rattling through a host of comedic situations, held together by burgeoning romance between playboy tour guide Charlie (Ian McShane) and soon-to-be-married Samantha (Suzanne Pleshette) by way of running gags revolving around Harve (Norman Fell) chasing wife Irma (Reva Rose) who jumped on a rival tour bus, kleptomaniac Harry (Aubrey Morris), and more guest stars in blink-and-you-miss-it roles than were cast in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

Like films nowadays (Marry Me, 2022, for one) that seem to think an audience needs to kept constantly apprised of social media, this goes overboard on technology, in this case, the camera, in one instance legitimately comedic, but the rest of the time just to cram in much of what would more sensibly be left alone.

Luckily, the two central romances work. Charlie, initially rebuffed at every turn by Samantha, who has a nice line in one-liners (“I am about to turn into an Ugly American before your very eyes”), eventually believes it is time to part company with his playboy ways and settle down, while Samantha, about to settle down back home, discovers she has not yet sown enough wild oats. The ever-amorous Shelley (Hilarie Thompson), taken on holiday to prevent her giving in to lust at home, conducts a country-by-country romance with a young swain on a motorbike ending up – serve ‘em right – in a cellar listening to a dirge by pop star Donovan.

Some of the jokes hit an interesting target. German and American tourist at a shrine to the Battle of the Bulge, in the same loud, hectoring tones, deliver a story of victory, the kleptomaniac even steals a lifebelt, an Italian fed up with patronizing tourists reports one to the cops, Harve embarking on a daddy dance in a glamorous nightclub, an authentic shoemaker (Vittorio De Sica) sells a tourist an authentic shoe that he buys out of a catalogue, the mismatch of languages sets up endless permutations. However, it’s a bit of a stretch in the late 1960s to find a bidet in a London hotel.

Still, if you fed up trying to keep up with the countless plotlines or are trying to work out which country is which, you can always keep yourself entertained spotting the cameos. It’s some list: Senta Berger (Istanbul Express, 1968), Yutte Stensgaard (Some Girls Do, 1969), Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita, 1960), Catherine Spaak (Hotel, 1965), Carol Cleveland (Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV series), Joan Collins (Subterfuge, 1968), Elsa Martinelli (Maroc 7, 1967), Virna Lisi (The Secret of Santa Vittoria, 1969) and Patricia Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances television series) And that’s just the women. There are also glimpses of Robert Vaughn (The Venetian Affair, 1966), Ben Gazzara (Bridge at Remagen, 1969) and John Cassavettes (Machine Gun McCain, 1969).

While all eyes are likely to focus on Ian McShane wondering how this fresh-faced lad turned into the gravel-voiced spittoon-soaked stylish icon of John Wick (2014), it is worth taking a look at the performance of Suzanne Pleshette (The Power, 1968) who was rarely given the opportunity to essay such a rounded character. Supporting players include Murray Hamilton (Jaws, 1965), Mildred Natwick (The Maltese Bippy, 1969) and the generally choleric Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967) turning positively volcanic.

A documentary film-maker up to this point, Mel Stuart (I Love My Wife, 1970) generally keeps the audience on-side with a non-stop barrage of ideas. David Shaw (A Foreign Affair, 1948) devised the screenplay.

Sergeants 3 (1962) ***

There’s a terrific western directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) inside this Rat Pack offering, the second of four in the series. On the plus side are plenty twists on traditional scenarios, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin displaying a certain kind of easy screen charisma, and three exceptional and well-choreographed battle scenes.

Sinatra, Martin and Peter Lawford play the eponymous sergeants, Lawford committing the cardinal sin of wanting to quit the regiment to get married, with Sammy Davis Jr. as a former slave, bugler (an important plot point) and horse-lover wanting to sign up, and Joey Bishop (television star and occasional movie actor) as their sergeant-major boss.

