Sooooooo...we're good with bigamy and illegitimacy then, right? 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker, the 1959 "comedy" from Fox, based on the Liam O'Brien Broadway play, and starring Clifton Webb, Dorothy McGuire, Charles Coburn, Jill St. John, Ron Ely, Ray Stricklyn, David Nelson, Dorothy Stickney, Larry Gates, and Richard Deacon. A bit of a head-scratcher when it comes to how this one passed the censors of the day, it's a toss-up as to what's most objectionable about this would-be comedy: its completely bogus central theme; its lethargic, sometimes even incomprehensible construction; its poor performances; or its paucity of laughs. Hmmm...let's go with all four. It may not be anamorphic, but at least Fox letterboxed this for an okay (and extras-less) transfer.
The 1890s, Victorian America. Mr. Horace Pennypacker (Clifton Webb), progressive free thinker, iconoclast, suffragette-supporter, Darwinist, and the vice-president and manager of Pennypacker Prime Products (they're meatpackers...please, insert your own joke here), oversees two sausage-making plants in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In Harrisburg, his wife, Emily (Dorothy McGuire), oversees his large brood of eight children, including his eldest, pretty Kate (Jill St. John), and young son Henry (David Nelson). Horace's spinster sister, Aunt Jane (Dorothy Stickney), helps out at the house, while crotchety Grampa Pennypacker (Charles Coburn), the president of P.P.P., considers himself the true head of the household. Kate, enamored with strapping preacher-to-be Wilbur Fielding (Ron Ely), accepts Wilbur's offer of marriage when news comes of his first parish assignment. However, "Ma" Pennypacker knows that Horace, free thinker that he is, still has to be at least notified of Kate's unorthodox plan for a fast engagement and marriage, and that means Emily has to do something she's never done before: contact the strictly-regimented Horace in Philadelphia, where he stays every other month at his sausage plant. Receiving Emily's telegram, Horace decides to break his own rigid regimen and return home to Harrisburg, not realizing that a local Philly sheriff (Richard Deacon) is on his tail with a summons for a libel trial. What Horace also doesn't realize is that a young man has heard this news, too, and he races to Harrisburg to warn Horace of the sheriff's plan, meeting Horace's wife, Emily, instead. That young man is Horace Pennypacker III (Ray Stricklyn), and he's Horace's son, one of eight more children that Horace has sired...with another woman in Philly.
What was everyone thinking when this was being made? The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker was based on the play of the same name which premiered on Broadway in 1953 (Burgess Meredith and Martha Scott were the leads), where it had a modest-at-best run of a little over 200 performances. I've never seen or read it (I understand it's still a staple of local rep productions?), so I can't say how closely the movie follows it (is it intended as satire? As social commentary?). However, I can say that the movie version is an unconvincing mess, and apparently one that didn't satisfy critics or the public when Fox released it to poor notices and business in 1959.
The movie certainly opens on a promising satirical note, as we're introduced to the wholly ridiculous notion that fey bitch Clifton Webb is really a horndog of Nietzschian proportions, possessing enough Victorian chutzpah to sire the 17 children that pop up along the CinemaScope screen, with Webb proudly telling the viewer, "Well...you wonder why I'm called the 'remarkable' Mr. Pennypacker?" (the original one-sheet poster wisely--and dishonestly--sells the movie on this one "safe" element of Webb's procreation abilities alone...never mentioning on that those kids come from two concurrent wives). Distressingly, though, the movie almost immediately grinds to halt with an extended opening courting scene between Jill St. John and Ron Ely that's positively deadly in its awkward flatness (hack director Henry Levin's notion of widescreen composition is to put everything dead center and pray for something interesting to happen, while John and Ely do "young romantic comedy" the way an elephant dances a minuet).
Indeed, the rest of the movie is similarly fashioned: we get a brief glimpse or scene with Webb, who amuses us slightly with a by-now too-familiar, less-sharp take on his better-known Cheaper By the Dozen characterization, before he disappears for long stretches, supplanted by minutes and minutes of tedium with his boring wife and largely anonymous children (McGuire in particular, is annoyingly brittle and phony-sweet here--she was much better that same year as the proper-but-passionately horny cheating wife in A Summer Place). A few of the lines, either from O'Brien's original or from screenwriter Walter Reisch, are funny (the title of Pennypacker's proposed Philly lecture: Women Seem to be People...Let Them Vote), but the pacing is choppy and all wrong, with woefully extended, unfunny scenes that lead nowhere (Webb's lame encounter with two cows), or are dropped in, without context, to show how "cute" Webb is (his brief rollerskating bit). If The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker was intended as a comedy with a "message," somebody forgot to take care of job one: getting the laughs necessary to fill in behind the sermon.
