Slap-dash slip-shod Tish Tash. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Bachelor Flat, the 1962 sex comedy from Fox, directed by Frank Tashlin, and starring Tuesday Weld, Richard Beymer, Terry-Thomas, Celeste Holm, Howard McNear, Francesca Bellini, and Jessica the Dachshund. A loose reworking of Tashlin's previous Susan Slept Here, Bachelor Flat's hodgepodge of sometimes hilarious, sometimes flat visual gags in the service of a thin, fragmented narrative, is about par for the course for a worrying number of his comedies...only this time he doesn't have the genius of Jerry Lewis for distraction (not that Terry-Thomas wasn't brilliant at what he did, too...). DVD collectors already know about Fox's problems with aspect ratios and their Cinema Archives line, so Bachelor Flat's crisp-yet-flat letterboxed widescreen transfer will satisfy...at the barest minimum. An original trailer is included.
Southern California University associate professor in archeology Bruce Patterson (Terry-Thomas) has a slight problem: his gentlemanly British manner and clipped, accented speech drive the average American college girl/neighbor/any nearby female absolutely crazy with lust. He, however, wants no part of this bounty of more-than-available feminine pulchritude. He's happily engaged to fashion maven Helen Bushmill (Celeste Holm), a world-traveler away in Paris on business, while Bruce rents her Santa Monica beachside house. This "bachelor flat" comes with its own lazy handyman: Mike Polaski (Richard Beymer), a law student who lives in a trailer--shared with his dachshund, Jessica--parked in the house's driveway. Despite the constant interruptions of all those palpitating girls, all Bruce wants is to study his bone (sorry--it's the Tashlin influence)...a giant fossilized bone, that is, that he found during a recent dig. And all Jessica wants to do is bury it--which won't help Bruce win a dig grant away from rival, Dr. Bowman (Howard McNear). So when 17-year-old Libby Bushmill (Tuesday Weld) shows up at her family home to see her mother, Helen, the unsuspecting Bruce thinks she's another groupie, and tries to evict her. However, Libby decides to stay on, adopting the guise of a tough little chippie hoodlum who'll cry "rape" if Bruce kicks her out. And so begins a seemingly endless series of misunderstandings and slamming bedroom doors as Mike falls for Libby, and Libby pushes away Mike, and Bruce falls down for everyone, including absolutely stacked creampuff Gladys (Francesca Bellini), who's dating Mike to get to Bruce.
Bachelor Flat is one of those movies where, already knowing and liking all the players, and silently agreeing beforehand to enjoy the premise, you put a pre-emptive smile on your face before the credits roll...only to feel it stiffen and grow weary from force, as you give in to the sure, sinking knowledge that the movie you're watching isn't anywhere near as good as the movie you had hoped for in your head. I hadn't seen Bachelor Flat since I was a kid, and nobody wanted to like it again more than me, particularly since I would be seeing it for the first time in its correct frame ratio (essential to appreciate Tashlin's splayed-out gags). However, I was also well aware, after having written about so many of his other comedies, that if Tashlin had one "fatal flaw," it was a consistent reliance on gags and set-pieces at the expense of a unified aesthetic. Sometimes the degree of fragmentation was slight (flat-out remarkable efforts like Artists and Models and The Geisha Boy), sometimes noticeable but workable (admirable efforts like It'$ Only Money and Who's Minding the Store?)...but more often it was debilitating (Cinderfella, The Disorderly Orderly, The Glass-Bottom Boat, Caprice, The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell). Bachelor Flat clearly falls in the latter category: a sketchy premise to begin with that quickly dissolves into a patchy series of hit-and-miss scenes.