A fair bit of time is spent on the usual Rat Pack shenanigans, getting drunk, brawling, playing tricks on each other, and exploring odd comic notions such as playing poker with a blacksmith’s implements as chips. But when it gets down to proper western stuff, it fairly zings along, with a decent plot (a Native American uprising) and excellent action scenes. You could have had William Goldman writing the script for the number of reversals involved as the picture keeps one step ahead of audience expectation.

For a start, rather than flushing out outlaws from a town, the troopers have to remove Native Americans who have taken it over. Instead of the cavalry pursuing Native Americans, it is mostly the other way round. It is the soldiers rather than the Native Americans who attack a wagon. Sinatra finds himself employing a bow-and-arrow and then a tomahawk rather than being on the receiving end of such weaponry.  Instead of dynamite, the good guys make do with fireworks. Where Native Americans are usually pinned down, this time it is Sinatra’s merry band. And when it comes to resorting to serious violence, that, too is usually the remit of the Native Americans, not as here, Sinatra chucking man off a cliff.

When it sticks to action, the picture is very well done and involving. When Sinatra has to take charge instead of larking about, the movie has focus. Both Sinatra and Martin were undertaking serious roles around this time, the former in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the latter in political drama Ada (1961) so this might have appeared welcome relief.

The comedy isn’t along the laugh-out-loud lines of Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) or Blazing Saddles (1973) and the action of so full-on you wonder why anybody thought this required comedy at all, although there is a pretty good punchline ending. Action aside, It’s almost the equivalent of easy listening. The Rat Pack was a particular 1960s institution, the members joining each other on stage in Las Vegas or featuring in television programs, but there’s no real modern correlative.

It was interesting to see how the Rat Pack concept developed. This movie chucked out the idea of including a few songs as with Oceans 11 (1960) while the next one in the series, 4 for Texas (1963) was more of a serious straight western. But the final picture Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) went in the opposition direction and was a full-on musical as if by the time they came to making that picture everyone had realized the film would make more sense if it played to their inestimable talents.

The series developed in other ways, too. Romance was minimal in Oceans 11, barely seen here, but was a major element of 4 for Texas – who would want to waste the talents of Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg – but just as Andress is a smooth operator in 4 for Texas when it came to the last Rat Pack picture Barbara Rush was also a significant player for whom romance was merely a means to an end. You could also argue that the disappearance of Lawford and Bishop allowed the supporting roles to be played by actors who were not in on the joke.

CATCH-UP: the entire Rat Pack quartet has now been reviewed in the Blog with Oceans 11 (1960) and 4 for Texas (1963) also to be found here. Other Frank Sinatra films reviewed are Can-Can (1960), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The Naked Runner (1967) and The Detective (1968) while for Dean Martin the list, so far, comprises Texas Across the River (1966) and Rough Night in Jericho (1967).

The Maltese Bippy (1969) *

The start is promising. Three decent laughs in the first three scenes, all jests at the expense of Hollywood. But when the movie settles down to a werewolf spoof, there’s a nary a chuckle to be found. It was rare in the 1960s for television shows to be given a big-screen outing, but it did occasionally happen. This came two years into the six-year run of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In television show, an innovative mixture of gags, punchlines and sketches stitched together in random fashion. A huge hit in the U.S., it was considered a slam dunk to turn it into a movie. Perhaps if they had stuck to the same format it might have worked.

Sam Smith (Dan Rowan) and Ernest Grey (Dick Martin) are down-on-their-luck soft-porn movie makers living in a mansion on the edge of a cemetery. After suffering a bite on the neck, Dick turns into a werewolf. You can see the comic possibilities, I’m sure. Either Rowan and Martin failed to find them or lacked the expertise to turn the material into laughs. Sure, there’s a creepy family, the Ravenswoods, next door who could be auditioning for The Munsters but that goes nowhere except the obvious and certainly not in the direction of laughs.

