Thursday, January 24, 2013

LORD LOVE A DUCK 1966

Amongst the glut of socially satirical black comedies that came out of Hollywood in the post-Kennedy years, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1963) has the respect and Tony Richardson’s The Loved One has the classy pedigree (a screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood adapted from an Evelyn Waugh novel). But the only one I find to be even remotely funny at all is George Axelrod’s strenuously off-beat (and unrelentingly hilarious) skewering of 60s Southern California culture,  Lord Love a Duck.

Obvious filmic merits aside, I just personally have no taste for Strangelove’s brand of paranoiac political lunacy, nor do I find much that amuses me in The Loved One’s theater of the grotesque lampooning of the Los Angeles funeral industry (although I do adore Anjanette Comer's performance and Rod Steiger’s Mr. Joyboy has to be seen to be believed). In all aspects relating both to my peculiar sense of humor and uniquely twisted world-view, Lord Love a Duck (an expression of surprised bemusement much like, “I’ll be damned!” or Fred Mertz’s exasperated, “For corn’s sake!”) hits me where I live. Choosing for its satirical targets the idiosyncrasies of 60s American pop-culture that are near and dear to my kitsch-loving heart (celebrity worship, youth culture, beach party movies, consumerism, the California school system, pop-psychiatry, religious attitudes about sex…and that's just for starters), Lord Love a Duck is virtually made-to-order for a guy of my retro-centric sensibilities. Of course, what really pays dividends when a satire is as perceptive and acerbically witty as Lord Love a Duck (adapted from a 1961 book I haven't read by Al Kine) is that you can look at it some forty-plus years later and marvel at how the jokes still hit home and maintain their relevance because people (God love 'em) really don't change all that much.
Tuesday Weld as Barbara Ann Greene
Roddy McDowall as Alan Musgrave
Ruth Gordon as Stella Bernard
Lola Albright as Marie Greene
Lord Love a Duck is a sun-baked Faustian farce about Southern California teen, Barbara Ann Greene (Weld), one-time Head Cheerleader and most popular girl at Longfellow High School, now facing an uncertain future of dreaded anonymity as a senior at the ultra-modern Consolidated High. The day before school is to start, Barbara meets the mysterious Alan Musgrave (McDowall), a transfer student from Irving High School with a checkered past. Calling himself Mollymauk (the name of an albatross-like bird, a replica of which Alan has hanging from his keychain as a kind of hypnosis charm) Alan professes to have the ability to make all of Barbara’s deepest desires come true…she need only give voice to them.
"Barbara Ann. Whose deepest and most heartfelt yearnings express, with a kind of touching lyricism, the total vulgarity of our time."  
Change the name and this 47-year-old quote could apply to anyone who has ever appeared on American Idol, America's Got Talent, The Bachelor...or any reality TV show today.
As it turns out, there is indeed something awful about Alan, especially in the way he goes about (without benefit of making explicit either motivation or method) seeing to it that each and every one of Barbara Ann’s tinpot dreams come true. Unfortunately, in the grand tradition of fairy tales and aphorisms that warn, “Be careful what you wish for, for you will surely get it,” Barbara Ann’s dreams consistently fail to measure up to her expectations. A lamentable realization for the not-very-bright baton-twirler, one compounded by the fact that the undisclosed “cost” of each wish (a sacrificial disaster or tragedy befalling someone in Barbara Ann's orbit) seems to escalate exponentially.