Farce, particularly the bedroom variety, never needed story logic as a prerequisite to generating laughs. However, Bachelor Flat's clunky exposition is particularly troublesome because the resulting laughs that may have papered over the skips and the jumps in the story, are so few and far between. Almost none of Bachelor Flat makes much sense, story-wise. We can't reason out why, exactly, Weld wants to stay at the "bachelor flat" after secretly determining Terry-Thomas is dating her mother, nor do we fathom why her adopting a juvenile delinquent demeanor would convince T-T to keep her around. We don't buy that young hound Beymer would be tight friends with older prude T-T. We can't figure out why T-T is so crazed to hide Bellini from Beymer in the first place, when she shows up at his flat. We don't understand Beymer's and Weld's awkward courtship. We never comprehend why Holm's character is even included in this farce in the first place. And certainly most critically, we never believe Bachelor Flat's central comedic set-up: that American women are going crazy over Britisher T-T. If you're going to have all these women throw themselves at T-T specifically because he's British, you have to make us understand why that's plausible, and yet, we never get even a glimpse of what he's supposedly doing to them, to make them go crazy. When the movie opens, he's already an object of lust, trying to avoid his pursuers. What part of the quaint, already outdated stereotype T-T supposedly embodies here, are those women panting after? We don't know...particularly when Tashlin insists on showing T-T to distinctive disadvantage, allowing him to give a grumpy, distracted performance.
All of which, of course, wouldn't have mattered a whit had Bachelor Flat delivered the goods in a reasonably consistent manner. However, viewer uneasiness settles in right from the very beginning when Tashlin and co-screenwriter Budd Grossman (lots of episodic TV, from Dennis the Menace and Gilligan's Island to Mr. Terrific and Maude) throw together an unfunny, unimaginatively staged pre-credit scene that shows T-T, as a Revolutionary War British soldier, wooing American housewife Weld, before minuteman Beymer shoots him. It does nothing to help solidify or amplify the main comedic premise, and it begins the movie on a clunker note--never a good move. Tashlin's back in form when the credits roll, with some funny sight gags as T-T motors onto campus: a row of unseen women wildly wave their arms behind some shrubs, before Tashlin visually inverts one of his usual erotic jokes: this time it's a girl who orgasmically sprays her boyfriend at a drinking fountain, when crush T-T drives by (no question Jerry watched this movie closely before directing his masterpiece, The Nutty Professor--Tashlin's hilarious shot of all the girls in class primping for T-T's lecture, their gum-chewing noises grotesquely amplified, could have come right from Nutty's cutting room floor).
And that's how the remainder of Bachelor Flat plays out: a solid joke or gag or slapstick sequence is followed by a clunker or a set piece that doesn't work, with the overall tone of the piece--slow, despite the seemingly rapid cutting and sometimes frantic blocking--suffering from these fits and starts (maybe all that drinking on the set that T-T wrote about in his biography contributed to the movie's wobbly tone?). Memorable bits, though, worthy of better Tashlin efforts, do crop up here (I wouldn't expect anything less of Tish Tash). Tashlin orchestrates a pretty competent revolving bedroom door chase that's nicely worked-out, before giving us one of his patented sexual fetish shots: the rather remarkable legs and rear end of Bellini slowly working their way under a bed (Tashlin would rip her clothes off next year in Who's Minding the Store?'s big vacuum cleaner run amok finale). Objectified females and voyeuristic eroticism are always foremost in Tashlin's bag of visual tricks (thank god...), and since he was blessed with the presence of 18-year-old Tuesday Weld as his lead actress here, it only makes sense that he would showcase her startling sensuality at least once: Weld, clad only in a bra, heels, and denim hot pants (I'm feeling faint...), seductively sways to a cha-cha beat as she cooks T-T's breakfast. Is it funny? Not particularly. Is it hot? Undeniably. If you want laughter with your peeping, though, then the sight of T-T holding up two large white porcelain bowl covers to his chest, with the knobs simulating huge nipples, is pretty subversive (and a nice self-reflexive visual twist on Tashlin's usual preoccupation with women's breasts--after all: T-T is the sex object in this outing...). For my money, though, Bachelor Flat's funniest laugh-out-moment comes in a throwaway gag where the statuesque Bellini, lying face down on a wildly vibrating massage table, her large, jiggling breasts barely contained by a towel, improbably and delightfully tries to eat a big piece of chocolate cake, making a delicious mess of it. It's a beautifully sick, hilarious bit of proto-porn slapstick, all the more funny because it's completely arbitrary, and all the more admirable because Tashlin somehow got it past the censors in '62.
