Arabella (1967) ***

Under-rated comedy, set in 1928 Italy, had me chuckling all the way through. An episodic structure sees Arabella (Virna Lisi) duping an Italian hotel manager, British general and an Italian Duke (all played by Terry-Thomas) out of their cash in order to pay off the mounting tax debts of her grandmother Princess Ilaria (Margaret Rutherford) while trying to avoid the attentions of the mysterious Giorgio (James Fox).

Her scams are quite ingenious, beginning with arranging for a public urinal to be erected outside a five-star hotel and, pretending to be the lover of Benito Mussolini, convincing the manager that, for a price, she could arrange its removal. There’s nothing particularly original about faking a breakdown to attract the attention of  the general, a royal flunkey, but the blackmail trap she sets is elaborate.

But just as you think you know here this is going, it sprints off in another direction altogether, Arabella being the mark, and it’s one twist after another. She is rooked by Giorgio with whom she falls in love. The Duke, whom she sees as easy meat, instead uses her. Her grandmother’s ploy to burn down her mansion and claim the insurance money is foiled by a cat.  

All sorts of sly observations come into play. The hotel manager and his pals siphon off a large chunk of the cash they have taken from the safe to pay her off. The general, operating incognito, has his cover blown by a piece of music. The Duke turns the tables on his domineering wife and his son has an exceptionally clever ploy to keep mama sweet while enjoying his sexual independence. And it appears that every time Arabella gives in to entreaty, she is exploited. In other words, show weakness, give a loser an inch and they’ll take you for all you’ve got.

Terry-Thomas as a bumptious hotel manager with James Fox looking mysterious.

There’s no desperate reason for it to be set in the 1920s and, beyond the Charleston and costumes, it makes little attempt to evoke the era except perhaps to make the point that the world was not full of submissive women. And you might find inappropriate the trope about using a sexy woman to turn a gay man straight. It’s a sex comedy in the Italian style where just about anything goes and the act, rarely consummated, instead involves humiliation.

But Virna Lisi (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965) certainly commands the screen, carrying the show, fashionably stylish rather than overtly sexual, a born comedienne. Terry-Thomas (How To Murder Your Wife), while initially appearing under his trademark persona, completes a transition for the Duke, almost another twist if you like, audiences expecting a similar duffer to his previous parts. Lisi and Terry-Thomas clearly have rapport, almost a synergy, not the charisma of a screen couple, as in romantic pairing, but work very well with each other.

Margaret Rutherford (Murder Ahoy!, 1964) and James Fox (The Chase, 1966) let the side down with such insipid portrayals you wonder why they signed up.  It’s almost as if they couldn’t be bothered working on their characterisations. Cigar smoking and general ditziness is as far as Rutherford, in her final role, goes. Fox just looks fey and the one flaw in the narrative is why Arabella could look at him twice. As the Duke’s son, duping his mother, a pre-gaunt Giancarlo Giannini (The Sisters, 1969) is very entertaining.  

To enjoy this you have to suspend your ideas about comedy based on the British and Hollywood tradition. It aims for farce, no attempt to make larger comment on life.  

Mauro Bolognini (He and She, 1969) hangs this together in a decent enough fashion, confident enough of his material to lead the audience into a bait-and-switch. In his debut Giorgio Alorio (Burn!/Queimada, 1969) and Adriano Baracco (Danger: Diabolik, 1968) wrote the screenplay with British playwright Alan Hackney (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) spicing up the English dialog. Ennio Morricone provided the score.

Skidoo (1968) *

Hubris can only get you so far. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill. Whatever possessed Otto Preminger (In Harms Way, 1965) to believe he could deliver a contemporary satirical comedy beats me. And it beat him, too.

Despite the comedic input of Jackie Gleason (The Hustler, 1962) and Groucho Marx there’s nary a single laugh, except, sadly, at the director’s expense as he attempts to shine a coruscating light on social mores and instead ends up fluffing his lines. The highlights (!!) are gangster Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) having a bad trip, his daughter Darlene (Alexandra Hay) falling in with a bunch of hippies and having her body painted, his wife Flo (Carol Channing) trying to seduce another gangster Angie (Frankie Avalon) and some attempted gags at the expense of technology.

There’s even the old one of kids making out beside a parking meter and when busted complaining they are not getting their allotted time. And there’s an ongoing “joke” of Flo tussling with various men for control of the television set through rival remote controls.

The story, if you can call it that, has Tony infiltrating a prison in order to bump off inmate Packard (Mickey Rooney) who plays the stock market, complete with ticker tape, inside. Flo and Darlene, trying to find his whereabouts, end up at Angie’s hi-tech pad. Then all the hippies go back to the family house where Flo washes their hair.

