Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Harry and Tonto represents what was good about the new freedom of the screen in the early 1970s - Paul Mazursky's easygoing look at America through the eyes of an elderly wanderer and his feline companion is the kind of movie that could only come about when writer-directors with good instincts are let loose to do what they want. Paul Mazursky had a rough but ambitious start
(Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) and developed a
gentle way of presenting interesting characters without overloading the mix with messages, irony or pretension.
The film was a surprise hit, and earned former funny man Art Carney a Best Actor Oscar.
Retired teacher Harry Coombes (Art Carney) is evicted from his New York tenement so it can be razed for a parking lot. After wearing out his welcome with the relatives in Jersey he decides to start traveling, taking his pet cat Tonto with him. Tonto isn't compatible with planes and buses, so Harry buys a cheap car and meets some hitchhikers, including a charming teen runaway, Ginger (Melanie Mayron). They stop off to see an old flame of Harry's, now senile in a nursing home (Geraldine Fitzgerald). In Chicago he visits his daughter Shirley (Ellen Burstyn) and picks up a grandson, Norman (Josh Mostel). Dropping them off in Arizona, he continues alone, meeting an eccentric health food salesman (Arthur Hunnicutt), a Las Vegas hooker (Barbara Rhoades) and a friendly Native American medicine man (Chief Dan George). Harry and Tonto finally make it to LA and his other son Eddie (Larry Hagman), having run out of country to cross and people to see.
Harry and Tonto starts on shaky ground, looking like a visualization of Simon & Garfunkle's Old Friends, or a feature version of that Film School standby, shots of old folks feeding pigeons in the park. Pleasingly, writer-director Mazursky isn't after a tearjerker about abandoned dotards; this Harry Coombes is just a guy whose immediate lifestyle is coming to a close. He loses his apartment not long after he loses his friend Jacob (Herbert Berghoff, the Nazi mastermind of Red Planet Mars), an amusing fellow with a radical theory blaming Capitalists for everything. Acutely aware that he's too independent to move in with one of the willing divorcées in the neighborhood, he checks in at his son Burt's for a few weeks, until he feels he's worn out his welcome there as well.
Harry has a splendid attitude. He's not sure what he wants to do but he still has his health and curiosity (and a lot of stamina for an elderly man). Since he's not infirm in any serious way -- does bursitis count? -- it's easy to see Harry and Tonto as a bit of a cheat from reality. The majority of elderly people have health problems or financial restrictions that slow them to a crawl or keep them isolated. However, I should think that senior citizens need heroes too. One doesn't have to be old to side with Harry and his simple concerns ... he's well equipped to learn the story's only lesson: The ending of one kind of life can be the beginning of another.
Harry and Tonto skilfully avoids many of the pitfalls of this kind of movie. It's sensitive to its characters but doesn't ask us to get maudlin about them. Geraldine Fitzgerald (The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry,
Dark Victory) is the same bohemian dancer that Harry knew fifty years before, but she can't keep her memory straight from one sentence to the next. She remembers Harry's wife Alice but also keeps calling him Max. Harry's touched to see her again, but knows there's no hope of a relationship there. Tonto is an impractical traveling companion yet Harry's loyalty is complete. Mazursky never uses the cat for cheap emotional effects, and Harry knows it's just another companion in life that one will someday have to say "So long" to. Harry's three kids love him but need (or don't need) him in different ways. Burt in New Jersey (Philip Bruns) wants to hang on, and the immature Eddie (a pre-Dallas Larry Hagman) out in the swingin' singles lifestyle in North Hollywood is desperate for Harry's financial help. Harry is independent enough to know that his own offspring have to make it on their own, just like he does.
Josh Mostel and Melanie Mayron (her first film, now a director) make a cute couple of youngsters to join Harry's odyssey across the midwest. The great character actors Arthur Hunnicutt (The Big Sky, El Dorado) and Chief Dan George (Little Big Man) show Harry's newfound ability to be friendly with practically everyone he meets, an idea amusingly proven by his encounter with Stephanie, a flashy prostitute with a welcome sign for the odd hitchhiking male. Mazursky has a couple of moments of nudity in the film but treats his characters with total respect; the only evidence we have of Harry's wild time on the road is the new bounce in his step when he heads for the bar upon reaching Las Vegas.
The one character we don't get enough of is Ellen Burstyn's Jessie, Harry's daughter in Chicago. just when it looks as if she's about to plan Harry's life for him, the story moves along. Everyone else is almost perfectly judged. Harry's travels are perhaps a bit idealized as he never gets lonely (the cat helps there) and there is always some good scenery to enjoy. "I've never been East of Chicago" says Harry, eager to see what there is to see.
I don't know if the film is accurate in its portrayals of the landscape back East, but Mazursky's views of Los Angeles circa 1974 are a pleasant time machine. Larry Hagman picks Harry up on Hollywood Blvd. across the street from the old
Pickwick bookstore (that's funny, because the old bus station, the one in Kubrick's The Killing, was way over on Vine street). We drive out Cahuenga on the way to the valley on streets Savant still uses every few days. Then we end up at the Santa Monica promenade and the sidewalk at Venice Beach, both old stomping grounds for UCLA students.
Harry and Tonto is a relaxing comedy-drama that takes an amused look at the way people lived in 1974. Art Carney is endearing in a way audiences didn't expect from the clownish Ed Norton of the old Honeymooners TV show. Few if any issues of the day are addressed, while everyone from New York retirees to reservation Indians seems to follow the Ironside television show faithfully. The film has a lot in common with Italian Neorealism - but without the political commentary.
Fox's DVD of Harry and Tonto is presented in a flawless enhanced transfer that flatters Michael Butler's unfussy cinematography. Paul Mazursky's commentary is a welcome extra. As one would expect, the director regales us with details about his many colorful collaborators as well as offering the story of how the picture came to be. The original trailer (and a teaser and three TV spots) use the movie's title graphic with the cute cat drawing, and stress the show as the new offering from the maker of Blume in Love.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Harry and Tonto rates:
Supplements: Trailer, teaser, 3 TV spots, audio commentary by Paul Mazursky
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 17, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson