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DVD SAVANT

Lord Love a Duck


Lord Love a Duck
MGM Home Entertainment
1966 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 105 min. / Street Date December 2, 2003 / 14.95
Starring Roddy McDowall, Tuesday Weld, Lola Albright, Martin West, Ruth Gordon, Harvey Korman, Max Showalter
Cinematography Daniel L. Fapp
Art Direction Malcolm Brown
Film Editor William A. Lyon
Original Music Neal Hefti, Ernie Sheldon
Written by George Axelrod, Larry H. Johnson from a novel by Al Hine
Produced and Directed by George Axelrod

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Difficult to describe and far too sly for most audiences of 1966, Lord Love a Duck is black comedy at its very best. Unlike The Loved One with its gothic-baroque focus on one issue, Duck tackles a couple of dozen topical targets head-on and with admirable accuracy. The main thrust is directed at the 60s Plastic Society, with an emphasis on the distorted California female warped by money and sex. Axelrod's How to Murder Your Wife showed a mean spirit beneath its whimsy, but he really has it in for his women here: Tuesday Weld, Lola Albright and Ruth Gordon embody the three ages of monstrous femininity. The tender trap of sex had been an Axelrod concern (or hang-up) from way back in his The Seven-Year Itch days, and this bizarre concoction isn't any simple work-off-the-divorce therapy film.

Despite its occasional crudity Duck is hilarious, one of the most sophisticated satires ever made. There are a few momentary stumbles but there's been nothing like it before or since.

Synopsis:

From his prison cell, murderer Alan Musgrave (Roddy McDowall) dictates his experiences of the previous year, which he dedicated to fulfilling the unending wishes and ambitions of high school senior Barbara Ann Greene (Tuesday Weld). The daughter of Marie, a cocktail waitress sinking unhappily into her forties (Lola Albright), Barbara wants every kind of success and for everyone to love her. Signing a pact with Alan's alter-ego Mollymauk ("a bird thought to be extinct") Barbara soon has the 12 cashmere sweaters needed to join an exclusive girl's club. She drops out of school to become the principal's new assistant and gets involved in church activities run by straight-laced but hyper-hormonal Bob Bernard (Martin West). Barbara decides she wants Bob for her husband, which Alan reluctantly helps make possible by keeping Bob's eccentric mother Stella (Ruth Gordon) perpetually plastered. Then Barbara meets schlock producer T. Harrison Belmont, the King of Beach Party movies, and decides to become the biggest star that ever was.

How to analyze a purposely unanalyzable movie?

Truly unconventional and loaded with quasi-Taboos and other dangerous content, Lord Love a Duck is as subversively sardonic as its title.  1

George Axelrod appears in a featurette attached to the DVD, a free-flowing confession of the purported aims behind this anarchic comedy. Axelrod's avowed goal is to hit all of his comedy targets at once, without flinching. His overall rationale remains mysterious but the film's satirical accuracy is amazing. Most formal criticism of the movie takes it as some kind of sardonic personal confession from a Hollywood writer overflowing with sexual angst and manic rage.

Some critics dubbed him a dirty old man trying to be hip, but Axelrod has a vision behind all those bikini rumps frugging in close-up. It's easy to see that the Beach Party scenes are intentionally crude and offensive, but many of his details transcend ordinary exploitation. The pompous film producer has a paramour named Kitten who lounges provocatively in her bikini, repeating one line of dialogue like a mantra: "Oh Harry, you're such a drag!" Once is funny, twice is amusing, and by the fourth time the only word that can describe the effect is surreal.

Duck's hero is high school senior Alan Musgrave, played by Roddy McDowall at age 36. He is a strange combination of innocent and devil, and may possess magic powers. The bird-god Mollymauk is his symbol (he drives a T-Bird), and his pact with Barbara Ann is written in concrete. This mythological sprite doesn't do anything more fantastic than defeat a musclebound thug with karate or showing up in odd places. He seems to exist only to please the Golden California Girl Barbara Ann, and that's a full-time job. When she needs a closet full of cashmere to join a Heathers -like high school clique, Alan shows her how to extract money from her estranged father with New Math: F (Father) +D (divorce) x G (Guilt) Squared = 13 cashmere sweaters.