You can imagine where hippies come into all this, making with the hip talk, and trying to set up an alternative world to the Establishment.

Carol Channing makes her feelings known by donning pirate garb.

In the style of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) the main attraction are the cameos, Peter Lawford (Ocean’s 11, 1960), John Philip Law (Hurry Sundown, 1967), Burgess Meredith (Rocky, 1976), George Raft (Five Golden Dragons, 1967), Mickey Rooney (24 Hours to Kill, 1965)  and Frankie Avalon (The Million Eyes of Sumuru, 1967). But they will all cringe at their participation.

Channing, only just Oscar-nominated for Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) makes the worst career choice of her life, Alexandra Hay (Model Shop, 1969) not far behind, though with less marquee value to play around with.

Every acclaimed director has an off day, taking on a project through poor judgement or, more likely, financial necessity. But Preminger was still a Hollywood high-roller and this just looked like a dose of career suicide.

Come Blow Your Horn (1963) ***

Wonderful upbeat performance from Frank Sinatra lifts this out of a misogynistic pit where  women were either dumb, desperate to get married or passive-aggressive harridans. Bachelor playboy Alan (Frank Sinatra) has more women on a string than there is string. When younger brother Buddy (Tony Bill) moves in, Alan introduces him to the fun ways of the world, not expecting Buddy to be such an apt pupil.

Alan keeps main squeeze Connie (Barbara Rush) dangling while, pretending to have Hollywood connections, making hay with actress wannabe Peggy (Jill St John). He also keeps customer Mrs Eckman (Phyllis McGuire) sweet in transactional sex fashion and there’s no shortage of other women liable to appear out of the woodwork.

Meanwhile, his boss, apoplectic father Harry (Lee J. Cobb), goes around screaming at everyone, berating Alan for his lifestyle and moaning at harassed wife Sophie (Molly Picon). Most of the time it looks like it’s going to swerve into a more typical English farce with various women being hidden out of sight from various other woman or Harry or an equally apoplectic cuckolded husband (Dan Blocker).

But, with considerably more sophistication than that, the story takes the more interesting tack of character development. Alan, who might appear to be sitting pretty, woman at his beck and call, a glorious modern apartment, cocktails on tap, is brought up sharply by his brother’s delight at such a shallow life. Alan gets to play Hollywood honcho with Peggy while Connie delivers an ultimatum that threatens to bring Frank to his senses though, naturally, he believes it’s all hooey.

The fraternal business is well done, instead of the normal rivalry genuine affection and the older sibling offering guidance, though primarily in how to get drunk and get off with women rather than anything that might otherwise stand him in good stead. Though you might argue that being shown how to dress, and how converse with women, and organise a fun party might be as much education as a young gentleman in the Big Apple required.

The only thing better than one Frank Sinatra picture is two Frank Sinatras so to scoop up some extra cash these were paired for a speedy reissue.

Playwright Neil Simon, the toast of Broadway at this stage, exhibited such a keen sense of structure that the story never sagged. Any time that appeared a remote possibility, instead of a stranger coming in a la Raymond Chandler with a gun, it’s Harry stomping all over the place. There are some good catchphrases, genuinely funny moments, and some great lines, the best, I have to confess, from Peggy who bemoans the fact that she was stranded in a hotel room with Alan at a ski resort by all the snow outside. Redeeming factor: her homely kind of dumb serves narrative purpose, making the otherwise unbearably charming Alan come across as a heel.

This is quite a different Sinatra, like he’s channeling his record persona, none of the anguish, dramatic intensity or Rat Pack bonhomie he brought to other pictures. Often you hear of actors just playing the same character or a variation thereof, but this ain’t a Sinatra persona I’m familiar with and brings verve to the whole shebang.

Lee J. Cobb (Coogan’s Bluff, 1968) gives in to overacting. You can see how that loud style might work on the stage, but it’s less effective here. Jill St John (Tony Rome, 1967) is very good as the uncertain beauty, who could be incredibly seductive if only she could work out how, and not quite a victim either, and still managing vulnerability. Barbara Rush (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1964) is wasted, though. Set up as a modern woman, she collapses at the first sniff of marriage, though framing her eyes in a mask of light in a taxi cab is about the only compositional mark of any note.

Quite what possessed director Bud Yorkin (Divorce American Style, 1967) to stick in the title song in the middle of the picture is anybody’s guess. Norman Lear (Divorce American Style) wrote the script but you can hardly go wrong with a Neil Simon template. 

End up: it’s mostly about family and people coming to terms with themselves and each other.