A few good actresses – Carol Lynley (Danger Route, 1967),  Julie Newmar (Mackenna’s Gold, 1969) and Mildred Natwick (Barefoot in the Park, 1967) – were snookered into this alongside Fritz Weaver (To Trap a Spy, 1964) without hope of redemption.  It was almost as though the picture was conceived as a piece of merchandising that Rowan and Martin just had to put their names to and not do much else.

It was strange it was so awful because director Norman Panama had a track record in comedy. Among other pictures he had made The Court Jester (1955) starring Danny Kaye – “the vessel with the pestle” – displayed an abundance of great comic timing and in some respects was a spoof of the historical genre. He had also directed Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in The Road to Hong Kong (1962) so you would expect him to be familiar with the workings of screen comedic partnerships.

The laughs were meant to be supplied by Everett Freeman (The Glass Bottom Boat, 1966)  and Ray Singer, a specialist in television sitcom and creator of Here’s Lucy (1968-1974). But either they couldn’t come up with sufficient gags or Rowan and Martin’s delivery was out of key with the lines. Or something.

Maybe nostalgia was what was missing from my viewing of the picture. I don’t recall holding any particular affection for the television show, though I was aware it provided a star-making platform for performers like Goldie Hawn (Cactus Flower, 1969), Judy Carne (All the Right Noises, 1970) and Lily Tomlin (Nine to Five, 1980) and that John Wayne put in a guest appearance.

But don’t take my word for it. Variety called the picture “as zany and fast a funfest as has come down the pike in years” and a “ cinch for heavy box office reception.” Mainstream critics were less kind, four out of the most prominent five giving unfavorable reviews. Even though the stars made the cover of Life magazine and the film received a seven-page spread inside, the movie barely made a ripple with audiences, a total of just $22,000 garnered in its opening week in two cinemas in New York with a total capacity of over 2,000 seats. British kids film Ring of Bright Water made more at a 360-seater.

The expected audience did not materialize, either from poor word-of-mouth or because customers resisted paying for something they could get for free every week on the small screen. So poorly did it perform that its initial run was truncated and a few weeks later when it went wide in a Showcase opening in New York MGM stuck on a reissue of Grand Prix (1966) as the support. Variety estimated it barely took $1 million in rentals (the amount returned to studios once cinemas take their share of the box office). Final proof of its unpopularity was being sold to television a couple of months after its debut.

When Comedy Was King (1960) ***

The 1960s was as much devoted to old movies as to new – the production shortage sent studios and producers back to the vaults to find anything that could fill a slot on a cinema program – and one of the most surprising beneficiaries of this was the silent movie.

It’s impossible to understand the 1960s without realizing what underpinned both the revival of slapstick comedy in such movies as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The Great Race (1965) and, just as crucially, brought to the attention of a new public other non-comedic stars from Hollywood’s “golden age,” the revival of whose movies in turn prompted a reissue boom and a decade or so further on provided the stimulus for the restoration of forgotten masterpieces.

The innovator in the silent comedy field was Robert Youngson, a two-time Oscar-winner (in the one-reel documentary category), who had set the ball rolling with The Golden Age of Comedy (1957).

When Comedy Was King sports a greater repertoire of stars and in essence presents a tribute – though not necessarily a greatest hits – to some of the best of the silent comedians The line-up includes Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, Laurel and Hardy, Mabel Normand and the Keystone Cops.

It was renamed “The Parade of Joy” for European markets.

None of the shorts featured are necessarily an individual artist’s greatest work – Chaplin’s contribution, for example, is drawn from a trio of 1914 pictures, The Masqurader, Kid Auto in Venice and His Trysting Place, none of which would be seen to represent the actor at his height. But they do give an idea of what silent comedy was all about.

Buster Keaton’s contribution is selected from the 18-minute Cops (1922) with well-timed gags, slapstick and car chases. Mutual self-destruction is a hallmark of Laurel and Hardy and Big Business (1929) sees the pair get into an argument with a customer, ending up demolishing everything in sight.  This is probably the pick of the compilation since the pair’s comedy relies on their relationship with each other and with anyone who gets in their way.