Barbara Ann was named after her mother's two favorite actresses Stanwyck and Sheridan, and her modest ambition is to attain everything attainable, and then some. In a culture based 100% on the power of sex, all Barbara Ann must do is to find the right pliable men to open doors for her. This she can accomplish even with a sordid family background - her mother Marie is a philandering cocktail waitress who wears a kitty tail on her work costume.

Axelrod's California is a madhouse that worships Consumerism fueled by perverse sexual energy. We first visit Lover's Lane, and then see how Consolidated High is run by an impotent fool (Harvey Korman) who lusts after Barbara. She mock-seduces him by accusing the innocent Botany teacher of harassing her with obscene talk of plant reproduction - you know, Stamens and Pistils. In this warped school system Botany has been renamed Plant Skills for Life, and Barbara Ann's major is Adolescent Ethics and Commercial Relationships.

There's plenty of coverage here of drive-In churches and used car salesmen, but the subject keeps coming back to sex. A psychologist interviewing Alan becomes frustrated with his mundane interpretation of Rorschach inkblots: "Alan, don't you realize that these things are supposed to be dirty?" Not all of the sex content is verbal. When it goes out of control, Bob's convertible seems to be in some kind of sexual death dance, hopping up and down like a ton of masturbating metal.

A big section of the film is devoted to the desire of middle aged men to jump into the pants of nubile Lolitas like Barbara Ann. The picture keeps cutting back to shimmying bikini butts as if it were a natural Axelrod reflex. The non-choreography and voyeuristic camera angles are purposely asinine, using Beach Party movies as evidence of the Decline of Western Civilization.  2 This energy is what makes the world go round - even when the aim is to suppress sex, as with Barbara Ann's eventual husband, puritanical born-again cultist Bob Bernard. A roomful of precocious teenage bombshells are hepped-up by the pastor's intended cool-down speech about heavy petting. His hilarious explanation of the sex drive uses talk lifted straight from 'educational' films.

The weirdest sex scene on record anywhere has Barbara shopping for sweaters with her wildly incestuous dad, played by Max Showalter. His uncontrollable laughter sounds almost exactly like Warner cartoon voice artist Mel Blanc. Weld goes totally orgasmic in dizzy Dutch angles while Max distorts his face like the sex-mad playboys of Metropolis. The scene has to be seen to be believed, especially Max's laughing and Weld's squealing. Weld recites the names of the various cashmere colors: Grape Yum Yum! Pink Put-On! Papaya Surprise! Periwinkle Pussycat!

Alan tries to reason with Barbara Ann about sex, teasing her with Bob's lame love talk: "I can hear your heart beating, Barbara Ann: Lub a dub, Lub a dub, Lub a dub." He tells her that the boys she knows are like zombified Ken dolls but she wants them anyway. She keeps repeating, "I don't do bad things with boys ..." Alan's sexual neutrality is betrayed by his obsession with Barbara Ann and his schemes to forestall her honeymoon consummation with her new husband. Eventually, sex is sublimated into murder, which is just as obsessive and almost as much fun.

The acting triumvirate of Weld, Albright and Gordon bring intelligence to the film's misogyny. It's the first casting of Ruth Gordon as a bizarre nutcase ... her Stella is Momism gone mad, used later in Rosemary's Baby and Where's Poppa? She's a California psychology freak - her husband died because of an understandable death wish. To further his various schemes, Mollymauk introduces Stella to the joys of alcoholism. Gordon affects a great Mae West walk for her entrances and exits.

It's a black comedy, but Barbara Ann's pain is real - she's rejected as a slut by her prospective Mother-in-law, and loses her own mother. The underused and underrated Tuesday Weld (easily the best thing in Once Upon a Time in America) is phenomenal, taking her sexy kitten persona to the limit.