The Millionairess (1960) ***

The movies lost a brilliant comedienne when Sophia Loren was lured (by a million-dollar fee no less) into historical drama. Having previously demonstrated her flair for comedy in Houseboat (1958), turning Cary Grant’s life upside down, she repeated the formula here. Cultural appropriation by Peter Sellers is the main issue getting in the way of full appreciation, not just the actor essaying an Indian, but the fact that this is a very cliched  attempt.

The narrative runs along two parallel twists and coming from the politically-aware mind of George Bernard Shaw contains a streak of social commentary. Beautiful millionairess Epifania (Sophia Loren) can only marry a man able to demonstrate business acumen. Dr Kabir (Peter Sellers), who caters to an impoverished clientele, must marry a woman capable of existing in poverty, eking out an existence for 90 days on the daily equivalent of less than a couple of pounds sterling.  

At the foot of the poster note the advance warning of the initial stab at “Cleopatra” that was to star Feter Finch and Stephen Boyd rather than Richard Burton and Rex Harrison.

Epifania, presented in that generation as somewhat imperious but to today’s generation would be viewed as the epitome of the independent woman resisting the notion that she choose a mate based on someone else’s criteria, is not above a bit of jiggery-pokery to win the man of her dreams. Technically, all said lover has to do is turn £500 into £15,000 and since no detailed information needed accompany those transactions, Epifania feels justified in simply handing over the dosh to her lover to fulfil the requirements.

She falls into Dr Kabir’s orbit after attempting suicide by drowning following the discovery of her feckless lover Alistair’s (Gary Raymond) affair with Polly (Virginia Vernon). Kabir, mind on other more important matters, fails to rescue her. But when she ends up in the water again, this times as rescuer, he is more responsive especially when she manages a physical connection.

However, he is not going to be bribed into love, not even when she modernises his dilapidated surgery. Naturally, she is viewed as headstrong and controlling rather than a philanthropist and so they enter into the double bargain.

This splits the narrative, as Epifania returns to Italy to work in a sweatshop. And although she reveals not just newfound humanity, defending her exploited fellow workers, and demonstrates the business skills to reverse the factory’s declining productivity, this still isn’t enough for Kabir who, with no head for money and no inclination to go through any rigmarole to please Epifania, manages to insult her, thus triggering the normal romantic comedy breakup.

In the meantime, wily attorney Julius Sagamore (Alistair Sim) and opportunistic psychiatrist Dr Adrian Bland (Dennis Price) muddy the waters.

Mostly, the film gets by on old-fashioned charm – and while, as noted, Sellers’ performance is outmoded in his impersonation of an Indian he is quite believable as an honorable man unlikely to fall for the first beautiful woman to come his way.

Sophia Loren (Arabesque, 1966) carries the picture with her exquisite comedy timing and even when the posters emphasized her various states of undress there is much more to her ability, as audiences were already aware, than taking off her clothes. She is an absolute delight, both as the demanding haughty heiress and the spurned lover and in any other movie her romantic enterprise would be applauded and just as with Houseboat she drives the narrative, the object of her affection not quite putty in her hands, and with the bonus of a song, a duet this time (“Goodness Gracious Me”) rather than the two solos of the previous picture.

Peter Sellers (The Pink Panther, 1963) was still in search of his screen persona and to some extent is blown off the screen by Loren who seems much more comfortable with the material, extracting humor without needing to rely on funny voices. Sellers changed the character of the doctor in the original play from an Egyptian to an Indian for no particular reason and in fact the nationality of the doctor would have made little difference to the story, it was a character, disinterested in woman and contemptuous of wealth, that provided the narrative impetus. Oddly enough, although at the time the deceased George Bernard Shaw was considered one of the world’s greatest playwrights the 1936 play on which this is based had never been a big success, reception so lukewarm on its out-of-town opening that it did not reach the West End,  Broadway run delayed till 1949 and then only lasting 13 performances (i.e less than two weeks).  

Director Anthony Asquith had made a huge success out of the author’s Pygmalion (1938) (the source material for musical My Fair Lady) and specialised in bringing stage plays to the cinema – The Browning Version (1951) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) – so was acquainted with handling big stars and opening up plays for cinema audiences. He shows a sure grip on the action and allows Loren to build up a beguiling character so that audience sympathy for her dilemma never runs dry. Wolf Mankowitz (The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll, 1960) and the debuting Riccardo Arragno wrote the screenplay.

The material would have more suited the colder, sharper tongue of a Katharine Hepburn (who did at one time play the character on stage) but Loren’s portrayal avoids the temptation of adopting a more spinsterish approach.

Watch it for Loren and the clever Alistair Sim and try not to cringe at Peter Sellers.

Doctor in Distress (1963) ***

Bait-and-switch as the romantic complications of the grumpy Dr Spratt (James Robertson Justice) take precedence over the by-now pretty competent Dr Sparrow (Dirk Bogarde). Just about getting by on Bogarde’s charm in his fourth and final outing in a role that had made him a British box office star and possibly more notable as his final film as an out-and-out matinee idol before he shifted into the arthouse arena.