High school "fast girl" Sally Grace (the marvelous Lynn Carey, right) humiliates Barbara Ann into joining the Cashmere Sweater Club ("All you need are  twelve cashmere sweaters to join!") when she makes mocking reference to Barbara Ann's sweater made of the moth-proof, rust-proof, fireproof chemical: Acrison Silipolatex.
If at the start it looks as if the selfless Alan is but a tool to be used by the self-interested Barbara Ann to achieve her ambitions, towards the end it begins to dawn that perhaps Alan is harboring a secret agenda of his own and it's in fact Barbra Ann who's been the dupe. (Alan, like an asexual Myra Breckinridge, appears to be on some kind of personal crusade to dismantle and subvert the fabric of American culture one myth at a time.)
Lord Love a Duck not only uses its fairy-tale structure as a framework on which to hang a broad array of satirical jokes and sight gags, but as a device to dispense with anything resembling world-as-we-know-it realism. A scathing, surreal, jet-black comedy baked under a smoggy Southern California sun, Lord Love a Duck is a film I only recently discovered (thanks again, TCM!) but has fast become one my favorites.
The Devil You Say?: Mollymauk vs Pazuzu
Above, Barbara Ann signs a Faustian "pact" in cement with Alan (Mollymauk) Musgrave, a possibly Satanic character who represents himself with a drawing of a creature that looks alarmingly like the evil demon Pazuzu, replicated in poster-paint and clay by a pre-possession Linda Blair (below) in The Exorcist (1973)
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
As I commented upon in an earlier post about Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?, I don’t really understand comedy well enough to know why it works sometimes and at others it falls flat on its face. Satire in particular seems a particularly dicey realm given how important a role the establishment of tone and balance plays into the comedy payoff. If the world presented is too lunatic, there’s no reality in which to ground the humor and everything just comes off as silly. Lord Love a Duck wins points by giving Los Angeles and 60s pop-culture (and its already built-in absurdities) just enough rope of verisimilitude to hang itself. 
Lord Love a Duck's Drive-In Church (presided over by Rev. Phillip Neuhauser and his wife "Butch") spoofs the real-life Garden Grove Community Drive-In Church of former televangelist Robert Schuller (The Crystal Cathedral) which opened in Orange County in 1961.
Alan and Barbara Ann A-Go-Go
The teenage Beach Party movies of the 60s are a major target of Lord Love a Duck's scorn. The fictional titles of which don't sound very different from the real thing: Bikini Vampire, I Was a Teenage Bikini Vampire, I Married a Teenage Bikini Vampire, The Thing That Ate Bikini Beach, Cold War Bikini, Bikini Countdown, and Bikini Widow.
PERFORMANCES:
Actors, both comic and dramatic, attest that comedy is infinitely harder than drama, and I’m inclined to agree. I’m guilty as the next person of devaluing good comedic performances (Gene Wilder should have won an Oscar by now) but that can’t be said of my assessment of Lord Love a Duck, a film that succeeds largely due of its very talented and funny cast. While I’m less fond of Roddy McDowall in this (during this time in his career he seemed to be giving the exact same performance from film to film) Lola Albright and especially Tuesday Weld (doing her best work EVER) are pure gold. Albright brings unexpected pathos to her role as Barbara Ann’s promiscuous, cocktail waitress mother (“Honey, you know I never go out with a married man on the first date!”). Her brief yet memorably tragi-comic performance has a heartbreaking poignancy to it.
Under less than favorable circumstances, uptight society matron, Stella Bernard (Gordon) meets Marie (Albright), the alcoholic mother of potential daughter-in-law, Barbara Ann.
