Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Send me Tony Randall and booze


Day, Hudson, and Randall are back, and having explored goofy mid-century sex to their satisfaction and our own, set their sights now upon goofy mid-century death.

Directed by Norman Jewison
Written by Julius J. Epstein (based on the play by Norman Barasch and Carroll Moore)
With Rock Hudson (George Kimball), Tony Randall (Arnold Nash), Doris Day (Judy Kimball), Paul Lynde (Mr. Akins), Hal March (Winston Burr), Edward Andrews (Dr. Morrissey), and Clint Walker (Bert Powers)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Send Me No Flowers, the third and final comedy to combine Doris Day, Rock Hudson, and Tony Randall, at least has the distinction amongst the three of not just being Pillow Talk, their first one; and though it'd be unfair to hold that against Pillow Talk itself, even it weren't a miniature classic, it's as fair as fair can get to hold it against Lover Come Back, the mushy middle chapter in this cycle, and not much more than Pillow Talk's less-interesting, somehow-even-more-sexist remake.  So Flowers has novelty going for it, whatever else.

And while I can't imagine it was intended to be a "conclusion" to this "trilogy," it does play a little bit that way.  After two films' worth of a tall, evil man gulling a career-minded city gal into his bed (whilst his friend stood in the corner and cracked wise), we arrive now upon the spectacle of Day and Hudson, having moved out of the city and ensconced themselves in the suburbs, at long last enjoying the marital bliss that Pillow Talk and Lover had promised.  More accurately, they're enjoying what comes after marital bliss—a kind of comfortable marital boredom.  Hudson is George Kimball; Day would be his wife, Judy; and, inevitably, Randall's followed them out here too, as their next-door neighbor, Arnold.

Perhaps as a response to the boredom, George has dedicated himself to a life-swallowing hypochondria, and his condition's apparently only gotten worse over the years (indeed, a substantial portion of the movie's passed before we realize George actually still has a job, and, either way, his employment is surely honored more in the breach than the observance).  Judy, though ever-so-slightly wearied, is dutiful, and one can suppose she takes some manner of distant amusement in her husbands' constant complaints of "chest pain" (i.e., indigestion), or in the antagonistic first-name relationship he's developed with his beleaguered GP.  But if George was worried to distraction before, once he overhears another patient's fatal diagnosis and almost eagerly mistakes it for his own, the prospect of death finally brings a certain stark clarity to a life that, heretofore, George had lived only in fear.

Believing that he has but a few weeks left, George sets out alongside Arnold, his only confidante, to put his affairs in order; and, as he is a thoughtful husband, albeit a massively deceitful and condescending one,  he comes to the conclusion that poor Judy—who's never worked and doesn't even know how much a steak costs—would be altogether lost without his guiding hand, or at least some man's hand.  Thus the most important task he assigns himself in the time he has left on Earth is to clandestinely find the perfect new husband for his wife—and, clearly, he'd better hurry up.

So you can see it's only marginally less a product of its time than either of its forerunners, though by dint of sheer weirdness it does come off as sweeter in the execution, especially against a backdrop of impending death.  Wholly delusional it may be, but it's the foundation for some truly excellent black comedy, best of all during a visit to Paul Lynde, the friendliest cemetery salesman you'll ever meet.  And, as it's never quite treated as a total joke, Flowers even finds more than one occasion for genuine humanity to seep through its cartoonish premise and cartoonish tone, sometimes just in the deadpan of its humor, other times in the form of Arnold's film-long compression into an alcoholic stupor beneath the secret foreknowledge of his best friend's death.  (Randall, always the best technical performer in these films, plays it right at the razor's edge of pure clownishness and actual heartbreak, and, should he fall, always knows which side to tip over onto.  He's a sad clown here, then—although not at all less entertaining for it.)  A glimpse of the void comes through in Hudson's performance, too; he brings his melodrama-honed quiet emotionalism to bear here, granting a strangely powerful, ethereal quality to the most serious scenes of what is, we should admit, mostly a hellaciously silly farce.  (And one that's mostly at George's expense, too.)

But it is mostly that farce, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that, for Flowers goes for broke in the pursuit of its laughs, and it tends to get them.  Some say comedy is the most subjective of all genres, and nuts to that, because it's obviously musicals.  But while comedy is doubtless the second-most, Flowers comes with about as objective a pedigree as a comedy could have: besides reuniting the star trio of Pillow Talk and Lover, it was also a translation of a successful Broadway play, that just-so-happened to be written for the screen by one of Hollywood's premier adapters of plays, Julius Epstein.  Epstein, along with his brother Philip and Howard Koch, is most famous for adapting a certain unproduced play, not often remembered to be anything but a movie, Casablanca; but for our purposes here, it's better to refer to Epstein's other most famous stageplay-turned-screenplay, Arsenic and Old Lace, which (of course) is crazy funny.

It has a dash of that same uncanny quality, in the utterly cavalier way it plays with mortality, though it's obviously more theoretical in Flowers—just as noticeably, however, it's written with the same great gallops of wit, and leavened with a similar arbitrary goofiness.  Though right there is where it gets a tiny little bit into trouble.