Dr Sparrow has come a hell of a long way since being a shy junior doctor, mercilessly bullied by Spratt and a love life that was filled with tangle. Here, he not only stands up to Spratt, but is something of a lothario, happily ditching new love Delia (Samantha Eggar), a model, albeit temporarily, in favor of French masseuse Sonia (Mylene Demongeot).

There is very little of the traditional rom-com-love-on-the-rocks in Bogarde’s relationship with Delia, who arrives as a patient with a sprained ankle at the hospital and is whisked home by Sparrow for a spot of practised seduction. Spratt, on the other hand, has fallen for physiotherapist Iris (Barbara Murray) and in trying to win her hand undergoes weight loss treatment at a health clinic, endures the indignity of wearing a corset, hires a private detective to get the lowdown on her, and finally, donning a disguise of dark glasses and hiding his bulky frame behind an umbrella, proceeds to attempt to discover who is his rival for her affections.

Sparrow is left to occasionally swat out of the way the interfering Spratt and alternatively offer him advice or a shoulder to cry on while trying to prevent Delia pursuing a movie career. So it’s just a series of situations, none of which are particularly funny, apart from the idea of Spratt getting his come-uppance.

It’s worth noting that for a British sex comedy, the females are in charge. Iris knocks back her various suitors, Delia refuses to let romance interfere with her career, jetting off to Rome over Sparrow’s objections, and the diminutive and muscular Sonia is more than a match for any man and just as predatory.

What’s most surprising is that a genial comedy like this can get away with so much permissiveness. This was opposite of the in-your-face snigger-snigger Carry On series so for Sparrow to be successfully spreading his wild oats seemed somewhat out of character. But you can see most of the jokes a mile off though probably in a packed cinema these would provoke more laughter than watching it at home on the small screen.

It’s probably worth it to see Leo McKern (Hot Enough for June, 1964) as a movie producer who envisages Sparrow as his new star and Frank Finlay as a corset salesman, a completely different role to his part in Robbery (1967). Fenella Fielding (Lock Up Your Daughters, 1969) has a cameo as a neurotic passenger on a train and Dennis Price (Tunes of Glory, 1960) as a sadistic health clinic manager while Donald Houston (A Study in Terror, 1965) has a larger part as another of Iris’s suitors.  

Dirk Bogarde (Justine, 1969) can essay this kind of character in his sleep but there is no doubting his screen charisma or charm. But I doubt if James Robertson Justice (Mayerling, 1968) varied his character much from picture to picture, perhaps louder and more bumptious here but unlikely to attract audience sympathy. Samantha Eggar (The Collector, 1965) doesn’t get enough to do and has her thunder stolen by the late arrival of Mylene Demongeot (Fantomas, 1964).

Director Ralph Thomas had made more than a half-a-dozen films with Bogarde including more dramatic ventures like Campbell’s Kingdom (1957) and The Wind Cannot Read (1958) and makes the most of this undemanding feature. You would have thought this was the end of the line for the series but with Leslie Phillips (Maroc 7, 1967) as Bogarde’s replacement it soldiered on for another couple of episodes.

Proof that a true star can always help a film rise above its material.

A Swingin’ Summer (1965)***

I admit it: spotting this on YouTube I couldn’t resist. After all, someone has to report on the first proper Raquel Welch picture. Plus, I had never seen a beach movie, such a staple of the decade. Plus, depending on your point of view, Raquel gets to sing.

But why waste any brainpower coming up with a new idea when you can recycle an old one – let’s put the show on in the barn. Or a version of it.

Raquel Welch – distinctive in any language.

When their summer plans are dashed, students Mickey (James Stacey) and Rick (William Wellman Jr.) decide to promote a series of beach concerts. That doesn’t sit too well with lifeguard Turk (Martin West) who takes an unwelcome shine to Mickey’s neglected girlfriend Cindy (Quinn O’Hara). Rick, meanwhile, is intrigued by nerdy Jeri (Raquel Welch) but a bit put off to discover she’s more interested in a meeting of minds than anything more obvious, and possibly by her independent, proto-feminist streak, in that she selected him for her “summer romance.”

Just in case you thought there wasn’t much else to do but wait till the wannabe promoters got their act together and people fell in and out of love, there’s a hefty amount of subplot: a fistfight, a robbery and a water-ski version of “chicken.” Plus if there was any chance of you getting bored, house band Gary and the Playboys and a variety of other acts, including as the climax The Righteous Brothers, hit the stage and, in the interests of gender equality, the platoon of good-looking women hanging around are matched by a squad of good-looking men. 