Alas, those are the highlights in a comedy that has more than its fair share of misfires and barren spots. Primed to laugh at T-T's first appearance, his labored set-up for "pardon me for giving you the bird" joke is a bust. All the phony misunderstandings T-T has with Beymer are without mirth (Beymer's clueless with a joke), while Beymer's and Weld's rough-and-tumble courtship (at one point he threatens rape, apparently) is distinctly uncomfortable, with Tashlin orchestrating limp set-pieces for them--a strangely suspenseful house chase that leads nowhere, a fishing bit that cuts the main visual--that don't score (you can tell these two had zero chemistry together). The sight gags surrounding Jessica the dachshund dragging that big bone around are one-note and quickly driven into the ground (Jessica didn't get one laugh from me--she can't begin to compare to Hollywood or Bust's regally funny Mr. Bascombe or that genuine superstar, Harry Hare, from Tashlin's brilliant The Geisha Boy). T-T's dream sequence flops (how do you have Weld dress up like Bonnie Parker and not get a laugh?). And once the final reel kicks in, the wheels of the plot continue to grind on long after we stopped following the actual story (who the hell cares about Celeste Holm coming back to the States, and whether or not she hooks up with T-T?)
Most surprising of all, though, are the failures of the leads here (or at least two of the three...). Comedy is not for Beymer--out of kindness, that's all that needs to be said on his account. Weld, first billed here, was one of the most underutilized talents of the 1960s ('68's Pretty Poison should have won her an Oscar), I can't think of another actress that talented who appeared in more failed or simply jinxed projects, and Bachelor Flat is no different. Although she of course proved her comedy chops with The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and the sublime Lord Love a Duck, I didn't buy her tough cookie act here (her forced vocal delivery makes it hard to understand the dialogue), nor her curiously asexual relationships with Beymer and T-T. As for the real star of Bachelor Flat...why in the world did Tashlin pick Terry-Thomas for this particular role (apparently, British funnyman Ian Carmichael was Tash's first choice, but after a look at the script, he turned Bachelor Flat down flat)? Better yet: why didn't he change his script to better suit a performer noted for playing a character almost the complete opposite of his professor Bruce Patterson here? Terry-Thomas was signed for Bachelor Flat, his first leading role in a Hollywood studio picture, because of the steady stream of rave notices he was receiving for international hit British film comedies like The Naked Truth, tom thumb (via M-G-M), Carlton-Browne of the F.O., I'm All Right, Jack, Too Many Crooks, and School for Scoundrels (it's debatable, but Terry-Thomas in '62 was probably considered the bigger U.K. star compared to his frequent co-star, Peter Sellers, who would soon explode internationally with The Pink Panther the following year). In those movies, as well as in his stage act and radio performances, Terry-Thomas perfected a persona of the pompous, upper class British bounder, a rotter who was as oversexed as he was an obnoxious twit, that was deeply influential on the British comedy scene. So why in the world would Tashlin restrain the energetic, public school horndog T-T here, transforming him into a boring, tetchy prude who's so afraid of even the slightest suggestion of sex that he'd sleep outside on the cold beach rather than sleep under the same roof as Weld? Why the hell wasn't Bachelor Flat about T-T trying to ravage Weld? That at least might have been funny. Who wants to see him be a nice, correct daddy figure? I want the lecherous, silly ass Terry-Thomas...not an approximation of Sir Cedric Hardwicke. His Professor Bruce Patterson is the exact opposite of T-T's established persona; only at the movie's protracted, unfunny climax, when Patterson gets drunk and starts chasing all his once-willing victims (who of course run in terror from this suddenly all-too-American sex fiend), do we get a glimpse of T-T's previous screen incarnations. And it's way too little, way too late, in a herky-jerky comedy that was miscalculated from the get-go.
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.