Appreciation of the particular talents of Fatty Arbuckle scarcely survived the scandal that ended his career while memory of Mabel Normand would also have been hazy so Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) is a good example of their comedy styles. They play a couple whose bed ends up floating on the sea.

Youngson was not above cashing in on a star’s future fame even when the example used of the person’s work could hardly be considered their best. In the case of Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard, 1950) she was unrecognizable especially as she was only 12-years-old and being billed at the time as Gloria Dawn. Her inclusion is taken from the short Jimmie the Fox (1911) later renamed Bobby’s Sweetheart. Certainly, she is displaying none of the dramatic ability which made her the highest paid actress of the 1920s.

For all the varying quality of the actual footage, it does work as a showcase for the various stars, even though they would achieve greater success in later films. As importantly, it opened up for the 1960s generation the world of silent comedy and seemed to make that decade’s audience laugh as much as it had done previously.

Youngson would go on to make another five of these compilations throughout the decade. Without his initial forays into old school comedy, big-budget 70mm roadshows like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World would never have seen the light of day, nor would more modest efforts like the British-made The Plank (1967), written, directed and starring Eric Sykes.

Texas Across the River (1966) ****

Excellent comedy western mixing dry wit and occasional slapstick to joyous effect. The wedding between Spanish duke Don Aldrea (Alain Delon) and Louisiana belle Phoebe (Rosemary Forsyth) is interrupted by her previous suitor Yancy (Stuart Cottle) who is killed in the resulting melee. Escaping to Texas, Don Aldrea’s marksmanship leads settler Sam (Dean Martin) to recruit him to help fight raiding Commanches. Romantic entanglement ensues when the Don rescues Native American Lonetta (Tina Marquand) and Sam has more than a passing interest in Phoebe.

It is so tightly structured that nothing occurs that doesn’t have a pay-off further down the line. Bursting with terrific lines – including a stinger of a final quip – and set pieces, it pokes fun at every western cliché from the gunfight, the cavalry in hot pursuit, and fearsome Native Americans to the snake bite and the naked bathing scene. Incompetence is the order of the day – cavalry captain Stimpson (Peter Graves) issues incomprehensible orders, chief’s son Yellow Knife (Linden Chiles) cannot obey any.

The Don, with his obsession with honor and his tendency to kiss men on the cheeks, is a comedy gift. Despite his terrific head of hair, he is stuck with the moniker “Baldy” and every time he is about to save the day he manages to ruin it. Sam is the kind of guy who thinks he is showing class by removing his spurs in bed while retaining his boots. His sidekick Kronk (Joey Bishop), a mickey-take on Tonto, mostly is just that, a guy who stands at the side doing nothing but delivering dry observations.

Lonetta is full of Native American lore and has enough sass to keep the Don in his place. “What is life with honor,” he cries to which she delivers the perfect riposte, “What is honor without life?” Phoebe is a hot ticket with not much in the way of loyalty.

Two sequences stand out – the slapping scene (whaat?) and a piece of exquisite comedy timing when Sam, Phoebe and the Don try an iron out a complicated situation.

Good as Dean Martin (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) is the picture belongs to Alain Delon (Once a Thief, 1965) and I would argue it is possibly his best performance. Never has an actor so played against type or exploded his screen persona. Delon was known for moody, sullen roles, cameras fixated on his eyes. But here he is a delight, totally immersed in a role, not of an idiot, but a man of high ideals suddenly caught up in a country that is less impressed with ideals. If he had played the part with a knowing wink it would never have worked.

Martin exudes such screen charm you are almost convinced he’s not acting at all, but when you compare this to Rough Night in Jericho it’s easy to see why he was so under-rated. Joey Bishop (Ocean’s 11) is a prize turn, with some of the best quips. Rosemary Forsyth (Shenandoah, 1965) is surprisingly good, having made her bones in more dramatic roles, and Tina Marquand (Modesty Blaise, 1966) more than holds her own. Michael Ansara (Sol Madrid, 1968) played Cochise in the Broken Arrow (1956-1958) television series. Under all the Medicine Man get-up you might spot Richard Farnsworth. Peter Graves of Mission Impossible fame is the hapless cavalry leader.