There’s even some effort at comedy, a few pratfalls, mostly thanks to the distractions of Jeri, and one gender-switch sight gag which seemed pretty daring for the times, and even a nod in the direction of health food fads. Perhaps, more surprisingly, are the solid characterisations, the principled Mickey who refuses to sponge off Cindy’s rich father. Discovering she bailed him out behind his back, securing the sum required for the project from her father, he accepts the money as a loan but renegotiates the interest rate.

Jeri is way ahead of her time, analysing the men she fancies and with the repartee to keep them in line. It’s pretty even-handed in the beach costume department, for every girl in a bikini or tight top there’s a bare-chested topless hunk, though it still manages to be overtly sexist, girls needing measured by an obliging male in order to enter a beauty contest.

Scottish actress Quinn O’Hara (The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, 1966), a former beauty queen and girlfriend of pop star Fabian (Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation, 1963), must have thought the prospect of becoming the breakout star pretty high, what with her reimagining of the Lana Turner/Jayne Mansfield tight top. Her only rival was the girl playing the nerd who hooked the male lead’s best friend. Ostensibly, the nerd was not much of a part, spouting psycho-babble most of the time.

A nerd is still a nerd, O’Hara must have assumed. Unless she’s Raquel Welch.

Welch handles the dialog very well, probably longer speeches than anyone else, but even with  her horn rim glasses and hair in a bun, and determined to measure potential partners by their brain cells, she stands out as an independent thinker long before she releases her secret weapon, a yellow bikini, and smart enough to work out that if that doesn’t set a man’s pulse racing to head for second base – jumping onto the stage to strut her stuff.

It’s a bit of a stretch to argue that an appearance in a low-budget beach movie ushered her into the Hollywood fast lane, but, hey, timing is everything, especially if you happened to catch the eye of a producer looking for someone to model a fur bikini.

None of the men made much of a splash in the movie business though James Stacy was the male lead opposite Welch in Flareup (1969). Supporting actor Allan Jones was the biggest name in the cast but well past his heyday as a Marx Bros stooge.

Some of the singers were better known than the actors. Topping the bill in that respect were The Righteous Brothers – hot after “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling and “Unchained Melody” – who sang “Justine” (no smash, reaching just No 85 in the U.S. singles chart). Gary Lewis and the Playboys also topped the charts in 1965 with “This Diamond Ring.” But The Rip Chords were coming to the end of their chart life. Raquel’s song “I’m Ready to Groove” did not set the house on fire, it’s fair to say.

Robert Sparr (More Dead Than Alive, 1969) was at the helm. Leigh Chapman (Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, 1974) and Reno Carrell (Winter a-Go-Go, 1965), also the producer,  collaborated on the screenplay.

A harmless curio – a neat 80 minutes long – and if you’re intent on watching a beach movie it might as well be this.

Mr Hobbs Takes A Vacation (1963) ***

Audiences reared on the actor’s westerns and Hitchcock thrillers of the 1950s might have been somewhat taken aback to see the hard-hitting star turning up in a comedy. Setting aside Bell, Book and Candle (1958), he hadn’t been seen in anything that would resemble a Hollywood confection since a couple of lack-luster Post-War comedies – Magic Town (1947), Jackpot (1950) –  when he was trying to regain the marquee status he had lost by going off to fight. Of course, having gone heavyweight with Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Two Rode Together (1961) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) he might have thought he was due some movie R’n’R.

Whether this contemporary equivalent of a beachside air bnb gone wrong was the ideal choice is a moot point. But he would certainly be playing against type. After all those tough guys, principled leaders and occasional dodgy characters, you wouldn’t have to go far to find people who might enjoy seeing him taken down a peg or two.

Harassed banker Roger (James Stewart) wants a quiet getaway with wife Peggy (Maureen O’Hara). But she has different ideas and he finds himself bunked down with a brood too many, his own family, in-laws and unexpected guests. Naturally some of these unexpected guests included rats, happily infesting this shambling house that could have been second-choice for Bates Motel, and there are plenty running gags about what doesn’t work or falls off and a shared telephone line.

If there was such a sub-genre as the mature coming-of-age picture, this would be it, Roger realizing he has a lot of catching up to do in the emotional relationship department.

Mostly, it’s one episode after another. The cook quits, his daughter and son-in-law have eschewed the traditional approach to child-rearing, son Danny wants to be left alone to play his computer games, sorry watch television, teenage daughter Katey (Lauri Peters) is turning into a wallflower, rather well-endowed neighbors catch his eye. To show willing, he’s the yachtsman who gets lost and bored bird-watcher.

