The Low Sixties

The fifties died hard, were still going strong in 1963, is my main takeaway from THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER, directed by Vincente Minnelli and written by John Gay from Mark Toby’s novel. It’s an everyday story of real people, brought to you by filmmakers who have apparently never met any. Every note is jarring, and yet a number of them do connect to human experience, but in an off-kilter, disjointed way. Future historians will look at this movie and try to calculate how much is accurate social observation, how much is soap opera contrivance.

Glenn Ford is a recent widower living in New York with his son, the director of THE DA VINCI CODE. He produces or does something involving a radio show whose horndog disc jockey, Jerry Van Dyke (an uncanny genetic facsimile of brother Dick) urges him to remarry. It’s been, what, a month?

Three women are wheeled past to tempt our bereaved patriarch: Stella Stevens, a beauty queen from Montana who has come to the Small Apple (it’s all interior sets) to Gain Confidence; Dina Merrill, a careerist fashion consultant; Shirley Jones, the student nurse next door. The outcome is obvious — the writers think they’re smart by making Jones a divorcee with a potential career and having her argue a lot with Ford, but they haven’t counted on the casting of Jones, who is naturally soft and appealing. And she’s right all the time, and she’s already basically acting as mother to the director of APOLLO 13. Plus she’s right across the hall. The fact that she could be Ford’s daughter is no doubt to be considered a plus. His last wife died, after all, we want this one to be longer-lasting. And ultimately the disqualifying traits almost cancel each other out — she’s resorted to a career to help get over the divorce — presumably she’ll be only too happy to give up that silly girlish idea when she becomes Mrs. Eddie’s Father.

Cherishable moments include Merrill declaring she doesn’t want to be the woman BEHIND the man, but side by side with him, and Ford saying he doesn’t see that becoming a national movement anytime soon. Oh Glenn.

Psychodrama! The director of HILLBILLY ELEGY freaks out at the sight of a belly-up goldfish. Jones deduces it’s because he hasn’t grieved for his mother yet, and Ford freaks out at that — “A FISH — IS A FISH — AND HIS MOTHER — IS HIS MOTHER!” Complete with Dramatic Turn and music stab.

Ford and Minnelli are reunited immediately after the superflop FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE, and obviously the intention is to spend a lot less money on this one, but it seems like wasted money since the soap and sitcom elements are exactly what the public can see at home on TV, only here they’re in a somewhat peculiar combination.

The director of A BEAUTIFUL MIND is clearly a prodigious sprog, child-actorly in mode but very skilled in his mimicry and timing, a carrot-topped replicant. Ford embodies the fifties-style paterfamilias more effectively, I bet, than he did “a hot young Argentinian stud” as David Wingrove put it, in his previous Minnelli epic. But it’s not a very appealing archetype to me.

Minnelli might be expected to regard this very square set-up with veiled horror — his comedies tend to have the quality of nightmare (FATHER OF THE BRIDE contains an actual nightmare which uses the “stairs as swamp” image repeated in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET; THE LONG, LONG TRAILER turns sitcom into pure anxiety dream, a cold sweat of a film). Here, there’s just a sort of chilly lack of enthusiasm in the visuals. A late scene where Ford and the director of FROST/NIXON roleplay a prospective conversation with Shirley Jones, with the director of CINDERELLA MAN taking the Jones part, is clearly meant to be cute, and it is, but it’s also kind of weird, like everything else.

My favourite presence in the film was Stella Stevens, and my favourite scene was her big one — comparable to Shirley MacLaine’s adorable drunken singing in SOME CAME RUNNING, and the only scene where Minnelli the great musical director has really propitious material. Dick Van Dyke’s brother tries to boost her confidence by getting her to do the drum solo she’s been scared to do. Everyone knocks it out of the park.

Lo!

My copy of the film played once then gave up the ghost, which is why so few images here. Fortunately there are lots of clips online.

12 Responses to “The Low Sixties”

  1. The next iteration of the material was an actual sitcom, starring Bill Bixby, which ran from 1969 to 1972. Strangely, it was pretty good, and refreshingly low-key, with a Harry Nilsson theme song.

  2. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Minnelli is someone whose visual style remained in the ’50s as compared to Preminger (Bunny Lake is Missing, Advise and Consent, The Cardinal), Robert Rossen (Lilith), or Hitchcock whose works were more in keeping with changing mores and times than he was. We can also add John Huston (Freud, Wise Blood, Reflections in a Golden Eye). Also the Elia Kazan of The Arrangement and even the John Ford of 7 Women. Still Minnelli did much better than Frank Capra whose career cratered after World War II and is the absolute standard for classical directors who couldn’t keep up with the times.

    I recently saw his last film, A Matter of Time, which was butchered but it’s still a compelling film and visually even if it’s from the 1970s is still very much a classical Hollywood confection, albeit with deeper emotional richness (and one of Ingrid Bergman’s best performances).

  3. A Matter of Time certainly allows you to see what the producers have done to it, since not only do they avoid the classical style in the shots they added, they don’t even bother to suggest the right period.

    On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is something of a mess, but a *fantastic* one. It seems to me that Minnelli’s problem was not so much that his ability had diminished or he was out of step, just that he was older and they didn’t want him.

    Interesting that Capra also seized on Glenn Ford as some kind of rock-steady bulwark against the changing times. And that didn’t work out for him.

    I see Jodie Foster appeared in the Eddie’s Father sitcom as a kid. An early clue to the new direction.

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Here’s that theme song It’s Pure Harry.

    As for Stella Stevens Don’t forget Jerry Lewis !

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    An Early Clue to the New Direction is the title of a now lost Andrew Meyer film from 1966 starring Joy Bang, Rene Ricard and a delightful ancient Boston bohemian named Prescott Townsend.

  6. And it’s a line of dialogue by Kenneth Haigh (uncredited) in A Hard Day’s Night.

  7. bensondonald Says:

    Didn’t forget Jerry Lewis. In THE NUTTY PROFESSOR that same year Stevens was playing a college coed. By day she and her classmates dressed like 15-year-olds, and by night they were outfitted as middle-aged lounge lizards. And the dance features an old-school big band.

  8. David Ehrenstein Says:

    That scene in “A Hard Day’s Night” is the most important I the entire film. It underscores Alum Owen’s keen awareness that “The Beatles were more than just another pop group but the embodiment of their entire generation.

  9. The fact that Minnelli ended up making A MATTER OF TIME for Sam Arkoff at AIP speaks volumes about The Biz then and now.

  10. And the fact that Arkoff had no interest in of respect for Minnelli’s vision and obviously just saw him as a honeytrap to lure in Liza, Ingrid and Charles…

  11. Kenneth Haigh’s scene in A Hard Day’s Night was written during shooting to take advantage of the fact that George Harrison had the best grasp of dialogue of the Beatles. Haigh appeared uncredited because he was convinced appearing in a pop film would destroy his credibility as a Serious Actor.

  12. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Minnelli was having a lot of personal problems while making “A Matter of Time” He was in mental decline. But the film still has shards of marvelousness in it: Liza singing “Do It Again” and the scenes between Bergman and Boyer. Boyer, who was in great physicl pain atthe time, killed himself after completing his scenes. Pauline Kael was particularly kind to Minnelli in her review. She not only knew the film had been wrested away from him but she was keenly aware of the movie he was trying to make.

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