Reversible Mayonnaise

PETE ‘N’ TILLIE, directed by Martin Ritt, scripted by Julius Epstein, from the novel Witch’s Milk by Peter de Vries, has some of the feeling of one of those Neil Simon films Walter Matthau made so many of but which Carol Burnett, his co-star here, somehow avoided. Even though it’s shot by John A. Alonso of CHINATOWN fame so the Frisco locations look nice. The material just doesn’t seem to permit any striking stylistic choices, unless we count the late Rene Auberjonois’ impersonation of Tillie’s gay best friend. Based on this and the casting of Michael Hordern as a “queer” in THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, I don’t think Ritt had highly developed gadar.

The main stylistic departure from reality lies in Matthau’s jokes about his job in “motivational research.” He describes this as a business of finding out what the public “is looking for in the way of an automatic contaminator or an aftershave mint.”

Burnett barely smiles. “Anything else?”

Deadpan: “Well, we’ve just completed a survey for a dietetic shampoo and are now helping to launch a reversible mayonnaise.”

Burnett remains equally deadpan.

“Maybe you could help us out,” continues WM, “There’s a new men’s cologne that’s coming out, they’re looking for a name. I suggested ‘Armpit.'”

Not a titter. And I think these are GOOD JOKES. Does Tillie lack a sense of humour, does she just not relate to these particular jokes, is she really good at holding it in and doesn’t want to give Pete satisfaction of laughing at his quips (she has him pegged, not incorrectly, as a bit of a chauvinist lout)? If the couple-to-be don’t share a sense of humour, I wouldn’t have expected the relationship to last out the running time of this movie, which, spoiler alert, it at least comes close to doing.

Oh stylewise: to prove this is a proper movie, Alonso makes the car interiors seriously dark. Although the lighting suggests a fairly brilliant dashboard light. Gordon Willis would have just sat them in total darkness except when another car passes going the other way.

PETE ‘N’ TILLIE is pretty good — tragic bits, comic bits. Pete and his son play a prank on neighbour Henry Jones by secretly siphoning fuel into his gas tank to give him impossibly good mileage, which reminds me of the fantastic gag with the incredible expanding tortoise I may have told you about previously…

12 Responses to “Reversible Mayonnaise”

  1. La Faustin Says:

    I have just reread and savored every post with the word “tortoise” in it, but there’s nothing about EXPANDING tortoises. Tell, tell!

  2. Damn, I was sure I’d told all!

    This was in a book about Britain’s scientific research for the war effort in WWII, but was strictly a side-note.

    Professor living in Paris. His downstairs neighbour, a young lady, keeps a pet tortoise in her window box. The scientist decides to amuse himself.

    He buys a series of tortoises of varying sizes from a pet store, and constructs a kind of *grappling device*. Using this, he abducts the tortoise and replaces it with a slightly larger one. Over the next few days he repeatedly replaces the reptile with a series of incrementally larger ones, until the owner notices this astounding change.

    There’s another scientist in the building and she approaches him first, but sadly he wants nothing to do with the case. However, knowing her upstairs neighbour to also be a scientist, she approaches him regarding this miracle. He suggests she alert the media.

    So a newspaper runs an article about the amazing expanding tortoise, at which point our man simply reverses the process, and everyone is amazed when the beast shrinks back to its original size.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Martin Ritt is ham-fisted when it comes to comedy. His best film, “The Long Hot Summer” had such skillful players and Newman and Woodward, Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury and Orson Welles to keep things lively. Burnett and Matthau are a mystery to him.

  4. Jim Cobb Says:

    In reviewing PETE N’ TILLIE Pauline Kael wrote that while Burnett is one of the most gifted comediennes ever she thought the film was a waste of her talents. She referred to her performance as “grimly controlled” and “unnecessarily confined and schoolmarmish.” Burnett wrote Kael thanking her as she felt something was wrong during filming but could not figure out what it was. Burnett seemed more at home in Alan Alda’s FOUR SEASONS and Robert Altman’s A WEDDING.

  5. chris schneider Says:

    I have an unconfirmed memory of Kael saying something good about Geraldine Page’s performance on a supporting role. The first three reviews I check, including yours, don’t mention Page at all. The fourth one does, and mentions that Page got an Oscar nomination out of it. Do you care for the Page performance? Does it fit in with the rest of the film?

  6. chris schneider Says:

    “In a supporting role,” that would be.

  7. Burnett is wonderful in A Wedding.

    The Kael story is fascinating, must be one of the rare cases of an actor thanking a critic for a bad review.

    I like the Page performance a lot — a more thorough treatment of this film would have featured it prominently. She does have to work around Auberjonois a lot… I didn’t want to trash his performance as I generally love him and after all he just died. But I think he’s straining too hard to be exotically gay.

  8. Jim Cobb Says:

    Apparently this happened with Kael more than once. Another example was her review of FUNNY LADY. Though a big Streisand booster she gave her a bad review. Streisand wrote her that she agreed (she had not wanted to make the film but was under contract) and thanked her. Brian Kellow’s biography of Kael is an interesting read.

  9. Probably wouldn’t happen now, when stars and filmmakers are contractually prevented from dissing their new releases. Jim Carrey sort-of got away with it when he distanced himself from the vile Kick-Ass 2, but the guy who denounced his own Fantastic Four movie…

  10. When I first watched this I thought that the Burnett role was such an archetypally Cloris Leachman Role. Looking up a bit more about the film I discovered a sitcom had been made a couple of years later, and goddam, Cloris Leachman got to play Tillie this time around.

    Oh, and the Tortoise story is the basis of the Roald Dahl story Esio Trot

  11. Chuck V. Says:

    Carol got to do Simon’s Plaza Suite on the telly in ‘87.

  12. I hope Dahl gave credit!

    Plaza Suite and California Suite are two of the Neil Simon films that put me off seeing anymore — back in the early VHS days Matthau and Simon films made for popular family rentals at the Cairns residence. But the slapstick business in CS — Kael reckoned it was racist but I mainly processed it as painful, as in physically cringe-making, and unfunny and depressing, and Plaza Suite just failed to look or feel like a film at all (Arthur Hiller was always kind of limited, though The Hospital has some good long take stuff). A TV version could easily improve on it…

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