But if audiences have learned one thing from a decade of Stewart-watching, it’s that he’s generally far from hapless and although it’s not his fault he’s trapped in the shower room with a naked woman (Marie Wilson), he’s not so much a do-gooder as a do-er, setting out to repair as much as possible the fractured relationships, not above a bit of bribery or cutting a few corners.

This is amiable enough stuff, a few good laughs, and much merriment to be had from the mere sight of the banker, lord of his domain at work cast adrift outside it, and having to adapt to different perspectives. There’s a harder edge than you might expect and some of the scenes of relationships under pressure don’t make easy viewing.

These days, everything wouldn’t work out so well, but in the 1960s I guess the tension was derived from working out exactly how it would work out. And waiting for teen heartthrob Fabian (North to Alaska, 1960) to sing. It seems a contradiction in terms that a pop star trying to prove himself as an actor has to fall back on singing. But them’s the breaks.

A mixture of situational comedy and sharp repartee, it never falls apart at the seams, enough in the tank to keep everything on an even keel.

James Stewart moves from coldness at finding himself in awkward situations to warmth as he finds ways to retrieve the best elements out of them. Stewart doesn’t have to adapt his screen persona that much, he was always a tad grouchy, and he’s packed a briefcase full of sarcastic remarks. But the scene where he reconnects with his son is very touching, Stewart at his heartfelt best.

Maureen O’Hara (The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, 1965) who also has a few icy veins sets those aside to mother all and sundry. Stewart and O’Hara prove an excellent screen partnership and they would be paired again in The Rare Breed (1966), where he was on more solid ground.

John Saxon (The Appaloosa, 1966) gets a chance to show what he can do besides being tough and John McGiver (My Six Loves, 1963) adds another interesting character to his portfolio of offbeat roles.

Veteran Henry Koster (Harvey, 1950) knows how to handle any amount of handfuls and when to pick out the comedy or head straight for the drama. Nunnally Johnson (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) based the screenplay on the bestseller by Edward Streeter, an expert in domestic upsets, previously penning Father of the Bride.

You Must Be Joking! (1965) ***

British thriller specialist Michael Winner (Death Wish, 1974) learned all about structure churning out low-budget comedies like this unusually contemporary number. A precursor of the reality television trope of a variety of characters in competition to complete a series of odd tasks, this has a military set-up, aiming to find, oddly enough in an organisation where strict hierarchy dominates, people capable of bending the rules. Initiative, in other words.

Some of the motley crew, of course, have no intention of bending any rules if they can get everyone else to do the work for them, namely upper-class Capt Tabasco (Denholm Elliott) who gets the game rolling by calling in a helicopter as a favor from an old school chum to rescue him from a maze, the first task. He spends most of the time pampered in a hotel suite while dispatching girlfriend Poppy (Tracy Reed) on various expeditions.

Saved by the double bill: Winner’s comedy found a bigger audience
by being booked as the support for hit “Cat Ballou.”

There’s a Yank involved, of course, to target the all-important American market, Lt Tim Morton (Michael Callan) also using assistance in the form of upmarket girlfriend Annabelle (Gabriella Licudi) whose specialty is causing vehicle pile-ups. We’ve got a whisky-drinking Scot, Sgt Major MacGregor (Lionel Jeffries), stiff upper back rather than stiff upper lip with his constant snapping to attention, and two graduates from the Army Hapless Division in Sgt Clegg (Bernard Cribbins) and Staff Sgt Mansfield (Lee Montague). Directing proceedings are Major Foskett (Terry-Thomas) and General Lockwood (Wilfred Hyde-White), at opposite ends of the character arc, the former frantic, the latter laid back.

A couple of the five tasks involve unravelling clues, finding a particular rose, for example, but the whole purpose of the exercise is to have the soldiers constantly getting in each other’s way, trying to outwit one another, falling into bizarre scenarios – a fox hunt the cleverest – and generally getting all muddled up one way or another, so that initiative is the last thing they display.

What the movie does have in abundance is imagination, otherwise how to explain the involvement of a seductive housewife, pop star, television show, tunnelling, Lloyd’s of London, Rolls Royce and a greyhound racetrack. On the other hand this might be a smaller-scale precursor to If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium (1969) in shovelling together all sorts of British institutions and tourist attractions. And certainly Capt Tabasco with his love of the finer things of life demonstrates just how much fun it can be to be British if you’re upper class, wealthy, went to the right school and are not above a bit of blackmail.

As you might expect, the pace is hectic, which is just as well, because if you stopped to think about what was going on you might well throw in the towel. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable in a riotous sort of way, running jokes almost in a separate competition of their own, and if you always hankered to see Michael Callan’s dance moves this is for you – suffice to say he’s not in the Fred Astaire class. But everyone here is there to be made a fool of, except Capt Tabasco, who rises above it all in classy fashion and when he’s out for the count appears blessedly delighted.

