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Francis Ford Coppola's filmic reputation is all over the map these days, but film students back in 1970 or so were floored by his hilarious comedy You're a Big Boy Now. While many of us were dreaming of the best way to interpret the new 'youth spirit' (cough, cough) in films of the day, Coppola had already made his UCLA Thesis film into a compendium of with-it film trends of the 1960s. Coppola was one of the earliest acolytes of Roger Corman, and one who used Roger almost as much as Roger used him. He filmed a nudie or two and re-cut a propagandistic Russian Sci-fi epic into a kid-safe release for American matinees. Helping out on one of Corman's Irish productions, he talked Roger into letting him shoot Dementia 13 as a quickie afterthought. Coppola's writing skills won him an early entry into Hollywood, and You're a Big Boy Now would be his first major directing effort. He was also a master of self-promotion: the movie carries his credit of "Written for the Screen by", a wording that has always thrown me. It would seem to imply that it's Coppola's original work, even though it's also listed as being adapted from a novel by David Benedictus.
You're a Big Boy Now aims to inject a hip cinematic spirit into American comedy. As far the studios were concerned, movie comedy in 1966 still meant inane imitations of Doris Day movies, only starring Sandra Dee or Jane Fonda. Coppola opens his picture with a bang, as his star Elizabeth Hartman bursts into a quiet library chamber to a loud blast of music from The Lovin' Spoonful. Hartman marches forward in a declaratory trucking shot reminiscent of John Schlesinger's happy-go-lucky introduction of Julie Christie in his Billy Liar. The farcical plot revoves around the New York Public Library ... and sex. Rollerskating stacks messenger Bernard Chanticleer is played by Peter Kastner, the star of a widely-seen Canadian drama called Nobody Waved Goodbye, about a dropout who disobeys his parents and sets off into an unpromising future. Kastner's Bernard is the 'big boy' of the title, a sensitive fellow with a cherubic face, and his problem is that he's stifled by his parents. Mother Margery (Geraldine Page, hilarious) smothers him with unwanted mothering, while his disapproving father I. H. (Rip Torn, uncharacteristically buttoned-down) decides that 'big boy' needs to move out on his own. Margery finds him a walk-up apartment in a building run by the repressed spinster Miss Nora Thing (Julie Harris). Miss Thing's dead brother's pet chicken lives on the landing outside Bernard's door, and attacks any girl that dares climb the stairs. Margery loves this arrangement as a way of keeping her baby boy pure. She's already decided that her son's co-worker at the library, the sweet Amy Partlett (Karen Black, adorable in her first real film role) is "one of those city women" who could ruin Bernard for life.
The problem is that Bernard only has eyes for "alternative theater" actress Barbara Darling, a ruthless man-killer whose only real friend is her publicist Richard Mudd (Michael Dunn). Barbara teases Bernard just for the pleasure of humiliating him. Gazing at her go-go dancing in a cage high above a dance floor, Bernard ignores the adoring Amy, who is sitting right in front of him. When Amy kisses him in Times Square, neon news bulletins flashing across the building behind them: "Barbara Barbara Barbara ... Even Now Even Now".
You're a Big Boy Now captures a particular post- Beatles but pre- Summer of Love time in pop awareness, when the culture was overrun with images of discotheques and garish mod fashions. Coppola uses every film student trick in the book to express Bernard's clueless charm. New York is a whirl of handheld camera whip-pans and rapid cutting. Taken on a romp in Central Park by his Machiavellian co-worker Raef del Grado (Tony Bill, actually amusing), Bernard flies kites and interrupts a baseball game as the camera style evokes George Roy Hill's The World of Henry Orient. Bernard is dragged through the streets by his huge dog "dog" while the camera chases along in the semi-docu style set by Richard Lester in A Hard Day's Night and The Knack ... and How To Get It. Coppola even pulls Godard into his act: when Bernard free-associates words or initials, the screen will cut to a brief blip of something to match his fantasies. Bernard sees the letters "W C" above a door, and thinks "Welcome Communists", his words are followed by a quick glimpse of a ticker tape parade. The only invention that backfires is Bernard's response to a grafitti scrawl reading "Niggers go Home". His free-association trick leads to the thought "Home is in the Highlands", which results in an image of a black bagpiper leading a group of dancing black children down a hill. The sequence makes sense, but forty more years of racial tension make it seem less liberating than plain insensitive.
