Friday, October 01, 2021

Tuesday Weld & Company Soar in Axelrod’s Singular Lord Love a Duck

         Offering a memorable blend of comedy and drama, producer-director-co-writer George Axelrod’s one-of-a-kind Lord Love a Duck offers a unique, free-spirited portrait of Swingin’ Sixties youth caught at the crossroads between Beach Party movies and the hippie counterculture movement, with topical issues such as the Generation Gap, social status, suicide, and murder thrown into a daring anything-goes storyline. Axelrod somehow manages to maintain a sense of coherency as the tone of the film veers abruptly from farcical to tragic, then back again as the plight of beautiful self-absorbed teen-ager Barbara Ann Green unfolds during her senior year at the newly-established Consolidated High, keeping viewers enthralled as they wonder what surprise element will pop up at any given time during each scene. Following on the heels of The Loved One, the previous year’s equally-oddball comedy classic, Lord Love features a group of gifted players to rival the distinct group found in the earlier slightly-bonkers endeavor, and they aid Axelrod immensely in granting the film an off-kilter sensibility and flair that make it hard to put the film out of mind, even years after viewing.

         Axelrod wisely signals the haphazardness to come during the film’s chaotic opening, which finds the film’s protagonist, Alan Musgrave (a.k.a. Mollymauk) quacking his way through high school on graduation day as an unruly mob follows him, followed by a credit sequence mixing choppy, cinema verite-style editing of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage along with moments from the film, as The Wild Ones perform the catchy title song. After this frenetic start, Axelrod and co-screenwriter Larry H. Johnson (adapting the 1961 novel by Al Hines) introduce the film’s central figure in a calmer setting, as Alan recounts the plight of beautiful self-absorbed teen-ager Barbara Ann Greene (Tuesday Weld), first seen at night roaming around the grounds of the soon-to-open Consolidated High, wherein she meets the mysterious, elfin Mollymauk (Roddy McDowell), who appears seemingly out-of-nowhere as a guardian angel, who exists only to grant Barbara Ann’s every wish, resulting in an eventful, turbulent and rewarding senior year for Barbara Ann, often at the cost of those she encounters. One of the chief merits of the film is the manner in which Axelrod and Johnson dexterously provide a plentitude of mad-cap, satirical moments (along with a startling third-act shift into heavy drama) without throwing the storyline completely off-course as the characters move from one far-out premise to the next. Axelrod is trying something far afield from his previous stage and screen hits (such as The Seven Year-Itch and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter) and he deserves plaudits for taking inventive risks that don’t always hit the mark, as opposed to producing a safe and less enduring comedy/drama.

       The gifted and inspired cast appears in total sync with the eccentric nature of the piece. As Barbara Ann, Tuesday Weld adeptly handles the formidable task of making the selfish, demanding teen wholly believable, vibrant and sympathetic with apparent ease (early on Barbara Ann informs Alan “Everybody has got to love me,” and Weld pulls the line off without seeming ridiculous or off-putting). Weld showed an impressive knack for comedy early in her career with attention-getting roles as Comfort Goodpasture, the boy-crazy, mature-beyond-her-years teen in Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (with Weld bringing such fresh spontaneity to the role she escapes caricature) and, especially, on television as Thalia Menninger in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, with the petulant, fickle Thalia serving as a warm-up for and distant cousin to Barbara Ann. Additionally, Weld possessed a dramatic range equal to any of her contemporaries, lending remarkable intensity to an impressive array of top performances. It’s stunning to watch Weld combine these two talents in Duck, instinctively knowing the exact stylistic approach to adopt for each scene to create a complex, vivid characterization; Weld adds clarity to Barbara’s motivations even when she’s acting in irrational fashion, and the skill and conviction she displays in switching from high comedy to deeply emotional playing is unforgettable to watch.

        Weld may be more famous today for could-have-been career-establishing roles in films she turned down (Lolita, Bonnie and Clyde, True Grit and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) than her eclectic screen output. However, while simultaneously adhering to the role of a true Hollywood nonconformist, Weld nevertheless managed to put her original stamp on a variety of notable parts, such as her touching and funny work as part of Soldier in the Rain’s unlikely but compelling May-December romance with Jackie Gleason, wherein their carnival outing provides the screen with one of its most appealingly oddball and lovely dates (after mentioning past indiscretions, Weld’s Bobbi Jo telling Gleason’s character she’s no prize and him benevolently responding “Who is, Ms. Pepperdine, who is?” before Bobbi Jo comments on the sad, transitory nature of a fading firework is a beautiful moment) and her warm, melancholic heroine of The Cincinnati Kid, ideally paired with, and bringing out the romantic best in, Steve McQueen. Weld’s signature role came via her sly, perverse work as Sue Ann Stepanek, a Lolita with a dark noir twist, in 1968’s cult classic Pretty Poison (which Weld went on record as detesting the making of, even though she brings her typical excellence and flair to the role). Although seldom seen in high-profile hits, Weld’s talent assured her continued opportunities to shine during the 1970’s and beyond, finally breaking out of her cult status to gain mainstream success via an Oscar nomination for her tranquil, disillusioned sister in the bleak Looking for Mr. Goodbar then, after years of playing mainly downbeat roles (Play it As it Lays, Who’ll Stop the Rain, etc.), offering an alarming, lively turn in 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America, thereafter largely stepping away from the camera, but coming back for a much-needed amusing bit as Robert Duvall’s nagging wife in 1993’s otherwise-intense Falling Down.