Denholm Elliott (Station Six Sahara, 1963) comes off best, testing out his lazy scoundrel, but  the top-billed Michael Callan (The Interns, 1962) might never have signed up if he’d known the consequence was being relegated to television for seven years. However, given we are well accustomed to the shtick of the likes of Bernard Cribbins (The Railway Children, 1970), Lionel Jeffries (First Men in the Moon, 1964), Terry-Thomas (Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! 1966) and Wilfred Hyde-White (The Liquidator, 1965), he does at least have the advantage of standing out, if only as a novelty.

And just in case the goings-on don’t hold your attention, Winner has recruited a platoon of top British stars in bit parts including Leslie Phillips (Maroc 7, 1967) and James Robertson Justice (Guns of Darkness, 1962) and rising stars such as Tracy Reed (Hammerhead, 1968), Gabriella Licudi (The Liquidator) and Gwendolyn Watts (The Wrong Box, 1966) and future British television treasures Clive Dunn (Dad’s Army, 1968-1977), Richard Wattis (Copper’s End, 1971) and Peter Barkworth (Telford’s Change, 1979). So if you get fed up trying to work out what’s what you can play who’s who.

Alan Hackney (Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) wrote the screenplay based on a story by director Winner.

Not non-stop hilarity but definitely non-stop something with a good few chuckles thrown in.

My Six Loves (1963) ***

It was a rite of passage for rising male stars to take second- or third-billing to an established top-billed female. And, more importantly, rein in all attempts at scene-stealing. This is a Cliff Robertson minus the distinctive hunk of hair and lip-chewing of later performances and a David Janssen only beginning to learn the knack of talking out of the side of his mouth. They were probably kicking themselves for the indignity of ending up in such as harmless concoction, but the idea was, if it was a hit, it’d be a leg up the career ladder.

This frivolity, by the way, is probably offensive to a contemporary audience since the thrust of the story is an actress abandoning a successful Broadway career in favor of motherhood. On the other hand it is the very definition of comfort movie.

Janice (Debbie Reynolds), in love with her aggressive and somewhat conniving producer Marty Bliss (David Janssen), collapses at a publicity junket and convalesces at her second home in Connecticut, so far removed from the center of theatrical civilization that she never visits and in consequence the property has been taken over, for their own enjoyment, by her housekeeper and her daughter, who now object to spending a moment catering for their employers. In the grounds lurk a brood, half a dozen orphans taking refuge from their exploitative foster parents.

It doesn’t take long for Janice to sucker herself into taking them into her house, assistant Ethel (Eileen Eckhart) as clueless. On hand offering advice is local minister Jim (Cliff Robertson).  If the kids are a handful, refusing to be separated which entails them all sleeping in the same room, they’ve got nothing on their boisterous hound Butch.

We’re past the halfway mark before it occurs to Janice that she is treading dangerous emotional waters and she jumps at the chance to star in a heavyweight drama by current Broadway playwright kingpin. Meanwhile, smelling a hefty payoff, drunken foster parents Doreen (Mary McCarty) and BJ Smith (Max Showalter) turns up, Jim takes an unrequited romantic interest in his neighbor, Janice discovers her community spirit by helping raise money for charity, one of the kids runs away from hospital, and another has trust issues, leaving the other four with little to do but look cute.

Somehow within all this there’s a cue for a song, “It’s a Darn Good Thing” before Janice has to take the decision to sink or swim with the kids or hi-tail it back to Broadway where the prospect of a Tony beckons.

You’ve probably seen this all before, but somehow – taking the career issue out of the equation – it all works, an overactive ice machine, racing in and out of the school bus, meal-time complications, and wouldn’t you believe it a slice of love. No prizes for guessing the ending.

But it’s testament to Debbie Reynolds (How the West Was Won, 1962) that the movie has an appealing center. Cute kids are ten a penny in Hollywood but an actress able to make believable such an old-fashioned family-friendly tale is hard to come by.  Sure, by today’s standards it’s outdated, but if we can just slip on a retrospective hat, she would not be the first career-minded woman of that decade to find she had ignored her maternal instinct. It might have been better all round if she had found a way to have both career and motherhood but the planet and certainly not Planet Hollywood was not yet on that wavelength.

Of course, it being lightweight ensures none of the other characters have any depth and to their credit neither Cliff Robertson (Masquerade, 1965) nor David Janssen ((Warning Shot, 1967) resorts to showboating, a smart decision because with the charismatic Reynolds taking center stage they could hardly compete. And I have to confess I quite like this early version of Robertson before he was overtaken by a need for weightier roles. He showed a neat comedic touch, had some of the best lines, and proved no slouch in the verbal sparring department. Janssen, too, showed a lot of promise.