Lola Albright is also a favorite intelligent, under-appreciated actress. She's terrific in a similar role in UA's modest A Cold Wind in August. In both that drama and this comedy she self-destructs through self-loathing. She mentions a 'silent scream' cosmetic exercise, and a couple of minutes later is herself screaming in psychological pain.

One early image of Lola features her hideously distorted in a convex makeup mirror, as if mocking the onset of middle age and the loss of beauty. In a scene that would be a credit to any straight drama, Marie despairs of finding noone who will listen to her and dictates her suicide note to the telephone 'time' recording.

Between Weld, Lola and Ruth we get the three ages of insane, vain womanhood. There's a tragedy somewhere in Lord Love a Duck, which is why it works.

This is surely Roddy McDowall's best film as an adult - he's a real mystery, a combination Puck and Screwy Squirrel with a little mass murderer thrown in. In the Psycho -like coda in his jail cell, Alan thoughtfully invents a simple reason for his crimes, so we brainwashed consumers will have something we can understand.

The picture has some really memorable, quotable moments. The schlock movie producer plans a million dollar film while standing in line to collect his unemployment check. Barbara Ann's basic understanding of the Bible is that "Thou shalt not." She grabs and claws at her stardom like a needy Marilyn Monroe: "Everyone has got to love me, everybody!"

Marie boozily defends her married companion to Barbara Ann: "You know I never go out with a married man on the first date."

Stella's idea of a good marriage is: "In our family, we don't divorce our men, we bury 'em." She describes her son as, "A product of the California School system - he couldn't write an English sentence if his life depended on it."

School principal Harvey Korman wants his kids to excel so as to become future statesmen and movie stars. Barbara Ann seduces Korman without even batting an eye, caressing her cashmere while flaunting herself across his desk. She suggestively handles his public address microphone and even blows into it!

Director Axelrod uses an anything-goes approach to cutting which looks very progressive now - the movie has a style of controlled chaos. Some sets are elaborate and others phony or minimalist, like the truly fake beach setting. The flashback structure helps make the weirdly artificial ending work. Consolidated High's Valedectorian Alan Musgrave becomes a mass killer to the tune of the title song sung by 'The Wild Ones.'

The opening motto:

A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing:
Go to School
Get Knowledge
Live Dangerously.

Alan Musgrave's strange coda: "Ooh, you poor bunny."


MGM's DVD of Lord Love a Duck is a good 16:9 enhanced transfer. It replaces the old full-frame VHS that revealed lights and cables on the fake 'marbled halls' high-school corridor set. Even properly presented, this comedy has a really grim look. Daniel Fapp's lighting has a drab grayness, leaving the film's manic energy, great performances and irreverent script to keep it afloat.

The short vintage featurette Inside the Mind of George Axlerod is six minutes of free-flowing self-examination by the writer-director that's one part publicity hype to three parts comedy monologue. One can't help but imagine that both the short and the movie were made by a Broadway playwright who dropped acid.

The menu music is a few bars of random surf guitar that I don't think is in the movie - Neal Hefti's primitive rock theme doesn't resemble it at all. The cover illustration combines three of the leads against a borrowed image of a palm tree. It doesn't say much about the movie - but I don't know a single image that could.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Lord Love a Duck rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Inside the Mind of George Axlerod, featurette from 1966
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 4, 2003


Footnotes:

1. The title Lord Love a Duck is a riff on an obscene alliterative phrase (use your imagination). It's similar to the English film I'm All Right Jack's twist on the 'colorful' English expression, 'Fxxx you Jack, I'm all Right.'
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2. Belmont's awful Beach movies have monnikers like The Thing that Ate Bikini Beach, Cold War Bikini and Bikini Countdown. Barbara Ann's eventual debut vehicle is given the (appropriate) title Bikini Widow.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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