As Mollymauk, Roddy McDowall gains one of his meatiest roles, and generates great natural chemistry with Weld, which helps to make Barbara Ann and Alan’s often off-the-wall interactions ring true. McDowall experienced phenomenal success in the 1940’s as one of the chief child stars of the era (How Green Was My Valley, My Friend Flicka) then, with the event of adulthood, largely left movies during the 1950’s to hone his craft elsewhere, resulting in a Tony Award on Broadway for 1960’s The Fighting Cock and a successful return to films thereafter, normally in character parts. Although, at about 37 during the filming of Duck, McDowall ranks as possibly the most mature high school senior this side of Stockard Channing in Grease, the improbable nature of being 20 years older than the typical 12th grader works in McDowall’s favor, as the somewhat otherworldly Mollymauk doesn’t seem entirely human anyway, being a protagonist who appears smarter than anyone else in wise-beyond-his-years fashion, with an uncanny knack for knowing exactly how to interact with and gain the upper hand on every person he meets. Mollymauk’s also involved in several shady proceedings as he works to gain Barbara Ann success in every endeavor, and it’s a difficult role to carry off without becoming abrasive, thereby turning the audience against you; however, McDowall’s spirited, confident style of playing (he’s great with his quackery, for instance), mixed with quieter, gentle moments with Weld, allows the audience to understand the deep devotion driving Alan to adopt extreme behavior throughout the majority of the film, to accord Barbara Ann the chance to continually move ahead in life. 

As Marie, Barbara Ann’s good-humored cocktail waitress mother, the ideally-cast Lola Albright brings a great deal of warmth and sensuality to the film’s most likable, direct and ultimately moving character. Albright matches up perfectly with Weld as far as physicality goes, and they also create a sometimes playful mother-daughter bond rarely seen onscreen; Marie and Barbara Ann come across as friends more than the mother-daughter dynamic typically found in films, making the relationship’s abrupt 180 turn into high drama devastating (Albright and Weld are both brilliant in this emotionally-powerful sequence). Although her screen time is limited, Albright makes such a strong impression with her deeply felt performance she won the Silver Bear Award for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival- I’ve read the panel wanted to jointly award the prize to both Albright and Weld, which would have made sense, but rules forbade giving out the award to two recipients.

Albright had made an early-career impact in Champion with Kirk Douglas and had a nice moment with Frank Sinatra in 1955’s The Tender Trap before her biggest fame on television a few years later as Peter Gunn’s singing sweetheart, Edie Hart, then gained her best chance onscreen in 1961 in an early independent film, A Cold Wind in August, wherein Albright lends great intelligence and depth to her skillful, persuasive work an aging stripper who becomes involved with a much younger man. Although post-Duck Albright’s film opportunities waned, with her last feature film work coming in 1968 (although she would continue to find work on television into the 1980’s), her indelible, emotionally-driven and sensual work in her best roles mark her, in a manner similar to Weld, as one of the most underappreciated but compelling actresses of her generation.

The rest of the top-flight cast manages to use their unique performance styles to fit into the film’s peculiar groove with aplomb. As Stella, the disapproving, overbearing mother of Barbara Ann’s high-society boyfriend/fiancée, Ruth Gordon blends her typical zaniness with a more hard-boiled nature, using the later trait to memorable effect in a strong confrontation scene with Albright and Weld. Martin West invests his role as Bob, Stella’s (in her words) “total idiot” of a son, with the right mixture of sincerity and buffoonery, and offers especially energetic playing once Bob is made the target of a series of Mollymauk’s nefarious schemes. Harvey Korman manages to come across as both frenetic and rigid playing the idealistic but out-of-his-element (once Alan and Barbara Ann take charge) new principal at Consolidated High, employing a low vocal range and a flamboyant sensibility to his work to push the character into the realm of the ridiculous, but in diverting fashion.

Stage veteran Martin Gabel also shows up to use his commanding voice to good comic effect as “Harry” Belmont, the inept producer of a string of bikini-themed pictures intent on making Barbara Ann a star once they meet at sea, while his current starlet girlfriend, Jo (a entertainingly deadpan Jo Collins), lounges on the shipboard sidelines wryly tossing variations of “Harry, you’re such a drag” out, even when he appears to be drowning. Finally, as Howard, Barbara Ann’s guilt-ridden father who left the family years before, Max Showalter (also known as Casey Adams) uses his goofy demeanor and googly eyes to disturbing effect in the film’s most daring and erotically-charged sequence, wherein Barbara Ann appears to seduce her dad into buying her a slew of cashmere sweaters, in order for her to join an elite girls’ club. As, in a progressively enraptured, sexual state, Barbara Ann tries on each color and intones the names (“Pink Put-on,” “Periwinkle Pussycat”) in tempestuous style to her transfixed daddy, resulting in the eye-rolling Howard growlingly reacting to each new shade with orgasmic glee, behavior which Barbara Ann then matches, a viewer wonders just how far afield of the still-kicking-but-soon-to-perish (especially with moments like this on offer) Production Code the scene will stray. Technically no intimacy occurs, but the suggestive nature of this sequence, which has been preceded by a scene of Barbara Ann and Howard gorging down a meal in a similarly lascivious manner, makes the mind reel, as Axelrod and company surely and impishly intended.

Lord Love a Duck faced mixed reviews (Variety’s headline deemed the film “Hilarious entry for current way-out cycle,” while Time labeled the movie “a murky black comedy about a teen-age dropout whose every wish comes true.”) and indifferent box-office from the public, unsure what to make of the movie’s bizarre potpourri of comedic and dramatic elements, who initially passed on viewing Axelrod’s unconventional and risky look at the burgeoning youth culture. However, Duck offers too many indelible moments and quality performances to be ignored, eventually developing a richly-warranted cult following over the years via such venues as late-night television showings, which proved to be a perfect showplace to be introduced to the unorthodox charms of the movie, as proved to be the case with one mesmerized teen close to the age of those depicted in the film, who thereafter could never shake off the jocular and haunting experience, and found himself decades later writing about the many merits of a truly original screen venture.