Max Showalter (How to Murder Your Wife, 1965) had such a convincing drawl that I was convinced I was watching Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke, 1967). A good opportunity also to check out distinctive character actors Eileen Eckhart (No Way To Treat a Lady, 1968) and  John McGivern (Midnight Cowboy, 1969)

You can hardly blame famed Broadway director Gower Champion (The Bank Shot, 1974), only too aware of the pressures of maintaining a stage career, for thinking that a life in Connecticut with a bunch of eventually pliant and cute kids would be a welcome alternative. It took three screenwriters to spin this tale – John Fante (Maya, 1966), William Wood (The Lively Set, 1964) and Joseph Calvelli (Death of a Gunfighter, 1969).

Bearing in the mind the aforementioned provisos, not a bad Sunday matinee. Alternatively, come at it from today’s perspective and you will be inclined to rip it to shreds before you give it a chance to be entertaining. You might even consider it a tad more adventurous in its more realistic approach than other multiple-kid pictures like Cheaper than the Dozen (1950) and Yours, Mine and Ours (1968).

The Spy in The Green Hat (1966) ***

Unable to compete with the influx of big budget espionage pictures, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. throws in the action towel and comes out fighting as a comedy, and a more preposterous storyline you would be hard to find. As if spoofing a genre it helped create, our intrepid heroes find themselves in captivity one way or another, outwitted by a posse of retired Mafia hoods or sadistic females.

Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) can’t even manage a chase, crashing the car in pursuit of former Nazi scientist Dr Von Kronen (Ludwig Donath). The trail leads to Sicily where Solo, again incapacitated, meets the sultry Pia (Leticia Roman) and as a result of a romantic misunderstanding is forced into a shotgun wedding in Chicago by her Mafia uncles, the famed Stilletto Brothers.

Meanwhile, Kuryakin makes the acquaintance of the deliciously sadistic Miss Diketon (Janet Leigh), assistant and masseuse to highly nervous Thrush boss Louis Strago (Jack Palance). The action finally shifts to the Gulf Stream, where Pia is imprisoned and the usual missiles are set to be launched in the presence of head Thrush honcho Mr Thaler (Will Kuluva) in the usual global takeover scenario.

Abandoning any attempt at serious drama, this is just a hoot, a score of sight and visual gags, references to Little Caesar and the St Valentine’s Day Massacre abound. Any time one of our heroes needs speedy access to a villain hideout along comes a guard to be bumped off and uniform purloined. Solo caught hiding under Pia’s bed is let off when discovered by a Thrush operative because he’s not the Uncle agent they are looking for. Not only is Solo constantly whacked over the head, but Kuryakin ends up as the plaything of Miss Diketon.  

Solo and Kuryakin look as if they stepped onto someone else’s parade, trying to keep the narrative on an even keel, while the Mafia gang and Thrush personnel effectively play it for laughs. Pia has Wanted posters of her uncles on her wall on the assumption they are just wonderful guys. Von Kronen gets the hots for Miss Diketon because he admires her skill at torture, although a spurned Miss Diketon turns traitor leading Kuryakin to mutter to Solo when all three meet, “I brought Lucrezia Borgia, you brought the Mafia.”

What makes it work so well are the fabulous performances of the supporting cast. Jack Palance (The Professionals, 1966), completely playing against type, still a villain sure, is a masochistic sweaty bag of nerves. Janet Leigh (Psycho, 1960) camps it up as the deadlier-than-the-male luscious female, dress slit at the thigh to reveal a hidden knife, whose pulse races at the mere thought of the cruelty she can inflict and the slower the better.  Will Kuluva (To Trap a Spy, 1964) is a bonus, the boss who just wants to party and has no idea of the technicalities of firing a missile.

Nobody even bothers to dress it up any more. The missiles look like something you would buy your kid for Xmas, the backdrops are as fake as anything on a backlot. But somehow it all works, as long as you weren’t expecting the original take on The Man from Uncle. And even so, director Joseph Sargent (One Spy Too Many, 1966) adds a few dabs of genuine cinematic icing, characters viewed from the ground-up, a fist fight that’s either in slo-mo or speeded-up freeze frame, the wife (Joan Blondell) of one of the Stiletto Brothers receiving a grapefruit in the mush.

After watching the original movie which came up better than expected in terms of action and spy malarkey, the last thing I anticipated that this would be headed in an entirely different direction. When that quickly became obvious, I feared the worst. Instead, I enjoyed a fun 90 minutes.

Of course, this wasn’t released theatrically in the U.S. just abroad with some added sex and violence, an expanded version, and in color, of a double black-and-white episode of the television series.   

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