It's taken me three paragraphs to explain four or five visual gags that in the movie come at the rate of about one every twelve seconds. Most are character related. Bernard drifts through the 42nd Street movie district (the titles on the marquees indicate a late summer shooting schedule), gawks at the girlie pictures and investigates a peep show. His necktie catches in the film mechanism, and he almost strangles while his face is literally pressed into a movie loop of a girl on a bed (merging with a film image of his own desires, hmmmm). When Amy comes along and cuts Bernard free with a pair of scissors (hmmm... symbolism) his humiliation is doubled. Dejected but never defeated, Bernard soldiers on, dutifully brushing the gap in his teeth and presenting a fresh face to the world. Underneath the confusion he's a guy with typical male instincts ... pursuing a fantasy when the real girl of his dreams is right under his nose.
The grasping Margery has given Miss Thing phone money to report back on her son's morals. Miss Thing intercepts Bernard's mail, but softens as she relates her own absurd history of frustrated romance. Fortunately, Patrolman Francis (Dolph Sweet) is another boarder who secretly adores Miss Thing. He hovers over her in his undershirt and shoulder holster, warning her in a noirish tough-guy voice about draft card burners like Bernard. In another hilarious episode, Miss Thing and Bernard's father become trapped in the library's vault, triggering Nora's rape anxieties: she appears to misinterpret the word "incunabula". How often do we get to see Julie Harris or Geraldine Page playing broad comedy?
Coppola runs wild with the Elizabeth Hartman's Barbara Darling character, a man-hater who dresses like Twiggy and with Richard Mudd's help is preparing her pre-fame autobiography. A flashback details her diabolical revenge against the pervert Kurt, an Albino Hypnotherapist with a wooden leg. Barbara delights in her cruel treatment of Bernard. The horror motif associated with Barbara (Steele?) includes film snippets from Dementia 13 and The Pit and the Pendulum that Coppola must have conned from his old boss Roger Corman. Barbara keeps stills from Horror of Dracula around her makeup mirror; she delights at the sight of a man sliced in two by Poe's pendulum blade.
All of the comedy set pieces in You're a Big Boy Now are played broadly, with Geraldine Page getting extra marks for clowning above the call of duty. The Julie Harris-Dolph Sweet "romance" is equally charming. Elizabeth Hartman was probably looking for a role to contrast with her innocent heroine in A Patch of Blue and found Barbara Darling irresistible. Tony Bill shacks up with Barbara, at least until a wave of publicity convinces her that he's too much of a nobody to be seen with. Karen Black comes across as a beginner but already had plenty of stage experience, and has her sweet 'n' deserving act down pat. The movie reserves its heart for her Amy, who faithfully follows Bernard through all of his travails and is there to catch him when he hits bottom. Sure, it's a pre-feminist cliché, but what do you expect a girl to do in the Wild East of 1967?
The film wraps up with the theft of a Gutenberg Bible and a jolly chase that's a bit of a let-down; the only scene less inspired is a disaster in the Automat that seems a throwback to screwball comedies from the 1930s. Instant redemption comes courtesy of a conclusion that plays the Lovin' Spoonful's title tune against close-ups of a pretzel machine at work, an inexplicably joyful image. I've seen this show innumerable times and realize that my affection for it is tainted by teenaged nostalgia: if the hopeless Bernard Chanticleer can find happiness, my chances seemed all the brighter.
Younger viewers that see You're a Big Boy Now as dated either need an education in films, or an infusion of romance. Francis Ford Coppola was perhaps the first film student to crash the gates of Hollywood, and this comedy was doubtlessly influential despite its brief life in the theaters. I see similarities in Woody Allen's earliest anything-goes gag comedies, and also in George Lucas's best movie, the equally warm-hearted American Grafitti.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of You're a Big Boy Now is a good transfer of this infectiously aggressive comedy. The camerawork was always variable, with some scenes on the murky side, but overall it's bright and colorful. John Sebastian's songs -- the title tune, "Darling Be Home Soon", "Amy's Theme" -- were granted a soundtrack album but one has to watch the movie to hear other jazzy cues by Robert Prince.
The disc cover art is original but I remember seeing a different, better poster style. This cartoonish one is just terrible; the caricatures don't even suggest the characters in the story.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
You're a Big Boy Now rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.