Long one of Hollywood’s most underrated talents —her career hampered by an I-dare-you-to take-me-seriously name and a baby doll voice— Lord Love a Duck’s happiest surprise is Tuesday Weld (not really a surprise, actually. She’s splendid in the 1974 TV-movie, Reflections of Murder, and brilliantly ups the ante on playing maladjusted cheerleaders in 1968’s chilling Pretty Poison). Lord Love a Duck showcases Weld’s talents as a truly gifted comedienne and affords her the opportunity to show what a nuanced dramatic actress she can be when given the right material.
It's a pity that Lord Love a Duck was so ignored on release. Weld is remarkable in it. In this scene in which Barbara Ann discloses to Alan her deepest desires, she humanizes and gives depth to a character that in less talented hands would be a one dimensional cartoon.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Every film that sets out to offend (as most black comedies do) needs at least one setpiece moment of sublime vulgarity. Lord Love A Duck boasts an irresistibly over-the-top shopping spree for cashmere sweaters that erupts into a father/daughter consumer orgy.The screwball/suggestive colors of the sweaters provide as many laughs as the incestuously orgasmic reactions they elicit: Grape Yum-Yum, Banana Beige, Lemon Meringue, Pink Put-On, Papaya Surprise, Periwinkle Pussycat, Turquoise Trouble, Midnight A-Go-Go, and Peach Put-down. At this point in the film I was aware that I liked Lord Love A Duck, but after this scene, I knew I LOVED it. This sequence is the absolute best in mainstream cinema weirdness!
The inimitably demented Max Showalter (as Howard Greene) is the more than appreciative audience for Barbara Ann's hysterical impromptu fashion show.
I could go about Lord Love a Duck's many other merits, but in the interest of space, let me call attention to the top-notch turns by Ruth Gordon, Harvey Korman, martin West, and Donald Murphy.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Lord Love a Duck was promoted with the tagline “An act of pure aggression,” but truth in fact; it’s mostly an act of pure cantankerousness. For all its outrageousness, at its core it’s a middle-aged, middle-class diatribe by the older generation (those more amenable to the comedy styles of Alan Sherman, Ernie Kovacs, Steve Allen, or Sid Caesar) against America’s burgeoning youth movement. A movement that was swiftly rendering director/ writer George Alexelrod’s patented brand of "tired businessman" comedy (The Seven Year Itch, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? How to Murder Your Wife) old-fashioned, if not obsolete.
1965 Playboy Playmate of the year, Jo Collins, is really a hoot as Kitten, the bored Beach Party movie starlet whose dialog consists entirely of variations on the sole retort she has for anything said to her by producer/sugar daddy, T. Harrison Belmont: "Oh Harry, you're such a drag!" 
Forty three years-old at the time this film was made, Axelrod was well past the age of distrust for the teenybopper set, and one can almost taste his vitriolic annoyance at what had become of his world of martinis, big bosoms, and smirky sex jokes. All of which probably accounts for why I find Lord Love a Duck to be so terribly funny. There's a really pissed-off, old fart sensibility behind it all that gives each satiric barb a particularly acrid sting not possible were the film made from a place of affection. Or even understanding. I guess that's something I can relate to.
If you’re among those who are of the mindset that we currently live in a society of Smartphones and ignorant people, then the hedonistic, amoral, anti-intelligence, youth-centric world lampooned in Lord Love a Duck provides irrefutable and entertaining evidence of the fact that we didn't just arrive at this state of affairs overnight. It’s a course we've been headed on for quite some time.
"Talk to me. Just tell Mollywauk."
Copyright © Ken Anderson

