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Don't Drink the Water

Don't Drink the Water
1969 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 100 min. / Street Date March 18, 2008 / 19.98
Starring Jackie Gleason, Estelle Parsons, Ted Bessell, Joan Delaney, Michael Constantine, Howard St. John, Danny Meehan, Richard Libertini, Pierre Olaf, Avery Schreiber
Cinematography Harvey Genkins
Art Direction Robert Gundlach
Film Editor Ralph Rosenblum
Original Music Pat Williams
Written by Harvey Bullock, R.S. Allen from the play by Woody Allen
Produced by Jack Rollins, Charles H. Joffe
Directed by Howard Morris

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

We're glad that this woebegone film version of Woody Allen's 1966 play, Don't Drink the Water wasn't the first Allen-penned work to hit the screen, as it might have ended his career before it started. Luckily, Allen was already pre-sold as a screenwriter and comic actor prior to his directing debut in 1969's Take the Money and Run. The original play is said to have been agreeably amusing, whereas this cheaply made and frankly ugly-looking film version flattens its comic hostage situation into TV-movie shapelessness. The impressive cast is almost entirely wasted, and TV comedy star Howard Morris directs as if all one needs to generate big laughs is to put Jackie Gleason in a funny shirt.


New Jersey caterer Walter Hollander (Jackie Gleason) indulges his ditzy wife Marion (Estelle Parsons of Bonnie and Clyde) and nubile daughter Susan (Joan Delaney of The President's Analyst) with a European vacation, but the trip is interrupted when their plane is hijacked to Communist Vulgaria. Observed taking an innocent photo by security chief Krojack (Michael Constantine), the family seeks asylum in the American Embassy. Unfortunately, absent Ambassador Magee (Howard St. John) has put a diplomatic bungler in charge: his son Axel (Ted Bessell). An opportunity to clear up the misunderstanding vanishes when Krojack tricks Axel into stating that his guests are spies. Forced to hide in the embassy while coached Vulgarian demonstrators demand their arrest, the Hollanders cope as best they can. Walter worries about the state of his business back in Jersey, Marion runs up colossal phone bills and Susan and Axel are soon using the building's old secret passageways to meet in her bedroom.

Don't Drink the Water just seemed flat in 1969, when TV star Jackie Gleason could carry a joke just by mugging; now the film is almost unwatchable. The script adds a reel of new material showing the Hollanders' vacation preparations, all inter-cut with annoying animated titles. Editor Ralph Rosenblum took credit for 'saving' Woody's Take the Money and Run in his book When the Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins, but I don't remember him remarking much about this hopeless mess.

In Vulgaria, the Hollanders skip past the guards surrounding their plane, behaving like silly tourist caricatures seen only in TV commercials and movies like If It's Tuesday It Must Be Belgium. After a brief second-unit chase, they end up in an Embassy set that looks as if it were built for a High School production of Camelot. Nothing, absolutely nothing coheres. Everyone tries desperately to be funny with the effect that none of the characters has any continuity: rational one moment, stupid the next. Each member of the Hollander family makes inane faces until it's his/her time to be 'on', at which point they instantly adopt a Woody Allen wit for a couple of moments. Under these conditions, Allen's jokes play like terrible Bob Hope rejects.

With any possible satirical point lost in translation, the characters might as well be doing skit humor on a TV show like Hee Haw. Marion argues with the cook, and Susan comes on to the colorless Axel. A visit by a Sultan (Avery Schreiber) and his harem brings a chance for escape, but that's ruined because Walter can't keep his mouth shut. Another asylum-seeker is Drobney (Richard Libertini), a maladroit priest who wants to be a magician; his character is enlisted for a series of weak magician gags.

Apparently eager to see his play in a better form, Woody Allen directed a well-received 1994 ABC TV version starring Michael J. Fox as Axel, Julie Kavner as Marion Hollander and himself as Walter. It was released on DVD in 2003 by Buena Vista Home Video. Viewers that share the sentiments of the aliens in Stardust Memories and would like to see Allen doing a Cold War farce from his earlier period ("You know -- the funny ones") might want to give that version a try first.

Lionsgate's DVD of the 1969 Don't Drink the Water needs to make no apologies for its presentation, as the excellent enhanced transfer brings out all the color in the film's garish costumes and cheap settings! No extras are provided.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Don't Drink the Water rates:
Movie: Poor
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 16, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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