Friday, May 1, 2009

Flashback to Groovy Peter Sellers

I Love You Alice B. Toklas
Warner Bros. // 1968 // 94 Minutes // Rated R

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“I’ve got pot, I’ve got acid, I’ve got LSD cubes. I'm probably the hippest guy around here. I’m so hip, it hurts!” — so sez Peter Sellers.

Opening Shot

Brilliant comedian Peter Sellers (Being There) stars in this badly-dated picture about the hypocrisies of the 1960s counter-culture. Most of the jokes are built around squares who ingest drugs by accident and discover the joys of getting high, while making the case that hippies were relatively benign (though ultimately goofy and, therefore, safe for mainstream America). The results are sporadically funny, like your silly-ass uncle cracking jokes about things he’ll never understand.

A bit of pot, er, plot…
Career-minded Jewish professional Harold Fine (Sellers) thinks he’s in love. At least that’s what his badgering fiancée (Joyce Van Patten, St. Elmo’s Fire) keeps telling him. She wants to set a wedding date. Harold’s bored; he wonders if this is all there is to life. But when he meets groovy Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young in her film debut), a free love-espousing hippie, Harold decides to tune in, turn on, drop out — and get laid.

Turns out Nancy is quite a baker, thanks to her secret ingredient, high-octane pot. She leaves a plate of freshly baked goodies at Harold’s apartment. Later, when Harold and his harridan fiancée come home with Harold’s parents, they greedily devour the chocolate treats over coffee — clueless to the magic ingredient inside.

Harold’s hooked. He leaves his fiancée at the altar to pursue the counterculture life — free love, music, blissed-out afternoon delights — but he soon discovers that hippies are as hypocritical as any other group of people. This leaves Harold with a dilemma: Turn back? Remain in stoned stasis? Or move on?

Historical Context and Significance
Screenwriter Paul Mazursky got his start in Hollywood as an actor (Blackboard Jungle) and would later direct such social comedies as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, a remake of Jean Renoir’s classic satire, Boudu Saved From Drowning. A satirist at heart, Mazursky's career never really took flight into A-list status, possibly because his projects are so anchored to the period in which they were made as to be instantly dated and soon forgotten. I Love You Alice B. Toklas is the example that proves the point. Then again, taking pot-shots (!) at hippies and squares is not the riskiest subject for satire. It should come as no surprise that people can be shallow and self-absorbed whether they smoke a fat doobie or quaff martinis at the country club.

All that’s left of any significance is Sellers himself, and this is his show all the way. He mutates from buttoned-down professional into flute playing hippie, segues into a tuxedo for an aborted wedding and then takes off again on a new tangent. A master of understated comedy, Sellers brings a deadpan bemusement to his various personas, yet he can effortlessly explode into mania. He was a fascinating talent (dying too young of a heart attack at 54), and remains the lone reason to watch this film. As his fiancée, Van Patten is a shrill harridan who bypasses humor to go straight for annoyance. Taylor-Young (Soylent Green) is a lightweight actor, but effervescently sexy – and that’s all her role really demands.

The title track is sung by Harper’s Bizarre (below, right), and if you're hip to that, then you said “ugh!” before reaching the end of this sentence. The smiling, shiny-people ethos of this deservedly forgotten vocal group is so unctuous as to induce nausea. Harper’s Bizarre makes The Association (“Cherish”) sound like Black Sabbath. Such was the state of saccharine, hippy-dippy pop music in 1968: featherlight, inchoate nonsense. Middle America, the target audience for this movie, wasn’t quite ready for Jimi Hendrix on the soundtrack; and the hippies who wandered into the theater were probably too ripped to care.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The video transfer is sharp and clean. Audio sounds adequate in the original mono. A theatrical trailer is the only extra on the disc, which is too bad. I would have enjoyed a Mazursky commentary track (director Hy Averback, who worked mostly in television, died in 1997).