Director Michael Gordon (Move Over, Darling, 1964) hits the mother lode, the story zipping along, every time it seems to be taking a side-step actually nudging the narrative forward. He draws splendid performances from the entire cast, knowing when to play it straight, when to lob in a piece of slapstick, and when to cut away for a humorous reaction, and especially keeping in check the self-indulgence which marred many Rat Pack pictures – two of the gang are here, Martin and Bishop. There’s even a sly nod to Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns when the electric guitar strikes up any time Native Americans appear. Frank De Vol (Cat Ballou, 1965) did the score.

The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968) ***

Except for an ingenious escape attempt and Paul Newman spoofing his Cool Hand Luke  persona, this World War Two POW number falls into the “sounded like a good idea at the time” category. Harry Frigg (Newman), the American army’s most notorious escapee (though from British military prisons), is promoted from buck private to two-star general and parachuted into northern Italy to organize a breakout of five one-star generals.

The premise that the war effort is hampered by embarrassment at the generals being captured seems far-fetched as is the notion that the quintet are hopelessly incompetent when it comes to doing anything that sounds like proper army stuff. Adding another offbeat element is that they are being held in effectively a deluxe POW camp, an ancient castle run by Colonel Ferrucci (Vito Scotti), a former Ritz hotel manager with a lapdog attitude to the rich and powerful.

Almost immediately Frigg discovers an escape route through a secret door but is disinclined to go any further since it leads into the boudoir of the countess (Sylva Koscina). New Jersey inhabitant Frigg feels out of the place with the high-falutin’ generals and proceeds to get himself a cultural education. Meanwhile, the countess, obtaining her position through marriage rather than birth, trying to bolster his confidence naturally triggers his romantic impulses.

The humor is of the gentlest kind – Frigg taking advantage of his superiority, Italians speaking tortured English – and not much in the way of bellylaffs either. Director Jack Smight, who collaborated so well with Newman in Harper (1966) and manages to achieve a tricky balance in No Way to Treat a Lady (1968), loses his way here, not least structurally, as the movie pingpongs between the generals, the commandant and Frigg and, thematically, issues of power. Crucially, he fails to rein in Newman.

The generals, squabbling among themselves for power, would be caricatures except that their characters are rounded out by the players, the pick being Charles Gray (The Devil Rides Out, 1968) as Cox-Roberts and Tom Bosley (Divorce American Style, 1967) as Pennypacker. The other generals are played by Andrew Duggan (Seven Days in May, 1964), John Williams (Harlow, 1965) and Jacques Roux (The List of Adrian Messenger, 1963). Representing the American top brass in England are James Gregory ( a repeat role in the Matt Helm series) and Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967).

After her excellent turn as a mischievous and vengeful villain in Deadlier than the Male (1967), Yugoslavian Sylva Koscina comes down to earth with a less rewarding role as charming leading lady with a sly sense of humor rather than the femme fatale of A Lovely Way to Die (1968). Werner Peters (The Corrupt Ones, 1968) makes a late appearance as a Nazi and you might spot screenwriter Buck Henry (The Graduate) in a bit part.

The screenplay by Peter Stone (Arabesque, 1966) and Oscar-winner Frank Tarloff (Father Goose, 1968) is an odd mixture of occasional sharp dialogue and labored story. The set-up takes too long and you keep on wondering when it is going to get to the pay-off.

No doubt looking for some light relief after a quartet of heavier dramatic roles – Harper (1966), Torn Curtain (1966), Hombre (1967) and Harper (1967) – Newman acts like he has escaped the straitjacket of a considered performance and instead indulges in mugging and hamming it up, his body freeing up a barrage of mannerisms previously held in check.

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