And what a sermon it is--you wives and mothers out there should find it particularly interesting, I would imagine! Keeping the Production Code timeline in mind, as the movie slowly progressed, I kept waiting for that certain technicality, that story "hook" that I assumed the moviemakers would employ (or were forced to employ) to make it clear that Clifton Webb's character did not commit years-long bigamy, and in the process, sire eight illegitimate children with Dorothy McGuire. The censors couldn't possibly allow that, could they? Wouldn't they have forced Fox to add something to the mix to clear Webb of that moral outrage? After all, probably the single most popular story angle for screwball romantic comedy (which The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker is decidedly not) is the discovery that a marriage ceremony was illegally wrought, thereby (delightfully) allowing and disallowing at the same time the sexual relationship of the two leads. I kept waiting for something like that here, or some other last-minute trick like adoption, or he didn't love the other woman, or even some kind of weird inheritance scheme to explain his other family in Philly. But no: they're all his children, and he lived with and loved both wives at the same time, and he's proud of it (the Philly wife, never seen, is discovered to have died 8 years prior). That technicality, that Webb's bigamy ended eight years ago, thus nullifying any potential legal problems, is the only "hook" I could find that might have mollified the censors...but I can't imagine it was enough of a game-changer for women viewers to take to Webb, especially once they did the math: he's been married to McGuire for 20 years; he married the other woman just one year into the first marriage, living with her, every other month, for 11 years, and fathering 9 children with her. Sound reasonable to you, ladies?
To try and make all this palatable, Webb's iconoclastic character is portrayed as a loveable old hoot whose qualities of positive-thinking, youthful vitality, and authoritative open-mindedness are inherently superior to all those grotesque fuddy-duddies like Grampa and Reverend Dr. Fielding who sputter on about morals while failing to understand why a man can't have two wives. Frenzied rationalizations for Webb's act abound, from David Nelson helpfully researching famous bastards, to all the little kids setting us up to hate the community that may make fun of them in the future...rather than hating their father right now for what he did to them in secret (it's the same as if the writer wanted us to think that the potential symptoms of a disease are far worse than the actual disease itself). Webb brushes away the Reverend Dr.'s genuine concerns with an imperious wave of his hand and a stream of smug counter-assertions that are more flip than pertinent (it's convenient for the scripter to have Webb's character throw up other cultures' acceptance of polygyny as a trump card...when he fails to mention how women are treated in those cultures, or to assert that Darwinism and free will and natural selection trump any kind of social/moral contract...while forgetting to mention that he's deceived his loving wife in the most callous fashion).
When the time finally comes for Webb to fully clarify his bigamist actions to McGuire, a moment the increasingly wary viewer hotly anticipates, the explanation is simply incredulous: he blames her. You see, Webb asserts that McGuire gave him such a happy, fulfilling life in Harrisburg, that when he was forced to live alone in Philly to build up the family business, he could find no other way to occupy his free time than to marry another woman (that's a classic). He states that had he lived like a bachelor, going to the burlesque and saloons, he would have insulted McGuire's prior example, so taking a wife honored her. Ladies, how's that one sound to you? Had this nonsense been played outrageously here, as broad farce with an eye towards satire, it might have been hilariously funny, a ludicrous commentary on the ridiculous lengths that cheating men will go to to rationalize away their treacherous behavior. However, in The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker, this junk is played dead straight by director Levin and Webb, resulting in a surreal, wholly unpalatable conceit that at first discombobulates the viewer waiting for the punch line that never comes...before turning them right off of the character when they see he really means all this, and the movie is backing him up. When the children are brought in as a "jury" for their father's crime, the movie's message turns truly abhorrent, with their verdict of "guilty" coming not because their father devastated their mother emotionally with a sustained, cruel act (cheating's bad enough...but loving and marrying another woman and raising a huge family with her in secret is beyond the pale), but because this philosophical fascist failed to live up to his own selfish, self-centered worldview he taught them: do whatever you want to anybody, as long as you're open about it ("I examined the laws, found them wanting...and invented my own," he insufferably snips). The kids aren't upset for Mom or themselves: they're disappointed that Dad let himself down. Mindboggling.
The ending is the final straw...and I don't care if I'm throwing out spoilers left and right, because this movie is vile. Webb, at the urging of the children, is compelled not to run away to Philly, and McGuire, after slapping his face, allows him to stay at the house...but they won't be sharing a marriage bed. Regardless of how repulsive the Webb character is at this point (or how stupid we think McGuire is for letting him come back), we're set up for some kind of act of resolution, some kind of plan hatched by a repentant Webb to win back the justly wounded McGuire. Well...you can forget that here in The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker. The scene of McGuire locking Webb out of her bedroom is immediately followed by Kate getting married and McGuire inexplicably asking Webb to renew their vows...as if having him repeat them again will suddenly make him follow them (it's not like he honored them the first time, did he). So...why is she doing that? Why has she forgiven him? How did she forgive him? The whole point of the movie pretty much rests on answering those questions. Unfortunately, though, those are critical questions the screenwriter (and perhaps playwright) couldn't or wouldn't find answers for, so...let's just end the movie abruptly on an unearned, completely incongruous happy ending. By this final infuriating fade-out, it's difficult to know what's more contemptible: The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker's central message, or this inept, flatfooted movie itself.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.