I mention with amusement that the DVD keepcase lists an R rating for the film. Ludicrous. The picture was released in October 1968 and the MPAA ratings system did not come into place until the following month. My suspicion is Warner Brothers some years later resubmitted the film for a rating and it was saddled with an R. Regardless, the picture, at most, contains content deserving of a PG rating.

Tangential Musings
As comedy and social commentary, the picture is anchored securely in 1968. This can be a fun, lighthearted time capsule for viewers in a playful mood with minimal expectations.

I wish I’d known that 30 years ago, as I might not have bothered.

This film actually screened at my high school when I was a junior. Incredibly, members of my English Lit class persuaded our teacher to rent the picture and show it to a gathering of all English classes in the waning days before summer vacation. Understand, these were the days before video rental stores, when VCRs cost upwards of $400 and there was still a serious question of whether a superior videotape format known as Beta might yet dominate the market. It just wasn’t possible for delinquent kids to acquire movies on their own, much less be able to afford the rental of a 16mm print. We also had a greater purpose in mind. The idea of making a political statement in school with a counterculture comedy, however benign and 10 years after the fact, was ridiculously appealing. So how to pull this off?

Hang with me a moment for a brief lesson in English Lit. and human psychology.

An audacious bunch, the ring leaders of our little scheme claimed that watching I Love You Alice B. Toklas would be a worthwhile educational experience because Gertrude Stein was a famous writer and member of the 1920s Lost Generation that included Ernest Hemingway and whose members hung out in Parisian cafes, boozing it up while composing great poetry and fiction (this part of the story was true). We had been reading Hemingway that year and a bit of Stein. Convincing our teacher that this had anything to do with a Peter Sellers dope comedy took a bit more ingenuity.

The connective thread to all this bullshit was the fact that a woman named Alice B. Toklas was Stein's lover and muse during those heady years in Paris. Toklas had also achieved notoriety for baking fudge infused with hashish (Google the name and you might come up with her 1954 recipe). Since we also knew that our English teacher was a lesbian (when you notice her at a Bavarian restaurant kissing another woman, it’s a fair bet), the twisted logic of our scheme seemed foolproof: persuade an instructor to rent a countercultural movie extolling the joys of hashish and pot, and screen it in the middle of a school day, by implying to her that the picture had something to do with one of the great literary love affairs of the early 20th century, involving two women.

I provided the clincher, telling teacher that only six years earlier Peter Sellers had co-starred in an adaptation of Nabokov’s most famous novel (also a true statement). Dropping Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita into the conversation was like catnip to this bookworm. So she booked the film, sight unseen, knowing next to nothing about it. We were lucky; reference books like Leonard Maltin’s annual guide to film were scarce and the Internet did not exist.

A month later we watched the picture one afternoon before the school buses arrived to carry us home. Afterward, we all pretty much agreed that the late 1960s were a strange and not terribly funny period for movies.

And so, as often happens in this life, our efforts far and away exceeded our reward. Funny thing is, teacher wasn't amused, either. She went from gullible to galled in 94 minutes.

That’s my shaggy dog story concerning I Love You Alice B. Toklas. A couple years later I caught Dr. Strangelove at the local revival house and decided that Sellers was a hipster genius after all.

The Contrarian View
I Love You Alice B. Toklas
is a must for fans of Peter Sellers. His bemused, put-upon characters are always a hoot, and this picture is worth one spin if only to see Sellers flirting with Leigh Taylor-Young. She’s hot in that spacey-blond “girls just wanna have fun, so c'mon and throw it to me, daddy-o” kinda way. That butterfly tattoo on her upper thigh is also attractive.

Unless you’re a Peter Sellers fan the picture is merely a passable diversion, a relic of a bygone era, and nothing more. If the film wasn’t so dated, it could play today on network television as a tame Movie of the Week. Can’t say whether mainstream America would toke up before watching.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Cinema Uprising values comments and feedback from readers. Although we cannot reply to every message, we do read comments and take your thoughts into consideration as we continuously produce fresh content.