For one thing, you've surely noticed that I've barely even mentioned Day, and while she's always kind of around, and Judy's something of the fulcrum of the plot, it's awfully deep into the running time before she takes on a role that seems like George's wife ever needed to be her—or even a movie star at all, as opposed to any pretty woman off the street who could memorize lines and not look at the camera.  (Goodness, if you disregard that fun bit of comically-sexy japery that serves as Judy's introduction, Day can't have more than six whole minutes of aggregate screentime before a full two-thirds of the film have passed.  Meanwhile, her interchanges with her nominal co-star Hudson—while certainly of the same good nature as what we've come to expect—are even rarer than that!)  Anyway, though you notice it immediately, you don't entirely mind it, because even if it seems like the movie's not making the absolute most out of its cast, Day's backgrounding does allow it to focus on the rapport between Hudson and Randall, instead, and Flowers is as much a showcase for their chemistry as Pillow Talk was for Hudson's with Day.

And in really specific ways, too.

The good news is that Day does get in on the action eventually; the bad news is that, to get her there, Flowers has to reorient its plot in a direction that it doesn't necessarily want to go.  In fact, it doesn't ever really figure out where it wants to go, which is almost certainly why it keeps starting right the fuck over, at least four whole times in just the second act alone.  And so we have a movie that begins with what I have to assume is the single most bodaciously queer premise in all mainstream 1960s cinema—Rock Hudson and Tony Randall questing across all the elk's lodges and country clubs and tennis courts of their suburban wonderland, in a desperate search for the hottest possible guy—and then, very quickly (though not so quickly it isn't still enormously funny), shifts gears into a story about George growing violently jealous of his replacement, practically at the very moment he actually finds him.  (And, while we aren't sticklers, it's frankly sloppy, if not against the grain of the film's premise entirely, that this "Bert Powers" actually finds her.)

Bert, of course, would be a Texan gentleman of Judy's old acquaintance (get it?), who's played by Clint Walker, the one man-beast alive in 1964 who could ever make Hudson look small.  (And since Flowers is also costume designer Jean Louis' reunion with the leads from Pillow Talk—Louis being replaced by Irene Lentz the last time, not to anyone's great credit—we can reckon that the terrifyingly ill-fitting suit Bert's wearing, which makes him look like three or four burly kids stacked on top of each other inside it, must be an avowed gag.  It fits, anyway, with that other callback to Pillow Talk, echoing one of the best bits of physical comedy from that film—namely, another "big man in a tiny car" joke, except this time the car's smaller, and the man somehow even larger.)

"Well," you'd say, "what are you griping about?  That's the plot to a real farce."  And you'd be totally right—if the triangle between George and Judy and Bert were what this film concerned itself with from here on in.  The thing is, it very much isn't, enough so that you'd be forgiven for thinking the movie just plum forgot about Bert—because I'm pretty sure it did—and now it changes yet again, first, into a mordant dramedy about facing (fake) death with dignity and courage, and, finally, into another kind of farce entirely, this one about an imagined infidelity.

I won't say it doesn't survive these lurches from what amounts to one screenplay to another, because it does; the shifts are surprisingly inocuous given their prominence (honestly, I didn't actually notice Bert essentially vanishing while the movie was still on).  But it does nobody any good, let alone poor Day, that the last phase of it (the only phase where Day figures in as a character, rather than a device) is also the most predictable and conventional and shallow and slow.  And while I hesitate to outright call it "boring," when it's still this mostly-sweet and this mostly-funny, you are nevertheless highly aware that you're looking at the least interesting version of what this movie could be—hell, had already been.

Does it say anything that Day's best scene, by far, is George's nightmare of what'll become of her after he dies?  (Namely, she'll pay the drycleaning boy to have sex with her a lot.  Does George even like his wife?)

Really, Flowers' protean farce only even seems coherent inside Norman Jewison's direction, which is almost entirely excellent throughout, no matter how many rabbit holes the story loses itself in—and Jewison (an actual director you may have actually heard of!) lets you know, right up front, with his film's opening gesture (a corny, animated parody of those old medicine ads, where the cartooning takes us inside Rock Hudson's upset tummy), that Flowers is absolutely not going to idle in the same flat, stale aesthetic that Lover did.

It keeps that energy up throughout, never quite giving up the spark even when the screenplay does, always snappy and deliberate—and willing to embrace the melancholy inside, especially in a strikingly brilliant moment on the Kimballs' back porch, which in Daniel Fapp's cinematography becomes one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in any American movie from the 60s.  Hudson and Randall sit outside and talk in a summer evening haze, accomplished by who knows what kind of diffusion or lens application; the quality of the light feels almost staggeringly real, without actually being real, and captures precisely the pensive mood that tends to strike in such environs, as George contemplates his death with sobriety, and Arnold takes pretty much the opposite tack.

All along, Jewison opts for a truly bizarre performance style from all his actors, especially Randall, that I can only describe as "grief-strickenly handsy," functioning as a sort of constant baseline of (presumably?) intentional physical comedy that also plays as bathos so ludicrous it comes back around to being endearingly sad, with every actor, especially Randall, constantly groping the bejeezus out of everyone else—though I suppose it peaks early, when a tipsy Arnold, having just found out the news about George, goes in for a hug on Judy and french kisses her nose.  What can I say?  It's funny.  I liked it.

Maybe it doesn't sound like a great movie, and perhaps it isn't—it's too scattershot, the big reveals happen too early, and it has less than no idea what to do with its biggest star, outside of isolated scenes—but I'm convinced it's an extraordinarily good movie anyway.  It's a worthy follow-up to Pillow Talk (and a true relief after Lover Come Back), and if it doesn't manage the same consistency as the trio's first collaboration, it has something more substantial animating it: a recognition that death is absurd.  Like, just really silly.

Score: 8/10

Reviews in this series
Pillow Talk (1959)
Lover Come Back (1961)
Send Me No Flowers (1964)

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