6 comments:

  1. Papaya Surprise all right...I remember when I tried papaya, and the surprise was that it tasted like crap.

    You have to love that sense of humour, having all of those different coloured sweaters...in a black and white film! It reminds me of a similar gag in Tim Burton's "Ed Wood".

    Take a good look at Jo Collins--never again will you see a woman like that grace the centre of "Playboy" magazine.

    This film is available on DVD, so I'll have to look out for it. Roddy McDowall is always good value.

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    1. I love Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" (a film with more than its share of sweater references)but you have to remind me of what that similar gag is.
      And yes, Jo Collins...in all her 60s glam glory of big hair, heavily made-up eyes, and sequined bikini...is a vision of femininity very much dissimilar to the look of Playboy models today - too "plastic fantastic" (to borrow a term I think I learned from fellow blogger Mike in Great Britain).
      Humor is so personal and my own tastes so quirky that I would never out and out recommend this film to someone saying they will find it funny. I can say, however, that it is an oddity and quite fascinating in that respect. Just don't expect that you'll be getting anything that you expect! Thanks, Mark!

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  2. I'm with you on the grouchy "smartphone/dumb people" feeling - it seems you can go anywhere today without running into someone absorbed by what's on a phone's LED screen. Now THAT should be satirized.

    I haven't seen LORD LOVE A DUCK, but your description of it reminded me of the 1967 British film BEDAZZLED, which has Peter Cook as the Devil granting the deepest desires of poor bozo Dudley Moore, always centered on trying to bed the delectable Eleanor Bron. Like the American film, BEDAZZLED takes us on a hilariously escalating journey of not-quite-granting wishes that come at increasing hazard to the wisher. If you've never seen it, I definitely recommend it (it's on DVD); and I DON'T recommend the remake with Brendan Fraser.

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    1. I am a HUGE fan of "Bedazzled"! I've seen it more times than I can count. You are spot-on in recognizing the Faustian similarities between these two laugh-out-loud satires, and while I won't go so far as to say that if you liked "Bedazzled" you'll like "Lord Love a Duck," I will say that both are examples of satire and black comedy done right. "Bedazzled" is not as mean-spirited as "Lord Love a Duck" and I truly adore the versatile and lovely Eleanor Bron in it. How perfect that you mentioned the Dudley Moore/ Peter Cook film, for after re-viewing "Lord Lorve a DucK" my taste was whetted for another look-see at "Bedazzled" and I put it on my Netflix queue just last night.Pretty keen sensibilities there Grand Old Movies...maybe you should give this one a try (but remember, you've been warned!) Thanks so much for commenting!

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  3. Your wonderful blog reminds me how urgently I need to re-visit Lord Love a Duck. I’ve only ever seen it once, well over twenty years ago (but it’s been on my LOVEFiLM wish list for ages now!) and it made a huge impression. For me, it almost defines “black comedy.” Yes, Tuesday Weld’s perky wholesome looks and disturbed / disturbing sex kitten persona are so troubling and idiosyncratic: if all she ever did was Lord Love a Duck and Pretty Poison, she’d already be unforgettable. I also love Lola Albright, so good in blowsy, somewhat older but still sexy, boozy husky-voiced older women roles like this. I’ve only ever seen A Cold Wind in August once but she slays me in that as a melancholy ageing stripper. (It’s a favourite film of John Waters – understandably!).

    Hey, I was wondering: we’re both clearly fans of Faye Dunaway. Have you ever blogged about Puzzle of a Downfall Child? I don’t think it’s available on DVD anywhere but France at moment, but the whole film is online on Youtube in glistening, exquisite quality. I watched it for the first time just recently (it’s long been considered a “lost movie”). I’d love to read your verdict on it: it’s a berserk but mesmerising car crash of a film, a true “failed art movie” (to paraphrase John Waters’ description of BOOM!) – one of my favourite genres. Full-throttle, scenery-chewing Dunaway stars as a neurotic fashion model in the throes of a nervous breakdown (it feels informed by Monica Vitti having a nervous breakdown in The Red Desert, a far more profound film). It’s nervous breakdown as fashion statement!

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    1. Wonderful to hear from you again, bitter69uk!
      You've provided me with a couple of wonderful leads along with your enjoyable comments. I have never even heard of "A Cold Wind in August", but a John Waters recommendation to me is better than an Academy Award. I'll have to search that one down.
      I saw "Puzzle of a Downfall Child" way back in the 80s and only remember that remarkable scene where Dunaway is forced to do a fashion shoot with a live falcon or something. I've always wanted to give it another look because at the time I only remember it being such a downer. I appreciate slower films now and wonder if my opinion would change. I'm thrilled that to learn it's on YouTube! That particular tip is priceless!
      You seem to have your pulse on a lot of the kind of feminine histrionics I go for in movies, so I will be checking out "The Red Desert" as well (another film I'm unfamiliar with).
      I hope you get around to re-visiting "Lord Love a Duck" and seeing how it plays for you after so long. As you say, Weld in this and "Pretty Poison" is pretty much Weld at the top of her game. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and share info on so many films I'm now so eager to investigate!

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